Lost in Translation

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Whenever I’m in a new city, the preferred method of learning my way around is to get lost. In Madrid, I got lost in more ways than one.

It’s not hard to do it in the traditional sense. Unlike the predictable, clean-cut grid system of Philadelphia, Madrid winds and weaves its way around in all directions. You’d be hard-pressed to find any road that continues in a perfectly straight line, much less many roads that make their way unbroken across the entire length of the city. Street names are only to be found in decorative plaques placed high up on the walls of buildings, so knowing where you are at can take a bit of searching sometimes.

But getting lost in Madrid is only as stressful as walking in circles. There isn’t really any such thing as a dark, deserted alleyway. Many of the streets are totally devoid of cars or what would typically be considered a “road” in America, and all of them seem perpetually bursting with activity. People walk everywhere in Madrid, and sometimes they don’t even seem to be going anywhere. I know I wasn’t. If you don’t mind crowds, Madrid is a great place to take a stroll. Walking is a totally different beast in Spain. I can’t recall a single instance of seeing ears stuffed with headphones, or hands occupied by to-go cups. I wouldn’t say with certainty that walking is always an end in itself here, but it certainly seems to be considered as less of a chore than in America.

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Though if I only wanted to physically get lost, I could have just gone to any unfamiliar city in the States. Instead, I experienced for the first time a much more powerful sense of placelessness: alienation.

Understanding Spanish still takes a fair bit of concentration on my part. I can successfully navigate a conversation, but when I walk down the street, I don’t hear people speaking Spanish the same way I would hear someone speaking English. If I were to hear two people speaking to each other in English as they passed me by, even just a small snippet of speech would be enough for me to create at least an imagined context for the conversation. I can get distracted or pulled into stranger’s conversations in English. Spanish too often hits my ears as white noise.

Because I naturally think in English rather than Spanish, I feel separated from everything happening around me in a Spanish city. Because understanding takes extra effort, I can’t be fully engaged in everything that’s happening. The mental distance is so great that at times I feel physically absent as well, almost as if I am invisible to the Spanish eye.

The strangest thing is—and don’t take this the wrong way—it’s actually difficult to fully conceive of a Spanish-speaker as a whole person. It sounds absurd, but that’s the power of language. If I am having a conversation with a stranger, and at most I can understand only the basics of what they are saying to me, how could I ever understand them as a person, unless I could converse with him or her fluently in the same language, on the same page? I cannot understand the words, therefore I cannot understand the thoughts, and thus I cannot understand the person.

It’s frustrating to not be able to take part in something when you so desperately want to. It would have been great to feel like less of a tourist in Madrid, but hey, you have to dip your toes in the water before you dive right in.

Since we’ve been in Oviedo, though, it’s incredible how quickly I feel like I’ve picked up some things. I’m still a long way away from fluency, but now that conversation is feeling much more comfortable, I’d say I’m definitely on the right track.

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