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.
By James Blick
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!”.
James is a Madrid-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter at
The article was first-printed in Iberosphere and is re-printed with their kind permission.