Some of my European friends think it’s extraordinary that I am an American and yet, inexplicably, I don’t chew gum, carry a gun, or claim to have been abducted by aliens. Our images of other cultures are often very loosely tethered to reality. But during my ten years in Seville, I’ve also experienced strange and sublime moments that actually live up to my more colorful images of living abroad.
For instance, there was the night in 2004 when Spanish friends suggested stopping for a nightcap at a bar they described as having a “special atmosphere.” Arriving around midnight, when Seville’s social life is generally hitting its stride, we were surprised to discover the place was deserted. We had just settled at a table with our drinks when the door opened and five young men strolled in.
My friend’s eyes widened and she leaned forward, whispering, “That’s Farruquito!” She indicated a boy of 22, very slim, with long black hair and fine-boned features.
“He is a gypsy,” she whispered. “The best flamenco dancer of his generation. They say –“ Here she dropped her voice even lower. “They say he killed a man in a hit-and-run accident, and he tried to tell people his younger brother was driving, because he knew the boy was too young to be sent to prison. The case is about to go to trial.”
Farruquito and his friends collected their drinks and sat at a table in the corner, talking and laughing. Occasionally they broke out into a bit of flamenco singing, their hands clapping out the complicated rhythms, boot heels tapping the floor.
The door opened again, and in walked a dozen people dressed in dark clothing, speaking Russian in low voices. They had the hardest faces of anyone I’d ever seen in real life. Even the women looked like serial killers. It didn’t take my friend’s whispered comments to clue me in that these were Russian mafia. They fanned out, taking over three or four of the little tables, talking in harsh whispers, their eyes roaming over the room. I wondered if I should drop to the floor and crawl to the exit now, or wait until shots rang out.
My friends and I finished our drinks as quickly as we could without looking as if we were hurrying. We murmured to one another, “Well, this has been lovely but it’s getting late... perhaps we should...” We paid the tab and made for the door.
“You were right,” I said, as soon as we were safely outside. “That bar really did have a special atmosphere.”
Fast forward ten years to last Saturday morning, when I happened to see a poster for a performance by Farruquito. He’d served 14 months in jail and had been back on stage for a few years, and I was curious to see him dance.
I’m no expert on flamenco, but I have watched a great deal of it, and Farruquito was easily the best dancer I’d ever seen, quick and graceful, his feet moving so fast they became a blur. His home town crowd had come to cheer him on: portly men in flashy suits, lithe young women who moved like dancers, older women with magnificent hair and tight leopard print dresses, young boys looking nervous and ill-at ease in stiff suit jackets, and characters I’d seen in the local cafés and flamenco bars for years. The plump, middle-aged woman next to me shouted and clapped and half-leapt out of her seat at peak moments of the show. After the curtain fell and the tumultuous applause finally died down, she turned to me and said, “I am the happiest woman in the world.”
I knew just how she felt. Life rarely matches our expectations, and even more rarely exceeds them. It was almost as exciting as being kidnapped by aliens.
Have you ever had an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience while you were abroad? Please leave a comment below telling me all about it!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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