It took a bit of time to get used to wearing a mask. Initially it was recommended but it soon became mandatory and it has been adhered to very seriously here, with 86% of Spanish people reporting that they always wear one to go out.
There was an adjustment period before it felt like a “normal” part of everyday life, and I was guilty of forgetting the rules. More than once, I pulled my mask aside to speak to someone, aware of how hard it can be to make myself understood at the best of times! It was only when I saw the looks of horror that I realised the error of my ways. After that, la mascarilla stayed firmly on my face.
Not only was it providing protection, but it seemed to be providing me with something else – confidence!
During lockdown, I had started to worry about how my language progress would be affected, amongst other things. Even though I had been receiving extra lessons and studying more than ever, I was concerned that there had been months of lost opportunities. Instead of being out practising in public, I had been confined to la casa, reading articles about coronavirus and learning lockdown-related vocab.
So, I surprised myself when I first ventured out with my face covered. I headed to la farmacia (to collect more masks), and the encounter was effortless. I seemed to have no trouble being understood and I felt emboldened by my new guise! Afterwards, I joined a long queue for the post office and one by one, we were asked (from a distance) which service we required. Not only did I have to think on the spot and shout out in the street, but I also had an audience. However, with my face hidden behind a mask (and sunglasses), I felt less exposed and more confident than ever. Nothing was going to overthrow my joy and relief of being outside again!
But my confidence was short lived…
Last week, I answered the door to two men wearing masks and carrying tools (side note: one had a ponytail, the other was bald). I spied ID badges and heard the word “Wi-Fi” and before I knew it, they were in the apartment searching for the router!
It had been so long since anyone had been in my apartment, or my personal space, so I was taken aback to have two unexpected visitors roaming freely, looking for wires to wiggle.
I knew we hadn’t arranged this visit but couldn’t think how to communicate this. It was surely the worst time to forget every word of Spanish I had ever learnt, and I frantically searched my internal translator for: “I’m sorry, should I be expecting you?” (How very British).
I put on my mask (you can never be too careful) and we began a broken “conversation” with me trying to find out their intentions and them quizzing me about our provider. Communication works both ways of course and the confidence I once felt behind the mask soon turned to confusion when I struggled to understand a word they were saying! Deciphering their muffled speedy Spanish was impossible!
I loosely gestured at my mask, this time using it as an excuse for my mispronunciations and was waving my hands as I tried to tell them that there must be a mistake. I pleaded with them not to disconnect us, particularly during R’s important work call, which he quickly abandoned to come to my rescue, also trying to communicate that the router was to remain untouched (por favor).
(If only they knew how much effort it took to set-up our internet contract here. R had spent hours stretching out his limited Español over several phone calls, tirelessly translating and trying to spell out our names to the company who insisted they had no English speakers to help. It was an exhausting process but a huge step, and I was so impressed by his efforts so early on)!
Anyway, after about 10 minutes of this highly animated exchange, one of the men (the one with the ponytail) checked his phone and read out a name…
It was the name of my neighbour!
Now this, I could explain. I marched him to the front door and pointed out my neighbour’s apartment, all the while wondering how either of us could have been mistaken for José-Luis…
There was no answer at the door, but I gave them his phone number, glad that we had solved the misunderstanding that it was he, not I who wished to change internet provider during a global pandemic. They commenced their admin from my kitchen, and I hovered, unsure whether to offer café or begin disinfecting.
Eventually, they gave up calling and thanked me (IN ENGLISH) before taking their leave. I presumed they went to wait for my MIA neighbour in a more appropriate social distancing spot.
Con-mask or sin-mask, it wouldn’t have mattered. I decided this experience would have been just as strained and confusing either way.
We had a close call, almost being disconnected from our loved ones when the distance is already great enough. I suppose that’s the risk of inviting two masked hombres into your home without question!
Being unable to communicate what you want to say puts you in a position of vulnerability, and despite what I first thought, wearing masks has made things that little bit harder. But we are adaptable and as we learn to live as a masked society, we will find fresh ways to connect. We might master the art of reading deeper into each other’s eyes or express ourselves more through gestures.
And the muffled words that we do exchange will be precious, in any language (whether we understand them or not)!