THE BLOG

Going Solo: Literally Lost in Translation

10/18/2012 12:22 EDT | Updated 12/18/2012 05:12 EST
Flickr: V31S70

I had a bit of a moment this weekend and was really missing home. I'm very aware that a big part of moving alone to a new city is accepting that some days are going to be crappier than others, but that doesn't make it any easier to force myself out of my apartment on days when I just want to hide from the life of a solo traveller. I certainly love a lot about living in Madrid, and most of the challenges I've faced have been matched by positive outcomes, but I'm not feeling so optimistic today so I invite you to join my pity party.

I mentioned in a previous post that I've befriended a group of really great Spanish people -- a stroke of luck that came out of an awkward moment at a Spanish retro dance party. I met these friends two weeks into my move to Madrid, connected with a few of them, and have since ended up meeting their other friends, and those peoples' other friends, and so on and so forth. I'm actually starting to feel like I have a social circle in Madrid, which feels unexpected.

Of course I thought I would make friends while I'm here, and hoped to establish strong relationships with at least a few them, but at least in recent memory feeling part of a group has been foreign to me. Not that I have purposely avoided being in a group or anything, I just tend to gravitate towards one-on-one relationships. I think it is a comfort thing more than it is a choice thing -- I just feel safer spending my time with people who know me really really well and vice versa.

If I am being totally honest, I can be reluctant to meet new people. I fear awkward silences (take that, two years of social work training!) and am shitty at asking people questions about trivial things (thank you, two years of social work training!). Consequently, when I do meet new people, I'm usually pretty anxious about coming off as too intense. A duh. Building intimate friendships takes time and taking steps towards feeling comfortable with new people and acquaintances was a major goal for me in this move. I've been getting a lot of practice, and I do see an increase of my general "friendliness" and a decrease in my general "hide in my apartmentness," but that doesn't mean I'm not feeling the effort it takes to constantly push myself outside of my comfort zone.

I feel really lucky to have met a bunch of different people in a bunch of different settings since moving here. But now I'm at the point where I'm looking to move forward in these relationships, and am hoping to get to know people better and share more of myself with them. What's been difficult is that I lack the language skills to communicate with people beyond what I would share with a new person or casual acquaintance. So now I find myself stuck on the surface or obliging other people to speak with me in English. I know some people don't mind doing it but I hate when people think I'm not trying, and I have a lot of guilt about asking a bunch of native-speakers to give up their norm in order to convenience me.

If I were to walk into a religious building while travelling or at home, I would expect to accommodate whatever the social norm might be and would, for example, cover myself up. I would never ask someone in such a context to be okay with my wearing a tank top and shorts or, worse, ask someone to change their dress to make me feel more comfortable. I would make the change to accommodate the culture and I would be glad to do it. But then why am I okay with asking someone in Spain to give up their language comfort in order to speak with me in English? In truth, I'm not sure how okay with it I am, but I'm constantly finding myself stuck between wanting to be culturally appropriate and wanting to communicate with the people around me. Given my inability to engage and accommodate the norm at the same time, I kind of have to pick one over the other.

So let's just say for now I'm choosing to engage with other people in whatever way I can. We all need to feel connected, so I can accept that this is my choice at least temporarily. But this isn't a choice that will work for me forever and it isn't actually cutting it in all contexts at present.

This past weekend for example, I spent time with new friends in a few different social settings with varying degrees of communication success. On Friday night, we started by going out for dinner and I felt good and had lots of things to hear and say. But then we went to a bar and this setting was much less successful. The room was dark, it was loud, and we were drinking. All of these things work against me and my desire to communicate with people in Spanish.

After sitting in the bar for a little while, I found myself trying really, really hard to follow along and failing miserably. My friend Pablo told me that when he first moved to London he would stand in a group of people and nod emphatically through conversations until someone turned to him and asked, "Do you understand?" It seems that he was generally able to fake it through most conversations. My facial expression in these moments must be somewhere between dread and hypnosis because people never seem to need to ask me if understand them.

I usually clue back into a conversation when I hear someone sensitively tell their friend to speak in English so I can participate. Or, in the case of Friday, when someone gestures towards me empathetically and says "she doesn't understand what I'm saying." What generally happens in these situations is one person ends up playing translator (which I don't mind... It's really nice actually and it keeps me part of the conversation) or, more frequently, joins me for an English conversation on the side. I'm not so self-deprecating to think that they aren't enjoying talking to me, but I still feel guilty about needing to be babysat.

I was feeling a bit discouraged after the bar on Friday so was excited for our third setting -- a funk music dance party. In this setting I think I thrived: not a whole lot of talking, fabulous dancing, and a hilarious game of choreographing dance moves for people in the bar to follow. I loved this and felt in my element and didn't feel like a half-person in any way.

I got to bed at 5 a.m. but, thanks to my gorgeous floor to ceiling windows and the sun that started to rise three hours later, barely slept that night. By Saturday afternoon I was pooped and in major need of a nap but only had time to close my eyes for 20 minutes before heading, late, to a friend's birthday party.

When I got to the party I was physically exhausted and did not have it in me to be "on." The party is what actually made me realize how hard I work to participate in or at least try to follow conversations in Spanish. My physical state made it so that I couldn't read the lips or focus long enough on the intonation and body language of others to figure out what was going on around me. I was so tired that I was even failing at the one on one conversations -- and those ones were in English!

It's not so unusual for me to have a quiet night where it feels more comfortable to listen and observe than it does to participate, but typically on these nights I can be an engaged listener and at least somewhat attend to the people around me. Saturday night, I found myself just entirely shut down. I felt badly about it, but my moment of feeling sorry for myself hit its peak when faced with my exhaustion. Ultimately I gave up. I excused myself early, a.k.a. 1 a.m. (Spain, you crazy) and went home.

At this point I would love to be able to point out all the wonderful lessons I have learned from this weekend of feeling inadequate in Madrid. But I'm not so into that today. I don't think there is much more to say other than, when you're in a new country trying to respectably learn a new language, sometimes you just have to hold your head high and accept the suck.

Sometimes finding the life lesson is transformative, but sometimes the only way to make feelings feel less intense is engaging in some good old-fashioned self-care. Though I had lots of plans to leave the house and do interesting things on Sunday, I stayed home all day to do a bit of wallowing. I enjoyed me some pathetic fallacy and watched the first rain since I moved to Madrid. I got groceries, and did some cooking therapy, and talked to friends and family over skype for most of the evening. I ate some of my feelings in my favourite Spanish tapas dish -- Gambas al Ajillo and, in an effort to channel some Canadiana and further fulfil my stomach's desire to sooth my soul, just made a veggie-filled lactose-free poutine dinner. And now, of course, I'm blogging. The lesson might come later, but right now I'm happier doing the things that make me feel good about myself no matter where I am or what language I'm trying to communicate in.

The thing is, I will get better at Spanish, and will be able to develop deeper connections when I do. It's hard right now but something else is going to be hard two months and five months and however many months from now. So yeah, I'm holding my head high and accepting the suck, and plan on being out of my funk entirely when I wake up in the morning.

Bueno. Tomorrow's another day.