I’ve written in the past about the knotty subject of integration for the Europeans: the foreigners, the ingleses or the what-have-yous. Every one of them with a copy of ‘Teach Yourself Spanish’ stashed under the bed. Unopened. Perhaps it’s a bit of a pipe dream to suggest that we all learn the language of Cervantes and start waffling about the finer points of Cante Jondo over a glass of fino with the good ol’ boys at the far end of the bar. After all, at 57 years old (the average age for a resident with time on his hands), it’s hard to expect someone to learn ten words of Spanish a day when he can barely remember the name of his wife.
The nation’s barmen and waiters have risen to the challenge and now enquire after the gentleman’s health in English. It’s actually a bit annoying for those Spaniards who had the misfortune to be born blonde, or indeed those foreigners who have learnt Spanish. They will still be treated to a ‘You wan’ beer?’ There’s not even much point in answering in Castellano in these circumstances as the waiter considers himself to be on a roll and won’t want to change gear. ‘Yea, I’ll take a big beer’ says the customer (he gestures so big).
Even in those establishments far from the tourist route (always excepting the town halls), most Spaniards can crank out enough English to save the day. Gone are the times when an outsider was treated like a Martian. Those far-off days when the mayor once asked me to tell a bawling foreign kid to shaddap. ‘But I don’t speak his language’, I said (the child was German). ‘You speak ‘foreign’, so speak foreign to the kid already’, answered the dignitary. He had a point.
But most foreigners aren’t those intrepid types who bought an old ruin in Fiñana and are fixing it up ‘poco a poco’, most foreigners, in fact, climbed off the plane yesterday and, after changing out of their worsteds into something more comfortable in their hotel room, have just sauntered into their first proper bar. Of course they won’t speak any Spanish – about half of them won’t even know they’re in Spain.
‘Hello mister, I espik ingli very well fandangui’. Laugh if you like, I was told that phrase by a Spanish co-worker.
Now that tourism has apparently taken such a knock, with improbable destinations like Serbia and Bulgaria starting to eat into our bucket and spade crowds, the Spanish are waking up – finally – to Residential Tourism. Which is, unfortunately, not necessarily a Good Thing. However, while there’s subject-matter for a few essays down the line, we’ll remain here with the topic of communication between neighbours, because long term neighbours need to be known and understood. In Sweden, the state actually pays that country’s immigrants to learn the language. Here, as we know, there has never been the least interest from the authorities regarding the improvement of our communicative skills. The only comments on this hoary subject coming from the Spaniards themselves: ‘they want to live here and they won’t learn our language!’ This is a bit unfair since, as I’ve suggested above, it’s not easy learning a new language when you’re a bit long in the tooth. I suspect that living in the midst of an English-speaking community in a town which is more or less prepared for your presence makes it all a bit easier, especially if you like chip butties – on the other hand, try parachuting into the middle of Albacete or somewhere ‘far from the madding crowds’ and you’d soon pick up some Spanish.
So locally, it’s the Spaniards who have made the effort and attempt to communicate in English: this often means that they employ Rumanians, who can evidently pick up a language in a week. In fact, the problem is more about those visitors here who don’t speak English. Imagine coming to Spain all the way from Jutland and having just ordered two beers in the hotel bar and been served a coffee, a gin and tonic and a bowl of crisps; and saying resignedly to your wife, ‘Gerda, ve should not have taken dose Spanish lessons. Ve should haff learnt English’.
Oddly, though, while our affable hosts and neighbours may have learnt some ‘inglés’ – perhaps for commercial reasons as they rarely pop into Fred’s Fish n’ Chippee for a merry bowl of mushy peas and a glass of Abbots – they are not too concerned about writing it properly. We have all seen the ‘This establishement has a complaining sheet’ thing, which has been hanging on the wall, by the way, since 1967, or one I saw tonight on the television - off topic but worth a mention - in homage to Dean Martin singing ‘My Riffle, my Horse, and Me’. One might suggest, since they are trying to catch the English-speaking customer, that they would, um, you know, ask a Brit over a beer to check the spelling, rather than run the risk of losing business and having the customer laugh at you… I mean, you can always pick out a friendly resident (unless you are threatening to knock down his house). He’s the one having a brandy at 9.00am. These residents, of course, make up a sizable part of the local economy, and this is why so many billboards, menus, and peculiar looking property-catalogues are enthusiastically splitting their infinitives at the prospect of doing business with them.
One cool day in November a couple of years back I was walking along Bond Street deep in conversation with a Spanish friend who is a councillor in our local town. As we sliced our way through groups of Arab and Russian shoppers we were wondering why there were no British people about. They had, of course, all moved to Spain but I didn’t tell him that. Suddenly, a tall Englishman with a clip-board apparently conducting a survey attempted to stop us. ‘Lo siento’, I said in Spanish, ‘No hablo inglés’. I don’t speak English. And we pushed past him. I actually felt his bemused glare scorching my back and after a few yards, I turned around to have a second look at him. He stared back and suddenly called in pretty good schoolboy Spanish, ‘¿Dónde está el ayuntamiento?’ Where is the town hall?
I think he had me sussed.