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Spring 2001, Spain —

The apartment where I was living in central Seville required butane gas for the water-heater and stovetop; and canisters of this gas had to be delivered.

Juan, the low-budget property manager at Roommates Seville, gave me the telephone number of the company that does the deliveries, but he said nothing about how the system works.

Within a couple of weeks, the gas ran out. You're supposed to think ahead. I rang the gas company. My Spanish was bad; but I felt I had understood what the woman said to me: "Yes, we'll deliver two tanks of gas. It may be tomorrow or the next day." "Will they ring me to say when they're coming?" "No."

At least I knew I could understand that much Spanish; because that's how it works — they don't tell you when they're coming. The deliverymen do the rounds once a week on almost the same day each week — they pull handcarts down the narrow streets from the truck parked in the neighborhood. They walk, in this case, into the central open area in the middle of the apartment complex, and yell "¡bombonas!"

It seems to work out, usually. Somebody needs to be there; or to have arranged with a neighbor to exchange an empty canister for a full one. Sometimes, you just need luck, and it works out that one of you was home. But, that first time, we were out of gas for a couple of days. Cold water ran from the tap and, worse, the shower. Cooking was limited to the microwave oven.

One housemate worked daytimes, the other attended Spanish-language classes until mid-afternoon. I waited at home for a couple of days. I read newspapers, underlining words and looking up the ones that I didn't know — almost all of them.

I learned a lot of vocabulary, waiting for a bombonas and the chance to make a decent meal.