Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Chinese in Madrid

This small shop is owned by
a family from Shanghai.
Madrid is about the last place I ever expected to speak Chinese, but I did.

The hotel where I stayed was just a short walk to a street that contained many small shops owned by Chinese people. I originally went to Calle de Leon to use an Internet cafe, and used two that were owned by Chinese. I also bought snacks several times at a small convenience store owned by a family from Shanghai, and one time struck up a conversation with a young woman working there that day. She was most surprised that I could speak her native language.

One thing I didn't come across though, at least in the neighborhood where I stayed, was a Chinese restaurant, though there were Japanese, Thai, Moroccan and American in addition to Spanish restaurants.

But there were many Chinese tourists at almost every attraction I visited, in stores and on the streets. I came across the most at the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), the third most-famous palace in Europe. I hadn't been planning to visit the palace, but then decided that going to Madrid and visiting the Palacio Real would be like going to Beijing and not visiting the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City isn't one of my favorite places in Beijing, but I found I much preferred it to the Palacio Real, which I thought was overpriced for what you got to see.

Are you going to China?

If a trip to China is in your plans, check out Cheryl's China and email me if you have any questions about travel in the Middle Kingdom.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The language barrier

I was surprised to see
some signs in Chinese in Madrid.
Many people are intimidated by the Chinese language, that they won't be able to travel independently in China because they don't know Mandarin. They go to Europe instead, thinking they'll more easily find people who speak the English language.

I just got back from a week in Madrid. If I hadn't remembered basic phrases from my high school and college Spanish classes of 50 years ago, I'd probably still be wandering around the Madrid airport trying to find the exit.

For a major international city and world capital, I found the level of English to be appallingly lacking. It took me four trips before I figured out how to buy a subway ticket on my own -- the instructions were only in Spanish. I needed help after arriving at the airport, but no one at the two information booths I stopped at spoke English. My luggage didn't arrive when I did; the clerk at baggage services did have some English but getting the paperwork done was still a challenge. I was, therefore, quite surprised when my luggage was delivered to my hotel the next day.

My hotel was close to a Madrid tourist office. When I went there for assistance, again, no one spoke English. Since the hotel manager's English was limited to "Let me see your passport," I found the concierges at the nearby Westin Palace hotel to have the best spoken English. Even though I wasn't staying there, the concierge staff was quite helpful in getting me sorted out.

Even stopping people on the streets wasn't as useful in Madrid as it is in Beijing. More than once, I was told "I don't speak English," even though I was speaking Spanish. Of course, I speak Mexican Spanish while they speak Castillian; the words are the same, though the pronunciations are different in many cases.

I contrast this with Beijing where many people speak English, and even stop you on the street for an opportunity to practice English with you. Beijing's subways and buses have digital reader boards and make oral announcements in both Chinese and English. I never rode a bus in Madrid, but all subway announcements were in Spanish only.

One afternoon I took a tour to Toledo. The tour was billed for English speakers only, but the guide spent 75 percent of her time giving details in Spanish, even though there were no native Spanish speakers on board. I picked up enough of her Spanish spiel to know that what she was saying in Spanish was more detailed than her English translations.

I could go on and on about English in Madrid, you get the idea. You're in a foreign country, you need to speak their language to get along. I understand that, but a little help from the natives would be nice. After all, I am spending money in their country, money that could be easily spent in a country, like China, that is more user-friendly to non-native speakers.

Are you going to China?

If a trip to China is in your future, check out Cheryl's China for tips and recommendations on travel in the Middle Kingdom. Also feel free to email me if you have any questions.