“I lived in the US for 20 years,” our Argentinian friend Kitty told us in perfect English, “but still, I never felt comfortable when I had to talk on the phone.”
Well, I won’t make “talking on the phone” a short-term goal for my Spanish learning anytime soon, I thought.
Little did I know, life had other plans.
Back in May, when I saw the Facebook posting saying a volunteer was needed for the albergue (hostel) in Grado, Spain for the first two weeks in September, there was only one stipulation: “Ability to speak Spanish will be critical this year.” Due to pandemic travel restrictions, the usual international flavor of the Camino de Santiago was predicted to be significantly less. But the Spaniards would surely be taking advantage of this thousand-year-old pilgrimage trail in their own backyard.
I was eager to volunteer on the Camino again. By the time September rolled around, my husband and I would be living just 20 minutes from Grado. By that time, we’ll have been in Spain two-and-a-half months. My Spanish should be good enough to get by.
And so it was that I volunteered for the post.
Fast-forward to August 31. I arrive at the albergue in Grado where my co-volunteer John informs me that he doesn’t speak Spanish. Wait–I thought the post said knowledge of Spanish was critical this year? Not wanting to start off on the wrong foot, I just said, “Oh. Okay.” And suddenly it hit me: Of the two of us, I’m going to be looked to as the person who speaks Spanish?!
Minutes later, I found myself trying to explain to the recently arrived pilgrims the procedures and rules of the albergue. In Spanish.
- Opening and closing times. Abierto. Cerrado.
- That we operate on their donations. Donativo.
- Where to put their boots, their hiking sticks. Bastones. Botas.
And then the phone rang.
John looked at me, eyebrows raised. I looked at the phone, Kitty’s words haunting my thoughts.
I took a deep breath and grabbed the phone. Hola! I said and immediately remembered that is not what Spaniards say when answering the phone.
“. . . . Pregunta . . . reservado.” I looked to John. “Are we still taking reservations?”
“I think so,” he told me, flipping through the pages of a small green notebook. “You need their name and phone number.” Nombre. Numero de telefono. I could do this. And I did!
Two weeks later, John has picked up the phone just twice–only when he knows I’m nearby and can quickly take over as needed. I’ve probably taken fifty calls. Thankfully, though, most callers are asking the same questions.
And if not?
I interrupt with, “Lo siento. Entiendo un poco de español. Mas despacio por favor.” I’m sorry. I understand a little Spanish. Slower, please.”
Sometimes they repeat their question at the same speed. Sometimes they slow down. And on really good days, they respond with, “Do you speak English?”