The American Tell

1157405_10200281810676902_1482323074_nIt happens at least once a month.

The four of us are seated at a table. Glasses clink and  warm bread teases our senses. An abuela helps her granddaughter get into her seat, as other people kiss each other hello. We glance at the menu, and smile as the camarero places a bowl of olives on our table.

And then, it happens. Something registers in his eyes, and he says, “You want….menu in English?”

We always demur, saying we prefer the Spanish menu, “Tenemos que aprender.”  Our willingness to learn and our preference for Spanish earns us a nod and a “muy bien.

We enjoy our food and our conversation, appreciating the fact that in Spain, our waiter never asks us if “we’re still working” on our food, as if eating a metric ton of sirloin is another task to complete. But yet, in the back of my mind, I wonder….what was our tell?

The first answer, of course, is apperance. Half of my gaggle is blond, with blue eyes. My husband is taller than many Spanish men. We don’t have some of the distinctive facial features, which identify us as Spanish.  But it’s more than just that.

Perhaps it’s our body language…..studying the menu as if it was an ancient text, re-reading it, mouthing the words aloud. Our eyes dart to the chalkboards on the walls, hoping that somebody was so kind as to draw a picture of the daily special. Americans have a larger circle of personal space, so it’s possible that we sit farther away from each other.

And then, of course, we open our mouths. Game over. I mix up my pronouns and subjects, speaking like Tonto from The Lone Ranger.

“Me want water, please,” I’ll say, “Me learn Spanish,” I’ll add, as if that was in doubt.

There’s one more thing that possibly reveals our foreign status—it’s that they don’t already recognize us. We aren’t anybody’s cousin. We didn’t go to their schools. We didn’t have a first communion party down to the street, nor did we march in the parade during Carnaval.

We’re newcomers in a city where families and experiences interlock like lace.

I understand that we will never be Spanish. I’m not sure that’s even our intent. We are Americans, living in Spain.

But I want to do it with kindness, and grace. I want to honor my family and my country by showing others how good Americans can be.

And so, we ask for the menu in Spanish. We enjoy their food, and the swells of conversation, and the parade of gente walking down the streets.

As we leave, we say, “Hasta Luego.” We’ll see you later. We will return.

I’m sure they’ll know us by sight.

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One thought on “The American Tell

  1. I never realized how easy it is to spot the Americans in a crowd until I moved abroad! The “American accent,” speaking and laughing at a higher decibel level, baseball caps, blue jeans, and a higher percentage of body fat are unfortunate stereotypes that, while not ALWAYS accurate, are often good indicators of a U.S. citizen. I put a lot of effort into not being the stereotypical American, and it sounds like you and your friends do as well – kudos for that! On the other hand, where I’m living in the Middle East, we DO have a reputation as being friendlier than any other nationality… at least we’ve got that going for us!

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