“No pasa nada.”
I hear this a lot in Spain. Translated in the most literal, anal-retentive way, it means “Nothing doesn’t happen.” But because Spanish is a wonderful language where double-negatives frolic freely without canceling each other out, a better translation would be “Nothing happens.”
But just as “What’s up?” does not actually mean “What is physically above us in the sky at this moment?”, “No pasa nada” has a deeper meaning, which took me a while to figure out. Here are 5 times I encountered this phrase:
1.When I thanked my host mother for the 1000th time after she prepared a 3-course Spanish lunch that I couldn’t finish.
This time it was lentil soup, a delicious-yet-bony fish, salad drenched in olive oil, a fresh baguette and bowl of fruit on the side.
Spanish food practically explodes with flavor; I could eat three plain bagels at home, but one chicken cutlet drenched in my host mother’s magic Spanish sauce was so rich that I could barely eat half.
“You didn’t eat very much,” she said as she cleared the plates.
I disagreed. At Emory, I would have had a fruit smoothie and granola bar for lunch. This was twice as big and twice as healthy.
“I’m sorry,” I said. She definitely believed that I hated all her food and was too polite to say so. “I like it a lot, I just can’t eat anymore.”
“Well, if you’re hungry later you can take yogurt from the fridge,” she said. “No pasa nada.”
2. I was locked outside.
I needed exactly 3 keys to get into my apartment, and the key to the lobby wasn’t working. I tried all three keys and then tried each one again, looking around me to make sure no one thought I was breaking in. A pair of old men stared at me from across the street.
Then the door swung open and my host mother’s 36-year-old son came out in his jogging gear.
“Oh, uh, gracias,” I said. My key was still stuck in the door. I reached for it but realized he was standing in the way and I’d reached towards his stomach. I pulled my hand back and scratched my neck.
“No pasa nada,” he said uneasily, sliding past me and jogging down the street.
3. I stood in front of a gelato stand in the Plaza Mayor, trying to pay for my “Vainilla con Cookies” gelato using coins that I wasn’t familiar with.
(Side note: pronouncing English words with a Spanish accent is bizarre; “Cookies” becomes “KOO-keys” and “Oreo” becomes “oh-RAY-oh”) I pulled out my wallet and realized it would be stupid to break a 20 for 2 Euro ice cream, then proceeded to dig around for my coin purse, drop it, collect the coins from cracks in the sidewalk, and then carefully examine each coin to make sure I was handing over the right ones to the cashier.
“Lo siento,” I apologized to the cashier, glancing at the line behind me.
“No pasa nada,” she said, smiling as I finally dropped the coins in her hand.
4. I sat in my daily 2-hour Spanish grammar class next to three other kids from Emory.
Across from me sat two Taiwanese students who preferred the names “Julia” and “Moises,” a Saudi Arabian man, a Brazilian man and woman, and a girl who was ethnically Peruvian but grew up in Japan.
I liked sitting next to Ricardo because even though we both went to Emory, he grew up in the Dominican Republic and usually knew the right answers when he wasn’t doodling “BORED” in different fonts across his notebook.
We were doing a worksheet on the different ways to use the present tense, because apparently in Spanish the present tense can sometimes actually mean the past and sometimes the future.
“I have no idea what number 5 is,” I said to Ricardo, chewing on my pen.
He shook his head. “Yo tampoco.”
I knew it was bad when even Ricardo didn’t know what to do. I chewed harder on my pen cap until pieces of it started breaking off into my mouth. But Ricardo just shrugged.
“Eh, don’t worry,” he said. “No pasa nada.”
5. I sat on the steps of the Sancti Spiritus church at night.
The plaza was crowded because of the festival and big crowds/alcohol had never been my thing. I wanted to sleep, but if I went home before 8, I would have to tell my host mother another excuse for why I didn’t want to drink tinto de verano and eat tapas with everyone else. Was jet lag still a good excuse a week after I’d landed in Madrid?
I knew that good travelers were supposed to stay out and experience Spanish night life until 7:00AM, but the thought of stumbling half-awake through crowds of drunk people, trying not to get pick-pocketed, and ordering drinks that were 95% soda while everyone else did shots and danced made me depressed.
So I sat in front of the church which was relatively quiet, seeing as only one couple was making out nearby. I tried to send Wechat messages to my friends back home but there wasn’t any wifi. I wondered how I was going to make friends in Spain.
I felt the same way I did when I first moved to Atlanta, a place that I now loved and missed. I remembered that I hadn’t considered Emory home until Halloween of freshman year, when I came back from a small party at Bread Coffeehouse with green cookies and music that I actually enjoyed dancing to. I’d sat down at my desk, bitten into one of the cookies I’d taken with me, and thought, “I’m home,” before realizing what that actually meant.
I didn’t know if it would take more or less time for me to get used to Spain. On one hand, it was another country and language. On the other hand, I’d done this before. I had no longer “lived in Medford all my life, in the same house,” as I used to tell people. This time I knew that things were hard, but then they got better than I’d ever imagined.
A woman stopped and looked at me on the steps. I realized I’d been frowning into the distance for a while now.
“Are you okay?” she said.
I nodded and tucked my phone into my purse, giving up on trying to contact my friends in different continents. They would still be there for me tomorrow morning.
“Yeah,” I said. “No pasa nada.”