Tag Archives: Spanish

Spanish, Service & Switching Places

301645_10150425046621215_890517333_nA few years ago, when I lived in Spain, I went on a weekend trip to Extremadura, which is basically a lot of desert and a few Roman ruins.  It was a school-sponsored trip, so our accommodations were classed-up considerably from the cheapest (safe) hostel we could find online, which is what we usually went for, to a formal hotel.

I don’t remember the exact problem or what caused it, but I had some kind of trouble with my room key.  Because of it, I couldn’t get in my room.  Exhasperated, tired, and hungry, I complained to the guys from my school who were hanging out in the hallway.  One of them cut me off and impatiently told me to go down to the front desk, “You’re not shy, and you speak Spanish fine.  What’s the problem?”

could speak Spanish, but I only liked to use it around people I knew well.  I knew I didn’t speak it flawlessly, and I was afraid of sounding stupid–especially at the concierge’s desk in a fancy hotel.  I hated that I couldn’t get my thoughts and ideas out exactly right, so most of the time, I didn’t even try.

I’ve barely used the language at all since I returned to the US in the winter of 2011.

But Spanish has been on my mind lately.  I’ve taken to reading el mundo at lunch and started mentally walking through what a phone conversation would be like if a Spanish-speaking person called the church.

To that end, I’ve been waiting, hoping, thinking, planning, praying, but only sortof expecting to use it.

Today, I was talking to a woman at a big, annual church work day in apartment complex that needs some love.  I walked up to her because she was alone, and I like helping people feel part of the group.

We had a comfortable back-and-forth conversation, and eventually she told me about how she usually doesn’t like speaking in English.  She’s afraid she’ll mess up.  I thanked her for her willingness to converse with me, even though it was hard for her.

Then BOOM.  No fear.  No nerves.  No hesitancy.

I started talking to her in Spanish.

My new friend and I talked a little more about our families, and then we went our ways.  But while I was walking away, I realized that what had just happened was really, really good.  I’d voluntarily swapped places with someone who was uncomfortable by putting myself in the vulnerable position.

It was a discovery that became my MO for the rest of the day.  I asked a group of shy, little girls who would barely talk to me to help me with my Spanish, and by the end of the day, I had a long shadow that followed me everywhere.  All we talked about was Disney princesses and jump rope, but sometimes what you talk about matters a lot less than the time you spend together.

I grew-up doing the work day thing.  I know how to get work done, start a party with a bunch of kids, introduce myself to their parents, help make people feel comfortable, and seek Kingdom breakthrough with people who think that God would never do anything here.  It was awesome today, just like it always is.

But doing it in Spanish–woah, that’s new.

As an added appendice to this story–I so seriously should have gotten in an accident on the way home.  I didn’t see past Shirley’s head in the passenger seat and attempted turn directly into an oncoming car, but even though I was still pushing the gas pedal, the car didn’t get any faster.  In that split-second moment of “what just happened?,” I looked down at my dashboard.  The car had slipped into neutral (??!??); major, major accident averted.

Yeah, awesome day.


Almost a Fair Lady

I can speed talk, articulate, enunciate, and give speeches with the best of them (in English), but I don’t know if my mouth’s ever been so worn out as it is today.

I’ve read that the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body.  If that’s true, then my taking in and learning a language has had a serious affect on the physical fitness of my tongue.  Because while I most certainly talk, I say a lot less.

Sometimes you just know you’ve hit a new level in your language skills.  Today was one of those days.  I just didn’t shut up–all day.  Didn’t matter the topic.  It felt so great.

I felt completely like my normal self while speaking Spanish.  [Generally speaking,] there were no topics that came up where I had to alter what I was originally going to say  because I didn’t know a word.  I didn’t have to stop for a minute to think about how to say something.  It just all popped out.

After an early morning attempt to visit Congress that didn’t quite pan out and a notably fantastic lunch, I met a couple of girls (a Spaniard, Brit, and Pole) for coffee.

The mood was so lighthearted, and it felt like I had a never ending stream of stories, one-liners, and quiet antagonistic quips to egg them on.  It was so much fun.

Then, I talked with a German friend and another Spaniard for over two hours at dinner.

bad coffee + chocolate.

When listening becomes passive

Went on an Intervarsity-esque fall retreat this weekend at Pinos Reales in San Martin Valdeiglesias.

Toah Nipi – the lake + bigger mountains – the grass + giant rocks
Michindoh – the bonfire – childproof landscape + sand.  

If you haven’t been to either of these iconic American summertime campgrounds, go, but in the meantime let this photo furnish your imagination.

I have a lot to say about this weekend. I have probably have six blog posts worth of notes on my ipod.  With the inevitable disorder of this coming week, maybe one or two will actually make it up here.  I’m still surprised by things that are culture-transcending (as in absolutely exactly the same) and then others that I thought would be and absolutely are not.

Biggest note from the weekend: a lot of (concentrated) Spanish still kills.  Saturday afternoon was almost reminiscent of how I felt about a week and a half into life in Madrid when I started hating the sound of every word.

Except this time, instead of just wanting to shut up and retreat, I was dying to talk.  I didn’t want to give up anymore.  I was listening to conversation that I was way too tired to really understand, but it was on a topic that I had a lot to say about.  I wanted to stay in the moment, and the only way I could force my mind to stay in Spanish mode was to talk.

Listening for long periods of time is the hardest, but it is getting considerably better.  Other things are too.  I can tell a huge difference in the speed and quality of my speech, and every time I write an email I don’t need to spend forever editing my grammar before I send it.

I used to have to think to listen and understand, but now I’m beginning to just listen.

Que sera, sera…

Tonight, I walked into an Irish pub that was playing a song from Going My Way with decor irrefutably reminiscent of one of the best scenes of a movie I watched with my father at least once a month in my childhood.  It’s amazing how far something as simple as a familiar looking barstool and old song can bring so much comfort.

Then again, it might have just been that the signs on the wall were in English.

This week has been overwhelming, but I don’t think it’s because any component is necessarily more than I can handle.  I get really frustrated with my Spanish, but truth be told, it’s not actually that bad.  It’s just that I’m not comfortable using it.

At first, the whole immersion thing was a novelty.  Then, I found myself unable to fully operate in a world that was in both English and Spanish.  Now, I’m having to actually deal with emotion in Spanish.  It is so limiting to be frustrated and needing to consciously think about the words necessary to express it, or even just to recall a colloquial expression to convey how awesome something is.  There’s no real time out for a break.

On Wednesday, I had class from 9am to 5:30pm with only two 30 minute breaks all day.  The awkward part was sitting in class, understanding what most of what was going on, but daydreaming in English.  I don’t even know how that happens.  I also am beginning to find myself lost for words more and more often.  I’ll be trying to say something, unsure of the Spanish word, yet can’t remember what it’s called in English either.

Today, I let myself get wrapped up in wholly frivolous frustrations, because our course registrations were officially due.  I had the bright idea that I don’t actually want to take a grado class (regular full-length direct enrollment course, as opposed a partial semester direct-enrollment class or a class for international students).  To be honest, that is a little ridiculous, but as I reviewed the syllabus, I just got really scared of the quizzes.  I can learn material, but what if I don’t know what the words in the questions mean?  What if I fail? (fyi: I signed up for the grado course anyway)

Situations can get quite unnecessarily exacerbated in my mind, but when I’m impeded by limited language skills and the continued absence of a regular routine, it’s hard to find ways to express them [hence: an accumulation of ridiculous ideas in my head].

But tonight was the remedy.  I hung out with some friends after class and spent the night dancing downtown at a Bomba Estereo concert.  I’d never heard of them, but I’m so glad I went.  Because it great, and it helped me realize how ridiculous my frustrations about class really are.  I needed a break, and I got one.

So que sera, my friend.  I’d say hakuna matata, but Doris Day, Jimmy Stewart, and Alfred Hitchcock are so much classier than Timon & Pumba.

A little bit of love

goes a long way…  Sophia (the 5-year-old) and I had a nice chat after dinner.  I told her all about Indiana and my home, and she drew me a picture of my family.

You know how you hear random bits of conversation in the the mumble of voices in a crowd?  I’d never heard one of those in Spanish before today.  It felt so foreign, because instead of hearing little bits of random conversation, I just heard sounds.  My brain hurt trying to pull individual voices out of the crowd.

I walked into the building I thought my first class was in to that mumble, but with a deep breath and a quiet prayer, I walked straight outside to a quiet corner beside the building.  Those ten minutes of silence outside the chaos made all the difference in the world.

I thought about my dad’s attitude on Black Friday.  On a day of insanity, commercialism, moody/tired shoppers, and exhausted employees, he commits himself to blessing as many people as he can.  Then, I thought about my commitment to attend law school, and how I came to feel at peace with that decision.  It was about living for the good of the people that will be there and in my life afterwards because of my education, and not the academics itself.

What I learn here at UC3M is really secondary objective for this trip.  How I live is far more important, so nuanced scheduling problems, confusing websites, and language complications really shouldn’t rattle me.

Today, I found out that I misunderstood some advice I was given about classes, which made the schedule I was up half the night completing worthless.  I had to rework everything in about 20 minutes.

In the end, I think the whole marathon schedule rewrite worked out for the better.  I have a better combination of classes. There’s also this warm/smiley feeling I get  when I can sit and listen to someone talk for a long time and understand almost everything.  I had that feeling a lot today.

That said, there’s still a lot more new things to come.  But if I can take it one day at a time, with a focus on what actually matters, and a little bit of love, I’m sure I’ll do fine.

Flashback, nosedive, no pavement (yet)

This week has been a flashback to every Spanish 1 exercise.  You know, the ones that seemed really stupid at the time, but now that you actually need them seem invaluable?

Example 1: The telephone conversation.

This skit is an eternal Spanish class favorite.  The task?  Write a phone conversation between two friends.  Arrange a time and meeting place for an event.  Do it memorized.

It seems simple, but when you actually have to do it… ay.  When leaving Santiago today we were all instructed to call our host families and let them know when we would be arriving.  My face drained white as I tried to figure out what I would say.  Understanding Spanish is hard enough in person, trying to do it when you can’t see the person’s face is much harder.  After about 15 minutes of conversation with a couple folks on how we would handle various situations, I just did it.

After going through my spiel, I realized that I wasn’t talking to Claudia (my housemother), but one of her daughters.  She passed the phone off, and I went through it again.  Important information learned from this conversation: a couple people in my host family can speak English.  Claudia said something twice that I did not comprehend at all and after a minute, she translated for me.   This lovely fact isn’t something I’m going to rely on, but is nice to have.

Example 2: Transportation

I distinctly remember airport vocabulary freshman year of high school.  I also remember thinking about how pointless it was.  At 15, I had never even been on a plane.  Today, that airport/transportation vocabulary was invaluable.

After a week of schedules and of being shepherded around in groups, they sent us out on our own today (relatively).  We were given addresses and told to find our own ways home.  I’ve only been in a taxi a couple times in my life, so taking my own taxi in a city I know nothing about, to an apartment I’ve never seen, in a language I barely know, to live with a family I’ve never met was a little intimidating.

I sat in the car thinking that there is no way I could have ever done this even a year ago.

Example 3: Greetings

Unit 1, Chapter 1 of every Spanish textbook is greetings.  It is by far the most-repeated lesson, and now from experience, I can say this is for good reason.

My housemother and her two daughters met me this afternoon.  Introductions were mildly awkward because I couldn’t figure out how to open the door to the apartment building.  I later found out that I really wasn’t that dumb, because the door really was locked.  However, I did neglect to see the doorbell right next to the door, so….

a little bit of home

The apartment is nice and clean, and there is more storage in my room than I have stuff to fill.  I very much appreciate the anti-clutter feel.  After I unpacked, I joined my housemother and her five-year-old daughter for some leftover chinese food.  We chatted for a bit, which helped the whole place feel more familiar.

As it turns out my housemother’s mother is also a student host, so another student in the program came over this afternoon because his family (grandparents to the kids in my family) was at work.  Having another student here for a couple hours, helped me feel more comfortable too.

We were given careful instruction on how to find our way to our meeting in the morning and how to get to school.  Then, my family physically took me to the metro station where I will have to transfer to a commuter train to get to campus and the bus station I need in the morning.  (this was really nice).  The five-year-old turned out to be quite the cute, little tour guide, because she explained absolutely everything on the way.

Example 4: Participation/Immersion

That’s what it’s all about, right?  All those awful weeks of forcing myself to come up with something to talk about in Spanish class, so I could earn my participation points are actually coming to mean something.  I have to talk, and I am.

I was a little embarrassed at dinner, because they were asking me which meal I wanted on the weekend. (They provide 2 meals for us each day.  Program provides daily stipend for the other meal.)  I understood what they were asking, but I didn’t know how to say I don’t know yet in a polite way.  They have to plan meals, but I still have no idea what my day-to-day schedule will be like.  I don’t think this is a big deal, because we are going to Toledo this weekend.  I’m sure I can talk to them when I have a better idea next week, but it was still embarrassing.

Guess it’s all just part of the nosedive experience.  Tonight, I hung out with my house sisters watching a little TV before bed.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my favorite show, Bones, is on here all the time.  It was fun, because the little girl kept running in and out of the room.  We talked about our favorite Disney princesses, and she pranced around in a fancy dress and her sister’s platform heels.

I think I’m my family’s 5th international student, and I hear that one girl came barely able to speak Spanish and left fluent.  I want to be like that girl…


Must be something in the food

because I am having the weirdest dreams here.  Maybe it’s the whole long extended nap during the day thing or something.  I am still very much not used to going to bed late (1-2 am), starting class at 9am (meaning I’m up at 7:30am to finish homework), and then taking a three hour nap in the afternoon.  That afternoon nap makes it feel like everyday has two mornings.  Since we are still in orientation, there isn’t much flexibility in this schedule.

On the bright side, at least I’m dreaming in Spanish.  A couple days ago, I dreamt that all of us were preparing to go on a pirate game show.  It was kinda funny though because it was like the audio and visual track didn’t completely match, because my brain was trying to come up with the Spanish while the visual progressed.  Today, I dreamt that everyone went to a local parade and a bunch of people were on a float singing.  The mood was lighthearted, and the people on stage were throwing apples at us.   I threw one back, got pulled on stage, was given a vocabulary quiz, and was then tied down for not knowing the answers.  [It sounds so much weirder than what it was when I actually write all that down.]

My limited ability to communicate is still annoying. I actually think that that might be why I am dreaming in Spanish.   Not sure what to make of my comprehension skills, because just as soon as I’ll be really confused in a conversation (inevitably with a professor or native speaker or something), I’ll be able to carry on extended conversation (albeit with lots of grammatical errors) about a heavy topic.  I would be lying if I said that I still was not really nervous about starting my home stay next week.

interior photo of a (massive) funky modern library designed in a Guggenheim-esque fashion we visited today


Who knew that crepes could be something besides dessert?  I had no idea.  Guess what I had for dinner?