The day I couldn’t change $100 (and why it was freaking amazing)

I’ve been carrying an old, tattered $100 US dollar bill in my wallet all the way from Greece. Why do I have it? Well that’s a story for another day. It’s been rejected by currency exchange counters across 4 countries. The reasons ranging from ‘too old’ to disappointed head shaking to the kind of disgusted look that might have you thinking I had just pulled a slab of roadkill out of my rucksack and asked them to take a closer look.

But, today was the day, I cleared my schedule and made it my mission. Madrid was not going to defeat me. Unlike the last 3 countries, I was armed with at least some knowledge of the language and a confidence that the city would be filled with large welcoming banks, just waiting to greet me with open arms, or at least without total disdain.

Now, let’s talk a little about language here. I am absolutely nothing close to fluent in Spanish, but in my many years of quickly forgotten language pursuits, Spanish is the only one that stuck. After a brief trip to Mexico a few years ago I’ve been rearing and ready to throw myself headfirst back into the world of Español. And now, here I was. Three years on, around 10 countries since, and I was finally back. Day one of Spanish.

A few hours into exploring the vibrant streets of Madrid and I realised I wasn’t quite the gallant linguistic warrior I had imagined myself. In fact, I was bailing out at every opportunity. I kept disappointing myself and before I could even refrain myself English words were falling out of my mouth. At best, the occasional ‘habla Inglés?’ squeeked out just to establish that now it was OK to continue in English. Classic language disaster.

It’s not that I’d lost my ability completely, although certainly much of it had disintegrated. What I was lacking was confidence. Some bizarre feeling that if somebody was capable of speaking English, I would just be embarrassing myself with my broken Spanish. Which, of course, isn’t true. But it’s a hard subconscious urge to kick.

After being distracted for nearly an hour, being pulled as if by invisible threads down colourful side streets and investigating endless shop windows, I realised it was almost bank closing time. This was especially convenient, because just as I was attempting to remember how to say the word bank (It’s the embarrassingly similar Banco, if you were curious), I spotted one right next to me.

‘Hola’ I said cheerfully as I walked up to the teller. That much I had under control. ‘habla Inglés…’ – again, before I could stop myself, there it was. But that was when it all fell apart. He replied with the Spanish equivalent of ‘No, not really, just a very tiny amount. And you? any Spanish?’. The fact I understood all of that threw me a little. I replied instinctively with Spanish ‘Only a little, not very well’. We both laughed. I handed him my scrunched up bank note and tried to smooth it out on the counter. ‘Can you? Into Euro?’ I asked, still in Spanish. ‘No, only if you have an account here’. I understood. Ah! entiendo, I understand, I replied. No I don’t have one, but Muchas Gracias! Buenas tardes! I smiled as I walked out the door. Bounced is more what I did, as my heart raced and I realised I hadn’t spoken a single word of English in that exchange.

It was like my world expanded again. Lost memories flooded back – that exhilaration that comes from feeling the shapes, textures and sounds of something exotic and foreign coming out of your mouth, being met by understanding. Coming from a country where It is normal to only speak the one language, this is a huge part of the kick and excitement I get from travel. I fell in love with Madrid and exploration and my life over and over this afternoon. I re-found an entire world of excitement that I remember back from those days finding my way around Mexico city.

I spent the rest of the afternoon popping into shops, greeting people and browsing things without fear. Without stumbling over my English I would explain in Spanish that I am still learning, and could they slow down. I re-found my Spanish mojo. Even though my language skills are still pretty rusty, I re-discovered the whole world of travel that made me fall in love with it in the first place. So get out there and do it. Don’t hide yourself behind a fear of mucking it up or looking stupid – throw yourself in the deep end, let yourself fail as many times as it takes. Because, I assure you, once you’ve had enough of drowning, the feeling of coming up swimming is elating.

2 thoughts on “The day I couldn’t change $100 (and why it was freaking amazing)

  1. Purva Bhatia Reply

    Well said, Anna! It is normal to get anxious in a foreign country where you don’t speak the local language. But bravo, you conquered that anxiety so well!

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