Lately my life has felt like the game, Taboo, a word guessing game where a player chooses a card and then tries to get his partner to say that word without saying the “taboo” word listed on the card. Only I am playing the real life version where I enter a store looking for something without knowing what it’s called in Spanish and then proceed to use every other Spanish word I know to describe it. Add in a few hand motions and wildly expressive charade-like moves and I usually end up with what I want. Wouldn’t it be easier to just use a translation app? Probably, although a lot less fun and I am more likely to retain the new vocabulary word if I have to work at it a bit. Besides, I have discovered that nothing endears a foreigner to a shop keeper more than someone willing to completely embarrass themselves trying to learn the language.
Playing my real-life version of Taboo this past week may have given me a false sense of security and built up my confidence just a little too much, though. As a consequence, I didn’t bother to review any vocabulary words before entering the mayor’s office to start the process of getting our tarjetas de residencia (residence cards) that allow us to reside in Gijon. The lawyer who originally helped us get our visas to enter Spain made the appointment for us and told us what documents to take with us. Earlier in the week, Carlos, the realtor who helped us lease our apartment, had offered to go with us to sign contracts at the cable company and pick up dog food. We probably could have accomplished these two errands without his help just using my usual flair for charades. When he didn’t offer to go with us to the mayor’s office, I thought it must be even easier than anything else we had done to date.
We showered and put on clean clothes for our outing to the mayor’s office. After all, other than Carlos and Pieter, our landlord, we had not met with anyone in Gijon. We wanted to impress the mayor that we were worthy of being citizens of Gijon. When we arrived at the office, we found that it was a large government building with entry limited to those with appointments, due to Covid. Dogs were not allowed, even in a carrier, so Rocky and Wilma would remain outside to begin the process. Once in the building, I realized this was the city hub. There were quite a few employees, all behind plexiglass and wearing masks. I would need to describe what I was here to do. The mayor was not waiting for us, in fact no one seemed to know why I was there exactly, including me.
I took a number and waited to be called to a window. When I got there, the woman asked me what I needed to do. I started to describe why I thought I was there but apparently there were a number of other possibilities that I had not considered. In fast, I did not understand anything the woman was asking me. Seeing the long line of people with appointments forming behind me, the woman did the only thing she could think of to rectify the situation. She started to repeat everything she had already asked me but much louder and faster. I was on the receiving end of every stereotypical foreign encounter. I hoped that I had never fallen into the trap of speaking louder to someone who didn’t understand my language but it’s probably a universal mistake. On one hand, it was a bit easier when she was screaming at me because she had been difficult to hear with both a mask and plexiglass between us. Sadly though, I still didn’t understand what she needed from me.
I started sweating profusely, considered calling Carlos on the phone, and took a deep breath. I could do this. I just had to up my Taboo skill. I asked her to speak more slowly and with her help, I managed to figure out what she needed, gave her the necessary documents and filled out a form. She asked me if my husband would be coming in next. At that point, I told her, “if you think my Spanish is bad, you should try talking to my husband!” She threw up her arms and started laughing saying, “Ay, Dios Mio!” (Oh my God!) She told me to take the form outside and get him to sign it instead. She did not want to meet him in person!
When I finally left a half hour later with the proper documents in hand, Rocky took me to the closest café so I could decompress. I needed coffee and a little treat. I felt shaky and a bit choked up from the ordeal even though the outcome was successful. I ordered my usual cafe con leche (coffee with milk) but also wanted a croissant. For the life of me I could not think of how to describe the darn thing. “Bread that wasn’t sweet?” “Something that wasn’t a donut.” The waitress was struggling with my description. This was not my day to be easily understood. “Do you want a sandwich?” she asked. Seeing my distress, Rocky came to the rescue asking, “Croissant?” “Ah, quiere un croissant?” (You want a croissant?) said the waitress. Jeez. Why didn’t I think of that? Croissant, a universal treat.
On the way home, we stopped at Mercado del Sur, a building full of individual markets, to get a few things for dinner. After almost a week of being in Gijon, Rocky was ready to make a home cooked meal. I made him go into the market while Wilma and I waited outside. Ten minutes later he emerged without any bags. He had found the merluza, (a white fish called hake in English) but it was whole. He did not know how to get it cut into filets. I would need to go in and ask for it if I wanted dinner. He gave me his list and I went in, still feeling a bit unsure of myself.
A half hour later, I emerged loaded down with bags, with a big smile on my face. The market was the perfect therapy. I found the merluza, got it cleaned and fileted, and sampled some yummy Asturian cheeses. Bought some very moist dried dates, raw cashews, avocados, shitake mushrooms, and sweet potatoes. The shopkeepers must’ve sensed I needed some encouragement because they praised my Spanish and marveled at my ability to communicate so well. I was back in the game!
Next week we have an appointment at the police station to get finger printed, part of the process of establishing our residency here. You can bet I’ll be studying up on my vocabulary before we go this time!