Fifteen years in NYC is a long time for anyone. That marker found me quickly, when fifteen years was half my life. Overwhelmed by my then routine lack of time, money, and space, which no longer afforded me the luxury of contributing to the greater conversation of art, it was time to scrutinize what and how I could find my way to communicate to the world again. To do that I had to go live in the world. I picked up the phone, called the Spanish Consolate and asked how it was possible to move to Spain.
–“Are you wealthy?,” the friendly Spaniard asked.
After a pause the man said, -“Would you consider teaching?”
I explained I didn’t speak Spanish, which was part of the acceptance qualifications to the Auxiliar de Conversación Cultural Ambassadors grant program for teaching English in Spain.
-“You have 6 months to learn,” he almost secretly whispered.
I tried learning, truly, and failed until I received full emersion.
* * * * *
– “Donde vas?”
-“Barbate,” I said with what was most likely the most American accent the border guards at the Madrid Airport Security had heard in some time and EVER saying Barbate.
He laughed and looked at his young compañero who was listening at this point, also laughing.
-“Es una broma?”
-“Un chiste?” he said to my now blank, terrified face.
-He stamped my VISA and said, “OK, you can go,” with disbelief in his raised eyebrows and a last head shake.
I was in shock, what had they said? Where was I headed for the next 9 moths? I remembered the words somehow and looked them up, both variations of (is this a) joke. I arrived about 8 hours later in Barbate, my selected post near Cádiz, Spain, exhausted from the 20+ hour total trip to what seemed like the end of the world and ‘getting there from here‘ was impossible in an appropriate amount of time. I hailed a taxi with my practiced NYC arm and displayed the name of the hotel I was headed to to the taxi driver who, silently, turned and pointed to the direction I should walk. There I saw the hotel.
To cross the Barbate by foot took a maximum of 15 minutes, so I found it funny that only leaving the town required a car, taxi or boat due to its location; a highway to the north, an enormous national park to the east, a river border to the west, and the white Mediterranean beach literally facing the often visible Morocco. The end of the world it was not, but definitely the end of Europe.
I entered a local bar, the music skipped and the chatter went silent – I was the only foreigner for kilometers. Learning Spanish was to be essential to my stay or I wouldn’t eat, never mind communicate.
One of the first things I learned was what the laughing at the border check was about. Unbeknownst to me, but very well known to Spaniards, was that Barbate was then at the center of its increasingly popular drug trade. (*see below for NYTimes coverage on Barbate, Spain from the same time).
Three months later, I was able to start conversing, but before real connection could begin, I had to learn from those three long months in silence. Crucial to that was to perfect the art of interpretation by reading faces and body expressions before I could understand the words spoken, of which I listened to intently. Verbally, I plunged in and did what I like to call parrot speak, where repeating the sentence you just heard with a sí or no response and a present tense verb change to the yo (I) form resulted in the best (fastest) way to learn.
In the end I was able to communicate successfully because I dove in to directly face people I didn’t know and made the attempt to communicate ideas, needs, jokes, in depth opinions and feelings with them. It wasn’t how those conversations were conveyed, it was about what was contributed and who it was shared with. To understand what you want to communicate, you have to do it. It became clear to me I am not my best alone, but in conversations with others because that is where true understanding of, ideas, processes and ways of being of others are revealed, and scrutiny of your own occurs.
The relaxed nature of Andalucia, the insignificance of money, and the famously extended days spent listening to the sunlit waves, amidst the willingness of conversation from others was a perfect situation to direct me back to finding my way of contributing to the world. And now, the amount of people I could communicate with had doubled.