By Dave Nelson
Learning Spanish is not limited to the classroom. A couple of weeks ago a taxi driver corrected my pronunciation of the word tranquilo when we were talking about how tranquil Cuenca and its people are.
On another occasion, the lesson from the driver involved more than just helping me with my Spanish. He asked: where are you from? Do you have a wife? Girl friend? Do you like Cuenca? When discovering that I have no wife and no girl friend, he, like others here, half scolds me and says I need a woman. When I answer Cuenca as to where I am from and proudly say, with a bit of tongue in cheek, that I am a Cuencano, that Cuenca is my home and where I will live the rest of my life, the smiles come and we do our best to to equal each other’s praise of the city.
But this discussion quickly led to the underlying fact that, since I wasn’t born and raised here, there is no way that I can ever be a true Cuencano. He responded with “you are a Gringo Cuencano”.
Wow! What an apt and accurate way to put it. My grandiose mental goal was to fully become a part of this culture but I have finally (slow learner that I am) realized the impossibility of accomplishing that mental construct. That had left me in the position of spending the rest of my life as an outsider doing his best to assimilate but never being able to complete the impossible task.
Gringo is not a pejorative word in Ecuador and accurately describes my place here. Using “Gringo Cuencano” as a label identifies me as being of both cultures and it gives me a good feeling. The phrase reminds me that I bring things to this culture just as this culture brings things to me, i.e., it’s not the one-way street that I had let myself get entangled in. Or, in less pedantic language, just be the best man that I can be and everything will be fine.
Thanksgiving in Cuenca is a non-event with most Cuencanos having never heard of it. Several restaurants advertise dinners with turkey and dressing and all the trimmings. California Kitchen used to have a hugely popular gut busting spread. Last year I ended up in a private home with a great home cooked meal. Where will I be this year, I wondered?
The week before my massage therapist wanted to schedule my next massage on Thanksgiving and my first reaction was, “no, it’s a holiday.” But quickly came, “it’s not a holiday here”, so the session was scheduled. My interior longing for a standard holiday just wasn’t there. So Tom and I ate at El Colgado, who had advertised a turkey dinner with Andean flavors. It is a short walk up the river, has some outside seating, it was a warm (or warm enough) day, so there we were on the grass, seeing and hearing the river, watching people walk by on the trail.
The meal was excellent and different: a small salad from the menu; turkey and gravy; dressing baked in cupcake pans; mac and cheese; bean casserole with dried instead of green beans; rice; pan fried sweet potatoes; green salad (no cranberries or mashed potatoes); mango cheesecake for dessert, not at all like the cheesecake we know but wonderfully fruity and delicious.
With a good portion of silence, some desultory conversation, the great food and being outside, it couldn’t have been a better Thanksgiving.