In Spain children don’t receive gifts on December 25th. Here it all happens on January 6th, el día de los Reyes Magos, in celebration of the Three Wise Men. It’s tradition in Lola’s family to celebrate with caldereta de cabrito, goat stew. My brother-in-law, Julio, was sitting across from me at the table this year. I tried not to look as he ate the brains directly out of half a goat skull which my mother-in-law had set aside especially for him. Julio’s the only person in the family who enjoys the so-called delicacy. I tried it once. Never again.
He leaned forward, pointing at me with a spoonful of mushy grey goop, “Cuñado, I need a translator next week. I have to go to Navalvillar de Pela, dónde Cristo perdió las zapatillas.”
Navalvillar de Pela, where Christ lost his slippers, which is a polite way of saying está a tomar por culo (in the middle of effing nowhere).
The following Wednesday Julio picked me up at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. and we headed for southern Extremadura. I was hoping to get some sleep during the two and a half hour drive, but no such luck. He puffed on his cheap little cigars nearly the entire trip. As we neared our destination the sun broke over the horizon and we witnessed small clusters of grullas (cranes) searching for food among the rice paddies as they passed through Spain on their way south.
On the road Julio explained what we would be doing for the day. We were on our way to perform an audit on a company that grows hydroponic peppers in Spain which they sell directly to UK supermarkets.
“When we arrive there will be an introductory meeting and you will have to explain who we are, why we are there, how we are going to break up the day’s activities, et cetera.”
This made me more than a little nervous. I envisioned a room full of people… myself behind a podium on a stage… speaking into a microphone… all eyes on me… My palms started to sweat. I started fidgeting. Julio noticed I was getting nervous.
“Tranquilo. We’ll be sitting around a table in an office with two or three other people. No pasa nada.”
“You see that sign? Madrigalejo? That’s the village where el rey Fernando II de Aragón died 500 years ago.”
“Ferdinand the Catholic? Isabella’s husband?”
“Sí. Eso es.”
“Mister 1492? He died here?”
“Haha! Not many people know that. Not even many Spaniards. We extremeños need to get our shit together, learn a thing or two from your country. Tourism! Promote this area as the place where an infamous king died. Look at the landscape. It’s beautiful here! A couple of nice hotels… a good restaurant… We could all retire early. And in Madrigalejo they make these incredible sweets called escaldaillos.”
He put fingers to his mouth and smacked his lips.
We found the place, parked, and stretched our legs a bit before heading inside. Just before we reached the building Julio said, “By the way, don’t tell them we’re brothers-in-law. It doesn’t sound very professional.”
We were greeted by two cheerful, laid-back, underdressed English guys, one of whom Julio had worked with once before. I instantly relaxed. This is gonna be a piece of cake…
We entered one of the offices and I started in on the spiel Julio had prepared for me. Thirty seconds in and one of the English guys, the head honcho, who had flown in from London specifically for the audit, cut in, “Sounds good to me. Shall we get some coffee in the canteen and go for a stroll?”
We clipped plastic name tags onto a couple of ill-fitting white lab coats and entered the enormous glasshouse.
Head honcho’s sidekick saw how impressed I was when we walked through the main doors. “This particular glasshouse is roughly the size of twelve football pitches.”
I breathed in deeply. Mmmm… Peppers. Employees on bicycles rode past us on the main path. On both sides there were endless rows of peppers – red, green, orange and yellow. They looked amazing. I wanted to pick one and take a big bite out of it. Each plant was climbing its own white cord up towards the ceiling. In between the rows the pickers got around on little forklift-like machines on steel tracks. The pickers controlled the machines with joysticks that allowed them to go forward, backward, up and down. Some of the pepper plants were over three meters (roughly ten feet) high.
As we walked around Julio seemed to be in good spirits. He pulled me off to the side at one point and whispered, “Most of the places I visit, you can see that they just finished doing a big clean-up in preparation for the inspection. But these guys, you can see that they do things properly all year round.”
Julio checked all the big things, the machines, the boiler room, the water filtration system, the waste storage area, all the way down to the little things like the restrooms, first aid kits and rat traps. He was highly impressed, but didn’t let it show.
As we walked around I noticed the workers were doing their best not to make eye contact with us. It was strange. I’m usually one of the grunt workers trying to act busy when the bigwigs come strolling by. And here I was in a lab coat unintentionally looking important and slightly menancing.
Julio pointed out to me the sticker that is placed on the boxes used for shipping the peppers. It states that the peppers are a “product grown in the UK.”
“How can they get away with that?”
“This company also grows peppers in glasshouses in the UK. I’m sure there is a legal loophole somewhere that they are using to their advantage. People prefer to buy food grown locally.”
Julio stopped one of the pickers and asked her a few questions about her job.
“The employees are just a tad bit nervous today,” said head honcho’s sidekick.
“I noticed that.”
Head honcho himself walked over. “So, how do you know Julio?”
“Uh… Well, we both live in the same town so I’ve seen him around a few times and, uh, he knows that I’m a translator so… here I am!”
I’m a terrible liar, but he seemed to have bought it.
Julio strolled over. He informed the bosses that the woman he was just speaking to was not up to snuff on the dress code. She apparently had some shiny, decorative sequin-like things attached to her shirt that could possibly break off or fall into a box of peppers and contaminate the product.
“I’ve had a chat with her about this before,” sidekick informed head honcho.
Two hours passed. We returned to the canteen for a bocadillo and more coffee before heading back to the office where the real work would begin. I asked Julio how I was doing.
“De puta madre.” (“Very well.”)
“Es un poco difícil. No tengo el vocabulario para hacer este trabajo.” (“It’s a little difficult. I don’t have the vocabulary to do this job.”)
Julio pulled out one of his little cigars. As he walked towards the designated smoking area he said, “¡En el país de los ciegos, el tuerto es rey!”
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!
Julio’s English is pretty basic. He can count to ten, say Hello and Goodbye, order a beer, that sort of thing. The two English guys’ Spanish was atrocious. So, by comparison, I was the most useful guy in the room. The one-eyed man in the land of the blind! (Believe me, this doesn’t happen often.)
Julio had assured me that there was no need to prepare anything in order to be his translator for the day. What a crock of shit.
Back in the office things became a bit more complicated. Julio would tell me what documents and certificates he needed to see and I would translate this information to head honcho and sidekick. Some of these documents had crazy technical names that I couldn’t translate. Then I noticed sidekick was reacting to Julio’s requests before I had a chance to translate.
“You understand more than you let on.”
“Well, I did this job in Portugal for a few years before my recent move to Spain.” He pulled some heavy blue binders out of a filing cabinet and plopped them down in front of Julio. “I’ve been through a couple of fairly similar agricultural inspections before.”
As Julio and sidekick started to realize they could get by communicating in a chaotic mix of Portuguese and Spanish (aka: Portuñol) my job became more specific: to let head honcho know what the hell was going on because he was completely lost.
At one point Julio’s phone rang. He left the room and I was sitting there admiring a large, framed photo of a tiny pepper plant hanging above sidekick’s desk, where a proud parent would normally hang a child’s high school graduation or prom photo.
“It’s amazing something that small can grow into something so big,” I awkwardly said, trying to break the silence.
“That’s what they look like when they arrive by lorry from Holland,” said head honcho proudly.
Dutch plants grown in Spain and sold in the UK… I thought. With “product of the UK” stickers on them!
After lunch, as we were getting stuck back into the paperwork again, an alarm went off. Sidekick jumped up, flipped a switch that cut the alarm, grabbed a walkie talkie and took off running.
Head honcho looked at me and said, “Power outage in the glasshouse. That doesn’t look too good during an inspection.”
Julio, unphased, continued pouring over the paperwork in the blue binders, of which there were currently at least twenty spread out all over the office. As the afternoon wore on I watched the sun disappear behind the clouds. A nasty thunderstorm kicked up. We were all getting pretty worn out and I started making dumb mistakes. Julio would ask me to translate something to head honcho and I would turn to him and repeat, in Spanish, what Julio had just said to me. Then I did the same thing a couple of times when head honcho asked me to translate something for Julio. I would turn to Julio and repeat, in English, what head honcho had just said to me. Ahhh!!!
Shortly after sundown Julio began tapping on his keyboard furiously.
“Hostia puta.” (“Fucking hell.”)
“¿Qué pasa?” (“What’s wrong?”)
He gave me a constipated look. “I think I may have erased everything we’ve done over the last three hours.”
“No me jodas.” (“Don’t fuck with me.”)
He continued tapping away like a madman.
Head honcho looked my way, “Is everything alright?”
I just shrugged, didn’t say a word.
“I found it.” Julio let out a massive sigh of relief.
By the time we got out of there it was nearly 8 p.m. and I had been translating for over 10 hours. I don’t think I have ever experienced such intense mental exhaustion in my life.
The drive home was tense. We were in the middle of a torrential downpour that had cars pulling off the road due to lack of visibility. Julio relieved the stress of the situation by blasting Iros Todos a Tomar Por Culo (rough translation: You Can All Go Shove It Up Your Ass) by Plasencia’s very own transgressive rock heroes, Extremodoro. I had no idea Julio was a fan. I had him pegged as more of a flamenco and bullfights kind of guy. When the song “Quemando tus Recuerdos” came on he got a shock when I shouted along to Roberto Iniesta’s lyrics, “¡Voy a hacer un tambor de mis escrotos!”