(NB: Since stepping off the plane, I have not had a single conversation in English. So just assume that all dialogue from here on out takes place in Spanish.)
The minute I arrived in Alcorcón, I had some problems.
I was staying with an Airbnb host, Juan, for a week, but once I arrived at his apartment complex, nobody was home!
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since I was two hours early, but I felt stumped. I had not anticipated this being a problem — I am never early for anything.
The guard at the apartment complex said sorry, he couldn’t let me in until Juan came, so I took my bags and started exploring Alcorcón. It was raining.
I ended up sitting on a bench in a nearby park — there’s lots of parks in Alcorcón. The parks are generally quite nice, but Alcorcón has a dog poop problem. There were poops everywhere. There were poops on the pathways in the park. It was a lot of poops.
I felt like an idiot, sitting outside in the rain, but there wasn’t anywhere else for me to go — all of the restaurants in the area looked somewhat fancy, and it was the siesta, too, so people were all dressed up and eating with friends at these nice restaurants in their nice work clothes (siesta means “long lunch break with pals” and not “nap” these days, turns out). I was by myself, still in my airplane clothes, and soaking wet, so it didn’t seem appropriate to seek shelter in a restaurant.
Instead, I sat on the park bench and tried not to cry. Everything was different, and I didn’t know what to do or where to go, and I felt like an idiot with all my luggage, and my pale skin and blonde hair screamed outsider, and I was certain I was going to do everything wrong. Why had I even come to Spain? Who does that? Nobody, because it’s a dumb idea.
After a while, I got depressed at the thought of spending two more hours in the rain with all my luggage and all the poops, so I decided I’d just go to a restaurant and accept that I looked like a wreck and that I’d stand out as behaving culturally inappropriately.
One of the restaurants in the area had a friendly-looking waiter about my age standing outside in the sheltered patio area, so I went up to him and asked, somewhat pathetically, “Do you sell coffee here? Could I please get a coffee and sit down?”
I must have looked terrible. I was soaking wet and tired from my flight, no makeup, all teary because I’d spent my first few hours in a foreign country in the rain, trying not to be overwhelmed. In short, not my best look.
But the waiter said of course I could sit down, and he got me a table on the covered patio, finally out of the rain!
He asked me how I’d like my coffee, and I didn’t know what to say — I hadn’t thought to brush up on my coffee lingo. “With milk?” he prompted, and I quickly agreed. I like coffee, and I like milk, so that seemed like a good combination.
I soon learned that café con leche is the drink in Spain — half espresso, half milk. It took about one sip of café con leche before I was hopelessly addicted. It was perfect!
The waiter checked up on me a few minutes later and said, “Feeling better already, huh?”, giving me a little pat on the back. This was the first of many times I would be touched affectionately by a complete stranger. “Are you studying here? On vacation?”
“No,” I said. “I’m… I just… um…”
That was when I realized that I didn’t know how to say “to move” in Spanish, as in, “I just moved here”.
“I live here now,” I said lamely. “As of two hours ago. The plane just landed.”
The waiter thought about this for a second and immediately went over to the bar area, where a peppy red-haired waitress was smoking, and told her everything I had just said. This became a theme — every time I talked to a waiter, whatever I said was immediately shared and analyzed among the rest of the staff.
“And you only speak a little Spanish,” the waiter said, coming back over to me. “What else do you speak?”
“English,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “I don’t know any English.”
Then he ran back over to the waitress and told her what I had just said, and they both watched me drink my coffee. This was quickly becoming annoying.
As I sat there, trying to breathe and relax, the waiter got me another coffee, and free food! First he brought out bread and cheese, then a Spanish omelette — tortilla — and then the most amazing meatballs I’ve ever had, covered in sauce and sitting on top of french fries.
I tried to tell the waiter that he was being too nice, and that I couldn’t eat all this food because I’d already had lunch, but he was very dismissive of that idea. “No, no, you can eat it, just eat it already, come on!” he said every time I tried to protest.
When it was time for me to pay, the waiter only charged me a single Euro — enough to pay for the first coffee.
But guess what?
Ugh, this is so cringe-worthy, I don’t even want to write about it, but — I had forgotten to withdraw cash at the airport.
I told the waiter that I knew it was dumb, but could I use a card to pay and to give him a tip? He took my card, but came back a minute later and told me that they didn’t accept foreign cards, and not to worry about it — it was all on the house!
I offered to come back later with cash to pay and to tip him, but he insisted, and as I thanked him and the red-haired waitress, I started to cry a little bit, I was so grateful. I had almost certainly done everything wrong, but they had been generous and hospitable anyway.
This was my first real interaction with the Spanish people, and since then I’ve only encountered more of the same — the astonishing kindness of strangers.