Saturday, October 10th, 2015
Woke up late and with a slight hangover. After a big, greasy American breakfast of fried eggs and sausages I started tidying the apartment. The day before I had painted the living room. The furniture was all heaped together in the middle of the room and covered with plastic. Lola went out to run some errands around noon. Said she’d be home for lunch. After moving all the furniture back into position my OCD unfortunately kicked in when it came time to reshelve all the books. What should have taken 10 or 15 minutes turned into a nearly four hour odyssey.
The two large bookcases in the living room had previously been organized by language. One bookcase was filled with books in English and the second bookcase was made up of books in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. I started overthinking everything and I got into trouble. Should Jean Ritchie’s Singing Family of the Cumberlands go in the music section or in the Americana section? Should the Albert Cossery books go in the literature section or in the anarchist section? Does Richard Grant’s American Nomads fit better with the travel books or with the Americana books? Does Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s A Precocious Autobiography belong in poetry or in literature? The entire time I was doing this I realized how absurd it was. I was organizing one fecking bookcase. It’s not that difficult to locate a book on one bookcase.
I lost track of time and when Lola called two hours had passed. I had only filled half the shelves of the English language bookcase. She called to inform me that she wasn’t coming home for lunch. She had run into some friends who were doing a café torero. A café torero is when you go out around noon for cañas (tiny glasses of beer) and tapas (the free food that magically appears in front of you when you order a caña) and when the bars stop serving food (usually between 3:30 and 4pm) you go to a bakery for a coffee and some pastries. Then, after the caffeine kicks in, you switch over to cocktails and you go all night.
I’ve done more than my fair share of café toreros during my 12 years in Spain and at that moment I wasn’t particularly in the mood. I wished her good luck and got stuck back into the piles of books spread all over the floor. Should I put Cyril Pedrosa’s Portugal with the graphic novels or in the Portuguese language section?! (The correct answer: It doesn’t matter! It’s a very large book and, no matter where I shelve it, I can see it from the kitchen!)
At one point I went next door to Lola’s parents’ apartment to get a screwdriver I left over there recently. When I walked past the TV I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was a guy swimming in the Amazon river with a domesticated giant otter on La 2 (Channel 2). La 2 is the closest thing Spain has to PBS in the US. Good, solid, high quality, educational programming. No mind-numbing Big Brother/Real Housewives/Honey Boo Boo bullshit.
“What are you watching?”
“El Hombre y la Tierra.”
“Is that guy playing with an otter?”
“That guy?! That’s Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente.”
Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente
“Surely you’ve heard of Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente? He was a Spanish naturalist and TV presenter. He travelled all over the world shooting nature documentaries and promoting environmental awareness. He died in a plane crash while filming in your country, in Alaska, in the early 1980s.”
I was fascinated, but I had to get back to my books. I made a mental note to a) look up Félix Rodríguez later and b) ask Lola why the hell she never mentioned a Spanish guy who made TV programs of himself swimming in the fecking Amazon with a giant domesticated otter!
By 5pm I managed to get all of my books organized. (More or less.) I needed to disconnect so I went out for a stroll. I exited our building and instead of turning to the right towards the Hotel Alfonso (where a left turn would then take me to the main square) I walked straight across the street and up the steps which lead to the cathedral. When I entered the cathedral square I realized I had made a big mistake. There was a wedding party coming out of the church and guys in suits were setting off petardos (firecrackers) and shouting, “¡Vivan los novios!” and throwing rice everywhere. One asshole in a suit, who incorrectly thought nobody could see him, was actually pissing on the side of the cathedral. There was no way I was going to make it through that crowd.
I ducked down the first little street on the right and ran smack into two of Lola’s cousins and their husbands as they stumbled out of a bar. One couple was on a rare visit from out of town so there was a lot of celebrating under way. After the customary hugs, kisses, cheek pinching, neck slapping, belly rubbing (“You’ve put on some weight since I last saw you!”) and general manhandling that is involved in the average, everyday Spanish greeting, they took me prisoner. They dragged me into a bar which was only a few steps away from the bar they had just exited. I had left my apartment building roughly one minute and thirty seconds earlier. So much for going for a stroll…
The husbands were in the middle of an absurd, drunken conversation about the meaning of a riddle. The riddle had something to do with a construction worker asking a university student as he walked by on his way to class every morning why a donkey, if it had a round butthole, made square poo every time it defecated. This conversation went on and on and on… It involved a bizarre play on words that went way over my head. Yet they insisted on attempting to explain it to me over and over until I not only got the joke, but understood the deeper philosophical meaning of the riddle as well. In the end it was hopeless. I tried desperately to slip away and join the ladies’ conversation to no avail.
Hogarth´s Beer Street
We finished our drinks and headed out in search of the next bar. In the plaza de Ansano we found Lola and a few friends having a drink on the terrace. The husbands dragged Lola into the absurd, drunken donkey riddle as translator. They managed to get through the riddle once before she lost her cool.
“That makes no goddamn sense whatsoever. Not in Spanish, not in English. Not drunk, not sober. It’s nonsense.” She turned to me, “Just ignore them.”
The wives applauded. “Leave the American alone! Let him enjoy his drink in peace!”
Lola and her girlfriends left, stranding me there with the cousins. On the corner of the plaza de Ansano there is a jamón shop. The owner, Julio, (aka: Orejas or Ears because he has giant ears) came strolling across the square to ask me how my parents were doing. (They’re very good customers.)
He pulled up a chair and yelled to the waiter. “¡Sergio! ¡Un gin tonic! ”
He immediately got dragged into the damned donkey riddle, but he was strong enough to guide the conversation in another direction. After a few minutes his wife came out of the shop and shouted across the square.
“Julio! I need a hand! The shop is full of customers!” It was a bank holiday weekend and the town was overflowing with tourists.
“I’ll be right there!”
He launched into a long, messy story about a legal battle he’s currently in over an outrageous bill he received from the hotel where he celebrated his most recent wedding. Five minutes passed and his wife came out of the shop again. This time she strolled across the square, grabbed Julio’s drink, tossed it back in one gulp and slammed the glass down on the table.
“Are you finished now?”
He tossed a 20€ note on the table and yelled, “This round’s on me!” (which was great because it paid for the next round as well) and followed his wife back to the shop, tail tucked between his legs.
The men tried to steer the conversation back to the fecking donkey riddle, but the women wouldn’t allow it. It started drizzling. As we were ducking inside the bar to get out of the rain the owner of El Árbol Quemado, a restaurant located in another corner of the square, came running up to me.
He had some English-speaking customers in his dining room and one of them kept repeating, “Glass! Glass!”
“Qué coño significa ‘glass’? ”
“Glass means vaso – if he wants a glass of water. If he wants a glass of wine – it means copa.”
He looked a bit stressed and confused.
“Do you want some help translating?”
“Sí, por favor.”
I followed him to his restaurant. On the way he asked about my parents. (They’re very good customers.) There were two sharply-dressed British couples well into their 70s at a table in the corner. They were desperately trying to make sense of the menu. The owner had given them the one copy of the menu he had personally “translated” into English. He had simply typed the Spanish menu into Google Translate so, unless you consider knowing that the meat is “braised in an ancient sauce” or that the fish is “prepared in a nautical fashion” to be helpful information, it is actually just as confusing as the Spanish menu to a non-Spanish speaker.
“My father always orders the venison here.”
They looked up from their menus suspiciously. I explained why I was standing in front of them.
One of the women grabbed my arm, “Thank heavens!”
“What should we do for starters? Should we order one thing and share it? Or should we each order our own starter? How big are the portions here?”
“The portions aren’t that big.”
One of the men, without looking up from the menu, responded dryly, “Well, you’re American so of course you wouldn’t think the portions are very large.”
What’s with the snark? I’m only here because your dumb ass can’t read a menu in Spanish…
“I think we should order a bowl of gazpacho as a starter and share it.” Facepalm.
“Well, gazpacho doesn’t quite work that way. Spaniards don’t share a bowl of gazpacho between four people.”
One of the women was slightly annoyed by my response.
“Because everyone will look at you as if you just escaped from the zoo.”
In the end they basically let me order the entire meal for them based on dishes my parents had enjoyed during previous visits.
As I was leaving, the non-snarky man had one last question. “How do you say glass in Spanish?”
“It depends on whether you’re talking about a glass of water – which is un vaso de agua – or a glass of wine – which is una copa de vino.”
Cue insanely posh British accent: “You’re joking!”
I shit you not, squire. I shit you not.
Back out in the street the cousins were waiting for me in the drizzle. And they wanted all the details. I told them about the gazpacho bit and they burst out laughing.
“A bowl of gazpacho between four people?! Pffft! Savages!”
sculpture in Plaza de Ansano
We strolled across the plaza de Ansano on our way to the main square, but we didn’t make it very far. Julio came out of his jamón shop and convinced us to come inside and do a little cheese tasting. (It really didn’t take too much convincing.) He tossed six half wheels of cheese on an enormous cutting board and cracked opened some bottles of fancy new artisanal beer that had just come in. His wife eyed us suspiciously as she rang up a French couple that was purchasing a few bottles of wine and a leg of jamón.
The owner of the bookstore around the corner popped his head in the door and yelled, “¡Americano! ¡Qué bien vives!” (“American! How well you live!”)
Then he asked about my parents. (What can I say? They’re very good customers.)
We ate nearly all the cheese Julio laid out for us. (We completely finished a half wheel of cheese that had truffles in it.) At one point I knocked the little plastic thingy full of Julio’s business cards off the counter and they went sprawling across the floor. Then, one of the cousins knocked over a bottle of beer while attempting to get another slice of the truffle cheese before it was all gone. Julio’s wife’s face was bright red and as we were leaving the shop, having not bought anything, she gave us the most terrifying stink eye that I have ever seen in my life.
It was glorious.