This morning I was up early — estaba de madrugar.
It is my 67th Birthday (having been born on Aug. 13, 1949 in San Francisco, Ca. And by the way, my mom and dad would always tell me that you only have one birthday and that the rest are anniversaries of your birthday — I’ll stick with birthday; sorry mom and dad, rest in peace).
I thought to myself, partly in Spanish, about what I was going to do. I thought how I needed to conjure up as much Spanish as I could, and to some extent I even talked out loud to myself (come on you know you do that too, that is talk to yourself out loud, at least sometimes).
I’m scheduled to visit Spain next month (September) for the third time in my life. I think it will be a welcome relief from politics, which I write a lot about. Of course the people there have their own politics, but I don’t plan to get into that, except if I pick anything up I will be interested.
But I am going for the sights and the experience of a different culture and in my continuing quest to learn to speak (and write) Spanish, something that has become an obsession with me.
(And a quick aside here: I happened to tell someone I was going to Spain and hoped to improve my Spanish and the person suggested that they really don’t speak Spanish there — well maybe as the English don’t speak English exactly like we do, but pretty much that’s where Spanish comes from, Spain — Spain = Spanish, get it? And I know, in Latin America and in the U.S. it is spoken differently than in Spain — yada, yada, yada).
Learning Spanish is just one of the reasons for the trip or maybe I should say it is an added advantage, and it will enrich my experience to have more familiarity with the native tongue. Then again, Spain deals with multilingualism. I guess you would say I am learning mostly Castilian Spanish or castellano. But in some parts they speak Galician, and then there is Catalan, not really Spanish at all, and of course there is the Basque language, also completely separate from Spanish. Under the long-running dictatorship of Francisco Franco the Basques were forbidden to speak their own language. Catalan was once barred too. And there are other dialects in Spain as well.
As I already stated, this will be my third trip to Spain, having made one each the previous two years. My experience with studying Spanish before that was three semesters of college classes in the language. But unless one is exposed to it and goes out on a limb to speak it, one just does not reach anything even approaching fluency or even gain much utility value from it.
And I have read that one finds him or herself starting to understand some Spanish long before one is able to actually respond in a timely fashion or even at all. I agree with that — it can be very frustrating. And of course the big problem for beginners is we work up our nerve to actually say something and then we get a response, sometimes in what seems like a torrent of language we don’t understand or just in an accent that keeps us from deciphering the words and meaning.
Maybe a little alcohol helps at times (although it could also be disastrous too for a host of reasons). I was at a dinner at someone’s home a couple of years ago in Spain. Most of the several people there spoke little to no English. I found myself explaining the American fascination with guns and the Second Amendment (I did not bring up the subject, they did, as in: “what’s this thing Americans have for guns?”). I was not trying to defend or attack it, just trying to explain. Although I think my little presentation or my comments, as they were, were very basic, I thought I was pretty accurate. I got some polite but puzzled or unconvinced looks — not sure whether they did not agree with the premise or the Spanish.
I told of our right to bear arms. I think I said something of derechos tener armas (rights to have arms). As I recall my vocabulary was a little too limited to get into a detailed and nuanced discussion on the theories of a citizen defense force and perhaps citizens being able to protect themselves from an out-of-control government that would rob us of our rights. But the Spanish know all about things like that, having had their own civil war.
And more than once but once in particular I found myself in a conversation (kind of one-sided) in which someone who spoke no English but had a lot to say kept looking for a response from me. You see I had been introduced to the man and even invited to his place one afternoon where I and some others shared some wine and snacks — cheese and cold meats. Well sometime later while watching the events of the fiesta he came by and struck up a conversation with me. I could understand as much as he thought folks in his hometown ate pretty well (I agree with him there, well at least at fiesta time) and how great it was to live in such a fine place (and I could believe him there too). But from time to time (de vez en cuando) he would ask me direct questions, some I understood (which does not mean I could answer them well) and some not. But I was on the spot, and fueled by that wine no doubt he was insistent, so I did my best to respond politely. I could only hope my answers were responsive to the actual questions and that they were not rude in any way or simply the wrong answers. I survived. But that is how one must learn I think. And once you get some understanding or you have some success in communicating it is quite a reward — like an actor getting applause maybe. I was going to write like a comedian getting a laugh, but somehow I thought that might not convey the meaning I wanted. You can get inappropriate laughter at times when you goof up. And you’re perhaps lucky if it is only laughter.
I actually attended a Spanish language school for a month last year in Madrid — an intensive four-week course. And the paradox of it all is that I almost lived in a bubble, failing to get outside of it and into the real world, which is even more demanding but much more colorful and fun, as much as I would have hoped. Some of that was because of lack of time, but a lot of it out of my own timidity.
It’s do or die (well only figuratively I hope) this year. No school, except the school of the real world.
But I did try it on my own last year somewhat:
I bought a shirt at a department store but did not try it on. I did see the sign that said something about probar, which is a verb having to do with testing or trying on something or tasting (and don’t hold me to my Spanish here; I’m not a teacher or authority of any kind). Well when I got back to the place I was staying I realized it was too small. I took it back. I rehearsed the Spanish I would need, something like:
Por favor, necesito cambiarlo. No es una talla correcta. Not sure what all I said or how my delivery was, but the cheerful young lady at the counter responded in a helpful tone with the suggestion, spoken in perfect and very understandable English: “we can do this in English.”
But I am already practicing for this time — talking to myself a lot. That is in fact what the article I read the other day suggested. It’s sometimes easier to try it on yourself first, your Spanish, as well as your shirts (las camises), I would add.
And that kissing on the cheeks. I was not used to it but it seemed simple enough. But once I got carried away or lost you might say. I was introduced to a woman and proceded to kiss her on one cheek and then the other, she of course doing the same to me. But I guess I lost count or something and she backed away and said something I did not understand except that I had obviously made some kind of faux pas.
Another woman explained: Señor: ¡ solamente dos besos ¡
(Sir, only two kisses!)