This morning, in the market, I overheard the older of the two butchers in the pollería say something to a customer about la carretera. He was wearing a bloody apron printed with happy-looking chickens, maybe to distinguish himself from the butcher from the carnicería and the fishmonger from the pescadería, which are both right around the corner, and la carretera means the road, such a fine poetical sort of word that I stopped eavesdropping after that.
When your grasp of a language is imperfect, it’s easy to do this, to stop following a conversational thread and go into your head to make up your own story. The truth was probably a truck on an ugly highway outside Madrid but in my head it became grander, Odysseus’s journey, maybe, the stuff of myth; a narrow winding track between rocky expanses, laid out under a cloudless sky.
I was waiting there in the aisle for the dour woman who runs the opposite stand to cut the mortadella I’d ordered, and this was taking a very long time. (Even her Italian compatriots agree about her surliness.) After she cut each slice, she laid it out on the scale as carefully as a mother putting a new baby to bed. Who has time for things like this, nowadays?
While she worked, I studied the pollería’s refrigerated display case with the same fascinated repulsion I usually reserve for horror movies. Today, it contained two kinds of quail—de maiz (of corn) and royales, both still with heads and quills and claws. In Spanish fairy tales, the equivalent of and then they lived happily ever after is fueron felices y comieron perdices. They were happy and ate partridges. Because I don’t have a clue what partridges are, I long ago replaced them with quails in my own mental translation of the phrase. This morning, that case full of quail was such a cruel happily-ever-after that I had to turn away from it, back to where the woman was still tenderly laying out mortadella behind a row of bottles of Aperol, Campari, and Cinzano.
And just like that, I was transported, along my own carretera.
Forty-some-odd years and 5000 miles ago, what little I knew of the world, I’d figured out from books. Or more specifically, what I knew of Europe was what I read in the Agatha Christie mysteries I checked out from the Athens, Georgia (population then 50,000) Regional Library. I read dozens of them, if not Christie’s whole oeuvre, my senior year of high school, when I worked there after school. I had no idea a world might exist where there was a difference between low-brow and high-brow, literature and pulp. Or that our stories are complicated and that it takes a lot of work, to write them.
I don’t remember any of those mysteries’ plots, but I do remember the tisanes Hercule Poirot drank as he solved the murders that were the engines that powered them. Likewise, the elegant people who populated them, who sipped aperitifs —like campari and soda — and lived in cities full of ancient buildings, and took trains, and reclined on beach chairs in the Côte d’Azur.
If it hadn’t been noon and if I hadn’t been standing in the market by myself, I might’ve ordered myself an aperitivo. The chalkboard propped on the counter advertised the existence of cannolis sicilianos, another thing I’d never heard of 40-some-years ago. I ordered three to take home. The proprietor filled them then-and-there (also very slowly), which made me realize they’d be soggy by dinnertime.
So I ate mine as I walked slowly behind two elderly women who were decked to the nines, in an odyssean journey of six blocks, between here and there, foreign and familiar, nowhere and home.