I ONCE caught an elderly man who fell backwards on the escalator in the Día supermarket.
I imagined it happening before it did because he seemed very fragile and unstable when he first mounted the step. With this in mind I stood close behind him, and when he did fall, I was quick to bare his full weight in my arms. I yelled at someone to push the emergency button and I was struggling so much I don’t remember how I said it or in what language, but eventually someone did. The old man was shocked and frantic and although I couldn’t understand his Spanish, I knew that they were words of both fright and gratitude.
The other shoppers helped me lower the man to the ground and I felt like a hero. I decided the next most heroic thing I could do was to just grab my shopping and quietly walk away. I made for my bag and suddenly felt a tug at my pocket. When I looked back I saw immediately that my headphones were wrapped around the old man´s neck, and his face was as pink as the cable. He hadn’t been thanking me, I realised. I had been choking him to death and he had been begging for mercy.
My point is, even with the best intentions, there’s a lot that can make a foreigner feel stupid abroad. What incites the most fear and humiliation, is attempting to speak a language that isn’t your own.
When shouting English words more slowly fails, we natives realise that it´s time to hit the books. However, the Spanish grammar is strange and complicated, our beloved phrasal verbs are non existent, and those words we know as false friends mean that adding an o and an a to an English word, doesn’t always get you to where you want to go. Flirting is virtually impossible, and I have killed many conversations with handsome Spanish strangers by informing them that I’m pregnant instead of embarrassed, and I’m still yet to grasp the difference between both words.
You have to start from scratch.
Like a baby, you learn to mimic emotions to give the illusion that you understand more than you do. This can also lead to embarrassment. I was with a group of Spanish students who were all very good friends, and who were taunting and teasing one another in my living room, as all good friends do. I soon got into the spirit of things and learnt to look shocked when they looked shocked & laugh when they laughed, and to give an over-enthusiastic si! if someone asked me a question, and like a true fraud, I was doing rather well.
Then, do you understand? Asked my housemate suddenly, still chuckling. I stopped laughing.
No… I confessed, and I sank my tongue into my glass of my rum and coke.
My housemate called time on the pre-drinks, and we put on our coats ready to move onto the famous Salamanca nightlife.
Just before we were about to leave for the bar, I realised I had no money and that now was finally the time to bite the bullet and call Santander.
I told the woman that I would like to activate my card. She asked me for my NIE and I felt fairly confident as I read off the numbers in Spanish. Then came the big que, the q-word that every foreigner fears.
C, I repeated, my voice cracking a little.
T? She said.
C. I thought. C, for what? I searched around the room until eventually, feeling the pressure, I cleared my throat. C, I stuttered down the receiver. C, for chorizo.
I waited for three minutes on the transfer line to the English speaking department before hanging up.
Like all language frauds abroad, I have countless stories like these, and I think above all, most of my memories of Spain and most of that which I experience every day, is humiliating. This is natural and in some ways it’s a fantastic, honest feeling. You realise that in another language, you can only be entirely yourself, as you were before you had mastered English enough to be able to tell really good lies.
Generally speaking, Spanish people are very understanding and approachable, and for this reason it is the best place to make peace with your humiliation and test drive your language skills. George Orwell puts it best in Homage to Catalonia. He writes:
A Spaniard’s generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing. If you ask him for a cigarette he will force the whole packet upon you. And beyond this there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit.
When I first read this quote, I understood that if there was ever a need for motivation to keep learning Spanish, it was this; to really get to know and appreciate the people of Spain.
So, to anyone who is reading this and has at some point in time felt that sinking feeling of shame because you studied hard and you are still being met with confusion, I say, humiliation is your best friend. Learn to love it. Give the language a try, and if you came to Spain for a new leash on life, nothing can make you feel younger than having the same social skills as four year old child with a speech impediment.