There once was a marginally intelligent, germanic-looking malcontent who pulled himself out of a life of ease and quasi-boredom, and transplanted himself to the middle of the Iberian peninsula. Let’s call him Xavi because his real name is virtually unpronounceable in Spain. And let’s call him a masochist. Lately, Xavi has had all kinds of little adventures and discoveries, including those that epitomize the trials and tribulations of a traveler—-sparks and smoke from electric adapters, fickle hot water in the shower, two-hour lunches, that other thing next to the toilet that’s not a toilet, free snacks with every beer. But let’s take a look at a specific kind of problem of Xavi’s: the linguistic gaff. He is learning a new language. And no, he hasn’t accidentally said he was embarasada to any store clerks or nuns (yet). The point is, to the chagrin of many of his friends (new and old), most of the experiences that bring significance to Xavi’s life happen in solitude, so they must be researced in secret and by undercover means. To protect the guilty, the identities of neither the source nor the subject will be made clear. Think a sort of sensible Wikileaks.
Many times throughout the day, during interactions with Madrileños, Xavi will likely say one of two things when things get rough. It’s the panic of not knowing all of what is being said, and the following reaction that makes Xavi say what ever it takes to make the interaction end, so he can go back to staring at the wall or to pretending that he is watching something happening out the window. These two things are “Sí” and “Mas o menos.”
Now we all know that saying “yes” and “more or less” is not appropriate for all social interactions, and Xavi sometimes says other words. But Xavi is a bonehead. And even though he knows many, many more words in his new language, he sometimes lacks the confidence he needs and he has grown accustomed to relying on this firm, four-word linguistic foundation to get him through interactions using the world’s fourth most-used language. With the help of a translator working pro bono, some previously hidden interactions have been uncovered to help shed some light on Xavi’s funny little problem.
* * *
Saturday afternoon, around 12:30, Xavi decides to have a lunch because he is very, very hungry and grumpy. (He really wishes he could say I’m so hungry I could eat a horse’s head in Spanish). He walks into a nice looking tapas bar and the man behind the bar, of course, says some things to him immediately. Of the several sentences, Xavi’s sharp ear catches the words buenas, comer, and something that sounds like el. Now the man is saying, of course, that it is a bit early for lunch, but if he wants to sit down anyway, he’ll bring out something to drink and he’ll get to him in a few minutes. As long as he’s not in a hurry today. He then asks if that is ok. Instead of answering, Xavi hurriedly sits down at the nearest seat, one that he regrets choosing because there is nothing to look at but a brick wall and a picture of a river. There is no one else in the restaurant. A waiter walks over and asks, “to drink?”
Easy. “Un vino,” he says.
The waiter then asks another question of approximately two sentences.
Xavi says, “Sí,” with the slight, end-sentence rising intonation that doesn’t really work in Spanish. The waiter cocks his head to one side and looks at Xavi and then turns around to go to the bar. Obviously, something didn’t work right in this conversation already, but Xavi has definitely seen worse. He’s not really worried.
The waiter then brings out an entire bottle of wine and leaves in on the table. Xavi stares at the bottle.
The waiter then comes back and looks at the bottle and the empty glass next to it. He scrunches his eyebrows, slightly.
“There is the paella or Cocido Madrileño today,” he says.
“Well, yes, of course!” Xavi says.
The waiter walks away and mumbles something to his co-worker behind the bar. He yells, “un Cocido!” to the kitchen. Xavi goes back to staring at the bottle and wonders if he should pour some or let it turn to vinegar. How will the waiter possibly know how much he drinks? Will he just trust him? Surely a modern European city in the twenty-first century doesn’t rely so naively on human honesty and goodwill. He pours it and happily sees no police barge through the door or alarms sounding.
After a few minutes, the waiter brings out a large ceramic bowl of broth with some small cylindrical noodles in it.
“Bread?” the waiter asks.
“Yes.” Xavi says. Always bread.
Xavi looks at the soup and thinks, Well this is just lame. A bit anti-climactic for Spanish cuisine. He begins to sip the soup, out of courtesy.
After Xavi is almost finished with the soupy liquid, the waiter comes out and says, “So, there is a second dish, you know. You eat them together.”
“Sí.” Xavi says. He puts his hands in his lap and looks over at the bar staff, who are laughing. He’s eaten seven pieces of bread.
Then, the waiter brings out a dish of meats and vegetables fit for a gluttonous king: garbanzos, carrots, chorizo, jamón serrano, garlic, olives, ham bone, shank bone, cabbage, white onions, potatoes, pork bacon, and some sort of wonderful salted, chewy pork.
Xavi proceeds to make himself sick eating the bounty of food provided to him. It is the least he can do.
After he is finished, Xavi politely asks for a coffee and gives the international signal for “the tab.”
“Can I have the bridge, please?” he asks. Apparently, to Xavi, the Spanish words for bill and bridge are practically the same.
Xavi now boasts that his favorite food this week is, indeed, Cocido Madrileño, a perfect dish for cold, wet fall days. He is also very glad there was no one around to see him make an American fool of himself.
* * *
In the spirit of keeping things short for the limited attention span, the following are abridged (and translated) versions of some spectacularly botched social interactions between Xavi and the innocent people of Madrid.
Xavi: “Do you have stamps?”
Store clerk: “for Spain or the United States or…?”
Xavi: “Yes, I am.”
Xavi: “I used to go to the clubs all the time. I’d like to go again soon. I haven’t tried out any in Madrid.” Clubs in Spain are more likely whorehouses than places to see a DJ spin vinyl.
The man outside of a restaurant with flyers: “Something to eat here?”
Xavi: “No, you’ve already eaten.”
The man outside of a restaurant with flyers: “Something to eat here?”
Xavi: “No, I will be eating before this morning… Already.”
Xavi (to a very pretty Spanish woman): ” I have a lot of girls at my place.”
Mobile phone salesman: “It is 49 euros.”
Xavi: hands him 149 euros.
Mobile phone salesman: hands him back 100 euros. “I’m only selling you a mobile phone.”
Xavi: “Ok. More or less.”
Xavi (asking for directions): Where is the post office?
Madrileño: Down this street and two lefts.
Xavi: So, up you and to the left?”
Xavi (when paying the rent to his landlord): “Can I pay some now and less later?”
Xavi once accidentally ordered Jerez at 10:30 in the morning.
Xavi (to the store clerk): “I would like to need a juice of orange. Do I have it?”
Many strange things are happening to Xavi in the language abyss between first and second language acquisition. Sometimes, when he isn’t saying “si” or “mas o menos,” he inexplicably pronounces English words with a foreign accent and then pronounces Spanish words with a Brazilian accent. In an attempt to simplify his English instructions to his Spanish friends, he’ll slip into direct translations like pass the vacuum on the floor, or can you put me a beer. He will start out strong in a conversation with standard memorized phrases, only to be followed by an awkward silence that makes him look like he just had a speech-preventing stroke mid-conversation.
Fortunately, Madrid is a large city with all kinds of people, so faux pas is often tolerated, and Spaniards have a developed sense of humor, to say the least. And the varied, foreign influences often add to the city’s charm. And even though Xavi is often a hopeless idiot wandering amongst civilized citizens, and brings much of the hardship on himself, he hopes there is something to be learned all these mishaps. At the least, he knows he must laugh at himself, and with a little forced awareness and observation, he can discover more about the language he is learning. For example, accidental direct translations by Spaniards are often windows into what’s going on in the Spaniards’ linguistic mind. Now, when he corrects the mistakes of the intermediate-level Spaniard, he’ll take notes and study the phrase later. Chances are, that is what he should be saying in Spanish. Also, he’s found that most difficult words in both languages are cognates. He is learning.
Stay tuned for more episodes of Xavi and his hapless shenanigans. We’ve only scratched the surface.
Xavi looks forward to the day when he can properly order food, chat in Spanish about philosophy with a friend over a bottle, and understand what Ana is saying.