¿Qué dijiste?, or Language Barriers Aren’t What They Seem

On Monday I ate tapas with Almu and Paco, the couple from whom we rent our room in Córdoba, Spain. They invited me into their home, which is connected to our dwelling via a gated patio.

8:00 PM, Monday night. I cross the threshold, and Almu welcomes me with abrazos before giving me a tour of every floor. It is a medieval European building: impossibly narrowly, with stairs zig-zagging in compressed stacks like a single hallway, folded like origami, with doorways and rooms tucked in surprising locations.

The steps culminate in a rooftop view of the river and a crumpled awning, displaced and sagging under the weight of rainwater. I see the concern in Almu’s eyes as she calls down the steps, “Paco?”, and then he lumbers up, squats under the bloated fabric and pushes, all that was pooled then splashing and falling in cascades on the stucco. Almu and I bounce back, though our ankles are already wet.

We then head down to the kitchen. They offer me wine, “spumante o tinto?” And we eat tapas.

At some point, Paco’s eyes widen as he details a story of the Jewish Quarter in Córdoba. I strain my ears, attempting to suck all possible known vocabulary into a semblance of sense within my head. “Fuera de” means “out of” and “llaves” are “keys.” “Regresan” is “they return.” The story is supplemented by gestures – Paco’s twisting fist mimes a key in a lock, then his hands fan outward like open doors. I think he is saying something about the Jews being forced out of their homes, only to return many years later and find that their ancient keys reopened their long-sealed ancestral homes. He punctuates the story with successive words of wonder, “increíble, fantastico.” There are raised eyebrows all around.

But I, I am caught up in self-doubt, concerned I missed something. Why wouldn’t some Cordoban native just break through the doors to use the living space? If they were hateful enough to kick the Jews out, why would they respect the sanctity of a locked door? But then again, maybe this is solely a feel-good legend and not a historically valid story. Or maybe everything I think Paco is saying is true, and I am the one with insecurity and projected incredulity. Because I do not understand a word here and there, perhaps I unnecessarily doubt the entire story.

The evening continues with delicious food – aged cheese in oil, a mysterious vegetable purée fried into nuggets (that Almu explains are like champiñones but from the bosque – like mushrooms but in the woods?), tiny roasted peppers, Salmorejo soup, and hummus. I continue to make small talk but am still struck by the Jewish Quarter story. It’s too late to ask now, and the night concludes with Almu writing a list of places for me to visit during my final week in Córdoba. It’s all abrazos and adios, and I walk through the gated patio back to my room.

The next evening, my friend Cris and I listen to a podcast in which a man, Kirk, recalls a story from his childhood. When Kirk was four years old, he stole a matchbox car from a neighborhood friend. Consumed by guilt upon returning home, Kirk sits in his stairwell in frozen silence, contemplating the car in his hand. His mother approaches him and asks, “What are you doing?” Kirk, as he puts it, cannot differentiate between self and others with his four-year-old brain, and so he assumes his mother is privy to his internal panic and guilt. He breaks down crying and tells his mother about the stolen car, to which she replies, “Well why don’t you just return it?” Kirk is overcome by relief that there is a solution to his anguish, and he returns the car to his friend.

Later, Cris and I discuss the podcast. I paraphrase the fragment of Kirk’s story in which his mother confronts him in the stairwell. To me, if Kirk assumed his mother could read his thoughts, his perceived tone of her voice would be one of menace and shame – “What are you doing, you bad little boy?” This shocks Cris, and she states that she didn’t interpret Kirk’s story with this tone at all. To her, if Kirk assumed his mother could read his thoughts and automatically comprehend his emotional torment, he would perceive her tone as one of knowing rationality – “What are you doing to yourself honey? Come on, don’t be so silly.” My interpretation is based upon my childhood experiences with an angry, shaming mother, while Cris’ interpretation is based upon her childhood experiences with a pragmatic, caring mother.

So why am I so worried about missing words in Paco’s Jewish Quarter story, when I can completely miss the mark while listening to my native tongue? I harbor far too much faith in the reliability of shared language when so much is molded and interpreted through the lense of past experience. Plus, why are historical details of the departure and return of the Jews in Córdoba relevant to me? Why do I care whether or not ancient keys truly unlocked the long-sealed doors of ancestral Jewish homes? Am I attempting to communicate, or am I seeking facts? It seems far more important to gauge the tone of the speaker, at least in an interpersonal setting. I felt a connection to Paco as he told the Jewish Quarter story because of the way he told it – he was animated, excited, deliberate in his words, and proud to live in a place of such history. And in focusing more upon the speaker – his or her method, motivation, and priorities – it is possible to truly observe and understand the differences between human beings. And in turn, this eliminates potential projections based on past experiences and assumptions.