It’s half past-eleven in a small Catalan town. An elderly man at the bar of the pink-walled patisserie is drinking a shot of something golden and being daringly affectionate with a woman who must be a generation younger but may in fact be his wife. Duos and trios of lifelong friends lean in over small circular tables and drink coffee. Some of them, like my sister and I, eat croissants too.
I buy a baguette. The lady in front of me starts a conversation and I state my apologies, in Spanish, that I speak no Spanish. She continues talking to me regardless. I wonder about switching to Catalan and saying I speak no Catalan. The woman at the counter sells me the baguette and charges me one euro twenty. She watches my face as I translate either Catalan or Spanish, I can’t quite tell which, and repeats but as ‘one, two’ just as I pull out the correct change. My Spanish is better than my Catalan, but I’m better at numbers in Catalan. Despite the considerable time I’ve spent using euros, I still have to turn the coins over to check that the numbers on the back are what I expect.
At twelve, we cause a commotion in the fruit and vegetable stall. The owner is standing in the doorway, a large man with a calm face which looks slightly perplexed. The conversation is either in Catalan or Spanish, I can’t tell which. Again I apologize for not understanding. We step into the store and pick up a courgette and a couple of tomatoes. An old man, stooped shoulders, white hair, mischievous grin watches us from a stool in the middle of the shop floor and talks at us or about us I cannot tell.
The shop owner surmises that perhaps we are French. I interrupt with “English, from England, Inglés.”
The elderly man on his stool understands and repeats multiple times, “Inglaterra.” Although it might have been ‘Anglaterra’ which is the Catalan for England. A few moments later, in the middle of the tomato weighing, the old man pipes up with, “Un avión?” Just in case my Spanish isn’t good enough to translate, he assists me with a gesture which is clearly an aeroplane taking off, flying above his head and then landing.
The old man looks delighted.
The shop owner, after our purchase has been made, suddenly asks, in English, which city we are from. It’s not a simple question to answer. For one, we are not from a city, we were born in one town, grew up in another and neither of us have lived there for a little while. What’s more, there’s little point telling this man the name of a town he’s never heard of. Furthermore, I’ve met a fair few people who don’t know that Yorkshire is in the North of England. Often when I explain I am from the North of England people think I mean Scotland. I don’t, I mean Yorkshire. The obscurity of Yorkshire is, tragically, about football. Yorkshire’s athletes might make a very respectable indent in the Olympic medal list, but its football teams are currently not winning enough for the cities of home to be easily recognized abroad.
My brain has to move quickly and lands on a solution. “Near Manchester. Leeds.”
Manchester, although on the west, does have the advantage of being easily recognizable and geographically above the north-south divide. I’ve had some significant trouble in the past explaining that just because I’m English doesn’t mean I’m a Londoner, so I’ve lowered my success criteria. I write Leeds on the back of the receipt when prompted for the shop owner. He asks me whether I’m a City fan or United fan. I mimic my mother if it had been her, not I, responding and make an appropriate array of gestures to indicate that I am unlikely to ever support Manchester United. The shop owner laughs delighted in his foray into conversing in English.
The final stage of the morning takes place at the supermarket, the other side of the train line. I buy a box of PG Tips and a litre of (sin lactosa) milk. The idea that there are other people in this tiny town drinking English tea amuses me. Supply and demand dictates that it can’t just be us. The transaction is negotiated without catastrophe and I request a carrier bag in Spanish.
Walking home it all feels like quite the success.