Children abroad

22 February 2009


At Unfogged a few weeks ago, heebie-geebie writes about passing out in a castle in Poland from jet lag & exhaustion, having just landed there that day for a conference, without sleeping on the plane:

I kind of caught myself as I hit the ground, and woke up, and I was so disoriented and confused. My big emotion was a wave of shame and embarrassment, in this really little-kid way. I felt like I’d thrown up in school, or wet my pants or something. It was a really odd, long ago feeling, that I hadn’t meant to violate some etiquette of a basic bodily function. It wouldn’t have been so intense except I was still half-asleep and disoriented, and couldn’t quite get a handle on what was happening.

Everybody was sort of perplexed, but sympathetic, and I was guided over to a bench by the gift shop to sit by myself for the duration of the tour. Which also felt like elementary school all over again: being led through a maze of a castle that was too complicated for me to understand, and then being parked somewhere for my own good. (“Am I in trouble, Mom? It wasn’t my fault.”)

A few of the 316 responses in the thread, which is where the body of Unfogged posts reside – and before the discussion turned to drinking it hot tubs & the effects of mixing heat & alcohol – returned to foreign experiences, which I found revealing. (Upon later inspection, most of what I was thinking of came from another thread that ended up being about the Peace Corps & alcoholism).

This feeling – of being in elementary school again, of having to be guided around, of not being in control – is something I’d almost forgotten about until I lived abroad. Not being able to speak the language, not being fluent in the culture. You’re taken where people take you, for the most part.


Here, I’ve been a child. I have needed the simplest things explained to me. I have lacked words for everyday objects, been reduced to pantomime. People do not necessarily ask my opinion about things, because when you’re talking with somebody who doesn’t have a full grasp of the language, it’s easy to forget that they’re a functioning moral agent.

I’ve thought many times, that if somebody didn’t want me to understand something, or wanted to deceive me, it would be pretty easy to do it. (My older students try this habitually – “No, James, you don’t understand. The teacher told us the test was cancelled. You’ll see.” – but you get used to not trusting 16 year-olds when they speak Spanish to you after a little while.)

(This feeling of dislocation & suspicion can really reach its apex if you get drunk in a foreign country with people you don’t know well, which is most people. After a certain point, it’s all you can do to follow the conversation, & for all you know they could be talking about you, or laughing, not at your jokes, but at something else, and you have no way of knowing. This is a queasy kind of 4 a.m. feeling.)

So much of fluency is about reading cues, catching things from context, is about having a conversation partner who’s willing to pick up a little bit of the slack. It’s like dancing; I speak better Spanish with some people than I do others.

Sometimes, particularly at the beginning, I’d have an entire conversation & be unsure the entire time what it was about, until the very end, and then something would click & I’d retrospectively understand the entire thing. And so a lot of apparent fluency is being able to smile & nod while you try to catch up.

I ask more questions now than I did at the beginning, because the number of things I don’t understand has diminished to the point where the number questions I have are few enough to ask.

… reading cues, catching things from context … – this is true even of my students. I recently put on a spelling bee, & it’s amazing how they flounder when you look at them with a notepad, straightfaced, and say, “Coffee.” They’re so used to getting cued along that they get really flustered when you just stand there, waiting. C . . . – es ‘c,’ ¿no? ¿No? ¿Sí o no? Vale, vale. C . . . o . . . f . . . f . . . e. Café.”


There is a surrender to fate that accompanies this radical powerlessness, this lack of agency. You don’t have a stake to lose; you can do or risk things you wouldn’t normally do or risk. And I’ve found, at least, that when I let things just happen, it generally works out better than when I try to plan; I don’t know enough to plan well, here. Even still.

And generally you just putter around & follow people, which sometimes leads to situations like when you’re six and you start holding an adult’s hand that looks like your mother from the knees down, and then after a little bit you look up & have that mutual moment of shock – Wait. Why am I here? With this kid/stranger?!

(Maybe one of the good parts of growing up is being on the other end of that, looking at the kid’s face change, and knowing exactly what they’re thinking.)


On Tuesdays, I stay in Bedmar for the afternoon, because we have a faculty meeting at 4 and, even though I’m not actually required to be there, the last bus leaves before my last class ends & the professors who would normally give me rides are all staying anyway. So I eat lunch with a group of between four and a half dozen teachers who all go, each week, to the Paraiso, a restaurant/bar near the center of town, by the first of the two bus stops & the fountain.

It’s owned by the parents of one of my students in 3º de ESO (thankfully, one of the smart ones). I now have a reputation for cleaning my plate. You order the menú del día – the fixed comida of daily specials, with a first & second course, a basket of bread, wine or beer, and dessert or coffee afterwards. The first plate is invariably cocido – a traditional stew with chickpeas & ham fat & vegetables – or tortilla, or lentils; the second plate always a cut of ternera a la plancha; pollo either en horno or a la plancha; a type of fish; or some other special, served with potatoes panfried in olive oil & seasonal vegetables on the side, like pumpkin stewed in oil, or green peppers.

We eat, take our coffee out at the bar (nobody really eats dessert with lunch in Andalucía), pay & come back in time for the meeting.

I no longer feel like such a child;  I can speak, more & more. And still –

Last week, I started walking with the castellano & history teachers, who live in the pueblo – we’d been talking, it seemed natural to walk out with them, and they were making jokes about chicken hamburgers. Five minutes went by, I realized we weren’t going towards the center. “You’re not going to the Paraiso?” I said.

They looked at me. “No, we’re having lunch at home.”

“Oh,” I said. I felt foolish. How was I going to explain this? I’d wandered off uphill to take in the view?

Emilio, castellano teacher, looked at my face & started laughing. “Here, come on,” he said. “You can eat with us.”

One Response to “Children abroad”

  1. notsorandomencounters Says:

    Aw Jim, I’m glad they fed you darling. I went to the hospital and I’m absolutely a-okay. I’ve started writing on the blog more and we’ve been getting updates from my friends who are contributing as well. Speaking of which, I know you have your own thing going but if you ever feel like writing about something nerdy, you’re totally welcome Brother.

    I miss you.


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