The waiter cradled two menus in his arms, like fraternal infant twins. I was certain the one I could not read listed the most delectable delicacies and the other one, the less attractive sibling, contained watered-down, Anglicized versions of Spanish dishes. He sized us up, by which I mean he mentally placed us on a scale, measured our weight in kilograms and then inquired, “Ingles or Español?”
His expression was the same one I had seen on my doctor’s face when he rhetorically asked if I “really understood what a healthy plate of food looks like?” The answer was obvious, though I could not seem to give it.
“Ingles, por favor,” my colleague Dan said.
It was then that j'ai regretté studying French in high school. I fell for the romance of the language, the way the S’s and vowels snuggled up to form liaisons, like two lovers clinging to one another on a misty, black and white Parisian afternoon. I thought if I learned the language of love, I might understand my internal version of it. But, simply analyzing a map versus walking the twisted lanes and secret side streets of a foreign city are like dining from the dollar menu at a Taco Bell and calling it tapas.
I didn’t expect everyone in Madrid to speak English, as if I had stumbled into the Disney Epcot version of Spain where the scrubbed down facades and cobblestone sidewalks did not offer up the occasional acrid, urine besotted scent. But, I also did not anticipate feeling so ill-prepared and let’s face it, so American. Not that I was un-proud of being American. I was just keenly aware of Europeans’ distrust in our politics. Never was there a more accurate warning label than a Donald Trump bumper sticker.
“I can’t make out the prices. These wines seem so expensive,” I whispered.
The older gentleman sitting next to us, so close that I could count the comb marks in his white hair said, “That’s not the wine list. It’s just the cover of the menu. They’ll bring an iPad if you ask.”
“Gracias,” I said, even though he spoke with a crisp British accent. And then I actually began to count the comb marks—in Spanish, but when I got to diez, I reached the upper limit of my knowledge.
I learned a handful of phrases on my trip to Madrid. I could say good day, thank you and ask where the bathroom was, but if anyone answered in Spanish, I would have been lost.
When I told our waiter the paella was muy bien, he smiled and said “Bueno.” I smiled back. I considered this a small victory until Dan explained that the waiter was correcting me. I had told him the food was very well, as if he were inquiring after my elderly aunt.
That evening, the language app on my iPhone indicated with a triumphant chime that I was one percent fluent in Spanish. Being one percent of anything does not strike me as something to crow about. I’m used to giving it my all, of working sixteen hour days in order to move a data center in Spain; of taking a sharp left in my early forties and tossing out the map while actually walking through the twisted chambers of my own heart after my first marriage to my wife imploded.
If you were to question my perseverance, I would tell you how I drove through a blizzard on a road I had never travelled to dine with the man who would become my husband. We met at a Mexican restaurant called “On the Border.” It straddled the state line between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. After dinner, I could not stop kissing him in the front seat of his car as the snow piled up. When I drove home, the landscaped was so altered I thought I’d never find my way. Here's the thing. Falling in love is like learning a new language; the only way to do it is to immerse yourself and risk becoming lost.
I may have only known a few Spanish words on that trip to Madrid, but mira, I made a decision. I would make them the most auténtico sounding phrases a Spaniard had ever heard. So, I listened closely and it seemed to me that Madrileños cast off their S’s the way Bostonians drop their R’s. No hypersexual French S’s rolling in zee hay with any proximate coquettish vowels.
After Dan and I finished setting up the new office we decided to take a walking tour of Madrid. When we approached the tour guide I said, “Buenos Dias. ¿Qué tal?” I barely acknowledged my S’s.
“Ah, si, Español,” he said.
“Ingles, por favor,” I replied.
“Well, your greeting was very convincing.”
After the tour, we walked through the heart of the city, along the twisted side streets and uncovered its secrets hidden beneath the cobblestone lanes and behind the Palacio walls. I turned to Dan and said, “I will give you five euros if you can find a Mexican restaurant.”
We sat outside at a table on Calle de las Hileras and ate Guacamole, tacos, tamales and quesadillas while sipping dos cervezas. It may not have been the healthiest plate of food in the world, but on that moonlit night in Madrid, it was the Spanish I knew snuggling with the Spain I was beginning to love.