If there is one thing guaranteed to put the virgin bilingual new arrival to the test it is the unputoffable visit to the cop-shop to get kitted-out with your identity card. There is no point in resenting the fact that your fingerprints are to be forever-and-ever-olé on some petty functionary’s computer, nor worth protesting that “back home we don’t do that kind of thing”. You have to go with a submissive “here-unto-you-I-present-my-fingers-do-with them-what-you-will” attitude. Mind you, it need not be all trauma. One of the first lessons any expat wisely learns on the continent is the widely-accepted use of “contacts”.
Everybody knows somebody who can help you out of a tight spot, or smooth your path through officialdom – and many at knock-down prices. Unfortunately, I knew only my private students and, inevitably, their contacts were as desperate to practise their English as the students themselves. Equally unfortunate was the fact that my closest contact was Manolo, whose English, despite two one-hour classes a week, left him still a long way from being unconditionally discharged from Intensive Care. As the day of the police visit loomed, I broached the subject with him, praying he’d tell me he’d once asked the Head of Police’s daughter out to what he used to refer to charmingly as “a bite on de side”. His advice did little to calm my anxiety:
“Wen joo go to plees estashun in Espain is to go with extrim coshun. Der is no trust here on de foringers from over de seas. Dey tink joo come only to steel der dorters.”
This was so worryingly close to the truth that I immediately panicked.
“I don’t suppose you know anybody in the police station that could help…”
“Of kors, my freend.” My heart leaped. “Hchai know de porter outside de entrans…” And then sank without trace.
“…but hchee know many peepols inside.” I quickly dismissed any possibility of this last word being a pun from Manolo. For Manolo, a pun was something you fried paella in.
“Hchaim sure hchee will know where joo must to go.”
As usually happens when you have a good contact on which you rely, when I got to the police station, it was off sick. I toyed with the idea of doing an about-turn and coming back another day, but the policeman on guard at the entrance door was already eyeing my edgy movements with suspicion. I placed myself at the end of the first queue I saw as being the most likely, full as it was of clearly un-Spanish citizens all with the same desperate expression I had seen in the shaving mirror that morning. However – again as a result of my unfaltering faith in Manolo’s advice – I had committed the cardinal sin in any formal or informal identity parade. Manolo had told me that – despite the sweltering heat – I should wear a suit and tie and sparkling shoes (“eet crate beeg eempreshun”). It most surely did. I now found myself at the end of a be-teeshirted, be-shorted, be-Niked, and generally befuddled line of foreigners, sticking out like… well… like a foreigner.
And also as one is wont to do when one finds oneself in a queue in a foreign country nervously awaiting one’s turn to be attended by a non-English speaking functionary, I cocked an ear in a desperate attempt to rehearse what I might say as each sorry poor soul reached the window behind which a stern, uniformed official engaged the next contestant in conversation. As each one struggled to answer whatever probing question was being put, I could see the official’s face strain and grimace as the full force of the opponent’s faltering lunges at his native tongue took effect. As always, his riposte was the stock-in-trade one in such situations: repeat the last sentence at snail’s pace and pump it up four decibels.
I wasn’t sure but thought I caught the Spanish words for “describe”, “form”, and “details” and, slightly more worryingly, “shape” and “size”. This was going to be a tougher test of my unfledged Spanish lexicon that I’d imagined. I opted for my trusty Plan B (aka “act local”): I proceeded to prepare a speech that I was not new in town, that I worked as an English teeshirt, knew a surrogate deeplomat and the local bonk manager, and regularly dined on paella in the “seex-penis” restaurant. I also made a mental note to add the fact that I had just started taking flamenco classes if I thought things were not going my way.
“Craaate… Breeeetin,” pronounced the windowed man, as he examined my passport. “Place of beerth…” He now brought the passport closer to his eyes, moving the page this way and that until it caught the light. I knew from recent cringes at Madrid and Granada airport customs what might happen now and rapidly tried to intervene before fate struck. Too late. Window Man had already lighted on a plausible reading:
From the ensuing lack of guffaws around me I realised with some relief that I was the only Brit in the queue. But now my teacher instinct kicked in.
“Well, actually, in fact, perdón, but this is typical English unphonetic spelling, do you see. That ‘a’ is short, and the ‘s'” goes together with the following ‘h’ so it’s ‘sh’ rather than ‘s’, and then those last five letters sort of rhyme with….” I trailed off as I spotted that contorted wince coming back. “Well, anyway, it’s ‘Ashbourne'”. By now, I could imagine the cop behind me at the entrance door fingering his Beretta. Two young and somewhat muscular constablettes looked up anxiously from their desks: I had obviously attempted to correct he who should not be corrected. Window Man straightened up and continued.
“What do joo lose?”
“Sorry? Lose? Nothing…I am here for the Identity Card…I am a teeshi…a teacher and…”
“Hchere lost property sirvis…Identity top floor.”
My fumblings had indeed aroused more attention that I had suspected. When I arrived home that day there was a sort of message on my answerphone. It appeared the two belles at the cop shop had shown considerable enterprise and got hold of my details from “The Top Floor”.
“Good days. Is hchere Susan and Celia from de plees. We saw joo in de line of peepols today and we onderstand joo work like a teeshirt. On de computer we take joor nomber and we decide now to geev joo a massage on de teliphone. We would like for joo to give us some lesson for us to sing karaoke.”
This was as intriguing as it was challenging. English for Singing Purposes. I could write a paper on that and be famous. Had to be worth a try.