Thursday, April 5, 2007

Spain: first reflections

I have returned, and in more ways than one! I have returned to blogging because I have returned to the UK; for the past two weeks, I have been traveling around Spain: Madrid, Segovia, Toledo, Valencia, Alacant, Barcelona, and Taragona, to be more precise. I would love to have posted entries during my trip so that all of my thoughts would be fresh and immediate, but time and technology can be as restrictive as they are liberating, so I will be forced to use hindsight and reflection to tell you about all that I have learned and observed during my travels.

My traveling partner was my friend and fellow Holland housemate Angela, about whom I believe I have written once before. She is from Singapore, and this makes her a fabulous traveling partner for these expeditions to foreign countries. She is much better than an American traveling partner, because this way we don’t constantly compare things to “how they are at home,” nor are we as likely to act like or be perceived (and therefore treated) as a pair of “typical American tourists.” Then, she is much better than a European traveling partner, because this way everything is just as new, exciting, and foreign to her as it is for me.

Angela has done significantly more foreign travel than I have, so she’s a bit more apt at the hand-gesturing, talking slowly-and-loudly method than I am; still, since we went to Spain, I was able to make myself useful by recalling a bit of my high school Spanish. This came in quite handy one time when a bakery worker insisted we hadn’t paid for our pastry and coffee—I managed to make myself understood with the rudimentary sentences, “Compra este primero. Pagamos a la caja.” (So much for tense conjugation, though—present tense is all I could come up with fast enough. It was enough just to correctly match subject with conjugation under such pressure.) Another time, I came to the rescue when Angela had to exchange a pair of stockings. Being unable to read labels or understand the saleslady makes buying prepackaged clothing rather risky, she discovered, and I had been grocery shopping during the initial purchase. Luckily, however, I knew “negro” stood for black—the color Angela wanted—and was able to tell the saleslady we wanted stocking “con pies” (with feet) so that we found the correct stockings. Then, with some motioning at Angela’s previous purchase and the receipt, the words, “Ella compra este,” seemed to get across the message that we wanted to make an exchange. Angela even got money back!

While I may have managed to make myself understood a few ties, I utterly failed at understanding anyone else. Beyond recognizing a few items of food on a menu, finding exit signs (salida), and telling Angela how much money cashiers wanted (“Dos cincuenta y seis—two fifty-six.”), I couldn’t make sense of a thing anyone said. This proved especially frustrating when we got lost and needed directions. Usually, we had better luck if Angela approached a stranger and asked for help in English, with me interceding (in awful, broken Spanish) only if we were receiving completely blank stares and one-word answers. Ordinarily, we just had to do our best to follow pointing fingers or waving arms, particularly in Valencia, where no one seemed to speak English. The best response we ever got was in Barcelona. We were looking for Parque Güel in a drizzle, hoping to beat the rain (we didn’t and ended up sipping and sliding down a mountain of sandy grit under torrents of rain Angela claims not to have seen the likes of since she left Singapore). We finally stopped an elderly lady who, since she didn’t speak English and we obviously couldn’t understand Spanish, actually walked us to the street where we needed to turn. When we parted, she actually kissed us on our cheeks. We didn’t know how to thank her properly. The only word we knew was, “Gracias.”

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