A Simple Plan, Interchangeable Anomalies, and a New Side of the Coin

So this morning I started out my day with a simple plan, telling my husband I’d be back in an hour: I was going to retrieve my girls’ school registration papers from the cultural liaison at the school where I will work, go to the bank, and go to the girls’ school. The cultural liaison was meeting her colleagues at nine for some coffee before work. I pedaled over on my “American” bicycle (a Fuji, I would explain later, made in China like everything else!), and arrived right on time, right on American time. While waiting for the Spaniards to make their usually-tardy appearance, I took a photo of the dumpsters here. Strange, I know, and not typical of a tourist attraction. But the segregated dumpsters that specify glass, plastic, paper, and trash are what make this place special to me. For one thing, all residents have access to them at all times. For another, why can’t America do this–segregate our trash (I mean, we segregate everything else, right)?? Perhaps if more cities adopted this idea, everyone would recycle!

After I took my photo on my iPhone, a nice Spaniard approached me and introduced himself as one of my colleagues. He already knew my name–though I think I blend in quite easily here in my Western clothing, with dark, curly hair, standing next to my fancy bike with my fancy phone make me appear all-American–and of course his name was Carlos (I think there are only four Spanish men’s names!). We were still waiting on Flora, the cultural liaison, so I sat down and ordered another delectable café con leche. All the cafés on all the street corners carry these tiny cups of espresso-like coffee that is quite simply a culinary orgasm with every taste, and I have found myself quite addicted to them.

We sat with two other colleagues who immediately began chatting away with me in fast-paced Spanish. I have learned to nod a LOT. Because all I do is introduce myself in Spanish, say a few simple sentences, and everyone assumes I’m fluent! I picked up most of what they were saying, but by no means all! There were quite a few funny moments over the next hour, especially when I thought they were asking if my bike was made in America, and when I said it was made in China, they laughed and said, “No, did you bring it from America?” to which I affirmed and received the response, “Wow, you brought your husband, three daughters, and a bicycle to Spain? Very unusual!” I would have liked to have responded with, “You will find me unlike most people you know,” but of course with my lack of vocabulary I just nodded and said, “Sí,” my current favorite word.

Finally Flora came, papers in hand, but I was not allowed to leave. No, por supuesto! After a time they all stood up, I discovered the bill had been paid, and we began to walk across the street to the school. Since I don’t officially start my job until October 1st, I was not expecting to follow them. After all, it was already past ten, and the Spanish work day ends at two, and it being Friday, I knew that two meant one, and I had to register my girls in school and go to the bank. But one of them said, “Come with us, Karen,” and before I knew it, they were clearing a space for me at the huge table where all members of the English department were having a meeting.

It was with deflated hopes when I quickly realized that the English department does not hold their meetings in English. Instead, Flora took charge of a fast-paced meeting where everyone began talking at once, sharing ideas, writing down book titles and schedules in these tiny little planners (not a single laptop!!), and throwing my name into every other suggestion. (“Karen knows all about the American culture, she can teach us!” “Karen can make a notebook of different food and clothing of the US!” etc.).

It wasn’t until almost noon when I heard my first English words of the day. Carlos engaged me in a conversation so he could hear how I speak, and broke into a ginormous smile when I began to talk. “Your accent is so easy to understand! I don’t know anything about Colorado, but I like it very much! Last year our native speaker came from Northern Ireland, and no one could understand anything she said! You are our first American, and we are so glad to have you.”

So… I barely made it to the bank, where there was a line out the door (everyone is restrained by the siesta schedule), and by the time we walked over to the school at 1:30, the secretary was locking up the building. All the same, she took my papers, noted to her assistant, “These are the Americans!!” and told us, “See you Monday at nine!”

No matter where I go here, or what I do, it always takes longer than I think, and the people are always nicer than anyone I’ve met anywhere. I am just as much of an anomaly to them as they are to me, bringing our interchangeable experiences to a new side of an old coin.

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