Spanish Stories: Lost in Translation

“Such is the nature of an expatriate life. Stripped of romance, perhaps that’s what being an expat is all about: a sense of not wholly belonging. […] The insider-outsider dichotomy gives life a degree of tension. Not of a needling, negative variety but rather a keep-on-your-toes sort of tension that can plunge or peak with sudden rushes of love or anger. Learning to recognise and interpret cultural behaviour is a vital step forward for expats anywhere, but it doesn’t mean that you grow to appreciate all the differences.” ― Sarah Turnbull, Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris


It’s been three weeks since I left St. Pete. The last two weeks have been spent in my new city for the next eight months, A Coruna. Two weeks in a new, possibly haunted, flat. Two weeks meeting my coworkers, who know little to no English, and my students, who know little to no English, too. I know the language but putting together a thoughtful sentence is difficult and embarrassing. I can buy fresh bread. I can use the bus. I can order food, but every word that I manage to utter is tinted with, to quote Morrissey, “a shyness that is criminally vulgar.” My out-of-place-ness is like a homing device. Seemingly all Spanish eyes find me and stare like I am a fish flopping on land gaping for breath.

For the past three weeks I’ve been battling travel sickness, food poisoning, and flu-like symptoms on top of all this awkward business of feeding myself and getting around in a very Spanish city. There are cafes and bars on every corner. Dozens on my block, even. Yet I stay in and strive to get healthy. I’d like to join but the mere thought of alcohol turns my stomach in equanimity to asking for the Wi-Fi code in Spanish. I found a café on Calle Real, the Coruna version of Starbucks, and I only have to fumble my coffee order. I come here so often the staff automatically speaks English to me. I am transparently foreign here. Not that I want to pass as a local but I’ve never been so easily pegged before. So easily judged, and often, dismissed.

How many times have you been frustrated with trying to understand someone who speaks little English? Working at the record store I dealt with all the foreigners that proved irksome. I knew what it felt like to be misunderstood and when someone was really kind and helpful, it turned my whole day, and even, experience around. More often than not, I am faced with impatience and rudeness with little bits of kindness, here and there.

This town is for families, couples, and retirees. Children run wild. The screaming only ceasing around midnight. They don’t nap either. I should know since I spend most of my time in a primary school. The children get away with murder pretty much. It’s so different from the orderly classrooms I remember from my elementary school days. Speaking of, old memories from my scholastic life have been cropping up in dreams and snippets of thought. I had a vivid moment replay the morning before my first day. I was in kindergarten and the assignment was to memorize your address and recall the address before the entire class. We would go over this every single day. Little children sat on a red patch of carpet and one-by-one, dutifully recite their home address. I was always the last child. After several weeks, it finally clicked, and I was able to recite my address along with the rest of the class. It as the happiest day of my life and in that memory, I felt that surge of joy. I set my mind to it and I succeeded. I failed over and over again. But never quit.

That memory might be a premonition.

I arrive at the school and being a teaching assistant, I expect to assist, and not lead an entire hour of class. My principal told me several times that I have one month with the teachers to learn and then after that I am solo. This was something I agreed to and was comfortable with. I would take notes. I would figure this whole school system out. I would get hands on training and then continue on my own. In my first two days, I learned quickly that this is not the case. I am to craft and execute a lesson plan knowing precious nothing. I am to control the classroom. I am to punish and discipline. I am to teach these kids some form of English that is engaging and fun. I’ve never taught one entire class let alone ten. I have over 200 students. That’s a lot of miscommunication and flop sweat.

Now, I have my own flat (Wi-Fi to be installed this week). I have ample space. I am provided a budget for groceries and a stipend, but I don’t have a Spanish bank account to receive my money. I setup a grocery account and filled up the shopping cart but nothing has been purchased or delivered. I get the run around for everything, including but not limited to, clothesline pins. I was starting to feel like a nuisance when I thought to be a respected guest. Graduate school will start in November, I guess, but I haven’t registered. What about those Spanish lessons? Well, I guess those start later, too. I really need to improve my Spanish before the little assistance I do receive from the teachers is gone.

I remain resourceful and committed to seeing this through. In lieu of concrete answers about funding, I started tutoring on the side for cash. I met someone whose lived here for nearly a decade. She was an auxiliary like me. She answered a lot of my questions and gave me some sound advice. The key is to never assume that things are being done for you. You must follow up to the point of annoyance. They just don’t think that way. Truly, this little nugget of advice hit home. How can I learn without asking questions? How can I get what I want by being too polite to charge after it?

These brief weeks have been the hardest weeks of my travel life. Nothing has aligned with my preconceived thoughts and everything has been ten times more difficult than I could have planned for. But I remain resolute in my endeavor to see this through and make the most of my life abroad.




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