Words Are Hard

Taxis and busses whiz by, almost taking out the pedestrians who aren’t moving quick enough for their taste. To my left a group of smokers is gathered around the worn-out ashtray littered with the memories of smokers’ past. I take a breath of smoky air and my lungs wince from the toxins I have just inhaled. Not exactly the first breath of fresh Madrid air I was hoping for.

I make a beeline for cleaner air and run directly into a security guard, proceeding to flip over my luggage in the process.

He looks at me, fierce brown eyes half visible through his furrowed brows and barks something that sounds like “cuidado,” or maybe it was “ay dios mío.” Either way he wasn’t happy and all I could say was “lo sorry.”


That’s what I said.

And then I just froze there, staring at him frightened and confused. After what seemed like 5 minutes of this awkward stare down, but was probably actually only a matter of seconds, he started… laughing?

“It’s bien, American chica” he joked. How embarrassing. I escaped to the taxi line with a half-smile and a bright red face. Toto, I don’t think we’re in small town America anymore was all I could think.

But this was just the beginning of the four-month whirlwind I had just stepped into. I knew travelling to a different continent to go to school would be full of challenges, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that when I stepped off the plane in Madrid, I stepped into a whole new world – a world I knew next to nothing about.

But something inside me told me to take a breath. I was going to be more than okay.

I had spent all of Christmas break planning it out. I was going to hop off the plane in Madrid, much like Miley Cyrus in her song “Party in the USA,” with my dreams and my cardigan. Salsa music would be playing through the airport speakers and I was going to start speaking, if not perfect, at least understandable Spanish.

If I only knew how wrong I was.

With my confidence running on thin ice, I was helped into a cab by a gray-haired man with a stout frame and the beginnings of a 5 o’clock shadow. He tossed my bags in the trunk as I fumbled my way into the back seat and then he hopped in the front, turning to me with a soft smile.

I don’t know if it was my clueless expression or the baggage tag on my backpack that read “to travel is to live” but something about me screamed: confused American tourist! It might as well have been tattooed on my forehead.

I made a mental note to try and dull the American by the time I left Spain.

“Cual es la dirección” he asked me. What’s the address?

My mind went blank. And not like the I forgot the right equation for my math test blank or the dang it what’s the first word of my monologue blank. I’m talking about the I’ve taken four years of Spanish but can’t remember how to say hello, also what’s my name? kind of blank.

I knew what he was asking me, but I didn’t know what he was asking me. I just stared at him.

“Donde tienes que ir?” he tried again. Where do you have to go?

He wants to know where you’re going, Sarah. Just tell him the address. I just stared at him. His eyes narrowed and he gave me a confused look, probably wondering if I was deaf.

“Madrid.” I muttered, mentally putting my face in my palm. Nope. That’s not it.

I’d like to blame a mix of jet-lag and culture shock for this little mix up. Luckily I remembered that I had written the address down and quickly presented him with it before I said something else stupid.

He unfolded the crumpled-up piece of paper with barely legible writing on it and, much to my surprise, we were off within a matter of seconds. Man, these people are good at what they do.

The cab ride consisted of more failed attempts at communication and several surprising sights. Expecting to see street vendors selling paella and matadors strolling the streets, I was shocked to see that Madrid was comparable to cities I had been in, complete with winding highways and colorful graffiti filling every blank surface.

The only difference was the signs that would have read “Exit” in America read “Salida” and the speed limits were, in fact, in kilometers per hour. That one took me a second. No, Sarah, they do not drive 120 mph on the highways in Spain. Well… at least not legally.

I knew getting used to the language and way of life would take some time, but I wasn’t expecting to be thrown off this much. I took Spanish in high school and I always thought I was decent at it. The truth is, though, I was good at memorizing what I needed for the tests and presentations and then promptly forgetting it all.

Also, Spanish in High School is kind of funny because it prepared me to talk about rare topics such as quicksand, arena movediza, but I had never seen the word aseos, the word for restrooms, before in my life.

It all caught up with me, though, when I stepped into my host house and realized my host parents spoke no English at all.  None.

As I rang the doorbell with my heart practically beating out of my chest, I prepared and rehearsed a sentence so I wouldn’t be caught off guard again. Hola, me llamo Sarah. Hola me llamo Sarah.

Enter Gabi Gilbert, center stage. A petite gray haired woman wearing a tan wool skirt and matching blazer.

“Hola, me llamo Sarah” I said proudly. Nailed it.

“Hola, cielo!” she greeted me with a kiss on each cheek. Wait. Does she think that’s my name? Did I mispronounce my own name?

Cielo, meaning: heaven. It is used in Spain as a term of endearment, much like darling or sweetie, and is not, in fact, a mispronunciation of the name Sarah.

Though I had that one flawless phrase prepared, Gabi saw through my façade and has since taken it upon herself to make sure I understand everything she is saying. At the beginning this involved speaking at a snail’s pace and using phrases that you could probably find in your copy of Basic Spanish for Dummies. Now though, I’d say we’re up to at least the pace of a fast turtle. Can you say progress?

Like I said, adapting to a foreign place, especially one with a foreign language, is difficult. It takes time and, however hard we may try, no amount of planning will prepare us for the real deal. But, and please excuse this silly analogy, if it wasn’t for being thrown into the deep end right away, I wouldn’t have learned to swim.

Now that’s not to say these past months have been error free. Actually, they have been quite the opposite.  But on the list of things I have accomplished while being abroad, next to eating my bodyweight in Spanish Tortilla and learning a few new salsa steps, I have also gained a sense of confidence that sure wasn’t there before. It doesn’t stem from being right all the time, but rather from not being afraid to be wrong.

As the sun peers through the window of my bedroom, I finish tying up the laces of my gray Vans, grab my backpack and head for the front door. Gabi intercepts me in the living room with rapid fire questions. You got this, Sar.

“A que hora llegas a casa?” she asks. What time will I get home.

“Seré en casa a las seis y media” I reply without wasting a beat. I will be home at six thirty.

I leave with a genuine smile and as I stand waiting for the elevator I sing the “Ser vs Estar” song that I learned in Spanish one in my head.

How you feel or where you are, always use the verb estar. Sigh.

Wrong verb. But hey, at least I’m getting closer.