Before moving to Barcelona, I knew the language barrier would pose problems. The fact that trying to purchase a bath mat requires the same effort as arguing a case before the Supreme Court came as no surprise to me. But I’ve been taking Spanish classes here for what seems like forever, and I’m still nowhere near fluent. Slogging my way through conversations doesn’t take as long as it used to, but it’s still a struggle if I want to converse at something higher than a kindergarten level. If I don’t have the energy to engage in a ten-minute Spanish dialogue with someone over a matter that would take ten seconds in English, I just avoid it altogether.
“Dad, can you tell the waiter there’s a human fingertip in my salad?”
“Rae, I don’t know how to say ‘fingertip.’ Just eat around it.”
There are obvious problems when you speak like a caveman, like our wet bathroom floor and my daughter’s new salad phobia. Also, a crippling sense of isolation creeps up if you avoid speaking to anyone for say, six months at a time.
One thing I wasn’t prepared for, however, is what I call the “passive language barrier.” It refers to the inability to understand conversations going on around you that you’re not even involved in. In other words, I can’t eavesdrop.
It’s not like I yearn to wallow in the lurid details of my neighbors’ private lives. Who cares if Jordi cheated on Montse with Francesca (besides Montse, of course.) I’d just like to understand snippets of conversations here and there so I could feel like I’m still part of the human race. You know how you might say something to your friends like, “I overheard the craziest conversation at the grocery store today?” Well I haven’t done that in 18 months. The closest I’ve come is, “I heard two people talking at the grocery store today. I think one of them said the word, ‘manzana.'”
I’d love to know what the teenagers sitting next to me on the train are laughing about. Why is the woman walking down the sidewalk in front of me crying as she talks on her cellphone? And what’s with the drunk guy standing in the middle of the plaça screaming at everyone? What exactly is he bellyaching about?
Sometimes these people just become a blanket of white noise around me. I tune it all out. Walking through my neighborhood ends up feeling like watching a movie that desperately needs to be dubbed.
Which leads me to Woody Allen.
No, not the “never let him babysit your child” Woody Allen. I’m talking about the “talented movie director who should never babysit your child” Woody Allen.
In 1966, Allen made his feature-length directorial debut with a movie called “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” To make the film, Allen bought the rights to an already-produced Japanese spy movie then replaced all the dialogue with a completely new script that was totally unrelated to the original plot.
My friend Lauren made me watch “Tiger Lily” when we were in junior high school. Lauren was good for things like that. While I was busy playing Pac-Man, she was watching Woody Allen movies and listening to Lou Reed. I mention “Tiger Lily” now because what Allen did for 90 minutes in that movie is more or less what I’ve been doing every day for the last few weeks. Rather than diligently study Spanish so I might have a chance at understanding what people around me are saying, lately I’ve been going “Tiger Lily” on everyone and imagining what they might be saying instead.
Two kindly women discussing the day’s shopping may not be particularly interesting, but when you possess the maturity level of a ten-year-old and the moral compass of a convicted arsonist opportunities arise.
COMPLETELY INNOCENT WOMAN #1: “What did you get this week, Lucia?”
COMPLETELY INNOCENT WOMAN #2: “Diego was all out of Grape Kush, Maria Cristina, so I picked up an eighth of Alaskan Thunderfuck instead. Diego claims it will send me straight to the International Space Station for the entire afternoon. Want to blaze up and go to the Sagrada?”
COMPLETELY INNOCENT WOMAN #1: “OK. But it better not be all seeds and stems like last time. Save that schwag for your grandson.”
You get the idea.
I know this isn’t exactly the most productive exercise in the world, and for the record, I don’t do it all the time. When I overhear people talking, I at least make an attempt to decipher what they’re saying. My Spanish teacher tells me that listening to people speak helps “train your ear,” and I really do want to become more fluent. It’s discouraging when the entire city seems to be sharing an inside joke that I don’t get. Most of the time, though, I’m only good for a few minutes before I start mentally steering people’s conversations towards the child slavery racket they’re running out of their basement.
These “study breaks,” as I call them, help keep my spirits up while I continue my Spanish classes. I know that at some point the linguistic jigsaw puzzle floating around in my head will fall neatly into place. One day I will no longer be just a deaf, mute fly on the wall. I’ll be able to laugh along with those kids on the subway. I will sympathize with and offer to console the woman crying into her phone. I will listen patiently to the screaming drunk so that perhaps I may help calm him.
Of course, that will probably also be the day I decide to move back to Colorado after realizing that the elderly couple holding hands on the park bench really is talking about the collection of human heads they keep in the freezer.