Words failed me that day – not because they were in my mind and refused to come out, but because I had none to give in Japanese. I was caught in a real-life situation, in a predicament where I was forced to play charades.
My wife and I were on a bus tour through Spain during September of 1983. One early evening, after having toured the Alhambra all that day, we came into the dining room of our hotel and recognized two fellow travelers in our tour, a Japanese couple whom we had seen for several days, but had never spoken to before. This seemed like the perfect occasion to befriend them and get to know them. They were sitting in a table for four, with two empty chairs and I asked if we could join them. He nodded gracefully.
Then we discovered that they spoke no English. We sat there for a few minutes, exchanging silent pleasantries, smiles, bows, nods, silent toasts and bits of sign language. We were on that awkward period when we waited for the food to be served, thinking: what next? The social weather at the table was definitely changing from mostly quiet with scattered gestures to uncomfortably odd.
Mr. Ito did speak a little English, but his wife spoke none. We knew from the tour director that he was a professor of something or other. We assumed he knew from the same source that we were professors also. In any case, even with the lack of communication, we felt the camaraderie of fellow souls.
We had arrived in Granada the night before, and on this day in early September, we had toured the gardens of Spain and the Alhambra. We had worked up a good appetite walking through the grounds leading up to the Generalife, the summer palace of Arab rulers that was built in the 1300s. The incline leading up to it was a shady alameda lined on both sides with cypresses and boxwoods. The gardens were laden with pergolas and lattices of manicured flowers and roses, hedges of myrtle, and giant structures of topiary. There were fountains everywhere. Running water was also part of the design of this manmade paradise that was started in pre-Columbian times when the Arabs still controlled Spain. There was the staircase of water cascading through a wall, and most memorable was the Patio de la Acequia, with its rows of jets of water over a long thin canal making graceful arches that appeared to intertwine midway over the canal. The Spanish were so proud of the Generalife that they had taken this particular scene to adorn one of their bills, the 100-Peseta bill. On the other side of that bill was a picture of one of Spain’s most renowned composers, Manuel de Falla.
While we sat at our dinner table, now half-resigned to accept the awkward silence that turned us into mutes, music began to pour out of the loudspeakers with a timeliness that was heaven-sent. I recognized the crisp piano arpeggios that conjured up water jets sparkling in the sunlight. The high notes captured in sound the splash of water drops colliding, like crystal chiming as it shatters, while the plaintive strings swept the air like a gentle, mellifluous wind. They were playing de Falla’s piano concerto entitled Nights in the Gardens of Spain! De Falla had written this piece inspired by the beauty of the gardens, the very same gardens that the four of us at the table had toured that day. How appropriate, I thought. In my mind, I could picture the music bending the cypresses, rustling the gardens of the Generalife, swaying the plants in a delicate dance. That music took care of time for us at our dinner table. Those empty moments were now suffused with beautiful sounds that called for silence.
Except that now I felt a compulsion surge within me. I wanted to share what I knew about the music with our Japanese friends. It would be a crime for them not to know the significance of the music they were hearing; how it tied to the things we had seen that day. I looked at them. They gave no inkling of knowing what was playing. And yet the music added so much to the total experience of being there. Ah, to be in Granada then, listening of all things to the movement entitled “In the Generalife”! I had to tell them. But how?
Then I remembered the Spanish peseta bill. I took my wallet out and searched through the bills to see if I had one and, aha, I did. I’d be a fool not to try to convey what was driving me to insanity to express. I had everything before me: pictures, sounds, and vivid memories of what we had just seen. I went for it.
I got their attention. I rolled up my sleeves a little and I pointed to the bill I had drawn from my wallet. The Japanese couple was drawn to my hands, observing them like children before a magician; their eyes wide open with eager expectation. I am sure they thought I was going to perform a trick. Then I pointed to my ears and the air in the room, and I moved my hands and my fingers as if I were playing a piano. They seemed to get my meaning. They nodded their heads as if saying: The music, yes… the music we are hearing…what about it?
Then I showed them the picture of de Falla on the bill and I mimicked more piano playing as I pointed to him. With gestures I told them: “This man you see here, yes? This man has something to do with the music playing in this room. He is the composer! He, he, he, he is it! He is it! And I didn’t stop saying that till I got some confirmation from Mr. Ito that he got my meaning. His confirmation came soon with one of those vigorous Japanese eurekas: “Ah soooooooooo!”
Mr. Ito was excited. He borrowed my bill to show his wife and tell her what he had just learned. Then speaking in Japanese, for which I needed no translation, he pointed to the air in the room suffused by music and he told her that we were listening to a piece of music that the man in the bill had composed. She beamed with delight and implicit understanding as if saying, how nice. Then she looked at me to acknowledge that she understood. They returned the bill to me with genuine appreciation on their faces. But there was more.
Now I wanted to tell them that the movement we were hearing, “In the Generalife,” was named for the fountains and gardens which were pictured in the back of the bill. I started anew with a gesture that once again collected the music in the room with flair and led it with my hands into my ears. But this proved to be more difficult. They didn’t catch my meaning. They seemed puzzled and confused. Was I repeating myself and making a mistake in the process? Was I flipping the bill to the wrong side? Who knows what they were thinking.
By pointing repeatedly, first to De Falla, then to the music in the room, and then to the picture of the Generalife on the other side of the bill, I kept working up the critical mass of the related objects, trying to light up meaning without words. It was as frustrating as rubbing sticks to make a fire. At one point Mr. Ito did convey something to his wife, but it lacked the magic flashpoint of understanding which had lit up his expressive face before. It didn’t have that glorious confirmatory exclamation: “Ah, soooooo!” I’ll never really know for sure what Mr. Ito told his wife. I’ll never know whether he fully understood the connection between the two sides of the bill, the music, the name of the movement, and the place we had visited.
But I took comfort in the thought that, surely, someday when back home in Japan, he might run across a book, or he might get a record of De Falla’s music and then he might remember the evening when he heard his music in situ. Then, he might put it all together and then the charades of this stranger and his Kabuki words would finally hit their mark and light up meaning belatedly. Then perhaps, across space and time, Mr. Ito and I would finally finish our conversation.
Edward Alban was born Luis Eduardo Albán in Ecuador, (1938). Having relocated to Savannah, Georgia in 1952, Alban received his PhD in Economics (1973) from the University of Georgia. After devoting his professional life entirely to academe, teaching Economics, Statistics and Quantitative methods at Auburn University, SUNY Potsdam, Armstrong State University, and Savannah State University, upon retirement in 2000, Alban began his dream of traveling extensively throughout Europe and South America. Through these travels, Alban has pursued his love for languages and literature, publishing poetry in regional literary periodicals, as well as two larger works, which include Stories that Words Told Me, (Authorhouse, 2007), a compilation of 21 short stories, each dealing with words, as well as Dialogues of the Sleeping Mind, (Dog Ear, 2011) a novel that follows the trajectory of a young woman through her days and nights awake and asleep at the turn of the century.