Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why sometimes I wish I didn't speak English

I managed to make it through most of my trip to Spain free of harassment of any kind, however, Sunday night there must have been a flashing beacon over my head, saying "Female Tourist Traveling Alone Here, Please Approach!" I left the hostel that evening in search of a small, guidebook recommended kebab joint where I wouldn't have to spend a lot of money on dinner, and where I hoped to eat in relative peace and quiet while avoiding that ubiquitous question, "Sola?" I meandered down the quaint and narrow streets of Barcelona, losing myself on purpose; I wasn't in a hurry, after all. After discovering squares and churches I hadn't seen before, I set myself on my way again, as I hoped to maybe take in a movie after dinner. Walking down yet another adorable pedestrian street, a man stepped out in front of me. "Hola," he said. "Speak English?" I studiously ignored him and kept walking, as he called something out ahead of him, and suddenly his friend stepped out of the shadows directly into my path. "Speak English?" he said. I didn't answer, not wanting to confirm his response, and while I tried not to look at him, a brief glance showed that his eyes were creepily blank and empty, void of any emotion. "Tall woman," he said while walking along beside me. "Hey, tall wo-maaaaan." I had now reached the kebab shop I had been looking for, I saw, but rather than stopping to peruse the menu, it seemed like now might be a better time to keep on walking. And so I did, striding purposefully ahead, my pursuers eventually losing interest and drifting away. This meant that now I was back to square one in terms of finding another cheap and casual restaurant, and so I wound my way deeper into the gothic quarter. I soon found another option that looked promising, due to its no-frills decor and its chalkboard outside proclaiming a 7€ menu for three courses plus a drink. I went in and sat down in time to witness a bit of a spectacle already in process. A woman was protesting loudly and in butchered Spanish on behalf of her husband and daughter that their bill was "más." Too "más!" The figure in question was 30€, which for three people didn't seem all that unreasonable to me, however this lady kept insisting loudly that it was. The waitress seemed more and more flustered, listing everything the family had ordered and consumed, along with prices, but the woman wouldn't back down. Eventually the owner and the head chef of the tiny establishment got in on the action, eventually writing it all down and scribbling manual calculations for her benefit. The only other customers in the place were all snickering unsympathetically at this point, as the woman's husband kept quiet and her teenaged daughter did a pretty good job of hiding what I'm pretty sure had to be abject mortification. In the end I'm fairly certain 30€ exchanged hands, giving this woman a story for the next ten years about the time she got cheated in a Spanish restaurant, and how she didn't take it lying down. I couldn't have been happier about this, because after a show-down like this one, I knew no one would be taking any notice of little old "sola" me. I ordered a beer and took out my book. When the little old man returned to take my order, I asked for a menu. He directed me instead to the offering of tapas lining the counter, and ran through a quick list of words I didn't understand, instructing me to take my pick. After the ordeal I had just witnessed it seemed perhaps safer to stick to the prix fixe menu, and so I gestured towards the 7€ menu on the chalkboard out front and said hesitantly, "el menu?" So you can have salad or something or paella or something and salad, the man said, looking towards the chef who shook his head gruffly. No, just the salad or the something or the paella, he corrected. I latched onto one of the two words I knew and said "paella," nodding my head for emphasis, and returned to my seat. The paella came out quickly and was only warm in spots, as if it had been nuked briefly in a microwave, which I'm sure that it had. The plate was tiny and decorated with one (empty) mussel shell, which was the only evidence of seafood I found in the dish, except for several spidery and inedible crustacean legs, which I pushed to the side. I sighed, thinking, looks like I got the tourist special again. I thought back to my and Canaan's first day in Valencia when we wandered into a promising-looking cafe for lunch. A man sat reading a newspaper and eating a delicious-looking salad studded throughout with tomatoes and large chunks of tuna. We ordered the three-course menu and received the same salad to start. Only, it wasn't quite the same. Instead of chunks, there was instead what can only be described as a drizzle of tuna, but it was still quite tasty and I didn't think much of it right away. Perhaps he got a salad as a main course and not an appetizer, I thought. Or maybe he's friends with the owner. Our second courses arrived and I was a little dismayed; on my plate was a tiny piece of salmon with a side of yet more lettuce and tomatoes. As I picked through my salmon avoiding the bones, I voiced my suspicions to Canaan, who at first wasn't convinced. I excused myself to the bathroom, though, and on my return she said she had seen three more plates of salmon go by, and they were huge. I looked around, and saw that she was right; they were literally overflowing the plate. The slight wasn't enough to get huffy over, but still, we couldn't help feeling betrayed by our American accents, and offended by the idea that such practices existed. As I sat in this tiny diner-like restaurant in Barcelona by myself, quickly finishing off the tiny plate of paella that had hardly put a dent in my hunger, I felt dismayed that this was happening again, and all because I don't speak Spanish. Since it looked like this was all there was, with my stomach still growling I decided to start in on the bread basket. I'll show him, I thought. He may have given me a tiny plate of paella, but I'm going to eat this entire basket of bread. Which was no small feat, as the basket was quite full. By the time I was on my fifth or sixth piece, the chef came over. "Carne o pescado?" he asked. "Um, huh?" I said, even though I had understood the words. "Segundo," he said, speaking slowly. "Carne? o pescado?"

"Oh, um, carne," I said, putting down my bread sheepishly. The second course came as quickly as the first, and was equally warm and cold in spots. It was some kind of pork meatballs mixed with potatoes and vegetables in a kind of gravy, and if it wasn't gourmet, it was at least satisfying. "Más pan?" the chef asked, passing by my table and casting an eye at my empty bread basket. "Um, no, gracias," I said, blushing. I finished quickly, and the waitress came to take away my dishes. She asked if I would like anything else, but I declined, already full of paella and meatballs and an entire basket of bread. Even without dessert, I decided I had already had my money's worth, and so I paid my 7
€ and stepped out again into the mild night air.

I headed towards the port to check out a movie theater I had seen earlier, wondering if they had any movies in the original English. I came to a wide boulevard where I would have to cross four lanes of traffic. I looked and saw that I could walk a block up to cross at the light, or, much closer, there was a deserted-looking pedestrian footbridge that crossed all four lanes of traffic in a graceful curve, landing again on the other side. Though the bridge was somewhat dark and utterly empty, there were enough people in the close vicinity that I felt safe enough in taking it, and so I did. But sure enough, as soon as I made it to the halfway point a sketchy-looking man stepped out of the shadows and approached me. He started to ask a question, but I just shook my head briskly to let him know that whatever the question was, the answer was no. I continued walking at a no-nonsense pace as he followed me, asking me that ubiquitous question, "Do you speak English?" I ignored him as he followed me, keeping up a constant and somewhat menacing stream of chatter. "
I just want to talk to you, come on...Why won't you talk to me, are you mad or something?" When I refused to answer or look back, he followed after me, saying, "Hey, hey!" more insistently every time. Then he was silent for a few seconds, but I knew he was still there, trailing me in my blind spot, coming closer and closer. Though I had avoided looking at him, my first quick glance had shown that just like the man from earlier in the evening, he had the same blank, dead gaze of a shark circling. I kept walking at a steady pace as his invectives grew more insistent, and more menacing in tone. By now I could see the end of the ramp, and as I exited and once again joined the throngs of tourists below, the man shrank back into the shadows of the bridge, perhaps waiting for some other victim who would be foolish enough to join him in conversation.

A quick trip to the movie theater showed that, like the French, the Spanish are much too fond of American movies dubbed in Spanish (or French, as the case may be), and so I turned away, dejected. I would perhaps have liked to walk around more, but accustomed as I am to feeling small and anonymous in large cities, this recent spate of attention left me with an unpleasant taste in my mouth. Feeling entirely vulnerable and tired of being surrounded by people, I turned around to return to the hostel (where I would still be surrounded by more people than I would have liked). Making my way through the crowds of tourists in the Port Vell, a man ran by with an armfull of loot- clutched to his chest was what looked like a cloth bag with straps hanging down. Following several lengths behind him at a stately pace were two policemen on mopeds, lights flashing but otherwise showing no urgency. On foot, the thief was able to dart quickly between people, while the policemen on their motorized vehicles were forced to proceed more slowly through the thick crowd, carefully manoeuveuring around couples walking hand in hand and parents pushing baby strollers. It was obvious who was the tortoise and who was the hare in this race, and obvious, too, that soon enough the police would get their man. He was on foot, after all, and they were on mopeds, and as soon as the crowd opened up a bit, they would have him, which perhaps explained their relative calm. But still, the man kept running, and as he ran he glanced back over his shoulder at the policemen in pursuit, and in that moment, the smile on his face registered pure joy.


  1. Wow!! What an outing that was!! I get so bugged by people asking- Do you speak English? Why do people always say that? What do they want?! Glad you were okay... that can be scary as a female traveler....

  2. i m latin, from panama, and your story is really funny, the latins may be say that because wants to practice their english.