Saturday, 7 February 2009
To cut a long camino short - story 1 - the language barrier
The language barrier
I put a lot of time and effort into planning my first Camino. I intended to follow the Via de la Plata from Seville to Santiago de Compostela and I intended to do at least half in January. It was a deliberate choice. I knew I wouldn’t meet many, if any, other pilgrims and I wanted to experience the long hours of solitary walking. I also knew that I would need to speak enough Spanish to make myself understood on a day to day basis and also enough to deal with any emergencies. I had been taking Spanish lessons for some time and I increased these in the months leading up to the first steps being taken on the Camino.
My Spanish teacher was a young Spaniard from Galicia who took my plans very seriously indeed although I suspect he thought the concept of a 1000 kms pilgrimage by foot a little more than eccentric. Locissimo was a word I learned early in the process. As the departure date got closer he prepared various scenarios that I had to deal with: asking complicated directions including yellow arrows and trees and boulders; finding an albergue then if it was full, a hostal, and if that didn’t exist, a hotel; calling 112 in an emergency and so on. I swung from elation to depression as one minute I was trying to secure a bed in a very nice hostal and the next I was phoning emergency services to tell them I had a broken arm/chest pain/ fever etc.
Knowing that the days are short in January I was worried that one day I might get lost in the darkness and I asked him to rehearse with me what I should say if I saw a light in the window of a little finca and knocked on the door to ask for help. He shrieked with laughter. “This is rural Spain“ he said. “They will shout, “who is there?” in a dialect you won’t understand and when they hear your accent they will assume the worst. The wife will order the husband not to open the door and the husband will fetch his gun – you have to realise that they will not understand you and you will not understand them.” With that he launched into a high pitched, singsong and totally unintelligible take off of the accent of a rural farm worker.
Now, I had been taking lessons for some time. My teacher and I were having long conversations. My friends in Spain were impressed each time I visited at the progress I was making and so even with this advice I was pretty confident I could get by in most situations. This of course in complete denial of the reality that as a Scotsman living in London I frequently speak with an accent that people don’t understand even with both of us ostensibly speaking in English.
And so it was in my “fluent” Spanish I wished happy New Year, good luck and goodbye to my friends when I set off on 2 January. I had walked a couple of the first stages earlier and so I started in Guillena a small town outside Seville surrounded by farm land. 100 yards into the Camino I heard a voice behind me. I hadn’t a clue what he had said and I turned to encounter a wee old man, his deep brown face wrinkled with age and the sun, with the sweetest one tooth smile carrying a small basket of apples. “Hola” I said. He appeared to ignore this and simply said again what I assume he had said previously. Only this time I thought I detected the word “camino” in the rapid stream of noises he directed at me. I said “Si” and I was relieved when he patted my shoulder approvingly. Encouraged by this exchange he then let forth another burst and I knew in an instant I was in difficulty. He fixed me in his gaze and this time I ventured a much more tentative “Si”. He was by now clearly assessing my sanity so I even more tentatively changed the “Si” to a “no?” He nodded approvingly at the latter. To this day I have no clue what he was saying. He then launched forth on a speech. It could have been about anything from the instability of the Spanish economy to the price of fish. As we walked along the street he dispensed apples to other old men sitting on benches, to a passing child and he never stopped talking to me – at least I assume he was talking to me.
And then he pointed. There it was. The first yellow arrow leaving the village. That wee man became the first of many strangers along the way who pointed me to where the arrows are. Sometimes I understood them, sometimes not – often they didn’t fully understand me. But they welcomed my efforts to communicate with them and responded with warmth and generosity. Many things transcend spoken words – smiles, gestures, kindness. The Spanish are diffident and shy but make the first move to say Hello and their faces light up.
I followed the arrow and as I turned back he was giving another apple to another old man and he lifted his hand high in an encouraging goodbye. I had begun.