Rapid Spanish from Otavaleños

I ring the doorbell. A sharp, short buzz. Dogs bark and cats meow. The door is a pattern of wrought iron bars painted blue, which intersect each other in swoops and dives and bumpy welds. A sheet of plywood is attached to the inside of the fence-like door, preventing the animals from escaping, and there are holes cut where the doorknob should be; a place for a key to reach in and free the padlock. A young face appears in the left hand hole. Calm dark eyes, button nose, oval mouth pinched smoothly at the corners, oil slick hair. I tell her who I am and she tells me to wait a moment and I wait, shuffling my feet in the dust. After a few seconds the door creaks inward and I am suprised to see the opposite face emerge. Deep lines on almond forehead, peppery hair, flat chin, mouth full of teeth and empty of lip, earings.

I have to duck through the door. The backpack makes me a foot taller than my already outrageous height. My room is downstairs, at street level, with a window that brings me face to face with anyone walking by. There is space enough for a single bed, a dresser with peeling floral vaneer, a nightstand, a chair. There is a faint odor of animal urine, but it seems to be coming from outside. The only light in the room is without a shade and hangs from the corner of a sagging ceiling panel. There are hardened stains on the navy shag and the door frame is too short for the plaster rectangle. I drop my backpack and, with the young girl watching, begin to unload. The old lady comes in and replaces a pillow cover. She asks me if I eat meat. Her voice has a distinct lisp, but it is not an accent. Ecuadorians pronounce their words sharply, without dragging their esses. Maybe her tongue is injured, damaged from a ferocious bite, left dead on the tip by severed nerves. I imagine every possibility. There doesn`t seem to be anyone else in the house. I wonder if this unlikely pair will be my only hosts. I don`t stick around to find out. As soon as my bag is unpacked, I say ciao and go find lunch.

Steak and rice, plantain and potatoes, avocado. The food calms my apprehension, but only slightly. I am already thinking that I will move out after a week, that I won`t be able to handle it, that they will serve me a slice of bolagna and some Doritos for dinner, a piece of moldy bread for lunch, pureed banana peels for breakfast. I`ll be alergic to the bed sheets, will contract an alien fungus from the shower, will be robbed by teenagers from the streetside window, will die. I pay for my lunch and stroll slowly around the town, stalling.

I open the door gently, timidly, trying not to make a sound. The iron scrapes against the stone threshold. Dogs bark. A swarm of golden terrier-sized dogs attack my feet. Cute little fellers. I notice a teenage girl propped in an upstairs doorway. This is a good sign. I climb the stairs to greet her and she introduces herself as Estefanie. Instantly, the whole family appears and, instantly, my apprehension vanishes. The father, Jorge, introduces himself in English and welcomes me kindly to his home. The son, also Jorge, is 16 years old and immediatly asks me which sports I like. I can tell we are going to get along fine. Jim, another guest and student of the Spanish school, greets me with more of a high-five than a hand shake (somewhere in between) and tells me he is from Minnesota and has been working for the Peace Corp in Ghana for the past two years. My sandaled feet are swarmed by curley haired rodents, the puppies of the dogs that attacked me a moment ago. There is a whole litter of them. Later I am introduced to the kittens, eyes barely open, claws not sharp enough to hurt but strong enough to climb the window curtains. Tiny calico scales drapery. Parakeets serenade us from their cage.

Jim, young Jorge and I talk for hours, mostly in Spanish, but I have translated a few snippets here for your enjoyment:
“Favorite basketball team?” asks Jorge.
“Well, Seattle Supersonics, but they no longer exists. So, no one. I hate the NBA. What about you?”
“Miami. Dwayne Wade.”
“Wade is good, but Miami sucks. Too many drugs in that city. Criminals. Retirees with E-Bay accounts.”
“I don`t care about that. We`re talking about basketball teams.”

“Favorite movie?” asks Jorge.
“The Big Lebowski. You know it?” I say.
“No,” he replies.
“You know Fargo? Its a movie from Minnesota. Kidnapping and stuff?” asks Jim.
“Yeah, same Directors,” I say.
“The Cohen brothers. They`re great.” says Jim.
“Yeah. What about your favorite movie Jorge?”
“Nice. I agree. Instnat classic.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?” I ask.
“No, but there is a girl from another school who I like.”
“Is she pretty?”
“Is she cute?”
“Is she beautiful?”

“When`s your birthday?”
“January 17th. A couple weeks ago.”
“Hey, mines on the 11th. That`s cool. And have you ever been to the US?”
“No, but I will go when I`m rich.”
“How will you get rich?”
“I`m going to be an architect.”
“So you`re going to go to a University?”
“I don`t know.”
“How many more years of high school do you have?”
“This is my last year.”
“And you don`t know where you`re going to college?”
“We have so much in common.”

Jorge tells Jim and me a bunch of jokes, half of which we don`t understand. When it starts raining we go inside and watch a soccer game on television until dinner is served. The first course is a rich soup that has bits of carrot and cabbage floating in it. There are two bowls of popcorn on the table and a ceramic duck filled with hot sauce. Six of us eat together while the grandmother serves the food. She will take her supper later, sitting in a rigid chair at the threshold to the kitchen. The second course is a plate of rice and potatos with a triangle of tuna omelette. I savor the food, eating slowly and talking profusely to everyone. The third course is dessert: a basket of sweet rolls and a cup of anis tea. I am completely satisfied.

We retire to the living room where we talk more and play with the kittens. It is not long before I feel weary and decide to go to bed. I descend the stairs and enter my room. Flipping on the lightswitch, I notice that the space has much more charm than I previously thought. There are four layers of blankets on the bed: cotton, wool, wool, cotton. The window has an elegantly embroidered curtain that is thick enough to block out the glare of the nearby streetlamp. The mattress is deep. I sink into it and fall immediatly asleep.

The last three days have passed in a flash. We have covered more material in three days of Spanish lessons than we did in a year of high school classes. My teacher is an authentic Otavaleño woman who wears a blue skirt and white silk blouse to our classes every day. She speaks rapidly and has high expectations, which she illustrates frequently by raising her eyebrows sharply as if to say, “Is that really what you think?” She doesn`t speak English. We work for four hours each day, one-on-one, reviewing verb conjugation, discussing syntax and sentence structure, doing exercises, and telling each other stories. She is impressed with my level of speach and with my understanding of the spoken language. I feel like I am learning very quickly and that the language is starting to flow in my brain.

Every morning there is a bowl of fresh fruit, a basket of bread, a glass of juice and a kettle of scalding tea water waiting for me on the table. Every afternoon there is a bowl of soup, a plate of rice and meat, a pitcher of juice. There is always popcorn on the table. Always. Each day I look forward to the next meal because, so far, everything has been amazing. Come to think of it, I`m almost late for dinner. I want to keep writing because I have so many more stories to tell, but my grumbling stomach begs for attention. So, adios, until next time.

One comment

  1. Leif,This is amazing writing!I laughed and cried–both at the same time.I am trying to figure out how to get it to let me know as soon as there is a new post–so far it doesn’t seem to be working. But, anyway, it’s at the top of my favorites list and I’m checking every day.Much love,Mom


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