July 17, 2006
I was desperate to speak Spanish. The year was 1965 and nearly a month back I had crossed the border with my friend Patrick and the German shepherd we owned in common, traveling and sleeping in a Citroën Deux Chevaux we had bought in France with the notion of driving it around the Mediterranean. Every morning I devoured a lesson from a grammar book as we traveled from campground to campground waiting for spring to arrive, and for our nerves to steady for traversing North Africa. As Patrick fumbled for chords on a cheap guitar, I soaked up new nouns and more reckless verb forms to inflict on that day’s waiters and shopkeepers, seeds of speech that needed better soil. Then one night, wandering the back streets of Córdoba, we met three young men prowling the streets with their own guitar.Patrick gestured that he wanted to learn some strums. Come with us to Las Califas, they said, and suddenly we were a group of five, joking and singing. We entered a lime-washed sanctuary of ancient tables circling a waterless fountain. Other friends had already gathered, making us a party of 10 in the back room. The guitar migrated, then came to rest with one of our street friends, whom Patrick and I referred to as the Moroccan for his looks although he was as Spanish as the rest. With chiseled olive features, black eyes and coal black hair, he was spectacularly handsome, and though he appeared to take himself lightly, the others deferred to him as to a prize possession. Another of the street trio offered me a running commentary on our surroundings, and I was elated at the deluge of Spanish.Cigarettes and white wine made the rounds. The Moroccan played in many styles – popular, folk, rock ‘n’ roll, stabs at classical and, most fittingly, a weaving modal music that complemented his looks. Between guitar solos all joined in the singing. A few wailed flamenco as if they were trying to cram a lifetime of feeling into a dying breath, a swan song accompanied by strums and a rhythmic snapping of fingers on the table. A cousin arrived, billed as another Caruso. Standing and gripping the back of a chair as he gazed raptly at the ceiling, he belted out “Santa Lucia” with the hysteria of a singing waiter, prolonging the high notes until we couldn’t look. Then the guitar made the rounds as a kind of peace pipe. Everyone played, not all of them well, but no one was unable to strike music. Patrick passed it to me as if it had shorted electrically. I lurched at the opening to “Malagueña” and slipped it to my talkative new friend. Someone discovered bottles of beer stashed among the wine casks behind us and passed them out under the table when the waiter wasn’t looking. Another person threw pesetas on the table. It was easy enough for those with suit jackets to cover the bulges, but those of us in sweaters and jeans had to make our way out clamping bottles between our upper arms and bare ribs, trying to look casual as we sidled through the front room.Guzzling beer in the streets, we made our way to the whore district, which turned out to be three bars on one side of a seedy block. Our numbers drastically reduced, we downed more wine and our friends danced with one of the girls. It had been one of those spontaneous encounters when strangers meet by chance and generate an astonishing time. The one who was so gracious with his Spanish invited us to stay in his five-room apartment during his father’s absence and seemed offended that we preferred the stars, fresh air and peace of the campground. I asked them to drop by on us there. They invited us to return the following night to Las Califas.From the moment we entered the door we felt the difference. Only our friends from the street showed up. The Moroccan, it turned out, did not actually own a guitar; last night’s instrument had belonged to someone else. Forced to play Patrick’s 18-dollar knockoff, the life went out of his playing. The friend who had been so generous with his explanations maintained a ceaseless banter, and I now realized that he was merely a compulsive talker. The Moroccan, who expected to be listened to in silence, glared at his yapping. To give our party fresh blood I fetched Og, our shepherd, from the car. Og chased a rat into the wall and was rewarded with handouts from the waiter. The Talker then went on about the rat until I wished I had left Og in the car. We bade farewell in the plaza, where an amplified guitar strummed the hour. One of them made a remark I didn’t understand. The heavily gestured explanation, with digressions about English teddy boys and the heels of shoes, labored on for 10 minutes and at last I understood: The recorded strums were flamenco, not rock ‘n’ roll. It was then that they invited us to a picnic on Sunday.
We had duly arranged to meet the following evening, and Patrick preferred to stay at the campground and sleep. I sympathized but was willing to pay the social price to continue the Spanish. The only person who showed up was the Talker, and we walked the streets for an hour and a half, looking for a friend he couldn’t find. I asked everything I could think of to keep from hearing that summer was warmer than winter and silk thinner than wool. What was the population of Córdoba? How old was the mosque? What was his job? He and the Moroccan were both clerks in a jewelry store. Giving up on the friend, the Talker steered us toward a girlfriend who sold cigarettes in the whore district. She appeared to be some 35 years old to his 20. I was witness to a long, rapid-fire conversation in which the only words I recognized were Bruce and Patrick. When it was finished, he announced that we were buying a bottle of wine and heading to the campground.”That’s very kind,” I said, “but I think another night would be better.””We will get a bottle of wine and go to the campground.””My friend is very tired and we would disturb him.””He will be very happy.””He is probably asleep by now.””We will wake him up.””But he’s tired and needs his rest.””He will not be tired when we get there.””Some other time.”
“We will get a bottle of wine and go to the campground.””No.””Why not?””Because my friend is sleeping.””We will wake him up.””He will be angry if we wake him up.””It does not matter.”During the course of this conversation, here abbreviated, he bought a bottle of wine and headed to the car.Patrick was just dozing off when we arrived. He pulled up a chair for the Talker and produced coffee cups for the wine. The Talker’s monologue veered toward divorce. There were no second marriages in Spain until the death of one of the partners. If the woman strayed, for the rest of her life she was considered a whore. If she had children, she had to go out and work for them, though usually the only jobs she could get were scrubbing floors and the like, or whoredom itself. A man could go off and live with another woman in perfect respectability, free of criticism, though the union couldn’t be consecrated by the church until the death of the first wife. As for courtship, you couldn’t go out on a single date but the young could meet each other in groups and go to dances. A boy could walk a girl partway home, but she had to be seen entering her door alone or the neighbors would talk. Even after the boy had proposed marriage and received the girl’s father’s consent, they couldn’t be seen together in public; they had to meet in the girl’s apartment, though sometimes the parents discreetly absented themselves. He, himself, was engaged, but he was perfectly free to play around with the cigarette girl while his fiancee remained in the purity of her home.All this was interesting enough, but as the Talker leaned forward from his chair in his effort to get through to me in Spanish, his voice rising, his gestures expanding, he seemed to multiply into more and more orators until I felt wholly encompassed by his voice and hands. I was exhausted but now it was my turn to reciprocate. Was there much divorce in America? Who performed a civil ceremony? What good was a marriage not consecrated by the church? There was a warning growl from Og. The night guard appeared. What was I doing with this guest who hadn’t been cleared? This individual must leave at once. The guard was surly, outraged, and I was thrilled to obey. I sped the Talker back to town.
The evening before the picnic we convened again in Las Califas, to find our party included three newcomers. The Moroccan and a friend had picked up two girls in the street, one fair-haired and German, the other Kenyan and very black, both stunning. The Moroccan’s friend called himself Rubio – blond – and boasted that his hair was light like ours, though it was two shades paler than raven. Fey of gesture, his hair was beyond canonical length in Franco’s Spain, and his ambition was to go to Paris and grow it to his waist.We gathered at a prime table next to the dry fountain. The girls spoke flawless English but we refrained from a conversation that excluded the others. The Moroccan played the guitar, which had reappeared without its owner. The other two sang, Rubio in an adolescent nasal falsetto like an Everly brother assaulting flamenco, both of them increasingly wild and off-key until they wailed like drunks. The Moroccan stopped midphrase and demanded that they listen to the guitar if they were going to sing to it. They raved on heedless. A professional guitarist who played on demand for large sums had been strumming and glaring at them from the corner and now he got up and began pacing angrily between our table and his. Our friends suddenly remembered that we had to buy supplies for the picnic.The Moroccan took off by himself, and I drove the rest of us to the Talker’s neighborhood. I had wondered about stores being open so late and, indeed, they were not. Unconcerned, the Talker knocked on the doors of their owners, begging them to open up. Some merchants were already asleep. Grudgingly they complied and one woman remarked, “Only because you’re a friend,” in a tone that registered the friendship as an unpleasant fact. We retired to the five-room apartment where the Talker had offered to put us up. During the seventh rinsing of a large wicker-encased wine bottle, the cigarette girl appeared and joked about being jealous of the girls from Germany and Kenya. In the half-light of the cavernous apartment, the banter of Rubio and the Talker about the cigarette girl echoed and redoubled. As I strained to catch their sallies, Patrick leaned forward and whispered, “This is like a bad foreign film.”We weren’t sure who to expect when we arrived at the plaza at 9 the next morning but it was, precisely, the cast from last night. The Talker bore a double-barreled shotgun and at his feet capered a feathery, puppyish spaniel named Sirocco, whom he kenneled outside the apartment. Og and Sirocco growled at each other apathetically, for form’s sake. The girls immediately established that they would come only if they were back by 4, in time to see the great mosque, pick up their luggage at the pension and board the 6 o’clock train to Sevilla. The 4 o’clock return was non-negotiable. We piled into the Deux Chevaux, Patrick, Og and I in front, our five guests, Sirocco, the food, the shotgun and the guitar in back, and were about to take off when the Moroccan said, “Wait! I have to change clothes.” It was true that he was rather overdressed for a picnic in the hills.The other five and the dogs piled out, and I drove the Moroccan toward his apartment. Before we arrived, he said, “Stop, I have to get the key.” He disappeared into a door for 20 minutes while I jockeyed the car to let trucks through a tight intersection. When he returned, he said, “They didn’t have the key.” We stopped at another door and he was gone 10 minutes, returning with the key. We continued to his house, where I waited another 15 minutes in the car while he changed. He emerged in a creamy silk shirt, dark flannel slacks and an ascot. We returned the key to the first stop. Having consumed nearly an hour, we pulled up to the plaza, and the Moroccan emerged from the car for his grand entrance in front of the girls, who were gazing rather boredly in another direction.Despite these preliminaries, the mood was exuberant when we were finally under way. The passengers were crushed but the Moroccan managed to play the guitar by holding it vertically and everyone sang. The dogs were well-behaved. Our feeble motor groaned under the cargo as we pulled onto a gravel road, which turned out to be the wrong one, then onto another gravel road that began to climb.We arrived at a small church in the hills just as Mass was just letting out and groups were preparing for picnics. We gathered the supplies and started up on foot when the Moroccan discovered there was no bread. Paella could not be eaten without bread. We could get some just down the road. He and I wound up driving all the way back to the plaza, where he took his customary length of time. We got back on the stroke of noon.While the others were establishing the picnic spot, the Talker had gone off with his shotgun and Sirocco and blasted a small green-and-white finch. He had returned with it triumphantly, stripped it to its pink flesh and tossed it at the girls’ feet, where Og calmly devoured it. The small green head survived to make surprise appearances for the duration of the picnic.
For a while the party milled about aimlessly, then the Cordobans moved in for the kill. They dropped to the blanket next to the girls, looked at them doe-eyed and fondled their hands. Then came the burning question: Why go back at 4? I was summoned as translator. The girls were interested in nothing more than a pleasant picnic. They were tired from much traveling and little sleep. They wanted only to relax. But a polite no only fired the prosecution. Why not 5, 4:30, take a later train, go tomorrow? The girls were on a tight schedule. They couldn’t change their plans even if they wanted to. And they didn’t. Then the theme died down. The German girl talked to Patrick in English while the Talker and Rubio gazed at her wistfully; the Moroccan buried his head in the Kenyan girl’s lap while she told me eagerly about her native land. During this social stasis, nothing was being done to make the paella.Then the burning question flared again. Why go back at 4? It was time to lie. The German girl was married and had three children.The Cordobans weren’t sure whether to believe it. “Why is her ring on her right hand?””That’s the German custom.””She’s too young to have three kids.””Twenty-four is not too young.””Can she prove she’d married?”The German handed me a registration document from a school in London and suggested I explain that it was her passport with her married name. They inspected it and asked me to translate what were student regulations. My efforts to hispanicize phrases from my own passport were surely unintelligible. “This means you can never swear allegiance to a foreign country. This means that you can serve in no foreign military service. This means, uh, that you’re subject to recall in times of national emergency. And this, see this here? This is her husband’s last name.”They seemed convinced and I thought our problems were over. But the guns were retrained. “How come she’s traveling alone if she’s married?””Because both she and her husband have to work to support three children and they get separate vacations.”
“Then who’s taking care of the children?””The, uh, grandmother.””What does her husband think of her running around with other men?”She’s trying not to.””But if she leaves her husband, what kind of woman is she?”From the Talker’s monologue two nights back I remembered the answer. Our German friend was a whore for life. As translator I was feeling whorish myself and was losing interest in practicing my Spanish. The Moroccan, who for all his vanity seemed slightly more worldly than the others, had withdrawn to sit by himself in silence. I suggested that they start on the paella so the girls could be back by 4.A fire was kindled and allowed to die out. Rubio and the Talker returned to their first approach, staring fondly at the girls and telling them how beautiful they were while the girls look away as if from tiresome children. The Talker suddenly turned to me and said he liked the German girl because she had a mustache just like his. “Translate!”I refused.”Go on!” he said, his eyes dancing. “Tell her!”Between his gesture to their two upper lips and his use of the Italian and universally understood mustachio instead of the Spanish bigote, translation was superfluous and the girl glanced at me in amusement at our mutual plight.
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The Moroccan revived the fire and now they needed water. They drew straws, Rubio lost and fetched the water, and they discovered they had no olive oil. I thought we had some in the car, was glad for the break, but we had left it at the campground. Now they needed salt. The Moroccan was off to the church to beg some from the padre. The Talker escalated his assault on the German girl and became more and more gross despite her fixed stare at the sky and my refusal to translate. Finally I was tired of being polite to no end. I wheeled on him and told him the conversation was bad, pointless, over with, terminado, finito, kaput, a redundancy I replicated several times. The social chill was now overt. I retired to watch the paella.Our combination coffee pot, dog dish and shaving bowl was blackening on the coals and in the boiling water floated peas, onions, artichoke hearts and bits of red sausage. The Moroccan poured in two bags of rice and the Kenyan slowly stirred it into the vegetables. Suddenly I was summoned to the blanket where Rubio and the Talker were sitting. Rubio complained he had tried to hold hands with the German girl, demonstrated her shudder when she withdrew it, and said she’d left him to go sit with Patrick. Did Patrick like her? I replied that I had no idea and returned to the paella. The Talker then stood over Patrick and the girl, pointed to Patrick and the girl’s ass, and said, “You like, you like?”The paella simmered and the Moroccan emptied into it the white wine from the wicker demijohn. On schedule, a new scheme developed on the blankets. The Talker was excited. “Since the girls have to go to Sevilla tonight, we can go with them and show them the town tomorrow. We can all go in your car!””No.””If we can’t go by car, then we could go by train and show them the sights.””Tomorrow is Monday,” I said, thinking of their duties in the jewelry store, “and the train is expensive.””No, tomorrow is a holiday and we have some extra cash.” By this time the Moroccan had wandered over. The Talker excitedly repeated his plan.”I’m not interested,” retorted the Moroccan. He returned to the paella and added pimento.It was quarter to 4 and the food was still on the fire. The girls announced they were leaving at 4 whether they had eaten or not. The Moroccan promised it would be ready shortly. In a few minutes the paella was removed from the fire. But it had to cool.
It cooled for 20 minutes. The girls were starving, and with aromatic food before them they postponed their departure until 4:30. When the paella was declared edible, it dawned on our hosts that there were no plates or utensils. It was a terrible moment. The Moroccan declared that paella had to be eaten with a fork. They needed to get some. I conceded, gently, that paella was at its best with a fork but might be consumed by other means. We placed the dog dish on the blanket and gathered around. There were two cooking spoons for the girls, Patrick and I got our spoons from the car, and the three Cordobans ate from bent vegetable can lids on the end of sticks.The paella tasted almost entirely of white wine and sausage and was still, shockingly, almost too hot to eat. The wine that missed the paella went down our throats. The paella was gone almost immediately, leaving a fungus of rice cemented to the bottom of the pot. I fetched my camera from the car and took pictures of all. When Rubio stood at attention and the Talker crouched with his hand on the shotgun, his spaniel sprawled at his feet, but for their cigarettes they could have been a pair of those vacuous young Hapsburgs who posed for Velázquez. The girls rose to go. The Kenyan wanted to give us her temporary London address so we could send copies of the pictures and there was no paper. I relayed this to the Talker. He produced his card from the jewelry shop and handed it to the Moroccan, who stood in flamenco swayback and handed it to the girl from Kenya, who wrote down her address and handed it to us.I suggested that we make two trips so the girls wouldn’t have to wait for the collection of possessions and the possible drawing of more straws, and Patrick took off with the girls. I half wanted to go with them, to escape the infernal picnic, but the social disintegration had me enthralled. A perverse curiosity insisted that I see it through to the end. I was not disappointed.There was now no communication with the Cordobans. They had thrown a picnic for us, and we had taken the girls away from them. I intended to withdraw to the sidelines, a silent observer. That was not to be, for their first act as the car pulled away was to sic the dogs on each other.Og was indifferent to other dogs and had never, in my eyesight, been in a dogfight. Sirocco, perhaps a year old, was all sweetness and ingratiation. The Moroccan grabbed Sirocco and threw him in Og’s face. A fight ensued. I grabbed Og and hauled him back, explaining that he was much too strong. They pulled me away and held me, yelled aggressively at the dogs, and the fight resumed. The dogs snarled and snapped too fast to follow. The Cordobans became engrossed and let go of my arms. I grabbed Og again, fearing that it was a matter of seconds before the fight turned lethal. There was blood dripping from Sirocco’s nostrils. The dogs trotted off, and I retired to the blanket.Now that the dogs were at peace, an argument erupted between Rubio and the Moroccan. My ears were as baffled as my eyes had been by the dogfight, but I caught occasional bits – the German girl, numbers, “but they are friends” from the Moroccan. Voices rose, faces became tense and veined, a fight broke out. Each tried to catch the other in some impossible hold, mute except for gasps and the shuffle of feet. They took turns throwing each other contemptuously, coming back for another and another lunge. No punches were traded, and they seemed more interested in miming scorn than inflicting damage. After two or three minutes without a victor, they stopped and glared at each other. I asked the Talker in low tones what it was about. The answer came fast and I didn’t trust my comprehension, for I thought he said it was about who paid for the lettuce.Now that man and beast had both fought, quietness descended, and for the first time my gaze floated out to our surroundings. We were perched on a ridge that fell away steeply to three sides and ascended a wooded slope on the fourth. Pines as contained as goblets marked off the view and softened the sunlight. Nearby was a small ruined building, which the Moroccan had told us was associated with the legend of a local saint. Directly below lay the small church, where people milled at some stands that had been pitched by its front door. Córdoba, in the distance, was a hazy pool of white buildings flecked with towers, and the plain stretched beyond it to a surf of blue ridges becoming sky. The dogs trotted about following mazes of scents. The Moroccan stared into the misty panorama and the other two lay on the blanket, the Talker facedown, Rubio with his head on the small of the Talker’s back.The Moroccan left his post by the tree and lay in the sun, staring at the sky. Soon he was lightly snoring. The other two now lay side by side, talking in low tones. I heard the murmur of numbers. Peace seeped into us from all directions and a stranger would have thought we had reached the end of an idyllic pastoral Sunday. Patrick’s whistle sounded from below, and Og disappeared over the hill. We gathered the possessions in silence and walked back to the car.There was little talk on the way back. Explanation was pointless: They had thrown a picnic for us, we had taken away the girls, and there it rested. I thought back to the enthusiasm of the night we met. Now we had our versions of them, and they had their versions of us. I dropped Patrick and Og off at the campground and drove the rest to the Talker’s apartment. The goodbyes were not angry, not cold, just matter of fact. We did not arrange to meet again.Bruce Berger will be signing his award-winning books about Aspen and the great American deserts at Explore Booksellers at 4 p.m. on Aug. 3.