Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The trilingual's dilemma, part 2

I spent last weekend in Granada, an ancient Andaluz city that's famous for its mazelike ancient neighborhoods and rollicking nightlife, all watched over by a thousand-year old military/palace complex (the world-famous Alhambra.) I went with my good friend, Hannah, and besides the obligatory overwhelmingly gorgeous Alhambra visit, we spent the weekend exploring the old city's nooks and crannies and taking advantage of Granada's tapas bars, which rival Linares in their scope, diversity, and low prices.

On Saturday night, we were walking along yet another narrow cobblestone alley, from one bar to another, and Hannah asked me a question. I'm not sure what the question was, and really in this context it's unimportant; the important thing is that I didn't know the answer. So, my answer to her was: "Not an idea."

Of course, "Not an idea" is a phrase that could conceivably occur somewhere in the English language. Any given object-- be it table, computer, sneaker, or apple-- is, in fact, "not an idea." One might even use it to say that something is a foolish prospect. "Try to drive on Storrow Drive between 5:30 PM and 6? That is totally not an idea." But as an answer to a question someone asked you? It hardly makes sense.

In Spanish, however, "ni idea" (which actually translates to "not even one idea") is a perfectly acceptable answer to a question you don't know the answer-- and herein lies my current trilingual problem. As I mark 1.5 years living abroad in Spain, I find my languages mixing and melding in an entirely unexpected way. I speak English and Spanish about 40% to 60%, respectively, in my daily life (varying depending on who I'm meeting for tapas, which classes I'm teaching, how many hours I'm at school that day, etc.) But I am finding that after prolonged exposure to Spanish on an every-day basis, my English is altering. I'm not sure if I want to call it thinking in Spanish because I still am aware of English words in my thoughts, but it certainly appears that my mother tongue conversation is being filtered in some way through a Spaniard neighborhood in my brain.

The incident in the Granada alleyway was far from the first time something like this has happen: I've caught myself saying "I hope we have luck tonight!" (which translates directly from the Spanish "tener suerte") or using the phrase "to put yourself in contact with [someone]" (which sounds almost right in English but is still just the tiniest bit off.) And I'm not the only one. I've heard Hannah do it a few times, and about a month ago during a visit to Madrid, my American friend Thomas referred to some future visitors as "coming in car." This is clearly a common, if little-noticed, side effect of linguistic immersion.

Long time readers of this blog have followed my progress in Chinese and my Spanish beginnings. In 2010, I wrote about starting to identify as a "trilingual" as I struggled to rescusitate my middle-school level Spanish skills during six weeks in Guadalajara, Mexico. Last fall, I wrote about the balancing act between the two and the decision I made to put Chinese aside and focus on Spanish. And almost six (!!) years ago I wrote here about the strange melange of Chinese and English our study abroad group developed together, using the word that came to us first, regardless of language-- "Pass me the kuaizi [chopsticks]," for example.

 That last phenomenon of language-mixing comes close to what I'm talking about now, but it's never developed this far before. I've code switched (I wrote here about the first time I couldn't remember the English word for "ski lift," only the Chinese-- lan che), but I've never noticed my mother tongue being filtered by some other force. It feels the strangest because it doesn't feel like anything at all. Only suddenly, I find my words and phrasings (which, as a writer, are not small parts of me) strangely altered-- speaking the way I've always spoken and the way I've never spoken all at once.

It makes me wonder what else is being reconfigured. I've written here before that in anthropology circles, it's a widely accepted idea that culture is language. If the language making my basic linguistic decisions right now is Spanish-- a language that has 10 words for various cuts of pig and types of pork-- what does that say about me as a Jew? Does my power of idiom and wordplay stay the same, and if not why not? Do I have the same sense of humor? Will I write the same way if I don't speak the same way? Basically: does my changed grammar change me?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Big announcement coming!

It's too early for a formal announcement, but I'd like to give you all a little teaser: I've been working with several friends and acquaintances for the last few months, and our work is going to come to fruition shortly. Our new project (which has to do with Spain exploration and adventures) will have its launch in the next couple of weeks! For now, you can follow our brand new twitter, @48HorasMag.

Can't wait to share more about this with all of you!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Worth a thousand words 1: Sevilla

A few entries ago, I mentioned that during this fall I visited the Andaluz cities of Sevilla and Cadiz; I also mentioned that in the course of those visits I managed to lose my camera. I'm sorry to report that that means the photos of my lovely Sevillana and Gaditano adventures are lost-- however it presents me with an opportunity, as well. It's a common theme in literary criticism that the best kind of writing is that which is so descriptive that you feel 'right there in the moment' with the author. I'm choosing to pair that with the old truism "A picture is worth a thousand words." My challenge to myself: use my photo-less state to bring you into the loveliest moments of these two trips with just my words. Let's see if I can do it. This entry: some images from Sevilla.


We walk the crooked streets of old Sevilla, and small details leap out to meet us: a bar in a shady square, offering orange wine sticky-sweet under pastel umbrellas; a jewel-toned shrine to Maria tucked in a corner; a deserted fountain where ladies once gathered water, now carpeted with dead leaves and plastic wrappers. The weather is strange, prone to sudden downpours. We come upon a small plaza sprouted with three wrought-iron crosses of various size, barely an opening in the warren of alleyways. The rain comes swiftly, with barely a warning whisper, and we duck into the nearest bar, our breath steaming. Inside, happy hoards celebrate some birthday; the full-figured barmaid asks if we'd like to come in. We demur, wait out the deluge. As we exit, I notice a sign: 'Hoy, a las 11:00, flamenco en vivo' (today at 11:00'-- live flamenco.)

We wander, crossing the river, stopping for tapas, then find ourselves again by the three iron crosses. The concert has already started, two men singing, their fingers a blur over guitar strings. There's a crowd along the bar, curving their hands in that hollow flamenco clap or standing in big-eyed tourist awe. The musicians raise their voices in a harmony so sweet it almost reaches the tastebuds; they sing melodies that loop in and out of one another playfully. Some songs are harsh and full of passion; others are joyful and exultant. The waitress hands me a beer. I taste hops and soaring notes.

The hours pass. The tourists leave, and the musicians retire to a backroom, motioning for those that remain to follow. Here, the mood is more casual. One woman in the audience gets up to sing, her voice and eyes steady. After, two of her friends get up to dance sevillanas, eye contact intense and steps careful, circling one another, spinning and whirling with practiced feet. One of the guitarists takes a break to dance, as well-- his spine incredibly erect, his arms arced above him. His eyes stay locked with those of his partner, the waves of her long, dark hair brushing his back as they turn and turn, the force between them almost visible. The clock strikes 2, then 3. The night transports my exhaustion somewhere outside the bounds of this bar, now quiet save for the sound of a single guitar.


I'm here visiting Teresa, who lives in Plaza El Salvador, one of the oldest, busiest plazas in all of old Sevilla with her grandmother and sister. The stones of the plaza, dark gray and deeply grooved, tell stories of centuries' worth of footsteps. It's the first house I've ever visited with an elevator: like a New York townhouse, it stretches upward instead of outward. The rooms are lovely and well furnished, but the best part is also the highest: two balconies that face the Sevillana sky in all its tints of blue, yellow, and purple gray. From here, you see that the house is actually part of the massive church next door; from here you look down into the interior courtyard, lined with trees. There one night, perhaps, people might gather to hear a Semana Santa band practicing off season, the brassy tones intermingling with many voices chatting over cheap beer. The domes of the church rise on both sides like mountain tops, and when the bells chime the air vibrates; it sings.

Another side, another balcony. From here you look down directly into the plaza, where people are gathered almost any time of day or evening, any day of the week, crowding into the rickety wooden tables to drink glasses of port or tinto de verano (red wine and lemonade) and snack on bowls of corn nuts or kettle-boiled potato chips. From here one sees the larger patterns of never-ceasing movement, streams of people coming and going in a constant low boil of drinks finished, stories told, strollers maneuvered through the fray-- all accompanied by the quiet roar of many voices. To one side, a scattering of people sit on the church steps, finishing their drinks and whiling away the day (or the night); from here they look like kettle chip crumbs. Beyond them: the technicolor facades of 1920s Sevilla, then the elegant curves and angles of the city's rooftops, fading away in all directions.

Amid more Sunday downpours, we visit the Real Alcazar, Sevillas Moorish Palace answer to Granada's Alhambra. Short on time, we wander through a jungle garden, lush and green and steaming. We toe elaborate tiling; the walls are a curling, almost undulating vision of lacelike Arab  plasterwork. The sun bounces merrily off white walls, matching the graceful arches and the curving streams of fountains--one to each chamber-- that whisper a susurrus under so many green leaves. We turn left here, right there, delighting in the surprise each new room brings. Here, an array of ceramic tiles dating back 700 years; there a groom and bride, taking pictures nestled under the twisted boughs of ancient trees--her Ugg boots peeking out from layers of frothy gown as she struggles to keep her dress off the muddy ground. We walk down a ramp, then down again to the old baths, where cream-colored archways are made whole in the reflection of a perfectly still silver pool. To walk in this garden is to be engulfed in another time.

Another downpour, out of the clear sky, the falling water--strong as a shower--strafed with brilliant flares of sunlight. My legs ache, so I take advantage of the sudden cataract, sitting down cross-legged under the eaves of some kind of garden cottage (even such a simple structure is elaborately carved, tiled blue and green and yellow, iced with gold, fit for a king.) Just as suddenly: a cat appears, long-haired, dark, impossibly proud. He pads fluidly around the corner and sits in my lap without a pause, surveying the soaking sun. We sit together in the shaded shelter of the eaves. The cat squints, licks his paw, eyes me nonchalantly. It's as if he was expecting me; it's as if I never left.