“What,” my new friend asked over the phone, “would you say is the difference between life in Spain and in the States?”
This was a guy I had met recently, an Albuquerque native who had never visited Spain. He had taken his family to London once, many years ago, but that was pretty much the extent of his foreign travels. I wasn’t even sure he’d ever even looked at a map of Spain. And yet, he said, he was more drawn to Spain than to other European countries.
The difference between Spain and the States? I could name so many. We had already, in our conversation, touched on public transportation, the size of homes, gun laws, and the dinner hour. What was left? So much, including worker protections, health care, grandparents, and pastries.
I couldn’t decide. Hmmm, I replied, then commented that I should have a ready answer. He wasn’t the first to ask, and I’d had time to think about the question. Plenty of time—years, in fact. So why didn’t I have a convincing reply? Probably because my answer felt inadequate. It wasn’t, after all, some verifiable claim I might make about Spanish customs or the Spanish character vs. the American. Rather, my feeling that it was so easy in the States to communicate with people in offices, shops, or on the street, with neighbors, friends, and family, compared with the struggle it often is to understand and be understood in Spanish. And my trouble with the Spanish language couldn’t, surely, be the essential difference between life in the States and life in Spain? Talk about solipsism! Nevertheless, for want of any other answer, I prepared to say that everything is much easier when you share a language with the people you’re talking to.
But is that true? On my return to the States after some time abroad, I’ll first sigh with relief at hearing English all around me. Everything is going to be so easy now! Just open my mouth and let the words flow. But it isn’t always the smooth, seamless communication I expect. Or, if it is seamless, it is only by luck that none of the usual and myriad difficulties are present that dog us when we turn to our fellows to make ourselves understood. On thinking further, I decided that, in fact, trouble communicating with Spaniards seems simple and straightforward, a matter of my not knowing what they are saying, or their not understanding me. We try again, we search for other words. Whether we make ourselves understood or not, the assumption is that understanding is possible. The key is the right words.
So what’s going on when I feel my best friend is being purposefully obtuse? When my mother is acting addled but asking me if I’m okay? When no words I can think of will bring me closer to my brother because a complicated thing like our vision is different, not a simple one like our language? What then? Yes, differing ways and views are as likely to be encountered with Spaniards, only you don’t know it, stumbling and bruising yourself first on words, not ideas. Here’s my answer: in the States, when language fails to lead to the right warm feeling, I believe such a feeling doesn’t exist. I believe language sometimes pulls people close, but it doesn’t hold them together. In Spain, when language fails, I convince myself that the first stumbling block is the only one, and under the rough surface of my uneasy communication is a smooth and deep well of peace and understanding, if only I can dig my way to find it. Behind the wall I keep hitting is a sanctuary to shelter in, where just one match keeps you warm.
I didn’t answer my friend’s question. Unless “I don’t know” counts. He’s American, we speak the same language, we have no reason to misunderstand one another. In my experience, though, it is human nature to misunderstand. Dismal thought. That must be why I still live in Spain, on the outside, dreaming of one day finding my way in. A cozy thought. Better to envy the ones on the inside than pity everyone. So I continue, tripping, falling, and scraping my knees, wearing myself out, when miscommunication could be so much easier.
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