I wait, pathetic – 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 don’t know what to do. My daughter is unimpressed.
Peopled by pretty pairs perched on stools and families and friends spread across tables, Bodega LaPeseta in the east of Valencia is alive with lazy Sunday chat. We stand at the far left hand side of the bar, and I clutch my phrase book close and hope for food. I’m dimly aware of an androgynous figure beside me, clad in a black coat, sipping what seems to be coca cola.
Three girls come in, bright with make up and long shiny hair. 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, and 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 bid, and asks me what I’d like.
My laborious, accented request for tortilla de alcachofas (artichoke tortilla) elicits a response in confident 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 garlicky aioli on the side. Propped up at the bar, No. 3 and I each grab a fork and dig in.
Here is my chance, I think, to practise some Spanish: I thank my neighbour for coming to my aid with my order. She gives me a brief glance of acknowledgement and brushes off my gratitude.
Alone at the bar, with short hair and glasses, there is something about the woman that is singular. I sense that my daughter shares my intrigue, but she is 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 says “poco a poco” mixed with a flurry of Spanish. She 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 my grasp of Spanish is tenuous, the woman singles out short phrases for repetition. “Valencia es mucho bonito, mucho bonito.” I discover that she’s lived here forever, in the colourful old fishing quarter of El Cabanyal.
Encouraged, the woman expands with a stream of Spanish (I make out the word “marzo” for March), then there is a clear 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, mucho divertido.“
My new friend’s bloodshot eyes are alight, 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 deposits on my jacket.
The film she shares flashes flamboyance, music and energy. The woman is right – Fallas is fun. She tells me so, again and again.
My new amiga moves away and I retrieve my fork. I eat and listen to the woman speaking Spanish with a speed that matches her 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 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.
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