I learned Spanish verbs in this order: to want, to kiss, to eat. And I learned them not because I had a sudden interest in educating myself or for any other practical purpose, but for the only reason anybody learns anything when there isn’t any reason to.
We met buying jewelry. Or rather, I was buying. He was selling, working with a Mexican who made the pieces – rings, necklaces, and bracelets shaped from silverware. I thought – it’s me! Food and jewelry combined! – and I don’t know, I was feeling exuberant and chatty and the weather was uncharacteristically balmy for Berlin and we started talking. And now I’m learning to speak Spanish.
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time practicing at the source, so to speak. After spending Christmas in the US, we flew to Colombia for three weeks to visit his family. On our first real night in Bogotá, he said, “my uncle is coming for dinner,” and I thought, You can do this. It’s good practice. Your five Spanish classes are totally sufficient to say ‘Hi! I am fine! My Spanish is bad!’ But apparently, when you say, “my uncle” in Colombia, it means, “my entire extended family.”
So that night, I met everyone within a hundred mile radius – aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, an uncle’s wife’s sister. And maybe my Spanish wasn’t as good as I thought, because “No hablo mucho español” didn’t get me very far. I was asked a number of questions I’m not sure I answered correctly, learned to dance vallenato, and had my first taste of Colombian cooking – lechona, pig skin stuffed with pork, rice, peas, potatoes and spices and cooked in a brick oven all day until the skin is crackled and the rice suffused with the fragrance of pork.
I should have known then: Colombia is a vegetarian’s hell. It is a country that craves meat. Fried chicken, churrasco, chorizo, blood sausage, fritanga, sobrebarriga – I’m still not even sure I can keep the types of meat apart in my mind. But I recall looking forward to lunchtime, driving up the north coast with his family and stopping at restaurants in tiny town squares for plates laden with juicy, grilled plates of meat, yucca, platanos, potatoes, and aji – a thin, spicy salsa made from tomato, chile, cilantro, and onion.
I found myself devouring my meals. I think meat does that to you. You feel the rip of flesh in your teeth, the umami-richness and fat, and you can’t help but grab everything you see with caveman fury. I still remember the first bite of a bison burger at a Pinchote rest stop, the feel of grease slowly running down my wrist from a perfectly grilled rib, the way the skin on the pork sausage knacked between my teeth. And I can tell you that I wanted to eat. When I was asked the question, Quieres comer algo? My response was always, Claro que si! Quiero.
Querer. The verb “to want.” There are a lot of things we want in life and very few we actually get. I think back to the market along Maybachufer, that first glance at this beautiful man, and I think about how strongly I felt the meaning of that verb. To feel a need or a desire for; to wish, crave, demand. And then I feel his hand in mine, and I know that this is a steady want. In Spanish, te quiero comes before te amo.
But there are smaller wants. There are wants that are as simple as, I want a fresh lime to squeeze on this flaky-white fried fish. I want a glass of pressed lulo juice to drink with my breakfast. I want to watch eight episodes of The Big Bang Theory consecutively and I want to wear my bathing suit all day. Sometimes these wants come true, too.
In Santa Marta, we’d wake up at noon and walk to the beach. In the afternoons, we’d hop on the bus to Rodadero (and really, if you didn’t hop fast enough, they’d leave you dangling in the door) and stop at one of the half-open restaurants to have a beer – the tinny, canned kind that reminded me of college – and a snack. On one of our last days on the coast, we ate at the Vomitorio, named for the bodily emission induced by the quantity of delicious food you want to consume here, or so the legend goes. Though I found the moniker dubious, there was always a line stretching out the door.
We caught it in a lull. Outside, the wind was rough, ripping down the street, snatching our napkins from the table and almost tipping over the slim, glass bottles of Coke. We moved inside, where the grease smell seeped into the wood and the heat made us sweat the ocean salt off our skin. We both ordered the special – a burger made with two patties of beef, a slab of grilled chicken, bacon, and butifarra, a regional sausage, along with your standard hamburger accouterments. It was massive, a monstrosity. I could barely open my mouth wide enough to shovel the burger inside. But it was delicious, absolutely excessive. It was exactly what I’d wanted.