Note No. 39

January 1, 2010

Although my rigorous journey to learn Spanish has often resulted in hilarious moments, there are three very proud ones that stand alone in the last four years.
The first one happened when I was looking for apartments in Barcelona and the landlord told me on the phone that the place I was interested in had big closets.

“Big closets?” said my future flatmate, whose Spanish was far superior to mine at the time, because I was only months into learning it, but as she was busier than I was, I got delegated to do a lot of the calling around, which is NOT easy, especially when you have something of a phone phobia to start with.

So imagine how my chest swelled when the two of us went to see this apartment and sure enough, it had some of the biggest closets we’d ever seen.

My second proudest moment was about a year later in Toledo, when I was at a conference for all the YMCA chapters in Spain. I had become involved with them by attending the nearly free Spanish classes they offered and when I outgrew those, I became a volunteer for their Saturday daycare service and the after-school tutoring program. At the Toledo conference, we got to choose a few workshops in which to spend our time and one of the ones I chose was about women; I can’t remember the specific focus.

Anyhow, we were asked to go around the circle and say how we thought women fit into the world with men, and I was able to say that I thought women are meant to do what men cannot do (not to be confused with what they WILL not do), in that the two put together compliment each other to make a whole. (I know. It’s so yin-yang.) The mediator for the group loved it, called it poetic even.

And this, from a foreigner who could barely introduce herself 18 months prior. I actually blushed.

My third proudest moment happened this past Tuesday. About five days earlier, I had gone to a birthday party for a man, José, who I really don’t know at all, but we always greet each other at the store or on the street, because he lives next door to some good friends of mine, so there is that connection. (Oh, and might I add that his son is GORGEOUS?)

Leading up to his party, I had been stressing just a little about what to bring him, because he is a widower with one of the sunniest smiles you have ever seen and I really wanted to get him something more than your generic I-don’t-know-you-but-I-got-you-this-picture-frame gift. I looked for T-shirts he might like; maybe I could find him a nice polo shirt or something, but nothing was quite right and I also did not want to spend too much, because I hate that mentality that the Poor People here deserve our White Man Charity all the time. I agree with the social programs that try to put some power back in their hands but showy displays of wealth? No.

So, I wanted to spend as much on him as I would have on any other casual acquaintance: enough to show I am neither cheap, nor extravagant. But suddenly, it was the day of the party and I was still without a present. I wandered out to see what I could find in the tourist shops. Maybe there was something nicer than your average tropical fish shot glass. I sifted through some pretty jellyfish lamps but other than being decidedly feminine, they were too pricey, and besides: did I want to give him something that would ultimately be an expense: electricity to plug in the light?

Then I happened upon some hand-painted suede bookmarks. Then I remembered I had a copy of a book that I had bought when in Spain last summer: Relato de un náufrago by Gabriel García Márquez. It is the true story of a marine from Colombia whose boat sinks going from Mobile, Ala., to Cartagena. He is the lone survivor and he is lost at sea in a dinghy with no food and no water for 10 days, before he washes ashore and is rescued. It is a riveting tale and the survivor was revered as a national hero, until it was discovered that the marine ship capsized because it was overloaded with contraband to sell once it returned to port. The man was consequently ostracized and Márquez fled the country for fear of being persecuted for even telling the story, which was the start of his exile from his homeland.

Back to my birthday present shopping: though I’ve mentioned that I do not really know this man to whose party I was going, I just had a feeling he would like the Márquez book. You have to be careful around here, because a lot of the locals are illiterate, but most days I have seen José, he has a newspaper in his hand and he gives off that kind of energy, like he is really interested in whatever comes his way.

I chose a bookmark with a pyramid painted on it (It was pretty. I promise) and once home, I stuck it inside the book, where I also inscribed it to be his copy now.

At the party, though, he did not open it and I did not see him again until this past Tuesday, when I happened to be coming out of the gate as he was walking past my house.

“That book you gave me?”

“Yes?”

“It’s a great story. I finished it.”

“You finished it already?”

“Yes.”

He then proceeded to tell me how much it meant, because he was in the Navy his whole working life; that’s how he ended up on Isla, in fact, and one day in 1968, he was in Veracruz, where he’s from, and he was supposed to be on a ship coming back here but instead, he went to see the Olympic Games and that ship that he was supposed to be on sank and all but two of the 30-something crew members drowned. The reason it went down was that it was loaded with contraband, just like the case of Márquez’s sailor, and one of his good friends was on the boat and so, he told me, he thought of this friend the entire time he was reading the story and now he is going to keep the book in a safe place forever.

Now imagine if I had never learned Spanish.

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