Thursday, July 2, 2015

Break down the language barrier for authentic travel

    “Could you speak a little slower, please? I didn’t get that.”
     Traveling can be a myth buster. I went to Spain with the false assumption that the majority of people in cosmopolitan cities spoke English.
     Apparently I hadn’t done my research, or I would have discovered that the Spanish are not particularly interested in the English language. They have their own language after all.
     I had made a valiant attempt over the winter to review Rosetta Stone lessons and thought I could communicate acceptably.
Folk dancing on Sundays in the square.
     It didn’t turn out as I anticipated, and I became aware of that at the airport. When leaving the terminal in Bilbao, my young driver couldn’t speak one word of English. I gave him the name and address of the hotel on a slip of paper, and I hoped for the best that we were heading to the inner city of the famed titanium Guggenheim Museum.
     When I am in a different country I never expect things to be the same as home. Why would I travel then?
     I always greet people, thank them and say good-bye in their native tongue. It’s a simple act of consideration that breaks down the language barrier, and it makes a statement about bringing the world a little closer one person at a time.
     A tall, regal dark-haired Barcelona shopkeeper and I carried on a conversation with our limited ability in each other's language.   
      When I first approached her in a tiny boutique and started speaking in English, she seemed a little flustered. She frowned, backed away, and told me between Spanish and a few English words sprinkled in for comfort that I would have to speak slowly.
     I think that she was afraid that I would leave her store, which I had no intention of doing. I had found a colorful scarf that I planned to purchase and didn’t need it gift-wrapped.
      Her penetrating eyes followed mine, listened intently and relaxed her smile as we connected in words and a lot of sign language.
     Spanish children learn the rudiments of English pretty much how I learned Spanish and French in school. I can do pretty well with vocabulary and simple phrases, but I lack in stringing sentences together. I simply don’t practice in real life situations.
      A high percentage of Spaniards with university degrees leave the country for job opportunities elsewhere, and unfortunately, Spain is suffering from a brain drain and a lagging economy.
     Often jobs depend upon English, though, like the position of attendant at the Delta check-in desk at the airport. Each employee rotates there on assignment strictly to improve English skills since tourism is Spain’s leading industry.
Only a few of the tapa selections in a bar in Bilbao.
     Once I dined like the Spanish at lunchtime, and took a 3-hour respite in a classic mid-century upstairs Bilbao restaurant. Most small shops close midday for a couple hours, and the evening meal is closer to my normal bedtime. I soaked up leisurely midday hours and stopped being in perpetual movement so often self-imposed while I am traveling. I learned a lot about my fellow dining companions through genuine unrushed conversation, and savored each course of the meal.
     The menu was in Spanish, the waitress couldn’t speak English and the chef was too hassled with cooking preparation. The group of us around the table wisely decided flexibility was going to see us through.
     We combined our limited language skills and ordered. We did rather well making selections ranging from paella, beef stew to red or white wine. No one ate a “surprise” dish. In fact, it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip.
     Dinner at nine o’clock in the evening is a stretch for a tired tourist, and that is where the pub-crawl by snacking on tapas and local wine is the best solution.
A Gaudi house 
     How proficient I became at glancing into to a bar, checking how many plates of tapas were on the counter as the way to determine if that would be a spot to stop, or move on.
     Once I entered, I pointed to what I wanted, and the morsels were placed on a plate. I saved the toothpicks for the count when I went to pay my bill.
     My favorite was a place that I kept returning like Boston’s “Cheers.” It was a gourmet feast steps from my hotel. Every night there were different selections — savory fresh tuna slices on buns, an olive assortment, beef in a seasoned sauce, anchovies and shrimp — piled high on platters. I never found a local wine that I didn’t appreciate, and the cost was reasonable.
     I sat surrounded by tired Spaniards stopping for a café or wine with tapas while connecting with a friend before rushing off home to prepare for the dinner hour. Once I observed two young moms taking a break with their babies fast asleep in their strollers.
    In a small rural village, Cuenca, I had a lunch with a young couple in the process of setting up a travel business hoping to entice American and European hikers to the area for guided day trips. They were computer savvy and knew all about social media. However, they both admitted that they were not proficient in English enough to achieve their goals quite yet.
     The last encounter that I had as I left the Barcelona airport was with a salesperson at the café stand. She helped me spend my remaining euro coins and talked about the weather. I almost got the drift of it, and nodded as I went on my way. Adios until the next visit.