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.

1 comment:

Toni said...

great post! I loved it! I did feel the same way in Turkey, when language knowledge permitted an in-depht approach. Congrats for your Spanish!