The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - Soho in the Eight­ies

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

(Blooms­bury, £20).

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