Lost in Translation

Online blog of life in Barcelona for a English guy making a life for himself out here and trying desperately to have a good time, become fluent in Spanish, and most of all - not be constantly mistaken for a tourist!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Bright eyes...!

For quite a while after I arrived in Spain (and still occasionally to this day if heavily provoked) my brain automatically would assume that when dealing with strangers in Spanish, that I must surely be coming across as a “guiri perdido” (in other words, a hopeless pillock of a foreigner). It seems my logic was based purely on “how could it be any other way?”. Afterall, I was putting myself in situations guaranteed to irritate the local population, namely “talking to them”. I was potentially slowing down the queue in the bread shop because I didn´t know the name for the one type of loaf that I wanted out of the approximately 4582 types on offer, annoying the girl in the bank when she had to repeat 3 times how much the commission is on a simple transaction (in case you´re wondering, it falls into the category of "ridiculous"), or just generally peeing-off the entire bus when my ticket had gotten a bit twisted and would no longer be accepted by the onboard validator - this final example being my least favourite of all when I first arrived in Barcelona. The same little harmless looking machine which would emit a playful beep to each of the stream of locals as they pass their tickets through, but which would let out an almighty scream which would chill to the bone when I came along with the misfortune of having a slightly imperfect ticket that had been bending and flexing in my wallet a little too long. It may as well scream out “HEY EVERYBODY, THIS GUY IS TRYING TO GET ON WITHOUT PAYING!!! AND LOOK… HE´S FOREIGN!!!”. I was a lost cause, cruelly condemned to spend my life in eternal damnation by the judgment of nothing more than a ticket machine with a xenophobic streak.

Anyway, after a while things like this stopped bothering me. Partly because I found that my Spanish was improving to the point where I no longer had to visibly concentrate like crazy with a pained expression on my face in order to squeeze out a vaguely understandable sentence, and partly because I was struck with the sudden realisation, that quite simply, no one else really gives a rat´s arse! The guy slowing down the bread queue is just another guy slowing down the bread queue (and is probably going a damn site faster than your average Spanish pensioner, by the way!), the guy in the bank is just another customer to deal with (all of which I suppose are annoying in their own individual ways), and the noise of the screaming ticket machine is just more background racket that gets automatically tuned-out by the locals without even raising their gaze from their free newspapers.

So… with the initial fear-factor now gone, I then started to feel pretty much fine about dealing with all sorts of potentially confusing encounters with Spanish administration/shopping/transport etc, even actually looking forward to some of them on occasion. I´ve opened and closed accounts, given directions in the street to strangers many times, done tax declarations in person, successfully got through job interviews, and most proudly of all…. I´ve walked out of the bread shop with the type of loaf I walked in intending to buy. (Quite an achievement that last one!). I´m not saying that I´m now a vision of lingual perfection, striding about like Cesar, unfazed by any situation, but I am at least not putting myself in the frame of mind of “I-am-an-automatic-failure-before-I-even-open-my-mouth-so-please-don´t-bother-giving-me-the-time-of-day!!”.

The reason I got to thinking about this today was because recently, the same curious little seemingly insignificant thing has happened on a couple of occasions that had never crossed my mind before, and it happened again today in a more obvious way. I´ll explain some examples more clearly later, but basically, while I´ve been thinking that my lanky legs, pasty English skin and fair hair were a physical disability that would mean constantly being treated as a foreigner (and therefore fair game to rip-off or fob-off at any opportunity) they´re actually one of the biggest “door-openers” you can drag around with you, using them to your advantage without even realizing it or being aware that they are having an invisible benefit to you. For it would seem that, when dealing with those tall, pasty-looking, fair-haired northern European types like me who have clearly taken a bit of trouble to learn reasonably good Spanish, your average Spaniard sitting behind a desk or working in a shop (or whatever) will be happy to take more time to look after you, make sure you´ve got what you wanted, and generally be pretty god damn nice to you. I´ve bought fruit and veg on the market and been offered recipe ideas that I lack the culinary capability to carry out, I´ve asked the bloke next to me on the bus for the meaning of a particularly tricky word in my book and then spent the rest of the journey chatting about the book and being given more reading suggestions, asked a question about my tax deductions and suddenly found myself having a highly-paid expert who doesn´t normally deal with Joe Public hauled across the office to personally advise me about how best to frugally juggle my pennies…. the list goes on. Anyway, the “thing” that has now happened a number of times was actually nothing more than a passing comment about eyes. Apparently, if you´ve got the clear-eyed foreigner look and you´re prepared to dabble in the murky waters of speaking Spanish with the locals, you´re already at a massive advantage purely based on the fact that you´re “different” to the millions of those poor old genetically disfigured (stay with me..) Spanish folk with their beautiful dark eyes, stunningly even tanned skin and errrr what else?… hairy backs…? Ok, so that last one isn´t a particularly good example and doesn´t apply to all, but you know what I mean. Let´s face it, I´ve said it before, but the typical “Spanish look” is a pretty good one to have been born with, and it has to be said that Spain has been blessed with more than its fair share of stunners of both sexes.

If I ever get treated exceptionally well by local officialdom, I´ve always put it down purely to the fact that they must just be a nice person who appreciates hearing a bit of Spanish speaking effort in all its badly conjugated glory. But I´ve now had it suggested to me by friends that it´s actually the “look” that´s the deal clincher. A 100%, cast iron, money-back guarantee for good service (it would seem) is purely to be just one thing…. “different from the crowd”. Apparently, nothing brightens the day of that woman on the fruit stall than a prat with a sunburnt nose spluttering out the wrong words for the fruit he´s pointing to, or fills the tax officer with more pride than having to re-do an entire spreadsheet because the poor sap from England has given all his figures in UK pounds instead of Euros.

My friend who suggested this, grew up in a small town during the tail-end of the Franco years, when all things foreign held a certain glamour, so although I haven´t said this to him, I think he´s just bringing along an old hang-up from his youth and applying it to the present day. Afterall, any Spaniard who´s grown-up seeing the influx of foreigners over the last 30 years, with their kiss-me-quick holiday mentality and being sick in the street at barely 11pm on a Saturday night, surely can´t be holding the opinion that Brits (for example) are a glamorous bunch of go-getters blessed with a life that the yokels in Spain can only dream of. This isn´t 1970 and we´re not talking about illiterate villagers from the arse-end of Moldova (sorry to any Moldovians reading this!). Spain has got more capacity to cause an inferiority complex in other nations these days, not suffer from one. But nonetheless after brushing off my friend´s comment, another mildly comical example happened this morning…

We have a staff shop in the company I´m currently subcontracted into (a brewery) and we can buy cheap alcohol etc as there are daily staff special offers. Today´s offer seems to be the result of some over-enthusiastic ordering on the part of a junior in the Marketing Dept, as they were flogging for just over €3, a pack including a beach parasol, a mini surf board and 6 beer glasses, all branded with the company logos etc. After the first guy walked back into the office carrying his pack, there was a stampede of us heading to fill our boots! For the first time there was a phenomenon unheard of in the shop´s history…. a queue! The woman (a middle-aged señora with multi-coloured hair) clearly used to dealing with a slow stream of casual callers suddenly had a “panic buy” situation on her hands! I was watching her from my place in the queue, and she seemed to be getting more and more peed-off with the passing of each customer until, with just a couple of people in front of me (and a whole line behind), she ranted in Spanish with a snarl (I´ll translate the vague meaning!) that “everybody can just bugger right off” before switching to a warm smile to add “except for the tall guy with the nice clear eyes, he can step up to the hatch and place his order with pleasure!” She was obviously having a joke around, but it just reminded me of my friend´s earlier comment about getting “special treatment”… however off the cuff and insignificant it may have been.

So all in all, I´m still inclined to believe that good treatment of foreigners comes from only one thing, namely being pleasant yourself and making an effort to communicate, but I´ve now had my eyes opened to a new possibility.

And not only are they open, they are of course clear! :-)


At July 23, 2008 3:38 PM, Blogger Erik R. said...

Very interesting! I, too, am muy guiri. I shall run my future experiences through this theory and get back to you.

At July 23, 2008 4:30 PM, Blogger Lost in translation said...

Hi Erik. Well it´s a surefire winner in my book! I´ll look forward to seeing if the same holds true for you!

At July 25, 2008 12:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great piece Dave... they are too few and far between (I can talk - Havent touched mu blog for a year)
The thing about the queue struck home - a couple of years ago Gill and I were in BCN in the New Year. Sales were on at the Corte Ingles and she wanted a pair of gloves. The shop floor was like a loose maul at international rugby match but the assistants were completely unflappable. Thet partook in a slow motion ballet and asked every customer if they would like their purchase gift wrapped (it was just before Reyes). It was taking 5-10 minutes to serve every customer. Maybe theres a training opportunity here for your factory shop lady!?


At July 27, 2008 12:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I have recently tuned in and have read your older blog posts. I have really enjoyed your writing and am happy that you have added some more resent posts.

We had the pleasure of visiting Barcelona last March and I have fallen in love with that city so It is with great interest that I read about your adventures, trials, and successes while becoming more fluent in Spanish.

Do you feel any need to speak the Catalan dialect? When we were there we felt awkward when speaking our halting Spanish because we felt that we should be attempting Catalan, so we just didn't speak very much at all. Silly I guess. Luckily most people helped us out in English, but which language would most locals rather speak?


At July 27, 2008 6:52 AM, Anonymous Stuart said...

Excellent reading as always, I wish you'd write more.

At July 28, 2008 11:39 PM, Blogger Lost in translation said...

Thanks for the kind comments guys, I'll try to keep it up! :-)

Kim - Regarding Catalan, it's not a problem at all if you don't speak Catalan in Barcelona. Maybe if you went into the back end of Catalunya it would be a bigger concern, but in BCN there are just way too many Latin Americans and Europeans from outside of Spain for the Catalans to get too precious about things. It's very very widely spoken of course, and it's the default langauge for most people born and bred here, but everyone is bilingual. If you were to speak Catalan while here, as a foreigner, you would be in a very very small minority and therefore the locals would quite rightly be very impressed and pleased at the effort you'd made. But the important thing to remember is that it's a nice extra, but certainly not a necessity so don't be afraid to try your Castellano out on the locals next time you're here! :-)

At August 01, 2008 6:57 PM, Anonymous eldeano said...

If they like your pasty legs so much you'd better cover them up when you're out cycling or on the beach!


Post a Comment

<< Home