LEARN A LANGUAGE STUDY IN SITU
CESA (cesa languages.com) has courses from one-week long, worldwide. Learn French in Paris or Guadeloupe. A one-week Spanish course in Seville with accommodation costs from £350. Language Courses Abroad (languages abroad.co.uk) runs schools in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle
My decision to pick up the language by immersion and travelling by public transport entailed mistakes. A small one was assuming the Spanish for “street” was rua. (I’d landed in Cantabria where they do say rua, rather than the Castilian calle.)
A bigger mistake was to think that the first sentences I learnt were the most important. Naturally I could soon say, “Give me drink. Give me food.” But people sell you food and drink anyway. Once, with a sense of hopelessness and depersonalisation, I sat in a cheap restaurant in León with a menu and no idea what anything was. The relief, when the waiter suggested things to try, was all the greater.
In reality, knowing the names of foodstuffs is not the obstacle, though I do remember a surreal charade of a waiter acting out the animal that caracol signifies. The horns confused me, until all became plain when I realised it meant “snail”. No, the bigger question is what to eat when.
It would seem odd to us if a foreign tourist chose spotted dick and custard as a starter. But it seemed pretty odd to an Englishman abroad in a café at 11am to find one table eating ensaimadas (a sort of bun) with coffee and another table eating tuna and raw onions with little glasses of draught beer. Simon Courtauld, the veteran Hispanophile, remembers being the only person in a station cafeteria waiting for a train before dawn who was not drinking a brandy with his coffee.
What to eat when and how form part of the unscripted everyday culture, closely aligned to language. It also includes one’s bodily attitude. Spaniards tend to look at you as they pass, in a manner we might think rudely staring. But after a few days in Plasencia or some such inland town, I find myself seeing English tourists through Spanish eyes, and their demeanour is not impressive. Instead of speaking out, engaging eye contact and saying what they want, the English (men notably) murmur, look at the ground and dither.
From the other direction, many a Briton in Spain has been shocked by a piece of Spanish convention in those busy bars with delicious tapas in the hour or so before lunch (which is, by iron law, not before 2pm). This is the throwing of East, with special classes for people aged 50+. A month-long intensive German beginners’ course in Heidelberg costs £1,414, including accommodation. rubbish on the floor. The head and legs of the prawn with your glass of wine join the little paper servilletas on the terrazzo floor, with the wooden cocktail sticks used to anchor tapas, the olive stones, the used sugar sachets and the cigarette ends (before the Spanish lost their liberty to smoke in bars and restaurants on Jan 2 2011). As the clock strikes, the tide of drinkers disappears, and someone emerges from behind the bar with a broom and sweeps it all up.
In the past few years, this convention has weakened, and bins have appeared into which some people throw odds and ends. It’s convention that matters, and convention means manners. In France, no one minds if you don’t know the word for cigarette lighter. The vital thing upon entering the shop is to say: “Bonjour, Madame.”
There can be false friends in the language of courtesy. My old friend in Soho, the stagecarpenter Mick Tobin, once had a newspaper pitch near Cambridge Circus. When tourists asked him the way to a theatre, he often replied: “It’s next to the school.”
“Which school is that?”
“The school where they teach you to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.”
But the English-language politeness of saying please does not transfer into Spanish. English people say por favor too often. In Spanish this can have the connotation of “if you please”, and sounds peremptory.
English, however, lacks the counter-thanks expressed by Spanish de nada, Italian prego or German bitte. Restaurant staff in Britain, generally being foreign and feeling a gap, say, “You’re welcome,” which sounds inauthentic, or follow the Antipodean route into “No problem”, which some customers find annoying, as though service was usually a problem. But in a country where such a slot exists, it is certainly worth filling it if you ever do anything that wins a native’s thanks.
With a bit of Spanish, half the Americas were open to me, too. The funniest consequence one year was to find myself isolated in Mexico City on Christmas Day. I’d carelessly assumed the wrong cultural model: it was not all fiesta and fireworks in cantinas. Like London, the whole place closed down for the day. All that could be seen in the deserted streets were policemen in dress uniform, including white gloves, directing the non-existent traffic at intersections.
I hardly spoke to anyone all day until I decided
Instead of speaking out and engaging eye contact, the English murmur, look at the ground and dither
to take the Metro (open, unlike the London Underground) to the great shrine of Guadalupe and found myself picnicking with Indians in the sunshine. Some of them, like me, spoke Spanish as a second language.
My exceptions to the Learn the Language rule are single-purpose visits, to see Hagia Sophia in Trabzon, for example, or the holy grail in Bamberg. (That’s another story). To concentrate the journey into going, seeing and immediately returning is rewarding. Chit-chat comes second.
Indeed, I was delighted to find on a slow train from Cologne the last man in Germany not to speak English. He was the guard. I was on the wrong train, but didn’t mind much, as it was upstairs on a double-decker, with pleasant views of the countryside, so mysteriously lacking in cows, in the German manner. The guard then had a brain wave. He wrote down the estimated time of arrival. Figures are a universal language that works even in China, I’m told.
Otherwise, the incremental process of learning the language never ends, any more than getting to know the country, as the whole purpose of going abroad.
Christopher Howse’s latest book is