Jonathan Ahladas tells a great story about the day his Spanish-born fiancée sent him out solo into the streets of Madrid with a shopping list.
It was just a few months after he made the big move across the Atlantic from America to the Spanish capital and at that stage, Jonathan had only a basic grasp of the language thanks to a few months of intensive classes.
Top of the shopping list was whisky and spotting a sign for a “whiskeria“, Jonathan confidently strolled on in.
“I thought…okay we have panadería for pan, for the bakery, and carnicería for carne, for the butcher, so I thought whiskeria must mean whisky,” he recalls.
“Maybe the red neon lights outside should have warned me…a scantily-clad woman walked up and asked if I needed help. I realized I was in the wrong place and quickly got out of there before it went any further. I didn’t get any whisky…I think the whisky came along with something else!”
Jonathan had inadvertently stepped inside a local brothel.
A little flustered, he moved on to the local markets to tick off the next item on the list—a carton of eggs.
“The vendor put something like 72 or 144 eggs on the counter…and I was just saying ‘No, doce, doce,’ meaning just 12 eggs…and there was this huge line of Spanish people behind me yelling and getting frustrated,” he says.
What Jonathan hadn’t realized was that for the Spanish, ‘a carton’ literally means a huge crate of eggs.
“Then the vendor said ‘Oh, you mean docena‘—a dozen. It was a little embarrassing…but the beauty is the Spanish people are so great. They take your mistakes light-heartedly. They just appreciate your effort in trying to learn the language.”
But while mistakes like these are not too serious, Jonathan was starting up a physiotherapy business with very little Spanish.
He soon fell prey to the most common mistake made by guiris (the colloquial Spanish word for foreigner new to the language.)
“I was treating a patient of the opposite sex,” recalls Jonathan. “It was very warm, probably approaching summer and the room was very hot, so I of course asked if she was hot. But instead of saying ‘tienes calor‘ I said ‘estás caliente‘ and literally asked her if she was turned on.
“She knew it was a common mistake so it didn’t necessarily create the uncomfortable situation that it could have but that was like a rite of passage. I certainly wasn’t the first to make that mistake…and I won’t be the last either.”
Jonathan says it took him around six months to start feeling comfortable speaking Spanish and two years to really feel at ease in conversation.
“It’s a little like learning an instrument, it’s two years or so to learn the theory, learn the structure, and then be able to improvise—you know, to sit down in a conversation. It’s definitely worthwhile to learn the language as best you can before going,” he says.
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