Cracking the Egg of Language


After 3 months, 2 weeks and two days in Spanish class, I may not be able to speak the language, but I can tell you this — learning a language sometimes resembles counting sand on a very large beach grain by grain.  It’s hard, it’s tedious, and it never ends, which something to bear in mind the next time you stand behind a non-native English speaker who’s ordering something and start to think impatient, unkind thoughts about them.

Right now, I’m in a class of 8 that meets Monday through Friday morning for four hours.

We’re taught by 2 teachers who trade off halfway through the class. It’s hard to know if they trade responsibility for us because being with us for any longer than two hours at a stretch would exhaust even their patience — or if it’s because if we only had one teacher the whole time, we’d never be able to understand anyone else in Spain.

Our first teacher is a younger woman who keeps her own counsel and has infinite patience.  Does she have a boyfriend?  A girlfriend?  A cat?  She never lets on.  In fact, I’ve now spent 80 hours in the same room with her and I don’t even know if she actually lives in Madrid. Last week in class she recommended a vegetarian restaurant, and it was as if a window onto her life had opened for the very first time.

Our other teacher greets us every morning as homey and sista. When we truly make a hash of things, he’s prone to exploding whathefuc’? or fatal, which means terrible, but sounds oh so much better. He likes rap and The Wire.  He lived in Manchester and travelled to China.

And who are we, these eight students? We are lost souls who cannot communicate. We are here for love, for family, to better our job chances.   We are homey and sista.  We are three of us American, three of us Chinese, and two of us from the Philippines.

One of the Americans is tall, one of them is young, and one of them is me.  One of the things I never really understood about us, about Americans, until I started language classes is that we’re, like, the golden retrievers of humanity.  We’re easily recognizable. We assume everybody’s going to like us.  We’re happy to share our opinions about just about anything.

I now see how seductive this might seem from the outside.  I also recognize just how deeply annoying this can be to the rest of the world.

The two Filipinos are young sisters who both work at sweatshop-like language academies where they teach English from 4 pm -10 pm, where they’ve been told by their bosses that if the lessons they’ve planned make their students swear a lot, it means they’re doing a good job.

The students from China have selected for themselves English names, or have had English names selected for them by teachers who taught them Spanish in China in their previous lives.  After having been fed through the meatgrinder of three languages, the names of the three in my class might be Presse, Ugo and Demonio. Unlike us Americans, so downright thrilled  to clamber up on our soapboxes at the drop of a hat, they prefer to remain mum about… just about everything.

This could be because it’s way too exhausting to carry on this way in a third language, or it might be because — just why would they want to get up on soapboxes of any sort whatsoever?

Tomorrow, the eight of us will take our Orales.  Those of us who choke and can’t pass will be booted back to the beginning of B1.

When we were told this today, a collective shiver went through the class.  We might not have chosen this group of people to spend half our time with, but at least we’re familiar with each other.  To start all over again, a new teacher, a new person sitting on either side of us? To have to explain ourselves, all over again?

It would be a fate worse than death. This airless classroom where we sit together every day in this world where we never completely understand whathefuc’ is going on sometimes feels like the only life vest we have.








The Future


It only took me one visit to Puerta del Sol, Spain’s Kilometro 0, Madrid’s touristy, clamorous hub, to start referring to it as the Belly of the Beast.  Everybody in Madrid sooner or later has to fight their way through Sol’s lottery card hawkers and dazed tourists seeking SIM cards for their cell phones and knock-off handbag vendors always with a weather eye out for la policía.  Sol’s the gathering place for the city’s schemers, scammers, and ne’er do wells — long story short, when you’re in Sol, best hang on to your wallet.

Sol is also home to the Apple Store, where today I had to leave my laptop.  On the way there, as I walked up out of the Metro and into Sol proper, I was offered a pamphlet by a man wearing an orange traffic safety vest; thinking it was information about the upcoming closure of the Metro line that gets me from home to Spanish school, I took it.  No — El Camino de Cristo, as it turned out.  I handed it back, intending to say no thanks, I don’t need this, but what came out of my mouth could be translated better as “I don’t like it,” which is just, well, dumb.

Inside the Apple Store I made it through my conversation with the tech entirely in Spanish. O, kind Spanish people, thank you for always telling me I speak well the Spanish even though we both know this is a kind lie.

Sans computer (Diagnosis:  new logic board needed), I walked back out into the chaos of Sol and without meaning to met the eye of a tiny elderly-seeming but oddly ageless woman holding stalks of rosemary in her hands.

She darted; I dodged.  But not quick enough.  Without me quite realizing how it had happened,  was now holding a spring of rosemary, trying to hand it back, and being told there was no cost for whatever was going on, all at the same time.

Sucker! Rube!  She’d hooked me like a fish on a line and was off and running.  I was going to get a phone call from far away.

This made me actually start laughing:  of course I was going to get a phone call from far away — it had never before been so obvious I was a foreigner, otherwise I would have dodged better and gotten away.

Love and the heart; I should kiss the rosemary; her name was Rosa.  It was too late now.  I was well and truly trapped.  When she asked, I opened my hand — the life line, the love line.  I would be separated soon from one of my children.  It was not a bad thing, it would be a happiness.  I would lose something dear to me.

And then, swiftly, smoothly, she pushed a tiny green ball of … something… into my hand.  Nope, she wouldn’t take it back.  I owed her 10 euros.

The truth is, I never carry money anymore, other than a few coins for the buskers in the Metro.  I showed the empty wallet and then, appreciating her skill, dumped what change I had, about 4 euros, into her hand.  The look she gave me dripped disdain.

It’s supposed to be a way you get your pockets picked — in the distraction, but my bag was slung bandolier-fashion across my chest and I’d had my hand on its zipper the whole time.  She walked one way; I walked the other.

And the green pill?  Was I supposed to eat it?  Give it to someone?  My Spanish had not been up to the task, besides she’d been talking awfully fast by that point.  As I walked away, I dropped it on the ground, feeling like I might have a huge “kick me” sign taped to my back.

I admit it:  the whole walk home, I kept wondering if I’d seen through the ruse or been taken in by it.  Had she actually managed to get something from me without me realizing it?

The Husband, of course, is always pragmatic.  Every mother will be separated from her child, he pointed out when I told him what happened.

Yes, but. .. I actually will be separated soon, from my oldest.  Time’s going so fast,  she said plaintively last night.

And it turns out I actually have lost something dear to me.  Replacing the laptop’s logic board will wipe the hard drive I hadn’t bothered to back up in at least 6 months.

10 Things You Use in Europe, But Not in the States


1.  Umbrellas, for miles rather than the time it takes to get the 10 feet from house to car.

2.  Those canvas tote bags you get when you donate to non-profits.

3.  Cobblers. (The person, not the pie.)

4.  A scarf when the temperature gets down to 60 degrees.

5.  Google Translate.

6.  Your national i.d. number, for everything from ordering movie tickets online to picking up your mail at the post office.

7. Bee’s-waxed cheese wrap for the sheep’s cheese you get every couple of days from the store that only sells cheese.

8.  The kitchen counter for your eggs, rather than the refrigerator.

9.  An avocado “for today” that hasn’t been fondled by a hundred people.

10.   A clothes line.

What felt foreign not seems familiar. And now, just to keep us on our toes, we’ll  reverse our locale for a few weeks.



El Puente


8 a.m. Constitution Day 2019, the view from our terrace. Everybody’s still sleeping. 

Madrid is a city of over 3 million (if you include its suburbs, over 6 million) and for me, one of its loveliest characteristics is the way it luxuriates in holidays. Today is Constitution Day; Monday, the Day of the Immaculate Conception (it refers to the Virgin Mary’s conception, not Jesus’s, for those of you, like me, who didn’t know).  A long weekend like this creates what’s known here  as un puente – a bridge.  In the past, whenever holidays happened to fall midweek, it was customary to also take off any days that fell between it and the weekend, creating un puente.  After the Spanish financial crisis, many holidays were moved to Mondays or Fridays, but the habit of calling the long weekend a puente remains.

This morning, the quiet in our Madrid neighborhood is as thick and enveloping as the best feather duvet. You can literally wrap yourself up in itThe narrow elevator in our building, which usually stutters to life at 7:00, either an early-shift worker leaving or a diligent jogger, sits silent.  I’ve only heard one persiana, as the metal shutters  one rolls down over their windows are called, being hauled up, instead of the usual early-morning rattling chorus.  This is the sort of quiet that only comes to Atlanta on Christmas , or a gloriously unexpected snow day.

Today also marks the beginning of our sixth month here.  Six months!  Not much, in the long and short of it, but humans, it seems, are amazingly adaptable.  Whether they plan to or not, they settle in.

Yesterday, I sat for a grueling 2 hour Spanish exam — spoken, written, listening — to see if the language school where I take classes would let me press on to the next level, B1, with a new crop of hung-over youngsters and  tourists who dabble  for a week or two and then disappear and the friend from A2 that I cling to like a port in a storm.

The Imperative will be the death of me, indirect object pronouns are a most terrible pitfall, but I have to admit I enjoyed pretending the examiner was a shopkeeper and I, a customer who needed clothes for a party.

I’ve never been so proud of a score of 77 in my life.

I  went from there to the pharmacy, where I butchered Spanish like a bull in a china shop (como un toro en una farmacia?) But I got what I needed, and the pharmacist even smiled.

El Puente.  The Bridge.  Maybe that’s the stage after You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know and Words Fail — The Bridge.  Things are in flux, we are betwixt and between, neither here nor there, but the view from up here is lovely, and, this morning, tranquility rings though life like a bell.

Words Fail


The pundits, who about as often as you’d expect are expats themselves, have concluded that relocation to a foreign country means not only travel from here to there, known and unknown, and familiar and strange.  It also requires emotional travel  — through a series of distinct stages that actually aren’t all that different, once you really start thinking about it, from Kubler-Ross’s famous stages of grief.

Except that grief’s first stage — Denial — is replaced with the expat’s Honeymoon. (Which one could argue might just be a more positive sort of denial itself.)

During your Honeymoon, a thrill runs down your spine whenever you spot a local strolling down a busy city street with a baguette under their arm (extra points if they’re tearing hunks from it as they go).  Indecipherable packaging for unknown products in the grocery store can entertain you for hours. The old men bellied up to the bar on the corner who drink beer at 8 in the morning are exotic, not to mention picturesque. Even the sound of sirens, so evocative of the foreign films you saw at 20, makes you happy.

Time passes, about six months, according to the experts. If this were grief you were coming to terms with, you’d be moving into Anger and Depression.  The expat version: Frustration. Baguettes serve as the jaunty scaffolding for every canvas shopping bag simply because people here have  to go shopping —and buy bread — every single day.  Otherwise, your baguette will be stale, and besides, your kitchen can’t hold more than a day’s worth of groceries.  In this stage, you’ve stopped noticing the way everybody gathers at the sidewalk cafes, only that everybody who does so is smoking, no matter the tobacco pouches sitting on the wrought iron tables in front of them are printed with photos of cancerous mouths and the words Fumar Mata (Smoking Kills).

Next stage.  Grief requires Bargaining, but the expat has already rocketed ahead and reached — Acceptance.  You’re no longer disappointed when you wake up to yesterday’s rock-hard bread.  It doesn’t bother you that you can’t eat dinner in a restaurant until after 8:30, or that the shop where you buy your baguette is closed whenever you have time to go there.

It is what it is  is grief’s final stage, but the expat gets a bonus, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow:  Assimilation.  Now, you don’t even get hungry until ten o’clock at night anymore.  You too nibble the end of your baguette as you stride down the street to stave off hunger. You’ve taken up smoking!

It’s a neat exercise, a pretty enough picture (though I’d argue that very few expats ever reach assimilation). But five months in, five months gone from home, I’d divvy things up otherwise, from a first stage of You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know to Words Fail and then to — what?

It’s too early to say.  I haven’t gotten there yet. Words, in fact, fail me.  At the beginning, in my honeymoon phase, I not only figured a year of Spanish taken over 30 years ago would get me farther than it realistically could, I also thought if I applied myself diligently, I could crack the code.

Of what?


I’m of two minds about the whole endeavor.  Which endeavor?  This, these bytes and bits and blogs.  These words. Because instead of bloodshed these days, we seem to have come to a sort of wordshed,  a gout, a spill, a fountain, from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the granulated to the broadest brush.

You should keep a blog, people would say while I was busy packing up there in preparation for here.  I’ve spent four months thinking why?  A blog and five bucks will buy you a latte.  What is there left to say about being a stranger in a strange land that hasn’t been said 5 billion times before, from Baedeker to Hemingway to Rick Steves?

Nevertheless, the impulse remains — to describe. The jamón sits in the shop window at full extension, vegetarian nightmare, a Rockette’s kick.  The cypresses are spears in the park, narrowly European.  The old man with his cane comes into the frutería heaped high — in summer you eat tomatoes and now you eat what God put into the ground to be eaten.  They’ve come!  he says joyfully,  waving his cane toward the bins of chestnuts in benediction.

I’m from a much younger country, our chestnuts disappeared in the 1920s.  I don’t even know how you eat them!  I’ll  never know enough about this country to tell any story beyond that of the typical expat — but then again, maybe, if I’m lucky, I can snap a few good photos along the way, and try my best, to describe things.



I don’t remember exactly when during our tenure living south of Interstate 20 the passionate debate about Confederate Avenue first became so — well, passionate — but I do remember the first time I ran across the street name.

We’d been living in Atlanta for about nine months and I was house-hunting. I came across a listing for a house in southeast Atlanta on Confederate Avenue, and though the better story would be that I elected not to take a look at it because of the name of the street it sat on, the reality was that I passed it by because it had trey ceilings in its living room.

Confederate Avenue.

For years, whenever something really bad happened in the wide world, people in Grant and Ormewood Parks, the neighborhoods Confederate runs through, would use the Nextdoor online forum to debate whether or not the name should be changed. “Considerate Avenue” was suggested as a replacement. So was “United Avenue,” referring more to Atlanta’s soccer team, the Atlanta United, than to any meeting of the minds about a potential name change or even for the need for one.

The online debate would ebb, and it would flow. Occasionally, when I took a walk through the neighborhood, I’d notice that one of the street signs would be spraypainted out. Once, a home-made sign — “Considerate Ave” — had been duct-taped over the more official one.

Then, Charlottesville happened. Sentiment that the street name should be changed, while still not unanimous, grew. Discussions about it became more organized and jumped off-line and into real life.

After meetings, after listening sessions, after straw polls taken over new name ideas, after A.P. wire stories were picked up and nationally run, the Atlanta City Council voted unanimously this past October that the name of Confederate Avenue should be changed to United Avenue.

Confederate Avenue, so named because it ran in front of the Confederate Soldiers’ Home built in 1900. Dig a little deeper, and you discover that construction of the Home, one of Henry W. Grady’s pet projects, may have been at least in part a sop thrown to disaffected rural farmers who felt that the urban “silk-hats” in Atlanta didn’t have their interests at heart. If those farmers, many of whom were veterans, (because the Civil War was, above all, “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”) became too disgruntled, they might form a third political party, which in turn might allow the Republican party — whom newly-franchised African-Americans might vote for — to influence, if not, throw, elections.

There’s a story behind every story.

Dig deeper still and you learn that the Old Soldiers’ Home cornerstone contained “Confederate currency, some minie balls, letters from Jefferson and Varina Davis… and a copy of Lee’s plans on how to use blacks in the war.”

This morning, intent on the music spilling from my earbuds and the to-do list running through my head, I walked past an idling City of Atlanta Public Works truck and just happened to look up.

Y’all putting up the new street signs? I blurted out, surprised.

Yes, one of the workers said.  Cautiously, it seemed to me, or was I reading into things?

—I’m so happy to see them! I said.  Full of pride in my adopted city, I was.

—It’s a beautiful day in Atlanta, the worker said, smiling, a beautiful day.

It was in fact a gray day, one promising rain, but I agreed wholeheartedly, and the two of us grinned at each other, and then I walked on.


Pubs, Fall Version


My story, “Dirty South,” is now out in the spring/fall issue (volume 38.2) of Mid-American Review!  Though it’s not available online, single issue copies are available for purchase here.

All of us were all from somewhere else.

Although more and more often, the somewhere else we were from hardly existed. It had been swallowed up. By what? We hardly even knew ourselves. All the same, that somewhere else was still our template.

There had been cul-de-sacs there, we thought (a dim memory), and newspapers tossed onto lawns at four o’clock each afternoon, by a boy older than us who had had a good bike and a pitcher’s squint.

There had been nothing to do.

There had been sprinklers.

We had rushed from that somewhere else to this place, and on our way we’d sped past billboards advertising things that were just up the road, and eroded red-clay gullies, and mare’s nests of barbed wire and discarded tires. All knit together by a green tangle of vegetation that had gotten out of hand.

The lumpy green blanket of kudzu that covered everything was our birthright. We had read our James Dickey back at Georgia and Auburn and Tech and Alabama, and we knew about the land we’d inherited. We knew it was a falsehood, that if you opened your windows at night (a thing none of us had done since we had lived in the unair-conditioned somewhere else of our childhoods), you could hear it growing. It was a falsehood that its broad, handed leaves smelled of the Kool-aid we hadn’t drunk since then either. Or that in the dark it sent questing fingers over the blacktop of county-maintained roads.

We knew all these things. But none of us had ever seen what lay underneath it.

Pubs, Summer Version



My story “Sunshine” has just gone live at, which has a lovely layout and  the hands-down best tagline of the literary web:

Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.  —Beckett

“Sunshine” is set in the Rio Grande Valley, circa about 2012, which was the last time I was down there.  I’d probably have to write a different story if I used the Valley as a setting right now — borders conjure up different things now than they did  just five years ago.  I’m glad I caught it at the moment I did.

Taking care. It seems like such an innocuous statement. Take care, Glory had said before Tina hung up this morning. Tina is taking care of things for now, down in the Valley. Take care. Such an acquisitive phrase, as if care is something you have to reach out and grab.

Glory calls twice a day. Once, for the real report relayed by Tina, and once, when she talks to their mother. How is she eating? Sleeping? Is the weather nice? Glory seems to have forgotten the wind incessantly rustling the palm trees, the sky so pale it has stopped being blue. Mami is taking care, greedily, with both hands, because care, as it turns out, is something the world only stingily parcels out.

Blink and You’ll Miss It


Twenty years ago, about two weeks after The Husband and I moved to Atlanta, I set off one afternoon in search of the closest Baskin-Robbins (his favorite birthday cake:  ice cream).  This was harder back then than you’d think .  For one thing, the car I drove  was over 34 years old, a Ford with a metal dashboard that could be hosed off after you wrecked it, which wasn’t that unlikely, considering that the brake pedal had to be mashed a good 75 feet before I actually wanted to come to a stop.  (And yes, Fords were colloquially described as “Fix or Repair Daily” for a reason.)

For another thing, finding places was  different order of business back in 1998.  I’m sure I used the phone book to look up addresses of Baskin-Robbins stores, am positive I used a paper map to plot my route there.  What I knew about Atlanta geography at that point could’ve fit in a thimble, but I knew Memorial Drive— it wasn’t far from our apartment in Little Five Points.

Memorial was then, and is now, the east-west four-lane  running roughly from downtown Atlanta eastward to Stone Mountain.  Memorial rather than the Fair Street it  started its life as, maybe because of a great plan never seen to fruition to create memorials to veterans of the Spanish-American and Great War all along its length, or maybe because much of  the Battle of Atlanta had been fought over and around its high ridges.  My sentiments the first time I drove it? That it was one of the most blighted streetscapes I’d ever had the opportunity to  set foot on.

For the past two-plus years, I’ve driven it, mostly on auto-pilot, to and from work, thankfully against traffic.  Like so many things about Atlanta I despised when I first moved here, I’ve grown some affection for it (although not for the light at Memorial and Moreland which is always out-of-sync).

Ground zero for tremendous amounts of development, Memorial Drive is a liminal space these days, part old Atlanta, part new,  the new gaining the upper hand every day that passes.

Blink and you’ll miss it.


Moreland and Memorial


Maynard Terrace and Memorial, in the convenience store parking lot.


—How long you had your stand here? —Bout 12 years.  —People buy stuff?  —’Course.  I wouldn’t be sitting out here if they didn’t. 





Abandoned apartment complex, Memorial and Moreland.


You can’t keep a good kudzu patch down.


Yard Art.


Wyatt’s, Maynard Terrace and Memorial


Franken-Pine Cell Tower, Candler and Memorial




Signs of the times.


Memorial at the Beltline:  The future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades.