The Alhambra is one of the world’s great wonders — a stunning series of structures in Grenada, Spain that have stood for over a thousand years, with a rich and complex history and, in more recent times, serving as home to a breathtaking collection of priceless Muslim and Spanish artifacts. I can attest to this since I’ve visited the Alhambra.

Well, that last statement may be factual but isn’t accurate — while I have been to the Alhambra, my recollection of that visit and the remainder of a week in Spain are rather flaccid. My junior high school Spanish Club joined forces with our high school counterparts and a group of forty of us made the trip one summer. I’d had only a year of Spanish and despite good grades my vocabulary was limited largely to words for “soup”, “ham” and “cheese”; describing the temperature, and naming various members of my immediate and extended family. I could haltingly offer to bring my abuela a bowl of sopa if it were mucho frio outside. But if I managed to get separated from my classmates in the midst of a street market in downtown Madrid and didn’t know the way back to my hotel, it didn’t do me much good to ask, “¿Cómo está usted?
I’ve forgotten most of that visit, at least the parts with cultural significance, because I understood so little of what was being said by tour guides, natives, and even most of my travel mates who were both more proficient in the language as well as being older, sophisticated high-schoolers who wouldn’t deign to speak with any of the middle-graders. Those of us with only one year of Spanish under our belts spent our time bullying one another and seeing how many profanities we could learn to say en español. What I do remember, quite clearly, was the flight home.

We flew in and out of Madrid on TAP, the Portuguese airline. On the day we came home, we boarded the plane, pulled away from the gate and then… sat on the tarmac for over an hour in cramped quarters with all of the electricity turned off. As a result, there was no air conditioning and the temperature inside the plane quickly approached 100 degrees. About ten minutes past the point where death was certain, the plane shuddered back to life and fresher air began to flow through the cabin as we taxied into position for take-off.

After reaching our cruising altitude, the stewardesses (this was a long time ago and they were still called “stewardesses” then) began the beverage service. A starchly-uniformed woman asked our row what we wanted to drink: aisle seat, “[something]” — middle seat, “[something]” — me in the window seat, “I’ll have a Coke, please.” A few moments later she handed chilled refreshments to my two seat mates and… went on to start serving the next row.

“Excuse me!” I called out. “I asked for a Coke!” She didn’t acknowledge me. Another attendant passed through the aisle and I fruitlessly tried to get her attention. I sat there, parched and defeated. I had no idea how to get someone to bring me anything to drink and finally decided to visit the bathroom for a cup of water from the tiny sink. I also decided to cement my status as an international traveler by shaving on the plane.

Now, I was all of 14 years old at this time and only needed to shave about once every other week. But I thought if I had the opportunity to mention to some comely young lass in the terminal after landing, “I just flew in from Madrid; took a shave on the flight”, while firmly stroking my stubble-free jawline, she would find me irresistible and I’d finally be able to do something with the relentless erection that preceded me nearly everywhere I went in those days. I emerged from the bathroom with a slightly quenched thirst and a highly irritated face flecked with dripping red streaks.

As I walked back to my seat I noticed a receptacle holding comment cards, with text in Portuguese, Spanish, English, French and one more language I was fairly certain was Klingon. I picked up a card and once back in my seat provided an evaluation of the airline’s services. I chose not to mention the narrow seats or tarmac sauna and instead focused on this concern: “I asked two times for a Coke and didn’t get it.” The card requested my name and flight number. Not realizing they were optional, I felt compelled to provide the information but, in an attempt to maintain anonymity, spelled my name backwards: NHOJ GNINNARB (to this day I still sometimes introduce myself in one-and-done situations as “Nuh-HODGE Guh-NINN-arb” and tell people, “It’s Persian.”). No sooner had I completed the survey and folded it in thirds than another flight attendant appeared (where was all this attention when I was thirsty?), who smiled and asked me in English if she could take the card. I handed it over, figuring it would go into the box I’d seen next to the display at the back of the plane.

Five minutes later, my beverage-skipping nemesis was marching up the aisle, waiving my comment card and repeatedly asking, “Are you this person? Are you this person?” Apparently they’d checked against the flight manifest, and after failing to find anyone named “Gninnarb” had decided to shake down the entire planeful of passengers. As she approached my row, I meekly raised my hand and ratted myself out. “Why did you write this? Where are your parents?” she asked. I said I was on a school trip. “Where is your teacher?” I pointed toward the front of the plane where Mrs. Miller was sitting. The attendant stormed off, returning a minute later with my teacher in tow. “John, what did you do?” Mrs. Miller plaintively asked me. “You have really upset this woman!” I briefly explained my version of events. She ruefully shook her head and ordered me to apologize for my actions to the stewardess, who had been standing behind her this whole time. I looked at the woman and mumbled, “I’m sorry.” She engaged Mrs. Miller in a brief conversation, I think in Portuguese, and then they went their separate ways. As the stewardess walked away I heard her mutter, in English, “Fifteen years I’ve been at this job and the first complaint I get is from some… kid!

Half an hour after this fiasco it was time for the meal service. One crew passed out the food and another followed with the beverage cart. I was handed a sandwich, apparently made from gristly goat meat, which I left untouched. Then came the drink and of course the same stewardess was asking for beverage preferences. She worked her way to my row, queried my seat mates, and then looked at me with a lovely smile and asked what would I like to drink? I quickly said, “Nothing, thank you.” She smiled for another second or two and then, ratcheting her grin into a rictus of condescension and hatred, screamed at me — “ARE YOU SURE??” I meekly nodded yes and turned my gaze out the window, briefly wishing the plane would crash so this ordeal would come to an end.

We landed a few hours later and rode a charter bus from the airport to our school parking lot, where our families were waiting to pick us up. I walked around the front of the car and tossed my suitcase into the backseat, diving in behind it, still smarting from the beverage humiliation. My mother turned around to look at me and asked, “Are you feeling OK? It looks like all the blood has drained from your face!” My dad eyed me in the rearview mirror, adding, “… and apparently dripped down his neck.”