Friday, July 1, 2011

How a burned birthday cake started a friendship

One of my goals as we picked a date to fly to Ecuador was to be in Cuenca in time to celebrate my 62nd birthday.  We made it with 3 days to spare!  The cottage we rented as a temporary place to live was lovely, small, private but a little primitive.  It had a 2 burner propane stove but no oven.  I eat no wheat, barley or rye and I wanted a little birthday cake to celebrate all of the changes so I had packed a gluten free cake mix.

Our landlady's name was M.E.  She is a lovely woman who offered several times to help us with anything we needed.  So on the morning of my birthday, I walked across the back garden separating the rental cottage from her home and knocked on the door.  I asked her (in very poor Spanish and a little gesticulating) if I could use her oven to bake a cake.  She answered (in very limited English with a little gesticulating) that would be fine.  We arranged a time later that afternoon for me to return with cake mix in hand.

At 2 pm, I went to her front door with my cake mix, a bowl, 2 eggs and some oil.  She graciously led me to the kitchen which is large and has a gorgeous view over a walled garden full of blooming iris and bougainvillea. I mixed up the cake, she turned on the oven and we popped it in to bake.  She led me to the living room, an elegant room full of antiques and art.  We sat and kind of smiled nervously at each other. Then we began tentatively talking any way we could since neither of us spoke the other's language.  Amazingly, after about 20 minutes, I knew she has 4 grandchildren and she knew the names of my 3 grandchildren.  We talked about gardening and where we have traveled and lived. All of this with about 35 words of Spanish for me and about the same amount of English for her.  I believe I got about 35-65% of what she was expressing.

Suddenly, M.E. became animated, gesticulating toward the kitchen.  I looked at my watch and shook my head.  The cake would not be done for another 15-20 minutes.  M.E. became more adamant and jumped up, rushing toward the kitchen with a worried expression, saying something I could not understand.  As I followed her, I suddenly understood because I could smell smoke.

It turns out that something was wrong with the setting on the oven so it was broiling rather than baking the birthday cake.  We pulled it out and looked at the blackened top crust.  I said "It's OK, it is not a big deal, its no problem."  She looked stricken and then grabbed a bread knife and patiently sliced off all the burned top crust.  Below was lovely chocolate cake batter.  So we tried again and this time the cake finished baking quite nicely.

As so often happens in life, the real gem that afternoon was not the birthday cake, which later served its  purpose in a little celebration that evening.  The gem was that seeds of a friendship were sown.  We each felt triumphant that we had communicated a lot of information in spite of knowing very little of the other's language.  I let M.E. know that I wanted to continue to get to know her and she relayed she felt the same.
Since that day, we have done something each week to advance both getting to know each other and also practicing speaking with each other. We are both very forgiving of any attempt the other makes and both encourage one another in primitive conversation but it is working.

Best of all, it is giving me an intimate peek into her life in this wonderful city. I have met her best friend, 2 of her 4 grandchildren, her daughter and her son.  I know that she has a rich web of people she interacts with and that she has never lived anywhere else, although she has traveled to many exotic places.  We enjoy talking about gardening and artistic interests, which involves much gesticulating.  And if we run short of subjects, we always have grandchildren to discuss.   

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