You Can’t Break The Language Barrier When You’re Hungry – Barcelona Part 3

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.

If this is all new to you, and you haven’t read about our journey to Europe yet, you can read Barcelona: Part 1 here, and Barcelona: Part 2 here.

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.

Kelly Byrne Julio Nieto angel
Sometimes I felt like I had apples in my noggin too. Street sculpture by the amazing artist, Julio Nieto.

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.

Kelly Byrne Barcelona Aquarium clown fish
Trying to find Nemo, but nobody speaks Clown. Barcelona Aquarium.

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.

Kelly Byrne Barcelona page boy model
This kid probably spoke English.

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.

Good man.

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.

Kelly Byrne Barcelona Aquarium octopus
‘Six fingers? Pfft. These go to eight.’ Barcelona Aquarium.

Also: more Barcelona photos. Because Barcelona!

Kelly Byrne Barcelona Nieto Sculptures
Amazing Julio Nieto sculptures…

Kelly Byrne Barcelona Nieto Sculptures

Kelly Byrne Barcelona Nieto Sculptures

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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Kelly Byrne
An award-winning writer in many a genre, I currently herd words into novels and short stories about wildly flawed, but lovable characters. I strive to uncover the extraordinary in the ordinary, for those who believe in the possibility of the impossible, and those who always believe in love. My fiction embraces the idea that extraordinary things can and do happen in the real world. These whisperings of supernatural elements give my work a strong emotional edge, lending surprise and wonder to every story. I live in Los Angeles with my desperately handsome boyfriend where I’m working on my next novel.


  1. I hate to admit it, but when I had to make the decision of my top three choices for countries to travel to as an exchange student, Spain was at the bottom…and this was after I’d just finished 4 years of Spanish! Something in me knew that what I’d learned in high school wouldn’t get me much further than, “Where’s the blue bathroom dog, please thank you?” I was petrified that I’d get my third choice and not my first (Australia) or second (England), and it was mostly because of the idea of living for a year in a country where I didn’t speak the language. Funny thing is if I’d gone to Spain, I probably would have come home fluent in Spanish, and it makes me a little sad thinking of that lost opportunity. Although when my first hosts picked me up from the airport in Sydney, I could have sworn I’d landed in a non-English speaking country, thanks to their thick “country” accents and the fact that every third word was a substitute for a *real* English word that had never showed up in any dictionary I’d seen…they don’t say, “Let’s put a shrimp on the barbie, mate” as much as we’ve been lead to believe (thanks for that, Outback Steakhouse).

    1. The prospect of living for a year in a country where English is not the first language is a little daunting, so I totally get it. And yeah, you probably would have come out fluent, or at least with a better grasp of where to find that blue bathroom dog, but man, it’s hard to pass up ‘Straya. I’ll be honest too, I wasn’t all that thrilled about the idea of Barcelona. Spain has never been high on my list or even on my list. But what a lovely surprise it was. I like surprises. 🙂

      And you got to live in Australia for a year. How freakin’ cool is that?! 🙂

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