It’s always exciting to arrive in a new county. But it’s always frightening to arrive in a new country where you don’t speak the language.
My brief visit to Spain could be described as an isolating experience. As beautiful as the Spanish diction is, it’s not easy to listen to an indecipherable conversation unfold before you. While my brother’s Spanish tongue was invaluable on a practical level, his ability to assimilate only exacerbated my foreignness. Here I was, in a capitalistic European democracy, and I was the only one who didn’t know what was going on.
A wander through the Mercat Del Encants revealed this much. While I would usually consider myself a reputable haggler – a trait I acquired after eight months of bargaining in Africa – this first-time flea market experience exposed my weaknesses. Left to my own English devices, the best I could do was chip a euro or two off the quoted prices. In contrast, my almost-fluent brother kept running away with whatever price tag he would name.
I eventually had to swallow my pride and borrow my brother’s talents. In my attempts to buy a Catalonian version of Tintin, I shamefully swapped roles with my unimpressed sibling in front of the shopkeeper. By letting my older brother do all the dirty work, I was reduced to a passive – and mute – observer. While his commendable efforts may have allowed me to get my desired price, I nevertheless could only thank him half-heartedly. After all, this wasn’t my bargain; this was his.
Thankfully, language constraints do not limit everything. Words are powerful weapons, but there’s always an unfulfilled shaded area between what we wish to convey and what comes out of our mouths. According to Lacanian psychoanalysis, that shaded area is known as “the real”. Due to my fierce detestation of all things Lacan, though, I’m going to attribute this shaded area to the wonders of music.
Music is a language in which people of all nationalities can respond. While styles may differ across demographics and nationalities, its potency is universal. It’s a noise that keeps our lives four dimensional, ensuring that no moment is left dull. Moreover, it’s a form of ambience that pads our daily routines with a subconscious layer of peace.
People often say that they wish life had a soundtrack. In Barcelona, life does have its own soundtrack. The train network sponsors buskers to perform in the underground tunnels, an initiative that quells the stress of inevitable line changes. On the city streets, there is more of the same.
In the morning, accordion players let coffee drinkers pretend that they’re in Paris. In the afternoon, caveman-clad maniacs introduce The Clash to truant schoolkids. By evening, pesky touts on La Rambla chirp to the masses of passing tourists. By night, hidden nightclubs echo into apartment block balconies.
The first thing that made me smile in Barcelona was a busker in the Espanya subway. An Elvis impersonator, he greeted commuters with an energetic rendition of Suspicious Minds. He may not have realised it, but he was the first Catalonian to greet me in a language I could understand. It wouldn’t have mattered if he was singing in Spanish, French, or Catalan; his familiar melodies were right on my wave length.
Fittingly, my final Barcelonan memory – aside from waiting in the airport for six hours – was the sounds of a Spanish musical trio. This group made the central railings of the train carriage their centre stage, treating airport-bound passengers to a charming arrangement of local tunes.
Their collective English vocabulary may have been the equal to my Spanish. Yet I no longer felt isolated or frightened. For the duration of their performance, I was finally able to make sense of the locals.