28 January 2008

The Awful Spanish Language

Earlier this month, I returned to Barcelona, where, long after the demise of the Inquisition and the Caudillo, I ran smack against one of the enduring afflictions of the Iberian peninsula. The people there speak Spanish. This would be no problem to anyone if they confined the practice to the privacy of their homes, and did not subject tourists to it. But no, they are unreasonable and indiscriminate. They will speak Spanish to anyone. It is a compulsion with them.

And so I have discovered something innately pernicious and unfair about the Spanish language: I do not speak it. All over the world, millions of other people speak it perfectly, without ever having studied it any more than I have. Tiny children can speak it, at hair-raising speed and more or less grammatically. They were born into it, as I — a native Texan — was born into a Spanish-speaking culture. Then I spent two decades in another, New York City. I never studied Spanish. It seems unjust that I should have to.

After all, I have been requesting food and drink in Spanish since I was a boy, not from any desire to show off but from a desire not to starve. Español de cocina — kitchen Spanish — is a useful language with a long tradition of excellence, and it is accessible to most gringos, and more or less intelligible. Yet whenever I attempt to speak in a Spanish-speaking country, be it Spain or Cuba or the Dominican Republic, I pose an immediate threat to the safety of myself and of everyone within earshot.

And Spain is the worst. I am quite certain that no Spaniard, arriving in Nebraska, would be unable to find anyone at all with whom he could speak Spanish. Yet in Madrid, there is no one who speaks anything else. You might think that on the Talgo train from Paris, or someone at the information desk at Chamartín Station, the train’s terminus, there’d be someone who spoke French; you might think that at the painfully chic Thyssen-Bornemisza art museum, there’d be someone who spoke English. Or French. Or German. Or Italian. But you would be, as the gringos say, el wrong-o.

In unimportant matters, I have no problems with the language. My ability to read and comprehend lengthy disquisitions in Spanish museums, from guided tours to the texts that explain individual paintings, is staggering. I can even understand what Fidel Castro says about foreign policy, when I can stay awake. But none of this will ever get me fed.

Foreign travel makes children of us all: we cannot communicate like grownups. The simplest and most necessary activities become difficult, even perilous. We cannot proceed without assistance; we rely on kindly adults to take pity, and not to take our purses.

Spanish cuisine features several of my favorite delicacies, readily available (to Spanish speakers) in tapas bars. Vinegary boquerones, fillets of anchovy; jamón Serrano, tangy slices of aged ham, sliced in front of you from the leg of an ill-fated pig; pan tomate, thick slices of bread rubbed with olive oil, garlic, and tomato; pulpos, little octopi; morcilla, a blood sausage that doesn’t resemble the French boudin noir at all; and albóndigas, little meatballs. At other restaurants, there’s sure to be paella valenciana, which is no longer available in Valencia, because they have sent such great quantities of it everywhere else in Spain. Please note that I know the names for all of these things. I can even spell them, after a fashion.

And yet when required to do so, I can’t speak. My tongue becomes a Gordian knot. With a large, cast-iron weight attached at one end. I halt and freeze, I stammer and babble. In the desire to communicate, I panic and grab at any foreign word that comes to mind. In Madrid, anything other than Spanish proved useless: even my attempts at Italian were considered cute but worthless, as if I were a dog who’d learned to walk on its hind legs and then decided to run for president. Resorting to even more remote foreign languages proved altogether counterproductive. If you say in Russian, “Mne nado” (I need), you won’t get what you need. You’ll get nada.

Even when I did come up with the right Spanish words at the right time, and managed an approximation of the Madrileño accent, I seldom got what I asked for. No matter what I asked for, I received a dish of mushrooms. The word for this is champiñones. I know this. It is not what I said. It is nothing like what I said. But it’s what I got — and what I got charged for.

It got to the point that I didn’t dare enter into a tapas bar. The press of customers at the bar meant that I’d have to shout to be heard — and heaven forbid that someone might answer me.

One night in Madrid, unable to survive longer without eating, I found a working-class bar in a deserted, darkened street. The padrón didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand him. But he and his wife gave me something to eat, and a glass of wine. Whether they did so from instinct or from charity, I can’t say. Certainly the other customers were disheveled and not terribly clean, puffing away on tarry black cigarettes and staring wordlessly at the television. But they were amiable, and they made room for me at the bar. They were watching the end of a soccer match.

With difficulty, I listened to the play-by-play, which permitted me to establish, with reasonable certainty, that the match was about two different groups of men, from different towns, who were engaged in a dispute over a ball.

The conclusion of the match provoked some furious spitting on the floor and what I presumed to be cursing, although they might have been reciting romantic poetry from the Golden Age, for all I know. After this, they turned to a Jackie Chan movie.

The movie was dubbed into Spanish, but there was hardly any dialogue, and you need only watch to appreciate Chan’s balletic stunts, worthy of Buster Keaton, his idol (and mine). Soon enough, we were all laughing together, united without language. I finished my meal, but I stayed to the end of the movie. Seldom have I had a better time.

Barcelona is a more sophisticated place. After decades of brutal suppression under Franco, who wanted to turn Catalonia, Spain’s only industrialized region, into a primitive backwater, the Barcelonans are determined to prove, once and for all, that their city is a world capital. Great numbers of them speak English and French, they are patient with foreigners’ attempts to speak Spanish, and they politely overlook anyone’s misguided attempts to speak Catalan.

I threw myself at their mercy. I prefaced every conversation with this phrase: “Lo siento mucho, pero hablo muy mal español.” I had discovered that in Madrid the phrase earned me lots of indulgent smiles, and perhaps best of all, it can be said with a Tex-Mex accent. The Barcelonans liked hearing it, too.

By the third day, several Barcelonans surpassed the limits of ordinary hospitality and insisted that I spoke Spanish very well. Obviously these people were todos locos, and I was lucky to get away from them.

But the mushrooms were delicious.