I am in a restaurant in Galicia, Northern Spain – an area popular with Spanish tourists but not yet geared up towards the UK market in terms of communicative ease.
That suits me though.
I have never been your typical Brit abroad, who assumes that if you shout loudly and slowly enough, then even an imbecile will understand your mother tongue.
No, I have an ‘O’ level in Spanish and although that was over 30 years ago, I am determined to make myself understood and show my 13-year-old that it’s both easy and cool to get by in a foreign language.
The problem is, that although I spent the week before my holiday flicking through an ancient school text book, with useful sections on ‘my family’, ‘the weather’ and ‘plants and animals’, I didn’t make it as far as the chapter on ‘food’! Never mind – I am nothing if not a great improviser.
The waitress comes over and I flash her my brightest smile.
‘Please, Mum!’ the teenager begs in anguish, as he sinks below table level ‘Just ask her in English’.
I sigh. It’s hard being the mother of an adolescent! Do I satisfy my desire to try out my linguistic skills or risk embarrassing my son? I reach a compromise.
‘Hablas ingles?’ I ask politely.
The waitress looks alarmed and backs away slightly. ‘No!’ she states categorically.
‘See, she doesn’t speak English.’ I explain, dragging my boy upwards. ‘So if you want to eat, you’re just going to have to let me order. Now you and Dad wanted steak and chips and I’m going to have some seafood. How difficult can that be?! I’ll just ask her a few questions. It’ll be fine.’
I turn to the waitress, who is hovering reluctantly nearby. I point at the ‘gambas’, which I hope are shrimps and ask confidently.
I stop suddenly. I’ve forgotten the phrase for ‘does it come with’. Not to worry, I will paraphrase.
‘This fishing. Does it live with green vegetation?’
The waitress erupts into a coughing fit, then replies at speed with a very long and incomprehensible sentence that includes the word ‘ensalata’ – ‘salad’. I nod in agreement and she writes down my order.
Encouraged by this initial success, I point at ‘costilla de Angus’. I am guessing it is an Aberdeen Angus steak. Still it’s always better to check.
‘Is this cow or pig?’ I ask, throwing in a helpful ‘moo’ and ‘grunt’ for good effect, ignoring the adolescent who now has his hands over his face and is mumbling ‘Please let this not be happening. Please let this not be happening’.
The waitress is having trouble composing herself. Perhaps I have given her too much to think about, so I decide to simplify my question.
‘Is it cow?’
She nods, obviously not trusting herself to speak. I continue enthusiastically.
‘The cow. Does it live with green vegetation or chips?’
The waitress replies with a tirade of rapid fire Spanish amongst which I cling on to the word ‘patatas’ and assume all is well for the steak and chips, so I confidently order ‘two cows and chips for my wife and the child’.
Linguistically incompetent husband is looking at me admiringly as if I were a seasoned UN interpreter, ‘Don’t forget the drinks,’ he reminds me.
Ah yes. ‘2 beers and a cola’ trip off my tongue with such fluency that even the 13-year-old is now back on board, albeit to make my life more complicated with his diva demand – ‘Can you ask for ice in it Mum please?’
‘Ice’? Now that’s a tricky one! But I need to demonstrate to him how effortless language learning is, so I frantically search my brain for vocabulary linked to ‘ice’. Of course! Weather words! They will be close enough for her to work it out.
I beam confidently at the waitress and ask, ‘The cola lives with is it snowing?’
I try again, wrapping my arms around me and mimicking a shiver.
‘The cola. Please bring with winter’.
No … she’s still not got it. Honestly – I don’t even think she’s trying that hard!
So I launch into an Oscar winning performance of dropping ice cubes into a glass and then in a flash of inspiration with a word whose difficulty level deserves an A* grade at the very least, I shout out ‘Hailstones! Put hailstones in the cola please!’
The waitress looks at me in disbelief, then in a sudden lightbulb moment, she understands what I mean, nods abruptly, wipes away a tear of emotion for my performance from her cheek and rushes off to sort out our order.
She returns shortly after with the 2 beers and for some reason makes a great play of rattling the ice cubes in the coke. Still, I want to thank her for her patience in communicating with me, so I point happily at the beers.
‘2 beers. Very good’ I say.
‘2 beers?’ she repeats in confusion.
‘Yes, yes – 2 beers’ I reply, waving her away. Honestly, she seems to have lost it again! Still the beer is good, the teenager has ice and the food is on its way, so all in not yet lost.
A short time later the waitress reappears bringing 2 more beers, 2 plates of ribs with boiled potatoes, a dish of prawns with vegetables and a humungous salad that fills the entire table.
‘Mum!’ my disappointed son wails, ‘that’s not steak and chips!’
The waitress looks at me with slightly less patience than before.
‘Vale?’ she asks with raised eyebrows.
‘Va?’ ‘Le?’ No – neither word is registering for the moment. I plunge deep into my polyglot memory. French – that will do. ‘Va’ – ‘go’. ‘Le’ – ‘the/it/them?’
Oh I see! She’s realised her mistake about the extra beers, she must be asking if she should take them away.
‘Yes, yes. 2 beers. Take them away!’
The waitress frowns and looks at me with a hint of contempt before stomping off, deliberately ignoring the beers and muttering something about ‘los ingleses’ and ‘cervezas’ under her breath.
‘What did she say about the steak and chips?’ the teenager demands.
I swig back my beer before answering. If I admit I haven’t a clue what’s going on, he will lose all confidence in my language abilities, so I do what all great interpreters should and make it up.
‘She said she’s very sorry but they’ve run out of steak and chips. The ribs are the house speciality and they come with potatoes from their own garden, which are famed for their flavour. Honestly, love, don’t make a scene and show us Brits in a bad light! Your meal looks delicious and you can always fill up on that lovely salad’.
Minutes later the waitress is back and unceremoniously plonks 2 more beers down on the table.
Monlingual husband looks non-plussed.
‘Why has she brought us 6 beers?’ he hisses, ‘Does she think all Brits are alcoholics?’
To be honest, I have no idea but I am half way through my 2nd beer and past caring.
‘No, no,’ I improvise, ‘It’s just to thank us for not making a fuss about her messing up our order’.
3 beers later and, whilst the salad remains intact, the ribs and shrimps have been declared ‘really tasty’, and desserts have been ordered effortlessly (due to the helpful photos that accompanied the sweets menu).
English speaking husband has been so seduced by his slice of local cake that I have asked them to wrap up a whole one to take back with us. ‘It’s a bit pricy love’, he argues when I tell him it will cost 7 euros – but it is artisan, a regional delicacy and after all, we are on holiday…
It’s just as well then that it is me who asks for ‘the receipt please’, as I quickly sober up when I realise that I have misheard ‘siete’ – 7 – for ‘dieciesiete’ -17-and that we are now taking home the most expensive almond dessert in Europe, on top of paying for the 4 extra beers and salad!
Much to the lazy teenager’s annoyance I decide it’s such a beautiful evening we should walk back to the apartment rather than taking a taxi. But half an hour in and he’s refusing to go any further unless he can refuel his adolescent, hollow legs with an ice-cream.
We are passing a ‘heladeria’- ice cream shop. I stop. I hesitate.
Yes, I may think I’m a linguist but there’s a limit to all things.
As the assistant smiles helpfully at me and asks ‘Que quieres?’, I point at the tub of pink ice cream and bellow very loudly and slowly in my best English, ‘A STRAAAW-BERRYYYY, ICE-CREAMMM, PLEEEASE!’