Those who travel on their own, particularly women, are people I have always looked upon with great admiration and respect.
I was never quite sure where they got the courage and confidence to travel to another country on their own and keep themselves safe – particularly where they don’t know the language.
At some stage over the past couple of days in Spain, I realised I have become one of these people.
Somewhere between buying a Madrid Metro ticket and successfully making my way around the major sights of the city, I acknowledged to myself that I’m a fairly comfortable solo world traveller.
Now that might seem ridiculous given I’ve left Australia dozens of times on my own bound for foreign shores. But generally I’ve had the comfort of knowing that I’m meeting up with colleagues or friends or I am visiting somewhere that I’ve been before, or where I speak the language.
Spain is all new to me and I’ve arrived on my own to spend several days in Madrid before I join a small group tour.
I had big plans to build some Spanish proficiency before I got here and early lessons suggested some similarities to the French I studied at school. Is that an advantage or just a source of confusion? Hold that thought, s’il vous plait / por favor.
Unfortunately the Spanish language practice went out the window in the upheaval of redundancy.
It’s amazing how far you can get with a few basics and a bit of impromptu sign language. It also turns out Spanish is one of those languages you learn quite a bit about through popular culture – mostly food and drink. I could probably order a full banquet in Spanish, but don’t ask me to do anything useful like get directions!
I hope I can pick up more of the language while I’m here – it definitely makes a difference to your experience of a place and the way the locals relate to you. I’ve found initially that I have to work harder to get a smile than in cheery Asia, where I’ve spent a lot of time, and of course I can’t engage in any meaningful conversation, which can be isolating.
However, some things require little translation. On my first day here, as I explored the streets of Madrid, I chanced upon a lovely square – the Puerta del Sol – where a police car was spoiling what might have been a nice photo.
I found a café in a nearby lane for lunch and as I was eating, I could hear a protest in the square. That explained the police presence.
I didn’t venture closer to see what was happening – you’re specifically warned not to do so. There has been quite a bit of civil unrest as a result of record high unemployment and austerity measures in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis – it’s likely it was linked to that.
While I wasn’t sure what they were demanding, the protest chants to the pattern of “the (something), (something), will never be (something)” are universal.
Given my limited Spanish, my brain has been doing it’s best to keep up with conversation. I’ve found bits of Italian (strangely, because it’s a place I’ve never been and a language I haven’t learned) and lots of French coming out of my mouth.
This has already led to funny situations, including last night when I ordered a gin and tonic with my paella.
The waitress arrived at my table with a bottle of gin and poured it liberally into a large glass that resembled a small bucket on a stem. I was so surprised, my brain went blank when she asked me to let her know when she had poured enough.
She had already well and truly exceeded my limit with what looked like at least four shots of gin, probably more.
‘Oui… oui… oui…” I blurted as she continued to pour. Then I moved my hand in what I hoped was the universal slashing motion and said ‘stop,’ laughing. “Oui does not mean stop,” she said, laughing with me. Apparently it doesn’t in this little al fresco café in Madrid – and I don’t suppose it does anywhere else for that matter.
The waitress added: “You will have a good evening!” I wasn’t going to be sure about that until I got the bill for the half bucket of liquor – which turned out to be a very reasonable 10 Euro (~$13.50).
So I learned two valuable and potentially related lessons for my own safety: alcohol is relatively cheap in Spain, but don’t say ‘oui’ when you mean no/stop! Try ‘pare por favor.’