Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The trilingual's dilemma, part 1.5: One little letter

I'm currently in the course of moving out of my apartment (a process which for me is usually accompanied by a period in which my room appears to be the epicenter of a disastrous earthquake), and therefore I don't have a lot of time for blogging. I can, however, offer this tasty morsel, a cautionary tale about the quirks of living in a second language.

The scene:  I am hurrying down Calle Mayor to take a train to a nearby town. The train station is at the far end of the street, so I always enjoy the scenery, even though I am usually near-running to get the train on time. This particular recent day is no different, and as I power-walk past the entrance to Plaza Mayor I am accosted by a GreenPeace volunteer. I try my best to smile politely. "Lo siento, tengo prisa." I say-- Sorry, I'm in a hurry.

The volunteer clearly doesn't buy it. He starts to launch into a patented "I'm sure you're really not in too much of a hurry to save the earth, right?" guilt trip schpiel, but I cut in, looking at my watch distractedly.

In my distraction, my tongue gets twisted up. What I want to say is, "Tengo que coger un tren"-- I have to catch a train.
Instead what I say is, "Tengo que comer un tren." I have to eat a train.

I don't blame him for giving me a little bit of a strange look as I hurry away.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Use Your Words

One of the most well-loved stories of me as a baby finds me in the kitchen with my mother. She is at the counter fixing me some kind of soft baby something for dinner; I am in my high chair babbling away--I've just started talking. Of course I don't remember any of this, but in my mind's eye my mother spoons out the soft what-ever-it-is and fixes me juice in a plastic sippy-cup. I start to fuss, waving my arms and crying in that nasal toddler whine. My mother can't figure out what's wrong -- are the high chair straps too tight? Do I need changing? But she remembers what I don't, that I now have tools to express what it is that is so upsetting me.

"Alissa, use your words!" she implores. I stop crying almost immediately.
"Oh," I say. "I want the orange cup."

Of course, that was almost a quarter of a century ago, but I've been thinking about it a lot recently. Gaining fluency in a language feels a lot to me like that Orange Cup moment. There were moments of extraordinary frustration when I first arrived in Spain in September, of course, but I don't think I realized exactly what I was missing out on until I found it again. It's been a long time since my Chinese was at the level my Spanish is now.

Two weeks ago I took a long-weekend trip to Basque Country in the north. It was a fantastic trip-- the weather cooperated as much as almost-constant-rain can cooperate, the countryside was gorgeous and green. Friday brought me to Bilbao, vivid and gritty; Saturday through Monday to San Sebastian, equally as exquisitely delicious and cultured. And through it all ran a ribbon of newly-discovered communication.

Friday night I stayed with Thomas, a fellow American teaching at the city language school. After a night roaming the city, we went on Saturday morning to an event called Arrozes del Mundo-- Rices of the World. It was a paella cook-off in the immensely diverse neighborhood of San Francisco, where virtually all of the immigrants that flock to Bilbao for its industry settle. Thus, the "del Mundo" portion came from the twist each entrant was supposed to add to the paella, a little something from his or her own country.

Thomas and I arrived via a long, straight street lined with Caribbean grocery stores, halal butchers, and African produce stands to find a crowded plaza filled with the most amazing smells. We threaded our way through rickety tables piled high with chopped ingredients ready for the flame-- everything from couscous to mango to pomegranate--and watched as a group of Moroccans danced and sang in the space between the swings and trapeze in the plaza's small plaground. We'd brought breakfast with us, but there didn't seem to be anywhere to eat. Finally, we found a seemingly empty table to one side of the festivities-- there was only one man sitting toward the end. After some inquiry, it became clear that the man was waiting for his group, but we could sit and eat our pastries and drink our coffee in peace for just a little while. And so we did, savoring the colorful chaos in the plaza. Finally, Thomas turned to me. "It's pretty amazing that we can do that," he said.

"Do what?" I asked.

"That we can ask him if we can sit down. That he can explain to us the situation. That we understand each other." It seemed small at the time, but so did the cup color I preferred so many years ago. He was right-- the ability to understand and communicate with people in another country improves and enriches one's traveling experience to an extraordinary extent.

The next day, I took the bus to San Sebastian. Feeling disoriented, I took a walk in the post-lunch quiet through the narrow streets of the old town. In the distance, I could hear singing, and I walked toward it. In front of a tavern, a group of some 15 men stood in a semi-clump-circle as two others performed some kind of rollicking song and dance, circling around each other, patting each other on the back, and gesturing exaggeratedly. I arrived for the tail end of their song-- after perhaps thirty seconds the crowd broke into applause and started to hug and kiss their goodbyes.

I smiled to myself. walked a few steps away, and pulled out my map to check where to find a nearby hiking path that would take me up to a famous lookout point over the harbor... but then I stopped. There's something about talking to strangers in a foreign language that is both terrifying and freeing. What did I have to lose?

I turned back and, practicing my most polite, formal Spanish, tapped one of the men on the shoulder. "Excuse me," I asked, "Can you explain to me why those men were dancing? What was that about?"

The man I'd accosted interrupted his dancer friend, who was chatting nearby. "This pretty young girl wants to know what you were doing!" he said.

The dancing man smiled broadly. "We were in the army together around 1939 or 1940, and every year since then we get together in the first weekend of June and have lunch at this restaurant. And you know, we've had something to drink now. And when we Basque men drink, well, it starts here [he pointed to his mouth] and travels up to here [then to the top of his head] and ends up here [finally he gestured to his throat.] And we have to sing! So when I saw this other gentleman there, who I hadn't seen for years and years and years... well, we decided to sing an old song together."

We spent some minutes talking before the group broke up for Saturday siesta. At the end of my subsequent hike,  watching the waves far below, I reflected on just how my language skills had served me. Without them, my memory would have held an interesting, exotic interlude of dancing and music,  brief and mysterious and without depth. Instead, the story I took home was so much more nuanced, so much richer-- a piece of these men's lives instead of a one-dimensional tableau.

A week later I found myself in a different part of the country, exploring the ancient university city of Salamanca. The city is known for its stunning architecture, including a beautiful, enormous 500-year-old main square and the gorgeous facades of the university buildings themselves. There's a legend that goes along with those facades: the architect hid a tiny frog among the many elaborate carvings, and it's said that those who can find it are guaranteed luck in love and scholarship.

One evening at dusk I walked to the Plaza Mayor, filled with students sitting on the still-warm flagstones eating and chatting, with tourists snapping photos and old people out for their paseos or watching the world go by. I chose a seat next to an older man who immediately struck up a conversation with me. When I told him I was American, he explained he had lived some years in Germany and so always tried to help tourists and visitors in Salamanca because he knew what it meant to be a stranger in a foreign land. After the initial pleasantries, he started to ask me what I'd seen so far in Salamanca, and I was forced to confess that although I'd stood for some minutes in front of the university facade, I hadn't been able to find the frog.

"You couldn't find it!?" he said horrified. "Coming to Salamanca without seeing the frog is like not coming to Salamanca at all!... Okay, come with me. We're going to find the frog right now." And so it was that I found myself taken firmly by the arm, weaving my way through the crowd following this insistent old man. I chatted with him about his childhood in the city ("Everything is so much bigger and spread out now!") as we walked. When we finally arrived in front of the university, the stone was pink-tinted from sunset. With my new friend's help, I was able to spot the frog within a few minutes, perched precariously on a well-hidden carved skull.

Of course, not every experience is enriched by language skills. Rewinding to that same weekend in San Sebastian, I had intended to finish my trip with a blues/jazz concert at a bar near my hostel. Unfortunately, the actual concert schedule was different than the one the bar had published, so when I arrived the music had already finished. Disappointed, I consoled myself with an expensive cocktail and the paperback book in my bag.

As I read, I became aware of a man to my left-- he sat down at the heretofore empty grand piano and started to play around with scales and glissandos. There were people sitting around me in groups chatting, but as the man's musical doodles started to become something more, I noticed a change in the bar. The jazz riffs grew, strengthened, and eventually became a full, gorgeously harmonic improvisation-- and the energy in the room changed, as well. Now, as the music subtly transitioned from one genre to another, I closed my book and noticed conversations all around the bar dropping off into silence.

After a few minutes, a particularly powerful crescendo marked the end of the impromptu performance. The man got up and left without so much as a bow, but it didn't matter. We all burst into spontaneous applause-- the English-speaking businessmen in the corner, the Spanish tourists at the table behind, the Basque teenagers next to them, and me.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Palabras para Julia

A few days ago I posted the following informal poll to my friends on Facebook:

"So I would say that at least once every two days I have an "Oh God what am I doing with my life where am I going who am I?" moment.
Survey: would you guys say that is above or below average?"

The responses I got were encouraging-- an assortment of friends of different ages and from different parts of my life assuring me that they felt the same way, that it was a condition of being in one's 20s, or even just a condition of being human. One friend currently living in Korea wrote, "The thoughts still occur in your 30's, even more so because of being an expat I think." 

I'm inclined to agree. Of course, being in one's 20s encourages feelings of being unsure, unmoored, and afraid, but I think those feelings are magnified by stepping so far away, metaphorically and physically, from what society says we are "supposed" to be doing. I admit that as I watch friends and acquaintances from afar--as they work 9-5 office jobs, whether fascinating or mundane; decorate apartments; get engaged; buy houses-- I find that all that is not without its magnetism. Even days like today, walking down Calle Mayor on a warm evening during paseo, listening to Ace of Base and trying not to burst into a dance party for one in public just for the familiar and exotic and beloved beauty of it all...I still feel that pull, to go home to the familiar, to stop missing out on that world turning at home without me, to start my "real" life (hell, to figure out what that "real life" entails.) It's what I've been taught to want, and the part of me that really wants it is terrified by my choice to stay. (More on that soon.)

...Which brings me to my Spanish final exam last Friday. I am confident enough to say I passed it, although the listening comprehension was much more difficult for me this time around. I am happy to report as well that I wrote my first opinion essay in Spanish, and it felt completely badass. The exam included something I never expected, however. Our second reading comprehension assignment included a very sweet letter from a fictional father to a daughter having a difficult time living abroad. "It's hard, I know, but you will see how these moments of solitude can also teach you many important things. It's something no one can learn for you," he writes. Who knew I'd ever find myself sniffing away tears during a language exam?

This fictional father goes on to quote a poem from a very real Spanish poet, Jose Agustin Goytisolo, a poem which spoke to me, as well. I want to include it here, although I've cut portions (as the version that so touched me was edited as well, although I didn't know it then.) I'll include the Spanish first, and then my own translation.

Tú no puedes volver atrás
porque la vida ya te empuja
como un aullido interminable.
Hija mía es mejor vivir
con la alegría de los hombres
que llorar ante el muro ciego.
Te sentirás acorralada
te sentirás perdida o sola
tal vez querrás no haber nacido...
Nunca te entregues ni te apartes
junto al camino, nunca digas
no puedo más y aquí me quedo.
La vida es bella, tú verás
como a pesar de los pesares
tendrás amor, tendrás amigos...
Y siempre siempre acuérdate
de lo que un día yo escribí
pensando en ti como ahora pienso

Now, my poor translation:

You cannot go back
because life already pushes you
as an endless wail.
My daughter, it is better to live with the joy of men
then to mourn behind the blind wall.
You will feel cornered,
you will feel lost or alone.
Maybe you will wish you were never born.
Never give in or swerve
away from the road, never say
I can't anymore, I stay here.
Life is beautiful, you will see
how in spite of everything 
you will have love, you will have friends...
 and always, always remember
what I wrote to you one day
thinking of you the way I think now.

I don't now what it is about this poem. The words are plain, the rhythm is basic, there's no rhyme or imagery. But for me the message, sweet and powerful, is enough-- like one more voice in my informal poll encouraging me to keep searching for what's next.