It’s the end of my fourth day here in Barcelona and I think I’m starting to settle in. The weirdest thing about this experience is how non-weird everything seems to me. Of course there are plenty of small differences from the US - things like the shape of soda cans, using a button instead of a lever to flush the toilet, and the apparent lack of street names (they are named but the signs are quite difficult to find). I think I got all the being amazed by such things out of my system on my trip to Italy last year. These things are strange for a minute but hardly affect everyday life. I still go to class, ride the subway, buy groceries, cook dinner, check Twitter, and occasionally do some productive work. In that respect, my life in Barcelona vs. Atlanta is more similar than high school vs. college.
There remains one glaring difference, however: the language barrier. In my head I’m positive I know enough Spanish to get by, but in real life it’s not so easy. The first time I went into a cafe to get some lunch and the waiter asked me something my mind went completely blank. I must have had the worst deer-in-the-headlights look as I tried to point to something on the menu while saying “um” a whole lot. He probably knew enough English to make the transaction but I’m not even sure I could have done that myself with how badly I panicked, let alone recall enough castellano to ask ¿habla Usted inglés? or even request un momento to collect my thoughts.
I was able to relax a bit after getting some food down, but the experience was a bit embarassing. I’m not really sure why I reacted that way - I’ve heard of culture shock but never language shock, and I certainly wouldn’t have imagined it as such a visceral, adrenaline-producing thing. Further interactions have gone a bit smoother - I’m able to speak with a very poor accent and understand the gist of the response, but my brain takes a bit of time to process, usually leading to a lot of gesturing by both parties until it finally “clicks”. I’m trying to improve, but it’s so tempting to reach for “¿habla Usted inglés?” whenever it takes me more than a second to figure out what to say.
It’s humbling to have to struggle with basic things like ordering a sandwich or asking for directions to a bathroom. Even though I know the phrases for those things, it takes a non-zero mental effort to recall and use them. Of course that may not even be enough - someone might use a word or structure I don’t know when responding, or I might need to construct a longer sentence to clarify something. The overall result is friction. Something that would be automatic for me in English takes effort, and something I already find difficult, like meeting new people, becomes stressful to even think about.
It would be easy to avoid the whole issue by sticking close to people in the group who can speak confidently and letting them handle any outside interaction. This would be a stupid way to spend three months in Spain. I might be more comfortable, but I wouldn’t be happy. The path of least resistance is not going to get me where I want to be. The only way to get what I want is to push through the discomfort. This may be an obvious statement, but sometimes it takes an extraordinary event to remind us of obvious truths.
A lot of things come easily to me, and I’m fortunate to be studying and working in a field I enjoy. But this has also made it easy for me to build up defense mechanisms against discomfort. My natural tendency is to avoid it until I can’t anymore and it’s become something far worse than if I had just gritted my teeth and pushed forward. It’s going to be a tough battle to wear down this habit, but it’s one I have to fight if I aspire to do anything besides coast through life, and maybe language learning is a way to start small. This week I saw a vivid illustration of two paths. I can work to become the man I want to be, or I can waste days and months and years and still be a man afraid to order a sandwich.