Since coming to Spain, I’ve made it my business to improve my Spanish. I recently met a very interesting and unlikely friend who’s helping me with that. Let me tell you about him.
But first a word about my Spanish.
I started learning it in 1985 in Nicaragua where I spent six weeks of study at a language school called Casa Nicaraguense de Español. The point there was to spend the mornings in class and the afternoons learning about the Revolution that was then celebrating its sixth anniversary. It was my first experience of living in a revolutionary situation.
Getting some fluency in Spanish wasn’t so hard for me, since I already had studied Latin, French, Italian, and Portuguese. So I could get along.
Seven years later, Peggy and I did an intensive three-month Spanish course in San Jose, Costa Rica at a school set up there to equip evangelical missionaries from the States to learn enough Spanish to convert Tico Catholics to evangelical Protestants.
Both Peggy and I did well enough in our courses for us to participate in a semester-long workshop on liberation theology in a think tank in San Jose called the Departamento Ecumenico de Investigaciones (DEI). We were the first North American “invited researchers” allowed into those hallowed halls where everyone was suspicious of Yankees. (I remember being told about worries that I might be CIA!)
But while Peggy’s Spanish has since taken off because of her work with Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees, mine has remained where it was twenty years ago.
So, now that we’re in Spain long term, I find myself scrambling to get back on top of Español. To that end, I enrolled for ten hours of conversation with language teachers at a school just minutes away from our apartment in Granada’s picturesque Albaicin barrio. My intention was not just to improve my Spanish, but to learn about Spanish history. I was especially interested in knowing about the years when the fascist caudillo, Francisco Franco ruled the country (1939-’75). My four language teachers at the local school were happy enough to help me with that project.
I learned not only about Franco and how he came to power, but also about Spain’s current government which happens to be run by two left-wing parties, the socialist Spanish Workers’ Party, and a rechristened Communist party called Podemos (“Yes, we can!”). The country’s president is the socialist leader, Pedro Sanchez. But its most popular politician is the Podemos politician (and communist) Yolanda Diaz who is Spain’s Second Deputy Prime Minister.
All of that was fine. I really enjoyed conversations with the teachers just mentioned. But as my daughter, Maggie, said, “Why are you paying $50 an hour for conversations, when you could have the same experience for free with any elderly person sitting on a park bench down in the Plaza Larga?”
I had to admit she had a point. So, just recently I decided to locate such a person. I went down to the local Senior Center and struck up a conversation with a woman there. Her name was Carla. And she was very kind. However, she wasn’t really interested in conversational exchange. She just wanted someone to complain to about how terrible her life had become. The “conversation” was all one-way. On top of that, she spoke so quickly and with such dialect that I only understood about 20% of her complaints.
I decided to seek conversation elsewhere.
So, I approached an interesting looking busker playing at the entrance to the Plaza Larga which around here resembles an outdoor living room where locals gather at the many outdoor cafes and bars for cappuccinos and charlas.
The man’s name is Simon. He’s 60 years old and hasn’t a spare pound on his 5’3” frame. He wears a black tee, and at first peers out at you suspiciously from serious brown eyes framed with long and scraggly gray hair.
After I introduced myself and explained my language project, Simon warmed up and agreed to share a café con leche now and then and talk. He wasn’t interested in getting paid. “Just coffee,” he said.
Turns out that Simon is Chilean, living here for the last fifteen years without papers or passport. He plays a quietly thoughtful guitar.
I’d describe Simon as an old hippie. Looking out at the world, he sees a madhouse that he wants no part of. He’s discovered that he can live by singing and nothing other than his faith that Life will provide him with whatever he needs. It always does, he says. His busking brings him an income of about ten euros a day, sometimes a bit more. And that’s all he needs.
Simon tells me that he lives in a simple house in San Miguel Arriba, a leisurely half-hour ‘s uphill walk from the Plaza Larga. At home, he cooks the vegetables he purchases at his local market on a butane stove. He defecates in a bag and disposes of his personal waste “more ecologically,” he said than the rest of us. It’s important, he says, to take care of his health, because he has no medical insurance.
Simon’s mother died when he was very young. So, he was raised by his father who was an automobile mechanic usually paid in kind by his customers. His dad was an anarchist who always kept a statue of La Virgen prominently displayed in the house.
Simon was schooled by the Jesuits in Chile and went as far as his freshman year at a private university, where he studied special education for children suffering from dyslexia and other developmental problems. He left school though to become an artisan working in metal and wood.
He took up with a woman he lived with for several years, fathering three children (ages 15 to 8) none of which (“sadly,” he says) he ever sees.
Simon is interested in theology and was amused by the fact that I had been a priest. The Jesuits, he said, taught him well and set him on a spiritual path that he’s followed ever since. It has led him to Shamanism and the Psycho-magic of the Chilean artist and filmmaker, Alexander Jodorowsky. Psycho-magic allows practitioners to heal and even perform operations using nothing but their imaginations.
Simon now finds himself studying Tarot – as a fallback, he laughed, and source of income should he somehow become unable to busk any longer.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first conversation with Simon. On parting we agreed that we are somehow kindred spirits, and both look forward to future conversations.
Over his protests, I gave him ten euros anyway.