2 April: We arrive at Philadelphia International Airport & approach the long lines of people waiting to go through the immigration check point. There is an angry Hispanic woman shouting in English & in Spanish, “U.S. citizens to the left! Non-U.S. citizens to the right! Ciudadanos de los Estados Unidos a la izquierda! Todos los otros a la derecha!” I wish Lola luck & give her a kiss as she heads over to the immigration line for drug dealers, terrorists & child molesters. When I finally get up to the window & hand the guard my passport I´m trying to look calm & friendly & innocent because these people make me angry, nervous & frustrated. He says nothing for a full minute as he flips through my passport. This is always stressful because my passport, with the exception of a couple of pages, is completely full of stamps so the guards always take their time flipping through the pages over & over & over again. I don´t know what the hell they are looking for. Stamps from dreaded, evil Cuba?!?
Also, my passport is a replacement for a lost passport which always gives me problems because is was only valid for one year (2001-2002) during which time my lost passport was supposed to miraculously become “unlost”. When this doesn´t happen you have to send your replacement passport back to the department of state & they stamp “VOID” (which looks fake, like I did it myself) on the last page below the statement which always gives me problems: “This passport expires on Oct. 30, 2002 and is a replacement for a lost passport. Extension must be approved by the department of state.”. Unfortunately, most immigration guards, despite having flipped through my passport forwards & backwards 3 or 4 times always seem to miss the statement on page 23 which reads: “This passport was extended on Nov. 21, 2002 and will expire on Oct. 30, 2011.” Unfortunately, this too looks like I did it myself by feeding my passport through a cheap word processor like the Brother Word Processor I used to write papers on in college. And there always comes that moment when the douchebag says, “I think we have a problem here…” Yes, we do have a problem. Apparently, you are fucking blind. That´s when I say (trying not to sound too impatient or exasperated), “Page 23.” Then the guard has a look at page 23 & slowly (it´s always the fucking same, every fucking time) flips through the entire passport from front to back, then back to front, 2 or 3 more times like it´s the first time he´s ever seen a passport. Then he says, zombie-like, “Enjoy your visit.”
After the usual hassle I make it through immigration. I enter the baggage claim area & the first thing I hear is: “Shit maaan, Dallas ain´t even gonna be in the playoffs dis year!” There are 2 big black guys, airport employees, porters of some sort, standing there talking animatedly about football. A huge smile forms on my face. It´s been so long since I´ve heard that Philly accent. And it has been so long since I´ve seen such incredibly obese people (the two porters, neither one of them can be over 35 years of age, are really terribly out of shape) that it´s strangely comforting. Ignorant, incompetent immigration guy & two morbidly obese black guys. Welcome home!
But wait, there´s more! I wait & wait & wait for Lola to get through the “Non-U.S. citizens” line. And when she does finally enter the baggage claim area she has quite a story for me. In Lola´s own words:
"The first thought I got when I passed the U.S.A “border” was: “finally I’m here!”. I really thought the guard wasn’t going to leave me pass. It was the first time I had problems in the border and the reason was my US family.
As always, I put on my best innocent smile to the guard telling. “I’m just here for holidays, I’m from Europe-Spain”. But when the guard asked me with who, I did a stupid thing and I said: “With my American husband”, the guard got in shock, and he asked me why I wasn’t with him (a very ridiculous thing to say because they never leave any non-citizen pass the borders from the U.S. citizen line). The guard asked me where my husband was and I answered in US for one hour already waiting for me!. So he needed some time to figure out how to solve a huge problem…. He shut up for 3 minutes (I thought I was going back to Spain in the same day I’ve just arrived). In that moment of stress and because I felt the man needed a hand I said: “Do you want me to go and take him over here?” my idea was I pass the line and never come back. But the guard said: “You cannot pass…”. I almost start to shake, but I think the guard realized how stupid the situation was and he told me: “Ok you can pass but remember FAMILIES HAVE TO STAY TOGETHER”, right now for me this is the most stupid sentence a person can say in the passport check."
On the way home from the airport we stop in the Italian Market, which claims to be “the oldest & largest working outdoor market in the United States,” in South Philadelphia for dinner. We park the car & the first thing we see is a sign outside of DiBruno Brothers House of Cheese which reads: “Spanish Jamón Serrano - $99/lb”. This is the last thing I want to see right now: reminders of Spain. We eat at the Villa di Roma restaurant. Lola has been to America before, but she is fascinated by everything – the corny, joking bartender, the photos of 3rd rate celebrities on the walls, the way the customers are dressed, the way the waitress pronounces “marinara”, the strange labels on the beer bottles, the tables, the chairs, the funny shape of the little wine glasses…
And, of course, she is fascinated by the massive portions of food that land on our table. In Spain, when we go to a restaurant we arrive hungry & we eat everything that is set before us. One reason for this is that the portions are much smaller. Another reason is that there are no “doggy bags” in Spain. It´s unheard of to ask a waiter or waitress to wrap up uneaten food so you can eat it later at home. But every Spaniard we tell about the American “doggy bag” tradition agrees that it´s a wonderful idea. And why not? You´re paying for the food. If you can´t finish everything on your plate you should be able to have it wrapped up for later. At Villa di Roma the portions are so obscenely massive that we can eat no more than half of what is on each of our plates & the rest we take home & eat for lunch the following day.
We get to my parent´s house, after a full day of traveling, & I´m not the least bit tired. I´m completely wired. I walk around the house I grew up in checking everything out. My horrible high school graduation photo is still prominently displayed on the mantle above the fireplace. I notice that the living room carpet is new. Out in the sunroom, next to the computer, are a couple of Spanish grammar exercise books that my mother is working her way through. On the kitchen counter there is a large glass bowl almost completely full of corks from Spanish wine bottles which my father has been working his way through. I´m saddened to see that the old stereo system, which played cassettes & vinyl, has been replaced with some bizarre, overpriced Bose system which only plays CDs (& MP3s, of which my parents have none).
I work my way down the hallway which leads to my childhood bedroom, stopping & studying all the family photos along the way. There´s the old black & white photo of my mother´s parents where my grandmother looks so young. There´s the old photo of my father with an awkward beard that made him look like a Quaker. And there´s the photo of my mother, taken shortly before my parent´s wedding day, when her perfectly straight hair hung all the way down to her butt. (Then she had a kid – me! – and she cut off all her hair because I was always pulling on it.) Lola´s at my side laughing at photos of me as an awkward teenager with bad skin.
“My boy, if I had known you when you looked like that,” pointing to a photo of me with hair down to my shoulders, wearing ripped jeans & a shredded flannel shirt with safety pins stuck in it. “I never would have married you!”
“Watch yourself – I´ll call immigration in a heartbeat if you don´t behave!” She flips me the bird as she goes into my room to rummage through my childhood stuff.
“Where´s that box of love letters you kept from high school?”
“I have no idea what you´re talking about.”
“Where is it?!?”
“Anybody want something to drink?” my mother calls out from the kitchen.
“Ginger Ale,” Lola mutters as she tears down the hall towards the kitchen. Lola´s a Ginger Ale junky & the cheap imitation Ginger Ale we get in Plasencia just doesn´t live up to her standards. And I´m temporarily saved from having to endure the embarrassment of reading through the notes & love letters I received from some of the freakier girls in my high school class (ie: future art school students). For some reason I can´t seem to convince myself to throw them away…
“Game´s about to start!” My father calls out from the living room.
It´s hockey season & the Philadelphia Flyers are in the play-offs. And, while I could give a shit about who wins or loses, play-off ice hockey is simply awesome. It´s incredibly fast & violent. And it involves drinking beer, local beer – Yuengling Lager! – with my father. My father does the typical father stuff while watching sports on TV: yelling at the players, cursing at the referees, slapping his knees & stomping his feet when his team almost scores a goal, getting up & leaving the room while muttering to himself in disgust when the opposing team scores a goal, & screaming “Hoo! Hoo! Hooooo!!!” when his team finally does score. It´s good to be home.