Silly title isn’t it. Long, wordy and totally ignorant of that thing they call SEO. If I were a sensible blogger then I imagine I’d have probably gone for ‘How to use ‘usted’ in Spanish’, as this is in essence, the gristly meat and marrow of what I’m about to regale you with. But then that would be tantamount to false advertising, or just pure and simple deceptiveness – for I am no expert on the matter. I am but a mere specimen, raconteur and passer-on of my valuably learnt lessons. At least I am when I decide it’s high time I rambled on about how to do something in Spanish again.
Yes, this time I thought it necessary to enlighten anybody who cares enough to listen about my woes with the infinitely problematic (for me at any rate) formal tongue of Spanish: ‘Usted’. I very rarely have to use it. In fact, I’d never had to use it until I suddenly found myself facing the inevitability of having to contend with my brusque and blinkered landlady on the subject of unreturned deposits.
I didn’t have to use it, but I wanted to – it was an element of Spanish I had until then avoided, due by and large to an overall lack of opportunity. As a señora*, Conchi (her name) could reasonably expect to be addressed as one, which meant the shifting from regular Castellano to this, foreign, guiri-trying, genteel version. Essentially, any verb I conjugated which directly referenced her had to change from the regular second person form, for example ‘¿Como estás?’ to what would normally be the regular third person form, for example ‘¿Como está?’ Along with this omitted ‘s’ it is also necessary to insert ‘usted’ after the main verb and substitute ‘te’ for ‘se’ in a reflexive verb structure such as ‘¿porque se enoja?’ (why are you getting angry?) as opposed to ‘¿porque te enojas?’**.
After only having recently and properly got to grips with normal verb conjugation, I must admit that the task did seem rather daunting. I would, nonetheless, endeavour to do my best, not just because I wanted to practice using ‘usted’, but also in owing to the fact that I was a young English fellow eager to stamp certitude on the myth of impeccable British manners what what?
Before I disclose to you the rather sketchy dialogue of that haunting experience, perhaps illuming you with a word or two on the landlady who to her credit made this post possible wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
Throughout my first year in Granada, I steered well clear of the woman, leaving the terrifying exchanges to my female Spanish housemates, who would spend half an hour mentally preparing for the ordeal pre-arrival, only to be rendered flattened, figuratively disemboweled and scared beyond their wits post-arrival. When we had wanted to change a light bulb, for instance, but were unable to find another that matched the busted and wire-exposed deathtrap sprouting from our corridor ceiling, we were shouted at and told to stop being so lazy; we weren’t looking hard enough.
We searched high and low, chino por chino, and nary a fitting light bulb was found. We doggedly explained the futility of the situation and that the electrician whom she had had wire the place up must surely have known one’s whereabouts. But still, nothing. Eventually, we gave up and lived without light. Then one day, untrue to form, I absent-mindedly wandered down the pitch-black corridor, assuming one foot was being placed directly in front of the other, when I met with a protruding section of wall in a most abrupt and untimely manner. Blood literally gushed from my eyebrow and I had to pay a visit to A&E. Next day, when I rang Conchi to give her a piece of my now dented mind, I was, rather than grovelingly apologised to, politely reminded that it had been my responsibility to find a replacement in the first place. I was shell-shocked and incensed. Yet words deserted me. Instead I hung up, and hoped that I would never have to deal with the vile scorpion woman again.
Fast-forward six months and I’m the only one left in the flat. The Spanish girls have gone, and so too have the Frenchman and Italian Erasmus student. The latter had been the second-to-last to leave, and he did so without paying his last month’s rent. This left me in a rather sticky situation, as I had already paid my last month’s rent and was owed my deposit. Naturally, I was furious with him for leaving me in the lurch and facing the prospect of losing €220. Conchi, rather predictably, didn’t take the news well either, as she had neither the bank details nor phone number to debit the money/contact him with – we had always paid cash in hand. She did, however, assure me that his not paying would not affect the safe and full return of my deposit. This was a highly dubious promise and one that I fully anticipated to be broken.
Fast-forward another three months and the missing rent had still not been paid. And unsurprisingly, neither had my deposit. I called her from my mobile. No reply. I called her again. Nothing. Again, this time from a friend’s phone:
Me: Hola señora Conchi soy Josh. ¿Como estás? Digo ‘está’, perdona.
Me: Nada, lo sien-
Conchi: -Dime. ¿Que quiere?
Me: Si. Erm… me gustaría saber porque no me ha devuelto la fianza del año pasado. Me dijiste – digo ‘dije’, perdona ‘dijo’ – usted que iba a hacerlo incluso si no pagaba Fabio su alquiler. Y no me ha contestado cuando he intentado llamarte – perdona ‘le’ – digo ‘la’.
Me: Perdone señora Conchi, quizas no he estado cla-
Conchi: ¡E’cuchame! ¡Dile a Fabio que tiene que pagarme el alquiler de Junio! ¡Si no lo paga no puedo devolverte nada!
Me: Si, Conchi le he dicho pero no puedo hacer más, y tu – perdona ‘usted’ – me dij-
Conchi: -¡E’cuchame! ¡Dile al Fabio que tiene que pagarme el alquiler de Junio!
Me: Señora Conchi como te – perdona ‘usted’, digo ‘le’ – he dicho ya, he hecho todo lo que puedo-
Conchi: -¡Dile al Fabio que tiene que pagarme el alquiler de Junio y ya está.
Conchi: Tell me.
Me: Hello Mrs. Conchi it’s Josh, how are you? I mean ‘how are you?’ (formal) Sorry.
Me: Nothing, I’m sor-
Conchi: -Tell me. What do you want?
Me: Yes. I’d like to know why you haven’t paid back my deposit from last year. You told me – I mean ‘I told me’, sorry ‘you told me’ (formal) – that you were going to do it even if Fabio didn’t pay his rent. And you haven’t answered me when I’ve tried to call you – sorry ‘you’ (formal).
Me: Sorry Mrs. Conchi, maybe I haven’t been cle-
Conchi: -Listen to me! Tell Fabio that he has to pay June’s rent! If he doesn’t pay it I can’t give you anything back!
Me: Yes Conchi I’ve told him but I can’t do any more, and you – sorry ‘you’ (formal) – told me th-
Conchi: -Listen to me! Tell Fabio that he has to pay June’s rent!
Me: Mrs. Conchi as I have told you– sorry ‘you’ (formal) – already, I’ve done everything that I can-
Conchi: -Listen to me! Tell Fabio that he has to pay June’s rent and that’s the end of it.
She hung up. Just as well really– my (almost) impeccable British manners were wearing pretty thin after a mere two-minute exchange, though I could see her point, even if she had lied to me. All things said and done it was probably time to cut my losses, but not before one last dashed attempt at convincing Fabio to pay up. I did so via Facebook and heard nothing for weeks. Then, miraculously, a message appeared in my inbox that read:
‘Hola Josh, I paid Conchi the deposit two weeks ago and asked her to let you know. I hope she has done it. Fabio.’
She bloody well hadn’t done it. Enraged, I grabbed my mobile and called her. No reply, obviously. Again from a friend’s phone:
Me: Hola Conchi soy Josh. Acabo de hablar con Fabio y- (I’ve just spoken to Fabio and-)
She hung up. And that was the last time we ever spoke – I was past caring after trying to contact her for several weeks following that. It was over, and while she may have robbed me of my money, I could take solace in the fact that my manners had stayed well intact. And in some ways that’s a victory. In some ways.
*the actual crossover point from señorita to señora is a blurry one and can often lead to impromptu looks of horror and outrage/bumbling awkward apologies, but more on that another time
**there is no doubt, a whole lot more to it than that but as I said – I am no expert. I only know and use that much!
When do you use ‘usted’ if you speak Spanish? Do you find it easy to shift into it? Have you ever encountered a similarly horrid landlady or had trouble with claiming back deposits?