a wandering woman writes

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Scene of the crime

My library, in the Casa de las Conchas. The doctor who built the Casa de las Conchas in the 15th century as his home was a member of the Order of Saint James, which uses the scallop shell as one of its symbols. (A concha is a scallop shell.)


Monday, June 20, 2005


Tomorrow's a dark day.

Tomorrow I return late library materials.

DVDs, to be exact. DVDs that didn't work. DVDs that blew my brilliant learn-colloquial-expressions-watching-movies-and-sound-more-like-a-native plan, although that's a blog entry for another day.

Thing is, I'd rather do this the American way. I'd rather march up to the library desk, look the librarian square in the eye and push my late returns across the desk. I'd rather pay my late fine, pat myself on the back for contributing to the public good and be on my merry way.

Yet, for reasons that escape me, Salamanca makes conscientious use of my public library less than convenient, at least for spoiled Chicagoans addicted to self-service lives and 24 hour drop boxes. To return my borrowed goods, I first have to manage to arrive during library hours, always a considerable challenge. Then I have to pay to store everything I've brought with me in a 1 euro lobby locker. Finally, I have to enter the library armed only with the materials I want to return. There I'll join the line at the circulation desk and wait for the librarian to give me a thumbs up on my due dates.

It's when that thumbs up doesn't show that things get tricky.

Take tomorrow, for example. Tomorrow I will line up with my fellow citizens. I'll slink up to the librarian, eyes glued to the floor, then I'll silently push the DVD boxes across the desk. After a quick scan, the librarian will recognize the flashing OVERDUE message on his computer screen and look at me over his half moon glasses. He'll clear his throat and announce my punishment in that impressive public speaking voice every Spaniard seems to have perfected while reciting Siglo de Oro poetry in grade school.

"No se puede sacar materiales hasta.."
"You cannot check out anything else until.."

A gasp will run through the crowd. I'll be shut off. Exiled. Unwelcome. Denied my library privileges for just as many days as I illegally held onto the DVDs.

I have to admit that I do find the Spanish method powerful. Shame, expulsion, public humiliation. They work. Like any red-blooded American, I stand ready to pay my way out of my predicament, but the Spanish will have none of it. I must learn. No se puede.

May I add that I am always on time for work, appointments and social occasions? Meanwhile, my fellow Salmantinos are, well, not. Can't I save up Salamanca punctual points or something?? Why is library punctuality so much more important than pinchos punctuality, I ask?

I can only hope some tall dark Spaniard behind me in the check-out line will find my bold defiance of library rules exciting and strike up a conversation.

Either way Spain is making a better woman out of me.
Punctual with library returns, anyway.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005


I've made a startling discovery.

I'm not getting enough kisses.

I'm talking e-mail kisses, for those of you who have yet to have the pleasure of exchanging business (or any other) e-mails in Spanish. E-mail kisses and hugs (abrazos) and assorted terms of endearment (guapa, cariño...)

And I mean it. I've definitely noticed my WEEQ (Work Email Emotion Quotient) slipping. Drastically.

Which has taught me a Spanish-inspired lesson I probably should have learned years ago:

You have to give kisses to get kisses.

When I first started working in Spain, I was flooded with besos. Besitos, abrazos fuertes, besazos, besotes (we are just varying the size of the besos here, I believe), the works. I remember asking the IT guys for a new mouse during my first week on the job and getting back a response with more affection than anything I'd received in roughly 30 years dating Anglo Saxon males. I've had long term relationships with less overt affection. Honestly.

ME: I'm afraid my mouse has died. Any chance of a new one?
INFORMÁTICO: Sure thing, guapa. Be right there. Un abrazo.

I only wanted a mouse! And look! I got a hug! If that doesn't brighten your day nothing will. And he called me guapa!

I first noticed the change in tone yesterday. I was busy trading emails with a business contact in London. We were exchanging emotionally charged "best regards" or something similarly expressive (although I think by the end of the day he did send round a hearty "Cheers!") Meanwhile, I was also copied in on a slew of internal e-mails, and sat dreamy eyed reading my Spanish colleagues' notes to each other, remembering how they used to write to me:

Ahhh, the warm openings:

Cariño, guapa, guapetón, Hola maja...

The dull business middles:

"I strongly disagree with the direction this is..."
"Will each team please note its assigned fridge cleaning days?"
"If you'll kindly refer to the attached spreadsheet, sales by country by.."

But Oh! What warm, wonderful closings:

Besos, Un abrazo fuerte, besitos, un besote, un besazo, maja

I decided all my safe Anglo Saxon "Saludos" have had a chilling effect.

Today, a newly affectionate e-mailer is born.

Bueno, guapos. Its time to head off to work.
I've got besos to mail.

Un besazo,


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Friday, June 10, 2005

Piano Man

This story fascinates me:

A man in his 20s or 30s wearing a soaking wet dinner suit was found wandering the streets of Sheerness, Kent, in England on April 7. He hasn't said a word since he was found, but he "comes alive" at the piano, and has been composing pieces while social workers try to figure out who he is. Away from the piano he is an anxious, terrified mess.

From the Times Online:
When he was found, the designer labels of his black dinner suit, sodden with seawater when he was discovered by the police on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, had been ripped out. He was dripping wet and wearing a white shirt and tie beneath an evening suit.

The man drew a picture of a grand piano. Michael Camp, his social worker, showed him a piano in the hospital chapel and the stranger delivered a stunning four-hour performance. “I cannot get within a yard of him without him becoming very anxious,” Mr Camp said. “Yet at the piano he comes alive. When we took him to the chapel piano it really was amazing. He played for several hours, non-stop, until he collapsed.”

The Rev Stephen Spencer, the hospital’s chaplain, said that he had recognised selections from the Tchaikovsky ballet Swan Lake and also a chorus of Across the Universe by Lennon and McCartney.
Read the article here. Pictures on the BBC.

This story was all over the news and blog worlds 3 weeks ago. Now the press has faded, yet I still find myself visiting the British National Missing Persons Helpline (which I promise you was a new addition to my Favorites!) every 3 or 4 days, just to see if they've identified him, if he's still playing, if he's written any new tunes lately .....

I've been trying to figure out why he fascinates me. Maybe it's just a good story. Maybe my solo travelling self wonders what would happen if I were traumatized alone in a strange place and couldn't help people figure out who I was. Maybe it's a sailor's morbid fascination with shipwrecks and castaways. (He was found walking, soaking wet, by the ocean. They suspect he may have washed ashore.)

But I think it's this.

He makes me wonder.

What is so me, so intrinsically me, so part of who I am and what I bring to the world, that if I lost every label I had acquired since birth - name, degrees, history, the whole precious CV.......it would still have to express itself? It would still be the place where I found peace.

Even without labels it would still be me.
What is it?


Sunday, June 05, 2005

Congratulations. Pass the Empanadas.

We interrupt this reverie about my trip to Andalucía to celebrate one of the most enjoyable perks of living and working in Spain: other people's cumples (birthdays).

In what I find to be a sign of a highly evolved civilization, Spaniards put the burden of any celebration squarely on the shoulders of He Who Has Something to Celebrate.

This strikes me as the perfect solution to an age old dilemma. As one Spanish friend explains it, "Our way you buy once a year, maybe twice. Your way you're always buying, and the celebration is never a surprise."

Birthday? Wedding? Baby's first tooth? Exotic vacation? Don't forget the snacks for the work crowd. Yes that's right, everything a Spaniard has to celebrate turns into free food for his friends and colleagues.

This weekend I celebrated 3 birthdays, all free of charge - a delicious afternoon of vino tinto and pinchos on Friday to celebrate the cumple of a colleague at work, a Saturday night tapas tour of Salamanca's tasty Calle Van Dyck in honor of a friend's boyfriend, and a nightcap in the Plaza Mayor toasting my boss's wife, whose cumple I crashed (accidentally) on my way home from Van Dyck.

Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?

In fact, my office mate Sol and I have worked out an oft repeated dialogue around these catered celebrations. Most days we begin the dialogue reading around 11 am.

- I'm hungry.
- Mmmmm. Think it's anybody's birthday?

On good days, unexpected IMs arrive at coffee time bearing invitations to join the day's happy celebrant in the lunch room.

- It's my last day at work!
- I'm getting married this weekend!
- Just back from a business trip to Moscow! Russian chocolates!
- ¡Pasteles para todos!

A stampede ensues.

The difficult days are those when no one has anything to celebrate. For those days Sol and I have worked out a sad refrán, a Hungry Worker's Lament, best delivered wide-eyed with a heavy drop of the shoulders.

- Tengo hambre, one of us will offer. The other joins in for the final phrase:
- Y no es el cumple de nadie.

- I'm hungry.
All together now:
- And it's nobody's birthday.

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