Curious Questions and the Magical Magic - Talavera de la Reina, 1981

It's 1981 and I'm living in an apartment on the Calle del Prado, Talavera de la Reina.

Based on what I can understand of discussions on the transistor radio about the assassination attempt on President Reagan, it sounds as if a Mr. Brady has a serious brain injury. I wonder who Mr. Brady is?  I get busy with tidying up and washing dishes, all the time wondering about the significance of the shootings. Why would anyone be shooting at the President and this Mr. Brady? I don't have an answer. If the people on the radio do, then they're talking just too rapidly for me to comprehend. Might as well get on with my day.

I plan on going to my exercise class, something I really look forward to. In fact, I just bought a new leotard and tights and can't wait to wear them. On the way to the gym I always stop off for a few minutes at my Cuban friend's apartment located close by. She's a poet who smokes endlessly. Any time you see her she's puffing dramatically and seductively on her cigarette holder that she grasps as if it were a pipe.

"Here comes the little girl." That's how she always greets me.

She looks at me over her shoulder and marches down the hallway, all the time inhaling her cigarette. She takes for ever to exhale, and I'm amazed that she doesn't choke in the interim.

"Want some brandy?" It's become a habit of hers to ask this same question.

I don't even drink brandy, ever. Well, maybe once in a while, but only in the evening. And she knows it.

She sits down on the leather sofa and tops up her brandy glass.

"Are you coming with me to the gym today?" I think carefully before I speak, making sure my Spanish is perfect.

She rarely accompanies me to the gym. We just somehow have got into this routine of me always ringing her doorbell as I make my way to exercise class, of her offering me a brandy, and of me inviting her to join me.

"Come by on your way back and tell me all about it." She laughs hollowly. "Anyhow, I need to figure out this new washing machine. It's supposed to be automatic. How about that?"  She tips her cigarette ash into the tall ashtray standing next to the sofa.

"Did you hear the news about Reagan? I wonder why someone would try to kill him?"

"The United States is a fucked-up country, that's why. We were screwed in Cuba, then we were screwed in Miami. We thought we would have a wonderful, magical life in the United States."  She gulps down the brandy and pours herself another. "It sure as hell wasn't. Have I ever told you about the time I spent in Miami?"

I forgot that she can talk for hours about Castro and Cuba, so I hate to get her started on Reagan and her 'magical' life in the United States.

"Better go, or I'll be late for my class. I always look forward to it."

I walk quickly down the road and notice a group of three women standing next to one of those photo booths that you sit inside to get your photos taken. The women stick their fingers in the slot where the photos come out. They even crouch down and try to peek up inside the slot.

"How does the machine work?!"

"It's magic."

They stand up and stare at me.

"Do you want to use the machine?" One of them asks me rather curtly.

"No. No, I don't"

"Thank goodness," she replies. "Our photos are being developed. And if you get your photos taken at the same time, the machine may not work properly."

Why on earth would she think that? I'm so surprised at her logic.

Their photos appear and they rush like crazy folk to grab them. They almost tear the photos yanking them out of the slot.

"They really look just like us!"

They seem so totally amazed that I almost say to them, "Who else would the photos look like?"  Gosh, surely it's not the first time they've used a photo booth?!  No wonder they thought it was magic!

At the gym the owner turns up the volume on his radio. His small black and white television is already blaring forth as well. Through the cacophony of raised voices I try to understand what he's saying to me.

What?  My exercise class has been cancelled?  How could that be?!

How to Learn a Foreign Language - Talavera de la Reina, 1980

I'm living here in Talavera de la Reina, on the Calle del Prado. There aren't many people who speak English, which is good. I want to improve my Spanish, and I want to get to know the Spaniards. I lived in Andalucia for four years and learned a lot. Later, I also studied Spanish at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I should be well-equipped to at least get by here in Talavera de la Reina. Right? Hmm.  Hope so.

People talk of being immersed in a foreign language, of thinking, eating, drinking, even sleeping with the foreign language. That's how you learn. You need to become obsessed. You need to memorize vocabulary lists, and you need to write and re-write verb conjugations until you get them completely correct. Never, ever forget that accent mark. And, never, ever place an accent mark where it doesn't belong!

That subjunctive? We all know of it. It's one of the hardest parts of Spanish grammar. How do we forge through it?

I love the 'if' clause. When I was learning it, I came  up with all sorts of strange sentences just to practise formulating a complicated sentence. "If I had only gone to the dentist more often, I wouldn't have so many problems with my teeth."  Yes, try saying that in Spanish. It's fun, and I've always loved thinking up ways to practise my Spanish.

So what? I hear you thinking.

You know what's what?

My mother's visiting me right now. It's her first time here in Talavera de la Reina. There are no menus in English, no signs in English, and there's nobody around here she's liable to meet who speaks English, except for me, my husband and our four year old son.

Guess what?

My mother has already made friends with the Lady from Leon who lives on the same floor. The Lady from Leon doesn't know any English and my mother doesn't know any Spanish. Yet, they communicate. They have a laugh and they each talk in their own language. Somehow it works!

There are so many different ways of communicating. You don't always need to know the grammar, the syntax, the vocabulary. You just need to have a desire to communicate, to learn about how other people think, how they live.

The Woman with just one Maid - Talavera de la Reina, 1980

It's 1980 and I'm living on the Calle del Prado, Talavera de la Reina.

I seem to be constantly chastising my young son for leaving his room in a mess.

"Pick up your toys and put them away."
" Make your bed."
" Put your books back on the shelf."

It's usually a rush to get him dressed and out the door in time for school. The school bus stops in front of the Simago supermarket across the road. Many times I just wear really casual clothes, figuring that I'll dress nicer later when I venture out to the gym or shops. I usually manage to brush my teeth and splash water on my face before venturing out, but that's about all.

There's this other mother I meet every morning at the bus stop who is the exact opposite, even first thing in the morning.  She always looks as if she's going out to some fancy restaurant, or to a cocktail party. She tends to wear stiletto heels, a beautifully tailored suit with shoulder padding, and a frilly blouse. Her hair is always arranged as if she's come from getting it professionally styled, and her skin looks flawless with its soft, expensive make-up carefully applied just so. She loves to talk.

"I can't wait until my husband gets transferred back to Madrid. It's so difficult living here in Talavera. In Madrid we had THREE maids, and here we only have one." She moves her shoulders back and forth as if to emphasise how cruel life is here in Talavera.

How to respond? I find it easier to say nothing. The madrilenos. the people from Madrid,  really do tend to look down their noses at the talaveranos.

"Of course, I can't blame my maids for not wanting to come to Talavera." She snorts and adds, "My husband has a very important position in his company. He's very highly thought of."  She nods her head vehemently, then sighs loudly.

The bus comes and the children climb aboard. We wave fare thee well, and I proceed to think about all the things I need to do.  The 'cursi' lady doesn't move.

I don't really know the meaning of 'cursi', but I've heard it used to describe women who are always dressed up in fancy, expensive clothes.  I like the sound of it, and I'm afraid I might call the cursi woman 'cursi' thinking that that's her name.

"Hola, Cursi!"  Imagine if I called that out to her!

"Would you like to bring your son to our apartment after school? The boys could play together."

Her question sounds more like an order. Before I can come up with some excuse, she announces, "Great! I'll have something for the merienda."  She places her arm in mine, escorts me across the road to my apartment and speaks confidentially to me. "I'm so glad that we have met. You're not anything whatsoever like the locals."

Later that day my son and I are ensconced in the cursi lady's fancy apartment. The boys are having fun with all the toys spread out on the floor, and playing Twister. The cursi lady is telling me about her life in Madrid where everything is more civilized. Her voice drones on and on, but it is nice to hear Castilian Spanish.

It's time to leave, so I tell my son to pick up the toys and put them back where he got them.

"What?!" The cursi woman screams like a gypsy at the weekly market. "Absolutely not!  My son never picks up after himself, and your son shouldn't either!"

I'm dumbfounded. Her eyes stare at me in shock, appalled that I expect my son to pick up the toys.

"That's what maids are for. They clear away things. Didn't you know that?" She talks to me as if she's addressing an inferior.

She calls on her maid who then enters the room, head down, and immediately clears away all the toys.

"Mummy, can we get a maid?" My son gazes up at me with eager expectations.

"You don't have a maid?" The cursi lady sounds puzzled. "I can't imagine how you possibly manage.  I certainly couldn't."

"I want my son to be independent, to respect his belongings, and to have responsibility." I feel I should say more, but I stop at the expression of disdain on her face.

She looks disappointed in me.  She's probably thinking that I'm no more sophisticated than a typical talaverana.  She'd be correct. I'm not the slightest sophisticated when it comes to having a maid, never mind three. Even if I had a maid, I'd still expect my son to pick up after himself.

Sensory Pleasures – Rota, 1972 E BOOK

From Monday to Friday I was busy teaching at the bilingual school in El Puerto de Santa Maria. When I wasn't teaching I was studying Spanish and practising new vocabulary and verb tenses with the two Spanish teachers I lived with.

Week-ends were completely different for that's when I got out and about and mixed with other foreigners.  On Saturday afternoons I made my way to Rota, to hang out with the Americans who worked on the Naval Base. There were also people from Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Scandinavia who were travelling the world, just drifting around. It was bit like meeting characters from James Michener's book,'The Drifters', and I felt intrigued as if my nose and ears were tingling with sensory pleasures.

There was the smell of Brut after-shave, Head and Shoulders shampoo and Dial soap as well-showered faces greeted guests, ready to entertain and be entertained.

I couldn't tell the difference in accents between the Australians and the New Zealanders, and the Americans all sound the same to me. They laughed loudly, even although most of them weren't happy to be in the navy, nor in Spain. They only signed up so that they wouldn't be drafted to go to Vietnam. I loved the delicious aroma of charcoal being fired up as they got ready for a great barbecue of huge thick steaks. Midst grilled meat, cold beer and Mateuse wine we thought only of what was happening right now. We didn't talk of the Vietnam War nor of Generalisimo Franco. I guess we were all drifters, just passing through, getting along despite hangovers and dirt roads.

It was a pleasure to converse in English with adults, instead of children. It was thrilling to meet people from so many different places.  I felt as if I've stepped inside a play or a novel and I was part of a journey that was going around and around, with no destination in mind. I was reminded of Joni Mitchell's song, 'The Circle Game', and I marvelled how it seemed as if Time had slowed down, that all that mattered was who and what was in front of me.

On the radio blaring forth from an open window some woman constantly told anyone listening to take a 'navy shower' in order to preserve water. Her voice sounded soothing, seductive, even, as she explained that you should lather up and then turn the water off until you were ready to rinse.

"Take a navy shower..."

Parts of Rota seemed more American than Spanish.  There were streets where all you heard was English and where the bars were endless. Benny's Bar, The American Bar, The Sangria Shack, were just a few that the Americans frequented. Not everyone was pleased with the American influence. Some of the local people were quite vocal in their appraisal of the American presence and  they discussed loudly their thoughts whilst playing  games of dominoes.

"The Yanks cause trouble!"

"I certainly don't want my daughters mixing with them!"

The car rental dealers, however, were happy with the influx of American sailors, as were the landlords who rented out their flats. The bar owners were over the moon.

"The Yanks bring in lots of money!"

Since apparently the American government paid Spain tons of money for the privilege of using the Base, I guess then, those who were annoyed with the presence of the Americans should have taken it up with Generalisimo Franco?  But, do you really think that a few locals in Rota could have influenced a dictator?  After all, in the United States people were demonstrating, protesting the war in Vietnam, yet still the war continued.

Sometimes you have to wait and let events sort themselves out, allow for the vagaries beyond our reality to settle into a peaceful routine.

Regardless of the influx of American sailors, Rota still managed to retain its charm and authenticity.
In the evening, when the Rotenos strolled about hand in hand down to the harbour, when children squealed and darted in and out as they chased one another, you'd never have knowb there were so many foreigners living there.

The Spanish routines of the paseo, (stroll) of children being up late, of whole families sitting outside talking, of lovers gazing at the stars and the fishing boats, all continued. You could still hear the dripping of water on tiled balconies as the geraniums were watered, and you could still smell  that comforting aroma of garlic and olive as it trickled up your nostrils.

Where Are You A Foreigner? El Puerto de Santa Maria/Rota, 1972

I had  been teaching at the bilingual school in El Puerto de Santa Maria for about two months and had been trying hard to learn Spanish with a private tutor, and slowly making progress. My background in French really helps with all these verb conjugations! I get to practise what I learn with my flat mates who are Spanish and who teach at the same school. I enjoy my students and I love watching them interact during el recreo, recess.

Everything seems to be going great, right?

Well, yes and no.  Want to know why?

Much as I love being immersed in the Spanish culture I find it frustrating. I'm sure people think I'm stupid and utterly weird. I speak Spanish, at best, like a two year old. In fact, if someone asks me the time, I can't figure out the numbers fast enough to answer. I end up shoving my arm out so that they can see my watch!

I don't particularly enjoy the food as I've never eaten garlic nor anything cooked in olive oil. I think it's growing on me, even just a little, so maybe I'll start to like both garlic and olive oil. I can't keep up with the late nights, unaccustomed am I to taking a siesta in the afternoon. I can't honestly say that I like the taste of sherry; certainly not Tio Pepe which is really dry.  At times, I'm afraid that I'll never be accepted, that I'll always be a foreigner.

Not only that, people stare at me whenever  I wear a loose-fitting blouse.

"Why are you wearing a smock?" They look disapprovingly at me, their eyes turning upwards.

"Smocks are for people who are pregnant." They stare at my belly as if to see if it's swollen.

I don't bother answering, not that I could, for I don't know enough Spanish. I just think that if they don't know what the latest fashion is, well, too bad. I know I'm not pregnant, and that's all that matters.

Now, that's not the only thing going on.

I've met several American military personnel  from the American Naval Base at Rota, not far from here.  I find it such a relief to be able to speak in English!  But, here's the thing. I don't identify myself with any of these people, either. The Americans look rather odd, I think, with their short military hair cuts. Most men have much longer hair.  Their conversation revolves around the same topic which runs along the lines of:

"I've got six months, two weeks and five days left." 

It took me a while to  figure out what they were talking about. It's the amount of time they have left in military service. You see, a lot of them joined the navy so that they won't be sent to Vietnam.

Even when I remark on something so mundane as the weather, "Gosh, isn't it hot today?"

They tend to reply, "Today is one less day that I'll be in the military!"

They have girlfriends back home, even fiancees. They open what they call billfolds to show me small photos of their loved ones. They beam with pride as they chew their gum and flash shiny, straight teeth. They have lots of L.P.s together with fancy stereo systems, and they hum to "Brandy" and "American Pie". They also have piles of Playboy magazines.

"I just read the articles, that's all."  

I find it funny that the articles in Playboy are so interesting. But, what do I know?

The American sailors seem genuinely nice, despite the odd haircuts. Like little boys on Christmas Day they eagerly open care packages sent from aunties, grannies and mammies.  Inside are favourite home-made cookies, local newspapers, Life and Mad magazines, photos, chewing gum, letters. Some even include recipes. That way they can prepare home-cooked meals which will make them feel as if they're not far away from their families, nor even in the Navy.

I suppose I'm lucky being able to meet people from two entirely different cultures. That's, after all, the whole reason for coming to Spain – to meet new people, learn a new language, and experience new cultures. I just feel at the moment that I don't belong with either the Spaniards or the Americans. And, I sometimes wonder if I'll ever be able to go back home and live my life the way I used to? Perhaps, after a while, I'll be not only a foreigner here in Spain, but also a foreigner when I go home?