Sunday, January 26, 2014

The River

Right behind my backyard is the playground of what used to be my elementary school, and just beyond that is the creek. Of course we were never allowed near it during recess. But after school or on weekends I would sometimes go there with my neighborhood friend and we would try to make it across on the natural stepping-stones without getting wet, all while incorporating everything we did into the larger story of our Let’s Pretend game. The grown-ups could cross the creek on a small green wooden-plank bridge that led to the other neighborhood. Technically I think we are supposed to be all the same neighborhood, but the creek decidedly divides us.

When I went away to Harvard, I lived on the other side of the Charles. Cambridge faces Boston but is removed from it. From the eighth floor of Leverett F-tower in the evening you can watch myriad pairs of headlights move along the highways and crisscross the city that is lit up in all its urban beauty. You can watch Boston live, but you don’t live there. If you are munching on goodies at the Resident Dean’s study break on the eighth floor of F-tower, you live in Cambridge. More specifically, you live in Harvard Square. Normally, you think, Why go into Boston, when on this side of the river I can eat sinful chocolate-raspberry cake at Finale and slurp raw oysters at First Printer? When Zachary Quinto is acting in The Glass Menagerie at the American Repertory Theater and Salman Rushdie is signing books at the First Parish Church? And then you go into Boston and you think, Why don’t I come here more often and sit and read in Boston Common? Or eat sesame chicken in Chinatown or lobster ravioli in the North End?

The Charles

Even when I studied abroad in Granada, I lived on the other side of the river. The Genil is a sad, mostly dry little rivulet that divides the main part of the city from a suburban area. But I still sat by it many a time and thought about Carlos Fuentes and life and boys as I looked into its glassy surface. The outer area of the city beyond it wasn’t particularly pretty—although you could still glimpse some of the little white houses up on the mountain with their orange lanterns—but there was more space here. The host family I lived with had a garden with a dog and a pool. It was a thirty-minute walk to the center of town, but it felt worth it to live in this house with this family.

Now I am living on the other side of the river again. Just across the Guadalquivir from Sevilla proper is the old, picturesque neighborhood of Triana. My neighborhood.

Technically Triana is part of Sevilla. But as Antonio, a doorman at the office where I write, has told me, “Mira si soy Trianero—que cuando cruzo el puente, me siento extranjero.” (“See if I’m not from Triana—when I cross the bridge, I feel like a foreigner.”) The river seems so benign now, the breeze ruffling its surface so it’s hard to tell which way it’s flowing. But before its tributaries were re-routed, it used to flood Triana every other year with its angry swells. And even today, as it flows ever so calmly, it marks an inescapable divide--it is not innocent.

The esplanade by the Guadalquivir

The divide is more evident than ever on weekends. While on the Triana side old men wear hats and take small steps with their grandchildren as they walk up and down the length of the Calle Betis, across the way on Paseo Colón cars roar by in four lanes and young people drink beer and mixed drinks as dance music blares from the kiosks where they ordered them. While on Calle Betis people dance flamenco without costumes, across the way on the promenade down by the river people go jogging and young couples hug one another to each other with their legs dangling over the water. 

The crowded esplanade today

Perhaps I am drawn to the “other side” of the river out of familiarity. Perhaps I like it because there are always gems on the other side that you can’t find in the main part of a city, and not so many people fighting over them. Perhaps I like it just because then I get to look out over the wide river at the loud streets, the touristic landmarks, and the people—but I don’t always have to be there. The river gives me breathing space, and inspiration, and calm. And when I cross it—in either direction—I cross into another world.

Flamenco on the steps to Calle Betis, with Sevilla proper in the background across the way