Steam rose from the water in the plastic measuring cup. I slipped the knife in, paused, pulled it out, then hovered a second to let the excess water drip off. Touching the tip to the center of the ice cream cake, I used all my strength to break through the hard chocolate shell. With great effort, I pushed the length of the knife halfway through the ice cream layer before I realized my plan was not quite working. I paused to reassess as the three men seated around the table looked on.
“Agua. . . ” I heard one of the Spaniards say, but I was too focused on my task to decipher any of the other words. I can sometimes understand the language under perfect conditions–one speaker talking slowly, directly to me, my attention focused on his face, his expressions–but to try to understand Spanish while doing anything else simultaneously was way beyond my skill level.
I pulled the knife out and decided to plunge it in vertically. Past the ice cream layer, I pierced the bottom cookie layer. A few more stabs and the first piece was released to cheers from my companions.
“Mi padre tiene un tienda de helado,” I said triumphantly, in an attempt to explain my ice-cream-cake-cutting expertise. “Sabe Dairy Queen?” I asked. I hadn’t seen a single DQ in all my Spanish travels, so I wasn’t surprised when the Spaniards looked at me quizzically. Hmm. How to explain what a Dairy Queen is? “Como Burger King o McDonald’s, pero por helado,” I said. Like Burger King or McDonald’s, but for ice cream.
Damn, I’m good, I thought. All those years of playing Taboo were finally paying off. I could, quite quickly, come up with alternative ways to explain myself using the limited Spanish vocabulary I had access to! Well, sometimes I could.
“Ahhh, si,” said the Spaniards. “Pero hay mucho Burger King. Cientos en todo el mundo! Tiene una franquicia?”
“A franchise! Si!” I said, thinking, Now there’s a word you wouldn’t see in a Spanish textbook. But who uses textbooks to learn a language these days, anyway? My best learning was coming from conversations with Spaniards. And these days I have just enough knowledge of Spanish to continue some conversations for as much as a half-hour. So I went on. . .
“Tiene dos tiendas. Y mi hermana . . . ” Well, crap. How do I say my sister’s ice cream store is not a franchise?
“Mi hermana tiene un tienda con helado, pero tambien hamburgesa, pollo — per no franquicia. Privado.” Oh, how I love when the words flow so easily. They might not be correct words in the correct tense or order, but my goal is conversation, not perfection.
I wanted to be able to tell the Spaniards some of the funny ice cream cake stories I’d told my American co-hospitalero John earlier: the people who called my sister to complain about their ice cream cakes melting because they left them in the car or stored them in the refrigerator. But remember I can’t cut ice cream cake and speak Spanish at the same time. . . so conversation turned toward other topics while I dished out John’s birthday cake.
The two Spanish pilgrims spoke no English. John understood some Spanish, but speaking it was not yet his strong suit. So I was, once again, doing something I love: translating among pilgrims along Spain’s Camino de Santiago.
We learned that Pedro and JJ met on their first Camino (this is their second). Pedro is from a small pueblo — only 200 inhabitants! They are both retired–just like John. When they inquired about John’s work prior to retirement, I used words like militario and avion–the latter is French, but with hand motions, they understood. “Top Gun–sabe la pelicula?” I asked, trying to explain that John attended the real Top Gun school.
Talk turned, as it so often does, to Camino experiences. John’s fifteen Caminos, the time he volunteered for one month by himself in Foncebadon, cooking dinner every night for twenty-eight or more pilgrims. My time as a hospitalera in San Antón – un albergue sin electricidad, ni agua caliente. An albergue with no electricity nor hot water, I explained.
As we closed the night on his 69th birthday, John remarked to me how every group of pilgrims we see here at the albergue (hostel) in Grado, Spain are different. Tonight, the third night of our two week tenure as hospitaleros (volunteers) along the Camino de Santiago, had us hosting eight Spaniards. The previous nights had been more varied (we’d met pilgrims from Poland, Great Britain, Slovakia, Uruguay, Argentina, Italy, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Germany and even one from the US!). Tonight’s homogeneity made me think the pilgrims would just converse with each other and not with us as they knew how limited our Spanish skills were. But there’s nothing like food to bring people together. And ice cream cake? For someone’s birthday? You can’t help but trying to communicate your congratulations–no matter how few words you have.