Sample text for Spanish lessons : beginning a new life in Spain / Derek Lambert.


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Counter A Taste of Oranges

The two civil guards wore black tricorn hats, capes and olive green uniforms. And although they were mounted on angular bicycles they looked as sinister as their predecessors had in the civil war that had torn Spain apart in the 1930's.

It was late December and the citrus trees that covered most of the plain separating the Mediterranean from the mountains on the Costa Blanca of Spain were heavy with oranges, lemons and grapefruit. They looked so beguiling that Diane and I stole a couple of oranges. We were eating them, juice trickling down our chins, in our venerable, chocolate-brown Jaguar when the two Guardia Civil stopped beside us.

Maybe pinching oranges was a heinous crime in Spain. Tales were still rife after the death of the dictator General Francisco Franco of foreigners being imprisoned for years without trial for unspecified offenses. I imagined us lying on straw mattresses in fetid cells miles apart while rats snatched food from our eating bowls.

Or perhaps we would be deported and declared persona non grata, a preferable scenario but nonetheless a depressing one because it would mean that the vision we had shared when we first met in Africa would be aborted before it even got off the ground.

Diane, a Canadian air stewardess with blonde hair and eyes the color of the sea before a storm, had told me on our first date in Nairobi that, having experienced a couple of scary landings, she wanted to quit flying and start a new life. So did I. I was a journalist, in my forties, a foreign correspondent, and I wanted to become a novelist: our meeting was convened by the gods.

But supposing the gods had now turned against us, snitched on us to the Guardia...

Diane offered the two of them a brilliant please-fasten-your-seatbelt smile while I stuffed incriminating orange peel into a plastic bag. "What can we do for you?" she asked--she had been brought up in Paris and Rome, had studied Spanish and in any case picked up languages as easily as children catch measles.

One of the Guardia, young with a downy mustache, dismounted. "Are you lost?" he asked, peering into the aristocratic but doddery old Jaguar as I tried to back-heel the plastic bag under the driver's seat.

"No," Diane said, "we're just admiring the view."

It was worth admiring. Lizard gray mountains on one side of the citrus plantations, the sea beckoning in the cold sunlight on the other. Here and there a field of leafless grape vines; almond and olive trees and carobs with trunks like fairy tale witches.

The Guardia, who seemed to have exhausted his English, produced a creased booklet from beneath his cape and read from it. "I am so pleased you are admiring our territory."

Diane tried a few phrases in Valenciano, the regional language that confuses tourists who have studied orthodox Spanish, but he held up one hand and again consulted his phrase book. "Please, I do not understand, I am from the north." His colleague, a sad looking cabo, a corporal, who looked like a long ago Hollywood actor, Adolph Menjou, joined him.

"Do you have any papers?" he asked, that disturbing generalization that can embrace anything from a visa to a last will and testament.

Diane told him in English: "We might settle in the area."

True enough--we were looking for a village so ordinary that it would bring us into contact with people remote from the clichés of Spain--flamenco, sangria and bullfights--and define the changes that had taken place since Franco's death in 1975 so that I could write about them one day.

Her statement perturbed the cabo. He spoke with one hand, flapping, prodding and clenching it. Endless complications his hand said. Bureaucracy, papers...

Diane searched for some sort of ID in the chaotic contents of her purse. Ballpoint pens, lipsticks, coins, a comb, a chocolate bar...The cabo suggested that we get out of the car. A preliminary to being frisked, handcuffed?

Diane found her passport and handed it to him. Fishing rights in international waters hadn't yet exacerbated relations between the two countries and a Canadian passport still commanded respect. He flicked through it, handed it back and saluted.

He stabbed a finger towards me. "Your husband does not speak too much." Conceding that Diane was better at placating irate policemen I had kept out of it. Not only that but, she was much more fluent in Spanish than I was and although I was studying manfully I preferred to converse with any unfortunate Spaniards who spoke even "Me Tarzan, you Jane" English.

"He's very shy," Diane said and burst into helpless laughter. Reticence had never been my strong suit.

The younger officer, thinking perhaps that she was weeping, laid a hand on her shoulder. The cabo, suspecting that he was in the presence of an unstable neurotic woman and a deaf and dumb mute, took a step back.

"In the orchards," he said in English, "one person one orange is allowed. More--" He cut across his throat with one finger. "If you want to eat a good meal this place is very pleasing." He handed Diane a grubby visiting card and they both pedaled away, capes flowing behind them.

We embraced, our visions of a home here still intact: we drove to a village perched in the hills and gazed across the citrus trees to the sea, fishing boats perched on its rim.

The church clock tolled and the chimes rang through narrow streets that smelled of whitewash and grilling sardines. Hunger stirred. We each drank a glass of rough wine in a bar so dark that I couldn't tell whether I was being served by a man or a woman--at 5 pesetas a glass who cared?--and headed for the restaurant recommended by the cabo. In my experience policemen anywhere in the world knew the best establishments in which to take on ballast.

When we reached the address on the card, a shack with a cane roof beside a sandy beach ankle deep in seaweed, it was shut. We decided to hang around. After a while a door opened, a bead curtain parted and a woman in black wearing slippers, bunched cheeks squeezing her eyes, confronted us.

What did we want? She had already paid her rent and she didn't want to buy a carpet or an encyclopedia, from traveling salesmen her tone implied.

"We're very hungry," Diane said in English.

The woman's face softened. The period after the Civil War and World War II when Spain was ostracized by much of the world because it was ruled by Fascists was known as the Years of Hunger.

"Are you American?" she asked Diane. So many families had fled to the US and Britain after the Civil War ended in 1939 that, happily for me, a grasp of English was not uncommon.

"Canadian."

She shrugged. What mattered was that we were foreigners and we could not be turned away. "The restaurant is closed for the winter," she said. "But I can give you lamb chops and rice." My stomach whined.


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