Skip to content

How not to say “the grass is always greener” in Spanish

Travel Tales is a collection of tongue-in-cheek short travel stories based on actual events, as humorously recalled by the author.

I’m currently in Girona province, Spain, wrapping up research and photography for the forthcoming Discover Splendid Girona (the second in the Discover Travel Guides series).

Early in the trip I went on a day’s drive encompassing various landscapes. Rich, verdant forests of La Selva, then the Garrotxa volcanic national parkland and thence eastwards on a winding road through lovely medieval Catalan villages to the lake at Banyoles. Next, historic Girona before passing several gorgeous beaches on the Costa Brava. This diversity of landscapes is why I chose Girona as the next book to write after publishing Discover Charming Andorra.

View across Banyoles lake to the snow-topped Pyrenees

I stopped at a small supermarket to buy some supper. At a very quiet checkout a pretty Spanish girl smiled pleasantly. I reciprocated and with my mind filled with images of the day’s many landscapes I remarked how northern Spain was very beautiful. I explained as a boy I lived in dusty and dry Almería (a province far to the south of Spain) and did not know the north then.

‘I suppose so’, she said somewhat doubtfully. ‘But I think it’s all a bit boring here and wish I was there instead’ (her accent suggested she was from southern Spain).

The saying ‘The grass is always greener on the other side’ came to my mind. You know the one, about looking over your fence at the neighbour’s garden, that everyone else is better off.

I replied, ‘I suppose that’s because we tend to think everything is better elsewhere’. The girl agreed pleasantly and had I stopped there all that follows would not have transpired. But the pedant in me felt the need to utter the ‘grass is always greener’ proverb.

Coves near Tossa de Mar

Now, I speak Spanish well, comfortably. But the thing is, I had been out of the country for several months and spoken little of the language while away. It normally takes a day or two back in the country for my Spanish to begin flowing nicely again. The problem was, I had only just arrived.

The Spanish version of our ‘grass is greener’ saying goes something like, ‘the apples always appear better in the neighbour’s vegetable garden’. Yet at that moment the Spanish saying eluded me and in a split second of confusion I made a fatal error: I attempted a word-for-word translation of an idiom (something all language students know is strictly verboten).

‘It’s because the…’. With horror I realised I had also forgotten the word for grass. My brain generated several megawatts of energy as it sought wildly for an alternative. Unfortunately my mind was not on my side that day and unhelpfully handed me the Spanish word for lawn.

‘It’s because the lawn is always greener’ I said, somewhat relieved and nodding sagely.

‘Which lawn’, she asked with puzzlement?

‘The neighbour’s’ I replied, realising all of a sudden I was getting into a bit of a muddle.

Now when normal people get in a muddle they mumble an apology and move on. Unfortunately I usually dig myself in deeper. Moreover (and I do hope—for my sake—that some of you also experience this), when getting in a muddle and seeking to extricate myself, I become aware there is a detached and perfectly lucid part of my mind watching mockingly the car crash that is about unfold.

‘I don’t understand’, she said. ‘Whose neighbour?’

‘Yours’, I replied helpfully.

‘But I don’t have neighbours with a lawn’, she said. ‘I live in an apartment’.

Even then I could have mumbled something about my poor Spanish, bid good evening and been on my way. Unfortunately the tendency to self-immolate is strong and I pressed on. I suddenly remembered the Spanish word for grass which I was scrabbling around for earlier.

‘Sorry, I mean the grass’, I blurted. ‘The grass is always greener’.

The checkout girl was clearly nonplussed. ‘Where is the grass always greener?’

‘In Almería’, I replied.

‘No it’s not’, she said with some asperity. ‘The grass isn’t greener in Almería than here. You just said so yourself’.

‘No, I meant it is greener because you live here’, I explained. Her brow furrowed. ‘But if you lived there the lawn would be greener here’, I added helpfully.

‘The lawn?’

‘I mean the grass, your neighbour’s grass, in Almería’.

It now dawned on me with horror this was never going to work out. I needed to get out, fast. But no, even now I had one last stab, despite being aware the car crash was in full, inexorable flow. Worse, my detached mind was not now the sole spectator, with three other shoppers having miraculously appeared from nowhere to queue behind me and listen. They were no doubt wondering why an Englishman was blurting on about grass with a checkout worker. I decided to take back control of the situation once and for all.

‘I’m very sorry’, I explained apologetically. ‘It’s just that I’m out of practice with my Spanish. What I was trying to say was that just as someone looks across at his neighbour’s lawn and thinks it looks better over there, so too people think everywhere is better than where they live’.

She brightened. ‘Oh, I see’, she said. I could almost perceive her mind thinking that perhaps I wasn’t an idiot after all. Then I involuntarily—and fatally—offered one last sentence.

‘So when people in Girona look at the lawns of their neighbors in Almería, and those in Almería look across at the lawns in neighbouring’ Girona, each only sees greener grass’. I nodded judiciously.

Everyone looked at me in silence. The pretty girl smiled (I realise now it was with growing pity). Someone in the lengthening queue behind me objected, pointing out that Girona and Almería weren’t neighborouring provinces at all and were at completely opposite ends of Spain. Another pointed out that lawns aren’t very common in Almería anyway and it was clear I had never been to that part of the country.

I belatedly realised I just needed to get out. I packed my shopping bag rapidly and was in such a hurry that packed items kept falling back out (one tin of tomatoes must have been packed in that bag four times). By now there were numerous observers exhibiting pity and sharing knowing glances: ‘Pobrecillo’ (poor thing). I could sense they thought not only does the Englishman appear to be fixated upon grass and lawns, he also suffers from some kind of motor skills issue.

I muttered something like, “I’ll get my coat”, clutched my bag of shopping and hurried away, unfortunately tripping as I did so. My repeated attempts to catch my balance and not fall over while hurtling full speed ahead towards the glass doors merely reinforced their thoughts about ‘el pobrecillo’.

There are several takeaways here. First, if you speak another language—however well—but haven’t used it for a while, stick to brief chit chat until back into the flow. Second, never, ever attempt to translate an idiom word for word. It will tie you in knots. Finally, if sensing a detached part of your mind watching you in slow motion, never fight it. Surrender, mumble your apology and get out.

More Travel Tales

Share This Page