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International Charades Epic Fail: Writing on the Fly #2

My trip to Spain has been awesome so far–our limited skills from our high school Spanish classes enable us to get by, even if we don’t always use the right verb tense or mix up our words.

Our room in the palace has only one key, so if I’m going out, I leave it at the front desk. Bob’s an instructor in a summer study/conference here at the palace, so he’s usually on the grounds.

So yesterday I came home from my walk into town, and said to the desk clerk, “por favor, la llave por el cuarto ciento quince?” and they immediately produced the key to room 115. This isn’t so hard, right?

I got up to the room and Bob came in a few minutes later; he said, “oh I’m glad I didn’t have to go downstairs for the ‘clave.'”

“You mean the ‘llave,’ right?”

“No, Google translate says clave means key. Llave is wrench.”

Dang! I thought I had it right. I was sure llave was the word for key. I was embarrassed I’d asked for the wrench to my room.

But wait–later we went to dinner with some of Bob’s colleagues from the conference. Martin, born in Germany but married to a Spaniard, settled the dispute: llave does indeed mean key. Clave also means key, but the kind of big, medieval key you’d use “at a castle,” or if you were getting a presentation key to the city or something.

Even though we’re staying in an actual castle, it’s not the medieval kind. It was built in the early 20th century as a summer residence for the royal family. Santander is known for its beautiful beaches, and they also have many sports arenas and facilities, like tennis and polo and futbol.

So basically, I’m still surviving on my three years of high school Spanish. Ha. I was right and Google translate was wrong…


I’m updating this post to show a photo I took at the cathedral in Segovia–llaves! You can’t tell, but I was smiling as I took the picture…

I wanted to talk more about body language in this post because our friend Sebastian, our host at this event, told an amusing story at lunch the day we arrived. Sebastian picked us up at the airport in Bilbao, and took us to lunch in Castro, a coastal village on the way to Santander. We were dining outside, but under a stone archway. It began to rain, and the street vendors who had been selling watches and handbags moments before suddenly appeared with umbrellas.

“It’s amazing how quickly they bring out the umbrellas when it starts to rain,” Sebastian said. “Once, when I was in China, it started to rain and I needed an umbrella, but there were no vendors so I stopped in a variety store. I wanted a collapsible umbrella to put in my bag, and so I mimed putting up an umbrella (he demonstrated) then collapsing it (he brought his hands together as though making the umbrella stem shorter).

“Well, this was met with a blank look. I tried again, but no comprehension. The woman in the store shook her head. Finally, she offered me some sort of sporting equipment which I still cannot identify.”

“And,” he said, “I was also in China when I went to a takeaway restaurant, and not being very hungry, I ordered rice and soy sauce. Then, as an afterthought, I decided I would like a drink to go with it so I mimed taking a drink (demonstrates) and sipping through a straw (again). Again, I get a blank look. The woman at the counter cannot figure out what I want…how can this be? I want a drink. So I try again. She calls the cook out from the kitchen and he watches me…then light dawns. He hurries into the kitchen and comes back with some sort of machine, which he sticks into my rice bowl…and purees it for me so I can drink it through a straw.”

These stories are indicative of one of two things: either Sebastian is the worst charades player EVER, or the way we use our hands, bodies, and facial expressions to communicate differs greatly across culture lines.

Writers should take the time to observe people of different nationalities and cultures for their body language and mannerisms.

And if you’re playing Pictionary or charades, try to avoid getting on Sebastian’s team. Just sayin’.


  1. Hope to visit Spain later in the year. Will miss writing. Writing on the fly is not for me so I’ll have to settle for jotting notes in a small notepad. I think you’re right, sometimes I fail to be as observant as I should. Food for thought. Jean’s Writing

    1. Tracy Lawson says:

      Hi Jean! Spain was gorgeous. Where do you plan to travel while you’re there? Even if you don’t write tons while you’re on the road, you’re right–you can people-watch and make some notes. Who knows what you’ll see!

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