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My Technical Problems in Spain

Traveling and living in Spain for a couple of years, I experienced many things new and different to me. Some were funny and some weren't.

Me at the zoo in Madrid

Me at the zoo in Madrid

What’s Your Name

Okay, I realize that my pitiful high school Spanish was insufficient in conversing in Spain but I figured it was a starting point. I at least knew how to ask the basics like “what is your name” and “how are you.” Apparently not.

Every day I would pass a little middle-aged lady sweeping the stairs or mopping the lobby to our apartment building. I guessed that she was paid to do that and because I passed every day, I would smile and say “hi.” One day I decided to ask her name so I could greet a person not just wave at her. Reaching into my memory from high school Spanish, I remember that “Como se llama” was the right phrase to say. So armed with this phrase, the next time I saw her I asked. I was pretty surprised when she began telling me what the mop was called in Spanish, and the broom, and the sponge, etc. In my embarrassment, I thanked her and left. I kept asking myself, “What went wrong? That was the right phrase, right? So what did I ask her?” It later occurred to me that my high school Spanish was for the less formal conversations between kids. “Como se llama” literally means “what ya/he/she/it called?” It would have been better if I had said “Como se llama usted,” and even so that would not be as formal as they speak in Spain. I should have used the more formal “Cuál es su nombre?” I only found this out much later and by that time I was too embarrassed to ask her again. I never found out her name.

There are no language barriers when you are smiling.

— Allen Klein

Atocha train tickets

Atocha train tickets


I remember one day my husband and I were looking for the train station in Madrid. Finally, and unlike most men, we stopped for directions from a policeman on the corner. I could see gestures but I didn't hear what was said so when my husband got back to the car I asked if he knew where to go. He said, "I told ya." I thought about it and kept silent for a few minutes. But I was sure he didn't tell me so I asked again. He answered the same thing. I frowned and I said, "No, you didn't tell me." He looked at me and said, "We are going to Atocha train station." Atocha sounds just like I told ya. I had to laugh. Even in English, I couldn't understand.


Electricity Differences: 110 vs 220 Volts

My father had been an electrician for many years and before I left he told me that they use a different voltage and none of my appliances would work there. I found out later that all I would need would be a converter. The voltage in the US is 110 and the voltage in Spain is 220-240 volts. The physical plug in the US is two flat prongs and the plugs in Spain (and many other European countries) have round prongs. Today there are small converter boxes you can buy for these differences and still have your hairdryer, curling iron, and travel clothes iron with you. But back in the 70s, I had no idea what to do and the converter was a bit more expensive and large than today. To solve the problem I didn’t take anything electrical with me. If we needed something during the 2 years we lived there, we bought it.

Cooking meant using the butane in bottles that were sold biweekly. If you forgot to get a new butane bottle, you weren’t going to have hot water or a hot meal, simple as that. No one had an electric stove. More’s the pity.

Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact.

— George Eliot

The Washboard

The big problem was washing clothes. We couldn’t afford to buy a washing machine in Spain and then leave it there. It just wasn’t practical. There was a Laundromat at the US Air Base but it meant a planned trip once a week. Once I had a newborn baby going through cloth diapers like they were paper, that wasn’t going to work for me. So I bought a washboard and washed out the diapers in the sink and hung them on the balcony. It seemed the thing to do in Spain. Everyone else was doing it. Once I began washing the diapers, I started washing out my own clothes in the sink as well. It really amused my mother, I can tell you. I thought I was pioneering and she thought it’s about time I discovered real work. Humph.

My painting of the Washer Woman

My painting of the Washer Woman

Final Thoughts

Just visiting a country is easier than living there. You find so many things that you are not familiar with when you live in a country for a while. The food, the language, the technology, the people. Embracing those differences really tests your metal.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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