Excursión to Madrid

Yesterday, I went with one of my classes to the National Museum of Archeology in Madrid.

On the bus ride there, I tried my best to stay awake and look at the ugly, flat scenery as we approached the city. As the roads narrowed and the traffic increased, Juanra, my best teacher friend, leaned over and told me we had about 15 minutes before arriving if I wanted to take a nap. He sees me every day and can tell, more than anyone, when I’m tired. I’m never sure what gives it away, because I always think that I’m being normal. My mom says you can see it in my eyes.

So I slept for a few minutes before we arrived at the museum. Juanra’s voice woke me up, and he apologized for waking me, but it didn’t matter because I felt slightly better.

At the museum, I was in charge of keeping the 12-year-olds from

1) touching the priceless artifacts

2) taking pictures of the genitals on the statues, and

3) running away.

I was only marginally successful at all of this.

I tried to pay attention as the teacher I was helping talked about the different exhibits, but even though the words entered my brain, they wouldn’t stay there. I listened to everything as best I could, but it was like I breathed the words in and out, like oxygen, and I couldn’t tell you a single thing he said.

We saw a cast of Lucy’s skeleton and statues from the ancient Greeks, and Egyptian sarcophaguses. In the Egypt exhibit, I turned around and suddenly all the wooden floors and all the hallways were slanting towards me, like I was at the bottom of a pit. A group of teenagers were coming towards me, walking down the steeply slanted hallway like it was a ramp, but they were huge, way bigger than any humans should be, and I stared at them because they were a strangely scary.

This isn’t real, I told myself. This is a dream. Museum hallways don’t have slanted floors. But I could still see the floors and they were very slanted. Think of all the museums you’ve been to. Weren’t they all completely flat? Museums don’t make uneven floors. This isn’t real.

My class was leaving the exhibit, walking up the floors, and I as I caught up with them I could feel under my shoes that the floor was flat, and in the next room things looked more normal.

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After the tour, I had a coffee in the museum cafeteria with Juanra and Esperanza, the young, beautiful, and extremely kind philosophy teacher, while the students ate outside in the rain. It’s the first year for all three of us at our school, so Juanra and Esperanza chatted about their classes and their impressions of the institute, while I listened. It’s very hard to talk these days, in both English and Spanish, so usually I prefer not to try.

Juanra said he was a disaster in the classroom, which isn’t true, and I know because I have class every day with him, and I wanted to say something but the thought of opening my mouth was overwhelming, so I kept quiet. I felt guilty, listening to Juanra speak freely to Esperanza in Spanish — we generally speak only in English, which is his second language, and it’s not as easy for him to express himself with precision.

I’d like to speak in Spanish, but my brain works so slowly. It’s hard to string together a sentence in English, let alone Spanish, and I’m sick of feeling humiliated when people hear my pauses and stuttering and assume that my level of Spanish is quite low. In reality, podría hablar fácilmente el español, si tan solo pudiese pensar con claridad y tener el cerebro que tenía antes.

So for the sake of my pride, I stick to English with Juanra, and miss out on hearing his unfettered thoughts.

At one point, Esperanza became very worried that my level of Spanish comprehension was quite low, since I wasn’t talking, and she had been speaking Spanish to me all day. I had to assure her that I understood everything — which is true — and that I prefer to just listen — which is not true, it’s not a preference, it’s a necessity. 

On the bus ride back to Alcorcón, I fell asleep, but this time I felt worse off when I woke up. When we arrived at school, I stumbled to the bathroom to take more medication, but it didn’t help, and when it was time for me to go home I found myself suddenly in the staff room, trying to leave, but I would blink and find that I had stopped moving after only a few steps, over and over, and I was very confused.

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How to Speak Spanish Like a Native

You’ve probably figured out by now that truly mastering a second language is difficult. It takes time, patience, and dedication.

However, if you ever visit Spain and want to blend in flawlessly without the hassle of actually learning Spanish, you really only need to know five phrases. With these up your sleeve, you’ll be able to have a typical Spanish conversation without a single problem! Nobody will ever guess that you’re a guiri (that’s Spain Spanish for ‘gringo’)!

The Only Five Phrases You’ll Ever Need:

Buenas: Only guiris say ‘hola’. Whenever you greet somebody, say ‘buenas’, as in buenas tardes or buenas noches (if it’s the morning, you can say ‘buenos’, short for buenos días, but let’s be real, you’re not getting up that early anyway).

¿Que tal?: Forget ‘Como estás’, that’s not what Spaniards say. You can ask about pretty much anything using ‘Que tal’, which is useful if you’re not in the mood to form actual sentences. ¿Que tal tu dia? ¿Que tal te va? ¿Que tal el trabajo? So native!

Vale: Want to reassure the locals that you’re following them, even though you really haven’t understood a thing? ‘Vale’ is the phrase for you! It means something like ‘Okay’, ‘Right’, or ‘I get it’, and you can say it literally whenever you want. Try to develop a look of perfect comprehension when saying ‘Vale’, because chances are you have no idea what’s going on, but it hurts your pride to tell a native speaker that.

Joder: The f-bomb. Like ‘vale’, you can say this whenever you want, including in front of your students, without fear of using the word incorrectly. It’s always appropriate to say ‘Joder’.

Hasta luego: Don’t say ‘adios’, that’s what gringos do. You need to say ‘hasta luego’, see you later, even if chances are good that you will never see this person again. To REALLY blend in with the locals, try to drop as many letters from this phrase as you can until it becomes a nearly indecipherable ‘TAUEO’. Say this loudly and with confidence.

These five phrases make up probably 75% of the conversations I have here in Spain. Really, this is all you need to know!

Example Conversation:

Me: Buenas!

Friend: ¡Helen! Joder. ¿Que tal?

Me: Bien.

Friend: Vale.

Me: Vale, TAUEOOO

Friend: TAUEOOO

The Best Thing About Spaniards

I really, really love living in Spain. It’s wonderful — my only regret is that I can’t participate more fully in la vida española (thanks, narcolepsy). 

I know that it’s not good to make generalizations about an entire country, blah blah blah, but since day one I’ve been constantly struck by how generous Spaniards are. They give things away without a second thought, and without my asking for anything!

Here is a sampling of the things I’ve been given during my two months here in Spain:

-An absurd amount of free food, drinks and coffee for no reason;

-It was drizzling one day when I went to the bar, and one of my waiter friends disappeared briefly and returned with a fancy umbrella of unknown origin, insisting I keep it;

-Juanra, my favorite teacher, gives me plums, bread and, most recently, a map of Lisbon, Portugal, where he visited on a weekend trip;

-In Segovia, not only did my friends pay for my cochinillo, but one of them also bought me a piglet-shaped magnet/bottle opener as a souvenir;

-Today, I visited the bar, and one of the regulars, a young-ish dude with wild dark hair and bright blue eyes, produced a potted plant out of nowhere and gave it to me as a gift. I thought it was a joke, but he insisted that I keep it. IMG_1549

Thank you, bar regular!

Cultural Differences: Hola, Guapa!

In case I haven’t made this clear already, everything in Spain is different. Usually, this is kind of cool and exciting and overwhelming all at once, but sometimes it’s just strange.

One of the things that’s been super weird is the fact that Spaniards love to make comments about your appearance. The way you look is a topic that is plenty open for discussion (just like the question “How much money do you make?” and “How many boyfriends have you had?”. But I digress).

If Spaniards think you’re pretty, you’ll know it, and you’ll know it multiple times a day, because everywhere you go there will be somebody who says “guapa” to you before resuming the conversation they’re having with their friends.

It’s not just a creepy middle-aged dude thing, either — I’ve gotten the “guapa” comment from old women and girls my age. It’s not really sexual harassment, either, the way it would be in the States. It’s just a stranger making an unsolicited comment about your appearance. You know, totally normal, acceptable behavior. (Uh…)

At this point, a trip to the grocery store wouldn’t feel complete without passing a couple of old men who mutter “Que guapa”. Entering a classroom without hearing the girls squeal “Guapaaa!” would make me feel like I’m losing my touch.

The only time I’ve every really felt uncomfortable about being “guapa” was when I was introducing myself to one of my classes. I asked if anybody had questions for me, and one 13-year-old boy raised his hand and said, “My question. How is it that you are so pretty?”

I was so taken aback by how blatantly inappropriate this was that I responded by looking at the floor until Juanra, the teacher I was working with, restored order in the classroom. In what world is it okay for a student to make comments like that about a teacher?! When in Spain, I guess…

Me llamo… Helen?

A few days after my arrival in Alcorcón, I went back to the restaurant with the nice waiters who had taken pity on me during my overwhelming first day here. I’d adjusted to life in Alcorcón, somewhat, and I was able to recognize that while I had originally thought that they worked at a ‘fancy restaurant’, in reality it was just a pub that had a patio, not upscale at all.

The red-haired waitress was taking orders outside, on the patio, and she remembered me. “Hola, guapa!” she called in her thick Andalusian accent. “Sit down, wherever you’d like!” She ran inside the bar and returned with the waiter who had brought me free food.

“Do you have money this time?” he asked good-naturedly. I pulled out my wallet, embarrassed, offering to pay him for the other day, but he waved me off. “No, no, don’t worry about it. That was on us.” The red-haired girl nodded and brought me a café con leche without my even having to ask for it. 

I was so excited to see both of them that I felt a familiar heaviness at the back of my neck, rushing in waves down my spine and through my limbs. No, not now. You can’t have an attack in front of them. My face twitched from the effort it took to fight the cataplexy, and I wanted to get up and leave without finishing my coffee. I wanted to lock myself in my room where nobody could see me.

The free-food waiter came over to where I sat on the patio. “What’s your name?” he asked me.

“Elaine,” I said, trying to pronounce it with short Spanish vowels, Elén, and trying to keep my voice steady. Don’t have cataplexy. Come on.

Helen,” the waiter said, pronouncing the ‘H’ like a Castilian ‘J’ — from the back of his throat, strong, as if he was trying to cough something up.

“Elaine,” I said, trying to be more clear.

“Yes, Helen! In Spanish, though, you would be Elena.”

“I don’t feel much like an Elena,” I told him. “It doesn’t fit me.”

“We will call you Helen, then,” he said, still hitting the ‘H’ much harder than an English speaker would have. “It’s nice to meet you, Helen.” And with that, he returned to the bar where the other waiters were standing. They all leaned towards him as he spoke, glancing at me, and I was sure that he was telling them what we had just talked about.

I couldn’t see right, the patio looked blurry and unreal. I needed to go have cataplexy. I stood up, walking quickly and guiltily past the waiters, like I was trying to hide that I was drunk or on drugs or something. Act normal. Act normal. Do I look normal? Can they tell something’s wrong?

I made it to the bar’s bathroom, fumbled with the lock, and collapsed onto the less-than-clean bathroom floor. Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax. I was learning how to handle cataplexy. The moment of complete surrender was beginning to come as a relief, the fact that I didn’t have to fight it anymore, that I could give in — surrendering felt good. And of course, when my eyes opened, I felt worlds better than I had coming into the bathroom.

When I stepped back onto the patio, the waiters greeted me with “Helen!” I was right — he had told them my name, or what he thought was my name.

I didn’t know it at the time, but ‘Helen’ would quickly become my actual name here in Spain. I’ve been here for nearly a month now, and every single person I’ve introduced myself to has, without exception, misinterpreted ‘Elaine’ as ‘Helen’, adding a strong Spanish ‘H’ to the beginning of my name. I’ve tried to correct them — ‘Elaine’ doesn’t even have an ‘H’ sound! —  but ‘Helen’ has stuck. It’s growing on me a bit, and the horrible strong ‘H’ is actually kind of endearing. So, if we meet in Spain, I guess you can call me Helen.

Rain, Dog Poop, Coffee: Arrival in Alcorcón

(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!

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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.