Sometimes the crown of Number One is awarded mistakenly, and somehow the wrong impression leaves its imprint in the minds of general public and is taken without suspicion. For instance, when one talks about spicy Chinese food, one school readiest to call to mind is that of Sichuan, but, in fact, Hunan cuisine is no less spicy. And which is the people pictured to be the most reluctant to speak English? Most would say the French. I would say Spaniards.
It was seven years ago I last visited Spain, and the places I went to were Madrid and Barcelona. This time, so far, my time is spent within the confines of the capital. Due to some unfortunate incident, I didn’t have much time for Madrid last time, and I can’t say I remember much of my experiences with people in Barcelona, but this time within a couple of hours I was sorely and keenly aware of how little people in Madrid speak English.
When talking about this topic, I trust that I have always been very politically correct: I do not think that peoples around the world should all speak English. If a visitor doesn’t speak the language, s/he should try his/her best to respect the locals and appreciate the culture. But being unhelpful is another matter. During my tender (well, tenderer) years I visited France (ooph, more than 10 years ago?) and Italy (seven), and although for instance French people outside Paris spoke not that much English, I met many a smiling face that was very willing to help, including and perhaps especially many an old man or old lady. In contrast, here in central Madrid where hordes of tourists flock from all over the world even when now is already very late September, they don’t – in this café, that department store, this hostel(!), and that bookstore, many service people are very, very, very English-free, and the point is that many among them don’t seem to care whether customers would understand at all.
As a well-seasoned backpacker, I tend to pick up as many local words as possible while almost always greeting people with a single “hello” or a “hello” immediately following the greeting in the local language (buenas, ciao, hoi, salut, dobry, and so on), (and of course with a big smile,) so that the person I am addressed can prepare him/herself mentally that this is a foreigner who, despite his sincerity and good will, doesn’t speak the local language. This does not work AT ALL in Madrid: I’ve visited so many restaurants and shops where “hello” or “excuse me” won’t turn anyone’s head towards me; only an “HOLA” can get someone’s attention. And no, not a smile from them. Nada. I thought it’s just because Madrid people are so NOT USED to English that it is difficult for them to have the reflex to respond to a greeting in English, but hell, I am talking about the most touristy area in the country’s capital! And after almost a week of blind belief, yesterday a nice (very nice) German traveler who just arrived in the same dorm room and shared some nice nocturnal walk and drink pointed out that perhaps it’s just simply pride. Well, perhaps pride wrapped in arroganza wrapped in pride?
(And talking about my picking up the local language, I really managed to pick up a whole bunch of greeting phrases and other expressions in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and at least tried to use the little Polish I have to some effects in some Balkan areas. And while I hardly spoke any Spanish, since two days ago I have been trying to use Spanish when ordering in a restaurant.)
(And am I mistaken or that the official website of the opera Teatro Real really doesn’t have an English page? (If so, WTF?))
Having just flied from the Balkans, I have to say I am amazed by the contrast – Balkans aren’t exactly the most advanced parts of Europe and very likely don’t house that many English-speaking people, but even there I bumped into more who do. And here in glamorous, a capital within EU,… hmm.
Let’s pray that other parts of Spain ain’t gonna be like this. Otherwise, – the heck with Spaniards – maybe I will just cut short the Spanish journey and move ahead of schedule to the next stop, may it be Taiwan or South America.