FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS
8. I’m SO sorry- he’s not from Barcelona
Catalan had been a hobby-horse for a while, and I leapt at the chance of turning it into a Grand National winner. Well, a Special Subject in 20th Century Literature in my Final Exams, to be marked by the language assistant. So I’ll settle for: a kind of domesticated stallion. It was also one of those languages that tourists in Edinburgh and Oxford expected you not to understand when they were speaking it to each other, sharing their intimate feelings about fun, constipation, and how to make cava. Until they met you, and realised you spoke it. Then they spoke it and quite relentlessly did expect you to understand them.
So at the end of my first year, I used a college bursary to attend two courses in Barcelona: a Catalan course (on which I improved my Spanish, the mother tongue of all my classmates) and a Spanish course (on which I learnt some Japanese, and the lengths to which bearded middle-aged Germans will go to try and sit on the teacher’s lap).
The beard laws in Spain have changed since then, of course. It was partly Helmut’s beard that made him look middle-aged in the eyes of the rest of us. But for Spanish men under 35, ironically, a beard is now a mandatory legal requirement. You’re not allowed to leave the country without one, especially if you’re moving to Kreuzberg, Berlin. And let’s face it, most of them are.
But Helmut was moving in the opposite direction. Recently divorced, he had decided that Spaniards were spontaneous, noisy and tactile, and that therefore his future lay in Barcelona, a place where he could be himself, and let his inner Latin temperament, and indeed hands, run free- interrupting the teacher with smut, sharing too much information with his classmates, and trying to make lavatorial jokes in a language he barely mastered.
Registering for the Catalan course was a daunting bureaucratic procedure for a foreigner. It didn’t occur to me not to use the language to explain my peculiar circumstances to the secretary, so the upside was, when we were finished, she told me I had been excused the evaluation test and could go straight into the top stream.
This meant my classmates were all Spaniards, generally not linguists, who’d been living in Catalonia for a few years, and needed a certificate for some reason, often professional. Everything seemed to revolve around certificates. We had to turn up, we had to hand in projects, but we didn’t really have to speak or understand the language, except to avoid embarrassment in the social interaction sessions.
I sensed these were much easier for my classmates than for me- after all, they didn’t only have about 10 years more life experience than me, they had also had the cultural experience of living in Spain, and Catalonia, which gave them immense common ground. They all invariably spoke Spanish amongst themselves, and with me, in the breaks and at after-class tapas, but could switch between the two languages to describe common realities. If they sometimes slipped into Spanish, the teacher knew what they were trying to say, because not only was she bilingual in their mother tongue, but they were inhabitants of the same city, she was on their wavelength. To say I didn’t quite fit in would be putting it mildly. Each week we would be asked to tell a story about something that had happened to us, and whenever I started speaking, I could tell that they didn’t believe a word. A strange expression would come over their faces, and they would exchange glances. Life in England, especially Oxford, was too far-fetched for them, and the only local anecdote I had was that I had got locked in a nightclub toilet on a beach, and had to climb out over the top of the door, which I relayed as best I could i.e. in slightly archaic and literary language.
In everyday life, I felt I was approaching fluency, but was just not quite on the same wavelength there either. It often turned out I’d said something perfectly correctly, it was just that nobody could imagine that that was what I’d been trying to say. The same thing also happened in reverse.
When the lift in my host family’s apartment block was out of order, I passed a lady on the stairs and greeted her.
“Are you Catalan?”
“No, I’m English.”
“Ah, you said good day very nicely.”
She was approximately half my height, plump, and had a twinkle in her eye.
“The English are very bad, aren’t they? Very bad.”
She then seemed to give a sort of karate kick and spin around. I began to fear for my safety, and peered nervously down the lift shaft.
“Except for one,” she said, waggling a finger. “Just the one.” She kicked an imaginary ball of socks up the lift shaft.
Perhaps the exception was me, because I could say “bon dia”. I started to relax.
She seemed to be waiting for a contribution from my side. She willed me to speak.
My lips didn’t move. I froze again.
She fixed me in the eye for a few seconds and then let rip, as if exasperated.
“Leen ache HAIR!” she said, in what sounded exactly like accented English.
“Leen ache HAIR!”
Somehow inspiration came.
“Yes,” I said, “Gary Lineker is the only decent player.”
That lesson would later be helpful to me as an interpreter- whenever you haven’t the slightest clue what’s going on, it’s probably due to somebody’s assumption about the universality of association football. Thinking about it now, I could have learnt a more general life lesson too: when you sense that someone has sinister intentions, it’s probably just a reference to England being knocked out of a sporting event called the World Cup. “Sorry about the double Brexit ha ha ha” Germans had been saying to me inexplicably, and slightly offensively, all last summer.