Five-Minute Memoir

June 24, 2015


By Florence Newman

lzHotel(Click images to enlarge.)

My husband and I had dinner reservations at a restaurant called Las Clementinas that came highly recommended in the online reviews I’d read earlier in our hotel room. One review mentioned that the manager sometimes came out and played the piano for his patrons. The ambience sounded charming. The word clementinas reminded me of those miniature tangerines that you can buy in bags or boxes at the grocery store in winter, but I wondered if clementina might not mean something else in Spanish—merciful, maybe (although “the Merciful Ones” would be an odd name for a restaurant).

lzBuilding4Las Clementinas was located in Panama City’s Casco Antiguo, the old colonial quarter, which has been compared to the French Quarter of New Orleans because of the narrow streets hemmed by pastel two-story townhouses with balconies trailing bougainvillea. We had the taxi drop us off an hour early so Howard and I could explore the area, grown popular with tourists since its gentrification after years of neglect. As we wandered down from the restaurant, city map in hand, we noticed that about half the buildings had been or were being restored to their former elegance; the rest remained boarded up and dilapidated. Sometimes an abandoned townhouse would abut a freshly and ornately refurbished one, like a disheveled tramp throwing his arm around the shoulders of a respectable lady. Locals and visitors likewise sidled past each other on the slim strip of sidewalk, herded there by compact cars impatiently claiming the road. After a few blocks, the close confines gave way to an expansive plaza ringed by small cafes that cast a fleet of tables out over the pavement, their unfurled umbrellas flapping in the breeze. (Rosetta Stone Spanish, Latin American Version, had introduced me to paragua, Spanish for “umbrella,” weeks before the word baño, which I would have thought far more useful to know. Why were the terms for “brunette” and “backpack” in Lesson 3 and the ones for “ambulance” and “emergency” in Lesson 15? Perhaps the software producers wanted to immerse the learner in the mundane rather than the disturbing. But “bathroom,” certainly, should be essential vocabulary.)

lzPlazaAvoiding the young people with menus who attempted to persuade us to stay and eat there in the plaza, we continued on, passing boutique shops and panaderias, until, abruptly, the entrance to an indoor artisanal market lured me in with a glimpse of bright color: emerald, azure, vermillion, and gold woven in geometric patterns over bags, dresses, and wall hangings, stall after stall of them. The proprietors of the stalls were mostly women, and some—short in stature, with glossy black hair and broad burnt-umber faces—were indigenous Panamanians. As I hesitated by their booths, they fingered the fabric enticingly and called out from the cool shadows, “Hecho a mano,” handmade. I had thought that I was adequately prepared for such encounters: Rosetta Stone had rehearsed me in “¿Cuanto questa?”(“How much does it cost?”) and “Muy caro” (“Too expensive”). But I wasn’t ready to actually interact, so I affected nonchalance and murmured, “Solo miranda,” a phrase that I hoped conveyed “Just looking,” my standard response to solicitous salespersons. I wondered, however, if I might be saying “Just watching,” which sounded rather creepy.

One problem with Rosetta Stone, I realized even before we left home, is that the program always accompanies the written or spoken Spanish with a picture illustrating the words: “La mujer camina” (The woman is walking) or “El niño tira la pelota roja” (The boy throws the red ball). How often in real life do conversations concern things taking place before one’s eyes? Alone with my iPad, I could fool myself into believing that I’d learned some Spanish when in fact I’d only learned to connect a series of words with a visual prompt. Ask me to follow a real conversation in Spanish and I was at a complete loss. Thus I drifted from stall to stall, smiling congenially but trying not to exhibit inordinate interest in the items for sale. Howard typically doesn’t enjoy shopping, but on this occasion he fixated upon a huge turtle carved of dark cocobolo wood that might have doubled the weight of his carry-on. Fortunately, his knowledge of Spanish was even more limited than mine, consisting solely of “Cerveza, por favor” (Beer, please), and thus we were unencumbered by souvenirs as we retraced our steps through the market and emerged again into the late afternoon sunshine.

lzProm3Not far further, the street ended at a promenade where a row of white balusters marked the boundary between land and grey-blue sea. The slant of the sun gave the balustrade a dusty luminescence, and with the ancient buildings at either end rising precipitously above the waterline, the scene resembled a faded postcard of Venice. The impression of decaying grandeur was reinforced by the fact that many of the concrete posts had crumbled over the years, leaving irregular spaces along the row. The renovation of the Quarter had not reached this far, nor had, apparently, the flux of visitors, since we had the stretch of terrace virtually to ourselves: romantic, yes, but also somewhat sad and seedy. I recalled that the guidebooks to Panama City, while emphasizing that Casca Antigua’s reputation as unsafe for foreigners was outdated, had nonetheless advised against wandering there after dark or “looking like a tourist,” i.e., wearing shorts, flip-flops, and loud Hawaiian shirts. Up to this point, I’d accepted that I would never blend in with the natives and had made no attempt to conceal my camera and map, one of which was always visible. Now, however, noticing our isolation and especially after spotting a broken beach chair and what could have been a used condom on the rocks just below the seawall, I began to feel uncomfortably conspicuous. Besides, with only fifteen minutes before our dinner reservation, it was high time that we put the ragged grin of the balustrade behind us and rejoin the milling masses.

Since we had walked from one end of the promenade to the other, we decided to vary our route by returning to the restaurant on a road parallel to the one we’d come down. Street signs in this part of the city were rather haphazard, and the names on the map were too miniscule to read without a magnifying glass. Still, we only had to cut across a couple of blocks to reach our destination. How could we get lost? Easily, it seemed. When we cut across, we weren’t sure if we’d gone too many blocks or too few, or whether we were still south of the restaurant or north of it. Standing on an unfamiliar corner—though I could have sworn I’d seen that striped awning before—I tried to recall the appropriate lines from Rosetta Stone: “Disculpe. ¿Puede ayudarme? Somos perditos. ” (Excuse me. Can you help me? We’re lost.) Luckily, before I had to string two words together, a tall young man, recognizing the universal pantomime of the panicked traveler (furrowed brow, gesticulating at map) approached us and asked where we were trying to go. At least, I assumed that’s what he was asking and replied, “Las Clementinas.” He launched into a stream of speech from which I tried to catch phrases I knew, such as “izquierda” (left) and “doble a la derecha” (turn to the right). Nothing registered. Then, suddenly, “mochila”—at last a word I’d learned from Rosetta Stone. It meant. . . it meant. . . “backpack”! I looked up the street, in the direction lzHoward2he was pointing, and I saw a brown backpack, above a pair of legs, rapidly disappearing into the distance. A quick “mil gracias” to the helpful stranger, then we hurried after.

We arrived at Las Clementinas, which was attached to a hotel of the same name, precisely at 6:00 p.m., the hour of our reservation, although apparently neither haste nor a reservation had been necessary after all, since there were no other customers, not even at the gleaming granite and chrome bar. Every seat was empty, but for some reason the waiter led us to a rectangular table next to a window: Howard took the side facing into the restaurant, and I sat across from him facing the street. At one end of the room, an upright piano occupied part of the wall. As we studied the menu, another couple came in, also American but clearly more cosmopolitan because they carried no obvious tourist paraphernalia and because they lingered at the bar for a while before claiming a table near the door. Perhaps they were guests at the hotel. The four of us were the only patrons of Las Clementinas for the next hour and a half. I told myself that most people dined late, especially in cities, especially in Latin American, not at 6:00 p.m. like geriatric gringos. Because it was still light outside and service was slow, I found myself gazing out the window and upward, at the second-floor balcony of the building across the street. A man leaned on his forearms over the iron railing, his head bowed, showing only a crown of dark brown hair. He wore a baggy tee-shirt and knee-length baggy shorts that left plenty of room for his rounded belly. For a long time he didn’t move. Was he depressed? Merely tired? His figure was framed by a double door behind him that opened into a room into whose recesses I could not see.

My attention was distracted while the server took our order, and when I next looked up the daylight had dimmed a bit and the man was now standing.

Howard: “What are you looking at?”

Me: “There’s man on the balcony across the street.”

Howard: “You always get the best seat.”

During this exchange, a gentleman in a suit, presumably the manager, sat down at the piano and began to play American show tunes. He was catering to his current clientele, I decided, a little annoyed. We had flown a 2,000 miles to listen to “Memory” and “Some Enchanted Evening”? When he switched to classical music, I showed my appreciation by clapping politely at the end of each piece. Our appetizers had arrived before I glanced up at the balcony again. Dusk had truly fallen and there were now two figures in front of the French doors, the second a female. His wife? Had she come through the open door? She was wearing, as far as I could tell in the half light, one of those mid-calf muumuus that local working-class women favored. She ambled along the balcony, away from her companion and out of sight. Maybe she was a neighbor. I narrated the developments to Howard, then tucked into my salad. When I next looked, the scene had changed yet again.

“He’s taken off his shirt!”

lzRestaurant1Sure enough, he was leaning against the rail again, but now his plump arms and torso glistened in the dull light. At this point, in the brightness of the restaurant, I must have been visible to him too, a pale Anglo face above a white tablecloth sparkling with silverware. But he seemed oblivious to me and to the restaurant altogether: perhaps he had become inured to constantly seeing and being seen. Behind me, the manager’s piano serenaded us like the sound track to a silent movie.

For the next fifteen minutes I was preoccupied with my meal (and with Howard, of course) and when, feeling comfortably sated, I revisited the tableau outside, night had fallen and only the radiance of the room behind it illuminated the balcony. The woman was back, standing in front of the man, who was now seated in a chair. But wait! It wasn’t the same man—this fellow was wearing long pants and a shirt.

“She’s having an affair. With her neighbor. Her husband doesn’t know about it, but he suspects.”

Was the seated man her husband or her lover? Was the man in shorts despondent because his mistress wouldn’t leave her husband? Or had he been brooding on his suspicions of his wife’s infidelity? The woman faced the man in the chair but they didn’t touch: they must be talking.

El hombre está sentado. La mujer habla con el hombre.

The silhouettes remained static while we drank our coffee and waited for the check (“El cuente, por favor”). Sometime between our last bite of food and the first sip of coffee, the piano concert had ended. As we prepared to leave the restaurant, I looked through the glass pane once more and discovered that the portico above was empty. Beyond the French doors, in the glow of the interior, shadows passed slowly back and forth. Adiós, Las Clementinas. Hasta la vista.

Copyright © 2015, Florence Newman

FloHdshot2Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years.  A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers.  She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden.  She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.

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