Complaining about the legendary rudeness of the citizens of my host country via email to La Guapa, an American madrilena living in Geneva, I learned a new word: perdonavidas. And here I quote, “It means someone who looks down their nose at others; they´ll condescend to allow you to go on living, te perdonan la vida, but that´s about it“. This after my experience last week at two local stores.
The first: an autosupply store. My car key battery died and after driving around for half an hour in the car concession area near my house, I could not find the VW dealership. I knew there had to be one closeby as every other kind of car dealership was in the same general vicinity: Ferrari, Porsche, BMW, Toyota, Citroen, Opel. But no, no VW dealership. So I stopped into an auto supply store to ask for help. Maybe they could fix it? The girl at the back of the store told me to go ask the cashier. She was pleasant. But the cashier could not help. He was not sure what kind of battery this very common VW key would take. I asked him if he knew where the VW dealership was. “Did you see it? Well, if not, it’s not there.” I asked him to ask the woman behind the desk if she knew. She left her computer and when asked, repeated what the cashier said, making the typical madrilena gesture of scrunching up her shoulders, putting her hands out, and pulling down the sides of her mouth, bugging out the eyes ever so slightly, and shaking her head.
In other countries, expats the world over have referred to this type of gesture as the “deer in the headlights” look. A shopkeeper or plumber might give you this look if he did not understand what you were saying, for example. You might return this look to the same shopkeeper or plumber if you did not understand what they were saying. Reciprocal, it is a look that purveys a genuine lack of comprehension. There is usually* no ill will associated with it. In fact, once communication is established farther down the line, the shopkeeper or plumber might actually try to help you, pointing you in the right direction, offering up a phone number of someone who can.
I left, went home, and got my spare key (which I am still using, a chore for another week, when I am mentally able to cope with this attitude for an extensive period of time).
Fast forward to the dry cleaners five days later. Thing 2 and I went to pick up clothes and do a little grocery shopping at the Dreaded Carrefour. Now, to get to the Carrefour, you have to get your cart outside the mall, popping in a Euro as a deposit which then unlocks the cart from a string of carts. I did this. Then you have to push your cart all the way through the mall down to the entrance; readers will remember that you cannot enter through the more convenient, and closer, exit. I did this. Then you have to show the Carrefour personnel that you are not bringing in items to Carrefour in your canvas shopping bags. I did this. After shopping, you have to prove to the cashier that the bags are in fact your own. Mission accomplished. Once loaded up, you are now at the other end of the Carrefour, closer to your car and the dry cleaners.
Now, I admit here that I goofed. I did not take my ticket in with me. I accidentally left it in the car.
If you are just picking up laundry, the 5 a Sec dry cleaners likes customers to use their automatic door. I had never seen one before moving to Madrid. After scanning your ticket, the dry cleaning trolley deposits your clothes at the door and you waltz off, pleased because you did not have to deal with a perdonavida.
But since I left the ticket in the car, I had to talk to Sra. Perdonavida.
Me: Por favor, would you mind looking up my last order in the computer with my telephone number?
Sra. Perdonavida: You don’t have your ticket? she said, scowling.
Me: No, I forgot it in the car.
Sra. Perdonavida: What is your number?
Sra. Perdonavida wrote down my number and said: The only order in here is the one you just dropped off. There is only one order.
Now, it is at this point that I smelled a rat. My Spanish, while far from fluent, is beyond Survival Spanish. I can communicate and I know my numbers.
Thing 2 volunteered to retrieve the ticket from the car and returned 5 minutes later.
I could have just picked up my clothes with the ticket and left. But what about the next time? What if my order wasn’t really in the computer? Ticket in hand, I approached Sra. Perdonavida again.
Me: Sra., here is my ticket. Would you mind finding that piece of paper with the number you wrote down on it? I would like to see if it matches the one on my ticket. Maybe my Spanish is not so good and I did not give you the correct number? Maybe I am going crazy? [Imagine me (me!) falling on my sword here].
Sra. Perdonavida, reluctantly riffled through her scraps of paper: Oh yes, the number is the same. But the order is not in the computer.
Me: Well, that is a problem then, no? What if I actually had lost my ticket? You would have had to search through all those orders to find mine! Que horror!
Sra. Perdonavida: I don’t know [insert madrilena gesture here]. There must have been a problem with the computer.
Me: But my last order is in there, right?
Sra. Perdonavida: Yes.
Me: Then you will have to forgive me if everytime I drop off clothes I ask you to verify that the order is in the system so my clothes don’t get lost!
Clothes in hand, Thing 2 and I walked back to the car.
Me: Now, what do you think just happened there?
Thing 2: She just lied to you.
Me: Right. She just wanted to make it difficult for us.
Ah, it’s going to be fun, going through this routine for the next three to five years. I have no way of knowing if Sra. Perdonavida really lied as I could not see the computer screen but I find it hard to believe that with only my order, the computer seized up and ate the input information. A little sick, a little twisted, no? I could go to a different tintoreria but really, it would be the same song and dance. I am just better at catching on to these idiosyncracies a lot sooner, a seasoned expat as it were. Now I just need to learn the words for “old biddy”.
Housekeeping question: How often do you mop your kitchen floors? Bathroom? Expat Princesses lucky enough to have domestic help, please respond in a manner that edifies us all instead of making us weep with jealousy.
*I say “usually” because some people in some countries become adept at perfecting this look even if they understand you, professional pretenders, as it were.