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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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!

Makin’ Frands

I keep returning to the pub that I visited on my disastrous first day in Spain, and it’s become one of my favorite places! I’ve met a good number of regulars, so it’s great for Spanish conversation practice, and the waiters are always very generous, giving me an inordinate amount of free food every time I come by and criminally undercharging me for drinks. Often, I end up staying for hours, talking to the waiters and listening to the loud, slangy Spanish being shouted around the bar. 

“Helen, I want you to meet my wife,” said Ángel — a large, fit dude from the Dominican Republic, the kind of guy who would be intimidating if he didn’t smile so much — one evening as he worked as the bartender, filling up cañas, little glasses of beer. He gestured for his wife, who was sitting at the opposite end of the bar, to join us. “She works in the kitchen. Carmen, this is Helen, from the United States,” he said.

Carmen and I gave each other two kisses, a greeting I was still getting accustomed to. I liked her immediately — she was stylish, beautiful, and extremely friendly, like everybody in Spain. 

We made a good pair, and the next day we ended up spending the whole evening together, walking around the mall and killing time at bars, eventually returning to the pub while Ángel finished closing up for the night. By that point, it was nearly midnight and I was absolutely exhausted — my brain refused to speak another word of Spanish — but Carmen was more than willing to speak for me.

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 I wonder which one of these girls has cataplexy???

“Helen, estás haciendo amigos!” Ruben exclaimed when he saw me enter the pub with Carmen. He switched to pidgin English for my benefit. “Makin’ frands!”

“She does speak Spanish, you know,” Carmen told the waiters as they finished cleaning the pub, sweeping the floor and rearranging chairs. I could feel my head starting to bob a bit, and Carmen grabbed my hand reassuringly. “Earlier we were talking perfectly, but I think she’s tired now!”

“She’s going to get a strange accent if she learns Spanish from you and Ángel,” said José, a regular and a friend of Carmen’s. Leaning towards me, he introduced himself in the Spanish way — with dos besos and flattery. “Look at those eyes. Guapísima, joder.”

“Really, though,” he said to Ángel. “She’s gonna start talking like a cross between a madrileña and a South American, don’t you think?”

“I’m Caribbean, coño!” Ángel said. “There’s a difference!”

“We should do something next weekend, do you want to go to el centro? Or to Segovia?” Carmen asked. “Helen hasn’t travelled at all yet.”

The rest of the night passed in a blur of rapid Spanish — I was having a hard enough time staying awake and upright in my chair, I didn’t have the mental resources to dedicate to interacting in a foreign language — but in the end, it was decided: Carmen, Ángel, José and I would go to Segovia.

And the next weekend, we went!

Happy Bird Day!

A week after arriving in Alcorcón, I turned twenty-two.

I still was settling in, so I didn’t have anybody to celebrate with, but it was still kind of cool to walk around town that day knowing that it was my birthday and that nobody had any idea.

Eventually, I decided that my birthday shouldn’t pass by completely unnoticed, so I went back to the pub with the nice waiters to grab a celebratory birthday coffee.

The Andalusian waitress, let’s call her Mari, was alternating between smoking a cigarette and working the patio. She greeted me with a friendly “Hola, guapa! Sit wherever you’d like!” Then, turning towards the bar, she yelled in her rapid, barely-comprehensible (to my ears) accent, “I need a café con leche for the girl! And don’t forget a glass of water!” 

I smiled. The last time I was at the pub, I had gotten a glass of water with my coffee so that I could stealthily take my meds. I guess Mari had assumed that having a coffee and a water was just my thing, and even though I didn’t need the water this time, it was touching that she had remembered!

I wanted to say, “You remember me!”, but I hesitated. I knew all the words, I knew the grammar, but putting it all together… It wasn’t difficult, but I doubted myself! What if I had gotten it totally wrong? What if it didn’t make sense? Or, worst of all, what if I said it right, but my accent was so thick that she couldn’t understand?

So, instead of trying a new sentence, I just smiled and said “Thank you.”

A few minutes later, Mari brought the coffee to my table and I screwed up my courage and gestured for her to come closer. “What’s up?” she said, leaning in.

“Um,” I said, suddenly nervous about speaking. “Today’s my birthday.”

“Ay!” she yelled, excited, and kissed both my cheeks. “Congratulations! How old are you?”

“Uh, take a guess,” I said, not sure if I had phrased that right. 

“You want me to guess?” she said. “Alright, um, twenty-three? No, that’s too old, isn’t it?”

“Twenty-two,” I said, grinning

“So young!” she said. “Jovencita! And you’re here in Spain all by yourself? Totally alone?” I nodded and she swore, using a phrase that I will not repeat here. “Brave girl.”

She went back over to the bar and, leaning inside, said something to the waiter working the bar — the nice waiter who gave me all that food on my first day — and they both returned to my table. 

“Helen!” the waiter (let’s call him Ruben) said, hitting the ‘H’ way too hard. “It’s your birthday? Congratulations! Do you want a shot?” He mimed taking a drink, in case I hadn’t understood.

“Uh,” I said. I hoped that they didn’t think I had told them about my birthday just to get something for free, but I didn’t know how to express that. “Um… Yeah, sure! Thank you!”

Ruben returned a few minutes later, balancing three shot glasses, filled with creamy liquor, on a silver tray. Mari joined him, and they clinked their little shot glasses against mine. “Felicidades!” Mari said.

“No, congratulations,” Ruben said in English, correcting her. His accent was so thick that it sounded like he had never needed to speak English before this very moment.

Happy bird day to joo,” Mari told me in English, one-upping Ruben, and we all drank. 

After I finished my coffee, I said goodbye to Mari and Ruben, returned to my newly-rented piso, and spent the rest of the night relaxing, thinking that maybe I had made myself some Spanish waiter friends.

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.

Lost in Translation, Tinder Edition

Since arriving in Spain, I have spoken exclusively Spanish. Spanish is not my first language, so I have made a lot of mistakes. 

I have accidentally asked my Airbnb host if he was gay (I was trying to ask if he understood me. I have since learned that “Do you understand?” can also mean “Are you gay?” (Side note: He is, in fact, gay)).

I have also taken offense at my flatmate for saying that it’s a horrible shame that my dad’s side of the family is Polish (she was actually saying that it’s a great coincidence. My bad, Alti!).

But there is one mistake that tops the list so far.

Full disclosure: I have downloaded Tinder in the hopes of practicing my Spanish conversation skills via texts with Spanish natives. Obviously Tinder is the most shallow thing ever, and I had my reservations about downloading it because I do not want to be a shallow person, but fellow expats in Spain have recommended using it to improve your conversational Spanish skills. Over here, Tinder is used as a way to meet and talk to new people, and not necessarily as a dating app. Cultural differences, I guess!

(NB: MOM STOP FREAKING OUT TINDER IS NOT A HOOKUP APP OVER HERE. YOU CAN USE IT TO JUST CHAT.) 

Getting Tinder was by and large a good idea, seeing as it has given me plenty of opportunities to make small talk in Spanish, and I have not yet met any creepers or been propositioned. Actually, nobody’s even flirted with me. It’s all been astonishingly respectful.

(NB: IN CASE THIS WASN’T CLEAR, I AM NOT USING TINDER AS A HOOKUP APP. CULTURAL DIFFERENCES, MOM!)

Unfortunately for me, yesterday one of my small talk Tinder buddies told me that he has just graduated from college. The phrase he used was “terminar la carrera”, “to finish a degree”. Sadly, I assumed that “carrera” meant career, because that makes sense, okay, and that he was telling me he just got fired. My response, roughly translated, was, “I’m so sorry to hear that. It’s such a shame you went to college. I hope you get a different degree soon.”

The next time I went on Tinder, he had blocked me. Beautiful Tinder-based friendship over.

On the bright side, at least I won’t make that mistake again!