A Foreigner Among Us—Talking to Strangers in Spain

Being a guiri means people in Spain find you curious at times, especially when you show up in unexpected places, like a bus stop in Vallecas. Here are some of my recent encounters with Spaniards who find me just a tiny bit interesting:

I am sitting at a bus stop. The bench is a bit wobbly, but at least there’s shade—Madrid’s temperatures are finally beginning to creep upward. An elderly man, of uncertain age, but certainly in his 80s approached. I happened to be wearing a skirt that day, a rare occurrence as Spanish schools do not require anything approaching formal attire.

“And where are you from, my pretty girl?” he asks amiably, a little too soft for me to hear the first time—my earphones get in the way.

“Me?” I stammer, unsure as to why he would be asking that. “From Estados Unidos.”

“Oh?” he questions, looking me over in a quizzical manner. “What would you be doing so far from home, my dear?” He leans in to hear me.

“My husband. My husband is from here.” I hope he leaves it at that: I’m tired and I have a headache and the sun is beating down on us.

He smiles to himself, and we return to waiting for the bus. I sigh, relieved.

I am walking to the metro station nearest to my house. It’s private lesson time. At midday the sun already burns bright in the sky, and as my sunglasses are broken, I have to squint to see him. He is a man my age, a backpack perched upon his shoulders, and he is undeniably lost.

I keep walking, with the faith that my guiri appearance will cause him not to ask me for help. If I’m bad at anything, it’s giving directions. Especially in Spanish.

He approaches. I realize I can no longer ignore him. Reluctantly, I turn off my music and look expectantly at him. “Where is the nearest metro?” he asks, wiping sweat from his brow. Just what I had hoped he wouldn’t ask. When I hesistate, he asks, “Are you going there?” Hoping that I am.

“Yes,” I reply. Much to my chagrin, I am able to accompany him. I’ll be his guide; I’ll lead him faithfully to the Arganzuela Planetario metro station. We walk along in awkward silence until he starts asking all the usual questions: where are you from, why are you here, how do you have a job?

I answer his questions and hope that perhaps he will start commenting on the weather like any normal Spaniard would. No such luck. “What do you think of Spain? Aren’t Spaniards so different from Americans? Which country do you prefer?”

I hate these questions, because there is no right answer and I cannot give him what he wants—a definite answer. Any long-term expat realizes that there is no good way to reply succinctly and honestly to this query. I respond that I like Spain, some Spaniards are quite different from Americans, and I don’t really prefer one to the other. I like some parts of Spain better; I like some parts of the US better.

I can tell he is disappointed, that what I have said will not make for any entertaining moments when he talks to his friends later that day. Nuanced opinions aren’t good conversation fodder.

As he stops to buy a ticket, I scurry down to the platform, hoping he’s going in the opposite direction.

Have you ever had any encounters with strangers who find you interesting?

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13 comments

  1. You are nice to actually speak back to strangers. Most of the times I just smile and look away, haha. But my husband always gets asked for directions in Spain, no matter where we are.
    And at least you are a foreigner…but I’ve been taken for a guiri in my own country! :) The best part is when they try to speak English to me and I reply in quick native Spanish. They sure look confused. ;)

  2. No, not really…besides getting hit on by old men I found that most weren’t too interested in me…not to the point where I’m asked curious question after curious question. I mean I’ve been asked where I’m from and I tell them but most times I’m not asked anything…could be due to the person’s limited English and my limited Spanish skills. I will say that I have given directions twice with my poor Spanish (at least they were correct and they understood me,lol).

  3. I always get asked “Which do you like better?” and sometimes it becomes a 3-way question (the U.K., the U.S, or Spain). I just say I like different things about all of them, but for now I’m enjoying Barcelona. Like you said, there’s no definite or right answer.

    I’m frequently an object of interest to strangers just because I stand out so much for being foreign. If I’m in a non-touristy neighborhood or different city, it’s pretty obvious some people are wondering what I’m doing there. It ranges from curious “Where are you from?” questions to people actually reaching to pet my hair on nights out!

    1. Ahhh you get the three way! Such a … simplistic way to view the world, don’tcha think?

      Petting your hair? OMG. People apparently do this in the US to black women, and it is a total non-PC thing to do!!

  4. Strangers who think I’m interesting most often fail right from the get-go because they think I’m Chinese. They say “Ni Hao” or “Hola China” and I’m just all, no. It can be strange and sometimes hard enough to be a foreigner in that country, but to be identified all the time as another nationality that is not mine is tougher. Oh, and when I was in one of those bazaar type stores, one person mistook me as someone who works there even though I had my bag and I had my headphones.

    And strangers usually look surprised when I say I’m from the US. Wait, not China???

    1. Yours is definitely an interesting perspective. I think that Spaniards are often surprised that we consider people like you to be Americans, because I’ll say that “so-and-so is American,” and they’re like, “Not Chinese? She LOOKS Chinese,” like that ends the discussion.

      1. Yeah, exactly. The ironic thing for my situation is that my roots trace back to Spain. My surname is Spanish. But because I look more Asian, then Chinese it is!

  5. I inevitably get dragged into the same predictable dross when strangers from other countries discover I am from Manchester. “Oh! Manchester United!?” “Yes.” “United or City?.” “United.” “Wayne Rooney”. “Yeah I know”. “Erm, Alex Ferguson!” “Well, kinda…” “Yes! And, er, David Beckham!” “Actua – *sighs* – …yeah”

    1. Haha! Yes, I am sure that football would be the natural way for a Spaniard to relate to a British man! We don’t have that connection so they have to find other ways.

  6. I couldn’t find anything amusing in this “article”. Of course people will ask you stuff like that. It would’ve been strange if they didn’t.

    1. Random strangers feel the need to engage you in conversation too? I didn’t necessarily aim for this article to amuse you; so sorry that it failed to do so. Next time leave your name if you really want to engage in conversation. I hope the weather is nice where you are. Oh, actually, it is. 17 C and partly sunny! Enjoy Wien!

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