Every time I visit a new country, I always learn a few basics to the best of my ability- ‘please’ ‘thank you’ and ‘I don’t understand. Do you speak English?’
Above all, don’t forget the importance of body language. You might not understand the thing but the face and body says it all. I learned as much when I was plucked off a bus at a border crossing into Serbia because the border guard wanted to see my papers (I had a separate slip I needed to show besides my passport). I dumbly just showed him my passport. He wasn’t pleased. ‘blah blah blah’ is all I heard, as he pointed to my passport. “I don’t understand…. do you speak English?” I asked, apologetically, in his language. “blah blah Ingleski! Ingleski!!! blah blah blah” obviously, mocking my ignorance, throwing his head side to side. What I’m pretty sure he said was “You don’t understand and you only speak English. Well, you’re in my country. What am I gonna do with you” I gathered all this from his body language. Oh well, at least I tried! Someone finally told me what he wanted and I was on my merry way.
In Granada, I met the cutest waiter who picked up on the fact that I spoke Spanish better than I let on, as I had ordered in English but read off the Spanish menu perfectly fine. “Why don’t you tell me again in Spanish,” he flirted “I heard you order… I know you know how to speak it, don’t be shy.” And so, from that point on, I tried not to be. It’s easy to take the path of least resistance sometimes (ie. not having to think of all your words and just using English when you know the person in that country speaks it) but it’s nice to make the effort, it’s appreciated, and it actually makes local people want to talk to you and figure out what you’re all about.
Now, if you’re gonna put yourself out there and have an ‘in’ with the people, it’s not wise to overdo it… and it’s always good to keep in mind other people’s reactions and the way things work. Read people… situations… and read them well. You might like the newfound attention you have as a foreigner who speaks Spanish but seriously, don’t make a fool of yourself. Case in point: I witnessed an enthusiastic 20something year old American girl walk into a male dominated cafe/bar in her David Villa jersey during the time of the World Cup. Once she was in, I only HEARD the rest. “VILLA MARAVILLA!” she exclaimed, as the men greeted her and her short shorts with an “Eeeeeeeeyyyyyyyy!!!” I can only assume she was pointing furiously to her new jersey and tried to connect with them on a ‘world cup’ level. More shouts and hollers from the men.
“Ole ole ole ole…. oleeeee…. oleeee” from her. “Sube! Sube la camisa!!!” they egged on… “Si, la camisa! Villa Maravilla!” she engaged with them. “Subela!” the men were still adament. I could only stand outside the place and marvel on. A waitress from across the way scurried to where me and a few other tourists who had been walking around with this girl for the past afternoon were waiting for her. “Dios mio! Do you know what they’re saying? They’re telling her to lift her shirt!” she laughed. I’m not sure if Ms. 20something realized it or not but surely their attitude towards her must gave given her SOME clue, even if she may not have understood 100%. Would she have gone in there back home? Probably not.
Oh and one thing to remember- a popular scam in Europe, or even other places for that matter, is when someone obviously recognizing you as a tourist comes up to you and asks “Do you speak English?” The best thing to do is shake your head and walk on. Why? Because this person, once they have you in their sights, will either make you read a card explaining that they’re poor and want money, or flat out ask you. They might even pester you, nothing violent, just more of a nuissance- watch your pockets!. It’s best just to keep going with no acknowledgement.