We’re still traipsing around the Andalusian countryside, avoiding any degree of responsible behavior as well as local authorities, so I don’t have quite the time for a full-on treatise concerning what has irked me during the preceding week. But I’m sure I can squeeze in a few tidbits before we rush off to another restaurant in Ronda and proceed to torment the staff as they force a smile and try to assist the noisy tourists with their food and beverage aspirations. Here we go…
ONE: Navigational satellite programs that don’t quite hit the mark.
Helga, in her bland, monotone digi-voice: “In one hundred meters, turn left.”
Me: “Um, Helga love, I can’t turn left. That’s a one-way street and all the cars are headed in my direction.”
Helga, slightly more insistent: “In fifty meters, turn left.”
Me: “Still a one-way street. Still headed in my direction. And those drivers look like they sense fresh foreigner meat, revving their engines. I am not going to turn left here.”
Helga: “Turn. Left.”
I don’t turn, sailing straight through the intersection. I hear a collective sigh from the revving drivers as they realize another innocent has escaped their clutches. Then they turn and look behind me to see if anyone is coming along who might be more willing to listen to Helga.
Helga, clearly perturbed about my anarchistic behavior: “Recalculating route.”
This takes longer than it seems it should, so Helga is probably multi-tasking, alerting her immediate supervisor that surely a pay raise is in order if she has to deal with the likes of me.
Finally, Helga: “In two hundred meters, drive over the roundabout and take the second exit.”
Me: “Over? How does one go over the roundabout, Helga? I’m not seeing a bridge. I’m seeing lots of people going around the roundabout. Shouldn’t we try that?”
Helga, dispensing with any remaining professionalism: “I said go OVER the roundabout and take the second exit, you cow.”
Helga and I are no longer on speaking terms.
Not a fan. End of story.
THREE: The language barrier that should be there.
There is a certain subset of the human population wherein logic is a bit sketchy. Okay, more than one, but I’m focused on a particular contingent: The folks who think that just because they don’t speak the same language as you, you can’t actually see the physical things they do as well. You can be innocently strolling through the city park, admiring nature and whatnot, birds frolicking and sun shining, and here comes a duo of yammering twits, chattering away in that too-fast stream of sounds that all languages have when you are not intimate with the linguistic workings.
You know they can see you, because you are right there in their flight path. (And it’s not like I’m a mere wisp of a thing that might be confused with a streetlamp or a javelin pole that somebody thoughtlessly left shoved in the ground.) They don’t even pause or review their surroundings, marching forth with the brazen confidence of the clueless and poorly-raised. This leaves matters up to you to dive out of the way, narrowly avoiding certain death or at least serious bodily injury that will greatly affect your performance of the chicken dance at the next Oktoberfest.
And, of course, you can’t make any incisive commentary about their rude existence as it would prove pointless. You don’t know how to convey your sentiments aside from primitive but dramatic gestures, they will most likely be down the hill and round the bend before you think of a really clever response, physical or otherwise, and there’s the fundamental reality that they really don’t care what you might think or they wouldn’t have tried to flatten you in the first place.
FOUR: Dear Sinead O’Connor: Sometimes you do want what you haven’t got.
As you wander through the “old” part of a city where even the “new” part is several millennia older than most states in America, admiring the architecture and the charm and the astonishing fact that some soulless business man hasn’t razed everything and built cheap, high-end condos, you will eventually have a certain need. This yearning will be focused on something that you forgot to bring on your current roundelay, an item that seemed unworthy of toting during the morning preparations but fate has intervened and now you cannot live if living is without that which you willfully left behind.
In my latest example, the quest for the Holy Grail involved expectorant.
Now, I realize this is not the most alluring of topics, but surely my fellow sinus sufferers will agree that an otherwise pleasant day can suddenly be blown all to hell when your respiratory systems reacts unfavorably to something wafting about in air. I was innocently reviewing some hand-painted tile work on a quaint little church when the transition took place. My appreciation for religious iconography paled a bit when compared to my lungs filling with thick wetness. Naturally, I had a pile of sinus meds back at the rental condo, but nary a tablet on my person, because I have focus issues.
After whining and complaining about my drippy situation for a good while, one of my traveling companions finally decided that the only way to shut me up was to resolve this annoying predicament and the two of us raced off to the nearest farmacia. As soon as we entered this fine establishment, the clerk at the counter narrowed his eyes suspiciously, probably because we clattered through the door in an obvious tourist manner instead of discreetly slipping in and quietly perusing the selection of antacids.
My companion (let’s call her Belinda for the purposes of this story, shall we?) marched right up to the counter and began negotiations. This was fine by me, more power to her. I had been studying Spanish for several months before this trip, but the only thing I had really retained was the fact that it was going to take me a long time to learn Spanish.
The conversation went something like this:
Belinda: “Something for congestion?”
Belinda, clutching at her ample chest: “Congestion?”
The clerk pointed at a display of feminine products.
Belinda shook her head with some exasperation (really? how did you get sangria-scented douche out of that?) then proceeded to pantomime an exaggerated coughing fit, bending over in her efforts.
The clerk pointed to a display of collapsible walkers.
Belinda: “Cough! Sinuses!”
The clerk’s eyes lit up, indicating an affinity for one or both of those words. He pointed to a stack of orange and white boxes. “Kerngrip Forte!” proclaimed the little boxes, perkily. This meant nothing to either of us, and it didn’t look all that Spanish. For all we knew we might be dealing with laxatives, and strong ones at that, considering the French-flair of “Forte!” I certainly didn’t have any need for such, considering all the spicy local cuisine we had been consuming like chipmunks on crack.
Still, the clerk was convinced that he had once again overcome the American tendency to only learn one language and yet still expect to be understood in all parts of the world. (To be fair, I do know French, but that did little good in Spain.) He plucked up one of the boxes and presented it with a flourish to Belinda, perhaps in honor of her ample bosom, who knows.
Belinda shoved the box at me for review. I flipped it over, hoping for some type of revelation in the fine print. Of course, it was all in Spanish, with no helpful pictures or a button that I could push to translate the page. With my well-intentioned but limited Rosetta Stone training, I only knew about one in seven of the words. But one word did catch my eye: “Paracetamol”. That was a pain reliever, in a dosage that was rather liberal. There was the possibility that I still might not be able to breathe, but it was entirely feasible that I wouldn’t care once the paracetamol kicked in.
Me: “I’ll take it.”
FIVE: The kindness of strangers.
In this wee nub of a village where we are staying (population 1,643, bumped up to 1,649 for a week or so), it’s obvious that we ain’t from around here. We do get a few curious but relatively discreet stares as we go about our business. At the same time, there is a warm cordiality that suffuses the experience. Everyone says “hola!” to everyone else they meet. You might encounter twenty different people as you leisurely saunter your way to the panaderia for some fresh bread and maybe a dessert treat for the evening meal, and you can expect to have twenty conversations, however brief and fleeting.
This doesn’t happen in the larger Spanish cities, and it doesn’t happen anywhere in the States, at least not where I’ve been.
But maybe it should.