So here we were, a family of four plus our little dog Skyla, embarking on our new life in Madrid. I will admit right now that I didn’t speak Spanish. My kids were quite good but not bilingual whilst my husband Leo, being a Mexican educated in England and having lived all over the world, was perfectly bilingual and perfectly adaptable.
Leo can slot right in anywhere with everyone, like Cinderella’s foot into the glass slipper – “Your husband, he is just like my nephew!” people exclaimed excitedly wherever we travelled. “What a great husband you have! Just like a member of my own family!” Yes, Leo was the universal son. And me, what sort of response did I get? This story will give you an idea – when Leo first took me to Mexico, we stayed in Playa Del Carmen. We were having breakfast when I called over to the waiter, “Excuse me please, would it be possible to have a cup of tea?” “I’m sorry” the waiter replied, “I don’t speak German.” German? What? When did I start speaking German? My husband repeated the question, again in English, “Ah, a tea, you want a cup of tea, why didn’t you tell me?” I couldn’t believe it. How did that happen? It made us laugh but summed up my situation- I’m misunderstood the world over! How on earth was I going to get by in Madrid?
I had hoped that the Spanish would speak English, just like they do at those coastal resorts full of Brits but no, in Madrid they do not. They speak Spanish, as they should. Wishful thinking wasn’t going to get me anywhere!
So there was Leo, with his perfect spanish and adaptable ways, going off to work happily and there was me, with no Spanish and less adaptable ways, left to set up our new life. All the normal things you take for granted were suddenly achingly difficult. School, shopping, calling for a taxi (that was hellish – would it turn up on time, on the right day even) navigating my way around the city – it was like climbing a mountain. Spontaneous chat left my life abruptly, to be replaced with weird one minute dialogues and lots of wild arm gestures.
One instance brought the perils of my poor language skills acutely into focus. I had to ask a shop assistant for a replacement toilet seat. I was sure I was using the right words in the right place and I combined them with lots of gestures to make it clearer. She looked at me uncertainly, so I made the gestures more explicit. Her face moved from concern to alarm and I found her hastily guiding me to the bathroom, believing she was averting a brewing disaster!
Yes, not knowing the language of the country you have chosen to live in can prove to be not just difficult, but also humiliating! The kids teased me endlessly, laughing at my accent and incompetence – “Mummy, your Spanish is the same as a toddler!” Thanks kids.
My son, realising the situation was dire and that his mother boss was no longer in control, became our spokesperson. He chatted with taxi drivers, asked for directions and basically took charge – he was not yet eight! My daughter, aged 9, became my calm confidente and navigator and even my dog seemed to sense the new hierarchy and took to steering me in the right direction. Suddenly I was taking a back seat in my own life – suddenly I was being guided by my dependants! The world had just turned upside down – would it ever be the same again?
Pic: Street scene, Chueca, Madrid