I first went to Seville in the summer of 2005. It was July and sweltering and nothing and nobody moved until well after the sun went down. All afternoon the place was a ghost town. I’d come with the Staatskapelle Berlin and our performances of Parsifal started at 8 pm. They finished at two in the morning and we tumbled out of the theater into the streets teeming with all the people who had been hiding all day. Seville at night in July was an oxygen tank. People crowded plazas and alleyways, owning them, embellishing them with untuned guitars, clapping syncopations, beer bottles, peanut shells, and the scratchy wailing of amateur flamenco singing.
The next time I came back, it was to teach for the Barenboim-Said Foundation. It was January 2006 and it was raining. When it rains in Seville, the water doesn’t know where to go. It collects in pools around planted orange trees on sidewalks. It turns into a muddy street cocktail containing smashed oranges and floating garbage. When it rains, everyone immediately gets sick because there is no heating inside, or if there is, it is from the air conditioning unit on the wall and it scorches your head and leaves your feet cold.
It was my first time teaching anyone anything, ever, and I spent the first day trying to work with an interpreter whose efforts were less than simultaneous. At the end of the first day I told her I would try to communicate with the students henceforth in English, and barring that, with sign language. I felt misunderstood, self-conscious under her focused gaze, and exhausted from doing something I didn’t know how to do. I went looking for something to eat at the end of that first day and didn’t recognize a single street or bar from the summer before. The city had transformed into a wet, introverted, haunted castle. I went into a bar and pointed to something on a menu and asked in my rudimentary Spanfrench whether this was meat or fish. The waiter said something incomprehensible in rapid fire and I nodded. He brought me a large plate of deep-fried baby squids. I managed to eat about three of the twenty-odd poor creatures.
Every time after that for about a year I tried staying in different places. I wanted to learn to find my way around all those labyrinthine little alleyways around the cathedral and to explore different pockets of the city. I stayed in apartments in the Arenal, Macarena, and Santa Cruz barrios. Some of them were not big enough to open a suitcase in. One had no air conditioning in June and I slept with the window open and woke up with my eyelids swollen shut by mosquito bites. On the other hand, one had a dreamy private white roof terrace that overlooked the very top of the Giralda and all the other white roof terraces in the pedestrian area of Sierpes and Tetuan. I learned how not to order large plates full of animals I don’t usually eat. I also learned the words for wrist, fingers, hand, shoulder, bridge, bow, and anything else that might be useful in a cello lesson so I could fend for myself. I usually didn’t understand my students’ responses or questions when they spoke Andalú (and still don’t), but at least they understood me in my approximation of Castilian Spanish minus the grammar.
I have been lost in Seville more times than I can count. Getting lost in Seville is actually always a blessing. I have sometimes wanted to stop in the street and cry out of imagined nostalgia while listening to some old lady hum a gravelly tune while cooking, the aromas wafting through the bars of a patio onto the street, the moon hanging between two crooked rows of houses, illuminating all the dusty tiles lining walls and the undersides of balconies; a tattoo gun grinding away, a cat meowing, over here smells of garlic and orange blossoms and over there of rotting compost and dog shit. It is a street that looks like it will lead back to a street I know but it doesn’t; it zigzags in another direction entirely and I end up in another street, listening to other sounds, smelling other smells.
After trying many, I found an apartment I kept coming back to in the Macarena on a little street most taxi drivers didn’t know how to find. I got into the habit of going to the market hall on calle Feria as soon as I arrived to buy fruit for breakfast (cherimoyas if they were in season) and to the French cafe across from our academy on calle San Luis to buy raisin-walnut bread. I started doing this after giving up on breakfast in cafes, since the only places open before I started teaching on Saturdays and Sundays were bars that had stayed open all night and were still serving the faltering, reeking stragglers who would probably not make it home that day, if they had a home.
The last time I went to Seville to teach was in May. The four-day weekend was a neat summary of all I’ve experienced there over the years: I met some natives at a masterclass-cum-party on Friday evening, including a painter, a poet, a flamenco dancer, and a Venezuelan torero. On my way back from teaching on Saturday evening I was slowed by the procession of a monstrance tottering down calle Tetuan on about a dozen pairs of anonymous feet and followed by a marching band about a hundred strong playing that screamingly tragic dirge music that makes your throat feel tight whether you like it or not. Going along farther down the road, I ran into a children’s procession of four-year-old drummers behind a miniature monstrance, surrounded by a huddle of parents filming with smartphones. On Sunday evening there was a free flamenco music festival at the Alameda de Hercules. The first two singers I heard were good, especially the second one, a man whose name I didn’t catch. He kept his raspy, tobacco-stained melismas going until the crowd erupted in applause. After that they started singing Sevillanas, which seemed to be dominated by aging divas who warbled a half-step too high.
That last time in May, I didn’t realize it would really be the last time. The seemingly illogical but often rewarding experiment of flying teachers from Berlin to Seville once a month has come to an end, thanks to the crisis. Now, at the end of 2013, I find myself taking leave of a place and an entire era, a set of experiences that have been very dear to me and have shaped me as a person and a teacher. There were times over these seven years when I wanted to quit – the students weren’t practicing, I wasn’t there often enough to make a difference, it was always a long trip for three days’ teaching any way you did it – but now that it’s over for good, of course I find myself missing it already. What a lucky soul I am to have been able to taste little sips of this magical place for so many years.