The first thing you should know is that I do not speak Spanish. That is to say, I know how to ask for beers (“dos cervezas, por favor”) and I have the ability to read most signs and can even get the gist of more complex sentences, but when it comes to the actual act of holding a verbal conversation in Spanish, I’m (currently) hopelessly adrift.
I’ve meekly sputtered “No hablo español” a dozen or so times by now. One of my first evenings here in Madrid, a couple stopped me to ask directions, and as I had grown accustomed to saying I didn’t speak their language, I had already excused myself before I realized a) their accent wasn’t Spanish and b) they were asking me where the Domino’s Pizza was located. I couldn’t have helped them with that, anyway, but I still felt silly.
One simple phrase of my basic vocabulary is getting a work out: Lo siento. “Lo siento, no hablo español.” “Lo siento,” as I squeeze through a crowd; “Lo siento,” as I stare blank-faced at the cashier in the chino (convenience store); “Lo siento” as I act generally like a New Yorker in a decidedly un-New York city.
I know I could also use “perdon” in some situations, but I don’t feel it quite conveys all the information “lo siento” does: “I am sorry I am an American in your country and despite taking three years of Spanish in high school have retained almost none of my education.” Those two words pack in a lot.
Of course, the first thing anybody will tell you is that in the major cities of Spain, Madrid and Barcelona in particular, you don’t actually need to speak Spanish. Most people have rudimentary English skills, at minimum, and are unperturbed by being forced to use them. If I was a mere tourist here, like I was exactly one year ago, that would be fine, but that feels like a cop out for someone who intends to be here for an indeterminate amount of time.
I’ve met quite a few people in the less than two weeks that I’ve been here. The vast majority of them are involved in TtMadrid, a Spanish education/TEFL training course out here that is associated with the International TEFL Academy from whom I received my TEFL certification. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the couple different opportunities I’ve had to hang out with these large English-speaking groups, even as I recognized that among them, I am still an outsider. They’re sharing an experience that I am not.
One thing I’ve noticed immediately is that living three years in one place has dulled my social skills. The longer I lived in Brooklyn, the easier it was to feel comfortable staying in and avoiding crowds (as crowded as New York is, it’s actually quite easy to be alone). Every time I approach a new group, every time I enter a strange restaurant, my social anxiety flares up (even more so knowing that I’m unarmed with the language) and my mind starts swearing at me, “This is a stupid idea.”
And then it isn’t. It’s almost always a good time. Here, so far, I’ve wound up enjoying myself every time even if the first 20 minutes or so are radioactively awkward. Most of the English-speaking people here are in a similar boat to me, living in a new country, uncomfortable with their Spanish, and still getting their bearings. In that way, I have an advantage: I own this boat.
It’s also why I do this. I was always the last person on earth who seemed equipped for 10 Cities/10 Years, a decade in which my anxiety never lessened below a simmering heat. But I need to put myself out in uncomfortable situations so that I don’t become yet another hermit writing angry screeds online. I mean, I already am that person, but at least I still go outside sometimes.
If 10 Cities/10 Years was my master’s program, now I’m going for my doctorate. All the old challenges of starting over in a new city are here, but with additional cultural and language barriers. To overcome them, I’ll have to put myself out there and practice using my Spanish at every opportunity.
So I don’t know the language. And I don’t know the culture. And I don’t know the people. And I don’t know who I am in the midst of yet another rebirth, another reboot, another starting over. I’ll get there.
C’est la vie.