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  


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  

Hoy fue un buen día (Today was a good day)

Today was a good day.  I had no mission to carry out, the sun was shinning and it was a balmy 40 degrees (my friends in parts of Europe and the DC area don’t hate). I ventured forth on my none mission and stopped for a “chocalo y postrie” at a small cafe near my hotel.  After ordering and asking to take a picture of the interesting arrangement  over the back counter (I promise to upload when I can) the owner began to chat me up.  Either Black Americans are extremely rare in Madrid or my accent has gotten better.  But, I was debated about my ancestry.  He swore I was a Brazilian (actually this also happened when I was in Brazil until I opened my mouth and it was clear I was not from Bahia.  But that is another story).  I assured him I was and he asked me what I thought of Spain.  I gave my standard response: “España es grande y la gente aquí es muy agradable!” (yes my dear reader I am going to force you to learn some Spanish:-). He seemed satisfied with my answer.  I collected my bill and off I went, as I had taken a look at my ever present map and suddenly developed a mission.

The largest mosque in all of Europe is in Madrid, Centro Cultural Islamico.  It was on the other side of town and required me to navigate further then I have ever been and on train lines other then “lineas 6 y 4”.  And after getting off the train I would have to walk about a mile.  And yes I did it without getting too lost! Not only did I make it there I met a delegation of mayors from Turkey who treated me like a rock star.  I was an American Muslim who had been to Turkey.  I think one adopted me or offered me his daughter. My Turkish is not good enough to understand which.

With this accomplishment and offer under my belt my belt I got brave.  I decided not to return to my starting point, which was my practice until today.  I decided I would try to find estancion principe pio (near where I hope to be living) and check out plaza de espana.  I found it!!! A triple play.

This called for a celebration.  I not only ordered a lunch that included the best “buffalo wings” I have ever had (YES IN SPAIN!!!).  The chicken meat fell off the bone.  Talking about finger looking good! Topped it off with a wonderful chocalate cake and cafe con leche.

Hoy fue un buen dia.

Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 4:40 am  Leave a Comment  

Relocation Blues

One never really thinks about what it takes to pick yourself up and plop yourself down into a different culture sans all the normal support systems you normally have in place.  We take for granted the people we know and interact with.  Their familiar faces, speaking to us in a language where we do not have to ponder the meaning of words and phrases.  Going places with well tread routes or if we don’t know the route landmarks to help guide us, or at lease a sense of direction of which way is north and south. We know what time the bank opens and closes and we can expect to find something to eat whenever we want it.  And finally, no matter how large or small we come back to a place we call home (even temporarily). Now take all that away.  A little scary.

I have been greatly (and gratefully) assisted by kind strangers.  People have been patience with my Spanish.  Nothing can be done when you show up at the bank at 3 when it closed at 2 for lunch and will not reopen until 5.  You learn to eat a big lunch so that you are not hungary at 8 and restaurants don’t start serving until 9 or 10.  The unfamiliar street names and the metro becomes familiar.  Your pronunciation and understanding of a foreign tongue get better.  You do what all human beings do.  You adapt.

Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 3:05 am  Leave a Comment