Pointing the Fingers and Parading the Cojones - El Puerto de Santa Maria - 1973

It's 1973.  I've been thinking a lot about the women here in El Puerto de Santa Maria.  I find them very surprising and very puzzling. There's nobody to tell this to as my Spanish isn't all that good. Plus, I don't want to offend anyone.  But since no one questions what's going on around here, maybe I should indeed speak up and point out the obvious, that women shouldn't be living this way?

Macarena  was engaged to be married, but her fiance died in a dreadful accident. She's older than me, possibly in her late twenties. Macarena wears dowdy, shapeless clothes, and always looks morose. Her cheeks are already lined and her hands look rough and weather beaten.
      "I'll never marry. I'll never have children." Her face looks wan and downcast.  
      "Why?" I ask, puzzled.
      "Because people would point their fingers at me and say, 'She already had a man'."
I feel I should tell her that indeed, she can get married one day. But, she'd probably just scowl at me, mumbling, "You're a foreigner. You don't understand."  And she'd be absolutely correct about that.
There's the group of posh young women who look to be about my age. Most days they sit in the Bar Central, their jackets draped over their shoulders like a cape. Thick gold chains hang loosely from their neck and their gold bracelets jingle as they pick up the tiny cups of coffee. I feel a pang of envy for I don't have much jewellery. Nor do I wear clothes as expensive as theirs. They inhale their cigarettes as if they were men, and exhale with the charm of a steam engine.

The loudest one speaks up. "Montse. What's wrong with your husband?" Her voice is deep and her tone accusatory. She taps Montse on her knee.
     "Nothing. He's perfectly fine."  Montse looks defensive.
     "Oh?" Smoke exhales itself from her mouth into the hot air of the bar.  "Well, he doesn't have  a lover, does he?"
     "No, he doesn't."
     "Then, he doesn't have cojones! What kind of man is he?!" She shrugs her shoulders and stares at the others who shake their heads in despair at the mere thought of a husband not having a lover.
I'm surprised that young, pretty women believe that if your husband isn't fooling around that that makes him less of a man. It's as if it's a sense of pride to have a husband who has lovers. And if he has enough money to pay for an apartment for his bit of stuff, then so much the better.

It's amazing to watch these unfaithful, macho husbands on Sundays. They are so very attentive and loving to their darling wives on this one day of the week. They stroll down the road to the bars and restaurants, he in front, his wife and the children behind him. He lifts her copa of fino and gently places it in her delicate hand, as if she's incapable of picking it up herself. He caresses her jacket, tucks it around her shoulders, and beams down at her. He tickles her throat. He parades her and his children for everyone to see.

The children are very well dressed. The girls wear dresses that go down almost to their ankles. They have what look to be crocheted socks, and little dark, leather shoes that probably cost a fortune. The boys wear short trousers that go all the way beyond their knees. Their shirts look like girls' blouses. And they too wear expensive shoes. The macho  husband beams with pride at his children, picks them up and cuddles them. You'd never know he has another life where his wife and children don't even cross his mind.

It's possible that all the lovely clothes, the private schools, and the expensive restaurants compensate for the infidelity. There is no divorce, so what can the women do?  They have no choice but to abide by the permiso marital doctrine that states that women need their husband's approval to travel or to be employed. Franco's society is without a doubt keeping the family intact.

But couldn't someone speak up? Couldn't the gossip mongers point  their fingers at these macho men, tell them it's more macho to be faithful?

Macarena  knows and accepts her place in society. There's no other way. She's doomed to live the life of a barren spinster. God forbid. She's already in her late twenties, practically over the hill. But if she really, really wants to get married and have children, then shouldn't she just go beyond what the gossip mongers say? Much as she mourns the death of her fiance, she shouldn't cut off any hope of a kind future just because people are pointing their fingers.

It is of course simply none of my business, and in the end it's probably best just to keep my thoughts to myself.

The Tale of the Slippery Eels, the Bald Priest and the Milanesa - 1980, Talavera de la Reina

I'm a real fuss-pot when it comes to food. I don't like milk. I don't like butter. I don't like cream, and I don't like mushrooms. Nor do I like creamy cheese. You'd think therefore that Spanish food would have been appealing to me since it tends to be cooked with garlic and olive oil. It is appealing to me and I gobble it up without hesitation. That is, the food that I cook myself.
    When it comes to restaurant food, that's another story.
    One day I was having lunch Luria, the Spanish wife of a colleague of my husband's. I tend to order the same things over and over regardless of where the restaurant is, for I've figured out what dishes are free of the yucky things I don't like. Now that we were back living in Spain, it's my old favourites, filete de ternera a la milanesa and ensalada mixta that I ordered. I looked forward to squeezing the slice of lemon you always get. It's really a very happy meal, it seemed to me. Luria, on the other hand, ordered something that sounded like 'anguilas'. The sound of the word was pleasant to the ear, almost poetic. Not wanting to reveal my ignorance, I didn't ask her what anguilas are. The waiter promptly served us and I tucked in as if I hadn't eaten in a week. I didn't even notice Luria's dish until I came up for some breath and practically choked on my food.
    The anguilas looked like worms. Not only that, they looked like live worms. They were in a bowl filled with hot olive oil and the anguilas seemed to be swimming about catching their last breath, jumping up and down as they tried to survive. When Luria placed them in her mouth with the skill of Picasso painting some masterpiece they wriggled even more and seemed to dangle from her lips. Her tongue slithered down on top of them and she caught each anguila with the precision of a professional fly fisherman up to his knees in thick morning dew. There was no escape. Each anguila slid up and into and then down through the gaping hole in Luria's face. She smiled. She grinned. And the tips of the anguilas bid farewell to life itself midst the garlic and the olive oil.
    "How's your milanesa?" Luria was bursting forth with joy. I had never heard anyone in the whole of my life ever ask me how my milanesa was with so much exhuberance. She grabbed her fork and fished for more anguilas. They too ended up leaping about like souls searching for even just a few more minutes of life, before encountering the same doom as the others still sliding their way midst garlic and olive oil down Luria's throat.
    "Delicious. Really good." I replied, making sure I wasn't not talking with my mouth full. "How is your dish?" I don't know why I asked, for it was so obvious that Luria was thoroughly enjoying her anguilas.
    She nodded her head several times and tried to say something, but the anguilas were dangling from her mouth. Her tongues grabbed them, and for a second I thought she was about to spit them at the innocent-looking priest sitting at the table next to us. I had visions of her doing precisely that. I could imagine the anguilas sliding over the priest's bald head, clinging to him for dear life.
    "We're just a few anguilas lost in Talavera de la Reina. Holy Father, please forgive us for whatever wrongs we have done. Please."
    Anguilas talk?  Who knew?
    "They're not as good as the last time I was here."  Luria frowned, then started to laugh. "Look! At the table next to us!"
    I gazed again at the priest. Come to think on it, he really didn't  look like the type who'd have anguilas slithering on his bald head, so severe and formal he appeared. But, there was something odd. Golly. Playboy magazine on his table! Surely not?! I was surprised to see a Playboy magazine just lying around, never mind lying next to a priest. When I lived  in Spain just a few years before Playboy magazine was banned. When he noticed us staring at him, he very modestly covered the semi-naked lady on the front cover with his napkin.  I looked down at my dish getting ready to help myself to more of my favourite dish, the escalope milanesa, and saw a knife and fork cutting a large piece of my milanesa. It was Luria!  She was pinching some of the one and only dish that I actually liked!
    "Would you care for some of my anguilas? In exchange for some of your milanesa?" She asked innocently, with a cheery grin.
    "I don't eat food that is still alive." I protested, hoping that I don't sound ridiculous.
    She grabbed a forkful of anguilas from her bowl and tossed them next to the remaining milanesa on my plate. I didn't scream, too much in shock.  I merely stared at the anguilas, expecting them to wander all over the table. Instead, they just sat there, immobile. I actually felt sorry for them. Poor anguilas. They had somehow suddenly died, right in front of me, adjacent to the slice of lemon that I had squeezed over my milanesa. Death of anguilas. Death by milanesa and lemon. I felt like a murderer.
    Luria is busy chewing away at the large piece of my milanesa that she so craftily swiped from my plate. Her eyes were glistening with merriment. I wasn't sure if what was thrilling her to bits was my milanesa, the bald priest with the Playboy magazine, or the anguilas that she hoped I'd eat.
    "They're dead, silly. Try them. Squeeze some lemon on them." She poked me in the ribs.
    Of course I did do what she told me. I squeezed some lemon on the anguilas - and then I covered them with my napkin. Even anguilas, just as the semi-naded lady on the cover of Playboy, need their privacy.

Smart Alec and the Chicken Pox - 1981, Miami Playa, Tarragona

It's 1981. We're still living in Talavera de la Reina, but the boxes are packed, and we eagerly await the move to the Mediterranean coast. We've heard  a lot about how international it is there. People from Yugoslavia, Sweden, Holland, the United Kingdom, India, Singapore, the United States, are living and working in the Province of Tarragona. Apparently the social life is terrific. and although it's been an interesting and rewarding one year spent here in Talavera de la Reina, we're ready to move on to where the action is.

One thing that's been great about this year in Talavera is that my Spanish has vastly improved. I thought I knew Spanish before coming here, but, really all I knew were verb conjugations and basic conversation. Having to speak Spanish on a daily basis with native speakers who are not used to foreigners at all has been somewhat of a challenge. And I'm feeling chuffed with myself on how well I now speak Spanish. Ha ha!

A friend of mine and I meet frequently so that our kids can play together.  We're sitting in the park next to the swings when she tells me that her son is in bed ill with the varicela. She also tells me that quite possibly our son will get the varicela too, but not to worry as it's not a serious disease. Now, I had to look up the word 'varicela'  in English as I'd never heard it before. 'Chicken Pox' is what I find.

Guess what? Our son does indeed get the chicken pox!  He gets the symptoms a few days before we make the drive to Miami Playa, Tarragona. Reassured that everything will be fine, we begin the process of unpacking and settling into our new accommodation.

It's a brand new house, complete with brand new furniture. I love being able to go out and back in without having to wait on a lift which is what we had to do in the apartment in Talavera. I love the beautiful tiled kitchen and bathroom, and the modern furniture. We even have a garden which is taken care of by a local gardener.

Next door lives a couple from Madrid who have a young boy around the same age as our son. They have big smiles as they inhale and exhale their cigarettes. They can talk for a long time after inhaling, something I've never been able to accomplish. I bet they can even blow smoke rings, another thing I've never been able to accomplish. They play their cassette tapes really loudly, all day long. I can hear Abba singing jauntily through the open windows and the couple start singing along with them.

"We're practising our English!" They announce to me.

Since I don't want their son to become ill I tell them that it's probably best that the boys don't play together for several days as our son has the chicken pox. At least, that's what I think I tell them! I remember that the word for chicken pox begins with the letter V.

I'm afraid that's all I can say in my favour.

The father stares at me, his mouth wide open. He practically swallows his cigarette as he tries to prevent it from falling onto the dried up grass. The mother's eyes grow huge and I don't whether she's going to cry or sneeze. They step back, and yell at their son to go inside quickly.

"We're so sorry, señora. We really are!  What a tragedy!  A terrible, terrible, awful tragedy!"  They rush  inside their house and close the door. They even close all the windows.

I'm left standing, puzzled by their reaction.

I don't think the chicken pox is all that bad is it? I believe it's quite common for young children to get it.

Later that day I'm looking up a word in this huge dictionary that weighs several pounds and that has the teeniest tiniest of print. You'll never guess what I happen to see! Remember how the word for chicken pox is 'varicela'?   Well, the word that I told the Madrid neighbours was 'viruela'. Yikes! Guess what 'viruela' means!

It means 'smallpox'!

So much for being a Smart Alec when it comes to Spanish! No wonder they ran away from me as fast as they could!

Serenely Serene and the Sereno - Madrid 1974

It's 1974 and I'm staying in an apartment in La Puerta del Sol, Madrid. I hear piano music for hours and hours. It's a pleasure to listen to the young boy practising the scales over and over so many times, The sound of his music stands out over the cacophony of women's voices speaking loudly, of radios blaring forth long advertisements interspersed with occasional long-winded monologues about something or another. I know so little Spanish that it's easy for me to tune people out.

I have a temporary job tutoring English. Some of my students are wealthy children who live in fancy apartments with fancy furniture. Everything is perfect in their lives. They are all handsome and they have every material item you could wish for, from the tiny leather bound dictionary and the gold chain around their necks, to the expensive clothes purchased in boutiques. They float about serenely, with not a care in the world. They speak Spanish with the crisp Castilian accent that reveals their breeding and pride.  I've been told so many times that Castilian Spanish is the best Spanish, and so eager am I to impress people that I add 'ths' where they're not supposed to be. I end up saying things like, "Buenoth diath"! The haughty look of disdain of my students is tempered by polite respect for an older person.

During the day I enter the world of the rich with their antique framed tapestries, oil paintings, cooks and maids. It seems a stiff, cold  existence, regardless of how perfect everything is. In the evening I meet with more normal people who don't seem to be overflowing with riches. Some of them are American and even although they certainly are not poor, they don't have the finesse or the formal manners that the wealthy Madrileno children have. They're more relaxed and easy to be with.

The Americans and I hang out at the bars or in their apartments. We listen to 'Layla' over and over again on their record players until the sound of it spins around and around in our heads making us delirious. We marvel at how exotic everything is in Spain. How the people are so dramatic, as if they are acting in some tragicomedia.  The Americans call the 'peseta' a 'patata' and don't care that it's wrong. Come to think on it, quite possibly they don't even know that it's wrong! At least they get the sound of the strong A correctly. It's not so easy for English-speaking people to pronounce the letter A in Spanish.

At night, we wander through the streets of Madrid in search of the aroma of fresh baked bread that piles out on to the street like a dragon. The closer we get to the ovens the closer we get to the bar that sells hot chocolate way into the wee small hours.  We can smell the ovens in the distance and see the lights of the bar as we hasten our footsteps all the while anticipating the thick nectar of the hot chocolate.  On our way, we hear the clapping of hands and someone calling out,  "Sereno! Sereno!"  A sereno swaggers rapidly by us, his keys dangling and he nods to us. He unlocks the main door to an apartment building and lets the person in.

I stick my spoon in the hot chocolate and it stays upright. People have told me to do this, to prove how thick the hot chocolate is. But I don't care about any of that. I surreptitiously dip my fingers into the hot cup and help myself. The Americans laugh loudly. But nobody else notices. So many things that people never, ever notice.  The other patrons in the bar have their heads down as their feet kick the litter scattered on the floor. It's quite common to tear open packets of sugar and toss the paper on the floor.  We place our hands round the thick cup of hot chocolate and smile. How content and serene we are becoming.

Bellies full and a warmth caressing our bodies we go back out into the cold and wander the streets of Madrid once again, along the Calle Alcala and down to La Puerta del Sol where I'm staying.  We stroll slowly, as if we don't want the night to end. Lots of people are still out and about at three o'clock in the morning. It's safe and we don't feel threatened even when we hear footsteps running behind us. It seems to me that Franco's Spain is a safe Spain.

We walk by the statue of the bear, our footsteps ringing out just like the keys of the sereno jingling as he does his rounds. I clap my hands and I hear him respond immediately, "Voy!" Then he quickly appears and unlocks the main door to my apartment. He looks away.
"Gracias", I manage to mumble, being careful to pronounce the 'ci' as 'th'. But, lo and behold, without even realising it, I actually say, "Grathiath". I just can't stop trying to impress people with my Castilian Spanish!

The sereno doesn't seem to care about my mistake. There's another clap of hands and someone else is calling, "Sereno!"  He turns around and walks briskly along La Puerta del Sol, his voice echoing comfortingly in the cold night, "Voy!  Ya Voy!"

The Lady from Leon and the Washing Machine - Talavera de la Reina, 1980

Much as it was a wonderful opportunity to experience life in Talavera de la Reina and visit the surrounding villages, we found the people in this part of Spain an awfully serious bunch. There was no stomping of the feet, no clapping of the hands like what you found in Cadiz. There was no Andalucian humour and no loud shrieks of laughter were to be witnessed.

would daydream about moving to the coast, to the Province of Tarragona.

packed up to leave Talavera de la Reina for the coast.  After several months one year of living here my Spanish has improved remarkably. Well, that's what I think, anyhow. After one year of living here, in this arid part of Spain where very few foreigners reside, we are deliriously happy about moving to the Mediterranean. We hear wonderful things about Salou, Cambrils, and all the villages along the coast of Tarragona. Apparently the whole coastline is international. People from Sweden, Yugoslavia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries work and play throughout the Province of Tarragona.

Not that the people of Talavera are any less special than the international crowd. It's just that they seem such a serious bunch of people. No stomping of the feet, not even at the annual feria, no Andalucian humour, no loud shrieks of laughter are to be witnessed here; certainly not on a daily basis. Any guffaws you might hear usually come from me as I try to figure out how to work the washing machine. You place the hose inside the machine to fill it up? After said machine goes chugalug, you then place the hose at bottom of said machine in a drain or bucket to drain the water? Okay. Then what do you do next? Hmm.

One day a pipe of this splendid washing machine breaks. I manage to get a workman who has  'voluntad', whatever that means, to repair the machine. He's a very silent person. No radio, no humming or singing, and definitely no clapping of the hands are involved in his presence. After living in Andalucia for four years in the seventies I somehow expect all Spanish people to be dancing and clapping their hands. I think that has been part of the cultural shock here in Talavera de la Reina. Somebody, please make these people smile!

The workman replaces the pipe and announces in a quiet voice that the washing machine can now be used. Humdingery doo! He leaves just as quietly as he arrived, presumably with his 'voluntad' intact. I set about the task of placing the dirty clothes inside the machine, inserting the hose and turning on the tap. So far so good! I'm a happy person. Doesn't take much to make my day. Just when I'm about to knock on the Lady from Leon's door to tell her the washing machine has been repaired, guess what happens?

The pipe that the workman with the 'voluntad' used to do the repair comes flying out of the machine . Water gushes up in the air and all over me. Water runs into the hall, under the front door, and out into the corridor. There's a flood. Someone is banging at the door. Drenched, I open it and find The Lady from Leon.
     "There's water all over the place!"  She's frowning at me,
     "There is?" I'm trying to sound scientific.
     "What happened? Look, there's water going underneath dona Jimena's front door!" The Lady from Leon chuckles.
      "I don't think the workman did a good job repairing the machine." Now, that's the understatement of the year.

 Together we figure out we should somehow turn the water off. The Lady from Leon, being big and brave marches through the water now up to our ankles and duly turns the tap. She examines the pipe with all the scrutiny she gives when choosing tomatoes at the local market.
      "Look!"  She holds up the pipe. "This is an awfully narrow pipe. I think it's a gas pipe!"
      "You mean the workman used the wrong pipe?"  Brilliant deduction on my part.
We stand there gazing in amazement at the washing machine and the water on the floor. Then slowly burst out laughing. Already word has got around and the next thing the neighbours arrive shaking their heads in disapproval. They glare at me, at the washing machine, and at the Lady from Leon.

      That's when it dawns on me that I'm really not the only foreigner living in this apartment complex. The Lady from Leon is also a foreigner. After all, she's not from Talavera, either. 



The Secret of the Crazy Lady. 1981 Miami Playa, Tarragona

In 1981 my husband, small son and I were living in Urbanización El Casalot, Miami Playa, Tarragona. This was brand new development and construction was still taking place. Across the road from our house workmen yelled and babbled among themselves, in between peeing on the street, spitting and blowing their nose on the ground. Their transistor radio would be blaring forth with loud advertisements forGalerías Preciados, condensed milk and Camel cigarettes - 'El sabor de la Aventura!'. Occasionally the workmen would burst into song, imitating Julio Iglesias singing "De Niña a Mujer" and "Hey". They were actually pretty good singers, not that I'm an expert, but Julio Iglesias himself would have been happy, I'm sure, to be listening to this open-air concert.

There was something else the workmen got up to besides hammer and bang and make lots of noise. They would play with a puppy. He looked like an Alsation or a German Shepherd pup, based on his colouring as he frolicked about and had lots of fun playing with the workmen. That is, until they stopped work for the day and went home. Guess what they did with the pup?

They hid him inside the house they were constructing. They basically bricked him up so that he couldn't get out. How did I know all this, you might be wondering? At night I heard him howl his little head off. He was a poor wee soul. I couldn't stand it any more, one Sunday when I knew the men wouldn't turn up I searched for him inside the house. The howling was coming from a corner where there were bricks stacked up. I pulled the bricks away scraping and scratching my fingers in the process. Lo and behold, there he was! He jumped up and down, his tail wagging, his tongue hanging out. He was absolutely filthy, covered in dust and cement and who knows what else.

I picked  him up and took him across the road to my house and gave him a lovely bath. I fed him and offered him water. I really wanted to keep him, but reluctantly I decided that that wasn't practical. We didn't know for how long we'd continue living in the area, and anyhow, presumably he belonged to one of the workmen. I had no choice but to take him back across the road, place him in the corner and pile the bricks up around him so that he couldn't escape.

That night as I heard him whine and howl I wanted to rush over and cuddle him. I couldn't wait until morning when the workmen would be back for at least then he'd have company.
On Monday morning the workmen arrived, making as much noise as a herd of elephants stomping around. I spied on them from behind the lace curtains to see if they would let the pup out. They did, thank goodness. Out he came, leaping up and down, his tail wagging furiously. He looked over at our house as if ready to visit me and have another bath, maybe some tasty food.

The workmen stared perplexedly at him, scratching their foreheads. How did the pup get so clean?!
Did someone give him a bath?!

I think my secret was out for the workmen turned and gazed over at our house.

"Señora loca! Crazy lady!"  they called out and laughed loudly.

Thank goodness they were laughing and weren't annoyed that I had removed the pup. Maybe they really did care for the dog after all?

FOR SEQUELThe End of the Amazing Tale of the Fabulously Fantastic Alfa Romeo - Catalunya/Andorra, 1983

1983, Andorra La Vella

Desperation seeps its  seedy way through my bones. I have no choice but to get rid of the fabulously fantastic Alfa Romeo. Between legal shenanigans in Spain and our imminent move to the United States, the best thing is to cut one's losses and dump the car.  Ouch!

I swear my Romeo blinks away a tear as it reads my thoughts.

I park him in  front of one more car dealer, Automóbils Jordi, on the Avenida Santa Coloma. Please take my car.  I'm hoping nobody can hear my thoughts, nor sense my desperation. Maybe Jordi won't realise that my Alfa Romeo was manufactured in Brazil for export to Poland, and that somehow it ended up in Heidelberg, Germany where I purchased it. Maybe he'll be just dying to buy a lovely Italian car. I inhale deeply and march in.

"Do you want to buy my car?  It's a delightful and magnificent Alfa Romeo." Do I sound bright and cheery?!

"No, señora. If I buy it from you, then I have to sell it, don't I?" He shrugs his shoulders.  "I don't know of anyone who'd want to buy your car. That's the problem." He stares through the showroom window at my sad-looking vehicle.  Word must have already got round that there's some really red and pale, blotchy foreign woman trying to sell an Alfa Romeo with a spurious pedigree.

"I'll just leave it in the street, then. I can't take it back into Spain." I get ready to leave.

"One moment, señora. Maybe I can help you after all."  He knows I'm desperate. His eyes are twinkling as he sums me up.

"You want to buy the car?"

"No. I don't. But I can try to sell it for you. Just give me the documentation of the car and I'll see what I can do for you."

Call me a fool, call me a stubborn fool. But I'm simply not about to hand over the documents, not without getting paid! Little does he know, that I'll take anything, even five thousand pesetas.

"And how would you get the money to me once you sell it? I live about five hours away."

"Oh, señora. Don't worry. I'll mail you the money."  He's smirking at this point.

"No. No deal. Give me the money now, and I'll give you the documents."

I'm surprised at my tone of voice. I feel as if I'm in a boxing arena fighting a World Heavyweight.

"Señora, señora. Don't you trust me?"

That question doesn't even deserve an answer.  Ha ha.

In the end we reach a compromise. I leave the car with him, but I retain the title deed of the fabulously fantastic Alfa Romeo. He's to contact me if he gets a buyer and I've to rush back to Andorra with the documents.

What a daft situation!  It would have been better to have just rented a car instead of getting messed up with foreign plates, the Guardia Civil, and now this escapade of fleeing to Andorra. Financially it would have been the same. I think the fabulously fantastic Alfa Romeo cost $3,000. Still, it has been an adventure!

P.S. Do you think I ever hear from Automóbils Jordi?!

P.P.S. And I wonder where my fabulously fantastic Alfa Romeo is now?


We're Not So Different From One Another After All - Talavera de la Reina, 1980

It's 1980 and we have just moved to Talavera de la Reina, Spain. We're living in a long skinny apartment on the Calle del Prado, right downtown.

Our neighbours are curious when we first move in. They stare politely at the boxes being unloaded and piled up in the lift, and smile shyly.  But, they keep their distance after a few days once they realise that we're harmless and won't disrupt the peace. Well, all except one. She's the Lady from Leon whose apartment is directly opposite the lift. She knows everything that is going on, all the comings and goings of everyone on our floor. And every time she sees me she either wants to accompany me or find out where I was. She laughs a lot, talks a lot, then talks some more and giggles some more. She wears the old-fashioned clothes that women tend to wear here once they reach the age of 50.

Sometimes it's difficult to get away from her, for every time I exit the lift she opens her apartment door and starts chatting.  She even follows me to my apartment and invites herself in.
"What is that?"  She screams and points to our television. It's one of those big ugly things that sits on the floor. Why we ever brought it with us from Virginia, I can't fathom. It doesn't work in Spain. So I tend to use it just to place things on top of it, almost as if it were a table.
"It's a television."
"I've never seen a television like that in the whole of my life!  Why is it on the floor?!"
"That's the way it is." I've never thought about it before.
"But..."  She bends over to gaze at this odd television, "It must be difficult to watch. Isn't it?"
"We're normally seated any time we watch it."  I try not to laugh. "But, it doesn't work here. It's a different system."

She wanders about staring at everything and screams again.
"What are they? "  She's staring at my husband's golf clubs.
"They're golf clubs."
"I've never seen anything like that in the whole of my life!"
She takes a club and holds it high pointing it to the ceiling.
"Nobody uses things like this around here." She shakes her head in disbelief. "If the people upstairs make a lot of noise you could bang the ceiling!" She laughs loudly and I half expect the person who lives below to bang their ceiling due to all the noise the Lady from Leon is making between clunking around on the wooden floor and talking shrilly.

"What are they?"  She picks up a packet of Virginia Slims and examines it closely.
"I've never seen cigarettes like that in the whole of my life!"  She takes one out of the packet and pretends to smoke it. "My goodness!  They are long and thin! Must take for ever to smoke them!"
She stares at me with a puzzled look. Her forehead has deep wrinkles and her eyes crinkle when she smiles. "Where did you say you were from?" Then she laughs loudly.

"You're a breath of fresh air, you really are. I'm looking forward to getting to know you."  She hugs me tightly.

I'm hoping she doesn't start kissing me. I'm not used to all this touching and expressions of emotion. I pretend to hug her back, then move away. I know she means well. She's probably lonely, that's why she finds my life so interesting. But, there again, I find her and all the people here in Talavera interesting. I can't wait to experience the next day, the next  hour, the next minute. I can't wait to explore, to speak more and more in Spanish, to smell the smells, to touch everything around me.

I place my hand on the Lady from Leon's arm. "We'll have fun together, I'm sure."

"Of course! And any time you want to watch television, just knock on my door!" She grins widely and then the Lady from Leon skips her way down the long skinny hall to the front door.

The Noble, Honourable and Well-Respected Crotch —- Cadiz,Spain, 1973

It's 1973 and I teach English privately to students located on and around the Avenida Cayetano del Toro in the city of Cadiz. It's a thrill to enter their homes, smell the aromas of garlic and olive oil, of cologne, of black tobacco. Spain is an olfactory delight. Not that I enjoy  the smell of black tobacco, but even that seems exotic in an obtuse manner. I feel happy teaching and I look forward to seeing my students progress in English.

I have never met so many wealthy people in the whole of my life.  Some even have maids who wear little pink uniforms and who treat me as if I'm from the aristocracy. They bow their heads when answering the door then they usher me into a room with a round table draped in a thick tablecloth. On the walls are tapestries. The wife of the man of the house usually welcomes me, offering me sherry, Anis, coffee, cigarettes, all of which I refuse as graciously as I can. I'm here to teach English, not to socialise.

Anyone who is anyone has a rudimentary knowledge of English, and anyone who thinks he is Someone  has his own private English tutor. And since I'm a private English tutor whose native language is English, I am indeed a prize that my students and their families enjoy bragging about.

Before long, their neighbours are wanting English classes.

"Señorita, I see you tutor the cardiologist. My husband is a very important man with a very important job, and he'd love to have you tutor him as well. We can pay you more, you know, if that helps you find the time."

"Señorita, you tutor the Comandante of the Guardia Civil three times a week? Well, MY husband would like you to tutor him FIVE times a week. We can afford it."

Sounds great, doesn't it?  Well, there is one problem. Most of the students really don't want to learn English at all. They have no interest whatsoever. It's just a game of who can outshine the other by flaunting the fact that they have the wherewithal to hire a private tutor. Never mind that there are language schools close by where you can learn English cheaper than paying for a private one-on-one class. These 'very important' men of the house wouldn't dream of mixing with the proletariat.

They love the charade, however. They get the chance to flirt with a rubia who is much younger than they are. Their wives can't complain for they're the ones who set it up!  For the most part. during the lessons, the men pretend to show interest in English. They may giggle a bit too much and they may even exhale their cigarettes all over me. However, they don't say or do anything untoward. I always get paid and their wives and maids are always close by.

It's a different story whenever I happen to meet one of them on the street. He calls out loudly to me, as if he's some gypsy at the local market. He introduces me to his married friends with a huge, gigantic wink.

"This is my private English tutor. She's a native speaker. Rubia, blond, just like the Swedish girls!" He touches his crotch with an upward motion and grins knowingly.

Perhaps he's dying to urinate?  Hope he doesn't pee right here on the street in front of me. I've seen lots of men peeing on the street. Some don't even turn their back to you.

I don't understand the meaning of the exaggerated wink. He and his friends eye me up and down and down and up, strip me with their eyes and grin lasciviously. They scratch their crotches so eagerly that I begin to wonder when was the last time they bathed.

"Señorita, do you have any friends who look just like you? Rubias?  We could all go for drinks some time."  His tongue licks his lips and his nostrils flair. His back is erect and his chest expands so much that I'm sure he'll burst the buttons on his tight fitting shirt. Even the thick gold chain dangling from his neck bounces up and down as he strives to breathe. "My cousin has a holiday flat just round the corner. We could go there."  He grins like a buffoon and pokes at his teeth with a toothpick.

I never knew I had this effect on men.

And I never know how to respond when a situation like this arises. I should perhaps be honoured. Maybe I should ignore the scratching of the crotches, the licking of the lips, the innuendos.  In the end, alas, I always feel awkward, disgusted and very disappointed. I feel like saying to him, "I'm going to tell your wife!"

But I don't. I tell his wife that I have just too many students, and that I can no longer tutor her husband. She looks at me knowingly, as if perhaps this has all happened before.

"I understand, señorita. I do. But,  I want you to know something extremely important. My husband is a very noble, very honourable, very well-respected man. Remember that." Then she sees me to the door.



The Plan Is - Get me that Cap! 1974

Valdelagrana, El Puerto de Santa Maria, 1974

     I teach English to this wealthy, educated man from Madrid. Due to his work, he's living in Andalucia, a region of Spain that does not appeal to him one bit.

     "The Andaluces are nothing more than patosos. Lazy bums who spend their time dancing and drinking." He shakes his head in dismay.
     "They are fun to be with, I must admit." I'm not joking about that. The local people laugh a lot, drink a lot, clap their hands a lot. Not too sure how much work they get done, however.
     "That's the problem. They are not the slightest bit serious, certainly not in the office. In Madrid, we work hard. We plan and we accomplish."
      He really is a serious individual. He studies his English seriously, and he looks serious; even his expensive clothes seem serious. Therefore, I am surprised one day when he introduces me to his wife. I'm expecting to meet a serious, formal woman wearing a fur coat despite the fact that it's the month of April. You can always tell the people from Madrid - the women wear fur coats and the men wear these really thick winter coats that resemble something Sherlock Holmes would be happy in. It's as if they don't know that the weather here in El Puerto de Santa Maria is mild all year long. Or, maybe they just like to show off their expensive winter attire.

      His wife kisses me on the cheek. Gosh, do I hate getting kissed by someone I've only just met. But, I've learned not to recoil too much. She squeezes my arm as if we've known one another for years.

       "Lovely to meet you. My husband enjoys his classes with you."  She smiles abundantly, seems very friendly and not the slightest bit serious. She's wearing a yellow blouse and red trousers that flair at the ankle. She smells of expensive perfume.

       "My husband tells me you have access to the American Military Base?"
       Gosh, maybe she's going to ask me to get chocolate chip cookies for her. Maybe peanut butter? Occasionally people ask me to purchase items for them on the Base.

        She touches my arm again and looks directly into my eyes. I think I know how a priest feels when he hears a confession. I just know she's going to confide in me.

        "My husband and I, we already have a child. A little boy."

        "Your husband has told me about him." In actual fact, her husband never shuts up about their son. He holds the boy's left hand behind his back to force him to use his right hand. He says the boy is very talented but needs lots of discipline and that he'll send him to an Opus Dei school when he's older.
        "We don't want to have any more children right now. Once we go back to Madrid we plan on having another child. That's the plan.  But not here."

         "I understand. "  I think I do understand, but I know I don't really. I'd just as soon talk about the weather or about the sales in the local boutiques.
         "You have a doctor on the Base?" Her voice is soft and her eyes plead with me.

         Now, why is she asking me about a doctor? Maybe she's ill? But, there are doctors in the town she can go to.

         "Yes. But I never go to him." I really don't. Why would I?

         "Maybe you could make an appointment with him?  Talk to him?"

         "About what?"  What on earth is she getting at?

         "There's a contraceptive  device I've heard about. It's called a diaphragm or a Dutch cap."

          "I see."

          "We're not allowed to use contraception. I can't get this Dutch cap from my doctor."

          Oh no. Surely she doesn't want me to ask my doctor for a Dutch cap?!

          "Perhaps," she continues, "You could get this contraceptive device and give it to me? You look to be about the same size as me.  I'll pay you."
           I'm speechless. I think my mouth actually does hang open and my eyes practically pop out of my head. I've been asked to get many a thing from the American Naval Base, but this is a first.



What's Going to Happen Next?! - Talavera de la Reina, 1981

Talavera de la Reina, 1981

     I teach English privately to various groups of students in my apartment on the Calle del Prado. One student is a history teacher who, according to her, speaks the best Castilian Spanish.  Her Spanish is the real McCoy, absolutely. None of this Talaveran slang, and certainly no cutting off the ends of words as the Andalucians have a tendency to do. She's from Madrid, something she remarks upon every occasion she can get.
      "I'm not from Talavera, you know. I'm from Madrid."  She moves her shoulders back and forth as if to emphasize this important point. She wants help with her English as the group she's in is more advanced, so we decide on meeting an extra time each week to do an exchange. She'll coach me with my Spanish and I'll help her with her English.
       I quite like being told how to pronounce Castilian Spanish correctly. It's so much easier than reading rules and regulations from a textbook.
     "The letter 'd' is suave, soft, at the end of a word. Although it's soft, it's still there. Think of the word, 'verdad'."
     I say the word, 'verdad', and out comes just too strong of a 'd' at the end.
     "Do NOT pronounce the 'd' as in English!"  She actually does yell at me.
Oops. The pronunciation of the letter 'd' never has been high on my list of priorities up until this very second.
    "Verda...th."  She corrects me, emphasizing the 'th' as in 'this'.
     I curl up my tongue and pronounce the word as closely to the way she did as I possibly can     Such a fine point, but it makes all the difference to my pronunciation.
     Not only does she teach me the finer points of Spanish pronunciation, she tells me about her husband and some of the changes in Spanish society since Franco's death and the beginning of  new democracy.
     "My poor, poor husband works so very hard. His office is in Madrid, of course. Not here. So much does he have to put up with."
     "He has to deal with so many people." She lowers her head and stares at her stiletto heeled shoe as she moves her ankle round and round.  "Didn't you say you might be moving to Tarragona?"
     "Yes, possibly in a few months."
     "Then, you too will have to deal with the Catalans."
     "I don't know anything about them."
She snorts, and throws her hand up in the air as if swatting a fly.
      "Let me tell you a story about the Catalans. One day, my husband, who is a very important man, held a meeting in his office in Madrid. Guess what?"
      "This Catalan man turns up at the meeting. Well, the Catalan man begins talking in Catalan. To my husband, no less. Imagine! In Madrid, in my husband's office, this Catalan man speaks in Catalan to my husband. Well, I tell you."
       "Does your husband know Catalan?"
       "Of course not! What is the name of the country we're living in? What is the capital of Spain? What is the language of Spain?"
        Before I can answer, she slaps the table with her hand. Her forehead is perspiring as she gets more and more annoyed, and she grimaces, raising her eyes to the ceiling.
        "Let me tell you, Spanish is the language of the Spaniards. And Madrid is the capital of Spain. When you're at a meeting in Madrid, you speak in Spanish. Not Catalan."
        She fidgets, plays with her thick gold necklace,  crosses her legs, then folds her arms.
       "Now, my husband, who is a very noble man, a man who can enjoy conversation with anyone, decided to get the better of the Catalan. You know what he did?!"
       "No."  Gosh, maybe he punched him on the nose?
       "He answered the Catalan man in French!  Imagine! That shut the Catalan man up. My husband told him that if he could speak in Catalan, then maybe we should all speak in French, or German, or whatever language we wanted. But, that since they were in Madrid, the capital of Spain, where the language is Spanish, then isn't it the right thing for everyone to speak in Spanish?"
       "Why did the Catalan speak in Catalan? Maybe he doesn't know Spanish?"  What silly questions I ask.
       "If the Catalan people don't know Spanish, then what's wrong with them? I repeat, what is the name of this country? What is the name of the language?! Of course, they know Spanish!"
       "I think that under Franco they weren't allowed to speak their language?"
       "Oh, and that's an excuse? Just because we have a so-called democracy now, that's supposed to mean that they don't have to speak Spanish?!"  She waves her hand as if fanning herself and mutters, "What is happening to this country? What's going to happen next?  I ask you!"






How do you know you're a fan of the seventies and eighties in Spain?

Do you remember dancing and laughing to the birdie song?  El Baile de los Pajaritos?

We were all dancing to this song. At the beach, at the swimming pool, at birthday parties, everyone who could move danced to this song.


FOR SEQUELThe Continuing Tale of the Fabulously Fantastic Alfa Romeo

It's 1983 and here I am, in Andorra, trying to sell the fabulously fantastic Alfa Romeo. With our imminent departure for the United States, and the upsy downsy interpretations of Spanish regulations, I decided it best to go over the border to try and sell the fabulously fantastic Alfa Romeo. Or, at least get rid of it somehow. Nobody in Andorra wants to buy it from me, not even for parts. I guess I can't blame them. This poor car has a really odd pedigree - an Italian car, manufactured in Brazil for export to Poland.  Somehow, it ended up in Heidelberg, Germany where we purchased it.

I have to think really hard to try and come up with a solution of what to do next. No matter how hard I think, I can't come up with any solution!  In the end, I do what drivers do best - I drive. I just drive up the Pyrenees. Up and up and higher and higher I go.

I climb so high that there is no longer any vegetation. I climb so high that the road peters out to just a goat trail. Oops. I've been thinking so much about what to do with the car that it's  somehow escaped me that I'm driving too high up the mountain.

Now I have another problem to think about - how to get back down the mountain!  The trail is too narrow to do a three point turn. There is no guard rail. The only thing to do - is to reverse down the mountain.

I hug the back of the passenger seat with all the passion and strength of someone about to meet her doom. All the while my neck is twisted, straining to see where I'm going. Where am I going? Down would be good. Over the mountainside down into the valley, not good. Concentrate. Just follow the dirt road, low gear, feet in control, calmly guide the steering wheel.

I try not to look down the mountain into the abyss below. I think of only one thing, reversing down the mountain, however slowly I have to do it. There's nobody around. Imagine if I fall off the mountain?! Who would find me? When would they find me? What about the car? It has come all the way from Brazil to Germany, to Spain, to Andorra. I owe it to make sure it stays in one piece.  Don't I?

Maybe not. Must be the high altitude that's weakening my brain.

I make it far enough down to where the goat trail becomes a sort of a road. Suffice to say, there's enough space if I breathe in, to turn the car around. Not much room for error, but, tired of reversing I figure it's now or never. Three point turn! Here I come! I pull sharply on the wheel, bring the car horizontal, bumper bumping the mountain. Rev up gently, move forward deftly, without zooming over the mountain. Reverse once more, swerving. Let's get the hell out of here!

This Alfa Romeo talks to me. It's been enjoying the drive up the mountain, the exhilaration of the mountain air, the fun of reversing down a mountainous trail, and finally, the thrill of the race downhill. And here was I, not so long ago,  calling it nothing but a pest.

What to do with this fabulously fantastic Alfa Romeo?   TO BE CONTINUED

The Amazingly Atrociously Delightful Indefinite Future in the Subjunctive Mood- Learning Spanish

El Puerto de Santa María, 1972/3

My private Spanish tutor and I don't have any text books.  There are none. Instead of reading a grammar book,  we read newspaper articles together. I read out loud and he corrects my pronunciation. He talks of the present tense and the past tenses, all at the same time. And I've to look for examples in the articles.  He gives me dictations from the newspaper articles and we discuss them. Well, I don't actually, for I'm lost and befuddled.

He also talks of the subjunctive, the future, and the conditional, all at the same time. It's as if the present tense is of little importance. So much for memorizing the present tense of the AR, the ER and the IR verbs!

 I actually love the subjunctive mood in all its complexities. The Spanish language is perplexing and mystifying, intriguing and seductive. When you speak Spanish you have to pretend you're in front of the bravo toro, and give it your all. This is not some  wimpy, insipid manner of communicating, it's a do or die, and somehow you have to get your message out.

The Spanish subjunctive is passionate. When you want someone to do something, you really are commanding them to do it. Quiero que saques la basura. I want you to take out the garbage. When you love something, or hate something, you use the subjunctive. When you doubt something, you use the subjunctive. When you subject your will on that of another, you use the subjunctive. The subjunctive is precisely that - it's subjective.

What I find enticing is the indefinite future of the present subjunctive. It simply has a philosophical ring to it. We don't use this particular subjunctive mood in English for some reason.

When I go to the beach I sing 'Viva España' . In Spanish, is this the subjunctive or the indicative?
When I go to the beach I shall sing 'Viva España'. In Spanish,  is this the subjunctive or the indicative?

Why? Why?

Cuando voy a la playa canto 'Viva España'.
Cuando (yo) vaya a la playa cantaré 'Viva España'.

The first sentence is in the indicative. The second sentence is in the subjunctive. Why? Have you gone to the beach yet? No. You're referring to a future action that has not yet happened. Therefore it's indefinite.

Here's another example.

When I prepare the paella I drink sangría.
When I prepare the paella (on Saturday, as an example, referring to a future date) I shall drink sangría.

Cuando preparo la paella bebo sangría.
Cuando (yo) prepare la paella beberé sangría.

The delightful indefinite future! The amazing and atrocious, the weird and the wonderful, the Spanish indefinite future!

The Two Colleagues and the Pregnant María del Pilar — Talavera de la Reina, 1980USEFOR EBOOK

1980, Talavera de la Reina

I was teaching English privately in my apartment on the Calle del Prado. One little group was made up of two colleagues who were advanced students of English and who worked together at the Colgate company, just outside Talavera de la Reina. They were always punctual, and always very well dressed, complete with suit, tie and shiny shoes.  They were always very formal and respectful, even using 'usted' with me, despite the fact that we were  around the same age, in our early thirties. They had studied English extensively and were coming to me for conversation. Many times I'd use National Geographic as a way to get them to converse in English.  They thought the articles and photographs fascinating and the quality of the paper outstanding. Sometimes we just chatted about this and that. I always liked the challenge of guiding the conversation and then later of coming up with a spur of the moment dictation based on what we had just been talking about. It was a good way to review new vocabulary words and pertinent grammatical points.
Alejandro, the slightly chubby one with dark curly hair always moved his chair a little bit apart from the other student, Roberto. I sometimes wondered if he were higher up at the company, or if he had more money. Or, maybe he sat apart because he was single and the other one, Roberto, was married with children. In fact, by dint of his being single meant Alejandro did indeed have more discretionary money to spend on himself.
One day, I learned something quite surprising about the two colleagues, something that I've never forgotten and which reveals how they regarded women in 1980 in Talavera de la Reina.
Alejandro announced, "Guess what I'm going to purchase?"
Roberto and I  sat in silence, waiting for some important revelation. What could Alejandro be going to purchase?
"A video cassette recorder." Alejandro beamed, his face literally lighting up as he awaited our reaction.  
"That must cost a fortune!  A video cassette recorder?!" Roberto, who was tall and skinny and who always wore a white shirt was stunned. 
"Yes, it is VERY expensive. It's the latest craze." Alejandro couldn't stop grinning from ear to ear. 
"What are you going to do with this video cassette recorder? What's it for?" Roberto frowned so much his bushy eyebrows came together forming a long fuzzy line of sheer perplexity. "Must be fine for some. My kids need shoes. My wife needs new clothes. I don't have the luxury of buying junk."
Alejandro shifted in his seat and folded his arms. "It's not junk. It's the future. Everybody will have a video cassette recorder one day."
"But what's it for, and how does it work?" Roberto hunched over looking down on Alejandro.
"I don't really know. I think you can look at films." Alejandro laughed and patted Roberto on his arm.
They both looked at me with blank stares as if to ask me, "Do you know how a video cassette recorder works?"
Now, I was and still am technically inept, and I hadn't a clue how to work a V.C.R. I think I had only ever seen one in a magazines. "I think you connect it to your television?"
We sat in silence until Alejandro piped up, "Well, I'm going to buy one anyway. I'll figure it out."
Roberto glared at Alejandro, probably miffed that he could use his pay check to buy something that he  too would like. 
"How are your families?"  I changed the subject, hoping to keep the conversation going in a non-confrontational manner, for normally all my students were happy to talk about their families. 
"My wife is SO jealous. She really is jealous." Roberto bemoaned.
"Why is she jealous?" Alejandro, the V.C.R. Man could hardly get the words out, before he added smugly, "I'm still single. And if I ever get married, well I'm the one who'll be in charge. I wouldn't allow her to be jealous." He slapped his hand on his leg.
"She won't let me go to London! And I should go. Shouldn't I? I mean, how am I to perfect my English?"
V.C.R. Man grinned salaciously. "You want to go to London without your wife? To learn English? Is that all you want to do?" He laughed and added, "I hear Soho is an interesting place!"
"It would just be for a week or two, that's all."
"Even if you were to get up to something in London, your wife still shouldn't complain. She's busy with housework and bringing up the kids, after all."
"I agree! How am I to improve my English? I wouldn't get up to anything, you understand." 
They shrugged their shoulders in unison. Agreement had been met. The wife was indeed jealous, and should let her husband go to London.
"Couldn't you take your wife with you?" What a leading question I asked!
The two men frowned at me.
"She's happier taking care of the house and our children. Anyway, London isn't a place to take your wife!"
"Why not?" I inquired, surprised at his comment about London.
"There's Soho. Places like that. Definitely not somewhere I'd want my wife to be. Absolutely not." Roberto slapped his hand on the table.
I added, "There are lots of places in London. You don't actually have to visit Soho."
My words fell on deaf ears. The conversation wasn't going anywhere at that point. Time to change the topic once more.
"How is work?"  That should keep them speaking English for a while.
"Do you know Maite? " V.C.R. Man addressed his colleague.
"Of course. She's pregnant. Everyone knows about her."
I looked enquiringly at both of them. There must have been some other part to this story about Maite. Why did everyone know her? 
"She's not married!" They both spluttered at the same time. They gesticulated with their hands as if wiping the floor with Maite the pregnant girl. 
"You disapprove?" I asked them.
"Absolutely!" V.C.R. Man had no doubts at all about his disapproval. "She's not married!"  He loosened his tie.
Roberto sat on the edge of his seat and nodded his head in agreement with V.C.R. Man.
"Then, do you disapprove of the man who got her pregnant?" I was genuinely puzzled at their attitude towards the pregnant Maite. 
"What?!  Why would we disapprove of him? " Alejandro's mouth gaped open.
They looked at one another in total shock that someone would even consider that they would disapprove of the man who got Maite pregnant.
"He's a man." Roberto leaned back in his chair. "He's a man."
It was interesting to reflect on how women were treated under Franco's rule in Cadiz,  back in the early seventies. There we were, in 1980, in Talavera de la Reina, and the double standard still existed. Women were supposed to cook, clean, take care of children, and most definitely NOT get pregnant if they were not married. Now, men, of course, without a doubt had their own set of rules.

Who? Me? You? All of us? - Learning Spanish, Part three, El Puerto de Santa Maria, 1972

It's 1972 and I'm living in El Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz.

I'm chugging along, getting used to not understanding what people are saying to me. I live in a cloud of words whose meanings are punctuated with lively eyes and hands that gesticulate. I try moving my hands, hoping that that will somehow make me understand people better, or that they'll understand me more. But it doesn't help.

It's not just the fact that I don't understand Spanish, it's also that I can't get the few words I know uttered in time before the topic of conversation changes! By the time I've figured out what I want to say, got the nouns and adjectives agreeing, it's already the end of the day and people are off to their beds.

The one BIG faux pas I make is one that is simply not acceptable. Says I, at any rate. I should know better, but I keep making the same error over and over.

Guess what it is?!

I talk to a group of friends and I say, "¿Quieres ir al Bar Central a tomar un cafecito?"

What's wrong with this sentence?


It should be, "¿Queréis ir al Bar Central...." That's if you're using vosotros. If you're being formal or speaking to Latin Americans, you should say, "¿Quieren ustedes ir al Bar Central..."

The point is that the verb should be in the plural for you are talking to more than one person. I'm too busy translating from English into Spanish and I come up with the singular. There is only one 'you' in English, that's why. Och. Who's daft?

I'm sure people are offended that I'm only inviting one of them and not the whole group to the Bar Central. But I don't know enough Spanish to explain why I'm making the mistake, or to quickly form  the correct part of the verb. So, I start gesticulating my hands, hoping that they'll get the idea. While they're gabbing to one another, their fingers dancing in the air, the conversation gets louder and louder, and I end up with a headache.

The good thing is, that we somehow all go to the Bar Central, and, instead of un cafecito, we have a nice wee glass of Tio Pepe. That's when I suddenly burst out with "¿Queréis vosotros ir al Bar Central?"

 I've finally got the verb!

They look at me as if I'm nuts.

"We're already at the Bar Central!"  They all laugh loudly in unison.

Learning Spanish, Part Two - El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain, 1972

1972, El Puerto de Santa Maria.

I have a lovely sharpened pencil and a notebook, and I can't wait for my first Spanish lesson. The doorbell of the apartment rings and I meet my very own personal private tutor for the first time. He's a bit older than me, and a little bit taller. He has a beard and also has very nice teeth.

"Agudas. This word is an aguda". He talks loudly and writes a word in my notebook, then underlines it. "This next word is a llana." He underlines it too. He has a  flair for underlining words. I haven't a clue what he's talking about. It's something to do with accent marks and pronunciation.

I ask him that question that native speakers of English always ask any time they find themselves in a situation requiring even just a rudimentary knowledge of a foreign language, "Do you speak English?"

His eyes twinkle and he grins broadly as he replies, "Why? What difference does it make?"

His English is certainly better than my non-existing Spanish. He reverts back to Spanish with a shrug of the shoulders.

Yikes! This is not going to be easy! I was kind of thinking the lessons would be in English.

"The vowels." He pronounces each vowel precisely and with the energy of someone running to catch a bus. He gets me to pronounce the vowels and the list of words he's already written. Then he talks more about llanas, agudas, and the strange-sounding esdrújulas, and writes umpteen more words. He circles each accent mark, all the while speaking in rapid Spanish. I get the impression that the esdrújula words always have accent marks. You don't have to think too much on how to pronounce them. Not that I really care. But it does seem important.  After all, accent marks help you to correctly pronounce the word. I learn how to pronounce words like, 'loro' which is a llana word. It ends in a vowel, so the natural stress is on the next to the last syllable. The aguda words have the stress at the end. Think of the infinitives - hablar, cantar, perder, vivir, etc.

"Tarea. Homework. Read a newspaper article and circle the llanas, agudas and esdrújulas."

Fantástico! That's all I can say. And that's my esdrújula for today.  I really do love to say the word, 'esdrújula'. It makes me feel as if I'm really speaking Spanish. Another word I fall in love with is, 'desafortunadamente'. What a long word! I go around trying to use my new words any chance I get.

"What time is it?"
"Esdrújula, I don't know."

"Where are you going?"

I really need to add to my vocabulary list. A conversation using 'esdrújula' and 'desafortunadamente' is somewhat limited and people look at me with great big eyes as if they do not understand a thing I'm saying. It's okay. I don't understand what I'm saying either. I just enjoy the sound of the Spanish vowels. They're short, but powerful, unlike English vowels which sound as if they're whining and running out of steam.  And, my name sounds so important when Spanish people pronounce it.

My very own private tutor of Spanish keeps me focused on the task at hand.

It's back to newspaper articles. No pun intended. He underlines nouns and their articles.
"Each time you learn a new vocabulary word, combine it with an article. That way you'll know the gender."

He recites a list of nouns and tells me to give him the article.
hombre - el hombre
mujer - la mujer
dedos - los dedos
manzanas - las manzanas

"Once you figure out the articles and gender of the nouns, you can add on adjectives."
El hombre gordo.    La mujer alta.     Los dedos largos.  Las manzanas rojas

He taps his pencil on the words. "Don't forget. The 'h' is silent. And, always remember, the 'j' is mas o menos, something  like an English 'h'.  Pronounce the following words:  hola, hombre, jardín, jamón.

He taps his pencil again.  He screws up his face and exaggerates the sound. He really does have lovely teeth.


FOR SEQUELThe Big Fire - Miami Playa,Tarragona, Spain, 1982

It's the early eighties and we're staying in a nice, brand new house in Urbanización el Casalot, Miami Playa, Tarragona.

My husband tells me he saw a fire the other side of the mountains, over by Ascó.

"We should leave. The way the wind is blowing, the fire could reach us."  He announces.

Apparently some little old lady near Ascó has been burning olive branches.

"But, Ascó is far away from where live. So, we should be fine, shouldn't we?" says I.

 Famous last words.

The next morning, at around five a.m. my husband wakens me.
"The fire has spread. Look!   It's already this side of the mountains."
"Och, don't be daft. It's still far away.What a pest for waking me. I'm going back to sleep."

Just call me a grumpy grump first thing in the morning.

Later that day the fire gets closer and closer. The wind is howling spreading ash, embers,  and smoke in random patterns. The road from our house to the main coastal road is basically impassable as bushes and branches, all burning, blow in every direction.

The German man who owns the swimming pool and restaurant near our house is trying to control the flames with branches. My husband joins him as do other men. Whole trees crackle loudly as they go up in flames. In the darkness it looks as if there is nothing but flames and embers. We inhale smoke and ash.

Does anybody else know what's going on here? Is it just us, the people who live here, fighting the fire? How do we get help? We have no telephone. There is no line here at El Casalot, Miami Playa. There's simply no way to contact others.

Fortunately, our house is made of brick, and there's a brick wall around it, otherwise it could possibly go up in flames.

In the daytime you can see stretches of grass that have been burned and charred, and then other sections that are pristine, as if there has been no fire at all. We wonder about the wildlife, if any birds or animals were killed. We wonder about the people and marvel at the fact that it seems as if nobody has been hurt.  The wind starts up again blowing the embers in all directions.

The Guardia Civil turn up and tell us to leave. There are planes in the sky depositing water.

We get into our cars, complete with a budgie, a cat, and our small son and zig zag down the road intent on avoiding burning debris.

Who would have thought that the fire could spread all the way from Ascó, over the mountains, and over the autopista, down to where we live?!

The Dogs - 1975 El Puerto de Santa Maria

It's 1975 and we're living on the Avenida de las Galeras, Valdelagrana, El Puerto de Santa Maria.

Across the road is a wasteland where the wild dogs roam. They come by in packs each day at roughly the same time. I'm not afraid of them, however, for they ignore me. They seem more intent on their wanderings and staying in a pack, their noses sniffing the ground as opposed to checking out the humans on the other side of the road.

The dogs who live with people are regarded as guardians of property, and not as pets. They're tied up in their yards all day and bark like crazy anytime you walk by. They look ferocious, ready to bite.

It's common to see stray dogs just lying on the pavement underneath a tree. They sleep all day and don't bother anyone. Even when someone throws a stone at them or kicks them, they don't fight back, they just remain motionless. Perhaps there's nowhere to run to. And the people who abuse them are the very ones who feed them, so they might as well remain.

One day I'm out walking and come across a box on the pavement. I look inside and discover a puppy. He's been abandoned, just simply dumped.  I pick the puppy up and take him home.

He's friendly and cute and cuddly. Someone obviously has been feeding him, so I don't think he was too long in the box when I found him. My husband welcomes the puppy who adapts very well to life in our house. I buy him a nice collar and leash from the American Naval Base and take him walks. I get him food from the American Naval Base as well. I don't think there are any pet shops here in El Puerto de Santa Maria. Pets that people have are usually birds. You see lots of small cages at the side of houses and you hear the birds sing and chirp. But people don't generally have dogs and cats as pets.

Our house has a small garden enclosed by a wall and railings. It's a safe place to put the puppy, for he's too small to climb up on the wall. To be doubly sure, I tie him up with a great big long rope.

One day, a month or so later I notice the rope has become loose and the puppy is free to do whatever he wants. He's big enough to climb on the wall, yet still small enough to squeeze through the railings and escape. He doesn't do anything. He's happy in his own little world. He knows that he'll have food, water, a nice warm bed, lots of petting. He wags his tail as I approach him.

He never tries to get away, never even peeks out through the railings, so I stop tying him up.

One late afternoon, after cooking dinner, I step outside into the garden. The puppy is gone. He's vanished. I call his name, and I whistle. I open the garden gate and run one way, then another, all the time yelling his name. But he's not to be seen.

He doesn't come back. My husband and I eat dinner in silence. I know it's my fault the puppy is gone. I should have tied him up.

We've heard of the gypsies who roam around. People say that they steal babies. But I don't think they steal dogs. I don't believe a gypsy would have taken the puppy. We search the neighbourhood, ask neighbours if they've seen our puppy, all to no avail.

The next day the pack of wild dogs appears across the road, just as they always do. They're large, ungainly, ugly dogs. Coming up on the rear is a small, cute little dog. It's our puppy!  I call out to him, I run across the road to pick him up and cuddle him. The pack of wild dogs, circle me and sniff at me. They don't growl, they don't bark, they simply stand their ground. I'm in their territory and I better leave. The puppy watches their every move.

And as they walk away, he follows them.

Learning Spanish - Part One

It's September, 1972, and I've just arrived in El Puerto de Santa Maria to teach in a bilingual school.

In the mornings I teach English to four year old Spanish children. In the afternoons I teach elementary subjects to children aged 5 to 9 who are native speakers of English.

Here's the problem. I don't know any Spanish. I have heard of the expression, 'Adios amigo', but that's it for my knowledge of Spanish.  Even my students who are native speakers of English know more Spanish than me. Everyone knows more Spanish than me. And my four year old pupils speak up in indignation each time I mispronounce their names. I, in my ignorance, at times think they're the ones making mistakes. "Federico? Shouldn't it be Frederico?" I actually think his name is misspelled on the roster.

"Senorita, mi nombre es FEDERICO!" He has his hands on his hips as he tells me off.

Time to do something about this appalling lack of knowledge on my part. It's time to learn Spanish.

I learned French in school, so that should help, shouldn't it? At least I'm familiar with conjugating verbs.

Someone, through the grapevine, as the saying goes, recommends this guy who tutors daft folk like me. He'll be my private tutor. How posh is that?! TO  BE  CONTINUED

FOR SEQUELWhat Nudist Beach?! Miami Playa, Tarragona, Spain, 1981

Summer, 1981, and my son and I are cycling down to the pool at Urbanizacion el Casalot, Miami Playa, Tarragona. We haven't been living here long. What do we notice lying on a wall?  A cute little stray kitten. He's black and white and looks up hopefully at us as we pass by. We just have to go over and pet him.

He's so happy. He purrs and smiles at us. Well, that's us hooked. I knock on the door of the house whose wall he's lying on in case he actually does belong to someone. Turns out the lady of the house is the owner of the house we're renting. She's Italian and the house she's living in just now is this huge mansion. It's just her little summer getaway residence. She's been taking care of the kitten, but is returning to Italy soon and doesn't want to take it with her.

Guess what?  We get the kitten. Off we go home and present him to my husband who is a real cat lover. We decide to call the kitten, Tom Sawyer. Tom for short. Anyhow, we have lots of fun playing with him. After a few days, we figure we can let him outside for a little bit as he'll know that this is his home.

Well, the most awful thing happens.

We have these really noisy, kind of obnoxious neighbours who are originally from Madrid. I can never keep track of how many people are actually living in the house. The wife of the man whom I guess is the one renting the house beams at me over the wall separating our two houses.

"Senora. Look what I found!"  She points to a black and white kitten. She picks him up and starts to cuddle him. "He just suddenly appeared in my garden. I've always wanted a cat.  I think I'll call him, Juan."

Oh no! That's my Tom Sawyer!  I almost yell the words like some crazy lunatic. He's mine! I did see him first and he's already settling in. Besides my husband and son have both taken a liking to him.

"He's actually our cat. I found him the other day lying on a wall."

"What do you mean? If he's your cat then he shouldn't be in my garden!"

She practically throws Tom to the ground. Her husband appears and pats her on the shoulder.

"Come on, my love. There are lots of stray cats. You can get another one."

She glares at me, then him, and then me again.

"I guess you're right." She reluctantly agrees.

He squeezes her and says, "Of course, I am. Now let's go to the nudist beach. That always makes you feel good."

FOR SEQUELThe Continuing Tale of the Fabulously Fantastic Alfa Romeo, 1983

It's 1983 and we're living in Urbanizacion el Casalot, Miami Playa, Tarragona.

The Alfa Romeo is sitting in the driveway. With so much red tape anything's possible, even a new deadline for when I have to pay the fine. Ha ha. Come to think on it, what will happen after I pay the bloody fine? Maybe I still won't be allowed to drive this fancy car with the odd pedigree?

This Alfa Romeo is nothing but a real pest. I did do what I was told to by the Customs in Tarragona, which was to take the car over the border every six months. I should have got the Tarragona Customs man's statement in writing!

In the meantime, now we find out that we're moving to the United States in a matter of weeks.  Oh?  Things change around here from day to day. What to do about the car? We don't want to take it with us. That would be even more red tape.

Finally, after cogitating and ruminating and speculating, I come up with a plan.Guess what I do?

I drive the Alfa Romeo to Andorra. I time the trip so that I arrive on the border during siesta time. That way, the customs people are usually snoozing and won't even look twice at me or my car. I breeze through customs and over the border into Andorra.

It's time to get rid of the car. Surely somebody will buy it? I go to one taller, workshop, and ask if they'd like to buy a nice Alfa Romeo car.

    "Where the heck was your car built, lady?  The parts aren't even Italian!"
I go to another taller, and another, and another.

     "Lady, this is the strangest Italian car I've ever seen. We can't even use it for parts. Who built it? Where?"

     "I could maybe rent it to foreigners. They drive anything.  But, no. I can't use it, sorry."

So much for the swanky Alfa Romeo!  It had indeed been manufactured in Brazil for export to Poland, and had somehow made its way to Germany. But, so what? It's still an Alfa Romeo, isn't it?

Nobody wants my car.           TO BE CONTINUED

Where's My Bed?! February, 1981

February, 1981, and we're living in Talavera de la Reina.

I'm teaching English to two children whose parents own shops in the town. All of a sudden the doorbell goes and I find the parents standing in the doorway in shock, panic-stricken.

"We've come to pick up our children, señora."
"Yes, they need to come now. Right now.  Hurry up!"
"Why? What's happened?" I'm surprised to see the parents for they never burst in like that in the middle of a lesson.
"Shots. There were shots fired in the Parliament in Madrid."
"Nobody knows what is going to happen!"

They all leave just as fast as they had appeared.

I wonder what they're talking about, what's going on? The one person who'll know is the portero. He knows everything about everything and about everyone. Even what he doesn't know he makes up. Still, he's a good person to talk to.

Downstairs I go to look for the portero.

He's panic-stricken too. "Señora!  Ay, señora!  Shots fired in Madrid. Be careful!"

I begin to wonder if everyone has gone mad. Madrid is a good 90 minute drive away.

"My wife has gone to buy flour and sugar. Lots of it. Who knows how long we'll need it?"

I'm now certain that people are going crazy around these parts.

"People are closing their businesses. They're going home and locking the door. Señora, you do the same."

I dawdle upstairs to the apartment, all the time wondering what has caused this hysteria.

My husband returns from work.

"Pack your bags. We're going to Portugal!"

What? Not you? You're also going crazy?  Am I the only sane one around here?!

My husband explains that something big has gone on in Madrid, how the military has taken over the government and how nobody knows what could happen. He figures we should perhaps go over the border to Portugal until events settle down.

In the end we decide it's safer just to stay, for who knows what the road could be like?  We sit up to the wee small hours watching the recording of some man play the guitar on the funny little black and white television. There is no information being emitted. We know nothing. Maybe we should have gone over the border? Maybe there will be another Spanish Civil War? Yikes!

Later, the King appears on the television, looking serious and in command. By his side is his son. The King gives a riveting speech. He tells people to stay at home, not to be on the street. and bellows forth, "¡Viva la Democracia!  ¡Viva España!"

Well, really. Now can we go to our bloody bed?!

Strutting About, 1973, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain

It's late afternoon, 1973, in El Puerto de Santa Maria. I look out the window of the apartment at  the horses being trained for the Feria. A man has one tethered and he holds the strap loosely as the horse walks round and round in circles. It tries to get away, but the man pulls it back and soon the horse settles down. It starts to strut, lifting its hooves high off the ground.

The Feria is one of the most important events of the whole year. It's a time for not just the horses to strut around, but for the people as well. The women wear brightly coloured dresses that flair out each time they move a leg, and the men are dressed in tight-fitting trousers and short jackets that make them look as if they're wearing their big brothers' hand-me-downs.

I've been practising the Sevillanas dances with one of the teachers from the school. We attend a local church where they offer free dance classes. Pretty good, if you want my opinion. The instructor is this really skinny, tiny man, about my height.

"Straight back, chest out. More! More! Arms up straight. Now, wiggle your fingers."
"I can't do everything all at once!"
"Smile! Grin! Lift your leg up!"
"I can't lift my leg. It's stuck."
He starts clapping his hands in rhythmic palpitations. My feet stomp about as if I'm pressing grapes.
"Don't look at your feet! Look up, chest out. Posture!"

The other teacher is really good at this stuff. She dances elegantly. Her arms and legs seem to dive through the air and her fingers swoop up as a bird taking off.  My spine is bent over backwards and I'm practically falling over. My fingers look short and chubby and my feet are like lead.

"Arms high in the air. Sensual hands, please. Legs, kick high!"

I don't know what sensual hands are, but I give it a shot and pretend I'm poking at the instructor's funny, bulging eyes.

"Well done, senorita. Well done!"

He seems pleased!

Feeling quite chuffed with myself, I strut about, chest out, arms high, fingers sensual as they flutter in the air.

On the way back to the apartment I notice people seated at small tables. They're laughing loudly and smoking. Someone throws an empty Ducado packet on the ground. Small groups saunter along all the while clapping their hands in short staccato movements. I feel my feet tapping, my back arching,  and I have this urge to clap my hands too. Gosh, all this Feria stuff is catching!

The Glass of Milk and the Lobster, 1972, El Puerto de Santa Maria

It's 1972 and I'm sharing an apartment in El Puerto de Santa Maria with two teachers from the bilingual school where the three of us teach.

It's always hot here.  You can't escape the sun, for it reaches even to the back of your knees. I become redder and redder, and the freckles on my arms blossom forth like the morse code tapping fiercely some important message.

The teacher with the lovely complexion and quizzical stare gazes upon me.

"Do you know you're red?"

"Emm." I'm not sure if this is a rhetorical question. Doesn't everyone go red in the sun?

"And what are these things on your arms?" She touches my skin lightly as if afraid she'll catch this red disease she sees before her.

"Freckles."  I make a mental note to look up 'freckles' in the small red dictionary I carry around with me.

"You don't go brown?  Why not? Everyone goes brown."  She looks appalled.

I almost want to apologise for being so red, for not going brown, for not looking so gorgeous and beautiful as all the other senoritas who swagger about with the confidence of a bullfighter before the bull.

"You look like a lobster." She adds, reaching her finger out to touch my skin again.

"It's due to the sun. You see..."

"You didn't look much better when you first arrived."

"I didn't?" Gosh, how could that be? I hadn't been in the sun before coming to Spain.

"When you first arrived, you looked like a glass of milk!"

I have...what?! 1972, El Puerto de Santa Maria

It's 1972 and I'm teaching in a bilingual school in El Puerto de Santa Maria, way down in the Cadiz Province.  The deal  isn't so bad. I get free accommodation and free food, not to mention some cash paid under the table. If Franco only knew!

Knowing only two words in Spanish, "Adios, amigo", I live in a dream-like state of total surrealism. I haven't a clue how to pronounce my students' names, let alone carry out a simple conversation. When one little boy announces, "Tengo caca" I simply stare beyond him with a big smile, hoping I at least look semi-intelligent.  Doesn't 'tengo' mean, 'I have'?  He was probably telling me he had a new toy, wasn't he?

The smell of sunflower seeds and cologne clings to the air. The children's hair lays plastered in a brilliant shine and their gold chains and medallions gleam in the Andalucian sun streaming through the classroom window.  I suddenly wonder if they are safe, if anyone might yank the gold chains from their necks and run off with them. My arms reach out to protect them, and they each hug me tightly staring up at me with huge big eyes.

All, that is, except the little boy who had  announced earlier, "Tengo caca." He's still standing at his desk, looking very mournful. I wonder what could possibly be wrong with him?!

FOR SEQUELThe Alfa Romeo - Part Two

The tale of the fabulously fantastic Alfa Romeo with identity crisis continues.

1982. The two Guardia Civil arrive at my house.
"Buenos dias, senora." They greet me with big grins.
At least they're civil. No pun intended.
"Is that coffee I smell?" The big jefe, boss, enquires, his nose sniffing in appreciation of my culinary talents.
He can't really be expecting me to offer him coffee??! Not when he's here to denounce me.
"Would you like some?" I try to smile and be a gracious hostess.
"Well, yes, that would be nice. Muchisimas gracias, senora."
I disappear into the kitchen to get some cups, all the while muttering under my breath.
"Yes?" I'm expecting them to tell me how much sugar they want in their coffee.
"Have you any typing paper? We seem to have left ours in the office."
They've got to be kidding. First of all they want coffee. Now, to add insult to injury, they expect me to provide them with typing paper so that they can type up my denouncement?!
"Anything else that you'd like?"  I try not to speak too sarcastically.
"Can we use your table?"
They place their typewriter on top of the dining room table and proceed to type with one finger.
This is going to be a long process, I just know it.
"Senora, you do know that we'll have to clamp your vehicle?"
"What?" I hiss and splutter. Then my brain kicks in as I recall the butano man who has to have access to the garage when he replaces the butane bottles. "But the butano man, how can he enter the garage if my car is in front of it? With clamps on it, no less."
"Hmm. You're right senora. You need to be able to move your car. But, you must promise not to drive it. Palabara de honor. Word of honour."
I try not to laugh.
"Of course I won't drive it."
"Good coffee, senora. Very tasty." He swallows it in one gulp.
"We're giving you a fine."
"I haven't done anything wrong. I did check with the Customs in Tarragona and they told me all I had to do was take the car out of the country every six months. That's what I have done."
"Oh, don't worry, senora. You won't have to pay the fine."
"I won't?"
"No, of course not. We give you the fine, you appeal the fine. That's how it works."
And then they stood up and left.
How on earth was I to appeal the fine?   TO BE CONTINUED