Dancing in the fountain: Spanish saints to the rescue

Dancing in the Fountain: Spanish saints to the rescue

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It never hurts to slip dear 'San Pan' a few bucks and a whispered prayer when you have your heart set on something, even if you think it is 'Catholic voodoo', confesses Karen McCann.

When we first made the move to Spain, we had just six weeks to find an apartment, negotiate the contract, and if possible, buy enough furnishings to make the place liveable before we returned to Ohio to collect our dog – not a lot of time to learn and adapt to the quirks of Spanish house hunting.

Spanish friends told us about the lowball prices they were paying, while foreigners we knew were paying two and three times that much, albeit for somewhat larger places with terraces and garages. We hoped to get something toward the lower end of the scale, not only out of natural thriftiness but because we didn’t want to look like clueless rubes to our Spanish friends.

And they would know, because they would ask. It’s perfectly normal for Sevillanos to say, "What a nice apartment. How much do you pay for it?" In fact, I am often gobsmacked by the highly personal and/or utterly impossible questions our Spanish friends put to us, such as 'How old are you?' and 'Have you gained weight?' and 'Who do you think is prettier, me or my daughter?' They expect an answer; evasions are considered bad manners. Our real estate agent, bless her, confined herself to questions about the physical features we were looking for in an apartment.

"We have three main criteria," I told the rental agent in Seville. "We need a terrace, so Rich can grow his plants. We want to be near the river or a park, because we’re bringing our dog over. And we absolutely do not want to live in the area around Plaza Alfalfa, because of the botellones." These were the impromptu outdoor drinking parties in which young Spaniards gathered to share bottles (hence the name) of various alcoholic beverages in public places. Call me crazy — I didn’t care much for the idea of having some 500 drunken youths partying on my doorstep night after night until dawn.

Our real estate took us to cramped and dingy rooftop apartments with vast terraces; suites in old palaces ripe with history and mould; furnished apartments that came with gruesome old couches and, in one case, a live-in landlady; and starkly modern places with hideous, liver-coloured floors.

While many had good features, there was always a deal breaker. The one thing the agent assured us we didn’t have to worry about was bringing the dog — all apartments allow pets, she explained; you don’t even have to ask about it. That was great news, but we still had to find the right place to call home.

We had just turned down a flat near the river that had little to recommend it, when the real estate agent made one last suggestion. It was an old palacio that had recently been renovated. Granted, it didn’t have all the features we wanted, and it was smack-bang in the middle of Alfalfa, but would we like to see it? Before I could get 'no' past my lips, Rich had already said, "Sure, why not?"

The apartment had 12ft ceilings and shuttered French windows overlooking the roof of a 200-year-old church. And the price seemed more than reasonable considering all the space. I wanted it desperately. We told the agent we’d take it. But it wasn’t that easy. Now we learned that another family had seen it first and we would have to wait until they made up their minds.

As we waited, Rich and I forced ourselves to keep checking out other places, but they all seemed cramped and musty and second-rate. Trying to find flaws in the Alfalfa apartment, we asked each other whether the church bells outside our windows might be deafening. But we soon discovered they only rang the bells once a day, before morning mass, and they were among the quietest bells in the city.

Still concerned about the botellones, I asked our friend Luz what she thought. 'The Alfalfa area is great,' she said. 'And the best thing about it is that you never have to worry about coming home late at night, because with all the botellones, there will always be people around.' And here I had been thinking that hundreds of drunken youths might be a security problem!

As usual, Luz turned out to be right. Spanish young people are far too busy drinking, flirting, and trying to impress each other to pay attention to oldsters like us. And unlike their American counterparts, these young people don’t seem inclined to become gangs of hooligans on the rampage.

I read about one huge botellón in a designated area across the river that drew a crowd of 5,000 kids; they spent all night drinking, and there wasn’t a single arrest. I was almost sorry when Seville eventually passed a law banning botellones in the Alfalfa neighbourhood; of course, it’s largely ignored, so there is still plenty of company around the barrio late at night.

Worried about losing the apartment, I decided this would be a good time to ask San Pancracio for a 'miracle'. Except for St. Pancras Station in London, he’s virtually disappeared from the world’s memory except in Seville, where his image can be found almost everywhere. The statues show him as a long-haired teenager in a red and green toga. While nobody can tell you where the tradition comes from, thousands of fresh parsley sprigs are placed daily at his feet.

I collected our small plastic statue of him, some parsley, and a candle left over from a romantic dinner, for my shrine. I even put a few coins down and promised more if the saint came through. "That ought to do it," I told Rich. "You can stop worrying. When the agent calls, I’m sure it will be good news."

The agent called the very next morning at 9.30am (an impossibly early hour by Sevillano standards) to let us know the apartment was ours. We were wild with joy, doing a victory dance around the room, thanking the saint for coming through once again.

Do I really think San Pancracio made the difference? Of course not. I’m a modern woman and consider that sort of voodoo Catholicism to be a relic of the Dark Ages. All the same, I still slip San Pan a few euros whenever I have a special cause, and I consider the twenty bucks I put into his shrine’s money box just before a key election to be some of the best money I’ve ever spent.


Karen McCann / Expatica

Karen McCannKaren McCann moved to Seville in 2004 and writes about her expat experiences in her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. "I loved this book,” wrote Lonely Planet. “I must have laughed aloud at least once in every chapter... The advice in the book is terrific." Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and travelling the world.

Thumbnail credit: Boca Dorada

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