Spanish

Lessons from a month abroad

Me in park Guell

I arrived back home yesterday afternoon. I did not expect to get giddy while walking through Immigration, or getting on the subway, or putting my key in the door, but all those things reminded me that I’m coming home. And I was excited to do so. As much as love to travel, I am always surprised by how happy I am to come back home. To have clean clothes. To see my kitties. To plug in electronics without first having to find the stupid adapter that always gets lost in my suitcase. I know I’m weird, but no matter how many showers I take while on vacation, I never feel as clean as that first shower when you get home.

I came home 5 pounds heavier. I would like to think those pounds are filled with wisdom. So here are some very wise things I learned while traveling for a month:

a window in Salamanca

1. No one says it better than my boy, Bill Bryson, “To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” This quote was etched into the bathroom stall in one of the restaurants I ate in in Barcelona. Although I’ve read it many times and have appreciated it, I’ve never read it while actually traveling , nor while on the toilet.  As much as I loved seeing all the sights from the tour books, the real joy is in finding a cup of coffee exciting again. Or taking a picture of a window. I mean seriously when do you take pictures of windows when you’re at home? Travel reinvigorates your enthusiasm for life. By the way, can you imagine how long it took to etch that quote into the bathroom stall?

2. An oldie, but a goodie: try new things. I didn’t want to see flamenco, but it blew me away.

Me trying out new water

While dining out, the worst food I had was when I was feeling homesick and ordered what was familiar to me. Pizza and hamburgers just don’t cut it in Spain. The best food I had was when Mike and I decided to order the strangest sounding thing on the menu. Duck ham (seriously that’s what it said) on top of duck liver pate was out of this world. I can’t believe I almost passed that up for french fries. Other great treats were bull tail ( YUM!), and onion jelly with sheep cheese and walnuts. While walking back to the hotel every day, we knew the fastest way to get back, but we always made a conscious effort to go down a different street, and for that we saw some amazing views, beautiful graffiti, hidden gardens, and old churches. If we only followed the path we knew we would have missed out on a lot.

3. Spanish is hard.

4. A lot can be done while sitting at a cafe drinking coffee. You can’t help but reflect on your life, how it’s going, and where you want it to go. I don’t know if it’s those little tables, or if it’s using a saucer, but you start to ask yourself the big questions. How do I want to spend my money? How do I want to raise my kids? What kind of lifestyle do I want? Do I really want the noise and chaos of NYC? Maybe I should live on a boat for year. Waiter, one more cup please.

5. Ok, because I love Bill so much I’m going to include one more quote. “I mused for a few moments on the question of which was worse, to lead a life so boring that you are easily enchanted, or a life so full of stimulus that you are easily bored.” Here’s one of the catches of traveling a lot – you become jaded start to compare countries. Instead of appreciating each place you visit you say “oh, the Hermitage was far superior,” “this doesn’t hold a candle to the canals in Venice,” or ” It’s no Kathmandu.” This is a horribly pompous attitude to have and I know I’m guilty of it sometimes. I was reminded of how much I hated it when I met a one-upper in Salamanca. When I said I liked the bread, he said, “Really??? You have to try the bread in Paris.” When I said I loved the Cathedral, he said, “Really??? You have to see the Hagia Sofia, in Istanbul.” When I told him that I had seen it and that you really can’t compare the two, he then said, “Well it’s no Notre Dame.” I’m not quite sure how to prevent that snobby attitude, but maybe just being of aware of it is the first step.

6. People can be extremely self-conscious. While on our way to a restaurant we saw a toddler running around a fountain. He was having so much fun that we decided to sit on a bench and watch him. He ran around the fountain maybe five hundred times. It was super slippery and he must have fallen an equal number of times. Each time he fell he would crack up laughing. and then start over again. He was insanely adorable, and we could not stop laughing. Eventually his dad picked him up to leave and when he walked past us he asked with an accent that sounded like the Terminator, “You find something funny?” At first I expected him to laugh like it was a joke, but he looked like he was about to kill us. I was shocked and really I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. How could he be so offended by us laughing? I thought it was obvious that we were sharing in the kid’s joy. My only guess is that he thought we thought his son was stupid, or that we thought he was stupid for letting his kid fall down so much. Either way, why was his first assumption so negative? It makes me think, did I ever get self-conscious because I thought someone was laughing at me, but perhaps that were laughing with me?

Traysaurous

7. I learned that when I’m tired, hot and hungry I become Traysaurous. It’s not pretty. I think I scared off I few kids – and maybe Mike too. No, actually he was brave enough to take this up close picture. On a serious note, I’m tired of always feeling tired. This trip has not only prompted me to take flamenco classes, but I’ve also decided to go to a sleep clinic. For years I suffered with insomnia, restless sleep, and sleep walking/talking. My roommate in Salamanca told me I stood up in the middle of the night and said, “this tent is filled with bees,” and then I tried to open an imaginary tent zipper. My brother told me that I woke up one night and asked if I could pay for the bus ticket with American cheese. One of the most annoying parts of this trip was that I was sleepy almost every day. I wanted to wake up fresh and ready to see the sites, but instead Traysaurous came out a little too often. I think my quality of life would greatly improve if I could get 8 hours of fantastic, uninterrupted sleep. With no bees or American cheese.

Flamenco changed my life

From Photobucket

I came to Spain to learn Spanish, eat Paella, see some Gaudi, and drink Sangria. I did not plan to see Flamenco. I thought is would be really cheesy. Women in frilly, red dresses dancing around and snapping to over-enthusiastic guitar strumming. Count me out. But Mike kept saying he needed to see some authentic flamenco, so we asked around and heard about  a great underground flamenco club. There were plenty of signs all around Madrid, Barcelona, and Granada for the “authentic” flamenco experience- 40 Euros for dinner and dancing. For some reason I couldn’t imagine the original flamenco dancers performing in front of dining tourists.

The place we found was in Granada, on Carrera del Darro  called Le Chien Andalou. It was only 6 euros, and it blew me away.

We walked in and it was a brightly lit, white-washed cave, about forty feet deep, ten feet wide. The stage was only about 8 by 10 feet. We were told to get there an hour early to get a seat. When I walked in, I was skeptical. It was almost empty. We sat next to a guy from Colorado, and I thought, oh great this is a tourist trap. By 10 o’clock the place was jam packed. All of a sudden the lights went down and a chubby, balding, blond haired guy walked on to the stage with his guitar. When he began strumming, the room fell silent. If you closed your eyes it sounded like two or three people were playing. When I opened my eyes I was captivated by the faces he made. He looked evil, almost possessed by his guitar. His name is Josele de la Rosa.

Next the singer and dancer joined the stage. The singer was a young, pretty blond. From what I read about Flamenco singing, the singer is supposed to be old, haggard, and lived through a lot. I didn’t think this young girl could cut it, but the second she opened her mouth I got goosebumps. Her voice was so rich, deep and raw. Most songs were just one line sang over and over again. It became hypnotic, but the subtle changes each time were heart-wrenching. After the second song I realized I was crying. I did not expect to be overwhelmed by singing in a dive bar. The singer’s name was Fita Heredia.

While Fita was singing, the dancer, Almudena Romero, was sitting in the corner in the standard, frilly, red dress. She seemed antsy, like she couldn’t hold back her dance moves, but she wanted to let the singer have the lime light. Then, when she couldn’t take it anymore, she stood up and if people weren’t crying at that point they didn’t stand a chance. She transfromed from a smiling, laughing young woman to a powerful, intense, fiery vixen. The look she gave the audience was something I had never seen before. Something like, “if you ever hurt me I will rip each one of your fingers off and feed them to you.”

I have never seen such raw emotion before in my life. With each movement of her pinky, with a flick of her hair, with a hip pop she was able to say a thousand words. At this point I was a mess. Not only was I crying but my nose was running uncontrollably. I wasn’t even sad, just so overcome with emotion. She was able to show such vulnerability in her face, yet her movements had the strength and bravado of a bullfighter. The dance got faster, and more erratic, and almost violent, until the stopped suddenly and the lights came on. I looked around and to my relief I wasn’t the only one reduced to tears. Nearly everyone was dabbing their eyes with napkins. Even the guy from Colorado. He said it was far better than Eric Clapton, a performer he’s followed his whole life. Mike was speechless. He’s a musician, and even he was blown away by the performance.

It was something so pure, so vulnerable, and so beautiful. If I lived in Spain I would become their groupie. They made me want to take flamenco classes. A strange desire for someone who can’t clap in rhythm.

The power of writing

Write everything down. I´ve heard this advice before, but I never take it seriously. I bought a beautiful little moleskin book before coming here, and I´ve made a conscious effort to write down everything I learn, observe, or need to do. When I look through it I´m amazed at how much I´ve already forgotten. Two days ago I played a game called Pitufar, and I said that word so many times while playing the game I thought I´d never be able to forget it. However, that night I was telling my host mother about it, and for the life of me I couldn´t remember the name of it. Good thing I wrote it down.

Not only does writing help you remember, it also helps you clear your head. I was starting to panic about all the things I need to do before leaving Salamanca. I was going over and over the list in my head (even translating it into Spanish). However as soon as I wrote the list down I realized I only had five things to do. And they´re not even difficult. But when the list was just floating around in my head it was hard to get perspective on it. Now that the list is on paper I can distance myself from it, and I can think about more important things such as whether to get wine or sangria after class.

I suggest buying a pretty notebook that you don´t mind taking with you everywhere you go. Now I´ve tried this before but I´ve always been too intimidated to write in a pretty journal. I think, I must fill these beautiful pages with beautiful thoughts. I can´t put my grocery list in a Moleskin, what would Picasso or Hemingway think? (If you´re not familiar with Moleskin, they´re handmade journals that have been used by all the great writers and artists of the past – at least that´s what they tell me). Here´s what helped me. I scribled all over the first page. I made a big fat mess, and now anything I write in the book will be an improvement over the first page. Try it. I atually think the more messy the pages the better. I like flipping through the pages and seeing all my different handwritings, and doodles, and side notes. It´s almost like a visual of how my brain works.

I also love writing in a moleskin at restaurants. When a waiter sees one they automatically think you´re a food critic or a writer for a travel guide. As soon as I bring mine out, all of sudden the waiter becomes super attentive. I get free glasses of wine, and sometimes they let me try some of their specialties for free. I kid you not, this has happened three times since I got here. Maybe I play it up a bit. I have been known to take a bite, look up as if I´m thinking about how to describe it, and then write down a few notes. Usually I´m writing about how my day went, but the waiter doesn´t need to know that.

On a side note, today was my last day of classes. I´m going to miss my helpful teachers, and my fellow classes. Don Quijote is an excellent school and I´d highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn Spanish abroad. Today for the first time ever I spoke in Spanish without thinking. I said three sentences to a guard at a museum and I thought to myself his English is good. And then I realized, oh wait I´m speaking in Spanish!

My tiny class

Why learn another language?

Learning another language makes you a better person. Here´s why:

Years ago when I was living in Mozambique with Gerome, from France, and Flavia, from Brazil, we tried an experiment. We each spoke in our native tongue and then afterward tried to translate what we heard into English. Even though Gerome didn´t speak Portuguese and Flavia didn´t speak French they were able to catch almost everything the other said. I on the other hand couldn´t remember a word. Gerome said that ¡t´s because Americans don´t know how to listen. I got offended, but then he said it´s understandable because we are not surrounded by different languages. We can drive for ten hours and still only hear English, but in Europe or Latin America, you can drive one hour and hear an entirely different language. They have to learn to listen or else they could never get by.

In class, I´m realizing how little I listen. I catch myself tuning out my teacher all the time because I don´t understand her. But I´m making an huge effort to listen and it makes a world of difference. If I can take this concentration back with me to New York, imagine how much more I will hear. Maybe I´ll actually be able to quote a real fact from the news, instead of just estimating the figures. Maybe I´ll hear a friend´s hint for a good birthday present, when before it would have just passed over me. Perhaps I´ll hear someone´s complaint before coming up with my defense.

Last night there was a party at the school to welcome the new students. We spoke in Spanish for as long as we could, but after a while it became obvious that we were genuinely interested in each other and our knowledge of Spanish just wasn’t cutting it. There’s only so much you can learn about a person from questions like

How many brothers do you have?

What is your favorite color?

Do you like food?

So we gave up and started speaking English. The students are diverse. At my table, I was talking to people from Turkey, France, Germany, The Ukraine, Brazil and Belgium. And everyone was fluent in English. It made me realize how lucky I am to have English as my primary language, because it truly is universal. Then it made me realize how important it is to learn a second language. We could not have become friends if they hadn’t first made the effort to learn English. Imagine how many people am I excluding from friendship because I don´t speak their language and they don´t speak mine.

Besides for opening up doors to friendship, it´s also really fun to eavesdrop. Yesterday, I was at the grocery store, and there was an old woman ahead of me at the cashier. When she heard the total for her groceries she started yelling, in Spanish, ¨That´s too expensive. You can´t make an old woman pay that. I won´t do it!” and the cashier told her she could have a 20% discount. I thought that was pretty funny, and I would have missed it all if I didn´t understand any Spanish.