It was 2 o’clock on a Sunday morning. I was being ‘baptized’ by a gang of rowdy Spaniards in the lobby of Madrid’s renowned Berlín Café nightclub. As they threw my flailing body up in the air for the third time, I reflected on how a simple language barrier had gotten me here.
The night had started out innocently enough. My friend Caitlin took me to her boyfriend Jacob’s apartment, where his Italian roommates were baking pizzas for everyone. The two of us stopped at Il Mercado on the way and picked up a Spanish tortilla so that I wouldn’t have to gaze at the gluten-based feast in envious hunger.
I followed Caitlin to Jacob’s door with my tortilla in one hand and a half litre of mango juice in the other. As he ushered us into the crowded living room and began making introductions in Spanish, it slowly dawned on me that I was in a room full of Italians, many (if not all) of whom were Erasmus students who had come to Spain to improve their Spanish. Why had I expected them to speak English? Standing there with my glorified potato-cookie and oversized juice box, I felt very much like the new kid at the playground. Then I realized what I really was.
I was the ESL kid. Well, SSL (Spanish Second Language).
It suddenly became very clear how insensitive I’d been over the years when an ESL person had shown up to a party I was at. Sure, I would make an effort to communicate, but I also expected them to be very proactive about making themselves understood. I hadn’t understood how daunting it might be for someone to join a discussion when they knew that doing so would mean bringing the conversation to a halt so that things could be painstakingly translated. It felt like such an imposition. Mental note: remember this feeling and try to make sure no one feels this way around you from now on.
The dinner party was still going strong when we left around midnight, with promises to meet up on the Berlín Café dance floor. I had no idea what I was walking into.
We got to the club in time to catch Argentinian guitarist Pájaro Juárez hosting an evening with his fellow musicians. As I stepped off the narrow winding staircase and into the crowd of red velvet chairs, the woman on the small stage at the front of the room began to sing “La Vie En Rose”. Her voice was exquisite; Édith Piaf herself would have been impressed. When she finished, I was so overcome that I pushed past the language barrier for a moment. I reached out and touched her arm.
“Perdón, señorita…no habla español,” I said. She cocked her head uncertainly. I went full mime and stuck both thumbs up in the air. “Muy bien, muy bien!”
She laughed and pinched my cheeks. “Gracias.”
On the stage, Juárez, joined by a sax, an accordion and a marimba, started working his way through Henry Mancini songs. Sometime between “Pink Panther” and “Moon River,” we went downstairs to get some fresh air.
That’s when it happened.
As we stood by the tiny bar at the entrance, three boisterous Spanish guys piled in. They immediately accosted us with a barrage of friendly questions, speaking English where they could and asking Caitlin’s friend Mariana to translate the rest.
“What is your name?”
“You mean Klow-AY?”
“Yeah, but when I speak English I pronounce it KLOW-ee.”
“No, no, no. You are saying it wrong.”
Before I could finish, my bearded inquisitor scooped me up like he was carrying his new bride across the threshold. He turned to his friend. Without a word, the two of them locked arms, grinned and threw me up in the air three times. By the time they set me down, I was laughing so hard I could barely stand.
“What was that!?”
“We have baptized you!” he said proudly. “Your new name is Klow-AY.”
For the first time that night, there were no language (or personal space!) barriers between myself and the people around me. Apparently, all it took to make me feel like I truly belonged was a couple of unruly partygoers.
I revised my earlier mental note, adding, And dust off the 8lb weights so you can give them a proper welcome.