20 December 2020
“Vull un d’això per deixonar un d’això”
This is a verbatim quote of what the aunt of a friend of ours asked for in the ironmonger’s here in Palma. It translates as “I want the thingy to unthingy the thingy”. As you can see, not much is lost in translation! Cati was with her elderly aunt at the time, and she told us the story later.
Let me explain. ‘Això’ is used in Mallorca for anything you have forgotten the name of. It is the Mallorcan equivalent of ‘whatchamacallit’, ‘thingamabob’ or ‘thingamajig’. Let’s settle for ‘The thingy’. ‘Això’ is the most frequently used word in Mallorquin. If you spend all day just nodding wisely and saying ‘Sí, això’ and ‘No, això’, you will be regarded as a very fluent speaker of Mallorquin.
The other day Cati accompanied her aunt to the local ironmongers. The old lady went to counter and said, “Vull un d’això per deixonar un d’això.” She asked for “The thingy to unthingy the thingy”. Let us consider this miracle a moment. Did the ironmonger look perplexed as people do when I do my best to speak Mallorquin? Did he look worried? Not a bit. He didn’t hesitate a second. He just nodded, went to a shelf at the back of the shop and brought the gadget that Cati’s aunt needed. She looked at it, smiled and said, ‘Sí, això’.
When I go into a shop, I try my utmost to use my best Spanish. I do not risk Mallorquin. I know my limitations. I rehearse what I’m going to say while waiting in the queue to be served. I even prepare two or three versions and then choose the best. When I arrive at the counter and open my mouth, a look of worried incomprehension passes over the face of the assistant. A frown appears on his brow and his eyes crease up with concern. Remember that this is before I have actually said anything. I know this look so well that my ability to speak clearly just disappears entirely. If my daughter is around, she takes over at this point. If my wife is with me, she never allows things to go this far. Having heard Cati’s story of her aunt, I find my efforts to communicate somewhat dispiriting.
The best or perhaps worst incident in my efforts to be understood was when I went with my wife to an exhibition in the ruins of a Roman villa just outside Soria. My wife is Spanish, and I decided to let her do all the talking. I said nothing at all while she bought the tickets. This time I would not be unmasked. As long as I didn’t say anything, I would pass as a fluent speaker of Spanish. Then the person behind the desk gave my wife a brochure. I didn’t say a word. We were just about to move on when the woman took out another brochure and held it up and asked, “Do you want one in English for him?”
Today, five days before Christmas, the sun is shining on Palma once more. It has rained long and often over the last few weeks, which is rare in Mallorca. When it rains, my neighbour always says, ‘This is good. We need the rain. The countryside needs the rain’ I agree and we both nod. Of course, he is right. Mallorca does need the rain. Water is scarce. Each summer tourists fly here in their thousands and then have showers two or three times day. But when my neighbour says this, his heart is not really in it. He is happier with a glorious day like today whatever the need for rain may be.
And so the two of us stand there, getting drenched by the rain which is now falling heavily as we agree how good it is.
When a Mallorcan is glad to see the rain, you must agree and nod sagely. You must not say, ’Well no. I prefer some hot sun today because I want to go to the beach this morning.’ Just as in England, conversations here about the weather are not really about the weather at all. They are a social ritual, and this ritual must be followed.
Conversely, when it is really hot, my neighbour says what a marvellous day we will have. Never mind that it has been hot and sunny for the last three months and I am beginning to long for a comforting cloud and a few drops of gentle rain. I still agree with him and say that it will be a splendid day. The ritual is followed once more.
Having got the weather off my chest, so to speak, I want to tell you why I never managed to have a tea break in the afternoon.
Some time ago I arranged for a student to come at quarter past five in the afternoon. My four o’clock class would finish at five, and I would just have time for a quick cup of tea before starting again. The 5.15 student came at 5.30. After the class I said, ‘See you next week at 5.15 then’. The following week he came at 5 o’clock. Quarter hours are not part of the way of life here. I gave up scheduling classes for 5.15 and carried on teaching without a break for the whole afternoon. So much for the cup of tea!
Mallorcans have warm hearts, but they are not a precise people. They are not definite or specific. For example, ‘Un parell’ in Catalonia is normally ‘a pair’ or ‘a couple’, but in Mallorca it becomes any low number. ‘Un parell de tomàtigues’ can be three or four or more tomatoes according to what is to hand.
But long may this continue! The island has its own ways, and we must learn them. They are part of life here along with the marvellous sight of Palma cathedral from the sea, the beautiful Christmas lights wound round every tree in the Rambla and the Born, and the glorious sunset over the Malgrats Islands at Santa Ponsa. They are all Mallorca.
By the way, I never did find out what Cati’s aunt asked for in the ironmonger’s.