Monday, July 9, 2012

Clams



20+ years ago, I found myself traipsing around southern Spain with my uncle (who's more like a big brother) and we stopped for a few days in a sleepy, little fishing village. It was off-season, and we were the only tourists in town. In fact, we were the only guests at the town's one hotel. The only place to eat was a pub where the local fishermen would hang out at the end of a long day of work. We went there every day and every night, and made friends with the owner, a lovely man named Lazarus or, as he liked to be called, Lalo. On the wall of the pub was a gorgeous poster commemorating Carnaval. I really wanted it, and offered the pub owner $25 for it. He told me it wasn't for sale. I really, really wanted it, but didn't want to be a pushy American. I told him that, if he changed his mind, the offer was still good.


Every evening at 6 or 7 the boats would come in and the fishermen would bring something fresh to the pub: cod fish, sole, oysters. One night, they came in with a load of strange-looking little shellfish on ice. They looked like a weird kind of clam. So fresh. They dumped them into a giant, glass bowl on the bar. The clams were very much alive and very active. My uncle, a city kid who's most comfortable getting his food from a supermarket, looked at the bowl of clams oozing in and out of their shells, and become a little woozy. One of the fishermen made a joke, "Tapas!" he said.


I should note here that I was the only woman who ever entered the pub. I don't know about today, but in 1990, Spain was still very, very traditional about gender roles. This pub was for fishermen. Their wives and girlfriends did not come in. I was given the courtesy of being allowed in because I was a tourist. Because I had a Spanish name and spoke the language, I was also shown warmth, friendship and respect by the men of the pub. It was always clear, though, that this was a man's place, and I was just visiting.


I looked into the big bowl and asked Lalo (in Spanish,) "How do you prepare these?"

Lalo exchanged wicked grins with a few of the burly fishermen who'd sat down around the bar and were drinking beer, "Prepare? They're as prepared as they're ever going to be. Help yourself," he said.

The fishermen all laughed. "Or," continued Lalo, "Doesn't the little lady dare?"

My uncle jumped in.

"Don't do it," he said, "you have no idea what those are or what you might catch. Food poisoning. Hepatitis. God-knows-what. And they're ALIVE, for Christ's sake."

Lalo smiled, "It's ok," he said, "I'm just joking. I'd never really expect an American to dig in with something like this. And certainly not a lady."

"Do you think I won't do it, Lalo?" I asked. This was beginning to sound like a dare.

"I know you won't do it, Little Girl." he answered.

"What do I get if I do?" I asked.

The fishermen moved in closer. This was starting to get interesting.

"Go ahead, Lalo," one of them called out, "Make an offer. Let's see what the Yankee girl is made of."

Another laughed a hearty laugh. "Leave the girl alone. She'll never do it."

"Lana," said my uncle, "Forget this bullshit. Let's just order some ham and beer and get going. Just looking at those clams and their wiggling is making me sick."

"What will you give me?" I asked Lalo, again, "If I do eat them - what's in it for me?"

He looked at his fishermen friends, and then he looked at me, hardly believing a woman was taking him up on his challenge.

"What do you want?' he asked.

"The poster." I said.

"Ok, You eat a bowl of these, just as they are, and I'll sell you the poster."

"Bullshit," I answered, "I eat a bowl of these - as they are - and you give me the poster. For free."

Lalo hesitated. He was clearly beginning to think making this dare had not been his best idea.

"Just do it," called out one of the fishermen, "No girl is going to get past the first one, you know. Look at her uncle - he's nearly passed out from just sitting near them."

"Forget this," someone else laughed, "She's American."

I looked directly at the fisherman who'd made that last crack.

"Boricua." I said, not laughing. Looking back at Lalo, I proposed, "If I eat a bowl full of these, you give me the poster. If I don't finish the entire bowl," I said, "I'll give you $25 American. Either way, it won't cost you a penny."

My uncle groaned.

Lalo pulled a wooden bowl out from under the bar, scooped up a bunch of the shellfish, and pushed them towards me.

"You're on," he said.

When I'd sucked the last of the wiggly, little shellfish out of its shell and swallowed the last bit of meat, the fishermen cheered. They each came up and hugged me and patted me on the back, the way they would their own sons. Most of them bought me drinks. They laughed, too, at my uncle, who'd gone outside to throw up on the beach. Lalo quietly took the poster down from his wall, rolled it up gently and handed it to me.

"I should have sold it to you when you first made the offer," he said.

I felt a little bad for him. Lalo was a good guy. He'd have to see these fishermen every day for the rest of his life, and they weren't going to let him forget this.

I dug into my pocket and pulled out some money.

"I really do want to pay you for this," I said.

He gently pushed my hand away and gave me a brotherly kiss on the cheek. "Boricua." he said.


1 comment:

musing manatee said...

Your stories...your voice...so essential. Thank you for sharing!