As I started thinking about writing a post about learning Hebrew/living in a country in which I speak little of the dominant language, I came across a nearly completed post that I wrote while in Spain but somehow forgot about and never finished. It seems like a great pre-cursor to a post about learning Hebrew, so I’m posting it now. So while you’ll have to wait a little while longer for my post about learning and living in Hebrew, here’s a flashback to my summer travels:
I learned a handful of random words in Dutch during my brief stay in the Netherlands, but it turns out that “ladies” and “gentleman” were not included in my lessons. At the castle we visited during our Oosterbeek walk I went to use the restroom and I encountered a confused child around 4 years old looking back and forth at the doors. He was too young to read and the typical man and woman figures were missing from the entrances. He saw me, an adult who logically should know the answer, and I assume asked me which way he should go. I shrugged both because I was almost as lost without the figures and because I couldn’t actually understand a word he said. He shrugged back and our mutual confusion continued to grow for a few moments until I finally used my limited knowledge of other languages to correctly deduce which way to send us both. I still find this funny because it highlights the most basic challenges of being immersed in a completely foreign language (similar to being a small illiterate child in a literate world) and because that four year old’s face so beautifully mirrored my own feelings of momentary bewilderment.
During the month I spent in Germany, I learned a handful of German words and phrases, mostly focused on food vocabulary due to my many dietary restrictions. As a result, I could usually tell vendors at the open air market what I’d like to buy in German. However, if I bought more than one item I usually couldn’t understand the amount they asked for payment without looking at it written down or added up on the scale. Once on a bus in Wismar, I shocked myself by handing the correct amount to the driver after he told me the cost of a ticket. There are plenty of Germans who speak English, but it also turns out there are also plenty who don’t. I broke out into a nervous sweat trying to buy a SIM card, as I couldn’t understand the terms and conditions nor the differences between my options. And no one at MediaMarkt spoke enough English to adequately explain them. On a bus in Werder I got so flustered when I couldn’t correctly tell the driver where I was going that I almost gave up and got off the bus so I could look it up on my phone while waiting for the next one. In the local shop and garden I discovered on the walk from Werder to Petzow I tried to ask the shopkeeper if the Sanddorn berries I was buying were grown on the property, just to make small talk. She didn’t speak English, and I couldn’t find the correct words for the German translation, but because I tried so hard to find a translation, she then thought it must be a very important question, so we couldn’t seem to just let it drop. Fortunately, in most cases there were nice people to step in and help. A woman on the bus in Werder helped me figure out the stop I needed to tell the driver and an English-speaking local walked into the Sanddorn shop and translated the question and response. And I will be forever grateful to the woman in MediaMarkt who approached me and I think said something along the lines of “you look like you really need some help” in German. And despite her limited English she smiled, laughed, and did her very best to help me and so I left the store with a working SIM card in my phone. This was after a week-long phone unlocking/SIM card confusion saga, so her extra efforts to help me really made my day. So, in the end, all interactions actually ended well and I learned to just ignore the many signs and overhead conversations that I couldn’t understand. Plus, there were plenty of days in which language wasn’t an issue at all.
Still, after over a month of these little confusions, how good it felt to understand and be understood again. I flew Iberia airlines from Zurich to Spain and in the Zurich airport, I offered to communicate in Spanish at check-in as the woman working the counter said her English wasn’t great. By the time I reached the Madrid airport, I was on cloud nine. I bought my SIM card in a store in the airport, easy as could be, and I understood all the conditions and my options for adding additional credit if I needed. I just relished in speaking Spanish. In Germany, one of Nikki’s uncles visited. He spoke Spanish better than English, having lived in Chile for a few years in his twenties, so we communicated in Spanish. And he talked about dreaming of Chile in Spanish and the emotional attachment one forms to a language after living immersed in it. How true! My love of Spanish has been shaped by the wonderful experiences I’ve had living in Spain and working in the U.S. with Spanish speakers. And sometimes just speaking Spanish makes me happy. And oh how I love making small talk, which Spaniards are equally open to!
You miss the little things when you don’t understand the conversations around you. At the weekly market in Segovia, as I waited to buy vegetables from a vendor, a few older gentlemen were bantering with the woman selling produce. They apparently didn’t realize that she was still helping a woman obscured by the side of the truck and that there were a couple other people standing around waiting and started to give her a hard time about coming over to sell them tomatoes. She told them something along the lines of “Ok, I’m running to serve you immediately” as she stayed where she was and continued to help the other customer. I found this sarcasm rather entertaining, but would have missed it entirely if I didn’t speak Spanish.
Even in Spanish, during in-depth conversations on many specialized topics, I still struggle to express myself fully. And after arriving in Malaga, I was quickly reminded of how much harder the Malagueño accent is for me to understand than that of the Madrileños. Even so, I still smile when I hear the Malagueño accent, as it brings a certain nostalgia for my Spanish “home.” And when in Malaga, I quickly reverted to dropping the “s” in “gracias” and the “ta” in “hasta luego.” As I traveled around different regions in Spain, my proficiency was enough that I quickly learned to adjust for regional accents and terms, referring to the main food market as the Mercado Central in southern cities and the Plaza de Abastos when in the north. For a month I was in language heaven. Then I landed in Israel and it started all over again – and this time it involves a different alphabet!