by Val M Karren
It’s been nearly ten years now since I started using. It was rather harmless at the start, and I can honestly tell you that when I started, I had planned to use it for only a few months. I could not have foreseen how quickly it got out of control. I never had any trouble with it in my teenage years. Even though my parents seemed to enjoy a bit of it on an irregular basis, neither I nor any of my siblings were ever tempted by it. It repulsed us when we found it in the glove box in my father’s car. Sometimes though, and regrettably so, exposure to it was unavoidable on long family road trips. I suppose that it was those times, as a susceptible young boy, I came to believe that it was acceptable to dabble it in for fun and that it wouldn’t hurt me or anybody else around me. Now I need it every day before work, immediately after and sometimes I even try to smuggle it into the office with me. My boss caught me with it in the airport in Istanbul during a long wait for our flight to Amsterdam. I know I need help, but can’t find the strength to stop!
In the summer of 2006 I received an invitation to work and live in Spain and with the invitation came the sudden need to be able to speak Spanish. It’s not as if I’m monolingual. I speak five languages, but through all my years of living in Europe, I simply hadn’t had a reason nor the desire to learn Spanish. In high school, I studied French. Serving as a Mormon missionary, I learned to speak Russian. At University I mastered Romanian alongside Russian, and since then have learned to speak Dutch fluently as an ex-patriot.
I’ve found over the years that listening to music in all of these languages helps me to keep all of them accessible in my brain. If I sing along while I’m in the car or running outside, vocabulary, conjugations, and idioms stay readily on my tongue. So, when it became necessary for me to teach myself Spanish, as quickly as possible, I turned again to music to get the words and rhythm of another new language in my ears.
The chance to escape to Barcelona for me was my last hope of reviving and extending my fading youthfulness. I was determined to transform myself from a white and pasty, slightly overweight and balding middle manager, into a tanned, trim and windblown beach hunk. I imagined dancing every weekend late into the night on the beach with my (ever youthful) wife, driving the young bucks into a jealous rage while dancing the hot salsa with my voluptuous, blonde Danish beauty.
Life was going to be all sunshine, cabriolets, hot lovin’ and never, ever another proper dinner before 10:00pm. I wasn’t getting any younger and life wasn’t going to wait for me to learn Spanish, so I did what I had to do. I went to the local Media Markt to find me some Spanish music for the car stereo and hoped that an hour or two each day during my commutes would be enough to give me a good jump start. I came home with two compact discs of Julio Iglesias in my shopping bag. That was the beginning of the end. As each month passed, a new Julio disc was ordered and delivered to my home in discreet brown envelopes. I was downloading the music onto my iPod and reading the lyrics while I listened, in secret, with headphones. I took in everything from the early years of “chicka waka” reverb disco to the super cheesy 80’s power ballads, his Caribbean period, and every recording into the modern period of the haunting Spanish guitars. In between the regular installments, I tried some other Spanish language product to prove to myself that I could quit Julio anytime I wanted. I tried some music from Mexico and Columbia and even some contraband from Cuba, but nothing compared. I even strayed into some Brazilian imports (and I can tell you that was the smoothest stuff I’ve ever sampled) but it just lacked that authentic Spanish flavor that I had become so accustomed to. At that point, I acknowledged to myself that I had a problem, but I thought I still had the ability to get clean. I could not have been more wrong!
That winter I began commuting to Barcelona every other week to lay the groundwork for my operations team and to build relations with suppliers and customers. In Spain, and even more so perhaps in Barcelona, business is done between friends. Being friends is the basis of being able to close any deal, ask any favors and solve any service issues. Building those friendships, of course, took place during activities that had nothing to do with business, i.e. Formula One races, football (soccer) matches and very long, very late lunches on the beach. Nobody seemed to be in a rush and always had time for an extra cup of coffee and an extra long chat. Being forty-five minutes late for appointments was standard. Apologies were rarely spoken in defense of tardiness. Plans had to always stay flexible.
After just a few months I was surprised with how much Spanish I had been able to learn in such a short amount of time. I had quickly learned how to read and write an email in Spanish and have casual conversations while comprehension came with less and less effort. In my experience it usually takes eight weeks of complete immersion in a new language to be able to behave a bit more intelligently than a very smart dog: Sit. Speak. Eat. Then, something exhilarating happens! The dam breaks and, almost overnight, spontaneous conversations spring out of my mouth, and my attempts at witty jokes start making sense to everybody else around me. It happened in Russia, it happened in Holland, and all at once it happened in Spain.
In the weeks that I worked in Spain, I did just that, I worked for ten hours a day. The evenings, though, were mine! Whenever I had free time in Barcelona, the only place I wanted to be was outdoors! The rays of the earth’s yellow sun seemed to give me superhero strength and I felt while jogging in the evenings that if I could get both my feet off the ground at the same time, that I would start flying around the harbor and out over the sea hills. Catalunya has what I consider to be the very best climate that our green earth has to offer. Winter only lasts from just a few days before Christmas through St. Valentine’s day. The spring is fresh, aromatic and bright, the summers are wonderfully warm, but never too hot. The autumn comes on slowly, and brings with it such a wonderful warmth of autumn colors, not in the trees, but in the air. In the morning and evening air, no matter the season, one feels invincible and able to conquer aging itself. What joy! What courage!
While running in the evenings along the shoreline of “The Med,” I would listen to music with a good beat to keep my feet from dragging. One evening, while I was running near the water of the ancient sea, all of the sudden, as if a switch in my head had been thrown, I could understand all the Spanish lyrics in my ears. After months of struggling to hear the words and understand the songs, from one moment to the next, a whole new world of Latin culture was opened up to me…and Julio was in fine form that night! His sung exploits in love, broken hearts and red wine by the cask, put to a disco beat and an accordion, filled me with a renewed youthfulness that kept me running strong, kilometer after kilometer with excitement. I felt like Marathon himself. All eyes were on me! I alone could save the world. As long as Julio sang, I ran, and as I ran I became the hero of each of those songs.
I became the man who discovered true love for the first time in a remote seaside village. I was the man dancing the night away with a black haired, hip swaying Andalucian beauty. I was the man who invented the mouth-watering recipe for white, flakey ‘bacalau,’ and I became the brokenhearted schmuck, left abandoned by my true love because I couldn’t keep my hands to myself that night on the beach. Damn that full moon!
But as these things go, and many times they simply go the wrong way, all at once and without warning, the whole dream fell apart. After months of hard work, regular travel, packing and nearly selling the house in Holland, I received the heart-wrenching news that my application for residency in Spain had been denied. Oh, mi corazon roto! Que dolor! Que deroche! There are no words in the English language that properly express my disappointment. As a consequence of it all, I quit my job in Amsterdam and left the company out of my inability to face my shattered dream every day, for the rest of my career. We sold our home, took a new job and moved far away. Now, all I have left of the perfect dream not-come-true is a pain in my gut, a head full of half correct Spanish sentences, the memory of the heavenly taste of bacalau in my mouth, and a love of cheesy latin love ballads in my heart and in my ears.
Nobody understands my inability to let go of what was for me the end of all existence and I don’t have the ability to explain it, but I know that there is one person in the world who understands my pain, who is just a click of the play button away. As long as Julio sings, my dream will never die. (Sing, Julio, sing! )
Did you enjoy this story? Find it and others like it in V M Karren’s short story anthology: The Tales of a Fly-By-Night.