You Said What Now?
Confession: traveling to Europe made me feel, at times, like a small town ‘Murican country bumpkin. Which is precisely what I am.
I’m from a small Upstate NY town and though I’ve lived in one city or another for much of my adult life, I’m not well traveled outside the United States. The only other language I have cognitive access to is a bastardized and mostly forgotten high school French.
Because of that, while in Barcelona, I tried to learn as much Spanish as my noggin would absorb and keep readily available. Unfortunately, what that amounted to was hola, adiós, and gracias. Um, yeah. Clearly five days was not enough to make a dent in my stubborn mind or memory.
For the most part though, people were accommodating and friendly and did speak at least a minimal amount of English to help us along, especially at restaurants, where they interact with tourists on a consistent basis. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating not being able to communicate at times.
I’d forget not everyone speaks English. Like, most people don’t in a foreign country.
I’d approach some poor unsuspecting Spaniard, rattle off a question in perfectly acceptable English and they’d stare at me a deer in headlights. Or they’d overtly search for the quickest exit strategy from my menacing Americanism.
The Six Fingered Man Who Spoke No English
One particularly exasperating event happened to us after we’d visited Sagrada Família.
We bought tickets at the subway station to head back to our flat and grab some food, but realized when we reached the platform that we were in the wrong terminal. It wasn’t an easy realization to come to.
They don’t show a map of the stops on the wall of the terminal until you go through the turnstiles and ‘use’ your ticket so you won’t know you’ve gone the wrong way till you’ve gone the wrong way down into the tunnel.
Tony is the master of all things geo-directional, and after a few tense moments and some feisty looks from his very tired, very hungry girlfriend, he realized there were actually two stations, one on each side of the church, and we were in the wrong one.
We trekked over to the other station (on the way, buying that cute little dancing Cartman I talked about here – Scam Alert!) and that’s where things went sideways fast.
We tried to explain to the tube manager, in our best slow English/sign language, that we’d mistakenly bought our tickets for the other station and even though they were marked ‘used’ we hadn’t used them for a ride yet.
It didn’t cost an appendage for new tickets, true, but it was the principle of the thing. We hadn’t used our tickets yet and we wanted to.
No matter how many times I said, “We no use!” We could not get through to him.
Mind you, he’s a manager. Of a busy subway. Where a lot of English. Speaking. Tourists. Are found. Naturally.
As things heated up, he ticked off on each finger of a grubby, swollen hand which languages he spoke. Spanish. French. Italian. German. Chinese. Swahili.
No English anywhere. Not even on that sixth finger.
He became more irritated with us as we tried to explain that we weren’t trying to cheat the system. I was about ready to eat his head at that point (I’m She-Hulk when my blood sugar plummets), so we asked one of his subordinates at the turnstile if we could use our tickets, trying to explain our situation to him.
The manager barked at us and told his guy not to let us through.
By now, I’m seriously ready to throw down with the dude. Like WWE style. I was growing hunger fangs by the second and his nasty attitude wasn’t doing anything to appease the situation.
Finally, the manager who spoke every language in the world but English left the building. Just as I was ready to put my fist through a wall on the other side of the station, Tony called me over and the other guy let us through. He wanted to wait till his boss left.
Know Which Tube Station You’re In
The important take away here is that there are two subway stations, one on either side of Sagrada Família, and should you use one, take note of it, so you can return to it without having to face the tool who will only shout at you in some form of Swahili that sounds a lot like Catalan.
Also, eat when you’re hungry.
Also: more Barcelona photos. Because Barcelona!
If you missed them last week and would like to see more of my photos from our trip, explore my Barcelona Flickr page here. Next week I’ll move on to the rest of our trip, where I’ll discuss the importance of a rabies shot and the biting horse of Florence.
Till then what kind of cockeyed mix-ups and misunderstandings have you had abroad because of the language barrier? Do tell in the comments below.
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