Should you start to feel for a while, as I was feeling, that your life is lacking a bit in interest, lacking a bit of color, I have a cure for you–la fería de Sevilla. The fair, held every April, brings together some of the most emblematic and colorful elements of Andalucían culture–flamenco and its fashion, eating, drinking, bullfighting, and then all of the attractions typical of any fair–the ferris wheel, the ring of fire, the tilt-a-whirl. Only in Sevilla the people are wearing 400€ frilly dresses with polka dots.
But first, how I ended up there. I work with a woman named Chari, a sevillana through and through who commutes everyday on the train (about 45 minutes each way). Chari invited me to take the train after school with her on Tuesday, come to her house to get ready, hit the fería with her and her boyfriend Javi, sleep at her house, and then we could get up on Wednesday, as she does every morning, at 6 to catch the 6:50 train. As an addition, she thought she might have a traje de gitana (flamenco style dress) that would fit me.
Seeing as how Chari, the P.E. teacher, has the body of an aerobics instructor, I was skeptical about the dress. But I was nonetheless game for the fería experience.
I mentioned in my first post on Sevilla that sevillanos have a reputation for thinking Sevilla is the center of the world, that nothing compares. There’s a song about Sevilla in which the singer claims even God was sevillano. The fería is the center of the sevillano culture, people dressed to the nines and out socializing, nothing subtle. The fairgrounds are comprised of the Calle del Infierno (Hell Street), where all of the fair rides and games of chance are, and then the casetas, small tents decorated traditionally with posters of past ferías and lots of lace, each with a bar and tables to eat. The casetas are lined up on a number of streets, each named after a sevillano bullfighter. Casetas are basically social clubs, groups of friends or neighbors or Elks Club-like groups, people who pay dues throughout the year. As such, they are largely closed to the public, although political parties and the city hall and some other groups have larger casetas open to the public.
This draws the scorn of other Spaniards, especially in Córdoba. Córdoba’s fair is in late May and the casetas are all large (some are like discos) and are all open to the public. Some play sevillanas music or have singers but many play contemporary music. I’m looking forward to it, too, but am expecting a slightly different experience, not quite as emblematic and well-known. The cordobeses have a complex with sevillanos anyway–Semana Santa is more famous in Sevilla, the fería is more famous, Sevilla has an IKEA. But I have been amazed by how many cordobeses have not been to the fería in Sevilla, which perhaps makes them more prejudiced but also makes them less capable of saying which is better. Or so I think. Plus, Kofi Annan was at the Seville fair and I haven’t seen him hanging around Córdoba lately.
So when it rained throughout much of the fería, including the afternoon and night I was set to go, I couldn’t help but detect a bit of schadenfreude on the part of the cordobeses. “Oh, what a shame!” they told me. “It seems to always rain during the fair in Seville. It almost never rains during our fair in May.” (right, it’s often 100 degrees though) Due to the rain, there were no horses paraded in front of the casetas, the amusement rides were shut down, and there were few people in the streets. The farolillos, little paper lanterns that usually create a color-filled ceiling over the fairground streets, had been largely destroyed. Almost any other fair would have been a little bleak, but I think trajes de gitana (also called trajes de flamenca) and the sevillanos themselves make bleakness basically impossible. There was fun to be had, rain or no.
As for the traje de flamenca, it’s the only traditional costume where the styles change every couple of years. I have been drooling over trajes in store windows for a few months now, always shuddering a bit when I check the price (bargain basement dresses are around 150€ and they skyrocket from there). Plus, no traje is complete without matching shoes, a shawl, big earrings, a necklace, a number of bracelets, a huge matching fake flower, and peinetas–the Spanish hair combs I’ve been obsessed with recently. A hand-carved peineta can run hundreds of euros, but most people just wear plastic ones that match their dresses. I was able to try on a traje at the store of my roommate’s friend, but I figured that would be about as close as I would get.
So when I tried on Chari’s dress, floor length salmon-colored crepe with ruffles at the bottom and on the sleeves, I wanted it to fit. I really did. But my reaction, after magically getting it zipped, was “There’s no way I can wear this. I can’t breathe.” Chari’s reaction? “It’s perfect! No one can really breathe at fería!” So I focused on taking some not too deep breaths through my mouth, finding my nose not quite strong enough to move my rib cage against the skin-tight fabric. I felt a little like Olivia Newton-John in the leather pants in the final scene of “Grease!” But without the hairspray. After Navy SEAL rolling myself into the car with Chari and Javi (bending over was completely not an option), we were off to the fair. Well, after parking as close as we thought we could get and then riding the bus around for an hour.
We entered under the portada, a huge arch marking the entrance. It’s different every year but always in the form of one of the famous landmarks of Sevilla. This year, it was lit by 20,000 lightbulbs (all low consumption for the first time, I’ll have you know). A friend of Chari’s has a caseta, so we entered without a problem in little #39 and later in a few others around it. The rain meant that few people were in the streets, but those that were there were there with gusto–it must rain with some regularity, and the sevillanas had added yet another matching element to their getups–umbrellas.
Within the caseta, most of the time the music was recorded, with singers coming in for about an hour or so. Tapas and other plates of food were available for purchase, including the ubiquitous ham leg. To drink, there were basically two options–manzanilla and rebujitos (although the bar was well-stocked, I saw no one drinking anything else. It just wouldn’t be sevillano). Manzanilla is a white wine typical of Sevilla, but a bit hard to drink by itself or without a tapa in hand. Hence the rebujito–a mixture of one part manzanilla and two parts Sprite with fresh mint. Bought in rounds of pitchers, it goes down pretty smooth, fueling more dancers as the night progresses.
In the case of the fería, the music isn’t actually flamenco, it’s sevillanas. As I have mentioned before, flamenco isn’t exactly “let’s go out and have a good time” music. It’s intense, it’s emotional, it’s often sad. Sevillanas is sort of flamenco lite (although don’t tell anyone from Sevilla that). The songs are split up into smaller parts and there are four different dances, just named the first, the second, the third, and the fourth. Before starting a dance, you ask your partner “Which dance are we following?” The fourth is the hardest, with more turning and more spinning and general craziness. Each of the four end with the dance partners in a sort of hold, the man behind the woman, and a well-done dance earns you an “¡Olé!” from the crowd.
The thing about sevillanas is that it’s not necessarily so difficult, but the real trick is being able to do it with grace. So when Chari and her friends tried to get me dancing, I was hesitant, knowing grace would not be involved in any way. But you’re only at the fería once, you’re only wearing a breathing-optional frilly dress once, so a couple of rebujitos later, I was out there, awkwardly mimicking my dance partner, forgoing any pretense of actually doing the steps and mostly just trying to turn and spin and pass at the right times. If I could end the song at the right time, and maybe even remember to raise my arm like I was suppose to, all the better. I got some stares, I got some giggles…but I also got some “¡Olé!“s. I’ll choose to think they weren’t ironic. The fería isn’t really about irony anyway.
Chari and her boyfriend dancing sevillanas (she’s tall for a Spaniard and kept hitting the overhead lamp at the beginning)
A friend of Chari’s, Geraldo, dancing with unknown sevillana
An ode to Montana from the fair of Seville (listen closely for references to geysers, glaciers, and Yogi Bear aka Osito Yogi)
We rolled home around 3, crashed for a bit and were at Sevilla Santa Justa station at 6:45, on our way to Córdoba and another day at the elementary school.
Due to the rain and the low light and the fact my digital camera is night photography incapable, many of the photos came out a bit blurry. But after getting over my initial sense of disappointment, I like the way most of them turned out. To attempt to capture something with so much motion and life with something static and unmoving doesn’t seem quite right. The motion, intentional or no, adds more life to the images. When the Córdoba fair comes in May, capping off a full month of fiestas around here, I will be sure to capture the other side of the Spanish fería, the side outside the casetas–horses, amusement rides, the streets. But even with the rain, life inside a caseta sevillana made me think the sevillano pride isn’t so crazy after all.