Europe Explained (part six)

Barcelona, Spain

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Es este chocolate leche?” I ask, holding up a plastic bottle filled with what I presume to be chocolate milk.

The cashier reacts confusedly, then realizes I’m just a naïve foreigner who Americanized the Spanish language. “Si, si,” he says. “Es leche chocolate.

The cashier will have to forgive me. It’s been six years since I took a formal Spanish class, and weeks since I have spoken to anyone in my under-developed second language.

My language skills have slowly begun to return, especially when someone is patient and lets me collect my thoughts. I still have the inexplicable tendency to become wildly unnerved when someone looks me in the eyes and unabashedly begins speaking Spanish. I don’t know how to explain this, why my body begins shuddering and my eyes squint as I lock in on what someone is saying, barely picking up recognizable vocab but still pretending that I’m not lost in an abyss of incomprehension.

“Could I ever be considered a Spaniard?” I later ask my bilingual friend who is showing me around the beaches of Barcelona.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“Like, if I moved here and began to speak really good Spanish, would people consider me a part of their country, or would I always be a foreigner?”

I ask him this because in China, regardless of marital status, language proficiency, or time spent in the country, a laowai (foreigner) will always be considered a laowai. Unlike some people I knew over there, this fact has never registered as bothersome. To me, if someone doesn’t want me, spending time trying to convince them to change their mind seems pointless.

“Why are you asking me this?” my friend then asks.

“Because if tomorrow you moved to America, people would embrace and refer to you as an American,” I tell him.

“Because I speak good English?”

“No…” I hesitate. “Well, that would help, but I mean because you live there, you’re automatically a part of the country.”

My friend ponders the line of inquisition a little longer. “I suppose, yeah, if your Spanish was good, we would call you a Spaniard.”

I smile before walking four miles back in the direction of my Airbnb. It’s humid and uncomfortably hot in Barcelona. The other day someone told me Europe is experiencing record temperatures for this time of year.

Further into my existence, I sit down at a restaurant that looks inviting. I came to Spain because I wanted to see if there was any chance I could eventually flourish in a second language. See, back in high school, and more recently, in university, I was the most talented student in Spanish class, which perhaps sounds dumb, but to me, this signaled opportunity.

For whatever reason, conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabulary clicked. I’d get A’s on every test and banter with Mr. Boyer in between doses of him berating my best friend seated next to me for painfully stuttering every time he was called on.

Yet when final exam week rolled around and I had to go visit Mr. Boyer in his office for the oral exam, I couldn’t have been more humiliated.

“Tell me about the environment,” he asked in English, and as soon as he stopped talking I clammed up and suddenly forgot all the vocabulary I had learned in the months prior.

I awkwardly smiled and said “um” fifty times, the ability to articulate thought eluding my consciousness. Stage fright maybe, but more so, I had never been thrust into this type of setting. Fight or flight, and I definitely was flying.

“I’m disappointed,” Mr. Boyer said that spring after ten minutes of poor sentence structure revolving around basic vocabulary had passed. “You’ll still get an A in the class, but I expected you to be better today.”

The final grade didn’t matter. What did was the painful thought that I had failed Mr. Boyer, made months of dedication and practice appear a waste. I walked out of his office mortified, convinced I would never properly learn a second language.

That was years ago. Today, I’m in a restaurant trying to prove to both the present and past me that I can endure hardship.

Hola,” the server says, standing over the table with the expectation that I will respond in English.

Buenos tardes,” I say, hoping the server says something rudimentarily simple so that I don’t have to raise an eyebrow and try to process what he said.

Tienes hambre?” he asks, and damn, I might have a chance here.

I make it through the meal unscathed, my at-best intermediate Spanish allowing me to bring a smile to someone’s face. It’s a rewarding feeling, considering many people in western Europe can speak fluent English as a second language. I don’t have to make a linguistic effort here in Barcelona, but to not would be a waste of the time I’ve invested into getting better and pushing myself out of a comfort zone I never previously imagined leaving.

The next day I go to Costa Brava, a 90-minute drive from Barcelona. The tour guide is cute and smiles politely while we converse in Spanish. Inside she’s probably straining and wondering why I’m making the effort when she’s more than capable of talking in my native tongue.

Cincos Euros por jugo naranja. Es increible,” I tell her.

Por que?” she asks, instantly putting me on the spot.

Es mucho, es, um, no se describir.”

She laughs. “Caro.”

Si, si. That’s what I meant to say,” I tell her, unconsciously switching back to English.

She politely smiles and walks away. I want to go crawl in a hole and punch my leg. If it wasn’t for sandy beaches, the magnificent sea, and a chance to do something unique, I’d Uber back to the Airbnb and escape my sorrows by listening to YouTube in front of a fan that keeps my sanity in check.

After an afternoon of jumping off cliffs and floating in the sea, my sense of failure has been mitigated by joy. It’s time to head back and invade the local grocery store.

***

I wake up the next morning prepared to maximize each moment of my last day in Spain. There are a few stumbling drunks left over from the night before, but other than that the streets are clear as I walk two miles to meet a woman named Anna.

She charges me 70 Euros to show me a part of Barcelona I’ve “never seen before.” It’s ten minutes into the ride and already I’m profusely perspiring as we ascend the side of a mountain. Soon the road turns to gravel and I no longer am sure what I signed up for.

“You like mountain bike riding, yes?” she asks.

“I’ve never mountain biked before in my life,” I tell her while we break.

“I thought Jana told me you did a lot of biking,” Anna questions.

“I have,” I say, “but that was on roads and for long distances. I’m not used to this terrain.”

“I can tell. This type of riding is very technical.”

Frustration creeps in as I agonize over the miscommunication that’s taken place. I imagined today to be filled with a relaxing cruise around the countryside, maybe a nice lunch at a local restaurant that doesn’t cater to tourists.

Instead, I’m ramming my lumbar into overdrive trying to avoid massive rocks all along a path that would be more scenic if I were on foot.

“Do you know Spanish?” she asks when we later sit down for lunch.

Un poco,” I reply, and my ego takes a hit when she’s not impressed by my response.

This is getting to be too much. Ever since I’ve been here, it’s been a race to show the few people I meet that I’m not a total schlub and am able to speak bits of their language.

There are no trophies for making an effort, but I’m trying so hard to prove that I’m ambitious, that sometimes I’m willing to bite off more than I can chew in the name of emotional development.

Michael Lane said something the other week that made a lot of sense: “Credit is given when credit is due.” To this point, in all aspects of life, I haven’t earned anything. Being in Spain has shown me that I’m living too fast, too in a hurry to prove that as a writer I have a marketable talent. It must be the shortcoming of youth, this overwhelming desire to attempt to expedite the process of personal evolution.

At times I’m capable of letting life come naturally, unaffected by social or internal pressures to be better tomorrow than I am today. Then some days I convince myself that I’m not good enough, that I’d be best served to retire from trying and go throw job applications out on Indeed until one lands. It’s sad how seriously I take life sometimes.

After the grueling ride back, Anna and I walk to the ATM. “You sure you don’t want me to walk you to the subway?” she asks, and I can’t tell if this is flirting or social nicety.

Either way, it doesn’t matter. This is the benefit of getting older, fleeting attractions coming and going without a longing for something more. There’s a new challenge in front of me: Paris. From what I was told by a Canadian in London, the Parisians don’t take kindly to Americans. I started this journey breaking past my fear of the unknown, the results proving extremely favorable. Might as well fuel up once more.

***

A quick word from this post’s sponsor: 

Interested in buying or selling a home? RE/MAX agent James Eason can help with all your real estate needs.

Get in touch with him today by clicking on this link!

 

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