Zeynep Kerouac Barcelona

We were not driving a ’49 Hudson, and we were on a different continent; but our journey west on the roads of Spain would have made Kerouac proud. This is the story of five girls in a strange land armed with suitcases-on-wheels and Elementary Spanish II.

“I’m learning Spanish; therefore I will go to Spain” — it seemed a simple enough idea. What I was not prepared for was “I do not speak German; therefore I can’t communicate with the German police at Munich airport.” Our flight from Istanbul to Barcelona had a connection in Munich, and because one of my travel companions had not signed her passport, the German police detained us in an office in the airport’s labryinthine back alleys. When our attempts in English failed, our communication problem reached its climax as we started answering queries in German with imprecations in Turkish. Although we never quite understood what the police officers did in that office, we got off without too much trouble in a mild state of linguistic puzzlement.

Our linguistic problems, though, had only just begun: The Spanish, we found out, do not speak English. And Elementary Spanish II had failed to teach me that the Spanish don’t bother to pronounce all the letters in Spanish words. We soon discovered that the letter “s” somehow did not figure in daily conversation even though the language was full of sibilant sounds. Most of the time we did not understand what people were trying to say and the questions we asked produced not answers but more questions in our minds.

Every morning at obscene hours we left one city to go to another. This meant that each morning produced a different stressful search for a train station in a strange city. The difficulty with half-knowing a language is that you think you understand when you really don’t. When we heard the word izquierda (left), for example, we assumed we had to turn left, so rolling our suitcases down cobbled Spanish streets, we would turn down the first street to the left. Often, however, “left” meant not the first left, but the second or third left — or were we supposed to pass the drugstore on our left and keep walking?

At the end of each day of beautiful Spanish streets and cathedrals, museums and palaces, we would start looking for food with our feet aching. Whoever claimed that food is a universal language clearly never had to order at a Catalan restaurant. On our first night, at a tapas bar in Barcelona surrounded by old arched buildings and palm trees, we stared at the menu, and the menu stared back at us, incomprehensible.

So we used the oldest and perhaps only universal language: gesture. Pointing at trays full of ugly sea creatures and more innocent dishes like potatoes and salad being served to other tables, we tried to explain what we wanted to eat. It worked — well, almost. We did end up with food, but what we thought was a salad with olives turned out to be a salad with fish. What we thought were innocent potatoes turned out to be immersed in a heavy garlicky sauce.

It was not the best dinner we ate in Spain, but it was certainly the most unpredictable. The seafood paellas we ate in the following days were heavenly, but that is because we had learned that menus, however inscrutable, were reliable.

And of course there are Gaudí and Miró and Dalí. But what I most enjoyed about our trip was the thrill of trying, with various degrees of success, to find our way on the roads, both physically and culturally, of a completely different country.