In his late thirties, John Julius Reel left his native New York for Seville, hoping to re-invent himself, find his voice as a writer, and cast off the shadow of his famous father. When his girlfriend dumped him after a month-long visit, the last tie was cut, and he had to face his future from his stark, mosquito-infested rented room. Alone in a foreign land, struggling with the language, and longing to find his place and purpose in the world, he began to rebuild his life.
My Half Orange: A Story of Love and Language in Seville (Chicago: Tortoise Books, 2023) is a tender, comical, and illuminating story about what it means to learn to speak and think in a new way, and to spend so much time away from home that the foreign becomes familiar. This heartwarming chronicle filled with Sevillian delicias (soccer, Iberian ham, creative cursing, and one extraordinary woman) reveals how love, language, and culture can transform one’s life forever.
“I’ve had the pleasure of reading My Half Orange, by John Julius Reel. As the name might suggest, he’s Bill Reel’s son. All of New York knew Bill Reel through his engaging and provocative newspaper columns, first in the Daily News, then later in New York Newsday. I’m pleased to report that the manzana doesn’t fall very far from the árbol. Bill left us too soon, in 2010; wherever he is, I hope it’s furnished with a comfortable chair and a good reading lamp, so that he can see for himself what a fine writer his boy turned out to be.”
“John Julius Reel gets as close as anybody can to the heart of the matter: he’s actually married to a sevillana, which gives him a highly privileged view of what it is to be Spanish. He is observant, humorous, affectionate, and enthusiastic, all of this informed by an intelligent perception. His marvellous book goes a long way to filling in the gaps in more academic studies of this subject.”
“John Julius Reel lays both himself and the south of Spain bare in this hilarious, insightful, and ultimately moving book. My Half Orange might as well be a monument to his wife, who keeps him honest and on his toes. And of course there is always the fascinating glimpse of New York, Reel’s hometown. Required reading for anyone who wonders what it’s like to find deep and lasting fulfillment in a foreign land.”
“John Julius Reel’s memoir has two shining stars in its constellation—language and family. His struggles to speak and understand his wife’s poetic Andalusian dialect are both poignant and comic. (“No se puede pedirle peras al olmo.” You can’t ask an elm tree to produce pears.) Through Reel’s eyes, the reader learns to love his close, sometimes too close, Andalusian in-laws. In his delightful cosmos, Reel tries to connect the stars between the memories of his native New York and the reality of his adopted Seville. Go along for the ride.”
“To call the adventures and misadventures of John Julius Reel quixotic is not a far cry. It’s a joy to tag along with him and his spunky Sevillian wife. Sevilla lights up through Reel’s clever and acute ‘eyes of surprise.’ My Half Orange will crack you up and break your heart while giving an insider’s take on one of the most astonishing and lively cities in Spain, and perhaps on earth.”
“In the best tradition of The Nosy and Impertinent Husband by Miguel de Cervantes, John Julius Reel reveals, with as much humor as insight, how the foreigner’s gaze can read more deeply into us than any other.”
“This English teacher, married to a Sevillian and with two sons (Wedge One and Wedge Two), has passed on to us one of the funniest, most heartfelt, and memorable analyses written about the city of La Giralda, and therefore about the experience of living in Southern Spain.”
“At times, Reel’s voice resonates like that of Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole.”
“An authentic declaration of love to the city of Seville… I fervently recommend it.”
“Nimble, entertaining, delightful...”
Supermarkets are as depressing in Seville as they are in the States—the soulless light, the morgue-like cold, the shopping carts piled high with the crap that people buy. I prefer mom-and-pop shops, where I can support a family enterprise while making conversation and sometimes even friends.
Upon settling into my half orange’s apartment as a stay-at-home dad while she worked from nine to two, I soon discovered that one of the joys of living in Seville was that I could do all our shopping within a five-block radius drawn from our building’s front door. The staples, however, were cheaper in the multinationals, and since the staples added up, I would take the car to the nearest megastore, Alcampo, once a week. Accompanied by the wedges, I normally went early on a weekday morning to beat the rush. On a good day, by the time we dropped back down to the underground parking, almost everybody else would just be getting there, and I would feel like I had stolen a march on the day.
Of course, things did not always go so smoothly. One day, because I had been waylaid by work and other annoying administrative tasks, I let the kids sleep an hour later. The shopping list was especially long that week and filled with items I didn’t usually buy, which meant they took more time to find.
The wedges, as usual, had started out in the shopping cart, but, as it slowly filled, I had lifted them out. Then they ran up and down the aisles, disappearing around corners, and reappearing with stuff not on the list. After I sent them to put the stuff back, they would return with other, different stuff I didn’t want to buy.
By the time we got to the checkout line, all three of us were itching to get out of there.
The best part of our routine was coming up. As a reward for a job well done, we would stop by the pet store on the ground floor to see the puppies sleeping or playing in their storefront pens, or to take in the racket of the birds, or to ponder the solemnity of the lizards, turtles, and fishes in their tanks.
Then we would head down to the parking garage. After unloading our cart and returning it to get the coin out of the deposit slot, we would play “Daddy Dropped His Change.” I would pretend to accidentally drop the coin, and then all three of us would fight and scramble for it on the parking garage floor. That way we’d blow off some steam and get some exercise in.
But it turned out that the fun would have to wait. After we finished with the cashier, I checked the receipt and saw I had not received the discount I had expected on some bananas I thought I’d bought on sale. Only at Information could I return the fruit or have the price explained.
I dreaded such conversations, even more so in Spanish, which was exactly why I had to go through with it—to overcome my fears.
At that point the crowds had caught up to us. Every time I looked back on the way to Information, my wedges would be further behind, dragging their feet. People pushing carts or pulling trollies spilled off the escalators, then weaved in front of or around my sons.
“Get a move on, guys,” I yelled.
They pointed downstairs.
“Not yet,” I said. “One more thing.”
They stopped and held their ground. Who could blame them?
Of course, anyone sensible would have thought, “To hell with saving a buck-fifty on a bunch of bananas. To the pet store!” but I just don’t work that way. The more potentially frustrating and tedious the task before me, the more headstrong I am about getting it over with. I had to go to returns and get this sorted out so I could go home feeling satisfied with myself.
“If you two don’t get over here right now,” I shouted, “there’ll be no pet store at all.”
It worked, although having been unreasonable only wore at my patience even more.
Fortunately, the line at returns was not too long, although once I took my place, a half dozen people joined behind me. The boys ran back and forth along the commercial center’s main thoroughfare. I would call them over to my side, but then I’d get distracted with the receipt again, trying to make sense of it, trying to recall all the Spanish vocabulary I would need to best express myself, and the boys would break free again.
Finally, it was my turn and I stepped up to the counter, showing the attendant my receipt. She nodded as I began my semi-prepared spiel and remained attentive until I brought it to a clumsy close. Then she pointed to where on the receipt the discount on the bananas appeared, next to some special code.
“Okay,” I said, but since I had also bought other discounted fruit and vegetables, I wanted to be clear about which discounts were for what.
Math happens to be the last thing a language learner is able to do in a non-native tongue, and I was still far from clearing the final hurdles on the course. I had to translate numbers into English before I could do any kind of real math in my head, and this woman was throwing lots of figures at me while doing the calculations out loud, and I just wasn’t able to keep up.
I asked her to run through the numbers once more, slowly.
“Sin problema. Por supuesto,” (No problem. Of course,) she said, and began again, going step by step. I was just starting to catch on when we were interrupted.
“¡Aquí estamos esperando!” (Here we are waiting!) someone said from the rear of the line, then added, “¡Lo que uno tiene que aguantá!” (What one has to put up with!)
I looked down the line at my heckler—tracksuit, slicked-back hair, two-day stubble, pouty-lipped sneer. When I met his eyes, he shook his head with smug disgust, clearly thinking he had spoken for the majority. This was exactly the type of situation that I dreaded as a guiri—my foreignness getting in people’s way—but having some jerk finally point out my obstructiveness turned out to be a relief. Now I just had to deal with him. I turned around to look for the wedges, letting everyone know where my priorities lay. They were climbing on some coin-operated kiddie rides about fifty feet away. I turned back to the woman, who made a dismissive gesture in the direction of the heckler and continued her explanation.
I only pretended to listen, nodding along, buying time as I planned my big move.
Self-consciousness, the biggest foil to language learning, had miraculously disappeared, trumped by the desire to set the record straight.
When the woman finished talking, I thanked her for clearing things up, and then I about-faced without stepping away from the counter just yet. I called to my boys in English, the language I always used with them, but loudly now, for all to hear. Fathers alone with their sons in Sevillian supermarkets were just not a common sight—even less so during the week, when most kids the wedges’ age were in day care or preschool. I wore Birkenstocks with white socks and cargo shorts, fitting the description of the tag I knew everybody in sight wanted to put on me. My hair was long and graying, my features angular. There was absolutely no way anybody could have mistaken me for anything but what I was—not from there.
But I was about to do something that would make that irrelevant.
From my tone of voice, the wedges sensed that something was up. They quickly climbed down off the kiddie rides and ran to me—a nice detail, a show of authority with my little ones, before I really brought the hammer down. When they sidled up to me, I put my arms around them and gently guided them to where my heckler stood. The line was almost all middle-aged and older women, except for my target, who, when he saw me coming, straightened up from his elbow-on-the-counter slouch and puffed out his chest, looking at us out of the corner of his eye.
A silence seemed to descend on the scene as I dropped to a knee, as though about to ask for his hand. In a way, we would soon be paired for eternity after this. With one arm still around each of my sweet citric sidekicks, I made eye contact first with Wedge One, then with Wedge Two, to let them and my captive audience know that I was about to impart a priceless lesson that would make things right with the world, at least this small part of it, for the moment.
I pointed to the man but still looked at and spoke to my sons, as loud as before, because I wanted to project.
“That man is rude, because he shouted at me when I didn’t understand, although I was trying my best,” I said. “Do not be like him, ever. And if I ever shout at you because you don’t understand, even though you’re trying your best, remind me of this man, and tell me I’m acting like him, because that will make me ashamed and stop what I’m doing.”
After a stunned silence, a few women in the line nodded emphatically. One even clapped. My heckler stayed where he was, jiggling his leg in his sweatpants, drumming his fingers on the countertop, staring straight ahead, as if by ignoring me I would leave.
I got to my feet and backed away, keeping an eye on him, while herding my kids over to our shopping cart. A security guard had drifted over to investigate the commotion that my spontaneous theatre had stirred up. Clearly it was time to head for the escalator.
“Why did you speak Spanish to us?” Wedge One asked as we were carried downstairs. Wedge Two, his mind already on the pet store, was poised for the escalator to hit bottom so he could launch himself in a sprint to the storefront display.
I hadn’t even thought about the language. It had been like speaking in a dream. I’d finally gotten through, in a language not my own.