So grouses a crusty old sevillano at the unexpected sight of an American couple cooling off on a steamy night by dancing in a public fountain.
“The curmudgeon was right about that,” writes Karen McCann, one-half of the dancing duo, with evident glee. “Back in Ohio, we never danced in fountains on hot nights, or at any other time for that matter. We never went to bullfights or sang in the street or got thrown out of art classes or had friends hiding from death threats. Our new social life is a lot more interesting than the old one.”
I don’t know much about the excitement level of her previous life in Ohio, but after devouring her memoir, “Dancing in the Fountain,” I can’t see how Cleveland could possibly compete with the many charms of Seville. Karen and her husband Rich have been living there since 2004, and her book is one long, glorious love letter to the Andalucían capital and its quirky, warm-hearted people.
Call it serendipity, call it Fate, but upping sticks and moving to Spain wasn’t on their minds when they vacationed in Marbella almost a dozen years ago. Despite being distinctly underwhelmed by the city, the desire to learn Spanish (and equally compelling, the prospect of escaping winter in Cleveland) inspired them to return several months later to take an intensive language course.
One day, needing a break from mangling the language beyond recognition, they wandered off to Seville for a day trip. They were instantly smitten. The next spring — and the next one, and two more after that — they eagerly returned to Seville to continue their battle of wills with the language that refused to be mastered. (Or as Karen puts it, “Rich and I arrived five minutes late for our first Spanish class and spent the next five years trying to catch up.”)
Many of the book’s funniest moments emerge from this epic struggle to communicate. Who among us doesn’t understand the frustrations of living in a language we don’t speak? It’s damn hard to buy a screwdriver when the word in Spanish sounds so much like the word for computer. And yes, I can certainly understand staring blankly at the potato and onion omelette placed before you — thinking “um, that’s not a tortilla” — when you clearly ordered the ubiquitous Mexican flatbread with the expectation it would be served wrapped around refried beans, lettuce, cheese, and a dollop of sour cream. I totally get it.
When Rich suggested they spend an entire year in the city (I suspect he was frustrated by his struggles with Spanish and longed for the chance to finally beat that sucker into submission), Karen jumped in with both feet. She’d always wanted to spend a year abroad, and wasn’t crazy about the idea of whiling away their retirement years “sitting around Cleveland, waiting to crumble.” Soon they were living in the city they loved with their dog Pie (short for Eskimo Pie, aka Pi or 3.1416) by their side.
What follows is an endearing account of one couple’s efforts to build a life in a new country. There are hard times, such as the loss of old friends who don’t understand their decision (“I don’t keep up with people I don’t see on a regular basis,” one woman sniffs), and the regular losses that are a sad reality of the expat lifestyle. But there are many more moments of sheer joy as Karen adjusts to the rhythms of Sevillian life, discovers a passion for painting, finally grasps the language, and basks in the warm glow of her beloved Rich, the faithful Pie, and an abundance of local and expat friends.
Her delight in her new life is contagious. When an acquaintance is unable to join them on an outing because of death threats, she writes, “I was sorry for Mauri’s troubles, but I have to admit I was secretly thrilled. Hardly anybody I knew in Cleveland had death threats against them.” And this former vegetarian proves to be no match for the seductive pleasures of Seville, as she succumbs to the loving embrace of wine, chocolate, and ham. By the time a doctor advises her to reduce her elevated cholesterol levels by drinking more red wine and eating more dark chocolate, I was ready to shout “¡andale!” and hop on the next flight to Spain.
It’s an urge Karen knows well, but here’s the difference: she actually did it. And she couldn’t be happier. “Seville,” she writes, “is where I live out loud.”