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Showing posts with label Spanish language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Spanish language. Show all posts

Sunday, June 15, 2014

What I'll Miss (Lo que voy a echar de menos)

Lo que voy a echar de menos (literally, I believe, "that which I would least throw out") was a Spanish expression that took me years to grasp, but I understand it now, and I am thinking about several things that I will miss during the months that I will be away from Spain.

Friends, of course, first of all. We have been in Spain for ten years and in the Torrevieja area of the Costa Blanca for five, and we have benefited from close association with several people with whom we have shared daily experiences and the adventure of living in a foreign country. In different ways, they have broadened our lives and helped us learn. We are grateful, and we will miss them.

Café con leche, both its rich taste and the ceremony of having a single cup of coffee, served in a china cup, almost anywhere and anytime. I remember once coming through Madrid's Barajas airport early in the morning from the U.S., and having to wait hours for a connecting flight to Alicante. As I sat in the semi-conscious stupor that follows an all-night transatlantic journey I heard a racket that I could not identify until all of a sudden I remembered: it was the sound of coffee cups being prepared and served. Café con leche in Spain is a far nicer experience than Starbucks anywhere.

The Sunday outdoor market, which we have just come from and where we usually go each Sunday morning to buy fruits, vegetables and nuts; to pick up copies of the free weekly foreign newspapers; to look at books and clothing and gadgets of ever-evolving description (this is where I first found a stylus for my iPad for just two euros; today I was tempted by a three-euro cava stopper that preserves the bubbles after opening and is liquid-tight to prevent spillage should the opened bottle land on its side); and, of course, to have a café con leche.

Hanging the laundry. I am aware that in many--perhaps most--parts of the U.S. it is forbidden by ordinance or custom to hang laundry outside to dry; the idea, I guess, is that it is unsightly--though it certainly is energy-efficient. I didn't hang laundry out when i was in the U.S. previously and I didn't hang it out when we lived in a second-floor apartment in Roquetas de Mar. In the two houses that we have lived in on the Costa Blanca, however, I have used the terrace for one of its primary purposes in Spain. I have learned the advantages and disadvantages of wooden and plastic clothespins, the value of hanging garments inside out and changing their orientation from time to time. More importantly, perhaps, I have adjusted to the light exercise of bending and stretching and the joy of using the hanging out and taking in of laundry as a welcome break in computer work or reading. Where we are moving to I will use a tumble dryer, as it is called here, much more often than the once-in-a-blue-moon that I use the one that sits gathering dust beside my washing machine here.

The six-hour time difference.  Before we moved to Spain we lived in the Eastern time zone of the U.S. We are going back to the Eastern time zone, although to its western extreme. It can be inconvenient to make phone calls to the U.S. when there are six hours of time difference between you and the person or office you are calling. We have also had to get used to watching the PBS Newshour broadcast the evening before in the following morning, and the like. But there are some advantages to the time difference, the major one for me being that I could be at my computer in the morning hours and have accomplished almost a full day's work by the time my Connecticut colleagues got to their desks. That gave me a "home court advantage" as well as the freedom to be even more flexible in my scheduling. Life is going to be different when I return to "real time."

Petanca. It is the Danish community in the Costa Blanca that introduced us to the game of petanca, and almost without exception we have played petanca once or twice a week during the time we have been here, if not with the Danes, on our own. There is a petanca association in the U.S. but so far we have not found much promise of a club close to where we will be. We are, however, thinking about places where we can draw a petanca field of our own. And we have determined that we can buy petanca balls--far too heavy to transport--at Brookstone.

The sun. The sun, and the light it brings, is one of the factors that brought us to Spain. We have never been "beach people" who sat in the sun for hours in the summertime, but we did live in New Hampshire and in Denmark, two places where there is far less sunshine than in Spain. We knew what long hours of darkness for days on end do to you psychologically, and we suspected--and have now experienced--what days of light do to you psychologically: they make you much happier, or at least more cheerful and content. What I didn't know was the damage that strong sun can do to your body; now that I have had a long bout with an inconvenient skin cancer and some eyesight damage, I am more cautious about walking outside during the daytime, and a bit of the fun of being in this climate is gone. Still, I can't blame Spain for any of my health problems, as genetics and long years of accumulated carelessness certainly played their part--though I do like to imagine that perhaps I wouldn't have wrinkles in some of the places that I do if I hadn't been here.

Spanish classes. I sorted through many of my Spanish class books and papers recently, which I have accumulated from attendance at five different formal language schools. I am taking a couple books to the U.S. and fully intend to continue studying the language--but I acknowledge that I have said that before. It's a poor language teacher who lets you study language in a vacuum, and I am pleased to say that only one of my schools--and I wasn't there long--failed to enhance language lessons with tons of information about the culture of this country and generous sharing of personal viewpoints. I will miss my teachers, as well as many of the other students.

The international community. In Roquetas we lived in the center of a Spanish town and had a piso in an all-Spanish apartment building. There was an urbanization on the outskirts of town--quite a large one with several hotels and vacation houses. This is where Spaniards from Madrid and the interior would come for holiday, as well as a fairly large number of British people. Here on the Costa Blanca, in contrast, I live in Europe primarily and only incidentally in Spain. Many of the towns and villages number more non-Spaniards than Spaniards in their official residence figures, and often the non-Spanish fail to register. A large majority of the international community are retirees--I call this the "Florida of Europe"--but with (officially) easy mobility from country to country within the European Union, a number of young and middle-aged people come to set up business and raise their children. Though the financial crisis has had a demoralizing effect, the international community remains vibrant, strong, and large. I expected to learn about Spain when I came to Spain, but I didn't expect to learn about England, Scotland, Ireland Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Norway, South Africa, and more. I have.

Finally, food. In addition to café con leche (the beverage and the ritual), there are a certain number of foods, that I will miss. As I think about these, I realize that most of them fall under the category of "convenience foods." Though I love to cook, I do not love to cook every day, and I am a great believer in having something appetizing and nutritious in the freezer for a quick dinner. Here's what I am going to have to find substitutes for:
  • Chicken Kiev: two frozen Kiev bundles; they take just 30 minutes in the oven; from Iceland, the British Overseas grocery.
  • Salmon: two frozen individual servings; even less time in the microwave; from Lidl and Consum, but cheaper in Aldi.
  • Little, round, frozen potato balls; 15-20 minutes in the oven; formerly from Mercadona but discontinued; I finally found a substitute at Iceland. I have also had these pommes noisettes in Denmark, but I have never seen them in the U.S.
  • Creamed spinach, frozen; four minutes in the microwave, and both the spinach and the "cream" tablets come in small individual balls so you can shake out just the number you need from the freezer bag; Mercadona.
  • Frozen chopped spinach without the cream; available anywhere  in small blocks or balls the size of dishwasher soap tablets so you can use just what you need instead of opening a 10-ounce box. I shake out a few to add to rice, soup, omelets, pasta sauces, or just about anything, including adding more spinach to the creamed spinach above.
  • Salteado de patata, or "Spanish biksemad" as we call it in our house. A bag of frozen diced potatoes, Spanish tortilla, ham bits, peas, and red pepper, that you sauté in olive oil for seven minutes, adding mushrooms or other vegetables if you feel like it, and poach an egg for the top. Mercadona.
  • Canned tuna in olive oil. I add this to our lunchtime green salad: no salad dressing necessary. Available in any grocery store in Spain. You can also get canned tuna in water or sunflower oil, but why?
  • Gazpacho. The classic cold red pepper-tomato soup from Andalusia, available only in the summer time, when you can buy it ready-made in the refrigerated section at most grocery stores. I'll have to use my recipes the rest of this season.
  • Snacks for when I wake up in the middle of the night. Dried garbanzo beans are my favorite savory; inexpensive and nutritious. The slightly sweet "biscuits," packaged singly, that are given out as an accompaniment in many coffee shops when ordering just a café con leche, are my favorite sweet. They are tiny and just enough to satisfy my craving.
And though I promised not to take food back with me on this trip, I admit that in my suitcase I have stashed sachets of saffron, a couple envelopes of dried asparagus and cream of nine vegetables soup, two small packages of vegetable and pumpkin bouillon cubes, some of the dried white fava beans for fabada, and a couple spice blends. 

People, atmosphere, activities, food. Although I will miss all these, with luck we will return early in 2015 and encounter them again.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Spanish Idioms

I've been sorting through books and papers and clothing in preparation for a longer stay in the U.S. It is astonishing how much stuff I have accumulated in the five years that we have lived on the Costa Blanca and the ten altogether that we have lived in Spain.

In scanning my Spanish language books, I came across one I had purchased a few years ago, Collins Spanish Idioms, which presents nearly 250 colloquial expressions in Spanish, translates them literally to English, then offers an equivalent English idiom, provides some cultural background or explanation, if necessary, and uses them in a sentence. I have browsed this book off and on through the years, and even had several paper bookmarks sticking out from its pages. I probably meant to write about some of these and forgot, or maybe I have written about them and forgotten (but nothing came up on my search of this blog). So here is what I had bookmarked:

No estar muy católico
(not to be feeling very Catholic)
"To be a bit under the weather."

Más se perdió en Cuba
(More was lost in Cuba)--Cuba was the last Spanish colony and its loss in the War of 1898 was catastrophic.
"It's not the end of the world."

Temblar como un flan
(To shake like a crème caramel)--the most common Spanish dessert.
"To shake like a leaf."

Entre col y col, lechuga
(Between cabbage and cabbage, lettuce.)--It is said that a Spanish king usually ate cabbage to control his weight, but every once in awhile he would treat himself to lettuce to add variety.
"Variety is the spice of life."

A otra cosa, mariposa
(To something else, butterfly)--the charm of this expression is partly that it rhymes.
"Let's move on to something else."

It is not a surprise that religion, history, food, and weather play heavily in idiomatic expressions, both in Spanish and in English. Here's one more expression I found this morning that seems particularly appropriate today:

Esperar algo como agua de mayo
(To hope for something like rain in May)
"To eagerly await something."

This expression plays on the double meaning of esperar. Esperar can mean "to hope," but it also means "to wait." Many parts of Spain are very dry, and farmers hope and wait for rain in May to help their crops grow. We had an especially dry April this year, and no rains came in May, either. But here we are on the first day of June, and the aguas de mayo are coming down, seriously enough so that we cancelled our traditional trip to the outdoor market this Sunday morning in Spain. We are glad for the needed rain, but we decided to esperar for better weather before venturing out beyond the cafe/bar down the street, where we met friends for coffee and a light lunch.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Seeing Miró

Since we no longer have our subscription to Danish television by satellite here in Spain, we have been enjoying watching whatever we can get by finding individual programs on the Internet and then projecting them onto the TV screen via Apple TV. We can still watch our favorite cooking, real estate, and antiques shopping programs from Denmark; we just see them a day after they are broadcast. But we can usually get the half-hour evening news, broadcast at 6:30, if we wait to start it until 7:30. That matches my evening cooking schedule a lot better than the 6:30 hour used tom anywy.

Lately we have started to watch the PBS Newshour from the U.S. Due to time differences, we don't watch the evening news program until the following morning, but it makes for a good thing to do while we pedal along on the exercise bicycle. This week I pedaled extra long while I watched a segment on Joan Miró, the Spanish artist, who was born in Barcelona in 1893 and who died on the island of Mallorca in 1983.

Miró is currently the subject of a spectacular exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum that features abstract painting and sculpture that he completed while in his 70s and 80s. He used vibrant colors and metamorphosed found objects to create works that show a very unique way of looking at the world.

I had heard of Miró before this program but somehow I had escaped the irony, or poetic justice, of his name. Mirar is the Spanish verb for "to look" and miró is the past tense (pretérito, to be precise) meaning that "he looked." He certainly did, and he continued looking and observing and creating until he was 90, leaving a legacy of interesting and fantastic works of art.

The works in Seattle are on loan from the Reina Sofía museum in Madrid and have never been seen in the U.S. before. They are going on to North Carolina, to the Nasher Museum at Duke University, from September through next February, where the exhibit is entitled, appropriately, The Experience of Seeing.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

El doctor Seuss en español

A chance quip in a Skype conversation last Monday started it: my colleague quoted something from Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat (I can't remember what), and we laughed. I mentioned that the day preceding had been the birthday of Dr. Seuss, a fact I knew because I had passed my eyes over the Half Price Books calendar that I had acquired when book shopping in the U.S. in late January--it has at least one entry of a famous writer's birthday for almost every day of the year.

In the background was my current reading of a book called Haunting Jasmine for my Spanish conversation class. The Spanish version is titled La libreria de nuevas oportunidades (The Bookstore of New Opportunities) and several children's books are mentioned. I recognize most, but not all, of their Spanish names. Dr. Seuss is there.

Then a call went out, from an organization I have been a member of for more than 25 years, to contribute children's books to a project for the children of Baltimore, Maryland (USA). I'm not going to make the transatlantic trek to the conference in April, so I didn't think too much of it until one of the British members said that she wasn't going to bring British books so as not to inflict cruelty regarding the difference in spelling of American and British English, and another wrote back and said that he was going to bring British children's books, and the American kids could probably handle it. And the organizer of our conference's contribution to the book donation drive wrote back and said, "Bring British English books, U.S. English books — bring it on!"

So that is why I spent time this week reading about Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and the publishing history of The Cat in the Hat, which was first released in 1957 in trade and school editions. The school edition was written as an antidote to the simplistic and boring "Dick and Jane" reading primers that I learned to read from--or at least, that I read in my early years in school. By the time The Cat in the Hat was published, I already knew how to read, which I think accounts for the fact that I do not have the close relationship with that title that many of my near-contemporaries have, and why I, in fact, have yet to read this book.

As a follow-on, I spent a large part of today on, searching, reading reviews, evaluating, and ordering a few books in Spanish to send to the children of Baltimore as part of my organization's donation. Huevos verdes con jamón (Green Eggs and Ham) is in my package. It received rave reviews about the Spanish translation, which captures the rhythm and rhymes of the English original. The Cat in the Hat received horrible reviews about the translation, which does not rhyme, but The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (El gato con sombrero viene de nuevo) has a different translator, who passed the grade.

Too bad I'm having these books delivered straight to the conference. I'll have to find them in a library the next time I come to the U.S., because now I think it is time for me to read Dr. Seuss. In the original. But I'll check my local library here in Spain for the Spanish or bilingual versions first.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Cartagena and Mar Menor

One of the fun aspects to living on the Costa Blanca is that there are several low-cost day bus trips to various sites in the area. We were ready for a day out one Thursday recently, so we signed up to go to Cartagena and Mar Menor. We had been before to Cartagena, an old port city about an hour south of us; but for some reason we had never been to the inland lake, Mar Menor, that stretches near the coast between us and Cartagena.

We hopped on the bus at 9:30. Of course we made a number of stops on the way south to pick up other tourists out for the day, so it was almost 11:00 by the time we rolled into the port area of Cartagena. That didn't matter to us, as we were most interested in the train ride to Mar Menor, and for that, we were told, we did not have to appear again until 2:45. A nice amount of time for strolling through the old part of the city, having a special lunch, and relaxing, we thought.

One of the first things we saw was the huge ceramic plaque pictured above, which depicts the two thousand year history of Cartagena, or Carthage as it was called in the Roman times. In fact, the first date is 227 a.C. (ante Cristo, or before Christ, as we might say). At various times we walked by and around the Roman theater, which is in the process of being restored, but we didn't go in, as we had visited that before. We just looked through a few holes in the walls surrounding the area. It hadn't changed any that we could tell.

We did, however, find a few stores, and since this was the first day of August, the August sales were on. I bought a pair of black leggings, definitely out of season, and I hope I remember them next fall. We also found a delightful corner cafe bar and went inside to take advantage of the light air conditioning. We each chose a tapa, and in addition they brought bread, and we called that and a tinto de verano to drink, lunch. The president of Spain was on television; they were beaming live pictures of his questioning by the Congress in the messy financial scandal that is filling the front pages of the newspapers now. I was reading one of the newspapers that are always hanging around the cafe bars and saw that the black box recovered from the Renfe train that had derailed at high speed a few days earlier showed that the engineer (el maquinista) was talking on the phone immediately before the accident with the interventor. What is an interventor? I wondered, and since my companion didn't know, when we went to the bar to pay the bill, I asked the man behind the bar, "Quien es el interventor?" "Rajoy!" he spat out, obviously more  absorbed by the current political scandal than the train tragedy, and none too pleased with the president, either. I tried to explain that I wasn't talking about politics, but the train derailment, but something got lost in the translation, because he assumed I was asking him who his interventor was. "¡Yo!" I am, he said indignantly. I was unenlightened; we left still mystified.

Testing the water in Mar Menor.
The train trip to Mar Menor was on a local carrier, not on a Renfe train, and we did not go at high speed. Nor did we start on time--we were delayed by at least half an hour. I had brought a paper map of the area with me, so I was able to find our location and the end station on the map and follow along as we stopped at, I think, nine or more isolated stations. We were driving through rural areas, old mining towns--the bus tour operator had told us that this was a tin and silver mining area in former decades. Because of the delay (never explained) we had less time to enjoy the lakeside at the end of the run--only 45 minutes, but we all dutifully trooped out, walked to the only cafe bar in town, and sat with another tinto de verano, watching swimmers in the water and enjoying distant views of buildings on a narrow strip of land that turned upward like Cape Cod in Massachusetts, although this is called La Manga (the sleeve). There were cooling breezes, and it seemed like a perfect, lazy summer day, and I can understand why people go to La Manga. Maybe we will go again some time, but in our car.

The train ride back was made in a half hour after the train finally got there...and then we climbed on our bus and were back in Torrevieja in a little more than a half hour. Of course, there are always a lot of drop-offs after a day out, so we had missed the regular news on TV by the time we got home. I checked my regular dictionary for interventor and found that it can mean auditor, or supervisor. Or ticket collector on a train or metro, as I have found our from other dictionaries since.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Taste of Tucson

Saguaro cactus,by Gentry George, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
 For three weeks I have been criss-crossing the United States: first in Cincinnati after a layover in JFK airport, then in Seattle via Chicago, then in Tucson after landing in the Phoenix airport, then back to Cincinnati by way of Dallas, and finally back to Madrid and Alicante, through JFK, skirting the snowstorm that battered the northeast and reminded me of the 1978 blizzard. I often find Spanish influences as I pass through my home country, but this time I found even more.

I was enchanted with Tucson, where it seems that half the streets have Spanish names--but not like those on the Spanish streets here, which are often named after cultural and political personages. These names focus more on geographical and topological features. Paseo del Arenal was my headquarters, though the official mailing address is N. Paseo del Arenal, I was told, and I wondered whether that would be Paseo del Arenal Norte or North Paseo del Arenal. In either case, when we ventured out by foot from that nominally sandy area, we encountered other street names that I was happy to be able to recognize: Paseo del Suelo (ground), Paseo de la Cumbre (summit), Paseo del Cenador (arbor, though my first recognition was dining room--probably not the meaning on this street sign), Paseo de la Pereza (laziness, or slowness--perhaps this street was on the way to the cumbre) and Paseo Sereno (not only calm, but also clear or with night dew, I found out when checking my dictionary, but we did not walk there at night, so I don't know).

As we drove I also spied caminos, which seemed to be substantial roads in Tucson, not like the little unnamed service roads, often dead-end, that I see here in Spain. We found mesas and parques and palos verdes and sahuaro, which seems to be a phonetic re-spelling of the characteristic saguaro cactus. I saw lots of cacti at Sabino Canyon, a part of Coronado National Forest, and at Saguaro National Park, as well as a stunning nature video. The Sonoran Desert in Arizona is very different from the Tabernas Desert in Almeria, Spain and provides much more pleasant and varied vistas, and better interpretation.

The Sonoran Desert stretches from Mexico into Arizona--Tucson is only about an hour's drive from the Mexican border--and of course the Spanish influence in Tucson is Mexican, not Spanish-from-Spain. (All the better for the wonderful "modern Mexican" food we sampled at Blanco at La Encantada mall.) There is also a notable American Indian influence, as the area is inhabited by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the Tohono O'Odham Nation. There is much more to see on a subsequent visit.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Ten Reasons to Study Spanish

It is October and that means the start of the activities season again in Spain.  I cannot imagine not planning my life around Spanish courses. A language school in San Miguel--not the one I go to, but a good semi-intensive program for beginners--promoted itself and language study by giving ten good reasons to learn Spanish in a late-summer edition of one of the free English-language weeklies. I have changed the order to agree with my own priorities. Here they are (with my comments):

1. It is common courtesy to at least attempt to learn the language of the country you are living in. Would you be able to pass the Spanish equivalent of a "Life in the UK" test (yes, this is a British newspaper) about culture, laws, and language? (Does the USA have an equivalent "Life in the USA" test, I wonder?)

2. Learning Spanish helps you keep up with Spanish culture--including the latest news and current events in Spanish-speaking countries. (I have started watching Spanish TV for a half hour each morning while on the stationary bike. Good exercise for the mind and body, though both go slower than I would like.)

3. Learning Spanish is fun. You will be able to enjoy books, films, music, and even dining out more. And you will increase your social network. (Communicating with the other students in my group class--Russian, Belgian and British this year--provides at least half the value of this hour per week; and my private class with a different teacher has morphed into a book discussion group in Spanish.)

4. If you can speak Spanish, you can help yourself and others in emergency situations, like with the police, hospitals, and civil servants, and save on interpreter costs. (I am still uncomfortable at the doctor's and in bureaucratic offices, but, for better or for worse, I have a live-in interpreter.)

5. When learning a foreign language, you learn a lot about your own language as well--how it is constructed and how grammar works--as well as deepening your understanding and increasing vocabulary. (True, and can anything be better for a writer and editor?)

6. Learning Spanish increases your critical thinking skills because you train your brain to naturally interpret English words into Spanish. (My current discovery of the connections among languages is the Danish word garderobe (closet), the Spanish guardar ropa (to hang clothing) and the English wardrobe.)

7. Learning a second language reduces your chances of developing medical issues that affect the brain in later life. People who speak two languages are less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer's disease. (Since it's too late for me to invest in long-term care insurance, this is my next best bet.)

8. Over 320 million people in the world speak Spanish, and the number of Spanish speakers is growing at a faster rate than the number of English-speakers. Being bilingual in English and Spanish means that you will be able to be understood "all over the world." (Well, in many parts of it, anyway. And I am now able to send Spanish emails back and forth to my niece in Argentina.)

9. If you own a business in Spain, speaking Spanish makes administrative life easier and doubles your client base. (Fortunately I don't own a business in Spain, but it pleases me that I see more and more businesses where the proprietors and servers (Spanish and foreigners) are able to communicate at least on the surface with a mixed clientele.)

10. Being bilingual makes you more marketable when searching for a job in Spain. (I am not seeking jobs in Spain, but it pleases me that every once in awhile I am able to help others in my network when they have need of an information professional "on the ground" in Spain.)

My fall schedule has changed. The weekly Spanish class subsidized by the ayuntamiento of Algorfa is not being held on Friday morning at 9:30 this year. It has moved to Monday morning at 11:15. A much better hour, if not day. I wasn't even able to go to the organizational meeting on Monday because it conflicted with my other Spanish class, my private book reading session, at 11:00 on Monday. Fortunately I have now been able to get that class re-scheduled to later in the week, so I can still benefit from two all-Spanish sessions each week. As an English woman said to me soon after I arrived in Spain, "Learning Spanish is my new lifelong hobby."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Summer Doldrums, Looking Up

It is August and I am in the doldrums of summer. Energy is at a minimum. The weather is particularly hot and still along the Costa Blanca. No evening breeze drifts in now when we open the windows, so we don't open them. I turn the bedroom air conditioner on for a few minutes before I retire for the night, then zap it off and rely on the always-on overhead fan to move the air just enough so that it doesn't settle heavily over my outstretched body. At some point in the night I usually wake up, fumble for the remote and turn the a/c on again for a few minutes, and then off, and that lasts until I regain consciousness--often stimulated by the aroma of coffee--again at 6:00 or so in the morning.

I stagger downstairs and fetch a cup of coffee and then retreat upstairs to lie abed with a book, an iPad, or a paper-based sudoku for an hour. Then back downstairs to make my breakfast, which I usually eat upstairs again, while in bed or at the computer for another hour. It is only after checking email and the state of the world that I think about taking a shower and dressing. Getting up is a long affair--we don't usually leave the house for morning errands until at least 10:00, and now this summer it has more often been 11:00.

Errands--shopping, medical appointments, coffee out, and more shopping--are the height of the day's activity now. Most of the people with whom we share a face-to-face social life are away, back in the UK or Denmark or even the U.S. I received a dictum from the doctor that I should avoid the sun ("zero sol") pending a few weeks' treatment to clear up a potential trouble spot on my skin, so I skipped the weekly petanca game this past Tuesday and avoided the outdoor market this Sunday morning. Neither of my Spanish classes is meeting: the town-sponsored class won't start again until October, and even my private class teacher has decided to take August off.

If I didn't have the work and writing that I can do at the computer during the afternoons, in the quiet and comfort of my silent office air conditioning with overhead fan, and the frequent emails dropping into my inbox from numerous family members and friends far away, I would feel very despondent indeed. Work and people--responding to them, thinking about them, reaching out to them--provide the interest and internal activity that keep me active. Not focused, because the hodgepodge that draws my attention on any given day is anything but focused, but mentally active and outward-looking, making me suddenly wonder whether I am more extrovert than I had ever thought myself.

But this is not a permanent condition, I know. It is the summer doldrums and will be dispelled when normal life resumes. That was always after Labor Day when I was growing up, but it is somewhat later now. In the meantime, this mid-August Sunday morning in Spain, I decided to try to find out how to say "summer doldrums" in Spanish.

I went first to the Diccionario Cambridge Klett Compact that I keep on my main computer in my office and which is the CD-ROM version (yes, it's that old) of the paper companion that resides in the bedroom bookshelves and which is falling apart. These are my basic Spanish-English dictionaries, the ones I use as look-ups for all my Spanish homework and any word or phrase I find in a newspaper or other publication that I just have to look up. The CD-ROM version, of course, has more flexible searchability than the paper. It failed me this time, however. "Doldrums" does not appear as an entry or within any other entry.

Then I went to Merriam-Webster online and found an entry. I ignored the first meaning (zona, feminine, de las calmas ecuatoriales), which sounded like a real wild goose chase.  "To be in the doldrums," it said further on, was estar abatido (when talking about a person), or estar estancado (a business).  But then I looked up the verb abatir back in my Cambridge Klett to see what that said. It turns out to be one of those reflexive verbs (abatirse), which was given as a synonym for desanimarse. Yes, un-animated sounds right, but it was translated as "to become dejected," which sounds a little strong for the "disanimation" I am feeling.

That was nothing, though, in comparison to the first translation I got when I typed "I am in the summer doldrums" into Google Translate and clicked Spanish. I found out I was in the "crisis of summer"! I really didn't feel like this was a crisis! With Google Translate, of course, you can now click on a word and get shown alternative meanings, and then substitute one of those. I did that, and I found a milder word. I think it was a form of abatir, but I paged away from that translation before recording it. 

I went off to pursue Collins Spanish Idioms, a new phrase book of mine, and got lost for an hour in looking for and at various English (UK-style) and Spanish idioms. I could write more about that escapade, but I am running out of time before needing to go downstairs to make lunch. (Regular events for which you are responsible are important when you are in the middle of summer doldrums). 

While finishing up this description, however, I went back to Google Translate once more. Google claims that its Translate tool "learns" with input, and it appears that it had learned from its (or my) morning lesson. This time when I entered "I am in the summer doldrums" into the translate box, I got Yo estoy en la inactividad del verano in translation. The inactivity of summer. Yes, that is it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sign of the Times

It's no secret that Spanish time is slower than English time, or German time, or Danish time, or any of the time schedules adhered to by the mass of immigrants in this area. We recently had an appointment at 9:00 AM with a German contractor for the installation of heating panels. Since he was German we expected him at 9:00 on the dot, or possibly even 8:59. What we hadn't realized was that the installation itself would be carried out by a Spanish colleague. The installer came at 9:30.

Formal governing meetings in Spain, such as those of the apartment building association where we used to live, routinely are set for, say, 6:00 for the "first convocatorio" and 6:30 for the second. That means that if a quorum does not present itself by 6:00, the meeting does not take place, but at 6:30 the second convocatorio can take place without a quorum. A quorum almost always shows up anyway--but only at 6:30, never at 6:00.

If you are invited to a Spanish home for dinner at 7:30 PM, you run the risk of finding your host still in the swimming pool should you actually arrive at 7:30. Indeed, a former Spanish teacher once told me that the only time you would show up for dinner at the appointed time would be if you were having paella, which has a lengthy but precise preparation period, and it would be discourteous to be late.

A more recent Spanish teacher tells our class frequently that all Spaniards now realize that "English time" is much earlier than Spanish time--but she hasn't said that Spaniards actually recognize a stated English time as being the proper time to arrive for an appointment.

Therefore it was amusing, but not a surprise, to find the following sign in the local English optical shop this week:

Se ruega que llegue 15 minutos antes de la hora de su cita.
[Literal translation: It is requested that you arrive 15 minutes prior to the time of your scheduled appointment.]
 And immediately below it was the official English translation:
Kindly arrive at the appointed hour for your appointment.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Foreign Community Sometimes Speaks Spanish

Ever since I wrote about the foreign community speaking English here in Spain--regardless of where they were originally from--I have been on the lookout for incidents in which foreigners did not speak English, and particularly, for when they spoke Spanish.

The first time was a success for me, though I did not originally realize that the person to whom I was speaking Spanish was not Spanish. I went to the dentist for a routine check-up and spoke English with the dentist, which might be expected when one goes to an establishment called British Dental Service. But I was also introduced to the hygienist, who had been out on maternity leave when I was there six months earlier; she greeted me in English, but with an accent. So I decided that when I returned later for my cleaning (no, I do not know why these had to be separate appointments) I would speak to her in Spanish. After all, conversation is going to be limited in duration anyway when one of the parties is having her teeth cleaned. When I returned the next day, I greeted her with "Hola, que bien dia hoy," or something like that.

She visibly expressed relief. "¡Ah, tu hablas español!" "Si, un poquito, y intento hablarlo si no te preocupes," I responded. And we continued chatting for a few minutes before she got down to business with the bib and the scraping and the spraying and then polishing, and I never had to levantar la mano (raise my hand) at any time as a signal to get her to stop. She only slipped into English a couple times, with routine admonishments which I am sure, in her practice, come easier to her in English than in Spanish.

It was before we started the cleaning that she told me that she is not Spanish--she is German but has lived in Spain for about ten years. Since I knew she had been out on maternity leave, I could ask about her baby (a girl) and who took care of her while she and her husband (partner, she corrected me) were working. Well, the good news is that her partner was able to do that; the bad news is that he has been out of work for eight months, a casualty of the construction crisis. I neglected to ask her what language she and her partner, an immigrant from another European country I do not recall, spoke together, and what language(s) they are using with the baby. But I should have a chance again in another five months or so.

We have also had some minor renovations done to the house in the past month. These were undertaken by a fine workman who knows the houses in our development very well and who everyone calls Christo. He drove up in a truck labeled Hristo. Hristo is originally from Bulgaria and has been in Spain for eight years or so and has established a good business, though it, too, is having challenges with the economic crisis. Nevertheless he has a compatriot who works with him; during the week that these two Bulgarians spent in the house building a closet, installing a kitchen fan, and moving the "boiler," they spoke in Bulgarian but we spoke primarily in Spanish. Hristo's helper knows only Spanish (in addition to Bulgarian, of course) and he and I were able to communicate very well indeed. There is something about foreigners speaking a common foreign language that makes it easier to understand, I think. With Hristo himself, I could speak Spanish, and we generally started out that way, but we often drifted over into English. One reason is that Hristo wanted to be very certain I understood what he was doing, and another, I think, is that he wanted to practice his English. After all, probably most of his clients are native English or English-as-a-common-language speakers. Part of the job involved moving the hot water heater--or boiler, as Hristo called it--and I felt much more comfortable talking about the calentador in Spanish, because to me a boiler is somewhat larger and has to do with a central heating system, which I did not think we were having installed and certainly had not budgeted for.

Perhaps the most satisfying experience I have had speaking Spanish with other foreigners, though, has been in my new Spanish class. Sponsored by the town of Algorfa, this class runs once a week for an hour and a half from October through May--for only 70 euros. I am enrolled in the advanced conversation class, with nine other immigrants from England, Scotland, and Vietnam. We have had three classes so far, and it is Spanish only in class. The instructor is a wonderful young Spanish woman, born and brought up in Algorfa, who is very adept at explaining--in Spanish--any word or concept that comes up in the reading or conversation. When the sense of the unknown word just does not sink in, you may occasionally hear a whispered English equivalent from one of the other students who "got it" before you did, but this does not happen very often. We are even doing jokes in Spanish now, though I can't translate the slightly scurrilous one about the stingy Catalan throwing out or letting fall ... because it just doesn't translate.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"Si la cosa funciona"

We took the train from Alicante north towards Tarragona, on the way to the Mediterranean Editors and Translators meeting last week. As we settled ourselves comfortably in our coach (gosh, the leg room in comparison with an airplane is astounding!) an announcement came forth on the loud speaker: "We will now be passing out headphones. During the trip we will be showing a documentary and a feature film, 'Si la cosa funciona.'"

"Si la cosa funciona." Literally, that's "If the thing functions." I was clueless, of course. I don't pay much attention to film titles in Spain. All films in theaters and on TV are dubbed, not subtitled, and even the titles are rendered into a Spanish which is not necessarily a direct translation of the English (or French or German or other original) title. Si la cosa funciona. I didn't have any idea what the film might be about.

No matter. The film did not begin. After the next stop, the announcement came again: "During the trip we will be showing a documentary and a feature film, 'Si la cosa funciona.'"

Or maybe that was: "During the trip we will be showing a documentary and a feature film si la cosa funciona." "We'll be showing a film if we can get the machine to work." I had been on trains and buses before when the video or DVD machine didn't work, and the complimentary earphones went for naught.

One more announcement, and then the machine worked. By this time we were well into the four-hour ride, and there was no chance that the film would be able to be played in full before we got off in Tarragona. But I watched and listened long enough to follow the story, and suddenly--it just soaks in--I realized this was a Woody Allen film.

Still, we had to leave the train before the film was finished, and I made a mental note to look up "Si la cosa funciona" on when I returned home.

But I was in luck. On the return trip on Sunday, there was no announcement about a film, but there was a film--the thing worked--and I watched a strange story that I can't even recall the details of now. And then, after those credits crawled across the small screen, the Woody Allen character reappeared, kvetching about his wife and his life. The thing worked, and we were on a local train, stopping at almost every town between Tarragona and Alicante. There was plenty of time to watch the film, listen to the Spanish voices (Woody Allen characters sound good in Spanish!), and read the Spanish subtitles. I've never been a strong Woody Allen fan, but this was an enjoyable Spanish lesson.

Si la cosa funciona is the Spanish version of Whatever Works. If you've seen it, you may agree with me that "If the thing works" is a better title, given all the various things that did or did not work in the movie.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Como Agua para Chocolate

Last night I finished reading Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), or at least, I finished reading it for the first time. It's an assignment for my Spanish class, so I will have to go back and review a few sections to refresh my memory and make sure I understand it correctly, before the discussions with my teacher in the next couple weeks. 

Surprisingly, I looked long and hard--and  without success--to find a copy of this book in Spain, in Spanish. Ultimately I had to resort to Amazon, which advertised several editions, new and used, and also a DVD of the movie. How could I resist? True to form, the DVD arrived first, but I promised myself not to see it until I had finished the book--and I kept that promise. The book, when it came, was a real disappointment. Arriving from in the UK, the text was Spanish, but the notes were in German! After carefully working my way through Amazon's return procedures, I packaged it up in the same box in which it arrived to send it back, but the Spanish postal system refused to accept it as long as there was publicidad (advertising) on the package. That publicidad would be the name "Amazon." Fortunately my Spanish teacher, who also knows German, took my book, and I borrowed hers, so we could get on with the project.

I was hoping to find several authentic recipes that I could use, but I don't think I'll be following those recipes any time soon. They are more like the directions found in an early Fanny Farmer. Measurements are practically non-existent, the Mexican food terms are different from what is used in present-day Spain, and I don't intend ever again to cook in the quantities that Tita does (for Chiles en nogada she had to multiply the recipe by ten, meaning she had to clean 250 chiles and crack 1000 walnuts). But I do love Tita's love of cookery as an essential life force. She starts with the most basic of ingredients, and works through hours and hours to produce surreal food experiences, sending her guests--and herself--into ecstasy. Usually.

Tonight, after resisting for two and a half weeks, I will finally allow myself to see the DVD of the movie Like Water for Chocolate. We'll probably watch it while eating dinner in front of the TV. We seldom eat beef in Spain, but I've made a beef stew. I started it yesterday, browning the meat with lots of onion and two large garlic cloves, then allowing it to barely simmer for three hours. Now I've parboiled small onions that I found at the market this morning; I'll add the onions and mushrooms after I make a thick gravy with red wine and the bouillon from the stew. Then carrots and potatoes, and finally some green, tonight in the form of broccoli. And I think I can find a bit of chocolate for dessert.

Friday, April 23, 2010

El hombre propone...

Life was not as expected this week, even in Spain, which is relatively removed from the effects of the ash released by the volcano in Iceland. Our airports were not closed; domestic flights continued as normal. External flights, of course, were a different matter. The first time I realized there was a  problem was on Sunday morning, when we heard reports that John Cleese, needing to make it from Oslo to Belgium, had chartered a taxi to drive him! Three drivers were required to comply with EU travel regulations, and it cost $5000.

Here's a little list of travel disruptions and the rippling consequences they have had on people closer to me than Mr. Cleese:
  • The Sunday market, even though rain threatened and did eventually fulfill its promise, was far busier than usual, with many people on an extended holiday and still enjoying it at this early stage. But we shared a table at the hotdog stand with a lone woman who was supposed to be here with family from Norway--they had been unable to get out before the planes stopped flying.
  • On Monday I heard the chatter of young English children on our street, who had been here the week before, as usual, on Easter holiday. They were obviously still here, past the time when they should have been home and in school, and I mentally pictured schoolrooms across northern Europe graphically revealing which families had done some foreign travel during spring break, and which had stayed home. By midweek the chatter stopped. Perhaps they were part of the coach convoys that were formed to drive holiday-makers to the north of Spain and then be transported by ferry over to Britain?
  • Weekend visitors from Almería, who had been planning to proceed farther up the coast to see a sister on Tuesday, got a text message saying not to come--the sister was in England and unable to get to Spain.
  • An older woman living alone in our neighborhood experienced a break-in and was assisted in her police report by our resident translator. Although her daughter wanted to come for a visit and to help out in this stressful situation, the lady remained alone because of the travel ban.
  • Danish cousins, vacationing in Turkey over the Easter holiday, were stranded abroad, eventually returning by air to Stockholm and then by rail to Copenhagen--a long (an undoubtedly expensive) overnight train trip.
  • I wondered about my Spanish class, canceled last week because my teacher had house guests from the north. Did she still have house guests several days after they had been due to leave? Yes, but nevertheless we met for the lesson--perhaps she appreciated a short hour of normalcy in what had become a longer visit than planned.
  • Johannes canceled his scheduled trip to Berlin on Thursday and further to Copenhagen for his engineering school reunion--travel connections and air quality in the north still too uncertain. This means that I will surely get less work done this coming week than I had planned.
  • And I am writing this Friday morning, missing the scheduled pétanque tournament that started two weeks ago, because this week's match has been postponed--the opposing team has four members stranded in the UK.
  • I am also hoping, this Friday morning, that one regular reader of this blog is having an uneventful return to the U.S. from an otherwise eventful trip to Greece.
As the week wore on, newspaper and TV news reports began to concentrate less on the inconvenience and more on the costs of the fallout. Spain alone is said to have lost €450 million due to the volcano. And how does this unscheduled time away from work get charted, anyway? Does it go to vacation time, sick time, or act of God?

The Spanish have a saying: El hombre propone y Dios dispone. Man proposes, and God decides.

Or, as John Cleese said:

"How do you get God to laugh?"

"Tell him your plans."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Speaking of Spanish

Speaking of Spanish, as I was immediately prior to this post, there was an interesting article in yesterday's Babelia section of El País titled something like "The Economic Strength of a Rounded Language." The "rounded language" is Spanish; the allusion is credited to former Colombian president Belisario Betancur, who said that when the Spanish discovered America and proved that the earth was round, Spanish began to become a rounded language.

Spanish is spoken by 440 million people in the world. It is the official language of 21 countries and is accepted as a strong second language in the United States and in Brazil.

An ingenious graphic accompanying the article in print, but alas, not in the online version, shows circles representing countries in which Spanish is spoken, sized proportionally to the number of Spanish speakers. The largest circle is for Mexico, but curiously the number of Spanish speakers is missing from this one country. The next largest circle is for Colombia (41,129,000), which is larger than Argentina (36,060,000) and Spain (40,026,000). The United States shows 36,305,000, which is far closer to the number of those in Spain than I ever would have guessed.

The article is part of a special section in the cultural magazine celebrating the 5th international congress of the Spanish language (V Congreso Internacional de la Lengua Española) that was scheduled to take place in Valparaiso, Chile from March 2-5, 2010. Chile, before the earthquake, was listed at 15,015,000 Spanish speakers. Babelia is "moving the cancelled congress to the Internet" with a special publishing program during the coming week under the title "Lost Papers."

Sunday, February 28, 2010

¡Vive en España!

"¡Vive en España!" That's what the Spanish man in the waiting room at the local health clinic said incredulously to the woman with whom he was chatting across the aisle, as an English man disappeared through the door into the doctor's office. And he sighed. And the meaning was clear: "This man lives in Spain. Why can't he speak Spanish?"

The English man had asked us, as he rose to take his turn when Johannes and I came out of the doctor's office, "How do you say "It's getting better" in Spanish?" And Johannes, ever helpful and a near-native speaker of Spanish, volunteered to go into the office with him and help him say to the doctor that it--whatever it was--was getting better, and perhaps to facilitate the conversation a little more. After all, we had just come out of that same doctor's office, and we knew he spoke no English, that he spoke Spanish very quickly and not clearly, and that he was difficult to understand even if you were a near-native speaker.

I sighed when I heard "¡Vive en España!" because it was said in exactly the same tone and with the same disapproval that I have heard too many Americans express when talking about Hispanics and other immigrants in the U.S. "But they live in the U.S....!" and presumably should be able to speak English on demand.

I sighed because I always suspected, and because I now know from experience, that it is one thing to be able to speak Spanish, or any foreign language, and another thing entirely to be able to speak it well enough to feel competent when the subject matter is technical or the situation is stressful.

I sighed because I know that I, despite many years of studying and practicing Spanish in the past, and many more scheduled for the future, know in my bones that there will most likely be times ahead when I will not feel comfortable or competent--in the medical emergencies, legal proceedings, and other dependent situations that must be faced as we get older.

And I sighed because I wanted to be able to explain to the Spanish man and his conversation partner that most of us foreigners know that we should try harder in Spanish, and some of us do try harder than others, but that proficiency and fluidity in a foreign language do not necessarily come with a certain degree of effort or after a certain number of years--and definitely not when one moves to a new country at the age of 60 or more--and that speaking to a doctor can be one of those emotional circumstances that just seem to make you forget whatever it is that you have learned....and that all of this is no excuse.

But this matter of hearing, for the first time, two local Spanish residents give vent to some impatience and frustration with the large number of European immigrants that Spain by and large has welcomed to its Mediterranean coast for decades, made me a little surprised and emotional. And I did not trust myself to be able to embark on a complicated conversation about language in a language in which I am not fluent. So I did not take upon my shoulders the burden of defending immigrants with insufficient language skills. I buried my head in my book and continued reading in Spanish until the man and his translator emerged from the doctor's office.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A New Panhispanic Spanish Grammar

The Nueva Gramática de la Lengua Española, was published on December 10 by the Real Academia Española, the Royal Academy of Spain, which is the official body that determines "correct" Spanish. It is noteworthy because:
  • it's the first academic update since 1931,
  • it was eleven years in the making, and
  • it was a panhispanic cooperative effort of 20 Academies of the Spanish Language and is the first time that such a work reflects "all the varieties of Spanish."
Objectives are to describe general Spanish usage as well as to reflect variants, to offer recommendations regarding usage, and to act as a reference in the understanding and teaching of Spanish. For the first time, it pays special attention to American usage, and it takes into account usage from a variety of types of sources: literary, educational, scientific, journalistic, and oral.

The complete work comes in two volumes of 4032 pages (for 120 euros), but smaller versions are also available: a 750-page manual, and a 250-page basic grammar text.

More information is available in Spanish from the Real Academia Española website and in English in an Associated Press story.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Discovery Day Redux

When I wrote about October 12 and Christopher Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón, as he is known in Spanish, I blithely recited the conventional wisdom that he sailed for Spain's Queen Isabella even though he himself was Italian. That was before the Euro Weekly News told me that "experts have confirmed that Christopher Columbus's writings prove he was neither Italian nor Portuguese but Spanish--as the Spanish themselves have always claimed."

Oh? Well, apparently so. An article in La Vanguardia explains that for decades there have been claims that Columbus originated either from the Spanish region of Catalunya or the Balearic Islands. With the exception of a sole Peruvian voice (Luis Ulloa), those claims have come from Catalans. Now a new book, El ADN de los escritos de Cristóbal Colón (The DNA of Columbus's Writings), by linguist Estelle Irizarry of Georgetown University, shows that the vocabulary and syntax, and specifically the use of the virgule (a / sign) in Columbus's written work, is typical of Catalan speakers of the fifteenth century.

Catalan remains today one of the four official languages of Spain and is spoken in the northeastern part of the Iberian peninsula (between France and Valencia), and in the Balearics. Also, according to Wikipedia, in the country of Andorra and the Italian town of Alghero on the island of Sardinia. But not in Genoa, where the conventional wisdom placed Columbus's origins for decades. A post in the Medieval News blog tells more about Irizarry's book.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

¡Sí, Voy a Hablar Español!

I know my family and friends are probably tired of hearing me say that I don't speak Spanish very well, and they may even be wondering whether I ever will, after living in Spain for about five years. The truth is that I have studied the language in formal classes for most of the months that I have been here. I understand a lot of the Spanish that I read in the newspapers and magazines, brochures, signs, and even some books. I can ask questions and usually understand the answer, at least well enough to phrase a follow-up question or confirmation sentence. I have written letters and essays in Spanish about various trips and visits, the production of maple syrup in New England, Google Book Search, and Hans Christian Andersen's nineteenth-century visit to Barcelona (translating from the Danish).

When it comes to speaking, however, I am very reticent. I am naturally shy, I can't think fast enough to find the proper words and phrases, I tend to get confused and frustrated if the slightest thing goes wrong, and I am now living in such a multinational (read that as English-speaking) area that I don't need to speak Spanish very often. But I am still determined to study the language and continue classes, and as soon as September approached, I was on the lookout for classes in my new neighborhood.

I haven't been very lucky. The municipal classes that were advertised as starting in October have yet to materialize. The teacher I accosted between two beginner classes in the neighboring town promised to call me about a more advanced class, but I have yet to hear from her. The Danish club arranged for beginner and intermediate classes for its members, but the last thing I thought I needed was to learn Spanish through Danish explanations and especially grammar--which I don't know anyway.

I have been successful, though, in arranging private classes with the Danish instructor of those group classes, and we had our first meeting this week. And I think I was wrong to think that it's always better to learn a language from a native speaker of that language. All my previous teachers (seven of them since I've been in Spain) have been native Spanish, and I've "learned," or at least been taught, just about everything--through a grammar-based approach. Now this teacher has become comfortable enough to speak and teach the language after living in Spain for a decade. The most important thing, she says, is to speak it! Almost immediately she gave me "permission" to ignore the differences between the two past tenses, and to forget about using the future tense--"use 'I am going to' to indicate future action," she says. After all, Spaniards speak fast, and if you stutter around trying to figure out which past tense to use (or whether you should use subjunctive or indicative, I add to myself) they will have walked away by the time you get the perfectly correct word out of your mouth!

I think she is on to something. I will continue my classes with her, and I am going to speak Spanish!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lost in Translation?

We've joined a weekly walking group of mostly Brits, and have spent the past few Wednesdays hiking for an hour or so at interesting locations in the Roquetas environs and then having a lunch of a tapa or two at a bar near our excursion site. Last Wednesday's walk took us to the Cabo de Gata nature park east of Almería. Although la gata means "cat" in Spanish, Cabo de Gata has nothing to do with cats; it seems in this case to be a variation of the word "agate," which was once found among the stones in the beach area.

The car trip to Cabo de Gata took most of an hour, and the walk down a sandy path along the marsh to the flamingo look-out and abandoned country church took two hours, so we were quite hungry when we found our way to a seaside bar and restaurant. I overheard part of a conversation at the next table. As waiters are wont to do in southern Spain, especially when descended upon by a group of 22 English speakers, this one tried valiantly to respond to one walker's question about the preparation of the fish he was ordering.

"Is it done in batter?" was the question.

"Oh, no! No butter!" responded the waiter, horrified. "Olive oil."

"Yes, but is it covered in batter?" came the question again.

"No, no butter," repeated the waiter patiently.

Was this a misunderstanding in the making?

I have no idea whether this hiker wanted his fish in batter or not, nor whether he got it in batter or not. We can be sure he didn't get it in butter.

My own boquerones (anchovies) were covered with a delicious light batter and fried lightly in olive oil.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

English First? English Only?

I was saddened this Sunday in Spain upon reading the New York Times story about Eric Crafton's efforts to prohibit Nashville city government workers from using any language other than English.

I am lucky to be living in a country that welcomes its many foreign visitors and residents and makes some effort to communicate with them in languages other than Spanish only. It is not unusual for me, as a foreigner, to be replied to in English in the supermarket, the bank, restaurants, and hotels. Younger people especially tell me the cost of my groceries in Spanish and then automatically convert the sum to English to speed up the transaction. Not everyone knows English, in fact, it is not even wide-spread. English was prohibited under the Franco regime, so few people middle-aged or older understand or dare speak it.

Of course I've been studying Spanish since I first came to Spain in 2003. Within a week I was hunting for the free evening Spanish-for-foreigners course sponsored by the local government in Roquetas, where we had settled. I didn't take that one, but I started a series of private classes and have since studied with other foreigners in three different schools, usually taking two classes a week. I'm motivated to learn, and I've put a lot of time and money into it. I'm not perfect in Spanish, and I never will be. But I can make myself understood, as long as anyone cares to try to understand me, and as long as I don't get too stressed about it.

But it's pretty easy to get stressed when you are trying to do complicated or bureaucratic things in an environment that is not native to you. Right now I'm working on getting a driver's license, and though I think I'll eventually be able to pass the theoretical test in Spanish, I'm more than a little worried about what will happen if I don't understand the tester's directions or accent when I'm in the middle of the practical test. So even though I don't plan to take advantage of it, I appreciate the fact that a neighboring province offers driver's tests in English as well as Spanish.

My husband, who grew up speaking Spanish in South America, frequently accompanies English and Danish people who have chosen to make their winter or full-year home in Spain, when they need to go for medical appointments or to government offices. Even if you are working hard to learn the native language, the idiom spoken when you need to purchase a house, pay a water bill, inquire about taxes, register a car or a pet, request a no-parking notice, report a theft, ask about a local charity, or purchase a cemetery plot can easily go beyond what you as a new Spanish speaker are sure you understand.

We have now lived in two different towns, in two different provinces, in Spain. Both Roquetas (Almería) and Torrevieja (Alicante) use municipal funds to offer Spanish courses. A year ago Roquetas issued a handbook of the law in six foreign languages for its immigrant populations. In Torrevieja recently, when we stopped to assist an English couple who had been in a minor traffic accident, the police who responded were able to use a few words of English to clarify the facts and send the couple on their way for a medical check-up. Being met in this fashion in English--as tentative and infrequent as it is--is not expected by most of the foreign population in Spain, but it is appreciated.