La memória del fuego

17 October 2008

“In the United States, you are never too hot or too cold. Here, you will be hot. You will be cold.”

So said one of the speakers during my oddly corporate-training orientation seminars, four days jetlagged in Sevilla with no coffee breaks, cooped up in grey basement rooms with wine glasses full of bottled water & pads of hotel stationary while outside sevillanos whizzed past on city bicycles.

Taken as a metaphor, even truer as far as things go. The grapes here have seeds; the olives, pits. There are impediments to be chewed around & spat out & left on the side of the saucer. Everyday tasks take a certain amount of effort, where in America they are unconscious, automatic, prechewed.

All of which is a long way of saying that it took me four full days to figure out how to use the gas heater that must be lit underneath the water pipes each morning & then dialed up in order to have a hot shower. The primer would not prime. There was a dial, & a button, & I cannot explain without showing you exactly why it was so complicated, but imagine me couching in front of its copper pipes & gaskets like an ape supplicant at the foot of an obelisk, grunting & waiting for the miraculous appearance of flame.

The morning when I figured out the precise ritual gesture, the push inwards and the two second hold before the lit primer, & then afterwards the pull out and the turn to the full setting, at quarter after six o’ clock a.m., pitch dark outside, the moon hanging full & high, birdsong beginning to issue out from the shadows of trees lining the Paseo de la Estación, having previously taken two cold showers, shivering & hopping in rage in & out of the water, trying to shake the suds off – that is to say, the moment when the blue flame appeared & continued, steady, the whooshing sound of gas burning, was one of the purest triumph & pleasure.

That early in the morning, after that much effort, a hot shower becomes an experience religious in its intensity, a miracle, a transubstantiation. I felt myself linked to a thousand years of shivering humanity trying to stay warm in darkness, I imagined myself struggling with flint, wrapping myself in furs, baking on stones like a lizard.

I now know how to operate a gas heater. Small victories like this – turning on the water heater, succesfully recharging a cellphone, knowing how much a cup of coffee costs & having exact change – become vitally important here. I am unable to understand half of anything that is said. The workings of the world are opaque & sometimes bewildering. The bar of difficulty for everything – opening a bank account, applying for a residency permit, taking the right bus to school – is raised. I feel like nothing will ever seem difficult again when I come back to the States.

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3 Responses to “La memória del fuego”

  1. dave Says:

    The harshness of nature truly makes us realize the comforts we take for granted.
    Nature really only works to help us.
    I will write you soon.

  2. Ashley Says:

    While I didn’t struggle with a water heater in China, I did struggle (and eventually triumph) over things like cab rides, food orders, and how to use a hairdryer. I understand the pure joy that comes from overcoming these previously tiny, presently huge, things. It’s a strange sort of no-man’s land, isn’t it? I’m ejoying reading your stuff, keep it coming!

  3. Jim Sligh Says:

    As it turns out, the gas that is ignited & primed by my heater comes from a big keg hooked up by a hose that empties & has to be replaced by deliverymen. Because my roommate, who knows the delivery number, wasn’t home until late in the afternoon, there was no gas for 36 hours in our home.

    American & magical thinker that I am, I still tried to use the stove, & got about five minutes of flame out of it (the keg had been tipped on its side to use the very last dregs) until it died, and I was left with half-cooked, runny eggs.

    No showers for two mornings. All better now, though.


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