The Next Table – An Encounter in the Shadow of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain

It seems to me that there is a particular kind of encounter we just don’t experience unless we’re far from home, on the move and amongst others who are too. Even then it’s a kind easily missed and best seen from a distance – a high window, or the next table.

We had come across a pretty, triangular plaza in the Albaicin Alto in Granada. Just around the corner, views of the city’s great treasure, the Alhambra. In the middle of the plaza a little fountain, and around that some tables.

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We took one and ordered a couple of claras con limon while we struggled to decipher the menu del dia. Tajada de cerdo – I was pretty sure I knew this one, my forehead creased with the excruciating effort required to retrieve its meaning from memory. K ordered fries.

At the next table, an old man took a seat. He cut a singular figure, dressed for the short sharp winter in a flat, nautical cap and a short but heavy looking and worn overcoat. Do the Japanese have a tradition of salty sea dogs? I hadn’t thought so, but if they do, here was one of them. The hair falling from his cap was long and white, a match for his beard. He looked as if he had been on the road (or the high seas) for a hundred years – dusty and crumpled, encrusted in wherever it was he had been. A barnacle on this man’s back would have elicited not one whit of surprise.

As the claras arrived I abandoned my efforts to translate the menu. Too proud to ask the waiter what a tajada de cerdo is I ordered one anyway. Bring it on. The old man reached into his pack for a bound portfolio of some sort and laying it on the table, he opened it out to reveal a number of sketches and watercolours. He did this as if in ritual, a tenderness in his movement.

It was when he pulled out a second item that things got curious. It was another picture, but it was a photograph, and framed. He set it on the table facing him. From it a Japanese woman with salt and pepper hair beamed at her photographer. Her husband? This man?

It was now that our waiter returned and I learned that the exotic sounding tajada de cerdo is in fact a pork chop. Having delivered my lunch, improved my Spanish and disappointed my tastebuds with one flourish, the waiter moved on to the old man, who had beckoned to him. Words were exchanged which I could not quite overhear and the waiter was handed a camera.

As I watched, the old man moved around the table to sit behind the photograph, and held up a watercolour beside it as the waiter made a new picture of all three; the man, the framed lady, and the watercolour, which I now saw was of the plaza in which we were sitting. Having retrieved his camera, the man returned to his former position, to face the photograph again, and raised his glass to the woman with salt and pepper hair.

I turned to K, the scene too extraordinary not to be shared, but I needn’t have bothered. It’s just as well tears are salty, because she had soaked her fries in them. I helped her finish, and we left the man, his wife and her watercolours in peace.

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