The waitress gazed at us in bafflement. All she wanted to do was to take our order. We became more and more frustrated and slightly hysterical at our inability to explain that we’d only given our order (‘café solo e café con leche’ – we could cope with that) about a minute ago to her colleague. Sadly, he wasn’t in view, so we couldn’t point him out.
We were in Catalonia visiting our daughter for the weekend, and we couldn’t wait for her to join us in the bar. When she arrived, she smoothly took over, explained the tapas menu to us, and gave our order to el patron. He complimented her on her Spanish, but then spoilt it by wondering if she were Belgian.
She’s already had an interesting few months as a language assistant in a Catalan primary school. She’s more likely to hear Catalan, but Spanish is common too, and this is the language she’s keen to learn. The family she’s currently living with speaks Catalan, Spanish, German and English – even occasionally French – round the dinner table, but she claims this as a positive and helpful experience, probably because they all correct each other.
We found it difficult and frustrating being in Spain with only the most rudimentary language tools. Any efforts on our part to communicate in Spanish or Catalan were greeted with friendliness and enthusiasm by the locals. We battled to be understood, they battled to understand, and laughter at each other’s efforts broke down lots of barriers. Still, we can’t go on like this. We want to make an effort to learn a little more of the language before we visit Emily next.
How do people who come to live in Spain (or France come to that) cope if they don’t try to master the language? We know of people who’ve been here ten years or more and can still hardly communicate. If we found it hard booking a ten-journey train pass or telling the waitress we didn’t need her just then, how much worse would it have been if we’d been trying to contact a plumber, say, or the local town council?
And most of our best times here are spent sharing experiences – whether it’s a walk, an hour at the gym, or simply having a coffee together – with our French friends and neighbours. Unable at the moment to replicate those free and easy exchanges when we go to Spain makes us feel we’re missing out. Must Try Harder.