My dad took his staff to Hawaii for an office getaway. We’re from a small town in Pennsylvania where no one eats oysters or believes in palm trees. I’d since moved away, but visited after everyone returned home. Hawaii would have been the most exotic place they’d ever gone. Even I was excited to hear stories of a paradise they’d only seen in movies.
“How was Hawaii?” I asked the receptionist.
She perked up behind her desk. “Well,” she pursed her lips like you’re-not-gonna-believe-what-I-have-to-tell-you. Then she laid it on me.
“We went to the Cheesecake Factory.”
I wasn’t sure if I should have hugged her or cried.
Food is indeed a relevant experience when traveling. To taste a place is how we live a place. Pizza in Rome, calamari sandwiches in Madrid, Goulash wherever they eat that. But there’s something about franchise eating that drains the authenticity of a local experience. Mickey D’s may serve a flat white in Berlin, but inexplicably it tastes better from a tattooed, uniformed barista who can’t speak English. Wendy’s in Columbus, sure. Brazil, not so much.
I rack up 100,000 flyer miles a year. I eat octopus in Portugal, drink Pisco Sours in Chile, smoke pot in Amsterdam. To experience the highs of these places, I must taste these local places. This may make me a snot, but never would I patron an American franchise while away.
So I went to Spain.
I took Spanish lessons. I volunteered on a farm staffed by non-English speakers. I studied the buses in Madrid, mapped the Barcelona subway, ordered all my meals in the native tongue. On a train to the coast, I even watched the Disney film Moana, all in Spanish, sans subtitles. Didn’t understand a word.
In my three weeks there, I was indeed living it, even if I was trying too hard.
Being an American already comes with its burdens when traveling in Spain. Everything seems uncomfortably small—coffee cups, dinner plates, men’s swimsuits. Ice cubes are hit or miss. Free refills, forget it. Credit card transactions take longer than paying in pennies. It’s like their satellites are on siesta. And the language barrier, while often manageable in the EU, is still embarrassing when a server switches to English because your Spanish is crap. Happened all the time.
While my time abroad was fulfilling and I’ll do again, it was, for this American, work.
On my final weekend, I wanted to celebrate this hard work with a classic beach getaway in the coastal town of San Sebastian. It’s no Hawaii, but it’s Europe, and somehow that counts.
It wasn’t off to a good start. Rained the whole time. When I went back to the hotel for my raincoat, I interrupted the housekeeper who was still cleaning. I tried to explain I’d be out in a second, but she didn’t understand.
“No entiendo, no entiendo,” she said, hugging her cleaning supplies and running out the door.
My apologies meant nothing to her, so I headed back outside and caught a bus into town. The driver bickered at me because I didn’t have the right pass. Once back in the rain, I realized I’d spent all my cash so I’d have to find a restaurant that didn’t mind wasting half the day for a credit card transaction.
The burdens were piling ups. I’d been carrying a backpack the size of another person. I was hungry without a single Euro. I’d given up on my Spanish because I was apparently unintelligible. I’d aggravated enough Spaniards that day. I needed something easy, and something fast because it was still raining on me. And then I saw it, under those familiar green umbrellas.
Accepts credit cards? Has obnoxiously massive coffee cups? Free Wifi? Yes, yes, yes! I may have come to the Mediterranean a sophisticated traveler, but right then, I was a Yankee from Pennsylvania running on hunger and defeat. I walked in faster than slamming espresso.
In front of me in the queue, an elderly American couple managed to frazzle the cashier who apologized repeatedly for her poor English. This confused me. Shouldn’t the couple have apologized instead? Last time I checked, the official language in Spain was Spanish and we were still in that country. I was suddenly blazing with embarrassment for my own nation.
I’d show this coffee shop gal that not all Americans expect the world to accommodate their ignorance, even if patroning an American place. I practiced my order over and over again before my turn.
“Hola,” she said. “Hola,” I said.
This was off to a good start.
I ordered a ham and cheese croissant with a large Americano. I wasn’t sure if my Spanish made sense but she reached for the croissant. She said something back to me that I didn’t understand, except the word calliente.
“Sí, sí,” I said. “Calliente por favor.” She shoved it in the microwave. While she made my drink I googled the translation for “password.”
“Que es la contraseña de wifi?”
She wrote it down and handed it to me. Before she took my credit card I saw an irresistible dessert by the counter, but didn’t have time to google the translation. I was doing so well I didn’t even care I sounded bluntly American.
I pointed at a cheesecake in the glass case. “May I have that too?”