No Kissing in Canada
Thursday was Pedro’s last class before he moved to Vancouver on Saturday. We had worked together three days a week for the past three months to prepare him for the next three months that he’ll spend in Canada living with a family and taking an English course.
After brushing up his intermediate-level English by reviewing modal verbs (can, may, should, etc.) and getting him to use the past tense more regularly, we concentrated on themes he would likely encounter during his journey.
We practiced how to answer questions when going through Customs and Immigration at the airport – although I imagine flying through Canada to be much easier than dealing with the U.S. system (and he does have all of the necessary paperwork in order. In fact, he had wanted to study in the U.S. but the American immigration system made the process so cumbersome that he couldn’t have even acquired the necessary visa while in Barcelona; he would have had to travel to Madrid to get it.
Other lessons focused on food and ordering in a restaurant and what a waiter means when he asks, “What’ll ya have?” Textbook English provides students with a good foundation, but it’s quite difficult to function in the real world where people don’t follow the script laid out in the books: What would you like to eat, sir? We reviewed vocabulary needed in a restaurant, like a plate, a fork, a spoon and a knife. Imagine the obstacle that “knife” causes when trying to pronounce it; most students remember not to pronounce the “k” but then saying the letter “i” with its Spanish pronunciation makes the word come out sounding like “neef.”
Google Maps came in very handy to find and practice the directions he would give the taxi driver from the airport to the house and the route he would take from the house on the bus to go downtown to the school. Everything was going smoothly until I really got into it, slipped into the language that we native speakers use amongst ourselves and said the nearly incomprehensible, “So then you’re gonna head north.” Americans have gotten lazy and now regularly say, “gonna,” “wanna” and “didya” rather than “going to,” “want to” and “did you.” And “head,” well, that’s just one of countless expressions that don’t translate.
During the last week we talked about some cultural differences like tipping, taxes, elevator etiquette, building layouts and kissing as a greeting.
When it comes to tipping in Barcelona you can pretty much get away without it. It’s nice to round up when paying for a taxi but it’s not expected. In a cheap café it’s common not to leave anything extra and at a nicer restaurant 10% is fine while 15% is more than generous. There are still tip jars around but nothing like back home where I’m astounded and appalled when I see them sitting atop counters at self-serve frozen yogurt places.
Shopping in Spain (and this is true for many other places as well) is easy and efficient and if you’ve already seen the price marked or posted, there’s no need to ask, “How much is it?” You don’t have to estimate your total; with tax already included in the price, you know exactly how much to pay. On the other hand, in most of America, visitors find that they need to budget for the tax added on to the total cost of items.
When one of my students returned from a trip to D.C. she didn’t share her impressions of the amazing monuments and historical landmarks; no, what she reported to me was what a surprise her experience was in – wait for it . . . elevators. She hopped on the elevator and greeted the other passengers with the Barcelona norm of, “hola,” “buenos días” or “qué tal.” She quickly learned that our custom in The States is to get on, turn your back on the people already onboard and if you can’t face the doors, then at least avert your eyes and gaze down at the ground, and for god sakes, do not speak, but if you do have to speak with whoever you’re with, then it better be in a hushed voice.
In Barcelona when I take an elevator to leave a building at times I instinctively find my finger hovering in front of the 1 rather than the B for Planta Baja (Ground Floor). I warned Pedro that hitting B in America would take him to the basement and what he wants to look for instead is a G, L or 1 (not a 0 as it is in Europe where you enter a building on Floor 0 and go up to the first floor).
As long as it has taken me to get used to greeting and saying goodbye to people by kissing one time on each cheek, early on I figured Pedro would need to work on kissing-culture detoxification. So after a couple of the initial lessons I explained to him that the American way of greeting someone is to stand across from each other, while vehemently guarding one’s personal space, briefly make eye-contact and possibly even flash a smile. For the next couple of months Pedro dutifully kept his distance when I came in and just stood there when I left. His girlfriend followed-suit and also refrained from getting too close to me. And then, at the end of our second-to-last class he slipped up and before I knew it he kissed me once on each cheek to say goodbye. I left without saying anything but hoped he hadn’t forgotten that while America may be a vast place, we fervently defend our personal space.
When the last class arrived though, I was sad to say goodbye and determined that given the circumstances, it was appropriate to kiss Pedro and his girlfriend goodbye. As I walked out the door, I turned and left him with my last words of wisdom, “No kissing in Canada!”