In our holiday series "Finding ...," the Herald-Leader has invited readers and writers to share the story of a personal quest or journey they're taking this holiday season. This is the fifth and final in the series. For the other installments, see below.
I felt gritty. I was standing in line in a tiny gas station at 10 o'clock in the morning in Jerez, Spain. My sweaty hair was stuck to my head after the drive across the dusty plain with the windows down.
The man ahead of me was trying to persuade the attendant to buy oranges from the pile in his flatbed truck. At least, that's what I thought he was doing. I don't speak Spanish, so I wasn't sure.
It was the day after Epiphany — Jan. 7. We had enjoyed the parade of the Three Wise Men in Seville the night before, especially its finishing highlight: the three costumed men throwing candy to the children from their golden carriage. I loved watching the children bundled against the cold night air, sitting on the shoulders of their fathers and lining the curb with outstretched arms, shouting, "¡Aquí!"
But the next morning on our way to the car we passed a shuttered tavern where sounds of laughter, clinks of glasses and Spanish guitar music wafted onto the street. My husband, David, laughed, amazed at their 7 a.m. gusto. I laughed, too, but I secretly wished that I had been invited to the all-night party.
I was missing the feeling that I was a part of something at Christmas, not just an onlooker. I missed the small joys of seeing the niece and nephews open their presents and playing the role of the slightly ditzy aunt. The truth was, I was happy to be with my husband in this fascinating place, but also feeling a bit left out.
The men rolled the bags around on the tile counter, closely examining each orange as if they were children picking out shells on a beach.
I watched quietly. The mutt behind the counter locked eyes with me and cocked his head as if to ask my opinion about the oranges.
Beside the cash register stood a dusty bottle of Jerez sherry spotted with fingerprints; the word libre was scrawled on an index card taped across its front.
The men had stopped talking and turned toward me. One nodded at me and said something in Spanish.
They had seen me spy the bottle.
"No habla español," I replied, smiling apologetically. They probably suspected this disability because of my blond hair, blue eyes, pink complexion and height. An oddity in Spain, I stood out like a pink flamingo among penguins.
One asked, "Dutch?"
I shook my head and replied, "American."
"No problem," said the attendant in heavily accented English. He pointed at the bottle, and both men made drinking gestures with their hands.
"Free. For to enjoy," he continued.
I hardly ever drink. It was 10 in the morning. But the owner was pulling out three tiny glasses, and I found myself smiling and saying, "Sí."
They waved me to the counter, and we raised a toast to what I came to understand were freshly picked oranges.
Ten minutes later I emerged with a bag of oranges. I had also paid for our gasoline, bought a doggie treat for the bright-eyed mutt, and predicted sunshine for the day with my new buddies.
All that, without speaking the language.
My husband looked up from the map he was studying and said, "Spanish time?"
We had adjusted quickly to the Spaniards' relaxed relationship to the clock.
"Yes. And I had a glass of sherry with the owner and the truck driver," I said, giggling. I thought the sherry might be affecting me.
"I believe it," he said, laughing.
When you visit a country, it's better to speak a language than not speak it. Everybody knows that; it's common sense. To know and understand a culture and a people, language and experience of that culture are essential.
But when people want to communicate, they do.
I sometimes think about that day and remember how cared-for I felt after that brief encounter. We had understood each other by using very few words — mostly by smiling, reading each other's eyes and gesturing.
At home, sometimes I notice that I rely too much on words. Sometimes I'm hearing with my ears and thinking about my response before listening with all my senses — and my heart.
I wonder whether I'd be a better communicator if I forgot the language that I treasure and just communicated the way I did that dusty day in Spain.
Those two old men gave me one of the best Christmas presents I ever got. I hope they're still lifting their glasses with strangers in that little gas station.