Tuesday, September 27, 2011


The Spanish dirt tasted of sunshine that history had made stale, gathering under short fingernails and lingering between sticky knuckles. For years afterwards, every American orange would fall shortthere wasn’t any citrus pride to coat the tongue. Paul was ten, I was just fourteen, and a dozen oranges were gone in a giggle. We were the foreigners, the “hermanos Americanos," 3,500 miles from “home” in every meaning of the word except the one hidden in the word “family”.

For those first months, Spain was alien. The land itself held a history just beneath the surface, as if you only had to dig a meter through rust-grey dictatorship to stumble upon the concealed and garish blood-spattered memories of the Civil War, and only a couple meters more to find the idyllic shadows of Don Quixote’s enemy windmills pressed against the rocks. The landscapes were outlandish, and the people were just as captivating: striking, delicate and severe.

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They rolled the skirts of their school uniforms over to display an extra five centimeters of skin, and pulled dark hunter green socks as high over bare knees as possible. Nails were painted blacks, oranges, and pinks. Pale yellow polo shirts stretched tight, the school logo standing out as a stark reminder of the leaking umbrella of authority. Bright blue eyeshadow covered the parts of eyelids not swept up in dramatic black cat-eyes. Students chose their seats ingeniously, taking into account factors such as the teacher’s gender, attractiveness, and dedication to school policy concerning nose-, lip- and eyebrow-rings. Everyone knew that tongue studs were easier.

Cristina always got away with more in Physics than anybody else, probably because she would go and smoke with Mr. Sheen during recess and lunch. Rebeca snickered and patted her cheeks, laughing to us about the new thing her pretty face had gotten her out of. Bea spent hours with me going over our chemistry concepts, but would then write them high on her thigh under her skirt so that Mr. Tudor couldn’t catch her cheating.

The day that report cards were given out, parents would get off work early to come pick up their child. The question was always the same: “How many have you failed?”

~ - ~ - ~ - ~

The cities of Spain are almost human, picking up pride from the millions of lives they have trailed from between their cobblestones and contained within their walls over thousands of years. There are no secrets, and this is not intimidating, but welcoming. Inclusive.

Roads are never straight and always one way, and they often narrow as they go until you have to back out to a refrain of honks and good-natured swearing. Maps are rarely accurate, but you can always find a good ice cream stand. We would go around the rotaries twice, which never helped us get our heads wound on any straighter.

Walking, we would stumble upon cathedrals to explore. Vaulted ceilings constricted air that had been chilled by centuries of ornate Catholicism. Polished steps bore imprinted records of the loyal steps of countless Spaniards, names now misplaced in the charred histories of time. Ancient relics had lost some significance, but none of their tradition, and the femur of Saint Such-and-Such and the goblet of Queen What’s-Her-Name were still fascinating. Carvings framed time-dulled stained glass windows and paintings that aloofly watched as century old traditions continued: safe, stationary, soothing, muffling.

~ - ~ - ~ - ~

We were squatters in the lobby of the Sierra Real Hotel of Alpedrete with the three-foot-square elevator that we could never get enough of. They had off-balance floral couches, hot milk with sugar, and they let us use their Internet connection to email friends across the Atlantic. As far as we were concerned, they had found the key to any and all international relation problems.

I’m fairly certain that no dictionary could capture the concept of “pride” quite as well as their dainty black shoes, pink knee-high socks, and baby-blue gold-sequined high-waisted leggings didor maybe it was the strut. In any case, these three men had enough elegance woven through their arrogance to pull it off.

Shooting out one last email, we pause, slack-jawed as the three bullfighters amateurs, but matadors nonethelessmade their entrance, stood waiting, and sauntered off to their rooms.

~ - ~ - ~ - ~

They had invited our family to their small apartment to watch the Eurocup final soccer game, but more importantly to experience first-hand the Spanish football match phenomenon. Years, languages, and histories separated the two dads as they crouched, taut and primed on the short couch, waiting.

Spain won, of course.

Everyone was electrified, hugging, whistling, shouting, and kissing. Raw passion sparkled over clenched fists and along the tarnished notes of songs. Champions! We had trouble getting home, the ten minute drive unfolding to almost an hour as red shadows in the streets knocked on our windows to sing to us and horns played by pride celebrated into the night.

~ - ~ - ~ - ~

Running into school in the morning, we would pass scary eighteen year-old boys in leather jackets kissing their mothers’ cheeks to say goodbye, hurrying to find our friends thrilled to see us, with everybody kissing cheeks to say hello after only a couple of hours. Heady laughter echoed, bubbling on friendly limbs and bright yellow lockers.

During recess, we passed around sandwichesbaguettes stuffed with jamon serrano and cheese or chorizo and fresh tomatoes or chocolate nocilla. Carol would always bring cookies, and if you got to her first and begged enough you might get a couple of crumbs. Every once in a while someone would bring a lollipop or two and they would be juggled from mouth to mouth, sharing syrupy approval.

We would sit cross-legged, letting the spangled sun soak the insides of our knees. We slapped legs and feet, twirled rings, bumped shoulders, linked elbows, and ran fingers through wild hair. Kisses were handed out between friends like raisins. There I learned that friendship smells of over-sweet perfumes and colognes and feels like tanned and contented palms on your knees. By the end of our patio time, we would all have a record of our friendships stamped onto any bare skin by highlighters and ballpoint pens.

~ - ~ - ~ - ~

Isa was my best friendone of the few who spoke my language well enough to follow my distinctly American trains of thought, riddled with obscure colloquialisms and abbreviations.

I was teaching a dance to the girls at church one evening, and she came along to learn it. The bishop caught us leaving, red-faced, sweating, and laughing in the peculiar deep-throated laugh of the Spanish women that even I had picked up on. He asked her if she was American, and her answer was striking, severe, and indignant:

"Me? An American? No, never, no. I am a Spaniard!"

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