Making Friends and Doing Business

An element of our dream about living in another country was that we would discover friends and have great dialogue about life and culture, the global political situation, the European Union...

In Spain, we came face to face with monolingualism - both ours and many Spaniards - and the challenges of making friends and doing business.

Our first taste of monolingualism came when we purchased a movil phone. We found a salesman whose Ingles was very good. He explained the features of the phone and the mysteries of buying a prepaid Sim card with some calling minutes on it and how to recharge with additional minutes either at phone shops or online. So, we took our phone home and discovered that the user manual was in Espanol (naturally) but this was remedied by downloading a version in Ingles from the Nokia website. Next we discovered that the phone speaks Espanol solimente! When we called to check messages, a nice voice gave instructions about handling messages, but all in Espanol. Vodaphone, our phone service, sent us SMS messages with instructions in Espanol, too, but these were more easily translated. We managed to program the phone to show menus in Ingles, a great help! So, after some initial challenges, we were managing with our bilingual movil phone!

At the same time, our limited Espanol expanded by leaps. As time went on, we were able to order food in cafes, even explain that we are vegetarianos and ask for things that were not listed on the menu. Reading also become easier with the assistance of a dictionary, so we understood most of the signs in museums, but also knew we were missing some of the information.

Still we continued to have a difficult time listening and understanding what people were saying to us, sometimes picking up only a word or two, but often this was enough within the context of transactional conversations such as ordering food, buying tickets or paying for purchases.

Finding Spanish people who speak enough English to enable us to have real conversations was one of the hoped for goals of our visit. But, as it turns out, very few Spaniards (18% we have been told) consider themselves fluent in English. Yet we had some major successes....

We were introduced to Narciso via email by our friend, Saurabh, who we met one morning last year on the Ghats of Varanasi. Narciso and Saurabh had met when Narciso was traveling in India. So, when we moved from Barcelona to Madrid, we contacted him and agreed to meet.

Our first evening was our introduction to the hours that Madrilenos keep (see above) but we also had great dialogue ranging from travel experiences to places to visit in Spain to Spanish politics, history and the economy to environmental challenges to urban living. This conversation was just what we had hoped to find!

Several weeks later, we met for another evening out, to walk through Chueca, one of Madrid's most eclectic barrios with our expert guide pointing out special buildings and interesting places. We savored more great dialogue as we walked and during a delicious real vegetarian dinner. Just before we left madrid, Narciso honored us with an invitation to his home, a quiet, beautifully decorated, comfortable apartment in the Barrio Prosperidad, just north of us. We discussed our travel plan for Andalucia over glasses of cerveza and then shared a scrumptious Spanish vegetarian dinner which he cooked for us.

We have learned that we share many of the same passions and philosophies with Narciso. Like us, he is concerned about climate change and the determination of people everywhere to keep on driving. He values his urban lifestyle in Madrid. He is a world traveler, preferring destinations that are less traveled, and has hopes to take a year off for more travel. He's well informed and thoughtful about the state of the world. He has become a real friend in our brief encounters.

In our searching for ways to connect with people in Madrid, we discovered Democrats Abroad, an organization that seeks to connect Americans living abroad with the Democratic Party back in the USA. We sent an inquiry to the contact on the website and soon received a warm and friendly message from Kristi. She invited us to their next meeting and also to call her to arrange a meeting before that. So, we did and made a date for lunch. We met her and a friend and had a wide ranging conversation over lunch which continued back at Kristi's lovely home overlooking the Palacio Real!

Topics ranged from urban ecology; energy and climate change; bemoaning the Bush Administration's denial and refusal to take action; exploring ways to enhance the image of the urban lifestyle with young people, perhaps through a mainstream (non-PBS) TV show; and investing in a windmill or a wind farm to ensure a personal supply of renewable energy and perhaps receive a return on investment, too. From there, we moved on to water education and conservation. We learned that Madrid had several years of severe drought so people are aware of the challenge of water supply. During the drought, the fountains were turned off and allowed to go dry. This must have been a wake up call to Madrilenos in a city of fountains in many roundabouts and most parks. We even shared stories about trailer life - Kristi lived full time in a trailer earlier in her life!

At the meeting of Madrid Democrats Abroad, we met several other Americans who are living in Madrid. Everyone had interesting stories to tell about experiences as expatriates and their life here.

Later, we met again for lunch and learned that Kristi had been invited to a special conference with Al Gore in the Canary Islands! She met Mr. Gore and heard his presentation from Inconvenient Truth in person! He is organizing a corps of speakers to expand his work on climate change and she will be involved! When she learned that we would be stopping over in Madrid on our way to Brussels, she invited us to stay at her home.

Following our travels through Andalucia, we returned to Madrid and stayed overnight with Kristi and her husband John. Kristi shared her stories about the conference with Al Gore and we shared our stories of our travels. We met John, whose deep understanding of the global economy prompted intriguing ideas that we'd like to explore in more depth. We also met their young friends, Angelique and Vince. The six of us shared far ranging conversations over a delicious meal. We even slept a little.

We feel a close friendship with Kristi because we share American roots and experiences as well as a passion to take personal action to, as Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." Through Kristi, we have found a way to connect with other Americans in other countries and we'll use this connection where ever we roam!

One afternoon, we stopped for a cafe con leche at Casa Poli, our corner cafe, just up the street. The man at the next table said something in Espanol and Susan said, "No habla Espanol!" He switched immediately to Ingles and in a few moments, we were exchanging business cards and agreeing to meet again soon.

The next afternoon, we did meet again and spent a lovely evening sharing drinks and walking through the barrio of Salamanca, Isidro's lifelong neighborhood. With such an expert guide, the secrets of the streets of Salamanca came alive for us. We walked by the apartment of a rich heiress, visited the old theatre that has been converted into a restaurant, stopped in (without buying) at Majorca to view the unbelievably decadent and lovely sweets and pastries, and strolled through Jardins de Serrano, a very upscale mall inside a block of buildings on Calle Goya.

During our stops for drinks and as we walked, we learned that Isidro has lived in this barrio since he was five. He is an attorney, has a Mercedes, lives in an apartment where he also has his office. We talked about local, Spanish and European politics, especially the challenges of Basque separatism and immigration in Spain. We imagine that there are areas of concurrence and also divergence between his world view and ours! He seems to be happy to live in these upscale surroundings but at the same time, he says he is not seeking to be rich but only comfortable. He enjoys his low stress life and simpler living style. We respect him for this and hope to remain friends although his determination not to use Internet may make continued communication challenging!

These three people have given us a great gift of understanding that we could never find through research and our own personal observations. Each one has offered us a window into life in Spain that has expanded our knowledge and provided us with more insights so that our own understanding has grown and matured. As we continue our travels, we hope we'll find more good friends along the way.

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