Traveling makes me realize how little I know. Take, for example, the Catalans, Andalusians, and Moors. Familiar terms to me, but after a few weeks in Spain, it was clear my knowledge barely qualified as superficial. With this admission, my European readers are probably wondering about my travel credentials. My other international readers are certain I know even less about their countries. My American readers are likely nodding in agreement with my ignorance, except for those who have been to Spain or were history majors.
I’d never been to Spain before, but since I was right next door in Portugal, it seemed like a good idea to stop by. I bought a plane ticket from Lisbon to Barcelona, reserved a room for a few nights, and figured I’d decide where to go from there. After buying my Spanish SIM card, the next stop was a bookstore to buy a Spain guidebook. How different from the way I used to travel, with weeks or months of research and reading before arrival, knowing the history and culture of a place from what others had said about it before experiencing it on my own.
What I did know is that Barcelona is famous for being the home of Gaudi’s modernist architecture, which is not my thing, with its melting ice cream images and garish embellishments. I even looked up the word gaudy to see if it came from his work, but it didn’t; it’s from the Latin word for joy. But, trying to be a good tourist, I decided to visit his pièce de résistance, the Sagrada Familia basilica, a work still in progress despite his death in 1926.
“Buy tickets in advance online,” my B&B wisely advised. On the website, I could choose from three languages: CAT, ESP, and ENG. Mmmh. Wandering the streets of the city, I saw that most signs were in two languages—Spanish and Catalan. (Yes, there were some that added English, and a surprising number that also had Russian, but that’s a different story.) Two versions of yellow and red striped flags hung from the wrought iron balconies over the narrow streets of the old town, the Spanish flag and the Catalonia flag. Small groups of people gathered in the streets for political rallies flying one or the other.
Unbeknownst to me, the Catalonian parliament was poised for a vote on a resolution to support independence from Spain. (It passed on November 9.) In case you didn’t know (and I didn’t), Spain is a parliamentary monarchy made up of 17 autonomous regions and two autonomous cities, each with their own parliament and representatives in the national government. Seems the fairly prosperous Catalonians feel they give more to the central government than they get back and many would prefer to be a separate country.
When I arrived at the Sagrada Familia, I realized that I didn’t know much about Gaudi either. Turns out he was a serious student of nature and his designs are based on the natural world—both structural and aesthetic. With a completely different perspective, I spent a few hours experiencing the place. The towering columns emulated a forest, light filtered through windows as if through leaves, and, as in nature, the small creatures were hidden unless looked for–carved into the massive wooden entry doors. I marveled equally at the brilliance of the space and the behavior of the hordes taking selfies without seeming to see anything.
I really liked Barcelona as a city, but the weather wasn’t doing me any favors. Flipping through my new guidebook during a rainy afternoon, I found the section on Andalusia, another autonomous region that I had always associated with the Costa del Sol’s renowned beaches and party atmosphere. Once again, my depth of knowledge was like seeing an eyebrow and thinking you know what a person looks like.
In addition to the Mediterranean beaches, interior Andalusia consists of rolling agricultural plains, interrupted by random high hills covered with whitewashed houses spilling down the sides. These ancient white hill towns, with steep narrow streets barely wide enough for one tiny car, are a major tourist attraction and part of the cultural heritage of Spain. It’s against the law to paint your building in any other color.
As I uncovered the face of Andalusia, I learned that it is the birthplace of the icons of Spain: flamenco, bullfighting, and tapas. I made my way through the countryside to Seville, the region’s cornerstone city, and started wondering about the Moors.
How easily I threw around the term “Moorish architecture,” a prominent style as I traveled through southern Spain. With its arches, curlicues, and intricate tile work, I equated it with mosques, but didn’t think of it as a term of Islam. I knew that Shakespeare’s Othello was a Moor, played by a dark-skinned person, perhaps with a vague notion of an Arab. But, scratching the thin surface of my worldliness, I had to admit I didn’t really know what a Moor is. Maybe I’d find out in Seville.
As I often do in a new city, I signed up for a walking tour to get oriented. The group met at the Seville Cathedral, reputedly the third largest church in the world. Gazing at the massive structure, history was staring back at me, but I didn’t realize it yet. Maria, the perky twenty-something woman leading the English language tour, didn’t start by spouting facts, but told us to look at the building and tell her what we saw. In addition to the expected Gothic arches and Renaissance details of European cathedrals, there was a square bell tower and a smallish round domed area.
Yes, the cathedral was built around a mosque. It was all there for me to see, if I’d only had the educated eye to recognize it. The Moors were Muslims who, during the Middle Ages, lived in and ruled the area that is now Spain. They were initially of Berber and Arab descent from Northern Africa, but the term was later used more broadly to apply to people of mixed ancestry. They built the mosque in 1184, which was “Christianized” in 1248 after the conquest of Seville by Ferdinand the III. In 1402, construction of the cathedral began.
The bell tower, the Giralda, is an iconic symbol of Seville–and reflects its history. It’s the original minaret of the mosque, built to resemble that of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, but later capped by a Renaissance style Christian bell-tower. The statue on top, “El Giraldillo,” is a mildly pregnant woman with a shield, representing the triumph of the Christian faith. It reminded me that this Muslim-Christian thing has gone on for a long time—and we still don’t have it right.
So why does this matter? I’m struck by my willingness to abide generalities and stereotypes, especially when they relate to something I think I know. Yet, I’m humbled when I take the time to understand a culture, an opinion, or especially a person.
In this age of anger, fear, slogans, sound-bites and self-absorption (yes, read: terrorism, politics, social media), I resolve to work harder at critical thinking, including questioning the things I think I already know. Open-mindedness, attention to nuance, and reflection as opposed to reaction are what’s needed now to achieve peace on earth and goodwill toward all.
I’d like to say Happy New Year to my friends around the world—atheists, agnostics, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews; players of jazz, blues, rock and punk; guides, hosts, wine makers and writers; and anybody else who fits in the category of family, friend or lover.
Travelling makes me realize how much I have yet to learn, how much I appreciate my friends and family, and how many people I have yet to meet who can teach me yet another lesson. Thank you.