The Radio

In an hour I’ll be on my way to Bar Ramirez, a great brown building made of wood, to meet Elena. She’s a ranking teacher at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas next to Suarez Figueroa high school. Each week she does a radio program and this morning, she’s asked me to join her to talk a little bit about the US and Spain, and the whole thing’s going to be given in Spanish. Should they ask me why I’m here, I’ll have to lace some untruths through the facts but of course, to remain undetected is a bit easier as a foreigner who may have (or may not have) misspoke.

I can’t help but marvel a bit at how far my Spanish has come in just over a year. I went from stabbing blindly at vague memories of odd vocabulary words to giving a Spanish radio interview in what feels like very little time. Immersion is the only way to learn a foreign language.

Here in the full swell of winter the clouds have cleared off and the laundry’s drying well on the line. It’s colder in the apartment than it is outside, and the baked potato soup is on the stove.

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Border Dance

Putzing along as I do, making money, and then the mother of one of my students approaches me about contract work with a nearby high school, and a contract with a local Manpower-like place. All good, save for my simmering illegality, my alien-hood, and I dash for Gibraltar two days later.
The day between found me in a three-hour interview with Pilar, who among hispanohablantes may be possessed of the greatest patience…that’s right, three hours in Spanish, the language I studied for two years three years ago, never once pulling an “A” in a semester. Immersion really is magic, though, as I’ve watched from the stands as my Iberian tongue has become clearer and sharper over the last few months. Pilar offered me a 320-hour contract if I could be contracted, with a €8,000 payoff. Between her and the school, which also pays fairly well, I was feeling particularly compelled as I stepped on the Algeciras bus at 7:30 a.m.

Five hours later I’d made it to the frontera, la Linea de la Concepción, or la Linea, or simply, la frontera. On the way in Andalucia looked for the world like SoCal, and the climate on my skin proved my impression true; palm trees waving, whitewashed buildings, easy decay, all soaking in the airy flavor of stalled progress.

So what if the world’s falling apart? It’s always been falling apart, and I’m late for work again.

Thirty minutes before, I’d encountered people publicly praying for the first time. The maritime port of Algeciras is open to the third world and the man was on the sidewalk, on his knees and facing east. Odd in Spain, of course, because as conservative the Catholics are on the face of it, what with the mosques-turned-churches, the incessant clanging of the bell towers, and a weeping, bleeding Christ on your lottery tickets, they’re also birds of paradise, unwilling to reveal their downy undersides to, well, the anonymous crowd. The image stayed with me for its contrast against the pervading dodgy-ness of the port. You know the extras you see in action films, where the protagonist must snoop around “down at the docks” and these criminal stevedores are loading contraband of some stripe onto a dark freighter? You know the leather jackets and shoes that would be expensive if they weren’t African knock-offs? Right; them. They’re real, and they hang out in Algeciras. I wasn’t too sad to leave in a taxi because, after all, I had gotten off at the wrong stop.

Of all the pueblos on the line to the southern coast of Spain, only Algeciras had two stops. The woman driver tried to convince me to let her take me to la frontera, “only 28 euros,” she said, claiming that the bus would be slower and like, 15 euros. Having imbued myself with an extraordinary-if-not-spotty bullshit sensor, I declined, handed her €7, and took the bus from the  estacion de autobuses for €2 on to la Linea.

I have forgotten to explain that this move, this flight to a UK territory, was in the interest of getting my American passport stamped “out” and my Canadian passport stamped “in”.

Back to the moment of my disembarkation from that cheap bus: shortly after I stepped down, I noticed an older gentleman (not a pensioner, just older) and noting the confusion in his carriage, was not surprised when he approached me and asked in French which way to the frontier. I explained in English and Spanish that this was my first time to Gibraltar and he switched to hampered English, agreeing that he was as lost as me. Fine, I said, I think it’s this way, and off we went together toward the Rock.

Let me tell you: the rock of Gibraltar really is huge. The Prudential commercials don’t do it justice, and I suspect strongly that the rock will be there long after the last couch potato who could have associated it with an insurance commercial has blinked out of existence. Here’s some context:

Misty!

We passed the border guards and they only looked at the exterior of my passport booklet; it was blue, and my friend’s was maroon, so pass. God forbid you look remotely African, and prepare yourself for delay if any ink has polluted your bloodline. In this way, the world remains broken.

And thus it was I gained a traveling partner. He told me of France as we wandered up the street, that sometimes being better than humping it along a trajectory. Along we went sharing stories and by and by we came upon a cathedral, where my friend bent a knee for a few minutes while I, somewhat guiltily, snapped photos of the architecture. For he was Catholic, he told me as we left, like many French, but even more like all the people from his tiny country, who of course were unilaterally so. What little country was this, I wondered aloud; Lichtenstein?

“Everyone says this about Lichtenstein,” he said, “but they have not been there like me. Lichtenstein is banks. Like this,” he said, gesturing along the street at the English facades, “would be banks, not clothing, not the irestaurant – just banks. There is nothing.” Maybe I expressed disgust, but was more keen to guess correctly and preparing my shame for the moment he out and told me.

“No, no, it’s for the, how do you say…suspense! For to keep you in suspense,” he grinned, and then reminded me that time was of the essence, that I had less time than his smallish window, for tonight he would be in his beloved Morocco. This talk of time became more prevalent until it was with some urgency he asked that we find a tourist bureau, or could I use my expert English on these English because you know how they feel about the French.

Gibraltar being a British playground, of course I spied a Lutheran church. Upon entering I bent a knee and crossed myself (because isn’t that what one does in churches?) and my friend, alarmed, asked if I was Lutheran. No no, I said, and asked the girl working where we might find a tourist bureau.

“You know Casemates?” she said, and reading our ignorance went into explaining the way and off we went with a “God bless”. Casemates was the big square, bustling and on the other end of town.

“It’s curious,” said my friend, on the way there, “that we know now a good deal about each other and yet we do not share our names.”

I offered mine and he said, “Pierre. Are you Jewish?” as all people say. “Because I am friend of Jews. Except in (here my memory blanks; I don’t remember what country he was in…maybe France?), where I went to a Jewish cemetery. I stayed with a powerful Jewish family,” he said, looking over his glasses in all seriousness, “…aristocrats! The matron told me to wait and she would come on a tour of the town, but of course I must go alone as always, so I said thank you and went. I went to a cemetery, an all-Jewish cemetery with guards.”

“Guards? Of the cemetery?”

“Now, they were not real police,” he countered. “They were, how is it, neighbor-, neigh-”

“Neighborhood watch?”

“Yes, this, and when they saw me they asked am I Jewish. Of course I said no and when they saw that they asked for my passport. Well, I did not have it! I left it with the matron and they did not care. They said if I was not Jewish and did not have an ID I could not come in. What, did they think I was a terrorist? Look at me!”
I had to laugh, seeing this professor of French People Abroad in his traveling jacket and vest, tie tucked neatly and thin blond hair parted along an unyielding line.

“And so I told them that they would be happy when they heard from my host family, ho ho, and I heard that things did not go so well for them. That I won’t comment about.” Who was this Pierre? He was a world citizen, embarking upon his first voyage when he was a young teenager. He skipped school one Friday and told his parents he was going to Estonia instead, for the weekend.

“Lithuania”, he finally said, and I had to admit I’d never, to my knowledge, met a Lithuanian. “We aren’t many, and let me tell you about Baltic language. We have many, for example, Lithuanian and Poland, which is close enough. I can understand Polish people with no problem but Latvia, what do they say? I don’t know. They don’t understand me, I don’t understand them. And we are neighbors.”
After buying some postcards, we sat down for coffee and I ate some French fries. Our waitress was Scottish, and when I went to use the loo (as you must call it in Gibraltar) I begged her pardon and explained my situation.

“You mean he’s not your da?” she said, with a little laugh.

“I met him in the bus terminal.”

“Complete strangers?”

“Before today, and this is how the world goes for me,” I said. I got out of her that the taxis were pricey but a person could get to the top of the mountain by trolley car, which you could get to quickest by bus. I thanked this Glasgowan and asked her where, if I were to go, should I start in Scotland.

“Glasgow!” she said, rushing off to a waiting table.

“Of course.”

And then I made a mistake. I came back to the table and told Pierre that the girl told me all we wanted to know about transport and that, funny thing, she thought he was my dad. Suddenly my friend became sullen and quiet, looking down onto his postcards.

“Of course, she would want very much to talk to a young man like you, for you have this, this, film look-”

“What are you talking about?! “Film”, like movie-”

“Yes, like movie star, with the hair, and the youth-”

“Oh, Pierre, no-”

“Yes, yes, I am old. I know.”

“No, no, no, you aren’t old! Look at you, you are here, on your own. Do you feel old,” I prodded, trying to save him.

“No, not really. But everyone has their complex,” he said. “Everyone has a complex, and this is mine. I remember when I first felt old; it was when I was nineteen.”

“Nineteen?!”

“Yes, my peers all were out every night and me, no, I was with a book. From that time, I felt old.” I understood now that of the galaxy of complexes a person could have, I had hit upon the one that Pierre did have. I truly felt bad, and told him if he had a question that he should go ask the girl (he assumed I was making time with her), for no other reason than to prove that she would talk to him. Of course he didn’t and I chatted with her some more as we were leaving, learning through this that she hated Gibraltar and wanted more than everything to get back to Scotland and win a job with the government, as a counselor of government employees. She was a comely blonde, and I wish Pierre had just talked to her. C’est la vie.

After coffee he advised that it was always better, that as with doctors, to get a “second opinion”. Go talk to them, he said, motioning toward some pensioner ladies on a bench, painted as they may have been thirty years ago but now looking a tad garish, the way women do when they wear makeup at escalated ages. These two, they had been about Gibraltar for 30 years and had been widowed here, and maybe were now as loose with their marbles as they assumed we tourists were. I asked about the taxis.

“Do you speak good English?” said the one nearest me, conveniently disregarding that I had not asked about taxis in, say, French, or Dutch. And so it went for five or seven minutes. Nothing was accomplished, finally, and we headed for the bus, to a bus stop fortified by a brace of cannons. Thanks to me we missed our stop and Pierre fretted further about time. The bus came back around and we hopped off at the proper stop and up we went in the cable car. Along the way my friend became concerned that the woman working the ticket counter had withheld his change, to the tune of €20. I snapped photos of the Strait and when we arrived at the top, of the wild monkeys living up there. There is a saying about Gibraltar, regarding these Barbary Apes:

When the apes disappear from the rock, so will the British.

And so they maintain the apes, and the rock. The little bastards will snatch any plastic bag you have, thinking it’s food for them. Where could they have learned that? I witnessed one Brit trying to feed an ape his beer, but the ape wouldn’t have it. “Not thirsty,” I observed. With five minutes left before the last car left down the rock, we stole up this narrow road for panoramas of the mountain’s shadowed side.

“You see, Pierre has a nose for these things,” my friend said of the photo ops.

Finally, with mild concern giving way to angst, we landed at the bottom of the mountain and he dove into pleading with the cable car people about his change. They took his phone number, but haven’t called. Leaving the cable car station, Pierre commented low about the treatment of the French at British hands and that was that. My time to leave had come, and in fact in passing back through the border (unstamped, again) I missed the last bus back to Algeciras. I was forced to take a taxi, which cost money I didn’t have. I bid Pierre adieu and promised to write, and we have shared communication since then. The mission was a failure, of course. I am now an illegal immigrant, but am employed anyway and no one cares. English is too valuable to discard, or to have you worrying whether your teacher is legal or not. My successes at Gibraltar fell outside the bounds of my mission, though, or so say the weighers of experience on the celestial scales, the turners of the great wheel.