Jan/Feb 2016 Travel

Spanish Lessons

by Cindy Carlson

Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton

Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton

Our first time in Madrid, courtesy of seven hours on the red-eye. It could have been any of the countless airports we've languished in around the world—the thup-thup-thup-thup of roller-bags across a concrete floor, cinderblock walls painted legal-pad-yellow, a haze of rental car countertops, all the familiar brands. We were snaking along in the National line. Propped up by the luggage cart, I shuffled forward with each burst of movement, then paused, staring bleary-eyed around the room. A squat, elderly couple in front argued, faces flushed, fists clenched around the straps of matching red shoulder bags. I leaned forward, trying to guess their language. Rich winked, and I knew he was playing our game of concocting a story for them. It would be something to talk about on the long ride ahead.

Our turn. Rich stepped forward to the desk. In our family, travel tasks are generally divided as follows:

1. renting and driving the car—Rich;
2. navigating—me;
3. planning and reservations—Rich; and
4. communicating/negotiating once we get there—me.

It's an arrangement that has served us well over the years but has required, like travel itself, no small amount of flexibility. I was glad Rich had the job at the moment; I'm always foggy after a long flight.

A man slid in line behind me—tall, with dark eyes and a rugged face. His long wool coat seemed a bit much for spring, but I imagined he'd just flown in from somewhere cold—

"A little help here!" I heard Rich's voice; the "un-Spanishness" of it hung strangely in the air. I looked up to see him pacing while a slight, mustached young man behind the counter rummaged through a stack of reservations. Over the murmur of airport sounds I could hear my husband mutter, "How can there not be someone here who speaks English?"

We seemed to be veering from the realm of rental cars into the ambiguous world of communications. Time to lend my limited Spanish to the conversation.

I stepped forward.

"¿Se habla inglés?" I asked.

Without a glance up from his papers, the young man shook his head. Thinking this encounter might take a while, I turned to pull the luggage cart next to us.

The cart. I stared at the two green American Eagle roller-bags on the bottom shelf. A lone matching backpack perched in the basket where it was supposed to be. And next to it, a horrible empty space.

The stranger from cold country was gone. So was my backpack.


I should insert here that the role of luggage-watcher was never specifically identified as mine. In fact, our 20 years of travel had never called for any emergency protocols regarding luggage-watching. I was staring into unmapped territory.

So, I ran.

Across the large open lobby I raced—bumping through the rental car lines; around the first luggage carousel, pausing to investigate a big black uncollected duffel bag making its lonely rounds on the conveyor belt; out the revolving door, pushing its little glass cage twice around, then back in on the other side. (As though someone would actually be standing in any of these places, my pack hoisted over his shoulder, waiting to negotiate.)

Back at the National desk, I frantically gestured to Rich. "It's gone!"

"Wha—" I heard as I took off again. Down a wide empty hallway. Reaching a trashcan, I shoved aside the lid and, as it clattered to the floor, pawed furiously through the first layer of garbage. Then, seeing a sign for the airport police, I sprinted up the stairs in the direction of the arrow.

As I burst through the door of the cell-like room, three startled officers—two burly young guys and an older pudgy man, the sleeves of his limp tan uniform rolled past his elbows— looked up from behind a desk littered with half-eaten sandwiches.

"¿Se habla inglés?" I asked, panting.

As the three of them shook their heads, it hit me. I would have to describe this crime without the words for "thief" or "stolen" or even "backpack" in my vocabulary. Those aren't the words you study when preparing for a trip. You learn "How much does this cost" and "I need another fork, please." I gestured, arms flailing, wildly stringing together words that I know. The result, in their ears, may have sounded like:

"A very bad man has the tiny luggage from off my body."

They stared incredulously.

Fully manic now, I raced downstairs to the rental car area. Rich, finally negotiating with an English-speaking agent, glanced with alarm as I grabbed his backpack and lugged it back toward the stairs. Bursting again into the police office, I waved my visual aid in front of their astonished faces. "Mira," I said, gasping for air. "Como este equipaje. Verde."

Perhaps they finally understood the nature of my dilemma and the tiny green luggage, or more likely, they wanted to escape the crazy woman. The two younger officers snatched their sandwiches and trotted out the door to have a look. I stared after them, wishing I could help capture the "very bad man." The remaining officer, the older grumpy one, scrunched his heavy brows and squinted at me.

"Escriba," he said, jabbing his finger toward a three-and-a-half legged table that at some point must have been a desk. He wants me to write it all down, I thought, as he shoved in front of me a pile of crumpled bureaucratic forms, mimeographed, in ten-point font, all in Spanish. I slumped into the metal folding chair.

The table grated against the wall every time I moved. Under el policia's sidelong glance, the suggestion of stale lunchmeat in the stuffy air, I grappled with the report of the missing items. Once, I looked over and then caught myself before blurting out, "How do you say 'contact lenses' in Spanish?"

My pack, the missing one, held all my personal items—wallet, credit card, driver's license—as well as the itinerary, maps, field guides and travel books. Thank God Rich had the passports in his hand. His pack sat on my lap, heavy from two pairs of binoculars, the spotting scope and camera—their weight affording a bit of comfort. At least we had our optics.

But... We were about to embark on a two-week, 3,000-mile birding trip around Spain—in the days before smart phones, internet access and GPS—without a shred of information. Even my English-Spanish dictionary was gone. Ido.

Rich found me staring glumly at the paperwork. He had successfully completed the car rental and was ready to get on the road.

"Give it up, girl," he said, resting his hand on my shoulder.

The other way we divide travel responsibilities is: when one of us, usually me, gets wound up, crazy or depressed, the other, usually him, gets coolheaded and reasonable. Sheepishly, I handed the half-completed form to the puzzled officer and followed Rich out the door, exhausted from all that running.

Outside, rain streamed from a sodden sky. From our front seats in the compact rental car, a baffling array of ramps and roads confronted us.

"What do you think?" Rich asked, pausing with his foot on the brake.

"I think we should go around the airport loop a couple of times."

"Come on, babe," he said. "Nothing's going to be here. It's gone."

"Well, maybe he just wanted my wallet, so he tossed the pack. And everything else is still in it," I said, knowing instantly how ridiculous that sounded.

But Rich obliged me for two loops, slowly easing around the circle, while I scanned the weeds and rubble. At the sight of a trashcan, I rolled down the window to stare.

"It should be right there," I said, struggling to believe it wasn't.

"Okay," Rich said finally. "Help me with these signs."

There was an irrevocability to rolling up that window. Whatever they used to clean the car stung sticky-sweet in the back of my throat. Clenching my teeth and adjusting my glasses, I struggled to focus through the downpour-drenched windshield. We were still on an airport road, traffic building behind us. On a sign ahead I glimpsed the word sur.

"Just take that one," I mumbled. "At least we'll be going in the right direction."

The good news about driving in Spain is the signs are easy to read. Spanish and English share almost entirely the same alphabet and numerals compared to, say, Thai or Farsi, so it's relatively simple to match directions in hand to the signs overhead. If I'd had directions in hand. We knew our first destination was Trujillo in the province of Extremadura, somewhere in the southwest. We had reservations at an inn called Finca Santa Marta. Beyond that loomed a lacuna.

Experience has taught us to make reservations for our first and last nights of a trip. The rest of the time, we're content to hold a general idea. In those days of maps and pay phones and hand-written directions, Rich did hours of research creating notebooks of options until we had a portable library of the best sights and the best places to find birds in that country. Then we let the trip unfold. This trip was unfolding already. On its own terms.

We spotted a town ahead. On instinct I checked my lap as though a map might appear.

The bad news about driving in Spain is that upon reaching a town there are no signs. The narrow streets wind round and round in confusing spirals. Past thick stone walls and tiny shops, aging churches and tumble-down graveyards, bicycles and buses, until miraculously you're out in the countryside again. The entire effect is of entering the spin cycle of some ancient stone machine and then being spit, slightly disoriented, out the other side.

"What next?" Rich asked when we exited. We were back on a major road, still traveling a high, dreary plateau, still heading south.

"Keep going, I guess." My voice revealed more self-pity than intended. I kept reaching for my pack like a sort of phantom limb, wanting the simplest things—a package of tissues, my lip balm. Somewhere a creepy man was rifling through my wallet, leering at my stuff.

"Time to let it go," Rich said. He was even more cheerful now, humming, commenting on the cars whizzing by. I sat glumly, staring at the windshield wipers.

An hour into the journey, the skies brightened and the rain slowed to a drizzle. We gazed for the first time at la dehesa, the Spanish savannah of grassland and scattered small trees. Wildflowers blanketed the hillsides—miles of springtime lavender accented with bursts of brilliant red poppies. With the windows cracked, the car filled with a fresh, heady breeze.

"Trujillo!" we both shouted at once. The sign ahead showed the highway dividing, one arrow pointing west. The smaller sign below read TRUJILLO 150 KM.

"Oh, my God, we're headed in the right direction." For the first time since the airport, I smiled.

The sun was out. Red kites—large hawks, graceful as their namesake—swooped overhead. Chunky European rollers puffed their turquoise bellies over the telephone wires. Flocks of pale finches, too quick to identify, fluttered up from roadside bushes. Stonechats perched, ruddy-breasted, like pint-sized robins on the ancient stone walls that edged the highway and meandered off into the fields. Newly-leafed cork trees, their bark stripped almost to the top of the trunk, shivered in the breeze.

"So far, so good," Rich said when we reached the outskirts of Trujillo. "Now comes the fun part. We've got to find this place with our intuition."

I groaned.

There's an old lesson for me that transforms us from tourists to travelers, a lesson I must relearn every time I pack my bags. The part of the journey between here and there is where the real odyssey lies. From the comforts of here, I'm tempted to hurry to the safety of there, forgetting that the space in between holds the potential for discovery and experience. This is the space where we stare into the unknown and then go about the business of meeting and knowing it. Where the mystery lies. And the stories.

I held my breath as we entered a much larger town than the ones we'd already spun through—squeezing down a narrow street past a stone-walled fortress from the Middle Ages—and then exhaled as we rattled up a cobblestone hill. A sign (an actual sign!) pointed to Plaza Mayor, a grand square rimmed with red-roofed palaces. Crowds of people bunched in cafes and bumped along the narrow sidewalk in a fiesta of colors—red, yellow, orange, blue. Swept along the thoroughfare, we caught a glimpse of a giant bronze conquistador on a horse, and suddenly we were rumbling back down the hill into the web of streets.

"I wonder if this place is going to be outside town," Rich said, stopping in the middle of the street because there was no place to pull over. "I think the write-up mentioned it used to be an olive farm."

"Well, finca is farm in Spanish," I said. "Let's go find some fincas."

We looped again through the tangled streets until one opened toward a highway heading east into the countryside. It was promising; fields of olive and almond trees stretched into the distance. After ten minutes of passing what looked like the same grove, we stopped for directions at a fruit-stand-style tienda on the side of the road.

"Here goes," I said. My dread comes not from asking the questions, but assuming I won't understand the answers.

A hunched little man perched on a stoop, encompassed by an extraordinarily long pale blue scarf. I excused my presence with a smile, which he met with a wizened grin.

"¿Donde esta la Finca Santa Marta, por favor?" I asked.

He nodded and, taking my hand, toddled to the edge of the establishment, gesturing toward the horizon. I thought I caught some words—soft, roping phrases that disappeared into his scarf. Perhaps I heard that our farm-turned-inn was on the winding country lane not far in the distance. Close enough. We set off. The road turned to gravel, then to dirt, then to parallel tracks. Weeds and brambles scraped the chassis as though nothing but an ox cart had traveled that way in decades. Just when I knew I had misunderstood, half-hidden in the bushes, a cracked and faded sign pointed to our destination.

Finca Santa Marta greeted us as if out of a storybook. The terra-cotta rooftop protruded over a towering exterior stone wall, and a stork perched precariously on his haphazard chimney-top nest. We were facing an ancient wooden door—a full-size Dante's portal—that stood closed.

"I wonder if we knock," Rich said as I climbed out of the car.

There was no knocker, so I pushed. With a slow metallic creak, the door swung open. I stopped short, wondering if I had stepped back into another century. At least a dozen white-washed buildings faced us—everything trimmed with thick, dark hardwood and copper. Wrought iron furniture invited us to lounge on the tile patios. Crockery pots brimmed with orange and yellow flowers. An old mastiff ambled up to have a sniff, a couple of her pups poked around the bushes.

"Hello, hello!" We heard a thickly-accented voice from somewhere across the courtyard. Henri, the proprietor of this paradise, approached—a vigorous Frenchman with wispy white hair, a whiff of pipe tobacco, and the crisp linen shirt of a gentleman farmer. He shook our hands warmly. "You have traveled a great distance to visit our finca," he said. "You must be very tired. Come, come!"

Oh, you don't know the half of it, I thought as we followed him to a cozy room with sunflowers on the windowsill and a modern bath with an over-sized tub. We explained our plight. Clucking sympathetically, he offered his phone to cancel my credit card and his brand-new email to report our losses. "And when you are perfectly ready," he said, grinning broadly, "there will be wine in my study before dinner."

That evening, sinking into over-stuffed chairs, the world was right again. The rioja flowed. Henri, the perfect host, introduced us like lost relatives to the other guests—two gregarious couples from England, a sprightly older woman from France and a young birder from Philadelphia who, because he was leaving the next day, offered us his maps and guidebooks. They begged us to tell our story.

"You start," said Rich.

"Well," I said, beginning slowly, "I probably should have paid more attention to the tall man in the long dark coat standing behind us in the rental car line."


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