Dear Dudes Who Say, “If You Are Going to Live in This Country Learn to Speak this Language”
Background: As insanely dumb luck would have it, it was New Year’s Eve 2009 and I had just stepped off a Malaysian water taxi at Uncle Chang’s Backpacker Lodge to be greeted moments later by an insanely good looking Catalan guy, David. (Happy New Year to Me!) A year and a half later we would be married and me and the two bags Delta airlines would allow me were headed to his pueblo muy pequeño, 30 minutes north of Barcelona.
My experiences with Español prior to loading my two bags on Delta airlines were as follows -- for four years of high school Spanish I was taught by a native Spanish speaker who spoke to us primarily -- in English. My Mexican Spanish teacher, when not speaking to us in English, would assign us fill-in-the-blank worksheets that were to prepare us for real life situations we might encounter in the Spanish speaking world. An example being:
Hola Carla, Mi casa es roja.
Hola Juan, Mi casa es roja, también!
In college, my Spanish classes were taught by a French woman. My memories of her involve sitting in her apartment and bong hits.
To accommodate the holes in my educacion de Español I purchased Rosetta Stone a few weeks prior to arriving in Spain. During these two weeks of devouring Rosetta Stone, I would also madly rehearse potential conversations in my head -- the way I rehearsed responses to predictable job interview questions on the way to the interview.
All of this combined had me well prepped for the first 14 minutes I was in Spain. Minute 15 and beyond got a bit more complicated.
A few facts about Spain and I to explain:
There are four different languages spoken in Spain.
One of these languages is Catalan, spoken in Catalonia (and other places). Catalonia is where Barcelona is. The area where I was going to be living.
In Barcelona you walk down the streets and hear a lot of languages. You hear equal parts of the queen’s (typically drunken) English, languages that sound like a lot of the people with maps and cameras swallowed something with sharp edges and of course, Spanish. You do not, however, hear very mucho Catalan.
In mi pueblo pequeño you walk down the street and you hear almost exclusively Catalan. The signs in pueblo pequeño’s stores are in Catalan, menus are in Catalan, people on the street randomly ask you questions in Catalan.
I spoke one word of Catalan when I arrived: iaia (pronounced yaya) = grandma.
As with small towns all over the world, everyone not only knows everyone in pueblo pequeño but they have been in this state of knowing each other for-ev-er. The vast majority of David’s friends are those he met at around the age of five.
When you grow up in Catalonia and you meet someone at the age of five you make the five year old decision as to whether you are going to speak Spanish or Catalan with each other. Based on these five year old decisions David did and continues to this day to speak this decided upon language with each particular friend. So today, he will be speaking Catalan to the person on his right and Spanish to the person on his left and everyone in the group (save me) understands what the hell is going on.
What does this mean for me and my arrival in pueblo pequeño?
I spent the first three or four months just trying to figure out what fucking language they were speaking.
This was further complicated by the fact that unlike, at least my life in the US, where I would hang out with a friend or two for a few hours a day, in Catalonia they travel with their entire first grade class from sun up to sun down – all weekend long – happily speaking two languages like this is what the whole world’s brains are capable of.
Dudes, there are zero words for how overwhelming this is.
There are no words for describing what it is like to spend the vast majority of your day, day after day, month after month feeling like a fucktard. There are no words for sitting at a three hour lunch feeling like you are a 39 year old inside the brain of a nine month old. Just the act of David leaving me to go to the bathroom would bring back those feelings of being a 16 year old whose boyfriend just left you at the Thanksgiving table with his entire extended family. There are no words for the frustration of knowing there are people who you could be really good friends with if only you could say something to them other than, ‘Si, me gusta España.’ It would end up being the first time since perhaps the age of seven I almost burst into tears in the middle of a restaurant simply out of massive frustration.
Not only was this becoming the most humbling experience of my life but it was also one of the most personality squashing as well. I was quickly going from a person who, when able to speak in my own language, was contacting random people all over the world and asking them if I could interview them for my website to someone who was finding her feet a curiosity as they were better than risking the consequences of eye contact.
Not all, of course, was catastrophic. I was slowly learning the language (one of them) and there were times where I was able to:
1) determine what language was being spoken
2) determine what was being said in that language
3) think of what I wanted to say
4) translate #3 in my head from English to Spanish
5) find an appropriate place to interject #3 into the conversation and have it be timely enough where I was not commenting on something discussed three minutes prior
6) gather the courage to take that breath of air and open my mouth to spit #3 out
7) have the person I was trying to communicate with actually respond to me on topic and not just politely smile
8) AND repeat
In these moments I am my favorite person in my world. These moments I love more than any moment prior. These moments completely negate all prior feelings of incompetence, fear and fucktardism that was and does force that confused and increasingly annoying smile on my face.
I think it is important to note a few additional things about my pueblo pequeño situation. David is, with zero hype or exaggeration, the best human I know. I am decently sure if forced to make the choice, all of my friends and family would chose him over me, and honestly, I wouldn’t blame them. His wonderfulness was not a mistake. He comes from a family of supreme goodness and those friends he chose after five years on this planet are proof that like attracts like.
I have equally wonderful friends and family, a college degree and a pile of professional experience. Pueblo pequeño is 30 minutes from the Mediterranean and the same distance from what is considered by many as Europe’s best city. Did I mention sheep and their shepherd walk through town every day? And France and those Pyrenees things are a quick drive north of me? In short, my situation is not anywhere near shitty and if it ever became intolerable I always have the option to high tail it the F out of here.
This, of course, is not at all the background the vast majority of immigrants arrive to the US with. How many people in this world are leaving everything they have ever known; their family, their friends, their culture, their language and land because they just had the dumb ass luck of falling in love with someone who is from arguably one of the best areas on earth?
What I have learned from interviewing immigrants to the US is they left because the political and social climate of their country became so intolerable, so brutal and so violent that they were willing to take the risk of leaving everything in hopes that somewhere else could be better. When they arrive they are dealing with the psychological, emotional and logistical complications of leaving a country ravaged by politics, corruption and/or violence as they simultaneously deal with and navigate severe culture shock – all the while having little to no money, education, job training or family structure.
In addition to this, when immigrants arrive in the US or any other country that has its prejudices – which are all of them – they are greeted by an impenetrable wall of ignorance that was built by people who believe that learning a language simply involves slapping down $199 (which they may or may not have) for a weekend of language courses when the reality is that ‘just learning the language’ involves millions (literally) of tiny steps of practice that are prefaced by enormous acts of courage and the willingness to surrender to feeling like a jackass all day everyday for the hope that one day they will have ‘learned the language’ and they no longer need to deal with the massive brain damage of not being able to communicate, their shame of being decades old yet speaking like a one year old or your ignorance -- any longer.