I wait pathetically, unnoticed and hungry, yet half-amused by my inability to attract attention. My pitiful Spanish renders me invisible – I can’t call out … anything.
I know not what to do. My daughter is cautious and unimpressed.
Peopled by pretty couples perched on stools, families spread across tables, and gangs of friends catching up, Bodega LaPeseta in the east of Valencia is alive with lazy Sunday chatter. We stand at the far left of the bar, where I clutch my phrase book and a hope for food. I’m dimly aware of an androgynous figure next to me, clad in a black coat, sipping what seems to be coca cola.
Three girls come in, bright with make up, shiny long hair, and laughter. They squeeze into a tight space on the other side of my dark-coated neighbour. One shoots up her hand when the bar man asks who’s next, so I do the same. The bar man looks from her to me and back again, and shrugs with embarrassment. Then my mysterious neighbour nods her head towards me, without saying a word. The bar man does as he’s told, and asks me what I’d like.
My laborious, accented request for tortilla de alcachofas (artichoke tortilla) elicits a response in fluent English … I feel even more inadequate.
But we get what we want – generous slabs of good brown bread stacked next to a flower-green tortilla with a very garlicky dollop of aioli on the side. Propped up at the bar, No. 3 and I each take a fork and dig in.
Here is my chance, I think, to practise some Spanish: I try to thank my helpful neighbour for coming to my aid. She gives me a brief glance, brushing off my gratitude.
Alone at the bar, with short hair and glasses, she doesn’t appear to be a typical customer. I sense that my daughter is curious, but not warming towards the stranger.
I persevere, “Lo siento … mi español no es bueno … “. The woman shakes her head and insists that she has poor English. She lifts up her eyes and says to me “poco a poco” mixed up with a flurry of Spanish, then repeats “poco a poco” again and again. I get it: “little by little” – that is how we learn.
“No, soy inglesa.” I reply.
Understanding that I can’t grasp fast, fluent Spanish, the woman kindly singles out short phrases for repetition. “Valencia es mucho bonito, mucho bonito.” I deduce that she’s lived here forever, in the colourful old fishing quarter of El Cabanyal.
A further stream of slowish Spanish (I make out the word “marzo” for March) then a clearly picked out crescendo to the word “Fallas“- I know this one – it’s the riotous Valencian festival which welcomes the arrival of Spring. “Mucho bonito, mucho bonito.”
My new friend’s bloodshot eyes have lit up, and she gets a little too close for comfort – she wants to show the joy of the Fallas festival through a video on her phone. I smell stale alcohol on her breath, and try to ignore the spit she leaves on my jacket. I know without looking that my daughter is worried that I can’t reach my fork.
The film flashes flamboyance, music, and pure energy – the woman is right – Fallas is fun. She tells me so, again and again, with warmth and passion.
As my new amiga moves away a little, I retrieve my fork, and eat whilst listening to the woman’s Spanish that has gained speed with enthusiasm. All I can do is nod and smile.
It’s time to move on. We say “muchas gracias” and “adios”, and shoulder through the friendly crowd. Our place at the bar is quickly taken, and the woman turns back to nursing her drink.
Outside, the pavement is full of life. Inside and out, Bodega LaPeseta is a hub of conviviality.
We wander away through the lanes of El Cabanyal, and my daughter asks why the woman got so close, had really bad teeth, and said the same thing, over and over. I say I think our new friend was curious about us, and wanted to share the pride she feels for her home. I also explained that for whatever reason, the woman enjoys a drink.
No. 3 is silent for a minute to two. Then she says, “I guess the woman was friendly, and we did learn some Spanish – poco a poco and all about Fallas.”
Yes, poco a poco. Little by little we learn.
And as for Fallas … maybe we should return next Spring. It does look mucho bonito y mucho divertido (fun – I think – but I could do with another lesson).