A pocket compass is the one thing I didn’t check off my Spain packing list. Whenever I fly to a new city I feel disoriented without Jobs Peak reliably defining “west”. Dan had told me that I could use the Sun and shadows to determine which direction is north. But that technique has not served me well in the shadows of the narrow winding streets, or on a cloudy day, or at night…
Technology to the rescue! Google tells me how far to walk straight ahead and turn by obeying the onscreen blue arrow. But the blue dot that is my digital self does not agree with the cobblestone beneath my feet. I am standing in the center of the plaza, but cyber-me is hovering 30 yards ahead.
My smartphone has some learning to do. I must recalibrate my Android compass. This is magically accomplished by swirling the phone in a figure-8 pattern twice. Preferably during a full moon. And while whispering the incantation “I must look really stupid”.
I’ve had to recalibrate many times during the past two weeks. Recalibrate my compass. Recalibrate my clock. Recalibrate my thinking.
The city of Seville is an inland seaport on the Guadalquivir river, many miles upstream from the coast (just like Portland, Oregon or Stockton, California). It was from this port that Columbus’ small fleet launched to sail west to the Indies. And it was to this port city that the riches of the New World poured in. Maps and navigation were not just recalibrated, they were completely reinvented.
The free tourist maps of the Seville historic district are oriented on the Cathedral, in the center, and the river, on the left-right axis. After 3 days in Seville, when my world had expanded beyond Cathedral Plaza, I realized that a 90 degree rotation of the map was needed in order to put north at the top of the page.
The Guadalquivir River is now on the up-down axis of the rotated map, which puts it to the west of downtown, just like my Carson River in Nevada. That feels right. The Guadalquivir is wide and deep and smooth. The tourist boats have plenty of space for relaxing dinner cruises, and paddle boards and kayaks encounter barely a ripple. I cannot detect the current flow when a light breeze riffles the water’s surface. I do not see the current because I am expecting to see the river flow northward, like my Carson River. But the Guadalquivir flows southward. That feels wrong.
Time to recalibrate my thinking.
During an evening stroll along the river parkway, I found a plaza whose tiles were a walkable map of the Guadalquivir watershed. I walked the map downstream from Seville, past other, unfamiliar towns, to a river delta where all the tiles were colored deep blue, and then the word “Atlantico” was written in the ceramic glaze. Huh? That feels wrong. I could not make sense of this map, because I knew that the Guadalquivir flows into the Mediterranean Sea. That night, back in my room, online research revealed that the Guadalquivir indeed flows to the Atlantic. It meets the ocean at that stretch of coastline north of Gibraltar and south of Portugal. How did I not know this important fact? This required a major adjustment, not a subtle refinement, to my thinking.
Recalibrate. Recalibrate. Recalibrate.
Navigators during the Age of Discovery knew about the vagaries of magnetic north, and they recalibrated their compasses and adjusted their latitude calculations accordingly. But, the accurate determination of longitude eluded them. One of the various techniques for finding longitude relies on the use of two clocks; one set to “home port” time and the other set to “local” noon time as determined by the moment of the sun’s zenith. The difference between the two clocks’ times was then converted to distance, which was used to determine longitude. The validity of this technique depended on a very accurate clock, which was impossible to maintain with all the changes in temperature and humidity, and rolling on a sea voyage. The clocks needed to be recalibrated as often as possible, which was almost never. The navigator at the mercy of a perfidious (“Perfidia” – Nat King Cole) chronometer was usually wrong in his estimation of longitude. Understanding the limitation of 19th century technology helps one understand how even the most experienced sea captains crashed their ships on charted reefs.
I have recalibrated my clock a couple of times since my arrival in Spain. A phone call home catches my family just starting their day, while I am thinking about dinner. And then I recalibrate again because dinner hour begins around 8 p.m. in Seville. The lovely evening weather entices diners to linger at the outdoor cafes until late in the night. Shops close in the afternoon, and then reopen in the evening. I haven’t figured out what everyone else does during the afternoons, but I have been trying to master the art of napping.
(My new friend Carmen holds dual citizenship in Spain and the U.S. She explained that one reason the daytimes feel so long in Seville is that the nation is not using the appropriate time zone. Based on geography (longitude), Spain should be on the same time as London, as is Portugal. But Franco wanted to be united with Hitler, so he dictated that Spain would keep the same clock as Berlin, which is much further east.)
Familiarity of time and place help keep me grounded, and small recalibrations make it easier to adapt to changes in the external world. My social world also helps me to feel grounded. I have the great fortune to have many wonderful people in my world; family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, even strangers. In Seville I have had the good luck to connect with the American Women’s Club (which also includes many Spaniards, and other nationalities). Access to friendly intelligent conversation in English, while I am still in the Spanish language primer, is helping me to recalibrate my social world in small increments. Donna, who moved here from Florida about a year and a half ago, has been especially warm and hospitable. But just when I was becoming familiar with Seville, it was time for me to leave to Russia.
I rented a car to drive from Seville to Alicante, Spain where I catch my flight to Moscow. I was not concerned about the manual transmission because I learned to drive on a 1968 VW beetle with a clutch and stick shift. But the push-button starter had me puzzled and I didn’t know how to get the navigation system in English, so the Hertz clerk got me straightened out. I programmed the navigation to my destination and the friendly British voice instructed me to “head south”. Well, which way is south (I wish I had that compass), and by the way, aren’t we still in the parking lot? The digital map on the screen was just a web of intersecting lines and the flashing arrow was pointing downward, which to me means “backwards”. Which, ironically, was where I needed to go because I first had to back out of the parking space. No problem. I’m sixteen again! Left foot pushes clutch in. Right hand pushes the stick shift down, far left, and backwards, ease off the clutch, ease on the gas and…roll forward. Oops. Try that again and…tada! …roll forward. Okay, try again, slowly and presto! roll forward into the fence. Damn. I didn’t buy the extra insurance. I hope those pre-existing dings on the front bumper align with the fence.
I’m not sixteen anymore. I check the diagram in the top of the stick shift knob. This car is a 6-speed! Cool! Reverse is far left and forward. (I’m driving an Opel). I need to recalibrate.
Out of the parking lot and my navigation chum tells me to “turn right at the second street”. So, is she counting this little access road as the first street? I decide to go straight through and she changes her instructions: “enter the traffic circle and take the third exit” Wait..what? I bail out of the traffic circle and spend the next 20 minutes trying to obey her nagging and follow the moving arrow on the screen but I’ve been driving in circles and I’m still only a half-mile from where I began. There! An empty parking space! I slide in, turn off the engine, and exhale.
Definitely time to recalibrate. Maybe I don’t want to go to Russia after all. Can I just surrender and return the car?
4 thoughts on ““I’m sixteen again!”…recalibrating”
I love the theme woven through this blog entry! Great work getting it going! Thanks for sharing your trip!
Very well written and entertaining. I like the “educational” like remembering that there is a part of Spain that does touch the Atlantic south of Portugal, ant the part about determining longitude (without getting into the math of “but don’t the meridians of longitude get closer together as you move north or south of the equator? So you have to know your latitude first, right?”) If you haven’t already read it, there’s a good book titled “The Illustrated Longitude” by Dava Sobel and William J.H. Andrewes, about the contest to invent a practical clock for navigation.
I have always thought that everyone should learn to drive a stick. Kind of weird to think of a manual transmission and a push-button start. Most new cars have push button starts, and except for some trucks, almost all have automatic transmissions. But you never know when an old skill will come in handy. If you ever watched a TV show called “The Amazing Race” where teams compete in a race to complete challenges in different countries around the world, there have been several times where teams have lost challenges because they had never driven a manual transmission. Lack of preparation. It’s like auditioning for “Survivor”, being selected, getting there and then realizing that it might have been a good idea to practice starting a fire without matches before you went! Often times, know old, low-tech skills and methods will get you out of a jam when technology fails. Like your compass.
That reminds me of a YouTube video that I happened across while looking for something else. It was titled something like, “How to use a flip-flop winch”. I had no idea what that was, so I watched it. It was a video about how to use two log poles and some rope for a make-shift winch to pull your car out of a hole. Simple and ingenious at the same time. It’s probably something that every pioneer wagoneer used to know. I’ll file that one away in my brain. It could come in handy.
Sounds like you’re having a great experience. Thanks for sharing your blog.
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Hi Craig. Yes! I really enjoyed Longitude by Sobel and Andrewes…so fascinating. I didn’t post your comment to the site, as I thought it a bit too long for that purpose, but I do appreciate you writing.
I agree…I love low-tech solutions.
Hi Dianne, Europe is so rich with history, thanks for sharing! Glad you found time to start this blog. Looking forward to more adventures.