Richard Manchester Potter
Digui is "Speak, Speak" in Catalan. It is also the name of a government
sponsored language instruction book.]
The most unexpected difficulty of living in Barcelona was the
Catalans' insistence on speaking Catalan. At first, I imagined Catalan was merely a
dialect of Spanish, a backward vernacular mastered only by rural grandparents and
academics. But as my ear developed, I became aware of the languages sheer
powerits ubiquity, its difference. The city itself spoke Catalan, not Spanish. The
swarming geometry of the streets and buildings whispered messages that overlapped and
interfered with one another. Only the announcements on the metro reached me uncorrupted: "Correspondència
amb línia cinc," a woman said. This recorded voice echoed in my head at night,
as I tried to fall asleep in the summer heat, wiggling my limbs on a foam mattress, in the
room I rented from Paz Martínez de la Rosa.
The predominance of Catalan justified my inability to
learn Spanish, which was my chief reason for going to Spain in the first place. It
didnt help that I associated almost exclusively with my fellow expatriates, tilting
beers in Barcelonas various Irish bars. In my apartment I fared only a little
better, even though I lived with two native Spanish speakersPaz and Enrique. A
postgraduate student from Buenos Aires, Enrique never spoke to me in his native tongue.
Instead, he loved to practice his English, mostly to express his extreme dislike of the
United States, capitalism, industrialism, and meguilty by association. I still had
plenty of opportunities to speak Spanish. Paz herself couldnt say a word in English.
From Andalusia, she didnt speak Catalan either. She stayed home, alone and foreign
as any of us from overseas, and tossed me conversation starters: this summer is hotter
than last summer; Sevilla is more beautiful than Barcelona because it has more churches;
Enrique likes tortilla de patatasdo you like tortilla de patatas?
An abysmal source of small talk, Paz sketched paradigms of language instruction, and I
merely responded with a nod, a shrug of my shoulders, or I ignored her completely and
watched television. I simply couldnt carry on conversations for the sake of carrying
Not so with Brooke, one of my colleagues. She talked
incessantly with Montse, her drunken landlady. I stopped by their flat one afternoon
before going to the office. The two were standing in the cavernous kitchen, Brooke holding
a fistful of silverware, Montse a tumbler of gin. "I have a spoon and I carry it to
the room," Brooke stammered in Spanish. "No, a knife. I carry a knife. Because I
have to cut a piece of fruit. Not an apple, but like an apple. Green. Like a woman."
"Pera," said Montse, glassy-eyed
and wearing pajamas. She nodded patiently, pleased to provide a word to end a sentence.
Shed like to do this all the time, I thought. And with Brooke, she practically did.
Brooke literally planned lessons for herself, and then hunted Montse down. A little cruel,
I thought. Perhaps she was taking advantage of the poor woman, who likely imagined that
the conversations were spontaneous, sincere and practical. On the other hand, maybe Montse
knew Brookes design and didnt care, was simply happy to have the company.
"Montse also I want a vidrio,"
Brooke said. I could hear her Australian accent through the clumsy Spanish sentence.
Monste shuffled to a kitchen chair, moanedshe
was only around fiftyand sat down with an exaggerated exhalation. She grinned
mischievously at Brooke, lifted her tumbler and rattled the ice cubes. This is cristal,
the window is vidrio.
Certainly, in my quiet way, I envied Brooke. She had a
plan. She could wake in the morning and say to herself, this is the day of kitchen nouns.
"We gotta get going," I said to Brooke in
English, "or Ill be late for my class." I inhaled deeply as I spoke,
trying for some reason to make my words difficult to comprehend; Montse, as far as I knew,
couldnt understand a word of English.
Brooke went into her bedroom to collect her things.
Montse leaned back in her chair and lit a cigarette, a picture of Latin disrepair. She
gazed at me, as if to say you want some of this? Go ahead, I know it all: table,
chair, closet, broomtry me.
When Brooke came back, looking attractive in pressed
black slacks, she handed me half a pear. "Lets vamos," she said.
We walked up Rambla de Catalunya to the "Hello Its [sic] English Time!" school,
where we both worked as teachers. Clarence and Gordon were already at the copy machine,
complaining about the "improved" sanitation service in the Barri Gòtic. They
were unlikely chums, I thought: Clarence an angry and secretive Bostonian, and Gordon a
garden variety drunk from the English Midlands. "So what," Gordon said,
"you just leave it on the street at night?"
"Thats right," Clarence said,
seething, "and they collect it in the morning."
"What happened to the dumpsters?"
"They were sick of people setting them on fire,
so theyve gotten ridden of them."
"Gotten ridden?" Brooke said as she entered
Clarence looked at her, appalled. "What?"
"Gotten ridden? Youre an English teacher
for fucks sake. What language is that?"
"Theres such a thing as colloquial speech
you stuck-up wench."
Clarence gave her the finger with both hands. Brooke
contorted her lips and tongue into an obscene gesture. This was more my speed. I went to
the office just for these very reasonsto whine about my various dissatisfactions,
unleash indiscriminate insults, and generally refine my complaints with colleagues at the
photocopy machine. I got the job by sheer "luck" the day after I arrived in
Barcelona. One of the teachers, Dmitri Lagos, had fallen ill and was forced to abandon his
"Todays the big day," I announced.
"What you mean, big day?" Gordon said.
"Crunchtime. Paydirt. Rubber match."
"What are you on about?" Brooke asked.
"The battle of Titans, no holds barred, steel
cage, no referee."
"Whats the fight?" Clarence asked,
ever appreciative of violent analogies.
"Guimerá." I said, trying to evoke a sense
of drama. Gordon looked up from his haphazard stacks of copies.
"Oh, that geezer at Anderson," he said.
"Dmitri hated him too."
I nodded sagely. "Guimerá and I are indeed
pitted in a heroic battlewho can better express through body language their
displeasure of the English lesson." Clarence offered a rare smile. Although I had
been there only three weeks, the self-proclaimed most cynical man in Spain had taken a
shine to me. He wore black pince-nez with a white-taped bridge.
"Guimerá won the last battle by scraping his
scalp with his fingernails. It was very involved and drawn out. He really had to dig
around." I demonstrated Guimerás technique. "Then he studied the
encrusted booty beneath his fingernails and some of it flaked off, right onto his chart of
"What did you do?" Gordon asked.
"What could I do? I conceded right there. It was
sophisticated. He totally disarmed me. Guimerá won."
The day had become quite warm. I stood beneath the washed-out sycamore trees on Avenue
Diagonal, waiting for the number seven bus to take me to Guimerás office. My chest
and back began to perspire, and I could smell the sweet pungency of last nights
beer. When the bus finally arrived, I took one look at the distressed, sweaty driver, and
knew the air conditioning was broken. Some people shuffled on, others peered down the
street to see if another bus was on the way. The lesson with Guimerá started in exactly
ten minutes, and I was far too cheap to take a cab, so I stepped aboard the bus. It was
like a casserole dish.
By the time I disembarked at Plaça Francesc Macià,
my shirt was soaked with smelly sweat. I was already a few minutes late, and still had to
walk 200 meters to Anderson Consulting. Rushing past the well-groomed executives on their
lunch breaks, I became self-conscious. My second-hand slacks felt a little tight in the
thigh; my polyester shirt that I bought at the grocery store looked especially cheap in
the direct sunlight. But the worst realization was that my earnings for this lesson, for
the day, would only come to fifteen dollarsenough to eat one of those bourgeois
lunches or get a haircut.
Three minutes late, I strode past Guimerás
heart-stopping secretary and into his office. A portly man with jowls like a St. Bernard,
Guimerá was sitting motionless at his desk with his hands folded, a picture of contrived
patience. I must have looked seriously disheveled, though he merely offered a cursory
remark about the heat and humidity. I tried to render the events of the last fifteen
minutes into rudimentary English so he could appreciate my situation, and because I had
nothing else prepared. Guimerá nodded along, but then glanced at his books arranged
neatly on the desk. He looked especially crisp and attentive. It dawned on me for the
first time that Guimerá was an important person whose days were filled with significant
business. He occupied the corner office on the tenth floor, the Mediterranean Sea hazily
visible from a sitting position.
I improvised the whole class. Guimerá seemed keenly
aware of my lack of preparation. I vowed to myself to be ready for the next lesson, but
then I remembered that I had made that same vow two days before, squirming in the very
same seat. About twenty minutes into the lesson Guimerá asked where I had been trained.
He had assumed an air of objectivity that made me nervous. "Did you had a special
classes to learn teach?" I felt new sweat form a tingling crown along my receding
"I went to school in California," I said.
"I went through the TOEFL program at UCLA," a bold-faced lie. "Its
one of the top five TOEFL programs in the U.S."
He greeted this information coolly, skeptically, as if
I had claimed royal ancestry. I made him read one of the paragraphs for advanced students
at the back of the book and corrected every single pronunciation mistake.
That afternoon when I got home, I called my family in Florida. My brother Tyrone
"Im on house arrest," he laughed.
"What happened? Whats that?"
"The jails are full, so the probation department
fastened this steel band around my ankle. They can monitor my whereabouts. Like
radar." He lit something and inhaled. "Beats being in the hole," he said.
"Why are you even on house arrest? Did you start
smoking crack again?"
"No, hell no. I was just walking through the
parking lot of Dennys," he pulled deeply off his smoke, "and this guy had
left a Skilsaw right in the back of his truck."
"So what? I lifted it. You cant just leave
shit like that laying around."
"What the hell do you need with a Skilsaw? What
is a Skilsaw?"
"Its for serious cutting. Good ones go for
a few bills."
"What, did you try and pawn it?"
"I wish. These rednecks came barreling out of the
restaurant, all yelling. I ditched the saw and bolted through the back of the parking lot.
I got wedged trying to squeeze underneath the cyclone fence."
"Why did you go under? Why didnt you go
"Everyone goes over. Besides, it was a
"Did they kick the shit out of you?"
"I wish. They sat on my calves and called the
cops on a cell phone. What the fuck is that? Whats the world coming to? Twenty years
ago they would have dragged me back into the parking lot, whacked me around, given me body
bruises. No cops." Tyrone, twenty-six, was nostalgic for an era that existed
long before he was born, if it ever existed at all.
"Hell yeah. After they were through theyd
probably buy me a beersay hey punk, you know how to steal a Skilsaw,
but can you cut with one? Id be working with em for chrissakes."
Im certain my mother and stepfather were
disappointed that Tyrone was not finally condemned to jail. His house arrest was like a
sentence to them. Over the years, he stole their stereos and televisions; he ripped out
checks from the back of their checkbooks. He pawned their CD collection, Reeses
fishing tackle, my mothers Teflon cookware. He never lived away from our mother,
except when she remarried and moved from San Diego to Florida with her new husband, Reese
Crapps. Tyrone moved into a storage unit next to Interstate 5. After three weeks, the
overnight security guard smelled pot smoke coming from Tyrones "storage"
bay. When the old man lifted up the garage-like door, he trained his flashlight on Tyrone,
naked and sitting on a duffel bag, holding a water pipe. Tyrone moved to Ft. Lauderdale.
That was four years ago.
"Mom and Reese arent home," he said.
"They went on an old person day cruise. Shuffleboard, swing dancing, prime rib."
He laughed derisively, my only brother. "Hey, you didnt need that stamp
collection anymore, did you?"
The following morning, Saturday, I went to the Dia grocery store for my weekend
supplies. The unquestioned bottom of Spanish chain markets, Dia was decidedly second
world, unapologetically lowbrow. They manufactured their own brand of generic goods,
labeled in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Greeka veritable short list of EU
lightweights. The claustrophobic aisles were scenes of constant disasterbroken jars
of beans in smelly fluid, burst sacks of flour and rice, abandoned infants screaming for
the world to end. The chaos increased toward the end of the month, as the entire stock
dwindled to nothing, and shoppers fought over the remaining cartons of milk,
the final jars of white asparagus, the last fillet of frozen hake. The women who worked in
the local Dia seemed to be achieving some sort of collective low point in their lives.
Flustered and beleaguered, they nevertheless maintained a noble attitude that was at once
detached and caring. They focused on their job without indulging each individual customer.
They were like relief workers expediting supplies to a sleepy fishing village in the
aftermath of a tidal wave. And they were youngnot one of them older than thirty. I
maintained a sneaky admiration for their ability to endure the unglamorous circumstances,
to wear their filthy red smocks with a modicum of dignity. Not surprisingly, I developed a
crush on one of them, the butcher girl. She spoke an irresistible, rapid-fire brand of
Catalan to her co-workers. I thought that she might one day change my mind about the
"Bon dia," I said.
"Hola, com va?" she said and whacked
the head off a scrawny chicken that had a few feathers left on its body.
"Bona bona," I said eagerly,
fidgeting with a package of vacuum-packed sliced chorizo. I proposed to her that we
"take a cup" after she got off work. I pieced the phrase together in Spanish,
though I tried to make it sound Catalan by lopping off the last vowel.
She blushed, clearly astonished. "No, no. No
puedo," she said, sliding a purple organ into a pile of gizzards. She had a
"mountain" of things to do, she said. She had shifted into slow, precise Spanish
to ensure that I understood.
Catalans don't meet people this way, I thought. Of
course, I had no idea how Catalan people met each other. For all I knew, the butcher and
patron could be the prototype of Catalan romance. "Yes, he used to come in
everyday," she reflects with relaxing, attentive relatives during some future
holiday. They have heard this story countless times, though always enjoy the telling, as
if it has become part of the family lore. "Finally I agreed to go out with him, just
so hed stop pestering me." She feigns exasperation. I walk into the room
holding a cocktailno, a baby. I am immediately awash with feelings of respect,
admiration. I am responsible, committed, one of them. My frank opinions and American
can-do attitude are valued by this family. Her brothers confide in me their own amorous
travails. The father is forever pulling me aside, warming me with a joke, soliciting
advice for his modest but consistently profitable hardware store. I sense that he wishes
his own sons were more like me, more capable, more urbane.
The cleaver whumped down on the counter, separating a
chicken from its wing. The Dia girl had emphatically resumed her duties. My cart with two
bastard wheels lurched and jerked as I pushed it away from the meat counter and toward the
freezer. I selected three pizzas and 500 grams of squid rings. I thought about another
lonely meal as I piled them onto my usual staplespotato chips, cartons of wine, and
many cans of Diabräu.
Pizza con Chorizo
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, or whatever that is in Celsius. Of course,
if your Spanish oven is like mine, it will simply be either on or off. Carefully unwrap
your Dia frozen pizza. Top pizza with Dia olives, Dia chorizo and Dia oregano before
placing on the oven rack. Begin reading the lifestyle section of the USA TODAY
INTERNATIONAL EDITION. When you have reaffirmed that you will never, under any
circumstances, move back to that country, your pizza will be ready. Serve with Dia lemon
soda and Dia gin.
Legumes con Corizo
Open can of Dia Fabada Asturiana (beans with black blood sausage), add entire package
of Dia sliced chorizo and cook in a medium saucepan. Eat Dia tostadas topped with Dia
margarine until the Fabada sauce smokes and splatters. Serve with entire carton of Dia red
wine, the one with the horse-drawn carriage on it.
Squid Rings con Chorizo
Preheat oven to around 400 degrees Fahrenheit (see above for those cooking in a Spanish
oven). Put Dia squid rings on one of Pazs greasy baking sheets. Stare off balcony
and eat Dia chorizo; when you have finished the package of chorizo, the Dia squid rings
will probably not be cooked thoroughly, so youll have to find some other way to
entertain yourself. Warning: do not eat Dia squid rings from the oven if they are still
partially frozen; this will induce severe vomiting. Serve with chilled Diabräu.
The room I rented from Paz was roughly the size of a large bathroom. There was a
six-foot length of foam resting on a cheap frameessentially a beach chair without
arm rests. I kept my clothes in a small dresser made of particle board, except for my work
clothes, which hung from hooks on the door. My lone window overlooked the buildings
central ventilation shaft.
I was lying down, napping, when I heard an announcer
scream "goal!" from the living room. Enrique was watching a football game with
the sound turned up very loud. Paz was clattering in the kitchen, making meatballs and
rice. It was Friday night. The three of us had been invited to an art show on the second
floor. Inga from Bonn lived there in a state of lesbian abandon; this according to
Enrique. His report was likely informed by the fact that his persistent romantic overtures
toward her were unambiguously rebuffed, culminating in Ingas threat to castrate him.
Paz told me the whole history the night I moved into the apartment.
Ingas exhibition was touted as "The Vagina
Works." I tried to see beyond Enriques comments, but still, I braced myself for
feminist renderings of female genitalia. I expected thick red oil paint, lesbian romps,
and the fall of the phallus. Instead, Ingas paintings were mostly just small-town
landscapes. The vaginas were there, a flyer informed me, but encrypted. "There is
vagina here, and vagina here," Inga said to a champagne-sipping couple as they
shuffled between canvases. She was pointing to a cloud mass, then a doorway. It was the
cultured, adult version of Wheres Waldo. I approached and asked her to stop, to see
if I could find them myself. I studied a street scene and pointed to a cyclist.
"Heres one," I said. "A
Inga squinted. Then shook her head decisively.
"No, this is not vagina. It is a girl on bicycle."
I retired to the kitchen, where I traded English and
Spanish nouns with a Serbian girl who came to Barcelona as part of some musical troupe.
She played a folksy wind instrument that I had trouble picturing. Her boyfriend was a
Bosnian Muslim, she told me, and worked as a waiter near Mostar. Their families were
unable to fathom their courtship, so he was trying to save money and join her in Spain.
But he wasnt saving much. Besides, he couldnt get a visa. If by Christmas he
still couldnt come, she said, then she would return to him. I didnt have the
nerve to share with her much about my own, self-centered, plodding, suburban history. How
I simply fled from a banal litany of days and nights, weeks and months, plump years
arriving one after the other, in tedious certainty. I surely didnt envy her, but was
seduced by the drama of her life, which I imagined to be quintessentially European and
By 1:00 A.M., people were still coming in. A gray haze of smoke began to hang above the
crowd. I glanced at Paz just as she was folding a humus-covered pita into her mouth. I
headed for the door. Enrique of course hadnt dared to attend. He left the apartment
soon after dinner in his beloved stonewashed jeansa clear signal that he would be
prowling for females. He looked like a picture from a high school language book: clean and
thin, foreign, and eager for socializing.
To my surprise, Enrique was home, sitting on the edge of the couch and smiling stupidly at
the TV. "Tío," he said. "Es viernes. Family values." He was alluding
ironically to both the infamous political slogan and Canal Plus proclivity to air
adult films on Friday nights. I walked past him to get to the kitchen. Sure enough, he was
watching some unironic, Scandinavian porn. Paz came in, clunky from Cava. She tumbled onto
the couch next to Enrique and began cooing and wiggling, pretending to be thrilled by the
well-tanned action. Poor Paz, I thought.