A few weeks after moving into our apartment complex, which actually seems to double as a retirement home, we were greeted by a delicate little old lady. She spoke Spanish at an unsympathetic speed and the only thing we could really grasp was her name, Valentina. She lives on the floor below us, meaning she has to hike about 60 stairs to reach her apartment. She can often be found standing outside her apartment looking at the plants, knocking on her neighbor’s door or sweeping in her pajamas.
One day in October we passed her on our way back from lunch. For the first time, she stopped us to chat and we desperately tried to comprehend what she was saying, giving lots of head nods, “si-s,” or “no entiendo-s.” Although there was a huge language barrier, she had this knack for sucking us in, providing no opportunities for escape.
We understood that she wanted to invite us in for lunch and we tried to explain that we had literally just eaten. Either she didn’t understand or this didn’t matter, because we quickly found ourselves being pulled into her apartment by our wrists.
She made us a place at her table and went to the kitchen to finish preparing the cocido, a traditional dish from Madrid.
She came back to the dining room a little panicked as she tried to explain that she had forgotten bread. We didn’t understand what the problem was, but she quickly disappeared out the door, wearing only her bathrobe and pajamas, leaving us alone in her apartment.
Spencer and I sat there with her talkative bird named Cholo wondering if this is what the Spanish version of Hansel and Gretel would look like. Should we try to escape? Would Cholo rat us out? Or should we just stay and risk being shoved into the oven?
After about 15 minutes, she returned with the bread, ready to serve us our second lunch of the day.
I had no idea what cocido was, but as soon as I saw it, I pathetically realized it was my worst nightmare. It was one of those situations where I needed to claim I had food allergies or just suck it up and eat it. I wasn’t even the slightest bit hungry and it contained beans, apples and chunks of unknown meat in stew form–just a few of my favorite things. I know this is pathetic, but I’m a huge baby about food and I just didn’t know how I was going to swallow this, but I also I didn’t know how to express fake allergies in Spanish, so I ate it, only gagging a little into my napkin.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, she took my full glass of water and poured it into one of her plants, replacing it with Sunny-D. I hate Sunny-D and I never wanted Sunny-D. I chugged the glass, then replaced it with water again. I guess Valentina thought I was still a little short on my vitamin D intake for the day because again, she took my water and dumped it into her plant. This was a battle I was never going to win.
As Valentina fired off in Spanish sometimes speaking to us and sometimes to Cholo, we were never really sure who the conversation was directed toward, I couldn’t help but notice the scene unfolding on her television screen. We were surrounded by religious figurines and Jesus dolls, but on the TV was a terrifying movie full of nudity and sex. When I wasn’t gagging, I couldn’t help but giggle at the situation. Spencer and I exchanged several glances at one another, wondering how we were ever going to escape this situation.
After lunch, she pulled out some “gummy” candies. They may or may not have been as old as her, but they were solid as a rock and she insisted that we eat them. You just don’t say “no” to Valentina.
After some really compelling conversation (Valentina doesn’t speak a lick of English… I seriously can’t imagine we were very entertaining lunch guests), she invited us back over for dinner. She also said if we ever have visitors in Spain, they could stay in her apartment with her. The more the merrier, or something like that.
And after a solid two hours we were free.
We have since been dragged back into the apartment by our wrists one or two more times. I definitely played the allergy card one time, but she accused me of not wanting to get fat. Although our Spanish has improved, she is still wildly difficult to understand, and we just wave and run when we see her now. Sometimes, she even comes and knocks on our door to ask for various things… including money.
More recently, I encountered Valentina downstairs with a group of six other elderly ladies. I was slightly uncomfortable as I watched an intense situation unfold. Lots of shouting and hand gestures and I was sure it was all directed at little old Valentina. But as I continued to observe the situation, I realized they weren’t fighting. They were just trading hair dyes.
Maybe just a lonely little old lady, I hope we made her day by sharing lunch with her. I wish we could provide her with more compelling companionship, but until then, we’ll just continue to smile and wave and run up or down the stairs.