The Large Penguin at the Swimming Pool - Summer,1980, Talavera de la Reina

Summer in Talavera de la Reina was hot and dusty. The stench of body odour was putrid, so much so that each time I went to the Simago supermarket just across the road I'd use all my will-power to hold my breath long enough to prevent the ripe aromas from corrupting my nasal passages. There was no air conditioning in the apartment, and the only way to get cooler air was to open the windows, but that gave carte blanche to mosquitoes and flies, and who knows what else.
    The local people used to bathe in the Tagus, the river that runs through Talavera, and ended up getting sick due to raw sewage that made its way from Toledo. Somehow, they didn't appreciate the significance of the contaminated water, so they'd keep splashing about in the river, even bringing small children with them. Their theory was that your body gets used to the water, builds up resistance to any germs lurking about. Hadn't they been swimming in the river for generations? And weren't they still alive to tell the tales? An American girl I knew back then told me how her husband who was a doctor at the local hospital was constantly treating people for gastrointestinal diseases. They both would warn me about paddling around in the river.
    Fortunately, there was a large swimming pool on the outskirts of Talavera where you could cool off, escape the summer heat. Nice as it was, what was even nicer and even luxurious was the private club located just outside Talavera. There the pool, the tennis courts, and the landscaping were of the highest quality. How did I know all this? Well, the Lady from Leon was a member.
    "I'm off to the club," she announced one afternoon. "You'd like it. The pool is huge, almost like an Olympic pool. There are umpteen tennis courts. You can even barbecue, if you'd like to. I don't barbecue. Who wants to eat burnt food?" She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.
    "Have fun. Sounds like a great place."
    "Maybe one day you can come with me to the club. You could be my guest."
    "Sure, sounds good."
    I didn't think anything more about her invitation, assuming that she was just being polite and that she'd never actually take me as her guest. Lo and behold just a few days later the Lady from Leon
opened her door as usual just as I was exiting the elevator.
     "Where were you? What did you do? Did you buy anything?" She really did take an active interest in my life. Whenever she'd open her door as I stood waiting on the elevator she'd always ask where I was going, what I was going to do. I had no idea that my activities were so fascinating. Before I could answer, she added, "I'm going to the club in an hour or so. I want you to be my guest."
    I hesitated before responding.
    "You do have a swimsuit, don't you? If not, you can borrow one of mine." She sounded eager to have me accompany her. I could just imagine myself in one of her swimsuits. It would have fallen off me before even dipping my big toe into the water.
    "I do have a swimsuit, but I hardly ever wear it."
    "Good. Then you'll wear it this afternoon. We can take the bus. See you later." The Lady from Leon grinned as if she were offering me a large palmera pastry with jam on it.
    I should have been thrilled. Right? There was I moaning and groaning every day about the heat and there I was being invited to a fancy private club where I could splash about in the gorgeous swimming pool. I wasn't thrilled, however. Want to know why?
    Because I'm afraid of the water. I can't swim. I can't even walk in water, unless I'm grabbing on to the wall. I can hardly stand up in water, my legs tremble so much. Yes, to this day I can't swim and to this day I'm afraid of the water. I don't like people knowing this for they always end up splashing me on the face or giving me a lecture on how there's nothing to be afraid of.
    And there I was getting ready for the fancy private pool where probably everyone could swim. They probably had really nice swimsuits, too. All I had was a hideous, ancient garment that I bought ten years ago on sale in the middle of winter. I hated to confess to the Lady from Leon that not only was I a non-swimmer, but that I was really scared of the water. She was doing me such a nice favour by inviting me to her club, that I didn't want to spoil it. Far better to go along with the invitation. After all, as long as I stood close enough to the wall that I could have at least one hand on it then I'd be fine. Of course, this would be in the shallow end! Anywhere above 4 feet simply never ever entered my vocabulary even with my hand placed firmly on the wall.
    Stomach full of butterflies, palms sweating, I plonked myself next to the Lady from Leon on the dilapidated bus that took the meandering scenic route to get to the private club. She had a huge bag on her lap that was bursting at the seams. I noticed a large yellow towel peeking out, also goggles. She must be a serious swimmer, I surmised. I mean, she even had goggles.
    She stripped off her shapeless dress that woman of a certain age in Spain tended to wear and revealed her swimming suit hidden underneath. I was surprised to see how ugly it was. It looked a bit like a sack, and the best I can say about the colour is that it was on the dark side. I was expecting her to be wearing a really expensive swimming suit from one of the local boutiques. I didn't feel so bad then about my sorry swimming suit.
    "You look nice. You do." The Lady from Leon observed, staring at me. I thought she was just being polite. Then she continued, "Do you want to go on the diving board? People love it!"
    "No, no. I'm not a divey type." The thought of being on a diving board made me shudder with fear.
    "Well, let's go in the water."  She placed her big toe in the water. "Not too cold. Just nice. It's always nice here. I hope you'll like it."
    I squirmed, thinking of excuses not to go in at the deep end which is where the Lady from Leon's big toe was. I didn't believe that she'd tease me about being afraid, but I didn't want to take the chance, and I certainly didn't want to be subjected to the usual lecture I always got from bossy swimmers who wanted to impress on non-swimmers how there's nothing to be afraid of.
    Temperature of the water checked, she then opened her large bag, and  pulled out the goggles followed by a bathing cap. I was so impressed. I've never worn goggles, nor a cap. I've never needed either as my hair absolutely never got wet the times I had been in a pool. How could it? You don't really think I'd ever put my face in the water?! You'll never guess what else she pulled out?!
    She pulled out a safety ring, a flat plastic ring that she brought up to her mouth and which she began blowing really hard. The ring became bigger and bigger and I thought it might burst. Then, she shoved her hand once more into the bag and pulled out arm bands which she also proceeded to blow up. She was like a conjurer. I wondered  what else she had stashed in her big bag. She placed the safety ring over her head and down to her waist. Then she slipped the armbands over both her arms.  I was astounded. Next she struggled with the goggles, but finally got them over her eyes. She offered me the cap.
    "Oh. Thank you, but my hair never gets wet in pools." That was the understatement of the year.
    "You're probably a really good swimmer." She remarked. "I'm not. I'm afraid of the water. But, with all this gear, I can swim up and down and across the pool!"
     I was thinking that maybe I should get myself the same gear as we strolled down to the shallow end and we each very carefully made our way into the water.
    "Oh. I forgot. I have flippers with me too."  She clambered out and went back to her big bag then  pulled out a pair of flippers. My mouth opened wide in amazement.
    "I have another pair of flippers, if you'd like." She called out to me before waddling back down to the shallow end. She reminded me of a penguin.
    "No, that's okay. I'll be fine." I was trying not to laugh at her.
    My hands held on to the wall and my legs relaxed. The water was refreshing and I felt encouraged. I was so happy that I wasn't the only one afraid of the water.  I admired the Lady from Leon for not caring one bit what others might think, even although she did look really funny!

The White Slave Trade, Anyone? El Puerto de Santa Maria/ Tangiers 1973

Ever since I moved here to El Puerto de Santa Maria, I've been warned about the white slave trade. Apparently white girls — meaning Anglo Saxons — disappear any time they go to Tangiers. They just simply never return. Yikes! The story is that they're sold into a harem. Of course, Mandy, my new Canadian friend and I don't believe any of this, and, since we're out for adventure and excitement, we simply dismiss the stories.

You can't be living so close to an exotic city like Tangiers and not visit it. That's just the way it is.

We hitch-hike up to Algeciras. The slimy guy who picks us up no sooner has accelerated his car when he opens his glove compartment to show us his contraceptives. Is he serious?! We tell him to stop the car and let us out. He stares at us in the rear view mirror.

"You wanna f...y f...y?"

"NO!" We scream at him.

"Okay. Okay. Just asking. You Swedish girls, you never know."

"We're not Swedish." I snap at him with all the gusto of the schoolteacher that I am.

Mandy is taller than me, so I'm sure between the two of us we can deal with any dirty- minded sleaze.

There's silence in the car as he continues to drive.

"I take you to Algeciras. Okay? No problem."

We relax and are chauffeured to Algeciras where we're to catch the ferry to Tangiers.

Nothing has prepared us for Tangiers. No sooner do our toes touch land than we're surrounded by urchins all yelling at us, hands outstretched. We can't move. Maybe the stories about the white slave trade are true, after all? We could be murdered here, and nobody would find our bodies among so many people. They're mainly boys. Some look to be teenagers, and they're all very strong and intent on getting something. We can't figure out what it is that they want. What we want, however,  is to be able to walk down the pier and get to the hotel. We try to ignore the crowd, to no avail. They follow us closely and start pushing and shoving us. Some have stones which they throw at our ankles.

"F...y! F...y!"

Whoever taught them English did a really bad job, if you want my opinion. These two words seem to be getting used a lot today between the driver we hitch-hiked a lift from, and now these wild looking boys. I make a mental note to look up how you say 'f...y f...y' in Spanish.

We try to get away, but it's impossible. They form a circle around us, all the while shoving their hands up in the air. A man arrives.

"Do you need any help?" He's a smooth talking guy, with a flashy grin. He wears cheap-looking clothes that are crushed, and his skin seems dirty. "Pay me, and I'll see to it that you have a safe time in Tangiers."

Much as we hate to hand over cash we figure it's probably the best thing to do. Like magic the crowd of boys and teenagers disappear and we're left in peace.

"Welcome to Tangiers. I will be your guide."

He escorts us to our hotel. Meanwhile, the boys are already mingling around other unsuspecting travellers. It's a relief not to have to deal with people badgering us with their hands outstretched.

"I'll come by tomorrow and give you a tour of the city. Until then."  Just as miraculously as he appeared at the pier, our guide now disappears down a narrow road teeming with people wearing long gowns.

I smell orange and mint and hear odd sounds of a man calling out loudly. He seems to be saying the same words over and over.

We enter the hotel. I guess that's what it is. I don't think it has even one star. It's maybe got half a star, at the most. Our room is located way down a long corridor, far from the bathroom, but the price is cheap. There are two lumpy beds in the room and a tiny window. I suddenly get the overwhelming desire to march down to the pier and get on another ferry back to Spain.

"Ready for dinner?  Where shall be eat?" Mandy loves her food. After looking at the expression on my face, she tries to placate me by saying, "Come on, it will be an adventure! That's what we came for!  Isn't it?"

"I guess. What do they eat here, I wonder?"

Before she can answer, a man barges into the bedroom. How on earth did he get in?   The lock on the door doesn't work! Who is this person?!  He looks dazed, as he offers us something hard. It's a small, rectangular object. Then he sits on one of the beds and practically passes out.

Yikes! Who is he? And what is he offering us? How do we get rid of him?

He comes to and stands up, then wanders out and disappears completely.

"Do you think that was some drug he had in his hand?" I ask Mandy.

"Could be. We should have taken it. Probably could have sold it in Spain for thousands of pesetas!"

I stare at her in disbelief.

"Only kidding!  Really, I am." She starts laughing. "Let's go out and find some food."

"But the lock doesn't work." I hate to be such a whiner, but I'm getting nervous as stories of the white slave trade roll around in my mind.

"We'll put a chair against the door tonight. For now, we'll take our passports and cash with us. Gosh, am I hungry!" Mandy laughs loudly as she nudges me out the door. Then she turns to speak to me, her lips trembling, "Heck, you don't think these stories about the white slave trade are correct?"

"No. At least, I hope not. Do you think they're correct?" I look up at Mandy, hoping that she isn't too concerned, despite her lips trembling.

"We'll find out! We don't have a choice, anyway. Let the adventures begin!"

FORSEQUELLanny and the Luscious, Languid, Listless Life - Vilafortuny, Tarragona, 1981

The Belgian man puffs intensely on a Marlboro cigarette as he shows off his brand new camcorder. He struggles with the clumsy machine and hoists it onto his shoulder, then tells us all to look natural. We immediately stop what we're doing, becoming like images frozen in time. 

He grunts and groans, muttering, "How does this damn thing work?!"  He waves his hands at us as if directing an orchestra. "Got it! Pretend I'm not here!" Then he walks around the edge of his swimming pool pointing the camcorder at everyone. 

He’s the only person we know who has a camcorder, and it’s quite a thrill to be filmed. We smile and wave, whilst others laugh and tell him to get lost or they'll throw him in the pool.  His girlfriend, the sexy Brazilian, skips in front of him, teasing him, before diving into the pool. 

Not everyone is so content.  Lately, Lanny rarely leaves the confines of her back garden in Vilafortuny. She  loathes hearing  people talk of their parties, or anything to do with their social life.

"You wouldn't like it if you had to listen to so-called friends brag about what they get up to!" Lanny pouts as she sits slumped in a chair. Her  white halter top and shorts accentuate her beautiful tanned skin.

She smells of yellow flowers and coconut. She offers me some luscious-looking red cherries. "I never wanted to come to Spain. We're only here because of my husband's job. And I think that that Jane's purple lip liner is absolutely awful!"

Lanny picks through the bowl of cherries perched on her lap. She spits out the seeds into her hand and tosses them. She does this with great finesse, looking every bit the lady with good taste that she is.

"I'm seriously contemplating going back home. My husband is always working.  And I don't have any friends here." She bites on another cherry, then, after licking the juice from her lips adds, "At least I have a tan." She stretches out her arms to show how brown they are.

The way folk go on about tans is something that I've never comprehended. I've even met tourists who don't believe that I live here.

"But you don't have a tan! How could you have lived here all this time and not get a tan?"

Their eyes practically pop out of their heads as they stare at me in amazement. I've never had a tan in my life. I go red, then I go redder, then I get a rash, and then I go even redder still. People love to stand close to me, for, even if they have a really pale tan, they still look superb next to my beetroot skin. I could hire myself out as a booster of  people's self-confidence.

"At least my tan is real. I'm sure that Jane's tan comes out of a bottle. She's simply too orange." Lanny licks her lips as she scoffs down the remaining luscious - looking red cherries. "My husband has a university degree. I'm almost certain that most of these other husbands don't. Maybe that's why they're always having barbecues together and why they never invite us."

The late afternoon sun spreads it's golden hue over the roof tops, over Lanny's tanned body. Suddenly an idea comes to me. She would make a good model for the Belgian man as he practices using his camcorder. He knows lots of people and would introduce her to his friends and acquaintances.

Lanny slides her large, circular sunglasses up over her forehead and squints her eyes as if she's seeing me for the first time.

“Gosh , you’re all red. I’d hate to look like you.” 

Fortunately, I don’t take what Lanny says personally. At least, I don’t think I do.

Lanny places her sunglasses back over her eyes and stretches her legs out in front of her. Her long fingers fumble with the cassette player on the little table next to her. She finds the play button and presses it. 

"You're so quiet.  Thank God for that!  By the way, there's more cherries in the kitchen. Could you get me them? There's a cassette tape on the kitchen table. Could you bring me it as well? I’m exhausted."