Monday, November 21, 2011

¿No estás aburrida? (part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about my frustration with the litany of concerned friends and acquaintances constantly wondering if I don't find Palencia boring. I also ended on an uncertain note, wondering how I might fight against the tide, not of boredom but of bored people--people who have the power to convince me that life here doesn't have the potential I know it to have.

So, in response, I have concocted a list of Things to Do In Palencia:

1) Eat tapas at Ribera 13, which everyone agrees has the best tapas
2) Eat tapas at El Trompicon, which as far as I can tell is the closest Palencia has to a dive bar. It is famous for its filthy floor and cheap prices.
3) Have dinner at El Chaval de Lorenzo, the restaurant where I made friends with all the staff and where a constant stream of old men and women play dominos and cards
4) Eat dinner on Plaza Mayor (at the restaurant whose name escapes me) where drinks, bread, an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert are 11 euros
5) Have coffee at the lovely cafe on Calle Mayor
6) Have drinks at La Oficina, one of the city's oldest bars
7) See a movie at one of the three movie theaters
8) See a concert at Teatro Ortega
9) See a play at Teatro Principal
10) Watch live jazz at La Oficina or Ponte Vecchio
11) See a band at the Lemon Society
12) Go to a wine tasting at the Lemon Society
13) Try good-quality ham at the butcher near Plaza Espana
14) See a show at La Puerta Verde
15) See stand up comedy on Avenida Casido de Alisal
16) Go to the Sunday flea market
17) Go to the Mercado de Abastos for fresh produce
18) Walk along the river
19) Sit in the Parque de Dos Rios and read the newspaper
20) Sit in the Parque Salon and people watch
21) Walk along Calle Mayor, window shopping and people watching
22) Climb up the Cristo
23) Go out dancing in a salsa club
24) Party in "la zona," a cluster of bars and clubs in the city center
25) Take a day trip to Valladolid, Burgos, vineyards along the Rio Duero, the ruins of the Roman Villa near Saldana, or the walled city of Avila
26) Hike in the hills by the city
27) See one of the art exhibits in the churches
28) Have a drink by the cathedral and watch the storks come home to roost
29) Go to mass in the cathedral
30) Eat lechazo (a special Castilla y Leon lamb dish) at any one of the city's nice restaurants
31) Bike around the city using one of the municipal rented bikes
32) Go to 1 euro sandwich night at 100 Montaditos bar
33) Drink 4-euro mojitos at Casco Viejo
34) Have chocolate con churros at the chocolateria by Parque Salon
35) See a salsa, meringue, or rap group at Cafe Central
36) Go see the current exhibit at City Hall and admire the architecture
37) Take a class at Espacio Joven (youth center)
38) Ride the river boat from the north of the province down the Canal de Castilla toward the city
39) Go on a government-organized nature walk
40) ... to be continued

(Next time: those promised thoughts on expathood and the role of boredom in travel and everyday life)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

¿No estás aburrida? (part 1)

This question, which translates to "Aren't you bored?", has been sort of the bane of my existence the past six weeks. Or really, longer than that. Ever since I received the news that I would be teaching in Palencia, I've had people (mostly Spaniards) putting on their pitying faces and consoling hats and going to town.

"Oh, it's very pretty," they almost invariably say. "I've never been there. But it's really small. There's not much to see." They don't always say the "A" (or in English "B") word, but they don't have to. It's implied. Here, "small" means "unimportant" and "unimportant" means "empty of interest."
... Okay, to be fair perhaps it's not quite so stark and extreme as all that. But for a lot of Spaniards it seems there's two types of places: big cities, and everything else. And I think you can guess which type is worth your attention.

As I've struggled to make a new life here, I've been dogged by an anxiety that is difficult to place. Even once I found an apartment, moved in, and started work, I felt niggled by something I couldn't name-- until, after a few weeks, I started to discover the city and realized it was boredom I feared. All I saw in terms of socializing and food were a scattering of typical Spanish bars throughout the city. They were atmospheric bars, yes, that showed bullfights, served tapas and local wine, were full of old men playing dominoes. But as someone who possesses a more-than-generous helping of the so-called novelty-seeking gene, that didn't seem like enough to keep me engaged for a year. Yes, enjoying those bars for the first few months would be lovely. But what about after that? What if everyone was right? What if I was going to miserable here, and this was the proof?

I started an almost desperate search to prove them wrong. I examined every passing poster and flyer for events happening in Palencia. Surprisingly, I found a fair amount--plays and concerts at the city's two theaters, a festival of local gastronomy, a nature walk led by the Spanish equivalent of the Parks department. I went to some of those events, with mixed results. A concert by a touring Cuban group, decked out in three-piece suits and bowler hats, was fantastic; a benefit for the local food pantry featuring what can only be described as two land-locked cruiseship singers, not so much. But I was heartened even by the presence of cultural events, of possibilities, of choice. I started to realize that for me, choice on how to spend my time is really important. I didn't like the idea of being boxed into one particular activity for all of my Spanish weekends.

The next weekend, I found out that a small bar by the manicured park that cuts the city in half hosts live rock music every weekend. After that came an "alternative" pub with salsa and rap acts; a karaoke/bowling joint with comedy acts on Tuesdays; and a restaurant famous for its filthy floors and tasty, cheap food. And I felt something change--my search for interesting Palencia adventures was no less thorough, but its mood had altered. I found that as long as I knew that there were fun things out there for me to discover, I enjoyed the act of discovering them. Prior to moving to Spain, I had written to a friend that I was looking forward to "getting under the skin" of a city--that had been a big part of whatt I've referred to here as my "stale" expat dream. Well, this was what "getting under the skin" felt like... and I was enjoying it.

I paced myself, trying out a new bar or exploring at a new street, signing up for a dance class, or going to a new concert, once or twice every week. I was (and am) aware that Palencia, while rich with interesting options, is not by any means an infinite city, but I liked mixing newness with the start to a routine, a list of fun places I could frequent if I liked. Sometimes I traveled around the province, or even farther afield (posts about my trips to Madrid and to Galicia, a province in the northwest, are coming). And I didn't feel bored. At least not yet.

Honestly, that's been the worst part of it. The initial fear has mostly been dispelled, but the endless discussion of the "b" word with Spaniards (most often Palentinos themselves!) has not ceased. I'm sure this city is not a cornucopia of fascination for people who've lived here their entire lives, but I haven't--so for me it's an honor and a pleasure to learn about everyday Spanish life and make one of my own here.

My big realization has been that I fear the conversation more than the reality-- so I admit that "Aren't you bored?" and its other question compatriots still niggle. We start down that road, and I feel myself beginning to wonder and to worry. I wring my hands, imagining myself here in the gray doldrums of February, feeling trapped and miserable. Honestly, these days, I find myself thinking that if people would stop asking me if I'm bored, or if the city is too small, or if I have things to do; if they would just stop talking about how [fill in other city, Barcelona/Burgos/Madrid/Valladolid/Salamanca] would make a much better and more pleasant place to live... I could probably live here more or less happily.

Of course, the question after that is: if the conversations and commentary won't stop, how can I fight them? Steady, persistent rhetoric can be as potent a weapon as water torture. Are my weapons of choice-- determination, curiosity, humor, a sense of adventure--powerful enough to hold back the advancing tides of discontent?

(Next in this series: Some thoughts on the relationship between boredom, travel, and expathood.)

Monday, November 7, 2011

The trilingual's dilemma

Learning a new language is a unique thrill. For me there's nothing quite like putting together a chaotic bundle of new sounds, ambiguous rules, and a generous helping of guesswork in order to connect to a new set of potentially millions of people on a level you never could have before. Anthropological conventional wisdom holds that you cannot learn a language without learning a culture as well, and I tend to agree. So I find a deep satisfaction in the process, something special and different and incredibly rewarding.

Learning Chinese brought me amazing places and allowed me to see and do wonderful things, and I'll always be grateful for that (for the curious, details of those adventures can be found in the initial years of this blog.) And, frankly, being a Chinese speaker has become a point of pride and identity for me. Not very many Americans speak Chinese, and I think some part of me likes that this ability shows I am willing to work hard, take my own path, and try new things. But part of coming to Spain was deciding to put Chinese on the back burner for a little bit.

I originally abandoned Spanish at age 13, jumping ship in high school for the more exotic (and verb conjugation-free) Chinese. For the next ten years, my Spanish language acquisition was pretty spotty. My knowledge of the language amounted to a bizarre mix of three years of middle school basics (Where is the library? The library is in the center of the city...), Rosetta Stone, podcasts, six weeks worth of mornings-and-nights (with creamy English-teacher-training-class centers) in Mexico, and a handful of weeks in Spain. It was only once I hit my 20s and spent the aforementioned time in Spanish-speaking countries that I realized I was ready to face the grammar challenges my 13-year-old self so loathed.

When I started meeting with a language partner in Boston prior to my departure for Spain, I was painfully aware of my inability to, say, speak in the past tense or express in any way my opinions on a topic. I also suffered from frequent code-switches (when the brain reaches for a word in one language and comes back with it in another)-- often I wanted to speak Spanish and found Chinese on my lips instead. It was incredibly frustrating, but with some practice I got to a place where I could access the two brain folders marked "foreign language" separately. I wrote about the beginnings of my trilingualism in this blog during my stay in Mexico, and I came to Spain feeling optimistic.

It took me a few weeks to banish errant Chinese from my brain, but after a month of immersion here in Palencia I felt I had succeeded. Around that time I started my Spanish classes at the Escuela de Idiomas (90 euros for an entire year's worth of courses, 2 or 3 times a week! Gotta love socialized education.) Although part of me balked at being put in the "Basico 2" level, in the end it was the right choice. Yes, I could express myself at a more intermediate level, but there were a huge number of grammatical holes in my language base that no amount of podcasts, Spanish soap operas, or Colombian pop songs could have ever filled.

Instead, with the help of my classes, I started to feel more solid in my linguistic footing. I could finally confidently speak in past tense, I was able to express myself generally in social situations, and I could go to bank and the grocery store, could generally Get Things Done. But the proverbial sword is double edged, of course. I wrote here in my last entry about visiting Valladolid, but there's one part that I left out:

During our program's orientation in Madrid, I met the only Chinese language assistant in Castilla y Leon. Her English name is Lydia, and I was very excited to introduce myself and get her contact information. Lydia and I met for lunch during my visit to Valladolid... and try as I might, I could not get my Chinese to come out and play. It was the opposite feeling of my time in Boston, as I struggled to express myself and failed. My sentences were a garbled mix of Chinese and Spanish, and there were points when I literally had no idea which language I was speaking and only recognized I had sprinkled random Spanish adjectives into a sentence after the fact. It was like I had lost control of my language center altogether. I felt bad for Lydia, who was confused and trying to help, but I felt even worse for myself. I couldn't remember a time when I wasn't proud of my six years of Chinese and when being a Chinese speaker wasn't part of who I was. It was horrifying to think I had lost so much hard work in less than a month.

Luckily, since that lunch I've gained a little bit of optimism. A few weeks afterward, I spent an hour trying to help my Spanish teacher communicate with a brand new arrival from Zhejiang. It was the closest to an aneurysm I hope I will ever experience, switching back and forth between Spanish and Chinese-- at some points I could barely find words in English. But in the course of my efforts I discovered that switching between Spanish and English, then English and Chinese, made it a lot easier. Something about the relationship between my two foreign tongues was causing dissonance. But I have found that cutting out that dynamic (or doing something to ease the transition, like practicing writing or listening to Chinese language music) seems to help some of what I've lost come back to me. And that, in turn, helps me feel all that work, and that linguistic and cultural world in general, is not lost to me.

Life in Palencia is still chaotic, but as things settle down I have big plans, and one of them is to spend more time nursing my Chinese back to health (along with pitching to English-language magazines in Madrid, joining a gym, going to the market more often, and on and on...). Chinese is not totally absent from everyday Spanish life, after all: there is an entire genre of stores (the kind that sell cheap electronics and everyday necessities) that are referred to as "Chinos" after the most common ethnic identity of their owners.

I could speak with the owners of these stores, practice with Lydia, and devote myself to trilingualism, yes. But I have to remember as well that things may never be the same as they were when I was writing my thesis in Yunnan, or even when I was just using the language to keep in touch with my friends and write articles for an immigrant newspaper in Boston. In gaining this gift of direct linguistic access to the world of Garcia Marquez, bullfights, tapas, tango, and Neruda, I have to lose something, too. But wasn't that always the way it was going to be, leaving Boston for something new?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A tasting of home in Valladolid

Spaniards love their holidays-- it seems that almost every day is a Saint's Day (or recently, All Saints Day.) Perhaps the only thing they love more, besides ham, is Columbus, who is something of a national hero. There are streets named after him in most cities, statues in town squares, museums, and even a national holiday. It takes place around the same time as the American Columbus Day, and to celebrate I decided to go check out Valladolid, the medium-sized (population 350,000) city to the southwest of Palencia. Valladolid also happens to be the place where Columbus lived his last years, and where he died, so it made the visit's timing especially apropos.

It's not a city with a good reputation: the people are said to be cold and closed, and someone once told me it was the "ugliest city in Spain." But at the same time, people say the same about Bostonians--who I adore--and about Parisians--who I had no problems with in the course of an eight-day visit. And no one could call Allston, my beloved former Bostonian neighborhood, anything but homely. So, I approached with both trepidation and skepticism, and after several months of hanging out virtually in the couchsurfing group there, watching a close-knit and welcoming community getting together for dinner or to go camping, I felt encouraged to meet them and their city.

In Valladolid, I stayed with Carlos, an enthusiastic host and beer connoisseur/collector with a very impressive collection from all over the world. The first day we walked all around the city, which I found to be quite lovely, although scrappy and unsightly on the edges (but no more than any other Spanish cities I've seen). It has a stunning main plaza, a pretty zone in the center full of old architecture, a university feel (it houses one of Spain's oldest universities), and a lovely big park full of (strangely enough) peacocks. The second day I stayed with Elizabeth, a fellow teacher in the Language Assistant program, and she showed me around further, leading me on a stroll through the city's shady riverside walk, its "beach" (of sorts), and a few old neighborhoods.

Valladolid Plaza Mayor, the model for the Plaza Mayor in Madrid

Twilight in the park by the river

I spent the first evening acquainting myself with the Valladolid couchsurfing crew, who were just as warm and friendly as I expected. We had a small party at Carlos' house, a beer tasting, sampling beers from Carlos' collection (Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, USA, etc). The tasting was fun and low key, and we spent several hours chatting and sipping.

I was impressed with the way my Spanish held up over the course of the evening. But I've also found that after a certain period, it's like a thick plate of glass goes up between me and whoever I'm talking with. I can see the other person speaking on the other side, but it's all hitting the glass and sliding off, and I can only look at him or her with blinking incomprehension and give that universal "I can't understand you but I am trying to pretend I can" smile.

Nevertheless, it was a very pleasant time. I met a lot of kind, interesting people; they asked me about American politics and culture, we talked about couchsurfing, they made sushi and ordered pizza. Along with the beer, I felt like I was tasting a bit of What Could Be. Uprooting your life is hard in any circumstances and is perhaps hardest in a new country with a new culture and language. I had been feeling lonely and frustrated with the pace of my friendship development. (It's one thing to understand that building relationships takes time, and it's another thing entirely to live it.) But this was one night to have a built-in group of friends, ready-made and waiting. It was heartening, and I took that strength home with me to Palencia to keep on with the work of life-making.

But when they finished their party at 2:30 AM and got ready to go out into the city, I couldn't say yes. Spaniards have amazing party endurance, the kind that an American girl has to train for the way she would a marathon, little by little. They got home at 7:30 in the morning; I slept soundly.

Carlos' collection, including beer from the Congo and a Pilsner from 1960 Czechoslovakia

Valladolid Plaza Mayor by night
(More thoughts on life-building, language frustrations, and a return to Valladolid for a ballet-flamenco performance of 'Carmen' coming soon....)