Apologies for this post’s trite title (tritle).
I am in Barcelona to learn Spanish, well perhaps a better description would be that I am in Barcelona to salvage what little Spanish I learned over three years at University. When I booked my course I thought, ‘Barcelona, how fantastic, a real Spanish city’. Well I was fundamentally wrong there, Barcelona is fantastic but it is not a Spanish city. It is a Catalunyan city. I didn’t realize how deep the separatist sentiment ran here. Catalunyans sincerely resent the Spanish federal government, the monarchy, they disdain Real Madrid FC, and seem only to tolerate Castilian (Spanish language) preferring to discourse in the French/Spanish hybrid language: Catalan.
It is common to hear about Basque seperatism, thanks largely to ETA, but regionalism is also palpable here. Indeed, it is difficult to find something that unites the Catalunyan with the Castilian. The (terrific) Museum of Catalunyan History presents one of the most subjective histories I have ever seen (rivalling the Museums in Saigon and Vientiane). Never have I seen so many defeats spun so masterfully into a positive light.
When I first arrived while desperately searching for a conversation topic with my host family, which wasn’t a totally lame and obvious question, I asked about the World Cup (both lame and obvious). The first and only thing that was said about that was ‘did you know that ten members of the squad are Catalunyan?’ I didn’t said I, and with that the conversation drew to a close.
This leads, somehow, to the topic of my post: my grapplings with language and conversation in Catalunya.
For me, conversations are an art in the same way that war is an art for Sun Tzu. A conversation is a battle, you enter the field with your arsenal of tact, questions, humour, self-deprecation etc. You then employ all of these weapons in the hope of walking off the field without having caused offence, destroyed your own dignity, spilled your drink on the person or bored them to death. This is followed by a lengthy post-conversational introspective debrief: ‘God should I have said that? Should I have offered to shake hands three times? I really shouldn’t have made that joke about Jewish bankers at this Bat Mitzvah’. You then adjust for the next conversation accordingly.
Countless debriefs have had an impact upon me. For instance, I now overcompensate handshakes. That is, I will shake hands whether or not the situation calls for it. Casual encounter in the street= handshake; graduation= handshake with everyone on the stage and all my fellow students and their parents; at the shop= handshake with the clerk who has just approached me. Everyone gets a handshake these days, a conservative, run of the mill handshake is my compromise bookend for social interaction. The handshake is far less risky than doing the kiss on the cheek thing that, for a lanky chap with appalling coordination, is a recipe for a slap. I also try and be as self-deprecatory as possible, if you are diminished as much as possible then you cannot help but be looked upon with pity (a pity-complement is still a complement!).
This type of self-destructive humour translates quite poorly into Spanish (and Italian and Brazilian) where insults are serious things and the wont to insult oneself is a very strange trait indeed. Nonetheless, having the worst capacity for adaption to new environs I forged ahead with my style of conversation on my first day in class.
After overbearingly shaking everybody’s hand in my class I took my seat. The teacher asked my name and I proceeded to cascade forth: ‘Rupert… but call me Robert if it is easier… because the family of my girlfriend are Italian and they call me Robert… because it is easier to say Robert than Rupert.’ That is verbatim how I told the teacher my name. I had delivered the same performance to my host family when I arrived, confusing them as to whether my name is Rupert or Robert and leaving them to to double check with me at breakfast (it didn’t help that Josep initially thought my name was Dylan). So, even though I knew the Catalunyan could pronounce Rupert with ease I still insisted on providing two options for a name when I was asked. Giving straight-forward answers, like my name, is not my forte.
This was followed up by an attempt at self-effacement: ‘my name isn’t important’. Of course, administratively it was very important to identify who this sputtery, sickly looking fellow actually was and to make sure that he belonged in the class not in a sanitarium. More importantly my attempt at self-effacement was actually an incredibly arrogant line usually reserved for Bondesque secret agents to deliver to femme fatales. I had delivered a secret-agent’s pickup line with a self-effacing tone. The teacher kind of drew back with a look of confusion.
When asked about where I am from I said ‘I am from Melbourne, but it is boring in Melbourne because… it is very…’, I couldn’t quite think of a reason it was boring I just felt a need to self-efface more and sledge everything related to me in order to put people at ease (as if this paddle-pop stick shaped Australian is some intimidating presence anyway!), the word I chose was ‘stable.’ Melbourne is boring because it is stable. Because war and unrest are what makes a place really exciting? What the hell was I saying. Of course, this line was jumped upon by the Brazilians ‘So Brazil is fun because it is not as stable?’, and the teacher asked ‘And Barcelona? Is it fun too?’ at this point my brain had gone to battle stations I had faux-pa’d and come under a withering bombardment of indignation. I grappled at all the levers in my head: ‘Yes, no, yes, no because Barcelona is fun because it has, you know, history and interesting… customs’ that is how I think on my feet. Poorly.
After his first fifteen minutes of conversation in class Rubert (or is it Ropert) had a lot of debriefing to do!