far too much writing, far too many photos

Yesterday: me, eating lunch at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant –- a perfectly decent-looking joint with perfectly decent food that doesn’t seem to do much business. Possibly as a result of that, the wait staff comes across as depressed, apathetic or resentful, depending on the day. (I’ve never eaten there at night. Could be a whole other situation when evening rolls around — customers streaming in and out, employees feeling the joy of being alive.) So I’m there yesterday, me and a young, depressed waitress. She brings food, I ask for chopsticks -– no small feat when you can’t remember the word and the wait person stares at you, doing nothing to help (”Sabes,” you say stupidly, “las cosas de madeira — largas, estrechas,” making increasingly desperate hand gestures you hope will eventually get the idea across) until she finally says, “¿Palillos?” “¡Sí!” says I, “¡Palillos! ¡Ellos! ¡Por favor!”

I’m finally shovelling down my ensalada China and a pretty respectable plate of pollo con almendras (chicken w/ almonds), at some point during the meal I notice the muzak playing softly above me. “Strangers In Paradise” — a far-too-ubiquitous muzak classic. I’m trying to remember if the piece was featured in Forbidden Planet or if my teeny little brain is blending different B-films together, when I notice “Strangers” has mercifully come to an end, after which a toxically sweet orchestral version of “Hey Jude” begins oozing out of the unseen loudspeakers — strategically hidden, maybe to lessen the likelihood of diners leaping up on the tables and ripping the buggers out of the acoustic ceiling tiles. I assumed it would only be a matter of minutes before “The Shadow of Your Smile” started up, and yes, by god, in no time at all there it was. After which something that I swear sounded like the Talking Heads song “Heaven” (from the CD ‘Fear of Music‘) commenced, which just about sent me running out into the Madrid heat, screaming with horror. I remember wondering if “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would be coming along, an unsettling enough thought that I didn’t linger over lunch to find out.

This last Wednesday, I passed a couple of hours over a long, leisurely meal at a cheap (and good) lunch joint with two friends, Curtis, down from Pamplona for a few days, and David, married to a Spanish woman and living in one of Madrid’s ‘burbs to the southeast of the city center. Both Americans, both living here for a while — David for a couple of years, Curtis a year or two longer than that. Curtis is essentially bilingual, David speaks strong Castellano. Making this a good opportunity, one might think, for me to get some conversational Spanish practice in. Which did not exactly turn out to be the case. I made the occasional foray into opening a line of talk in Spanish, but no one seemed to want to take the bait. David’s wife, Maria, showed up 30 or 40 minutes into the festivities, I tried some Spanish on her, getting nowhere –- she’s bilingual, the English continued unabated. I’m sitting there thinking Who do I have to sleep with to get conversation in Spanish around here?

The following day Curtis joined me at a sidewalk café and, bless his heart, indulged me for a while. A pretty good while, until we reached my limits. Probably gets tiring for an individual fluent in the language to deal with someone putting their conversational skills together, unless it’s an intercambio situation and they’re working on their English with you. (Which effectively wipes out the possibilities for native English speakers.)

My Spanish isn’t bad. Really. Considering that I don’t live with a Spanish-speaker, that most of my writing and e-mail is in English, and my stays here have been interrupted by substantial blocks of time back in the States, my Spanish is pretty good. I watch TV and get most of it. I read the papers and do fine. I get along pretty well with day-to-day exchanges. But I’d love to get lots better.

We’ll see.

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