So there I was, full-heartedly acting out how to jump-start a car in the local hardware store in an attempt to express my need for jumper cables to the store assistant. Normally, I write things down from Google Translate but this was a spur-of-the-moment need for jumper cables. I thought things were going well though. I nailed the universal sign for car (the imaginary steering wheel, complete with motion) and, although I fumbled slightly, I thought I had competently acted out connecting the positive and negative cables that then jump started my imaginary car. She shook her head, her eyes relaying to me that she wasn’t impressed. Whether it was my mime skills or complete ignorance of Catalan, I don’t know. I re-attempted my mini broadway-worthy (at least I thought so) scene. “Ah, si!”. Thank goodness.
Another new home in a place I can’t speak the language. My habitat for the winter off-season was pretty much based on one defining variable: how good will it be for training? Wanting to stay in Europe this year instead of venturing back to my normal winter base in South Africa, Spain seemed like a good option. The training grounds are famous for a reason and the weather? Well, even in the depths of winter, it’s trainable.
What didn’t factor into the decision was language. It never does. Language always loses out to climbs, trails and lakes and my small town outside of Girona had them all. When you plan to live somewhere with a different language, people often say “don’t worry, you’ll pick it up”. That probably works when you interact with people in a normal way like at a desk job or through school but, given that I spend most days training alone, “picking it up” hasn’t really been working. My Catalan vocabulary is limited to hello, goodbye, thank you and random grocery-related words like “poma” (apple) and “arròs” (rice). Definitely not in my vocabulary is anything related to car mechanics and the phrase “language barrier” didn’t seem to do my situation at the hardware store justice.
Nevertheless, the shop assistant motioned me to follow and we began silently walking through the store. As we were half way across the big shop, however, I spotted jumper cables high up on a shelf. I instantly veered from her lead and grabbed them. I turned to tell her I found them but was at a complete loss for words. I ran after her. When I got her attention, I excitedly held up the cables and gave her a thumbs up. I thanked her with the best “merci” I could say but she didn’t seem pleased and turned around to go back to her desk. I waited a minute so as not to follow too close behind her. I was at the very back of the shop now, last aisle, I noticed. She had brought me to the furniture aisle! I guess my universal sign for car wasn’t so universal.
I returned home, motivated to learn more Catalan but first it was time to get the Renault Clio moving again. It turned out, however, my oscar-winning performance wasn’t necessary and the battery was toast. The only thing left to do was push the vehicle into a garage for storage until we could sort out a new battery. Despite getting the car halfway there, more muscle was needed to overcome the incline into the garage. Thankfully, every small town has a nosey, wandering old man.
Undeterred by my response of a desperate sounding “Anglès?!,” the old man who had wandered upon two foreigners pushing a Clio, continued to give directions. He was very determined and, eventually, unimpressed with our lack of adherence to his suggestions, Mr Director started to push himself. Before I knew it, two other locals had rolled up their sleeves to help and I was ordered to sit in the car and steer. Ten minutes later, the gathered men were all pleased with a communal job well done and I was suddenly wishing I had a fresh batch of cookies to express more than a humble “merci.” I have ambitions to learn more Catalan so I can interact a bit more but, until then, thank goodness a smile is the same in every language.