I took my Psychology students to a homeless shelter today. They were quiet, a thick apprehension filled the room. I'm not sure if any of them had ever been in an environment quite like this one before. A refugio. A shelter in downtown Barcelona. Home to 33 men and women who had up until just recently found comfort on a park bench, a metro station or a deserted building. Here, in this sparse but comfortable building they were starting over. Making connections. Finding a home. After a time, the uneasiness lifted. Several of the students asked about donating money. And clothes. And food. They wanted to know how they could help.
Where do I feel comfortable? What do I need to feel connected? The question runs through my head as I walk the streets of this temporary home. There are so many things I like about being in Barcelona, a city rich in modernisme; the creativity of Gaudí, the genius of Picasso, the colorful brilliance of Miró. I like the sound of Spanish sirens blaring in the night, the smell of cafe con leche wafting through the air. I even like shopping; first at the Mercadona, at the fruit market and then the bread store.
For two months I have struggled to learn the language. I'm a talker by trade. Conversation makes me feel connected. Language makes me feel like I belong. But here in Barcelona, where language is a challenge, I struggle to connect. To the people. The city. The culture. In the quiet of my new found life I am confronted with my inability to communicate, faced with my own vulnerability as I struggle to do what has always come so naturally to me. I am humbled.
At the cafe the waiter asks if I want an English menu. "No," I say. "Quiero practicar español." I want to practice Spanish. Despite my struggle to decipher what I am actually about to order, I don't want an English menu. An English menu would be easier. An English menu would be faster. But to someone who is intent on learning, an English menu would be cheating.
In my intercambio, I sound like the Kaiser automated system reporting an appointment, robotic. Without inflection. I am working hard. Hard to get the tenses correct. To remember the vocabulary. Struggling to make myself understood. What is the word for stranger? I know I knew it just yesterday. Or 5 seconds ago or 30 years. But right now I can't remember. It infuriates me. At times, I am drowning in self consciousness. Fear swells. It paralyzes me. Shame washes over me. What if I make a mistake? What if?
I march into the shelter and walk up to the man at the front counter and announce myself. "Estamos aqui," Here we are, I said. "Tenemos un reunión con Maria," We have a meeting with Maria. "Correcto", the little voice in my head said. It was right. Tenses, vocabulary, inflection... Most of it was right.
Communication, however, is a two way street. It is not enough to be able to announce one's arrival. One must be able to listen, comprehend and respond to what is said back to you.
Two out of three ain't bad.
"Were we all here?" the man asked. Were we ready for our tour?
But there was nothing. Nothing that came to my mind. Not one thing. No we weren't all there. Some of us were still coming. There were more on the way. Some of us were here but we were still waiting for more. Stragglers who were yet to come. In just a few minutes there would be more.
I knew what I wanted to say, but nothing came. Not. One. Thing.
I stared at him for what seemed like an hour, but was probably more like 3 seconds. Maybe 5. Certainly not more than 10. I just stared. Blank. Speechless. Mute. Unsure of what to do next.
And then I did the only thing I could think of to do. I smiled.
And a funny thing happened. He smiled back. He knew. He understood. The sky didn't fall. The earth didn't stop spinning. Nothing happened. Not one damn thing. It didn't matter that I couldn't figure out what to say. He understood what I wanted. The words that wouldn't come out.
An hour later I was having a conversation with the woman who had arranged our visit. Words connected to other words, about the state of homelessness in Barcelona. About the unemployment rate in Spain, a staggering 25%. About the services provided by Arrels Fundació for the chronically homeless, the people who, until recently, called the Barcelona streets their home. The people most of the tourists never see. Never hear about. We shared our programs. I told her about what we do in Marin County. About the homeless problem in our country. As we chatted about the causes of homelessness, we compared the services we provided and the challenges we face in our communities.
And we did it in Spanish.