Common sense, of which I like to think I have at least a few drops, told me that moving abroad would come with a definite learning curve. I expected to have language barrier issues. I knew I wouldn’t always know what to order at at which restaurant at which time. I accepted that I wouldn’t have the first clue when it came to flirting with Spanish men or dealing with government bureaucracy or deciding if 13 degrees celsius is jacket or coat weather.
But what I wasn’t prepared for were the hundreds of situations where I didn’t even know what question to ask, or whether I needed to ask at all. Some days I swear my Spanish-speaking self never learned the basics of navigating life from my English-speaking self. If I had a euro for every time a stared dumbfounded at a store clerk waiting for my brain to catch up to what was going on or blurted out a collection of Spanish words that five minutes later I realized made absolutely no sense whatsoever, I could take that 10-day trip to Greece I’ve been dreaming about.
In the 18 months I’ve lived in Spain I have had my fair share of mishaps and mistakes. Some of those lapses of understanding/judgement/language/common sense have cost me hundreds of euros. Others, only my pride. Some of them I’m sure I’ll laugh about later… others still make me cringe. So without further ado, here are the eight lessons I’ve learned the hard way since moving to Spain.
1. Never put your purse in a bike basket.
It was the first gorgeously sunny day since I moved to Sevilla during my study abroad in 2010. My two American girlfriends and I hopped on our bikeshare bikes and were peddling down to the park to frolic in the Springtime wonderfulness. In my sun-soaked euphoria I let me guard completely down. I was chatting on my cell phone with one hand and aimlessly steering my bike with the other when I saw a white motorcycle begin to pull up beside me on the bike path.
Even after four years I can perfectly picture the man’s face as I looked over. I smiled at him, thinking he was coming up to say hello (yep, I was that naive) and in a split second I saw his face turn from contentment to malice. He reached out his hand, snatched my purse out of the front wire basket of my bike and darted across the six-lane rotunda. My mad-woman screams were to no avail. My furious peddling after him was useless. I had just enough of my wits about me not to dart into six lanes of traffic trying to follow him.
Everything was gone. My brand-new purse from the artisan stand on the Barcelona beach, my digital camera, my flip camera (this was 2010 remember), my ipod, my credit cards and student IDs, the 50€ I just pulled out of the ATM. After my hysteria died down, the police reports were filed and my travelers insurance check to replace everything was received, I realized two hugely important lessons. First, never carry all your electronics in the same purse (duh.). Second, things are just things. They are replaceable. My life was not, as I originally thought, in that purse. I just happened to have a bunch of tools to capture the joys of my life in that purse.
2. Beware of reflexive verbs
The dread-inducing Subjunctive verb tense aside, my biggest fail in learning Spanish has been correctly using reflexive verbs. In Spanish you don’t say “I’m taking a shower,” you say “I’m showering myself.” And as if learning the insane number of commonly-used Spanish verbs wasn’t tricky enough, many of them completely change their meaning if they are used reflexively. For example, acordar means “to agree” but acordarse means “to remember.” Seems safe enough right? So I accidentally say “I remember that we should go to that restaurant” instead of “I agree that we should go.” Life goes on…
But then there is the verb odiar, which means “to hate.” It wasn’t until about seven months into living in Galicia last year that someone finally told me that odiar was NOT a reflexive verb. For months I had gone around telling co-workers, friends and waiters that “I hate myself” instead of “I hate driving” or “I hate pickled white asparagus.”
But my accidental self-loathing debacle was nothing compared to my confusion/embarrassment over the word correr. It’s one of the first words you learn in beginner Spanish classes: correr, “to run.” But add that pesky little “me” to that innocent word for exercise and the meaning changes completely. Correrse means “to cum,” as in have an orgasm. In my inability to properly place reflexive pronouns, I’m pretty sure I told our housekeeper last week “I’m going to orgasm, see you in a hour.” Oh the verguenza….
3. Beware of words for oblong vegetables and household objects
In Spanish, seemingly everything has a double meaning. And more often than not, that second meaning is “penis.” Living with four Spaniards I’m quickly learning how to talk about fruit, vegetables and straws without calling any of them by name. “Can you pass me the thing you use to drink out of that is long and skinny?” I’ll ask. Or “I love that fresh, green, watery vegetable on my salads,” I’ll say.
I learned to avoid words for oblong objects one evening while watching a YouTube video one of our past roommates had made. In it she demonstrated how to make her favorite cocktail, a “PinkTonic.” At the end of the video she takes a sip of the finished product with a super cool brightly-colored straw. Trying to participate in the oohs and ahhs and congratulations of my other roommates once the video finished, I said (or tried to say) “I love that straw! So cool!” All four of them burst into laughter. Apparently I had said “I love to masturbate.” Paja, I learned, technically means “straw” but is more often used as a slang word for “masturbate.” Pajita, the diminutive, is what I should have said. Oops…. lesson learned. For reference, also be careful with the words for cucumber, turnip, chicken, eggs, shell, clam and female rabbit.
4. Don’t open the door for strangers. Even strangers with official-looking Comunidad de Madrid badges
I had just finished lunch and was stretched out in the afternoon sun beams streaming through my window when the doorbell rang. I had seen workers tinkering with the elevator and construction-like cables strung through the staircase on my way in that afternoon so I assumed it was someone making sure I still had electricity or informing me that the elevator would be out for a day or two. I tiptoed to the door and peered through the peephole. It was a youngish man with a Community of Madrid government badge and clipboard. I opened the door. Mistake #1.
In insanely rapid Spanish he started telling me something about a yearly test that the provincial government requires on all hot water heaters. He showed me the three-color carbon copy paperwork, allowed me to inspect his badge and then asked to come in and perform the check. “Vale….” I said, showing him to the hot water heater in the kitchen. (Mom, please don’t freak out.)
He held what I’m pretty sure he said was a carbon monoxide measurer up to the hot water heater, wrote down some notes, slapped an official-looking sticker on the front and asked me to sign at the bottom of the form. Then he told me to go get my credit card. Five minutes, about five hundred extremely fast Spanish words and a 200€ charge to my credit card later, he was gone. Later that night my roommates informed me that the “test” was not obligatory, the badge was probably fake and that I had been robustly scammed. The 200€ hurt. But the damage to my pride hurt worse. Just when I thought I was finally starting to understand this new culture I was living in, a fake electrician put me squarely back into the guiri category. Ufff.
5. Go straight to a specialist
Contrary to popular belief in conservative America, the socialist Spanish health system is not hell on Earth. Quite the opposite in fact. It is efficient, massively inexpensive and usually quite good. That is, if you use it correctly.
Three weeks ago I woke up one morning and couldn’t hear out of one ear. I had been stuffed up and assumed that my cold had settled in my ear overnight. Hoping it would resolve itself, I put off going to the doctor. Fast forward one week and I still can’t hear, I feel like I’m in an airplane midway over the Atlantic and the screams of the children in my elementary English class are reverberating around my head. It was time to see a doctor.
Not having the first clue how to go about doing so, I called the number on the back of my insurance card and made the first available appointment. “Do you want the general doctor or a specialist,” the insurance woman asked. “I don’t know… whichever,” I responded. The general medicine doctor I saw was the poster child for everything that could ever be wrong with a medical system. She kept no records, ran no tests and used the “assumption” method of diagnosis. Two super strong antibiotics and two weeks of continuing deafness later I made an appointment with a specialist.
The super nice ear specialist (or otorrinolaringologista in Spanish… yikes.) informed me I’d never had an ear infection, had been taking antibiotics for no reason, and prescribed me and anti-inflammatory instead. Two days later I could hear fine, the pain was gone and I vowed to never go to a general medicine doctor again. At least all the visits were free…
6. Don’t overestimate the Schengen Agreement
I remember the day my small-handed and adorable European Union professor taught us about the Schengen Agreement. The agreements stems from one pillar of the EU treaty: the free moment of people, he explained in his captivatingly cute British accent. Any EU citizen can travel between countries that have signed onto the Schengen Agreement (which includes the majority of European countries) without a passport. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention that rule doesn’t apply to U.S. citizens such as myself.
I inadvertently tested that agreement last February while trying to visit a good friend in Paris. Preoccupied with planning whether I wanted Nutella and strawberries or Nutella and banana on my first crepe, I forgot to tuck my passport into my red carry-on Samsonite. Halfway to the airport in La Coruña, about a two and a half hour train ride from my tiny Galician pueblo, I realized my error. Frantically searching my purse, I spotted my Spanish residency card, remembered the darling British man’s lecture and breathed easy.
At the airport I learned the harsh reality. No passport, no boarding pass, no Paris. Luckily, one of the teachers at the school in my pueblo lived in Coruña, ran by my apartment, picked up my passport and rushed it to the airport. Waiting the hour and a half for him to arrive, watch the “boarding” sign flicker at my gate number easily took five years off my life.
I missed my flight by, I kid you not, 6 minutes. The fantastic man at Iberia was a saint and put me on the first flight to Paris the next morning. I still got my Nutella crepes but I will never. Ever. go to the airport without my passport again.