Sheltering Under the Family Tent

May 2008

My son Jonathan and I just returned from a very special trip to Spain. First we visited with friends at their family caseta (tent) at the Feria de Abril in Sevilla. Then, after a couple of days in Madrid at the Club Gourmet food show, we spent a night with old friends in a windswept Catalán stone village in which only 140 souls dwell.

The Feria de Abril is an extraordinary event, which occurs each spring along the banks of the Guadalquivir River. Every year thousands of Sevillians return to their individual casetas at the spring fair to gather for a week with their extended family and friends. Essentially the fair is a celebration of the family, where the people of Sevilla nurture the family ties that are the foundation of the Spanish spirit.

What attracted me to the Spanish culture when I stepped ashore more than 40 years ago was not only the way Spanish people cherished their children, but also they way they embraced all of their family. 

A lot has happened since then. Spain is now a thriving new democracy with unprecedented years of material prosperity. Has the country changed? Of course it has. But for all the ephemeral glamour that the Spaniards are enjoying in this era of unprecedented prosperity, Jonathan and I found that the bedrock of honoring the family remains.

The Spaniard naturally frames his thoughts in terms of community. It is the one characteristic that distinguishes the traditional Spanish world view from the individualism of North Americans. "Children are to be seen and not heard," or "A man's home is his castle" are attitudes which are incomprehensible to the traditional Spaniard. 

Children, with all of their exuberance, are to be enjoyed and treasured within the family and all whom they touch; and a Spaniard's home is thought of as an extension of his greater family. Perhaps the Jamón Serrano resting on its stand is a symbol of the hospitality that is the essence of the home.

The Spring Fair is a time to celebrate springtime and the reunion of the family – so the centerpiece is dancing: young and old dance the Sevillana – inspired by flamenco, but simple enough that grandmothers can spontaneously dance with their sons or daughters-in-law. Of course husbands dance the Sevillana with their wives, nephews with nieces – or even invited guests can join in. Jonathan fit right in dancing with our hostess.

Within the family tent, with the women dressed in colorful flamenco dresses and the men in coat and tie, it is a time to catch up on the latest news from an out of town cousin or aunt, or spend time with parents, brothers and sisters, as well as entertain friends (such as Jonathan and me). 

Of course, since it is Spain, the bar at the back of each caseta is a cornucopia of delightful tapas: simmering garlic shrimp served with picos bread sticks; lightly fried boquerones/anchovies; glistening slivers of Jamón Ibérico; calamares; langostinos; fresh cracked olives; Manchego cheese and almonds – the menu is endless.

For me, the most precious of all was to see little children, mostly little girls in flamenco dresses, perfecting their Sevillana technique with each other. Some were under four years old! In the caseta of our hosts Fernando and Sarah there was a flamenco guitarist playing and singing while all ages of the extended family danced together.

Until 8:00 PM families in horse drawn carriages promenade down the unpaved avenues outside the hundreds upon hundreds of family casetas. Also riding by are young men sitting upright on their handsome Andalucían horses, sometimes with señoritas riding pillion behind them.

Lest you get caught up in the romance and miss the point I am making – the feria is not a touristic event, it is a vast family reunion. If you did not know anyone with a family caseta you would be alone in the passing crowd. These family connections are so important that the city of Sevilla all but shuts down for a week so that people can get together.

On the other end of our trip, we stayed with dear friends in the age-old rustic inn in an apparently deserted rural town of Granyena de les Garrugies. Unexpectedly we experienced the importance of the family in this unlikely setting. As we were about to leave the next morning, we spotted a lovely young woman who was walking by the inn, contending with a very bright and frisky two-year-old daughter – I'm sure you know the situation I am referring to! 

It turned out that Sara was a sculptor who had left this village a few years ago to seek the stimulating environment of Barcelona. There she met Brian, an aspiring musician and composer from Ireland. After a few years of the hustle and bustle of the big city, both artists chose to have a more peaceful atmosphere amongst the olive trees by returning to Sara's home town.

Needless to say, her family was delighted, and helped them purchase a substantial medieval home which they are gradually repairing. The aging town was delighted too to be renewed with youth. Their older son goes to primary school in a class of four students – the whole school numbers 40. Sara remarked that it was as if her son had a private tutor.

It has been quite an adjustment to leave the city, but the family has fit right in. Sara designed a new fountain which bubbles in the town square. Brian has designed the label for the olive oil produced by the local cooperative – the village's only source of income.

They experience the same embrace of the family that is expressed in the caseta in the Feria de Sevilla, and we sensed that they and their children experience a loving and beautiful relationship. Is it not a fine setting for their creativity in sculpture and music?

Whether in Spain or America, it is no secret that a child nurtured in a solidly committed extended family is set to thrive. The many traditional Spaniards we met in Sevilla and in Lleida had not been distracted from this truth.

Best wishes from our family to yours,