Confidence is key! It took 10 months and a worldwide pandemic for this to really sink in.
What was the point of setting myself these language challenges if I was going to approach them so self-consciously? Why did I stutter over words I had memorised just before I left the house? Or break out in a sweat if I misunderstood a question asked by a shop assistant? Sometimes I felt like I was the only person ever to be confronted by these obstacles when learning. Spoiler: I wasn’t.
They say that when you move abroad, you leave part of your personality behind, and become a different person. I have heard this A LOT. You have left your family, your friends and a lot of what makes you “YOU”. You have opted to put distance (2,500 km in my case) between the familiar (the safe) and the new (the scary) in order to experience, learn and grow.
Creating a new version of yourself isn’t a bad thing but then again, I wasn’t looking to change. Maybe it’s true that some people are when they pick up their lives and move across the continent?
But whether it’s your intention or not, it is inevitable. You are constantly absorbing new information, learning cultural rules and of course, contending with daily language challenges. Your focus is altered, you become interested by new things, you develop a different routine and meet new people (all the while, on your best behaviour)! So, before you know it, you are changing.
This new version of yourself is the one you present to your new amigos and colleagues – with who, in English, you talk about the everyday and share the quirks of Spanish living. Meanwhile, in Spanish, you haven’t developed a personality at all yet!
Of everything I left behind; my loved ones, my surroundings, the rain…, there is one comfort I have overlooked and that is my native humour. I don’t think I have ever appreciated my country’s own unique comedy until I was no longer surrounded by it on a daily basis. I’m sure it’s not just a special Scottish thing, but this characteristic is one that I can rely on to help me connect, and bond with my own funny breed of people wherever I am in the world.
But you don’t “learn” humour as part of a beginner’s language course, and a lot of the time, you need to know and understand cultural reference points to join in. This will take years to learn (and years more to master). Until then, you will smile, nod and laugh in a group of Spaniards at an arranged meet-up in a bar, the lack of understanding shining through in your startled eyes (regardless of how many glasses of ‘wine-for-courage’ you’ve had)!
Humour helps to shape your personality and you can seem a little vacant without it! Could this be one of the many reasons that might explain why I have found myself slinking around, overly conscious of looking and acting like a “guiri” who doesn’t belong here?
This term, which the Spanish use to describe a foreigner of northern European descent, was first introduced to us by our Madriliño language tutor back in Glasgow. He described the “guiri” as the type who is identifiable by patchy sunburn or by the infamous socks and sandals combination. Or the one who is sporting shorts in Spring, eagerly flashing pale flesh in temperatures below a “cool” 23 degrees.
We knew at once that we were at risk of being mistaken for, or worse, recognised as a couple of “guiri’s”. But we were glad of the warning and made it our mission to shake off this reputation as soon as possible.
Despite desperately trying to embrace all things Español, we are still guilty of committing “guiri” acts on occasion – like having dinner at “normal” (UK) time or ordering patatas bravas when we are too hungry to translate a whole menu. But coming from a self-deprecating society, we have always had the humility to laugh at ourselves. We won’t forget where we came from and honestly, I would rather be “guiri” than hungry!
Then life changes, and the country comes together amidst a pandemic. We are suddenly faced with more pressing challenges than which is the correct past tense to use! Perspective is everything at this time and the sense of community and support for each other has overshadowed the things that once seemed important (like the guiri’s ability to converse fluently in Spanish)!
So, what have I taken personally from this shared national (and global) experience? Well, when the time comes that our freedom is restored, I vow to emerge with newfound confidence and a new lease of life.
We only have una vida, and I am going to live mine with zest! I am going to be ME.
Who knows, one day I might even tell my own jokes. And while we can safely assume that I won’t make it as the next Billy Connolly de España, I’m sure it will be a story worth sharing!