Learning to Speak

We’re spending the month at an Airbnb apartment in the pocket-sized northern town of Pollenca. Our landlord’s name is Jaume.

The name Jaume is the Catalan version of “James”. It’s a popular name in Mallorca–ever since 1230 when King Jaume I “The Conqueror”, brought 15,000 soldiers and hundreds of cocky Knights of Templar to the island, then spent three brutal years ousting the Moors. 


The Moors had captured the island from the Romans, who had captured it back from the Vandals, who had captured it from the Romans, who had captured it from the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, who had captured it from the Mallorcan mercenaries known as “Los Honderos” who were both respected and feared for their precise slingshot and deadly rock-throwing skills. 

History is bloody.

Our Street

Our apartment is on Ramon Lull , a one-way street just off the main square, through a squeezy narrow door and up some steep slippery stairs that I lugged my electric bike up once and swore never to do again. Fortunately, Jaume’s sister lives downstairs, and she lets us use her garage.

Guy and I have the upstairs bedroom, which opens to a tiled patio with a view of the pizza restaurant down the street. This is important because I can tell if the restaurant across the street is open without making the trek down the stairs and out the front door. The fourth time we ate at that restaurant, the waiter recommended we try their housemade basil sorbet and it was like getting the key to the city. 

Guy getting key to our door, not the city.

The second patio, on the main floor outside the kitchen, sits above an overgrown yard jammed with bulging orange trees. Below, a shaggy brown and white goat wags her scraggly tail while she nibbles fallen oranges. If she wants a snack, she bleats until Jaume’s dad brings her kitchen scraps.

Orange trees under the patio

Pollenca is about a thirty-minute drive from the main airport in Palma. Palma, the capital of Mallorca, proudly sports a fairy-tale-beautiful harbor at its front. Sitting in that harbor is the “Tango”, a super-yacht owned by billionaire Viktor Vekselberg-–a friend of Putin and a guest at Trump’s inauguration. Local officials are contemplating confiscating the monstrosity –one of the largest yachts in the world, and throwing its borscht into the harbor.

A couple weeks ago, after Russia began murdering innocent families in Ukraine, Taras Ostapchuk, a mechanic on Russian weapons exporter Alexander Mikeev’s luxury yacht “Lady Anastasia”, opened up the valves in the yacht’s engine rooms, warned his crewmates to abandon ship, and left the boat to sink in the Mallorcan harbor. 

Ostapchuck was arrested, then released. He said “I would do it again,” before leaving Spain to return to Ukraine to join the fight.

It’s not just history that’s bloody. The present is pretty grisly, too.

North of our apartment is the “Escales de Cavilari”, and at the top of those stairs is the Calvary Chapel.  The first owners of the chapel were the Knights Templar; they erected a gallows next to the church because the view is amazing, even when you’re dying, or killing.

Today Pollenca’s tourism literature brags that there are 365 jagged stone steps–one for each day of the year, but when I walked up them today, I heard a sweaty British man saying angrily, “I counted 1000!”

Pollenca is the perfect size to explore without getting lost or tired…but if you DO get lost or tired, stop at one of the many tavernas or cafeterias or vermouteria’s and take a moment to refresh. If you speak Spanish, you can greet passersbys and their dogs in a civilized way. If you don’t, like me, you can fake it by grinning and waving enthusiastically, and fooling absolutely no one.

Friends have messaged me, asking what the mood is in Europe about Putin’s war in Ukraine. I don’t speak enough Spanish to understand much. I overheard a grandpa at a family Sunday dinner speaking Spanish with a sprinkling of English, using terms like “United States military industrial complex”. Then he started singing the chorus of “Give Peace a Chance”.  His grandaughter patted his arm and his wife poured him some more wine. I hunched, and pretended I was German, but fooled absolutely no one.

Wednesday, after visiting the outdoor market in the town of Sineu, we stopped at a cafe for a coffee. We sat at a table next to two middle-aged women with coarse dyed hair and wrinkled shirts. I asked if they minded my taking their extra chair. They didn’t answer, just stared right through me. I took the chair anyway, and did a huff about them being rude, but then I looked at them.

They were at a four-person table, yet sat shoulder to shoulder, touching. Their faces were startlingly blank. The air around them felt empty. They didn’t speak–not to each other, not to the waitress who tried out several languages: Spanish, German, English. I think they were in shock. I think something terrible had happened to them.

I thought about Ukraine and about how each day, the entire country is having something terrible happen, and how that horror is spreading in mute waves across our entire world.

This isn’t history. It’s now. 

I’m thinking that I, like the waitress trying to communicate with those two women, don’t have the language to address such pain. I can’t fake it. I need to learn.  We can’t fool anyone by being silent.


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