The concrete-and-tile house in which I’m living in Boquete, Panama, is often filled with echoes of the indecipherable chatter from the restaurant next door. It is patronized by men in evenly pleated Panamanian shirts and women in flower print polyester dresses. I long to mingle with them, speaking seamless Spanish. But my days here are divided into two categories: good Spanish days and bad Spanish days. And good Spanish days don’t come around often.
Each morning, my bilingual, never-a-bad-Spanish-day housemate makes the ten-step trek to the restaurant to pick up brown paper bags filled with hojaldras, flat pieces of fried dough similar to Cherokee fry bread and carnival funnel cakes. We devour the hojaldras before they cool, chasing them with large mugs of café con leche. They taste like savory doughnuts or deep-fried pancakes. They are perfection.
Despite my love of hojaldras, I have a hard time remembering, much less pronouncing, the word. But on the morning I awake to an empty house, going next door for hojaldras myself seems the best way to start it.
“Buenos días,” says a waitress as I enter the restaurant’s turquoise-painted interior.
“Buenos,” I counter with the abbreviated greeting I’ve heard on the street.
“Quiero...” I trail off, and find myself scanning the wall behind her for textual clues. Uh-oh, bad Spanish day, I think to myself.
I try again. “Quiero un café con leche y...”
She says something rapidly in Spanish that I cannot understand, and I strain to remember the word for what I’m craving. All I can recall is the guttural “ha” sound of the Spanish pronunciation of the letter “j.”
Then, it comes to me: Alejandro. “Quiero uno Alejandro, por favor,” I announce.
The woman stares at me for a moment, puzzled. I can hear grease sizzling behind her, the promise of a profoundly unhealthy deep-fried treat. As I watch her face for a hint of recognition, we trade furrowed brows. She breaks into laughter, and I am befuddled. All I know is that the joke is on me.