My Spanish is laughable and entirely inadequate. It’s so limited that I couldn’t write that last sentence, only a sad approximation of it. Four years of high school Spanish and two years of intermittent attention in college have left me with a random collection of vocabulary words and the ability to speak in broken present tense and only really understand someone if they speak Spanish to me incredibly slowly.
On Thursday, I took a tour of the Douro Valley, where despite knowing even less about wine than I do about Spanish, I hoped to learn a bit and see some excellent scenery. My tour was advertised as a small group, and it was: a family of five from Miami, a couple from Valencia, and me. A tour can be a strangely lonely place when you are traveling alone, and the beginning of the trip presented some challenge. I don’t mean to suggest that the family was a collection of the ugliest stereotypes about American travelers, but let’s just say that the father was the kind of person who spent the trip trying to buy wines that were not being sold for “a little extra” (wink wink) and the mother, somewhere between 45-55, took more selfies than any human being I’ve ever seen. Their children boys in their early twenties, seemed firmly grasped by that bizarre extended adolescence that seems to have afflicted American men. Not much chance for conversation there, and I worried it would be a long day.
At our first stop, I sat with the Spanish couple and we politely ignored each other across our table of wine and olives at first. After a toast and the ritual of sniffing, swirling, and then tasting the wine, we tried to talk to each other, and soon realized that between their limited English and my limited Spanish, we could absolutely talk to each other. From that point on the trip, we were, without much difficulty, able to talk about their previous trips to New York and Washington, compare the bears of Spain and Montana, and share our feelings about the wines we drank and the meal we shared, which included a Portuguese dish that seemed to consist of a chicken drumstick inserted into a bowl of rice cooked in blood and vinegar.
In short, they were delightful people, and that each of us was able to speak just a bit of the other’s language made the day pass much more pleasantly.
It’s not hard to learn foreign languages in the US, even if some politicians want to replace them with computer science, but it is hard to practice—and that challenge has definitely diminished what limited ability I once had. Knowing just enough to speak a bit, however, absolutely enhanced my trip to Spain and made this moment in Portugal much better. So learn some Spanish, kids. Or German. Or French, if you must.
As for the family, I decided to apply my Whitman philosophy to them for the rest of the trip, and found some common ground discussing the relative danger of grizzly bears (always a winning topic!) versus alligators and the state of the Miami Heat. I can’t say that I left the van wanting to become pen pals with any of them, but finding a little common language there was probably just as valuable as with my friends from Valencia.