This emu is staring at me, and I don’t think it speaks English.
Very few people here do, and that is why I am here. I am standing on a mountain top in Spain, and I am living in what used to be a trading station for sheep farmers. It has now been transformed into a four-star villa, and its guests sleep in the former stables. The emus are next door, and I hear they make good eating.
I live here for free, because I was born speaking a tongue that everyone wants to know. And so some entrepreneurial businessmen from Texas have decided to give people like me free room and board in Spain, in exchange for talking to Spaniards. Not teaching, just talking. We are to talk just like we do every day, in every conceivable accent: Manchester, Pittsburgh, Cork, Houston, Boston, Auckland, Brooklyn. And Spaniards will learn English like their dignity depends on it.
For the first and only time in my life, I am interviewing fifty-year old businessmen who have whole pig farm empires to their name, and they are sweating bullets. I hit them where it hurts, I insult their intelligence through my very existence, I undermine everything they ever believed about their English ability, because I talk very, very fast about many, many things. Every day they huddle around the schedule posted on the lobby wall, and every day the unlucky Spaniards scheduled to talk to me – for just an hour – pantomime slitting their wrists, hanging themselves by their neck tie, or jumping through the nearest window. I am a linguistic Grendel.
This sort of thing could give me a complex, if I didn’t already have one. My voice has been a running punch line all my life, because no can quite decide what I sound like. They thought I was French in first grade, German in second, and Australian in third. As an adult I am most often taken for British, or occasionally some sort of Eastern European. One job thought I was Polish for six months, and half the people in California think I’m South African. One man guessed that I was either from Turkey, or Queens, New York. A Russian actor friend once recommended I tell people, ‘I am from Caspiar, an island in the Caspian Sea.’ Pause. ‘It sank.’
I think people hear what they want to hear.
An American here worked as a cryptographer for the spooks, and he lived in ICBM bunkers for twenty-three years. One fellow did his thesis on heroic bloodshed action movies, and another studied how to electrocute fish instantaneously for sushi markets in Japan. One beautiful Irish woman – because all Irish women are beautiful – talks about seeing the night sky in Zimbabwe, where every star juts out like a diamond. There is a seventy-plus guttermouth Spanish woman who is having every adventure she can because, quote, ‘I am in a hurry.’
We have nothing to do all week, but walk and talk. Eduardo and I wander down to the river, and we pick gleaming white boulders off the bank to add to his garden. Sergio and I walk down into town, and windowshop for whole flanks of ham. At night, we either dance, or get completely soused: one evening has us making Queimada, a colon-scarring concoction made out of four bottles of grain alcohol, a bag of sugar, four bags of coffee beans, lime, and fire, over which we utter a Galician incantation about demons.
Somewhere it slips that my birthday is next week, something I haven’t celebrated since I was fourteen, and which I usually spend sipping tea and reading a good book in the corner. We get as far as the final day, and over dinner people laugh about their everyday lives to which they’ll be returning, places without long walks in the mountains or intercontinental drinking games.
The lights go out. And without warning I am surrounded by a mob of half-drunk Spaniards and Irishwomen, all of whom consider it an unforgivable sin to celebrate a boy’s 21st birthday without cakes and candles and standing ovations. One of the gorgeous young Spanish women comes up from behind me, and kisses me on the cheek, and it’s like the floodgates open: every woman lines up and out the door to get their turn, from Irish therapists to Spanish-Moroccan computer programmers. And suddenly, the career CIA spook is there, and he plants a big, loving wet one.
My whole previous week of jabberjaw abandons me. And I have absolutely nothing to say.