“Doze!” said my Glamorous Research Assistant with careful emphasis to the ticket lady at Museu Gaudí in Parc Güell. She had already spent several minutes in the queue rehearsing her pronunciation, under my coaching (despite being a self-proclaimed authority, I was too chicken to try my luck on actual Catalans - for reasons that will shortly become clear).
“In my language, that means ‘box’!” replied the ticket lady, emphasising the possessive in fluent English with a certain smugness. “You mean ‘doss’.” The queue behind us dutifully giggled, as we pondered why the ticket clerk at the railway station hadn’t batted an eyelid when we’d asked for “Box tickets to Clot”, and why others couldn’t be as polite/tactful/uninterested as him.
The English are notoriously useless at learning other peoples’ languages. It would be better if limited competency was tested as an entry requirement at passport control:
“Please count from one to ten, señor.”
“Err… una … er… doze…”
“Box? Box isn’t a number! Entry denied, return to the departure gate!”
That way at the very least, no small European nation would ever again have to face the onslaught of England fans on tour. And my GRA & I would stick to holidaying in Wales the Lake District.
I tried. I really did. Before leaving, I spent some time (at least ten English minutes) studying the section on Catalan phrases in the Lonely Planet, and arrived determined to make an effort at communicating with the Barcelonans in their allegedly native language. But it turned out that I only learnt enough to be dangerous. As we finished our first course, the waitress, presumably encouraged by my ability to order the dishes previously, directed a stream of Catalan at us, ending in the rising tone that indicates a question. Employing that well-worn school exam technique, I panicked and guessed the answer:
The waitress looked somewhat perplexed and turned away. “Bonissima…” she muttered thoughtfully to herself. Inside my head, the woman from Museu Gaudí shrieked with laughter. “Tonto!” she screeched, “in my language, that means ‘elephant dung’!!” Oh ghod, I hadn’t just ordered a plate of that, had I? I’d had my suspicions about the “chorizos” on the last one.
Frequently, our pronunciation would be so poor as to easily identify us as foreign within two words of opening our mouths. The other party would then switch to fluent English while we, insistent in our efforts to be polite and considerate and stupidly, stupidly liberal about their culture, floundered on murdering the Catalan tongue. This led to the ridiculous situation in which two people attempted an exchange in different languages, neither of which was their first one.
I hold the Lonely Planet partially responsible here for advancing the idea that speaking Catalan wins you extra brownie points with the nationalistically-inclined Barcalonans. Bollocks does it. We’d ask for something in Catalan and they’d look at us blankly as if we were speaking Dutch and give the equivalent of “Huh?” in reply, at which point we’d switch to Spanish and their faces would light up as comprehension finally dawned. Then they’d bring us a beer. In a box. Catalan is the fanciful idea of a guidebook that would also recommend an evening of “authentic” folk dancing at the local cultural center.
I’m not suggesting that we should give up and simply speak loudly and slowly in English to all foreigners, as our ancestors were used to doing (“You there! This is our country now! Make the tea, chop-chop!”). I’m saying that we should stay at home and avoid offending anyone else from another country ever again.