MICHAEL WOLSEY: Two weeks to learn Spanish? No problemo!
I HAVE two weeks to learn Spanish. I’m quite relaxed about it – and so I should be, for I do the same thing every year.
Well, not exactly the same. Some years I learn French or Italian, depending on where I am going.
I don’t know why I bother. The only natives I talk to on holiday are waiters and taxi drivers and the only things I can tell them in their own language, they can understand perfectly well in mine.
But there seems to me something crass, fundamentally ill-mannered, about opening a conversation in English and presuming you will be understood and that you will receive a reply in the same tongue.
So this year, as every year, I get out the trusty phrasebook.
It’s looking a bit dog-eared, and I suspect it is way out of date. Its happy model holidaymaker is still inquiring about the exchange rate for the peseta and some of its handy phrases seem, well, a little past the point of usefulness. “Sorry operator, I’ve got the wrong number’’, for example, and “excuse me, in which carriage may I smoke?’’ Lovely grammar, though, and very polite.
“How much do you charge for one night,’’ seems open to misinterpretation in a less-innocent age. And what’s this one-hour service we are looking for? “Servicio de una hora, por favour.” Nowadays in Spain, one hour is the time it takes to get any service and anyone so rash as to complain, is likely to be told to ‘vete a hacer punetas’, which the ancient Eyewitness Travel Guide translates as ‘clear off’ but a Spanish speaker tells me is a bit ruder than that.
My new guide comes as a surprise, all the same. The trusty Eyewitness was full of Buenos dias, Buenos tardes, and cheery conversation-builders along the lines of “it’s a lovely day” and “that meal was very good”.
Steve Sparks’s online guide is a more confrontational affair altogether. “That’s too expensive,” he insists. “I can’t afford it. You’re cheating me.’’
Fortunately, he also provides the Spanish for, “Please there has been a mistake … it was a misunderstanding … I haven’t done anything wrong.’’
You could insist “Quero hablar con an abogad’’ (I want to talk to a lawyer), but if you don’t want to blow the entire holiday budget you might be better to settle for “puedo pagar la multa ahora?” (can I just pay the fine now?).
My Eyewitness Guide was a pleasant stroll through a land of smiling café owners and helpful hoteliers. This new one sounds like Dublin’s Temple Bar on a Saturday night. “Marchese!’’ (go away), “Ladron!’’ (thief) and “Llame a la policia!’’ (call the police).
Too late for the police, I fear. “Cubranse!” (take cover) “Hay disparos!’’ (there’s a shooting).
“Can I use your mobile phone?’’ is a question unheard of when my Eyewitness Guide was published. But why do you want it? “Quiero hablar con la embajada” (I want to talk to the ambassador). Que? Because “Necesito medical attention’’ (I need medical attention), “estoy enfermo’’ (I’m ill), “hubo un accidente” (there’s been an accident) or “he sido violada’’ (I’ve been raped).
Clearly, the world was a happier place in the days of the Eyewitness Guide when questions included “can you help me work the machine?’’ “Can I have a blow-dry?’’ (no, blow-dry!) and “can I get a 36-exposure colour film?” To which Mr Sparks has the modern answers – “Que va! Me esta tomando el pelo! Ni de cona!’’
Look them up yourself. I’m going back to French. It’s less violent.