The front windows of the bocadillo shop were propped wide open; static late summer humidity surrounded us. The cobblestone streets between tightly nestled three-story vistas looked romantic, even in the middle of the day. The southern coast of Spain was beautiful this time of year, a little slice of heaven in view from my barstool.
The waitress was young, and her face had the strong angular planes that make the Spanish some of the most beautiful people I have ever seen. She bounced back and forth among the patrons sitting around the heavy oak-and-brass bar, filling glasses, taking orders, and politely conversing. My best friend and I were visiting, taking Spanish courses at an academy in both Madrid and El Puerto de Santa Maria.
“What is this?” I asked my friend, pointing to a topping listed on the menu. “I have no idea,” she responded. We quickly took out our electronic dictionaries. No luck. So we asked the waitress if she could explain.
“¿Qué es eso?”
She tilted her head and replied like she already knew we wouldn’t be able to understand. And she was right. By the end of her explanation, I wasn’t even sure if it was edible. But she was sweet, and clearly wanted to help us with this problem. So she took a paper from her pad and began to draw.
I’m not going to build the suspense here, like it was some kind of mystical revelation that I experienced inside this sandwich café. It was espárragos, something we should have been able to figure out, but if you’ve ever studied abroad, you know that education isn’t truly the objective of the trip.
Epiphanies over condiments and sandwich toppings are not something to celebrate. What is interesting, however, is the universal humor found in phallic drawings. Because I won’t ever forget the look on that woman’s face as she realized she was drawing a penis in a sandwich. She looked at me, and I looked at her. I looked at my best friend, and she looked at the waitress. And at the exact same time, we all started to laugh.
Years later this would happen again, in the classroom of a 7th grade Korean academy—this time, however, I was the teacher.
My chubby-cheeked student was desperately searching for a word to describe the type of gun his fictional character would carry in his short narrative assignment (yeah, I’m a pretty cool teacher). He described what it looked like, but I’m not exactly an encyclopedia on guns and explosives. So, I told him to draw it.
Needless to say, the outcome was very similar to the experience I had many years ago in Spain. When he put his pencil down, he paused and just kind of stared at it. I leaned over his shoulder to see, and I knew exactly what to say.
“Oh, you mean a rocket launcher.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s it!”
What he drew looked more like a set of balls and a penis, shooting out something that should never shoot out of any human orifice.
He and I held each other’s gaze for a second longer and laughed together at what we both knew not to say. Again, the penis had found itself in the middle of a cultural exchange.
Deeper than learning the names of foreign cities and customary foods, this was the type of feeling you only get from retelling stories you’ve told a million times with your best friend late at night; stories that are funny only because you’re sharing them with someone you love. And I was having this moment with a 14-year-old Korean student I didn’t know outside the classroom.
It’s nice to think that if I were trapped in a holding cell, being interrogated by Al Qaeda over nuclear warhead secrets sold to Iran, a car battery clamped to my nipples, that perhaps if I drew something that looked like a pair of testicles and a penis, that maybe my interrogator and I could share a laugh or two and realize that we’re not so different after all. Maybe they do things a little bit differently than I would, but heck, if we can agree that a sketch of a nuclear warhead looks a little phallic, and that this fact alone makes it funny…maybe there’s hope for all of us after all.