I recently spent a few days on a training mission to Madrid. It was actually my first trip to Spain, and that gave me an additional reason to look forward to my journey. Although my most recent impression of Spain was related to the racist reaction of some Spanish Formula 1 fans to black British driver, Lewis Hamilton, I headed off to the airport with my usual mixture of high spirits and optimism.
My flight took me to Barajas via Zurich’s Klothen Airport. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Switzerland, but I have spent a fair amount of time there in the past, both for business and for pleasure. I was actually supposed to stay a year with a Swiss family in Reinach (near Basel) before I made the decision to go to Strasbourg instead. Later, with clients like Migros, Schindler, Nestle, and GM Europe on my roster, I was certainly no stranger to the early morning flights from Frankfurt to both Zurich and Geneva.
It wasn’t till I landed in Madrid and began asking my way around in order to find my airport shuttle that something struck me. People automatically assumed I spoke Spanish. As a matter of fact, one taxi driver thought I was kidding at first when I told him that I didn’t.
This phenomenon is not really new to me. I’ve encountered similar reactions in France and the Netherlands; though my actual command of French is very limited (despite the year I spent there) and my spoken Dutch is rudimentary at best. With the many Spanish-speaking people coming to Spain from Latin and South America, as well as the Caribbean, however, the assumption that someone with my skin color probably speaks Spanish is not really so very strange.
What did strike me in this connection, though, is the one place where I am still routinely spoken to in English: Germany.
Although I’ve lived here for more than 30 years, it’s not uncommon for people to automatically begin their conversation with me in English. As a matter of fact, there have been a few occasions where I’ve held up my end of a conversation in (fluent!) German, only to have the other person continue speaking English to me for several minutes before it even sinks in. And I won’t even try to count the times that most insidious of compliments – “Wow! You speak such amazing German!” – has been said to me. Granted, we Americans aren’t known for our linguistic prowess, so from that point of view the compliment isn’t necessarily back-handed at all.
On the other hand, I am too aware of the scores of Afro-Germans – my own children included – who hear the same thing time and time again, though they were born and raised here, and have lived here their entire lives.