It’s a balmy April evening during Holy Week. The Madrid streets are alive with a language I can only minimally keep up with, but I’m sitting with my classmates, fellow English-speakers, eating Häagen-Dazs for the first of what will be many, many times during my ten-day excursion to Spain. The ice cream is familiar and sweet, combining some sense of home with the incredible novelty of leaving my city, my state, my country, and my hemisphere. Five years of Spanish class back in Maryland couldn’t prepare me for total immersion. I am able to order food for myself (“un helado mediano, por favor,”) but otherwise am restricted in my ability to communicate.
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The beauty of the language does not escape me, however; nor does the beauty of my surroundings; laden with centuries of history, yet new and exciting to me. The next day, we leave the capital city for a day trip to the ancient village of Segovia. Cobblestone streets and an enormous aqueduct constructed in Roman times make Madrid look positively modern by comparison. The sense of living history increases when we visit the castle of Ferdinand and Isabel, the original Catholic king and queen of Spain. We see tapestries from the twelfth century, religious paintings, an ornately decorated chapel, and (after a daunting 152-step climb up a spiral staircase through one of the castle’s towers) a spectacular vista of Segovia and its surrounding countryside. The pollution, drab architecture, and gray palette of modernization are nowhere to be found. Instead, I see a gorgeous, clean landscape; eye-catching, archaic buildings; and rich red, brown, green and gold.
This breathtaking panorama speaks of a time relegated to textbooks and buried under the mundanity of day-to-day life by the average American. But as I stand here, on the roof of a castle where royalty once lived and breathed, looking out on a village largely untouched by the passing of time, I don’t feel like an average American. I feel like a citizen of the world. I’m making my miniscule mark upon something covered with marks, made by people both unimportant and stunningly significant. Covered with marks from yesterday, ten years ago, and centuries long past. But not forgotten.
Our group visits several other venerable sites throughout the trip (along with many Häagen-Dazs shops, which we indulge in almost every night on the Spanish streets.) One of the most remarkable, however, is the Cathedral of Seville. The interior, with its massive marble columns stretching earnestly to an incredibly high ceiling; dazzling gold and silver Holy Week decorations; and a remarkably detailed wooden altar area, is completely amazing in its own right. But then we head up to the bell tower. In order to reach the top, we need to ascend a thirty-four-stories-high series of steep ramps. As we climb, I notice marks…not metaphorical ones, this time. Sets of initials, along with years, are carved into the stone. “A.M.K. 1947.” “B.T.D. 1928.” Even one set dating back to 1912. I am stunned once again at the thought of regular people of decades long past, standing where I am now and leaving a trace of themselves on a building already rich with centuries of religious, political, and basic human history. I’m tempted to imitate them. But the crowd moves ever forward, to the top of the tower, to experience a superb panorama of Seville…to add something truly memorable to their own histories.
Experiencing such historical yet unfamiliar settings reminds me to be aware not only of my present time and place, but also of the bigger picture…the entire history and continuous turning of the world.
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