On Belonging


DP just returned from our neighbourhood grocery store “Super Sol” with the news that he broke a 50 Euro note to pay for 7 euros worth of groceries and the cashier did not flip out. This is big news in our household. He said that he felt like Diane Lane must have felt at the end of “The Tuscan Sun” (the film version) when the old man finally smiles at her after leaving flowers in the vase near her home. What he meant, I think, was that this particular peaceful payment with a 50 has been a long time coming.

Super Sol would be considered, by North American standards, a small grocery store but in Barcelona, it is about as large a grocery store gets. There are three cash registers at the front of the store but the third is only open for about an hour a day when it is SUPER busy. All of the women who work at Super Sol suffer from congenital crankiness. (Please note, here, that I would be crankier than I have the power to describe if my job, for any extended period of time, involved ringing up people’s food items so I am making an observation more than a judgment). As I was saying, these women are wicked-unhappy, a fact I noted on my very first visit to the store… and immediately began to work my best Mexican Spanish mo-jo magic on them. This clever estrategia (strategy) was met with a variety of cashier responses; a couple of the women showed some degree of relief that my tiny North American brain had room for at least 12 Spanish words and that I was not one of those foreigners who spoke ENGLISH only … and LOUDLY!

Okay, I am going to confess here that I still do not get this particular language phenomenon. Do we not still assume that when we go to a FOREIGN country (and I think that’s the key right there… foreign) that not everyone will speak English? I get the global village metaphor… but the earth is actually an enormous planet peopled with billions of people who have absolutely no interest in speaking English. When we visit Spain, for example, do we not assume that most Spaniards are going to prefer speaking Spanish or Catalan or Basque? I realize that I am riding a huge rant-wave here but it is so annoying as a North American in Europe to hear other North Americans asking the simplest questions LOUDLY in English. I would like to suggest that when we travel, we should take a Spanish/English (or Italian/English or French/English) dictionary with us for those moments that we are talking with someone who doesn’t speak any English. (We should assume that this will be much of the time if we are not on a cruise or in Australia). We should make an effort. We are not rock stars and we should definitely make an effort. Europeans REALLY do not like North Americans (Americans really… but if you are a Canadian without your little flag sewn on your knapsack, you are assumed to be an American and you will be judged accordingly) and it’s not all about George Bush, either. We need to get out our little dictionaries and learn the word for milk. (It’s leche). It would be helpful, before leaving home, if we learned 10 key phrases for eating in restaurants and booking a room at a hotel. Of course, it means taking a risk… we risk appearing foolish when we mispronounce words… I am forever putting the accent on the wrong part of the word. Trying to speak a foreign language makes us feel as if we are learning to speak all over again… but my experience is that people in Spain are grateful for the attempt and very few will purposely make you feel small.

Back to Super Sol and my attempts to win the love and approval of the staff with my bad Spanish. One of the cashiers in particular looked like she might prefer if i spoke in English… I can only assume that she speaks Catalan as her first language and has strong feelings about not speaking Spanish. (During Franco’s regime, 1936-1975, the people of this region were prohibited from speaking their language and now, 30 years after Franco’s death, Catalan has never been as popular in this part of Spain and in south eastern France). As the weeks following my arrival wore on, the women at the grocery store softened towards me… I had become a regular and, therefore, part of their Super Sol world.

When DP was getting ready to come to Spain, I made him many lists… lists of DVDs I had brought with me, lists of things to pack, lists of things to buy for me. I neglected, however, to warn him about the Super Sol women. He has fought the good fight, always polite and smiling… and today he was accepted by the fierce women of Super Sol. He is officially, like me, a regular.

One of our colleagues at school lives quite close to us but recently confessed that she never goes to our neighbourhood Super Sol because “the cashiers are so MEAN”… it is no coincidence, I think, that she has never learned any Spanish.

Today was a professional development day at our school. DP and I presented a “Write Traits’ session to 21 of our colleagues… this is about a third of the staff. We explained the history of the six traits, read some examples of great writing, shared rubrics and got the teachers (elementary, middle and high school) assessing student writing and discussing their justifications. It went well and we both felt satisfied with the session. But… wait for it… our colleagues were GLAD GLAD GLAD! If I had a Dr. Seuss-type gift, I would write a stanza here describing their gratitude… I would explain how they complimented the content of the session and our presentation skills… how they said we are a great team. A number of teachers told us that they felt inspired and that they were going to start using the traits in class on Monday. At our little community school in Barcelona the teachers said, “Thank you.” They said, “You taught me something I didn’t know.” They said, “You rocked the house today.”

At the end of the day we had a staff meeting where champagne and cake were served. The cafeteria ladies encouraged us to take some cake home… para llevar (to go). Imagine!

Like many grand old dames, Barcelona is not easy. She can be charming but she is also cold, smelly, crowded, loud, and cranky. Today, DP and I were happy to belong to her.

One comment

  1. it would be helpful, before leaving home, if we learned 10 key phrases for eating in restaurants and booking a room at a hotel. of course, it means taking a risk…I have enjoyed relatively good fortune – the only country where I could get almost none of the words out was Thailand, and it inspired me to figure out the 20 (or 50) most useful travel phrases and represent them graphically on flash cards for this type of problem. Of course, verbal translations could appear au verso for those intrepid travellers wanting to put themselves out there.Of course, I haven't got around to it.

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