“Eoy caliente!” I proclaimed to the taxi driver taking me to my brand new digs in Granada, Spain. I had completed exactly one week of a Spanish Language Learner’s cassette tape before arriving in the country, and was very proud of my achievement.
He met my clear, 21-year-old eyes in the rearview mirror, amusement chasing alarm over his features. I assumed my accent was terrible. Only later would I learn I’d told him I was horny, rather than hot.
I laughed when my teacher, a Spaniard named Inma, later explained to me the very important difference between what I’d said and “tengo calor,” which is what I should have said. It was a slightly desperate laugh. Not because I was ashamed but because, after a few weeks in Spain, I was starting to panic about my inability to communicate. A voracious reader from a young age, language had long been my tool, my weapon, and my security blanket. People would like me if I made them laugh or feel good about themselves. I could defang enemies with a sharp verbal thrust. With a few deft sentences, I might help people understand the world as I understood it, and feel less alone.
I was shocked by how often I drew my gun, my beloved English language, now that it wasn’t loaded with the same meaning to those hearing it.
For the first few months, I communicated in Spanish like a belligerent toddler.
I LIKE BOCADILLOS.
BRING ME FANTA LIMON BECAUSE HE IS DELICIOUS.”
Even after months in Spain, I’d only improved to the level of a slightly less belligerent second-grader, one who clearly thought she was more clever than she proved to be.
“I HAVE MUCH FEELINGS ABOUT THIS THING!” I would announce. And then I’d realize I didn’t know the words for those feelings.
“MUCH FEELINGS!” I would repeat, sitting back in my chair to signal to my friends that no clarification would be forthcoming.
The miracle is that I did have friends, especially ones who spoke only Spanish.
From this cadre of tiny Spanish amantes, who in truth were all taller than me, I cobbled together a handful of real friends.
I’d use my surefire way to meet new people in Spain: having very attractive Scandinavian lady friends. Spanish men would flock to them like pagans to their idols, staring up into their faces as if waiting for the word of god.
“WE ARE OF THE NORWAY,” my lady friends would declare. “YOU ARE VERY SHORT.”
The Spaniards would persist, knowing from long experience that even the most visibly Viking of women seemed to share a genetic propensity for men who could only just peer over the sticky counter of a chupiteria — bars that served only shots, an idea as terrible as it sounds.
“HE WILL CLIMB YOU LIKE A TREE,” I pointed out to Sigrid about her evening’s paramour, after I’d learned enough Spanish.
Sigrid shrugged her graceful shoulders, her collarbones nearly impaling a passerby.
“HE IS SEXY!” she replied. “HE SMOKES MUCH!”
From this cadre of tiny Spanish amantes, who in truth were all taller than me, I cobbled together a handful of real friends. I was especially lucky that they introduced me to their female friends, young Spanish women who had the patience to sift through my garbled sentences even if they didn’t want to sleep with me.
And that’s when I made my move, a classic I’d picked up from my mother, who cooked for people with the same strategic focus on conquest with which Hannibal crossed the Alps.
I invited them over for dinner.
“We will be amigos,” I murmured to myself, as I carefully studded an enormous leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary, slathering the whole thing with peppery olive oil and sea salt.
In went the meat.
“And then you will teach me how to translate schadenfreude.”
I’d roast vegetables, dress salads, and carefully arrange cheeses and jams made of mystery fruits. I’d douse everything with vinagre de jerez — sherry vinegar, or what I had taken to calling my Elixir of the Gods — because it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted.
And my friends, some with names I’d only ever heard in ABBA songs, would sit at my table and teach me to articulate everything I needed to express. Like exactly how I felt about George W. Bush after his recent, first election, which had occurred about three months into my time in Granada.
“He masturbates like a… midget?” I translated, sure I’d gotten it wrong even as my one really fluent, English-speaking friend, José, nodded enthusiastically.
“Si! Enano. Menearsele como un enano. Midget.”
“But isn’t that mean to… you know… short people?” I asked, wondering what, exactly, defined a midget in a part of Spain where I was of a completely average height at 5’2”.
José shrugged, unable or unwilling to defend the vagaries of his language.
“You could also say he masturbates like a monkey,” he offered. “Or that he shits on the Host.”
“What?” I shrieked. “The host? Like of the party?”
He shook his head, once again let down by my mind-boggling lack of Catholicism.
“No, like the communion wafer.”
“Communion wafer! Why would someone shit on a communion wafer?”
While not Catholic myself, I knew their crackers were small. Tiny, even. Undoubtedly quite difficult to shit on.
“That’s amazing,” I said, my mind blown.
I had further questions.
“Do you want the person to eat the shat-upon communion wafer, then? Or is it just bad that someone shits on one at all?”
José gave me one of his blank looks, which he deployed when he was officially done speaking English with me. It was the same one my roommate’s Spanish-speaking Moroccan boyfriend gave us when, while playing gin rummy very high on hashish, we tried to translate, from English to Spanish, a Simpsons quotation for him. It took roughly 40 minutes and we nearly peed ourselves laughing, only for the quotation to turn out to be “my cat’s breath smells like cat food,” which at that point made zero sense in either language.
That is still one of my favorite memories of my 10 months in Granada, and I like to imagine we ruined Los Simpsons for poor Mohammed, possibly forever.
Anyway, I’d offer to cook for my friends and they would always agree because I had my own apartment, which I shared with foreign roommates equally happy to have people over. All of my Spanish friends lived with their parents, so having a place that was private was a big deal.
I’d buy food and they’d bring bottles, and I would listen like a hawk to every word, meticulously undoing the sophisticated Madrileño accent I was taught in language school.
“You speak Spanish like a gypsy,” I was told by a very rich man in Barcelona many months later.
“Thank you,” I said, genuinely delighted as much by what I saw as a compliment as by the paella, unctuously black with squid ink, which this gypsy was enjoying on his peseta.
In point of fact, knowing how to cook saved me. I don’t know how I would have made friends if I hadn’t bribed them with roasted meats and slippery flans.
I certainly would never have gotten so many real Spaniards in a room quiet enough for us to hear each other so I could ask them all the things I really wanted to know. Like the time I asked José to teach me how to say, “I’ve always wanted an Andalusian stallion.”
It was true. I’d been horse-crazy as a kid, and I’d always wanted an Andalusian stallion. That said, I had new, exciting plans for that sentence.
He translated it for me before asking why I wanted to know.
I grinned, leaning close. Accompanied by my best leer, I repeated it, changing the intonation from a hopeful little girl’s to that of Three’s Company’s Larry, working the Regal Beagle hard.
To my delight, José actually shuddered and moved away a critical few inches.
“Jesus, you’re creepy sometimes.”
I clapped, almost euphoric. “How do I say that?”
He taught me the translation and I made him repeat it again and again until I could say it with perfect inflection, dropping nearly all of the consonants at the ends of the words.
It came out as beautiful as a Lorca poem, but sung by a flasher on a family friendly beach.