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, seƱora. 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!"