By Suzy Beal
This is the 11th episode of a travel memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.
Mom’s Spanish improved with her need to understand our housekeeper Catalina. She signed up along with Jan and me to start Spanish lessons hoping to better communicate with our neighbors. I found it hard to concentrate because the lessons didn’t connect with my life. Grammar and verb conjugations didn’t apply to making friends, but Mom took the classes seriously and studied hard. She felt a need to keep up with us kids, she said.
One afternoon at the dining table she suddenly broke out in Spanish saying, “Pequeñas cosas no son importantes.” Stunned, we listened to her explanation of “Little things aren’t important.” She thought the problems and complaints we were experiencing weren’t important and that we should concentrate on the big things such as living in Spain and learning new languages. She wanted us to stop complaining about these difficulties, I guess. Not being able to speak or understand, no telephone, having to carry the groceries home every day from the village, having to ask for sanitary pads in the pharmacy with a boy my age at the counter! These didn’t seem like little things to me. Mom’s knowledge of Spanish grew and her words “Pequeñas cosas no son importantes” soon became the family motto. We tried to not to complain, keeping that for the bigger issues.
I didn’t pay attention to how difficult this time was for Mom, but I thought her days didn’t have much fun in them. She spent her time at home with the little ones while Dad worked on building the boat at MYABCA (Mallorca Yacht and Boat Construction Association) and then he accompanied the men to the bars in the evenings.
She found it difficult to make friends with the Spanish women. Several English folks and a few Americans lived in Puerto, but most of them only spent the summer there. Those who lived in Puerto year-round had their own circle of friends with whom they spent their time, and weren’t particularly interested in letting new people into the circle.
Mom told me that living here in Mallorca was the first time she’d encountered a “class system.” She found it the most pronounced with the English. We kids didn’t notice it as much, but sometimes the English kids on vacation refused to associate with the German tourists on vacation. It was hard to remember WWII had ended only sixteen years before and only twelve years ago the Berlin Blockade ended.
That fall of 1961, we kids planned a Halloween party at our house. Because we didn’t know many kids yet, we let Mariano do the inviting. We didn’t know how many to expect, but as the house filled up, we realized we had a success on our hands. My brothers and sister and I decorated the living room with scary Halloween props including a fish net strung across the ceiling. We made tapas and sweets to eat and had music for dancing.
We learned the next day that a few local kids who didn’t get invited, felt left out. We regretted this, but since Mariano did the inviting, there was little we could do. These issues were difficult because we tried to live NOT as the “ugly American” abroad. The book The Ugly American had come out in 1958 and our parents read it and tried to instill in us the necessity to be compassionate and considerate Americans.
The night of the party, a couple of girls left our house and stayed up late somewhere else. They got into trouble with their parents for arriving home so late. We didn’t realize anything was wrong until one mother came to our house complaining about her daughter’s tardiness getting home that night. Catalina came to our rescue and told her that our party ended at 10:00pm. She knew because her daughter had attended.
Notes to the Harbor Light
(The editor of our High School newspaper had asked me to write to him about the things I experienced in our travels.)
We are beginning to make friends. We had a Halloween party at our house with 18 to 20 teens showing up for the festivities. They didn’t seem to understand the “Halloween theme,” but it didn’t keep us from having fun. We had our record player with American songs and we discovered the Spanish kids were familiar with many of them. They dance here almost the same as in Newport except Spanish dances, such as the Samba and the Pasadoble. They dance Rock-and-Roll the same. Everyone dances with everyone and they don’t single off in pairs for the evening like at home. We are still struggling with speaking Spanish, but we can understand almost everything said to us.
A few weeks later we went on our first excursion with the local kids. They decided to go to a monastery perched atop a mountain called Puig Major to spend the night. We took chaperones so the local girls’ parents deemed it safe. This was a working monastery with monks and rules we had to follow. The boys and girls would sleep in separate buildings. We took a bus to the base of Puig Major. The leaders packed food, and overnight things they distributed among the guys for the trek to the top. We learned several Spanish songs on the way up the mountain. Mariano helped me with my Spanish and taught me how to sound out the Spanish vowels. He told me every letter in Spanish had its own sound and if I listened I could hear each letter being pronounced.
When we arrived at the top, we saw the monastery. Built entirely of stone, it looked just like so many of the homes and churches in Puerto. The monks showed us where dinner would be served. They showed us the rooms where we would sleep, boys separate from the girls. Everyone laughed and giggled, but I couldn’t understand most of what they said. We spent the afternoon walking around the monastery gardens and visiting. There were areas off-limits to us, such as the building where the monks lived. We ate at long tables separated from the monks, but had to keep completely silent during the meal.
That night in the dormitory room, I felt accepted into their pandillagang. I showed them how, in Oregon, we wore our cardigan sweaters buttoned up the back. We tied scarves around our necks the way girls back home did. They seemed as curious about my life as I did about theirs. I’d never slept in a bed with another girl except my sister and tonight we were three to a bed. Between the giggles, I understood enough to realize they were talking about the boys. I even recognized the names of my brothers “Henry and Tommy” being bantered back and forth in the conversations.
© 2019 Suzy Beal
Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com. Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.
I love that you adapted “Pequeñas cosas no son importantes” as a family motto. Your Mom’s observations on the class system at that time were interesting.