Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Crossing the language barrier

I didn't think that much about language issues when planning our trip to Spain until a friend asked me a few days before we left 'So, do either of you actually speak any Spanish?' 'No' I replied, still not giving it much thought. I'd been to Spain twice before, and to the Canary Islands several times and had always got by with a meagre Ola and the odd Por Favor. And Mr Traveller can speak near on fluent French, and can do a wicked Spanish impersonation. And, well, Spain shares a border with France, and they sound kind of similar, so um, we should be fine. Then she reminded me of the story another friend had told us, about her time travelling in South America when she tried to buy a torch, and became the spectacle of the store when it turned out that she was asking, repeatedly, for the Olympic flame. And she too was fluent in French, in fact her husband, who she was travelling with at the time, is half French, so that whole close proximity and sounding similar to my naive ear thing, well, clearly it doesn't stand the test. But still, for some unknown and slightly odd reason, I heard what she was saying, but the alarm bells did not ring.

Maybe my mind was still relatively absorbed with my Gran. Maybe I had been assuming that terribly ignorant and unattractive trait that the British are famous for, believing that everyone should speak English. Maybe it's been way too long since I visited a non-English speaking country, after years of living in Australia and America, and using up our major holidays on trips to visit friends and family back in England, or else exploring said countries (plus the odd trip to New Zealand, where lo and behold, they speak English) and I had just forgotten what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land. 

We were in Korea only 4 months ago; we weren't just the only non-Korean speakers, but also the only Caucasians, to the point that the Littlest Hobo became a novelty spectacle wherever we went. But I didn't feel so much of a fish out of water as I did yesterday morning, when I wandered around San Sebastian desperately seeking contact lens fluid, clutching my trusty iPhone with google translate app all set up and ready to go. I didn't feel as embarrassed as I did when i pulled open the lift door today and nearly knocked my neighbour flat, but I couldn't think of the Spanish word for sorry. We actually gave up on having dinner out tonight, and headed back to the apartment to reheat left-overs from yesterday, despite the fact that it's my birthday today, because it all seemed a bit too difficult trying to order allergy friendly food for the littlest Hobo when we couldn't read the menu and would have to rely on good old google translate to tell the waiter/waitress what our constraints were.  

We're considering ditching Spain and taking a slower meander through France, mainly because we've learnt from earlier trips that less is more and taking it at toddler pace is an absolute must, but also because we can speak the language. 

At least sorbet is sorbet everywhere... I think.

It's not that we're having a terrible time - we're having a fantastic time actually; we're revelling in each others company, doing everything we want to do (with the exception of dinner tonight, which, in fairness probably also had a lot to do with having been out for hours and hours and feeling ready to flop in our pj's), stuffing our faces with delectable tapas, and San Sebastian is an amazing city - it's romantic, full of history, a gastronomic delight, superbly toddler friendly, and moderately warm for mid November in the Northern hemisphere. I was delighted this evening, when we walked into the bakery and the Littlest Hobo chanted Ola with the rest of us without a second thought, but that's only one very small step. But I think, if I'm truly honest, we are a little embarrassed by our naivety, by our lack of preparation and ignorance that makes me feel somewhat green around the gills at this travel business, when in reality it's something that we've been doing for years, just by a different name, because it wasn't a permanent, everyday state. I feel that we should have known better, and now it's too late to do much about it. Our best option is to tuck it under our wings as a lesson learnt for next time, and go and drown our embarrassment and celebrate our next challenge, whatever it may be, in a glass or two of Spain's finest Rioja. Ole!

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