Portuñoling in Madrid

I’ve once again transported myself to a country of close-talkers, trash-throwers, and bad walkers.

On the other hand, I like to watch the way Madrileños, the kind you pass on the street and sit next to on the metro and buy horchata from, laugh raucously and gesticulate wildly. I’ve mistaken several people for deaf since coming here after watching them talk from afar. I’m especially endeared to the older men who work at restaurants, the kinds of places where you can sit on the street under umbrellas. I like their simple sweetness, usual rotundity, and their sincere attempt to understand what I’m saying.

My Spanish consists of my Portuguese interwoven with memories of the Portuguese for Spanish Speakers class I took four years ago because it was the only Portuguese class offered at my university that semester. Add to that Dora the Explorer flashbacks and the few phrases I’ve picked up since coming here, and there you have it.
I’ve had several interactions in Spanish that have gone like this:

Stranger: Where are you from?
Me: The U.S.
S: Do you speak Spanish?
Me: What language are we speaking in now?
S: Well, there are a lot of people here who don’t speak Spanish. You should learn it.

What the fuck. These interactions keep happening, and they confuse me every time. I was spoiled by living in a country where if you uttered a shitty ‘tudo bem’ you’d have people falling over themselves to tell you how great your Portuguese was. Being constantly told I need to learn Spanish as I make the effort to speak it with strangers makes me want to try less. Or stop talking to strangers.

Here I’m re-learning some lessons I’ve already learned and forgotten. First, there is nothing more humiliating than learning a language. As someone who refuses to try anything more than once that I’m not naturally amazing at, trying again and again to communicate only to be giggled about or misunderstood is the worst. Telling someone something serious, asking why they’re laughing and getting the answer, ‘Oh, the way you said that was just cute’ makes me want to slap my interlocutor. It’s a rush to the finish line, the finish line being communicative competency. I’m trying to cram as much into my head as possible until I reach that level, at which point existing in a foreign country becomes markedly easier.

The second lesson I’m re-learning is what it is to be poor. I’ve never had money, but here I exist on euro-pennies, which are the tiniest, cutest little things you’ve ever seen. I take packets of sugar from restaurants to use at home in my tea. I carry around a plastic water bottle I bought my first week here that’s probably giving me cancer. I scour the bottom of my purse for change to buy a 90-cent bocadillo for lunch at work. A sign on the street offering coffee for one euro has my attention. If someone cancels a tutoring session with me, it’s a minor disaster. After a difficult first month here money-wise due to a rental fiasco, I’m already down to the end of my last paycheck. The whole point of coming here was to scrape those pennies together to travel to some places in Europe I wanted to visit the first time I lived here but was too poor to, and so far that plan is slow to start. I have a one-way ticket to Istanbul for December 22nd. If I’m too poor to buy any other flights by then, you know where to find me. It all feels like a giant step back in what my mind thinks it is to be an adult.

Speaking of adulthood, I’m already thinking about what’s next. For the past three years, there’s always been abroad. As an Italian passport holder, I could stay in Europe easily enough, though I think I’d head north. But finding a job might be harder than finding one in the US, and I’d also miss the ease of living in my own country: knowing and being comfortable with the cultural norms, the language, and how to go about finding a job and a place to live. My student loans are screaming at me to go back and pay them off as quickly as possible. I had a dream last night that I inherited $6,000 from an unknown relative who I watched crash his plane on purpose to help me financially. It was like winning the lottery.

But, in general, life in Madrid is easy. It’s safe to walk around at night, there’s good shopping, and there are three Starbucks within walking distance from my house. I live in a hobbit house and sleep in an attic bedroom that looks like a place of punishment from a fairy tale. I can easily find peanut butter. Olive oil is delicious and cheap. Lots of people speak English. My job, while not that enjoyable, certainly isn’t challenging in any real way. And the best part of all, I can buy good enough wine for one euro.



Finally, I’ve accumulated a strange little group of acquaintances here that I’m quite grateful for. I borrowed a wig from the art teacher at my school who just happens to have 15 (an exact number) wigs in her closet because she loves dressing up. She offers me beautifully arranged coffee while I tutor her son, and we tell each other stories while overseeing our students paint color wheels. I’ve met a misanthropic self-professed non-misanthrope who I feel compelled to befriend. I think it’s working. I’ve met a Canadian who thinks I’m the most interesting mystery he’s ever met, which I will let him continue thinking. I work with a guy who doesn’t know the meaning of coquettish or the plot of Lolita and dresses like Ellen DeGeneres. I met a Fulbrighter who I bond with over our weekly coffee date in the cafeteria at work. She let’s me flex my vocabulary and regales me with all kinds of stories. My favorite ones are about her parents, whose relationship she finds repulsive. My closest fast-friend here shares my name and height, the first being much easier to come by than the second. We got drunk together one night on free sangria and she stopped to muse, with a look of wonder, ‘Just what are the odds of someone as cynical as me being placed at the very same school?’