issue 34: january - february 2003 

 | author bio

novel extract
Digui, Digui

Richard Manchester Potter

[Digui, Digui is "Speak, Speak" in Catalan. It is also the name of a government sponsored language instruction book.]      


The most unexpected difficulty of living in Barcelona was the Catalans' insistence on speaking Catalan. At first, I imagined Catalan was merely a dialect of Spanish, a backward vernacular mastered only by rural grandparents and academics. But as my ear developed, I became aware of the language’s sheer power—its ubiquity, its difference. The city itself spoke Catalan, not Spanish. The swarming geometry of the streets and buildings whispered messages that overlapped and interfered with one another. Only the announcements on the metro reached me uncorrupted: "Correspondència amb línia cinc," a woman said. This recorded voice echoed in my head at night, as I tried to fall asleep in the summer heat, wiggling my limbs on a foam mattress, in the room I rented from Paz Martínez de la Rosa.
      The predominance of Catalan justified my inability to learn Spanish, which was my chief reason for going to Spain in the first place. It didn’t help that I associated almost exclusively with my fellow expatriates, tilting beers in Barcelona’s various Irish bars. In my apartment I fared only a little better, even though I lived with two native Spanish speakers—Paz and Enrique. A postgraduate student from Buenos Aires, Enrique never spoke to me in his native tongue. Instead, he loved to practice his English, mostly to express his extreme dislike of the United States, capitalism, industrialism, and me—guilty by association. I still had plenty of opportunities to speak Spanish. Paz herself couldn’t say a word in English. From Andalusia, she didn’t speak Catalan either. She stayed home, alone and foreign as any of us from overseas, and tossed me conversation starters: this summer is hotter than last summer; Sevilla is more beautiful than Barcelona because it has more churches; Enrique likes tortilla de patatas—do you like tortilla de patatas? An abysmal source of small talk, Paz sketched paradigms of language instruction, and I merely responded with a nod, a shrug of my shoulders, or I ignored her completely and watched television. I simply couldn’t carry on conversations for the sake of carrying them on.
      Not so with Brooke, one of my colleagues. She talked incessantly with Montse, her drunken landlady. I stopped by their flat one afternoon before going to the office. The two were standing in the cavernous kitchen, Brooke holding a fistful of silverware, Montse a tumbler of gin. "I have a spoon and I carry it to the room," Brooke stammered in Spanish. "No, a knife. I carry a knife. Because I have to cut a piece of fruit. Not an apple, but like an apple. Green. Like a woman."
      "Pera," said Montse, glassy-eyed and wearing pajamas. She nodded patiently, pleased to provide a word to end a sentence. She’d like to do this all the time, I thought. And with Brooke, she practically did. Brooke literally planned lessons for herself, and then hunted Montse down. A little cruel, I thought. Perhaps she was taking advantage of the poor woman, who likely imagined that the conversations were spontaneous, sincere and practical. On the other hand, maybe Montse knew Brooke’s design and didn’t care, was simply happy to have the company.
      "Montse also I want a vidrio," Brooke said. I could hear her Australian accent through the clumsy Spanish sentence.
      Monste shuffled to a kitchen chair, moaned—she was only around fifty—and sat down with an exaggerated exhalation. She grinned mischievously at Brooke, lifted her tumbler and rattled the ice cubes. “This is cristal, the window is vidrio.” 
      Certainly, in my quiet way, I envied Brooke. She had a plan. She could wake in the morning and say to herself, this is the day of kitchen nouns.
      "We gotta get going," I said to Brooke in English, "or I’ll be late for my class." I inhaled deeply as I spoke, trying for some reason to make my words difficult to comprehend; Montse, as far as I knew, couldn’t understand a word of English.
      Brooke went into her bedroom to collect her things. Montse leaned back in her chair and lit a cigarette, a picture of Latin disrepair. She gazed at me, as if to say ‘you want some of this? Go ahead, I know it all: table, chair, closet, broom—try me.’
      When Brooke came back, looking attractive in pressed black slacks, she handed me half a pear. "Let’s vamos," she said.

We walked up Rambla de Catalunya to the "Hello Its [sic] English Time!" school, where we both worked as teachers. Clarence and Gordon were already at the copy machine, complaining about the "improved" sanitation service in the Barri Gòtic. They were unlikely chums, I thought: Clarence an angry and secretive Bostonian, and Gordon a garden variety drunk from the English Midlands. "So what," Gordon said, "you just leave it on the street at night?"
      "That’s right," Clarence said, seething, "and they collect it in the morning."
      "What happened to the dumpsters?"
      "They were sick of people setting them on fire, so they’ve gotten ridden of them."
      "Gotten ridden?" Brooke said as she entered the room.
      Clarence looked at her, appalled. "What?"
      "Gotten ridden? You’re an English teacher for fuck’s sake. What language is that?"
      "There’s such a thing as colloquial speech you stuck-up wench."
      Clarence gave her the finger with both hands. Brooke contorted her lips and tongue into an obscene gesture. This was more my speed. I went to the office just for these very reasons—to whine about my various dissatisfactions, unleash indiscriminate insults, and generally refine my complaints with colleagues at the photocopy machine. I got the job by sheer "luck" the day after I arrived in Barcelona. One of the teachers, Dmitri Lagos, had fallen ill and was forced to abandon his classes.
      "Today’s the big day," I announced.
      "What you mean, big day?" Gordon said.
      "Crunchtime. Paydirt. Rubber match."
      "What are you on about?" Brooke asked.
      "The battle of Titans, no holds barred, steel cage, no referee."
      "What’s the fight?" Clarence asked, ever appreciative of violent analogies.
      "Guimerá." I said, trying to evoke a sense of drama. Gordon looked up from his haphazard stacks of copies.
      "Oh, that geezer at Anderson," he said. "Dmitri hated him too."
      I nodded sagely. "Guimerá and I are indeed pitted in a heroic battle—who can better express through body language their displeasure of the English lesson." Clarence offered a rare smile. Although I had been there only three weeks, the self-proclaimed most cynical man in Spain had taken a shine to me. He wore black pince-nez with a white-taped bridge.
      "Guimerá won the last battle by scraping his scalp with his fingernails. It was very involved and drawn out. He really had to dig around." I demonstrated Guimerá’s technique. "Then he studied the encrusted booty beneath his fingernails and some of it flaked off, right onto his chart of irregular verbs."
      "What did you do?" Gordon asked.
      "What could I do? I conceded right there. It was sophisticated. He totally disarmed me. Guimerá won."

The day had become quite warm. I stood beneath the washed-out sycamore trees on Avenue Diagonal, waiting for the number seven bus to take me to Guimerá’s office. My chest and back began to perspire, and I could smell the sweet pungency of last night’s beer. When the bus finally arrived, I took one look at the distressed, sweaty driver, and knew the air conditioning was broken. Some people shuffled on, others peered down the street to see if another bus was on the way. The lesson with Guimerá started in exactly ten minutes, and I was far too cheap to take a cab, so I stepped aboard the bus. It was like a casserole dish.
      By the time I disembarked at Plaça Francesc Macià, my shirt was soaked with smelly sweat. I was already a few minutes late, and still had to walk 200 meters to Anderson Consulting. Rushing past the well-groomed executives on their lunch breaks, I became self-conscious. My second-hand slacks felt a little tight in the thigh; my polyester shirt that I bought at the grocery store looked especially cheap in the direct sunlight. But the worst realization was that my earnings for this lesson, for the day, would only come to fifteen dollars—enough to eat one of those bourgeois lunches or get a haircut.
      Three minutes late, I strode past Guimerá’s heart-stopping secretary and into his office. A portly man with jowls like a St. Bernard, Guimerá was sitting motionless at his desk with his hands folded, a picture of contrived patience. I must have looked seriously disheveled, though he merely offered a cursory remark about the heat and humidity. I tried to render the events of the last fifteen minutes into rudimentary English so he could appreciate my situation, and because I had nothing else prepared. Guimerá nodded along, but then glanced at his books arranged neatly on the desk. He looked especially crisp and attentive. It dawned on me for the first time that Guimerá was an important person whose days were filled with significant business. He occupied the corner office on the tenth floor, the Mediterranean Sea hazily visible from a sitting position.
      I improvised the whole class. Guimerá seemed keenly aware of my lack of preparation. I vowed to myself to be ready for the next lesson, but then I remembered that I had made that same vow two days before, squirming in the very same seat. About twenty minutes into the lesson Guimerá asked where I had been trained. He had assumed an air of objectivity that made me nervous. "Did you had a special classes to learn teach?" I felt new sweat form a tingling crown along my receding hairline.
      "I went to school in California," I said. "I went through the TOEFL program at UCLA," a bold-faced lie. "It’s one of the top five TOEFL programs in the U.S."
      He greeted this information coolly, skeptically, as if I had claimed royal ancestry. I made him read one of the paragraphs for advanced students at the back of the book and corrected every single pronunciation mistake.

That afternoon when I got home, I called my family in Florida. My brother Tyrone answered.
      "I’m on house arrest," he laughed.
      "What happened? What’s that?"
      "The jails are full, so the probation department fastened this steel band around my ankle. They can monitor my whereabouts. Like radar." He lit something and inhaled. "Beats being in the hole," he said.
      "Why are you even on house arrest? Did you start smoking crack again?"
      "No, hell no. I was just walking through the parking lot of Denny’s," he pulled deeply off his smoke, "and this guy had left a Skilsaw right in the back of his truck."
      "So what?"
      "So what? I lifted it. You can’t just leave shit like that laying around."
      "What the hell do you need with a Skilsaw? What is a Skilsaw?"
      "It’s for serious cutting. Good ones go for a few bills."
      "What, did you try and pawn it?"
      "I wish. These rednecks came barreling out of the restaurant, all yelling. I ditched the saw and bolted through the back of the parking lot. I got wedged trying to squeeze underneath the cyclone fence."
      "Why did you go under? Why didn’t you go over?"
      "Everyone goes over. Besides, it was a fifteen-footer."
      "Did they kick the shit out of you?"
      "I wish. They sat on my calves and called the cops on a cell phone. What the fuck is that? What’s the world coming to? Twenty years ago they would have dragged me back into the parking lot, whacked me around, given me body bruises. No cops." Tyrone, twenty-six, was nostalgic for an era that existed long before he was born, if it ever existed at all.
      "Hell yeah. After they were through they’d probably buy me a beer—say ‘hey punk, you know how to steal a Skilsaw, but can you cut with one?’ I’d be working with ‘em for chrissakes."
      I’m certain my mother and stepfather were disappointed that Tyrone was not finally condemned to jail. His house arrest was like a sentence to them. Over the years, he stole their stereos and televisions; he ripped out checks from the back of their checkbooks. He pawned their CD collection, Reese’s fishing tackle, my mother’s Teflon cookware. He never lived away from our mother, except when she remarried and moved from San Diego to Florida with her new husband, Reese Crapps. Tyrone moved into a storage unit next to Interstate 5. After three weeks, the overnight security guard smelled pot smoke coming from Tyrone’s "storage" bay. When the old man lifted up the garage-like door, he trained his flashlight on Tyrone, naked and sitting on a duffel bag, holding a water pipe. Tyrone moved to Ft. Lauderdale. That was four years ago.
      "Mom and Reese aren’t home," he said. "They went on an old person day cruise. Shuffleboard, swing dancing, prime rib." He laughed derisively, my only brother. "Hey, you didn’t need that stamp collection anymore, did you?"

The following morning, Saturday, I went to the Dia grocery store for my weekend supplies. The unquestioned bottom of Spanish chain markets, Dia was decidedly second world, unapologetically lowbrow. They manufactured their own brand of generic goods, labeled in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Greek—a veritable short list of EU lightweights. The claustrophobic aisles were scenes of constant disaster—broken jars of beans in smelly fluid, burst sacks of flour and rice, abandoned infants screaming for the world to end. The chaos increased toward the end of the month, as the entire stock dwindled to nothing, and “shoppers” fought over the remaining cartons of milk, the final jars of white asparagus, the last fillet of frozen hake. The women who worked in the local Dia seemed to be achieving some sort of collective low point in their lives. Flustered and beleaguered, they nevertheless maintained a noble attitude that was at once detached and caring. They focused on their job without indulging each individual customer. They were like relief workers expediting supplies to a sleepy fishing village in the aftermath of a tidal wave. And they were young—not one of them older than thirty. I maintained a sneaky admiration for their ability to endure the unglamorous circumstances, to wear their filthy red smocks with a modicum of dignity. Not surprisingly, I developed a crush on one of them, the butcher girl. She spoke an irresistible, rapid-fire brand of Catalan to her co-workers. I thought that she might one day change my mind about the language.
      "Bon dia," I said.
      "Hola, com va?" she said and whacked the head off a scrawny chicken that had a few feathers left on its body.
      "Bona bona," I said eagerly, fidgeting with a package of vacuum-packed sliced chorizo. I proposed to her that we "take a cup" after she got off work. I pieced the phrase together in Spanish, though I tried to make it sound Catalan by lopping off the last vowel.
      She blushed, clearly astonished. "No, no. No puedo," she said, sliding a purple organ into a pile of gizzards. She had a "mountain" of things to do, she said. She had shifted into slow, precise Spanish to ensure that I understood.
      Catalans don't meet people this way, I thought. Of course, I had no idea how Catalan people met each other. For all I knew, the butcher and patron could be the prototype of Catalan romance. "Yes, he used to come in everyday," she reflects with relaxing, attentive relatives during some future holiday. They have heard this story countless times, though always enjoy the telling, as if it has become part of the family lore. "Finally I agreed to go out with him, just so he’d stop pestering me." She feigns exasperation. I walk into the room holding a cocktail—no, a baby. I am immediately awash with feelings of respect, admiration. I am responsible, committed, one of them. My frank opinions and American can-do attitude are valued by this family. Her brothers confide in me their own amorous travails. The father is forever pulling me aside, warming me with a joke, soliciting advice for his modest but consistently profitable hardware store. I sense that he wishes his own sons were more like me, more capable, more urbane.
      The cleaver whumped down on the counter, separating a chicken from its wing. The Dia girl had emphatically resumed her duties. My cart with two bastard wheels lurched and jerked as I pushed it away from the meat counter and toward the freezer. I selected three pizzas and 500 grams of squid rings. I thought about another lonely meal as I piled them onto my usual staples—potato chips, cartons of wine, and many cans of Diabräu.

Pizza con Chorizo

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, or whatever that is in Celsius. Of course, if your Spanish oven is like mine, it will simply be either on or off. Carefully unwrap your Dia frozen pizza. Top pizza with Dia olives, Dia chorizo and Dia oregano before placing on the oven rack. Begin reading the lifestyle section of the USA TODAY INTERNATIONAL EDITION. When you have reaffirmed that you will never, under any circumstances, move back to that country, your pizza will be ready. Serve with Dia lemon soda and Dia gin.

Legumes con Corizo

Open can of Dia Fabada Asturiana (beans with black blood sausage), add entire package of Dia sliced chorizo and cook in a medium saucepan. Eat Dia tostadas topped with Dia margarine until the Fabada sauce smokes and splatters. Serve with entire carton of Dia red wine, the one with the horse-drawn carriage on it.

Squid Rings con Chorizo

Preheat oven to around 400 degrees Fahrenheit (see above for those cooking in a Spanish oven). Put Dia squid rings on one of Paz’s greasy baking sheets. Stare off balcony and eat Dia chorizo; when you have finished the package of chorizo, the Dia squid rings will probably not be cooked thoroughly, so you’ll have to find some other way to entertain yourself. Warning: do not eat Dia squid rings from the oven if they are still partially frozen; this will induce severe vomiting. Serve with chilled Diabräu.

The room I rented from Paz was roughly the size of a large bathroom. There was a six-foot length of foam resting on a cheap frame—essentially a beach chair without arm rests. I kept my clothes in a small dresser made of particle board, except for my work clothes, which hung from hooks on the door. My lone window overlooked the building’s central ventilation shaft.
      I was lying down, napping, when I heard an announcer scream "goal!" from the living room. Enrique was watching a football game with the sound turned up very loud. Paz was clattering in the kitchen, making meatballs and rice. It was Friday night. The three of us had been invited to an art show on the second floor. Inga from Bonn lived there in a state of lesbian abandon; this according to Enrique. His report was likely informed by the fact that his persistent romantic overtures toward her were unambiguously rebuffed, culminating in Inga’s threat to castrate him. Paz told me the whole history the night I moved into the apartment.
      Inga’s exhibition was touted as "The Vagina Works." I tried to see beyond Enrique’s comments, but still, I braced myself for feminist renderings of female genitalia. I expected thick red oil paint, lesbian romps, and the fall of the phallus. Instead, Inga’s paintings were mostly just small-town landscapes. The vaginas were there, a flyer informed me, but encrypted. "There is vagina here, and vagina here," Inga said to a champagne-sipping couple as they shuffled between canvases. She was pointing to a cloud mass, then a doorway. It was the cultured, adult version of Where’s Waldo. I approached and asked her to stop, to see if I could find them myself. I studied a street scene and pointed to a cyclist.
      "Here’s one," I said. "A vagina."
      Inga squinted. Then shook her head decisively. "No, this is not vagina. It is a girl on bicycle."
      I retired to the kitchen, where I traded English and Spanish nouns with a Serbian girl who came to Barcelona as part of some musical troupe. She played a folksy wind instrument that I had trouble picturing. Her boyfriend was a Bosnian Muslim, she told me, and worked as a waiter near Mostar. Their families were unable to fathom their courtship, so he was trying to save money and join her in Spain. But he wasn’t saving much. Besides, he couldn’t get a visa. If by Christmas he still couldn’t come, she said, then she would return to him. I didn’t have the nerve to share with her much about my own, self-centered, plodding, suburban history. How I simply fled from a banal litany of days and nights, weeks and months, plump years arriving one after the other, in tedious certainty. I surely didn’t envy her, but was seduced by the drama of her life, which I imagined to be quintessentially European and twentieth century.

By 1:00 A.M., people were still coming in. A gray haze of smoke began to hang above the crowd. I glanced at Paz just as she was folding a humus-covered pita into her mouth. I headed for the door. Enrique of course hadn’t dared to attend. He left the apartment soon after dinner in his beloved stonewashed jeans—a clear signal that he would be prowling for females. He looked like a picture from a high school language book: clean and thin, foreign, and eager for socializing.

To my surprise, Enrique was home, sitting on the edge of the couch and smiling stupidly at the TV. "Tío," he said. "Es viernes. Family values." He was alluding ironically to both the infamous political slogan and Canal Plus’ proclivity to air adult films on Friday nights. I walked past him to get to the kitchen. Sure enough, he was watching some unironic, Scandinavian porn. Paz came in, clunky from Cava. She tumbled onto the couch next to Enrique and began cooing and wiggling, pretending to be thrilled by the well-tanned action. Poor Paz, I thought.

© Richard Manchester Potter 2003

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author bio

Richard Manchester Potter is currently a teacher and graduate student at Florida Atlantic University. He lived in Barcelona for two years, where he published The Advocate, a satirical newspaper about expatriate life. He is writing a novel on this subject, from which this narrative has been selected. He can be reached at temesvar@yahoo.com


 tbr 34           january - february 2003 

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novel extract
Richard Manchester Potter: Digui Digui

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