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The GW Hatchet

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GW Expat: Survival of the linguist


You’ve got to know the language. It’s that simple.

Having spent the last three months comfortably speaking German in Germany, I was reminded of just how important language skills are when I landed in Malaga, Spain on Friday.

After clearing customs (an old Spanish man asleep at his desk), I proceeded to the taxi stand to begin my journey to Granada via taxi and bus. Since I don’t hablo much Español, I had a difficult time explaining that I needed to go to the bus station. But somehow the taxi driver understood the mixed French and Italian I spoke to him, and we took off to the Malaga bus station.

Everything regarding the bus was an ordeal due to the language barrier. Few folks speak English down here and German is equally as useless.

I bought a ticket – again in Frenchtalian – and proceeded to find the bus to Granada.

I made my way to the loading docks where each bus pulls up at a numbered terminal. My ticket said “Granada” and then some word I couldn’t understand, followed by the number 17 and the time 13:45. I guessed that meant my bus would load at terminal 17 and leave at 1:45.

However, the bus in terminal 17 said “Cadiz” on the front. While I am no expert in Spanish, I was pretty sure that the bus was not bound for Granada. Confused, I then went to the information booth under the sign welcoming tourists to Granada.

“Hablas inglés?” I asked the woman at the tourist desk.

Sigh. Roll of the eyes. Angry look. “Ugh. Yessssssssss,” she said with a big ol’ Spanish lisp.

I asked where to find the bus for Granada and she answered with great exasperation, “Ugh (implied, moron), terminal 17.”

Note to self: Don’t make the mistake of asking the information booth for information again.

Back to the terminal I went. I checked my watch and saw that there was five minutes until departure time, and no bus to Granada in sight.

I approached the bus driver standing in front of the bus for Cadiz, and when I asked “Granada?” he gave me a long excited answer in Spanish. Despite his larger-than-life gestures, I had no idea what he said. I started to get worried. It was now two minutes until departure time. I was at a loss.

I guess my consternation was obvious. I felt a tap on the shoulder and whirled around to see a fellow pale faced, northern European-looking guy, who asked, “Are you going to Granada?”

English! Hallelujah!

Turns out, my newfound friend was a Danish exchange student studying in Spain. His Spanish skills were also, well, limited.

We watched as more and more Spaniards joined our waiting party at terminal 17. Someone asked the bus driver at the “Cadiz” bus a question involving the word “Granada.” A tense exchange followed and all of a sudden the Spaniards packed up and moved next door to terminal 18.

The Dane and I followed them.

At terminal 18, we found a newly arrived bus labeled “Granada,” but the bus driver came out the front door shaking his hands and speaking in an excited Spanish. Christian, the Dane, couldn’t quite make out what was going on, but he said he thought we should go back to terminal 17.

However, at terminal 17, the bus still said “Cadiz” and the bus driver stood propped up against the front of the bus dragging on a cigarette without a care in the world. We were now 15 minutes past departure time. The bus driver addressed his growing audience of travelers. After he finished, everyone scattered.

Hmm. What to do?

The Danish boy had no idea what was going on and neither did I. Neither of us understood a word of the bus driver’s message. However, we overheard another passenger say “Granada blah blah blah blah vente y cuatro.” With no better idea, we hauled our luggage down to terminal 24 to see a bus labeled “Granada.”

Just as I started to throw my luggage under the bus, the bus driver stepped out and shook his finger in disapproval. He pointed back to terminal 17 and sent us back to the “Cadiz” bound bus.

It appeared that the three bus drivers were fighting about who had to drive us to Granada.

Back at terminal 17, the bus driver – now finished with his cigarette – changed the sign on the bus to read Granada and waved us on board, 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time. But time doesn’t seem too important down here. According to the time on the bus, it was 5:45 a.m.

This kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Germany. But if it did, I would be equipped to navigate the situation.

However, due to my inability to speak a lick of Spanish, I had no clue what was actually going on. There could have been bus maintenance problems or schedule changes. Who knows? Without question, the language barrier kept me out of the loop and left me running frantically between buses panicked that I would get left in the “dangerous” bus station.

Luckily, I managed to reach Granada safely. Late, but safely. In Granada, I met up with my GW roommate, who is studying here, and one of our mutual friends who is studying in Paris.

My roommate Tim has completely bought into the Spanish lifestyle and language, and he seems to communicate with ease here. Meanwhile, I feel like a complete outsider. I can’t order food. I can’t read the newspaper headlines. I couldn’t even properly thank Tim’s host mom for the tasty Spanish lunch she prepared for us. I am totally detached from Spanish society, an outsider looking in.

In contrast to my Spaniard-in-training roommate, our friend Hratch has struggled to get into the swing of Parisian life.

“The language barrier really causes problems. I mean, I can order food, but I can’t really interact with society. That is definitely hindering my experience,” he said.

There are endless options for study abroad, but before you pick a program, think for a moment about the language question. Ideally, you would go to a country where you already know some of the language. If not, find a program with an intensive language program. Be aware: Nearly every study abroad program markets their language class as “intensive.” But folks, if it meets once or twice a week, it’s not intensive.

Study abroad is about having fun, traveling, experiencing other cultures and hopefully learning something along the way. Language is the key that unlocks all of that, and without speaking the language you will be stuck as a permanent tourist.

Not that being a tourist is bad, but I can’t wait to get “home” to Germany, where folks speak a language I understand and the buses run on time.

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