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What will I be when I grow up…in Spain?

If your jokes translate badly and you find you're a bore in a foreign language, don't worry, you're not the first.


"I was horrified. The Spanish me was a bore..."

I left New Zealand just over a year ago. Probably permanently. And as I suspect is the case for many expats, moving overseas became an opportunity for personal reinvention. Flying out of Auckland, I wasn’t coming to Spain to reinvent myself. I was moving here with my Spanish wife, Yoly. But the temptation to start afresh is compelling. And moving so far from home is the ultimate chance to break with the past.

So, two months after arriving in Madrid I became the new me. I gave up directing TV commercials, a job I didn’t enjoy in New Zealand or Spain, and I became a full-time writer. A bad cliché (and an even worse financial decision), I know.

But within a few months of my rebirth, the new me started to realise there was another identity crisis afoot. Bit by bit I was becoming conscious of playing two roles. There was the English-language me, a pretty true reflection of who I am, and the Spanish-language me, a fumbling shadow of my other self.

The problem comes when I speak Spanish. The complexity of my conversation and, more distressing, my ability to make a nuanced and well-timed joke, is gone. Speaking with Spaniards, I hear myself making statements just so I can make a statement or asking questions that aren’t quite the question I’m trying to ask. Or I might try a joke and get polite laugher, or no laughter at all.

The low point came on a night out drinking with some of Yoly’s friends. I cracked a few jokes in Spanish that I considered quite funny in English (they were scatological in theme). I thought I was on a roll. But Yoly told me on the bus home that the jokes hadn’t translated happily. She said at one point someone had rolled their eyes. I was horrified. The Spanish me was a bore.

Relief came when I met some other expats my age, a group of well-bearded English and Irish schoolteachers. I joined their Sunday morning football team. And within minutes of taking the pitch, we fell into a wonderful groove. The crass humour and bawdy male-bonding flowed and there was an easy, rolling conversation at after-match beers. It was like coming up for air.

With my wife the situation is different. Yoly and I spoke English in New Zealand but changed to Spanish when we moved to Spain. Now we speak mainly Spanish, with a bit of English – we’re probably working a 80/20 split. Which is fine, mostly. But then one day, over a semi-liquid lunch, Yoly said something like, “You remember those boozy lunches we used to have in New Zealand… in English?” She said she missed them. She asked if we could swap into English for the rest of the lunch. And she had a point. In my zeal to want to speak and learn Spanish, I’d forgotten that English remains our relationship’s mother tongue. It’s the language we revert to in cases of love and war because it’s where we feel most intimate. To cut it out is to cut out a part of us.

So, I figured, I just needed to wait. Someday the Spanish me would catch up with the English me. Two to three years, I gave it. In three years my wife would get the guy she fell for in either language and all her friends would finally know me for the first time.

Then one day at a bullfight, I mentioned all this to another expat friend, also named James. Tall, greying and healthy-looking in that American way, James has been in Spain awhile. In fact, the day we sat in Las Ventas bullring he told me he was crossing an equator of sorts, of having spent more of his life living in Spain than living out of it.

I told him what I was feeling. And I asked him how long it would take for these two me’s to converge. Without thinking, he told me they never will. There will, he explained, always be two you’s in Spain.

I was surprised. I hadn’t considered that option. But I figured he should know. Despite all the years here, and despite his fluent Spanish, there were obviously still two of him.

So how does that feel, I asked. I wanted to know what my future held. But he didn’t hear me. The bullfighter had done something good, to which the crowd and James roared “Olé!”.

Follow James on twitter: @jamesblick78.

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10 Comments for “What will I be when I grow up…in Spain?”

  1. It’s when I have to explain the punchline or, when there isn’t one, having to explain why there isn’t one that I find soul destroying. I’ve been here ten years and have learnt not to be ‘myself’ in certain situations. Just keep the jokes for those that ‘get it!’.

  2. It’s very true that when we live in a different country, no matter how fluent we are in the language, some things just don’t translate. I wrote something similar about my time in France – glad it’s not just me!

  3. Oh, so true, and described with pinpoint accuracy!

    I’ve got nine years under my belt. No matter how well I manage to communicate in Spanish, I still find that Spanish friends, when introducing me to others and are asked if I speak Spanish, will reply, “No mucho”.

    Personally, I find myself to be way too verbose in Spanish. It’s impossible to say anything pithily.

  4. I am the reverse… In the UK no-one laughed at my jokes, but here the Spanish like my “English” sense of humour! (as they call it!). I am certainly a different person, but I stay this person when I visit UK, I like the new me, and it happened without me realising. The old me has gone, not that it was a bad me, but I have improved myself and I like it. I have to say though, the Spanish sense of humour… hmm! jury out on that one! lol. (don´t think that paints well for my jokes though does it!) lol. Nice article, good to hear other experiences.

  5. Hmmm…
    I don’t think semantic agility has anything to do with the “problem”; of course I have only MY own experience to draw from.
    I was brought up in England, speaking English AND Spanish, so I asume fluency in the Spanish language has nothing to do with it. I still don’t know which is my “mother” tongue, and yet when reading your article I recognised the symptoms. I am sure it is altogether a cultural thing. When I thought I was being witty with my new Spanish friends (when I came over in ’86 at the age of 18) I wasn’t. You’re lucky enough to have somene tell you. It is pathetic when you find out by yourself.
    Stick to the two you’s and use whichever one you need at the appropriate juncture.
    The average Spaniard will never understand “el humor más fino”.
    Hmmm… or maybe my English friends were too polite to tell me how much of a bore I really was… now that’s a thought…

    Yolanda Canales Puente

  6. Once a Yorkshireman, always a Yorkshireman!

    I’d be happy to add this account to http://www.thisisspain dot info if you wish – credited of course with links.

    Good to be in contact


  7. Yes I suppose I lead a dual personality life – my UK life with Brit and other expats speaking and joking etc in English and the time I spend with my Spanish wife/her family/friends and trying to keep up (mostly failing) in Spanish. I think I have given up thoughts of ever being 100% Spanish……….but maybe I best of both worlds.

  8. Lovely article. Although both my husband and I are Portuguese by birth, I was brought up in South Africa, so my English is just as good as my Portuguese, but I met my husband in a work environment so when we started going out, married, had kids, we always spoke in English to each other, except when there was Portuguese family around. Then we moved to Portugal and after about 1 year we found it easier to communicate in Portuguese, jokes sounded better (they didn´t seem to have the same meaning or be as funny when translated), but I found that whenever we would get into an argument we would revert to English! Now that we moved to Australia, although it was 5 years ago, we speak in a mix of both languages depending on circumstances.

  9. I think part of moving abroad is embracing the fact that you will never fully ‘be’ from anywhere ever again. I don’t have a group of ‘ex-pat’ friends, so most friendships I’ve made here are with locals, though that has proved difficult. In the town where I live two of my closest friends are outsiders like me – but they are not from other countries, just from other towns! That’s how deeply the localism runs here. Interestingly other good friend are locals but, for whatever reason, are sort of ‘outsiders’ also.

    I agree it’s a luxury when you can speak in your own language with someone who understands all its nuances, the complexities of its humour etc. But then our connections with people depend on much more than just shared nationality.

    Either way, trying to become 100% Spanish (or whatever) is a mistake – I think it’s important to embrace our ‘exotic’ side, however well-integrated we have become. Wear it proudly, though also humbly of course. Total reinvention is bad for the soul. But until, as ex-pats, we find a niche in which we are comfortable, it can be hard to know which parts to hold on to – and which to let go.

  10. I wrote a similar post about feeling like I have to different personalities! Except mine are French and American seeing as I was an expat in France. I did feel like my American personality started shinning through more and more as I mastered more of the French language, and now that I’m back home I feel like French Laura has invaded some of my Americanness. Anyway, here’s the link if you want to check it out!

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