My girlfriend speaks very good Spanish, a skill that has very few downsides. Besides it being a trusty survival tool - for those that don't know me, we live in Madrid, Spain - speaking Spanish enriches her life in many other ways. She can speak to 427 million more people than those who only speak english. She can watch Almodovar movies without the subtitles or read Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
There is only one downside that I can see: her boyfriend is a non Spanish-speaking freelance journalist.
If we were living in the United States, this would not be a problem. I could interview most anybody with professionalism, extract pertinent truths and subtle insights, all the while juggling the article's fragile narrative.
In Spain however, I'm like a baby with a tape recorder.
Still, I've found my way around the pacifier, mostly by looking for sources that speak english. Sometimes, however, a Spanish speaking source is just to good to pass up.
Just such a scenario happened recently. I had been working on a story for almost seven months, and after a few shots in the dark, I was able to get in contact with a very good source.
There were two caveats to this good news: one, he wanted to conduct the interview in Spanish. Two, he lived in the ancient port city of Cadiz, about a four and a half hour train ride from my home in Spain's capital.
If interviewing someone in Spanish is difficult, doing it over the phone is Mt. Everest.
Which is why I was standing over my girlfriend on a Sunday morning. She was wrapped from her head to toes in white sheets, so calm and innocent, only her face exposed like a nun.
I, of course, was trying to bribe that saintly figure with coffee and bylines.
She sleepily conducted the Skype interview like a seasoned perodista, me hovering over her helplessly like a medical intern observing a surgery. If I thought I understood Spanish ok before the interview, the rapid-fire monologue squawking out of my laptop speakers made me think different.
When the interview was over, we both breathed a sigh of relief.
But as anyone who has conducted an interview before knows, we weren't out of the woods yet: the recording still needed to be transcribed. She might have been ready to topple this beastly chore had she had a proper night sleep.
So we did all the stuff Americans do when they procrastinate. We went shopping, ate ice-cream, drank beer in the sun.
But eventually the sun waned. Like the monster in "Stranger Things," the interview had to be confronted. This time I bribed her with iced coffee, which was just the coffee from this morning, chilled in the refrigerator and garnished with ice-cubes.
But when I hit play on my phone and played the recorded interview, the flurry of words that spilled out were too fast to comprehend.
We spent almost an hour trying to slow it down to an audible speed. We tried Garage Band, and QuickTime; no luck. As a last ditch effort, I put the recording into Traktor, a DJ program for filling dance floors, not editing a journalistic conversation.
Amazingly, it worked! Sometimes the wrong tool is just the fix you need.
It wasn't without its quirks however.
While slowing it down made his words mostly comprehendible, it also had an unintended side-effect: dropping the pitch of his voice like a lean fueled, Texas hip-hop track.
That and every-time she missed something - even with the slower speed, this happened often - and we had to rewind the track, a digital, vinyl scratch would screech, as if Dj Khaled were on the beat.
Sounds cool when you are remixing a Drake song - not so cool for our purposes. The fact that she went through that cacophony for me was pretty touching.
Some want their partners to make dinner for them, and some want flowers. Others want to be serenaded by guitar and to be taken on extravagant, tropical get-aways.
But you know are a journalist when you are romanced by an interview transcription.
If you liked what you read, check out my last post about finding a Piso in Madrid!
My girlfriend waved goodbye as the escalator pulled her upwards until she disappeared into the Madrid terminal. I felt my jeans for a tissue, finding nothing but a boarding pass and an expired Spanish visa.
While tears in your passport are much more valuable than stamps, the crying had to stop before airport security. I wasn't out of Spain yet, and communicating in Spanish to scary guards is rough, even without sobs and a runny nose.
The next thirteen hours would be a transition, from one country to another. I spent the last nine months in Spain learning a new language and culture. Now I had to relearn the old habits, which were packed away in my mind like dusty boxes in an attic.
As I stood in line at security, an elderly Spanish couple snuck-up behind me and cut me in line. The American in me was highly offended, which gave me hope. If I was pissed about being cut in airport security, than I was remembering my cultural heritage faster than I thought I would.
In the United States, it doesn't matter if you are waiting for a punch in the face, the line is a sacred ritual, and your spot hotly coveted.
Spain's version of the line is less rigid, leaving wiggle room for advancement. Cutting seems to be acceptable as long as it's done with absent-minded intention: walk up, avoid eye contact, and take a quiet step ahead of your competition.
I would have said something, but they had executed the maneuver perfectly, leaving me no choice but to congratulate them on their seamless technique.
I walked through the rope labyrinth, put my bag on the conveyor belt, and walked through the arched x-ray. The Spanish couple waited anxiously at the conveyor belt a couple feet ahead of me.
We had gotten off on the wrong foot, but if anything was going to bring us together, it was the anxiety of getting in trouble for not putting our toothpaste into clear, plastic bags.
We watched our luggage closely, as if staring could change the outcome, our suitcases rolling through the rubber streamers like a drive-through car wash.
Mine emerged fine. Theirs were not so lucky.
They watched in horror as a tiny metal arm appeared, like something out of a science fiction novel, pushing their bags into the hands of a uniformed woman.
I did what anyone would do in that situation. I took my things out of my blue bin, happy it wasn't me. The uniformed woman was yelling at the old Spanish couple,'Is this your bag? Is this your bag?' They stared back at them blankly.
I knew that look.
I wore it on my face daily; at the bank, at the super market, on the subway. Recognizing that look was as easy as spotting my reflection.
Or maybe that's just what you get for doing cutsies.
I found my seat in coach next to two Americans. It was an aisle seat, which - besides worst case scenarios - carries more responsibility than sitting by the emergency exit. You are the gatekeeper between the stranger in seat 'B' and...well, pretty much everything: bathroom breaks, stretching, etc.
I could give access or take it away, making me the coach equivalent to president of a three seat America.
We hit the sky, and soon into the flight, my constituents turned on their TVs and started shoving food into their mouths. Just fork to mouth, fork to mouth, repeat.
It was disgusting, sure. Crumbs flying, lips smacking, blank eyes staring deep into tiny screens, as if they contained juicy secrets.
But if I'm being honest, I was happy with this vulgar display. It validated me. After a long day of speaking Spanish, I would often look forward to going home and eating my dinner in front of the computer.
Shovel, watch Netflix, repeat.
While lobbing food into your face is a pleasurable activity, for the viewer it's fairly disturbing. The chewing sound alone was enough to make me want to revoke their cabin rights for at least an hour.
Still, it alleviated some of my eating shame. I didn't personally have bad table manners.
I was just being American.
High in the sky, some where over the Atlantic, I started to regret my choice of cut-off shorts.
The cabin seemed to be a few degrees above a well-stocked, industrial refrigerator, and on top of that, my personal air vent was blasting a steady, arctic stream across my exposed thighs.
So I asked the American to my left,"Hey man, is my air conditioning on?"
The man stopped shoveling his food for a second and peaked up at the panel and then back at me.
"Nah man, yours isn't on." The shoveling commenced a second after the sentence left his lips.
"Ah, well it's super cold in here..." I continued.
He sighed and looked at me like I was asking him to do my taxes, reached up to his vent and moved it slightly.
"Since yours isn't on, I went ahead and moved my vent a little bit so it isn't hitting you so much."
Then he commenced shoveling.
Private property is everything in a three seat America.
When I got off the plane, I ran into the Americans again after passport control.
"We have to stop running into each other like this," they said.
'I feel like that's going to be impossible, at least for the next two months,' I thought to myself.
Be sure to check out my last post, an ongoing series of illustrations depicting the differences of Spain and the United States. You can check that out here.
Check back often for more travel musings, burrito reviews, and attempted honesty.