Why foreigners speak in their own language when in another country

We made plans to gather once we dropped our respective children off at Colegio Públic Portugal.  The few of us who spoke English as our primary language gathered on the sidewalk in front of the school and engaged in excited chatter.  Our group of six moved across the street to a café where we could get to know one another (I was the newest English speaker).  After ordering a round of “café con leches” Spanish was not to be heard again for another hour.

We discussed the challenges to living in Madrid; our various stages in learning to speak Spanish; what we thought of the school; how schools here compared to those in “the States”, and for those who had been in Madrid longer; how Colegio Públic Portugal compared with their other school experiences in Spain.  Side conversations broke off among those who actually were working in Madrid and those whose primary work involved taking care of the home and children. There were discussions about the primacy of English in the scientific community and how that made it easier for the biology professor who was in Madrid for Sabbatical to easily interact with colleagues, but had slowed his development of learning Spanish.  Someone was discussing recent Spanish political history since Franco. Another person mentioned how geography impacts cultural behavior in relation to why Spaniards do not tend to speak another language (same for those in the US).

Somewhere in the midst of all of our discussions it hit me.  We were immigrants in a country speaking our native language (loudly I might add) and those who walked by our table or who had the misfortune to sit near us, for the most part, had no clue what we were talking about.  How many times had I observed this same phenomenon in the US?  A group of Latinos, Russians, Arabs, Turks excitedly talking among themselves about God knows what–and the often-scornful looks given to them.  Sometimes I overhear the phrase uttered under the breath: “They are in America! Why don’t they learn to speak English?”

And I now understand.  The people talking amongst themselves are most likely seeking a reprieve from having to speak a language that is not their native tongue.  Maybe they feel as a member of our group feels “I am just not as interesting in Spanish as I am in English”.  Developing language fluency to the point where one can be as expressive in the acquired language as the original takes a lot of work and time.  And sometimes you just want to be the person who can tell a joke or discuss an idea with out having to pause and search for a word that you may or may not know to express yourself.

There is another factor in this desire to speak your native language with someone from your home country.  They are from your home country.  It is amazing that our group covered the geography of the U.S., but we were all from the States.  For that shared moment in time we were united by our connection to the “motherland”.  We had, for an hour, a little bit of home with us.

Is this how those who are in the U.S. feel when they connect with someone from their home country and who speaks their native language?

The Breakfast Club

Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 8:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

A University by any Other Name

St. Louis University of Madrid prides itself on being one of the top 100 teaching and research institutions in the United States according to U. S. News and World Report 2009 and among the top five Jesuit universities in the United States.  This information is proudly displayed on its website and in marketing materials obviously directed at students who want an U.S. educational experience while living in Madrid.  There is only an undergraduate program.

The primary language of instruction is English (I feel like I am in an oasis when on campus). There are approximately 110 faculty and 650 students.  Most students are from the U.S. (40%), a quarter is from Spain, and the remaining 35% come from 65 other countries (a strong middle-eastern and North African contingent).  The students’ sound, look and dress like students around the world who have the benefit of attending a private institution with its associated cost.

Except, there is much more fashion statements being made here then normally experienced at SU.  Even though jeans are strong among the Americans, they clearly did not come from Wal-Mart.  Among the Europeans, interestingly designed full stockings, leather knee length boots, and a sweater top that falls just right is de rigueur.  The Muslim women make their statements with Dolce & Gabbana eye wear and I am sure the head wraps are a bit more expensive then the ones I saw for sale in the souk in Amman, Jordan when I was there with the GCP trip.

The U.S. professors are obvious by their general lack of fashion sense.  The Professors from Europe and Canada are noticeable by their suits that are tighter then most U.S. men wore wear and the colors that are a bit brighter then we are used to seeing on men who do not live in LA—my new colleague from Canada had on a light-grey pinstripe suit (purplish pinstripes) with a purple tie and purple socks to match the tie.  Now where at SU would you see that? And not draw any attention!?

Universidad Completense de Madrid was founded in 1293 (I do mean the 13th century, this is not a typo!). It one of the most preeminent public universities in Spain—the government heavily subsidizes public universities. There is a staff of over 11,000 for about 75,000 undergraduate students and 11,000 graduate students. Courses are only taught in Spanish.

The students here are not for the most part fashonistas (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).  They come mostly from the middle class homes that aspire for a better life for their children.  They too sound like students around the world who place their hopes in the ability of a college education to secure them a better, or at least equal chance to earn a living and have a life that comes with the ability to purchase the things that make life comfortable.  Of course they have a wider safety net here so some issues they do not have to worry about.  Healthcare is provided for whether they have a job or not.

If there are issues you want me to address in this blog please feel free to email me at: mdavi3@su.edu.

Hasta Luego.

Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 1:26 am  Leave a Comment  


I was a little nervous when I got to the “comision de escolarización”.  After all I had been through I expected the worst.  But, there where no problems.  We were there when they opened at 9 and our business was completed by 9:01.  Dominique and I both looked at each other with a shocked and relieved expression.  We quickly left the building in case someone realized they had given us the “certificado escolar” by mistake.

After none stop excited conversation about gong to school on the metro we arrived at Colegio Publico Portugal at 9:30.  I produced the necessary documents with the required stamps and was warmly welcomed.  I provided the copies of previous transcripts, passports and Dominique’s birth certificate.  I signed up for the meal plan, you are not allowed to bring outside food into the school (kids in Spain get two hours for lunch and some go home during this time). After all “I’s” were dotted and all “t’s” crosses we were escorted to Dominique’s class.  The kids seemed excited to see her and the teacher and her aide welcomed her warmly.  She hugged and kissed me and her journey begins.

The moment she went into the classroom I was excited, happy, nervous and ached for the company of the person who has been by my side constantly since we flew here at the end of December. Now, I could focus on my writing and research during the day while she is at school.  I have time to myself, something I have not had since the beginning of the year. Yet, there is sadness.  We are no longer on “vacation”; just hanging out, going to parks and exploring the city. Today, life really begins in Spain.

Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 5:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Empradronamiento or Maybe I should Home School

I knew the process would be difficult. I needed to enroll my daughter in public school in Madrid and I needed to register her with the local Ayuntamiento (town hall) and get an Empradronamiento (paper showing I lived in the particular district   and was eligible to attend a public school);  a simple piece of paper, with a signature from the Ayuntamiento.  But, I forgot, anytime a bureaucracy is engaged the out come is in doubt.  Complicate this issue by adding the challenge of communicating in two languages simultaneously (Spanish and Bureaucratese) and I should have realized I was going to hit a brick wall sooner or later.  But, I was suckered in my the nice lady at the first office I went to who assured me all my paperwork was in order and talked about my daughter being “muy guapa”(this is where I should have recognized I was heading for quick sand).

You see after getting up to arrive at the Ayuntamiento in the Plaza Mayor at 8:00, in order to be one of the first in line to get in at 9:00 (did I mention it was 2 degrees centigrade and raining); I was issued a Volante.  Which is an Empradronamiento without the signature.  It basically says that I am in the system, but not quite what I need.  There was no one at the Plaza Mayor Ayuntamiento who could sign the Empradronamiento (are you following all this???).  To get a signature I would have to take the Volante across town to the Moncloa Ayuntamiento where someone could sign it there.  Hey, no problem.  Dominique and I bundle up against the weather and dashed to the metro stop–as it was Monday, Wednesday is a holiday and school starts next Monday (1/11).  And I have not even gotten to the point of identifying what school she would go to.

Once at Moncloa I was told I did not have a cita (appointment) and the next appointment available was Thursday, January 14. But, school starts Monday, January 11th! Again, a nice woman gives me hope.  She checks the system for other offices to find out if there is an opening.  Yes, there is for Thursday, January 7th (Wednesday is a holiday).  It is further out then I have ever been (probably why there is an opening).  It does not matter.  At this point I am on a mission and fighting the clock.

The nice people at the Ayuntamiento on the other side of town sign the Empradronamiento and tell me I have to go back to the Moncloa office to select schools for Dominique and get the paper that I will need to take to that school.  The person I was told to see at the Moncloa office is not there! A nice woman (they all seem so nice as they are running you around) says the guy who I am looking for is not who I need to see.  I need to go to the comision de escolorization, which is located on Calle Santa de Brigida and you got it–that is another part of town.  Oh and by the way, the comision is only open 9 – 12.

By now it is Friday and I am still hopeful that I can get this wrapped up by Monday. We arrive at the comision de escolorization at 8:45 to find out it is closed! We get on the metro (another cold and rainy day) and travel cross-town to Moncloa to ask in very polite Spanish “WTF”. Apparently this time of year is when a lot of people take off as part of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  They just did not bother to tell anyone.

I am assured they would be open Monday—the day school is to start.  And they were.  But, the new paper I needed could not be processed until Friday as that person was out until Thursday.  Without this paper Dominique cannot go to school.  So we are on ice until Friday.  On ice literally as it snowed Sunday night into Monday morning and schools closed anyway.  I will let you know if we make it into school on Friday.

BTW, we met a nice woman at the school who assured us she would take good care of us once we got the right paperwork.

Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 12:01 am  Leave a Comment  

La compra de alimentos en Madrid

Wow! I am here for real, for real.  Got the keys to the “piso” and have unpacked our luggage.  I have to get a local phone, find out how to hook up to the internet (if you are reading this I have been successful), and go food shopping.  There is absolutely nothing in my kitchen and we cannot afford to go out and eat for every meal.  And while I am willing to cut back, when you are ten years old and you are hungry economics is not a relevant discussion.

Food shopping is a challenge for me as I did not realize how spoiled I was by having a car where I could drive to the supermarket, get a cart, walk around and know where everything was and what the words on the package meant, check out, place items in trunk of car, drive back to garage, unload bags and place them in refrigerator or cupboard and call it a day. I came face to face with the logistical calculations required to purchase a sufficient amount of supplies and carry those supplies on mass transit. How much more difficult this must be on people around the world who not only don’t have cars, but also don’t have mass transit.  But, then again I can see why farming is a good thing.  Go outside your door, pluck it or kill it and cook it up.  Right now this image is very appealing to me as it could not be more difficult than transversing several flights of stairs on the metro, unlocking three doors, unpacking everything. And then realizing you forgot to get toilet paper.

Published in: on January 5, 2010 at 12:59 am  Leave a Comment