It wasn’t the Full Monty, but it was close. When Seville’s firefighters decided to perform el streaptease in last Friday's protest at City Hall, they peeled off their uniforms, piece by piece, until, as the newspaper ABC put it, “the boys showed everything except the hose.” As a soundtrack, they chose the popular song Chupa la Gamba (Lick the Shrimp), which includes slurping noises along with the lively beat. Seville firefighters are known for their creative dissent style, and the recent Near Monty, voicing opposition to austerity cuts they say will sabotage their effectiveness, was one of their best in years.
Sevillanos love to express their outrage and enjoy a bit of fun at the same time. The typical protest is leisurely and sociable. Participants usually gather “very early,” around 9:00 in the morning, parade the streets for an hour or so, stop for coffee at 10:30, resume 11-ish, break for lunch at 1:30, and after that they call it a day. When sterner measures are deemed necessary, they put up tents in front of City Hall and camp out for days, sitting around on folding chairs drinking beer and chatting with likeminded friends for hours on end.
During national crises, Seville rises to the occasion in its own unique way. Take the general strike on November 14, 2012, called throughout Spain to protest government reforms making it less expensive for employers to fire workers. In a show of solidarity, most Seville businesses and smaller stores closed, and unions and other political organizations roamed the streets with signs, flags, and noisemakers. While protests turned ugly in some cities, Seville enjoyed a holiday atmosphere. Those who weren’t protesting took advantage of the time off to go shopping downtown. When demonstrators would show up to heckle a store, the manager would prudently shut the doors for a few minutes until the protesters moved on, then the doors would reopen, and shoppers would continue browsing the sale racks and discussing where they should go for lunch.
Every Spaniard I talked to agreed the general strike would change absolutely nothing; mainly it was a way to vent the national frustration with the economic crisis. Many feared inflammatory images in the media would discourage tourists, devastating the economy still further. A friend in the travel industry told me, “If there is even one article in the international press about a street riot in Seville, I am out of business.”
Seven weeks earlier the New York Times had published a photo of a man dumpster diving in Spain, along with an article called Spain Recoils as Its Hungry Forage Trash Bins for a Next Meal. The photo went viral, and I received alarmed emails from friends and relatives all over America asking if Rich and I were frightened, and if/when we were thinking of returning to the US to live. I wrote back explaining that no, we weren’t frightened, any more than they were frightened living in cities such as New York and San Francisco, where dumpster dining is a way of life for many thousands of Americans, especially in these tough economic times.
It’s easy to become alarmed at reports about other parts of the world, especially when you can’t balance them against the full social context. No one wants to take foolish chances wandering into danger zones, but we also don’t want to overreact to the situation or fall victim to an overzealous reporter putting an alarming spin on the facts. When in doubt, I check the US State Department travel website, which is, if anything, overly quick to issue warnings and alerts.
If you’re planning to visit Seville any time soon, you’ll be glad to hear that the State Department can’t find a single worrying thing to say about Spain, beyond the usual warnings about pickpockets, etc. The bad news is, you’ve already missed the firefighters disrobing in the main plaza to Chupa la Gamba. But don’t worry, I’m sure plans are already underway for even more creative protests. And who knows, maybe next time, they’ll go the Full Monty.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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