Bilingual By Breakfast

Only one thing stood between the author and the hojaldras of her desire

Hojaldres iStock / AlonsoAguilar

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.

“¿ No entiendes? You don’t understand?” I ask helplessly, but I’m the one who doesn’t understand. I silently begin to wonder, alejandro, alejandros, isn’t that what they’re called?

I suddenly realize my mistake. I still can’t remember the Spanish word for fry bread, but I know I just put in an order for one man named Alexander, or Alejandro.

Lo siento!” I cry. “I’m so sorry.”

The waitress, suddenly sympathetic, pulls a green-lined tablet out of her half-skirt apron and pushes it across the Formica counter. “Hojaldra,” she says slowly, pointing to where she has scrawled the word in pencil. “¿En Ingles?” She asks.

“It’s not exactly the same,” I explain in broken Spanish, but I print

f-r-y b-r-e-a-d on her tablet under hojaldra, and she smiles.

She repeats slowly, after me, “fry bread.” Saying it again with more confidence, she claps her hands together in delight, and turns toward the kitchen, shouting my order to a cluster of women who are watching over large cast-iron crocks. “¡Una hojaldra!” Then, proudly: “Fry bread!”

With a bag of hojaldras firmly in hand, I rise to leave, and a man sitting on the far end of the restaurant calls out teasingly in Spanish. His words roughly translate as, “I bet you don’t eat many of these. But he eats a lot.” He points at his table mate, a red-faced man with a beach-ball belly.

We laugh together, and the two men invite me to sit with them. I can tell the invitation is sincere, so I settle into a chair and open my bag.

As I tear off a tiny piece of fried dough, the potbellied man asks my name. “Lilianna,” I tell him.

Mucho gusto,” he says. Then, laying a hand on his chest, he introduces himself: “Alejandro.” I smile in disbelief. I’ve just broken hojaldras with an Alejandro, and I can tell that today is going to be a good Spanish day after all.

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