Variety

Variety

In order to keep up to date with what’s going on back home, I regularly tune in to the BBC news to catch the Prime Minister delivering one of his elaborate broadcasts. But try as I might to stay focused on the lengthy slideshow of stats, I find myself distracted by the peculiar language he uses to address the nation.

I sympathise with those learning English who may have been under the false impression that a Bo-Jo speech would make for a good listening exercise (what could be more authentic than the PM of the UK after all), only to be discouraged by the extravagant metaphors and Olde English that spills forth from his lips.

His recent quotes have left me amused, confused, and cringing more than a little. In a recent attempt to boost morale, he announced the “distant bugle of the scientific cavalry coming over the brow of the hill” (in reference to the COVID vaccine), whilst warning that even though ‘tis the season to be jolly, “it’s also the season to be jolly careful”.

*eye roll*

And I still have no idea what “social lubricant” means…

Complicated and stuffy, it confirmed for me that there is a lot to be said for simplicity. And while I don’t dismiss the fun you can have with the English language; I believe there is a right time to play with it (and delivering a crucial message during a global pandemic is not it).

But simple often means direct and there is a fine line between the two. The “directness” terrified me when I first landed on Spanish soil (Oh Boris, what have you done to me?), but I appreciate now that it can be more than a little helpful for understanding culture, and language.

But like most experiences, I learn the hard way.

During one online Spanish lesson, just as I was getting into the grammar groove, the buzzer in our apartment sounded. Conscious of being on camera, I stood up to reach for the receiver, composed myself and answered with my finest “Hola”.

It was just the postie needing access. I let him in and returned to my lesson, relieved not to have been put on the spot with additional conversation, only to find the teacher laughing.

Worried that I must have a ‘hole in my leggings’ scenario, I nervously asked what was funny.

“You answered the door and said ‘hola’” he said, smiling.

I was perplexed. What could possibly be wrong with that?!

“Why, what would you have said”? I asked, defensive but curious.

He advised that if I wanted to sound in the least bit like a local then answering with “?” or “Dime” would be better alternatives (the same goes for phone calls too apparently).

No, no. I explained that in English, to answer the door or phone to someone and say “Yes?” or “Tell me” would be considered cold and unwelcoming, not to mention well, rude.

He looked amused, and smug.

“So, you say ‘hello’, and the other person says ‘hello’, and then you say ‘hello’ again and you just keeping saying ‘hello’ to each other until someone leaves?”

Not exactly, although it was a fair observation. I agreed to consider changing my method of meeting and greeting and we moved on. But it got me thinking…

All my life, the rules of good manners have been drilled into me, and this ‘British politeness’ is a characteristic universally renowned. And now here I am, suddenly experiencing a shift.

Here, por favor and gracias are not dished around in any given interaction the way I would use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ (note: the waiter does not expect to be begged and thanked four times for bringing you a Fanta limón) and saying “sorry” is saved for things you really are sorry for.

These are hard habits to break. But if I am ever to sound like a local, I must embrace the idea that the things I would generally consider rude or impolite, are perfectly, perfectly normal.

Because it is not rudeness, it is merely cultural and linguistic differences. It is variety. And it is practicality. Why use three words when you could use one? Why say “hello” when you answer the phone when you could cut straight to the chase? (I remain unconvinced about this one).  

Of course, the Spanish language has its own formalities. There are two types of “you” for example. The formal, respectful ‘Usted’ is reserved for addressing an elderly person, or your boss. And then there is ‘Tú’ which is for your friends, family and everyone else. This distinction of respect is something you really don’t want to get wrong…

There are new rules to learn, and old ones to set aside.

So, I took the advice of my Spanish teacher on board, determined that the next time anyone rang my buzzer and caught me unawares, I would demand (albeit politely) for the purpose of the caller.

But no matter how many times I try, a cheery “Hola” is always on the tip of my tongue.

Old habits die hard. Sorry.

Adaptation:

Know your lemons

Know your lemons

Despite recent bouts of progress to be proud of, and an overwhelming determination, I am still faced with situations where my current language capabilities just won’t suffice.

This all became clear during a seemingly innocent trip to the doctors, when a simple request for a prescription resulted in an unexpected check-up of the more…intimate kind.

Nothing catches you off guard quite like an old Spanish doctor suddenly asking you to whip off your braguitas at 9am!

“Ahora” Now? I asked. Terrified to have misunderstood such a firm request– I gestured up and down for confirmation…Next thing I know, I am settled in the stirrups, bracing myself for my first pap smear in Spain.

Days before, I had been scrolling through pages of “English speaking” medical centres and was confident after seeing so many. But it seems I was falsely lured in by the prospect of being able to communicate with ease. I should have known. After all, it wasn’t the first time…

Once before, I was confronted with an explanation that the doctor who speaks English “is not here today”, and this time, no explanation at all.

I can do this, I thought. It is all good practice after all…

But I must admit that the hard part was not the appointment itself. Oh no.

The initial call to make the appointment and the arrival at the clinica proved much more daunting. First, I had to face the receptionist, notorious across nations for that fierce and unfriendly attitude. On this occasion, my inability to understand simple urine-sample instructions was met with a scowl which had me flustered and sweating before I even crossed the threshold of the doctor’s office for the main event. (A wave of the cup and a nod towards the baños would have provided clarity I’m sure).

Maybe I am being unfair- it is a stressful job after all. I should know.

Later, as I hopped on the Metro to work (as a receptionist in a women’s health centre), I vowed to be extra simpática to every single patient I met, because regardless of which language we are struggling to communicate in, impatience doesn’t help and a little kindness goes a long way…

I have been so fortunate to have been thrown into the world of international working and it is exactly what I had hoped for. Living and working in a new country is a huge step towards full immersion and I have been told that this was the best way to learn the language. I am entwined in a language mezcla of Español, English and Deutsch and while I may rely heavily on Google translate to get me through most daily interactions, it is proving to be an invaluable experience. (Although I am trying über hard to eliminate German words before they creep in and interfere with my hard-earned Spanish vocab. One new language is more than enough for now).

Amongst the linguistic challenges I have been exposed to lately, I take comfort in recognising some of the terminology at least; hormonas, mamograma, ovulación, obstetricia – words which are similar in many languages thanks to the spread and influence of Greek and Latin.

(Fun fact: the word gynaecology/ginecología comes from the Greek gyne meaning “woman”, and -logia, meaning “study”).

And some parts of the anatomy require no translation either…

As a result, my newly revised vocab of the intimacies and intricacies of all thing’s female had me slightly better equipped for my own excursion to the doc than I would have been six months ago. At least I understood some of what was happening, and anything I didn’t know, well perhaps ignorance is bliss. Sometimes it is better just to go with the flow, and not know what goes where, when…

More new experiences mean more lessons learnt. Had the appointment been for a more serious medical issue then nodding along, pretending you understand and guessing what you don’t just won’t cut it. There is important information to absorb, questions to ask and above all, barking receptionists to contend with. (I am yet to pluck up the courage to return for my resultados…)

But on the other side of the desk, I am meeting and connecting with women from all over the world, bonded by the one thing we all have in common. All in the name of women’s health.

When it comes down to it, you just need to know your lemons.

Progress:

Experience:

Lemon concentrate

Lemon concentrate

I was advised that a fun and simple way to learn a language was to watch TV!

Easy peasy. What better excuse was there to put down the textbooks and settle down with some snacks to watch a bit of Netflix?

Of course, it requires mucho concentration to watch anything juicy with subtitles, but scrolling through the range of kids shows and comedies on offer, the opportunity to binge-watch the highly-acclaimed ‘Narcos’ and ‘La Casa de Papel’ was hard to pass up.

After all, what better excuse was there?

But there is a process to follow if I am to gain any benefit from this seemingly easy language-learning method…

Uno: I must watch in the language I am trying to learn to attune my ear and listening skills, whilst reading the subtitles in English. OK, got it.

Dos: The next step is to progress on to watching in Spanish AND reading Spanish subtitles. Por favor, give me time.

Por ultimo: watch sin-subtitles of course. By which point I will be practically fluent. Hurray!

Let’s press pause just for a second. Even in step one, there is so much to think about! I find myself fixating on every word spoken, and obsess over identifying accents, by which point not only have I lost the plot, but also the context, and my concentration!

My first (and so far, only) trip to the cinema in Madrid was a Friday afternoon showing of Tarantino’s ‘Once upon a time in Hollywood’.  No longer just a rainy-day activity, this was a different yet surprisingly pleasant way to escape the sizzling summer heat.

Most cinemas here show films dubbed in Spanish and trying to find one showing versión original was harder than you might expect…

[“Dubbing” is a quirk – perdón, whole industry – pretty unique to Spain. Someone told me that they grew up believing that Harry Potter was Spanish. Well you would, wouldn’t you? If all your life you had only watched movies in your own language. And there are dubbing artists whose job it is to be “Spanish Brad Pitt” for example, which I think is fantastic.]

Anyway, despite listening in English, I was so busy trying to learn new vocab from reading the subtitlos that I can barely remember the film itself.

What struck me though, was that not everything translated directly. Of course, there were cultural factors at play, like hearing Leonardo DiCaprio say something really American like “Jeez!” and seeing “Madre Mía!” pop up on screen reminded me exactly where I was.

The other difference was humour. At times, we were the only ones in the cinema laughing, but when the whole Spanish audience erupted, I looked around convinced that I must have missed something! Tarantino’s movies can have that effect I suppose…

Day to day, I have the news on in the background too. I don’t know how much it actually helps me improve, but there is nothing quite like listening to the unmistakable voice of a newsreader while sipping that first morning café to really immerse yourself. It’s also a fantastic way to trick myself into believing that I am effortlessly learning at every given opportunity!

Of course, most nights it is tempting to switch over to watch something “easy”, or at the very least, comprehendible. TV time is supposed to involve an element of unwinding, and there isn’t much relaxing about being permanently perched on the edge of your seat squinting at subtitles, scared to blink for fear of missing that major plot twist.

Crucial is my concentration.

But being able to follow even a fraction of 50-minute show makes it all worth the “effort”. And I am noting some progress. Sometimes I feel emboldened enough to avert my eyes from the subtitles and glance away – like taking my hands off the handlebars for the first time. Only managing a split second at first, but gradually I become more confident (and now for my next trick ha…)!

And so, I settle down in my zen-den ready for another tough night of watching ‘Valeria’ in a bid to progress. I light a candle, even though it is far too hot, and no sooner has the flame flickered than the air-con has blown it out! Smothered in a thick layer of tan-preserving moisturiser, I flake out like a sticky starfish, and give my glasses an extra wipe, so those subtitles are crystal clear.

Whilst there is definitely more distraction than progress at times, it really is a small sacrifice to make.

Warning: must be practised alongside other tried and tested study techniques.

Progression:

Effort:

Main squeeze

Main squeeze

Sharing your dreams with someone is one thing, but sharing the same dream is another.

The dream of moving abroad, to start a new life, embrace a new culture and experience new things was a shared dream, resting in the pipeline until the time was right for it to be lived.

Equally, sharing your goals with someone is one thing, but sharing the same goal is something else.

And as fate would have it, R and I now share a very important goal.

We both have to learn Spanish. Juntos.

It’s funny, because when we first started learning languages – we were learning different ones.

But with our shared dream unleashed, and a move to Spain on the horizon, our goals aligned. As much as it is oh so important, and healthy, to have your own interests and hobbies, there is something very special about having a shared vision, a shared goal. A shared experience.

Fluency was the shared goal. But it is over-rated, apparently. What does it even mean to be “fluent”?

I have lost count of how many times I have been asked “Are you fluent yet”? It sounds simple, but it is far from.

We will never be native, so will we ever be “fluent”? Maybe. But it will take years, and years (and years and years…)  

So, in our bid to strive for the next best thing, we find ourselves on an interesting, fun and at times, challenging journey. One where we celebrate our successes (like making a phone call sin-stutter) and feel on top of the world putting our new life skills into practice.

Other times, we despair, wondering if we will ever get to where we want to be and achieve that anticipated “fluency” status.

We each have our strengths, and our weaknesses. We both have off days, and we probably always will. After a long week of work, having to study, or speak in a different language requires effort. But it is so rewarding to see the progress, in ourselves and in each other.

We have gone from sharing a few words to full sentences, and even brief conversations. We speak “comfortably” in the house, able to communicate basic emotions and answer the all-important “How was your day”?

We help to fill in each other’s gaps, but there is un problema with this. The risk of two non-natives learning together is… How do we know if either of us are right?!

As I said, there are challenges, and frustrations, and changing dynamics. When did this unintentional teacher/student relationship develop?! But for every annoying correction (otherwise known as constructive criticism), and forced hour of “let’s only talk in Spanish” there are plenty of laughs, with “Why did I say that?!” or “Guess what happened today” kick-starting most conversations.

We’ve both made some pretty hilarious mistakes after all, and there is something precious about debriefing over them together, or with friends in the same situation.

We want to see each other thrive (after all, it’s much easier to have someone to fall back on when you trip over your words or have a complete blank in public)!

Just like a relationship, it is important is to keep things fresh and interesting. So, whichever way we chose to learn on any given day, we try to make it fun, whether that involves practising in the park with a picnic in the sun (incomplete without some ice-cold cervezas), learning songs, or binge-watching Spanish shows on Netflix…

Last week however, we took it a step further. Invited along by some friends, we spent a Saturday evening side-stepping and swaying our way through a beginners Bachata dance class, following instructions solo en español.

I sold the idea to R as a spontaneous new experience with an underlying language learning opportunity. I was quietly confident after my previous dance “ordeal” and suddenly, standing vulnerable in front of a huge mirror and a whole class of people seemed a lot less daunting than it did last year. I knew I would at least understand something this time round!

And it was fantástico! Not only did we understand most of the class, but we learnt a few moves too. While some refer to this Dominican dance as “sensual salsa”, R described it as “the Gay Gordons ‘with hips’” (those of you familiar with traditional Scottish country dancing will appreciate that soft rhythmic hip movements are not a key feature of this Ceilidh favourite)!  

With my main squeeze by my side, we will practise the basic steps of language learning, each taking turns to lead.

We will trip over our feet and make mistakes more toe-curling than hip-swirling, but hopefully we will advance to more complex moves one day, towards the grande finale of “fluency…”

Learning together, learning always.

Sharing your dreams with someone is one thing, but sharing the same dream is another.

Progress:

Tolerance:

Lemon-aid

Lemon-aid

Recently, I made a very special discovery here in Madrid. Hidden away in the streets of the hip and happening barrio of Malasaña is a bookshop that sells English books. What a treat! I was due a couple of new reads to enjoy in the last of the late summer sun.

I browsed for ages, and was tempted by many, but despite my excitement at finding a treasure trove of texts in English, I found myself drawn to the single shelf of Spanish books. Tucked away amongst the used language textbooks and lengthy classics, was a pocket-size version of “El coronel no tiene quien le escriba” (“No-one writes to the colonel”), a short story by Gabriel García Márquez, of whose translated novellas, I am a big fan.

Reading fluently in Español is a dream, and I skipped off, happy with my 95-page miniature paperback having decided it would be perfecto to practise, yet small enough not to scare me off before I had even started…

So, I settled myself on a shady bench, opened the book and to my joy, discovered that some thoughtful person had already done some of the hard work for me!

There was page after page of legible pencil scribbles, and any unknown words had been circled and translated. I considered verifying but decided to take their word for it. After all, what did we do before the days of Google translate and handy language apps?!

With the turn of every page, I started to feel connected to the mystery translator and wanted to know more…

Who were you? Were you the first owner of the book, or the tenth? What were your reasons for learning Spanish? Did you move to Spain like me? Were you a fan of García Márquez too or were you simply attracted by the manageable size of this book?

I was getting so carried away creating a persona for them, that I was becoming distracted from the task at hand – which was to successfully read (and understand) this short story!

But there was a problem. As I advanced through the chapters, the notes became scarcer. There were less circled words, and if there were, the translations had been abandoned.

Then, half-way through the book, they stopped altogether, and all trace of the secret scribbler was gone!

This could only mean one of two things. Either they GAVE UP or they achieved fluency so quickly that they no longer had any need to scrawl their useful notes across the pages. (I like to think it was the latter – it gives me more hope.) Maybe it was only when they achieved this level of understanding (or gave up), and no longer had any use for their copy, did they give it away.

Determined to continue this project alone, I now carry my little edition with me wherever I go, reading a few pages (or as much as my brain will allow) in the park, on the metro or wherever I happen to be when the notion takes.

And I will take my time, knowing that when I finish, I will read it again. I will read it until I no longer have to trace my finger along each line, stopping to gather context like a first-time reader.

I will read it until I understand every word, every verb tense, every idiom.

I will then read it out loud. And then I will read it until my pronunciation is correct.

I will continue what was started by adding my own notes, and maybe even a small message of encouragement. And only then I will return it to the bookshop in hope that another fortunate language learner will stumble upon this hidden treasure and I can only hope their excitement is as great as mine when they flick through the pages to discover that others lent a helping hand towards their learning efforts.

We have a shared experience, my language-aid and me. Without even knowing it, they helped me learn by providing translations of obscure vocab I’m confident I will never need, like that for ‘cooking stove’, ‘lilies’, ‘haste’ and ‘bile’.

But these notes and scribbles help me stay motivated with every turn of the page and therefore have made my first attempt at reading a foreign text a little bit more interesting.

Most importantly, they helped me to feel like I wasn’t alone in this journey.

So, gracias mi amigo, whoever you are.

Let the circle of language learning continue…

Progress:

Hydration station

Hydration station

The last run I set off on before moving to Spain was on a cold, wet morning in May. I jogged around a country park in the south side of Glasgow, and as I was running, I made a special effort to take it all in. I absorbed the sights, the sounds and smells I was so used to – of the woodland, the birds, the cool, damp air, and the muddy terrain underfoot.

Knowing it would be the last time in a long time that I would run in these familiar conditions, I remember thinking things like “I wonder if they have trees like this in Madrid”, “Will I ever run in the rain in Spain?”  and most importantly – “Will it be too hot?”

I had never enjoyed running in the heat, it felt punishing and unnecessary. In Scotland, running is the last thing on our minds when the sun comes out. Instead we go to a beer garden to enjoy a refreshment or head to the coast to bask in the rarity of sunshine.

Even though I had committed to a commute-on-foot from work, I was only faced with a couple of hot July days, when I would struggle home, red-faced and sweating. But the version of heat I knew then was significantly cooler than I know now. Even 18°C was considered much too hot for such vigorous exercise!

So, it was months before I plucked up the courage to go running here in Madrid. My first few attempts were a struggle but, timing is everything in the summer months and I have learnt to pick my moments. Heading out early in the morning when there is still a “chill” in the air or late in the evening when the sun disappears behind the mountains is prime time. It is not uncommon for me to be panting my way around the local parque at 9pm (wondering how it could possibly still be 30°C).

For me, running brings clarity. That’s why I find pounding the pavements a perfect time to practise Español. It’s the only time I seem to remember key phrases and can have semi-fluent but random conversations with myself. Even my pronunciation sounds muy bien (in my head at least).

Other times I count to 100 or just listen to a bit of Shakira – anything to distract from the heat!

In Madrid, it’s not just the heat to contend with, but altitude too. These conditions have got me thinking like an athlete. Mo Farah famously trained at altitude (albeit 1,800m higher than here). And I’ve even considered investing in some skimpy pants and wraparound sunglasses como Paula Radcliffe, but I fear this puts me at risk of becoming the female running equivalent of a “MAMIL” (middle-aged man in Lycra).

Inspired, and once confident that I wouldn’t faint from dizziness or die from dehydration, I started to feel invincible (of course remembering to drink water and replenish with some mean home-made electrolyte drinks after track sessions helped).

I developed a strong admiration for people who exercise in the heat, and this was when I heard about the Marathon des Sables!

A challenge of insane proportions. In short, it involves running 250km across the Sahara Desert, over 7 days (day 4 is a DOUBLE MARATHON), carrying all your own equipment and water supplies. The physical and mental barriers to overcome must be extreme, but I do wonder if the toughest part could be the heat? I mean, it is the Sahara Desert. 

And it’s the original toughest footrace on earth, but I encourage anyone to watch the Barkley Marathons on Netflix to see what stole the crown…

(Spoiler: I did not even consider let alone sign up for this challenge. It simply changed my perspective on the running “extremities” I thought I was facing)!

Just imagine setting yourself a challenge so great and sharing that experience with people from all over the world, camping out under the stars, exhausted after long hard days of scaling sand dunes, and communicating only through runner’s language.

It is a language where often no words are needed (usually due to shortness of breath)! Emotions are evident on a runner’s face – pain, struggle, and sometimes even joy! Injuries can be signalled to, and times can be compared by pointing at your watch.

Most importantly though, displays of encouragement and support don’t need words. It takes no words to give a reassuring thumbs-up, high-five or pat on the back. And I’m sure none are needed to take someone’s hand and drag them up a sand dune…

The Marathon des Sables seems not only to be a challenge of survival, but of companionship and connection too, regardless of language. Maybe this is part of the reason why so many loco people head into the desert each year.

Just thinking about it makes me long for a refreshing run in the rain – the type where you have to relentlessly blink the water out of your eyes to see, trainers heavy from splashing through puddles, and soaked to the skin (but somehow manage to return home without breaking a sweat). It used to take a lot of mental preparation to venture out in the first place when the alternative was a cup of tea on the sofa, but there is not better feeling than having pushed yourself out there. Well, except for the hot shower afterwards!

It can take just as much mental prep to head out for a run in the sun. Except now, it is sweat I blink from my eyes, and the clothes I peel off are just as wet. This time though, the best part is the cold shower!

The next time I have to psyche myself up, I will remind myself that I am not navigating the desert with rationed access to agua, carrying 8kg on my back and don’t need a doctor to deal with my unsalvageable blistered feet, while the hot sand burns my legs.

Nowadays, I live closer to that very desert than I do to the piney forests and damp woodland trails of home.

And although it is hot, I don’t have to get up and do it all over again tomorrow.

But, with all those open, endless days of running and all that clarity it would bring, just imagine how good my Spanish would be…

Language clarity:

Cloudy lemonade

Cloudy lemonade

Wanting to learn a language and needing to learn a language are two different things. There is an urgency attached to the latter that adds just the right amount of pressure to the whole learning experience. But no matter how much time and effort you invest, there are still situations you will be unprepared for. One such situation brought that to light for me recently…

We were taking an internal flight from Bilbao, returning to Madrid and had been in the air for less than 10 minutes when we heard “This is your captain speaking”, which is not something you normally expect on such a short journey.

Listening intently, I understood we were facing “tormentas” (storms) and that the outlook was not looking good at our destination. Blame it on the cabin pressure, the nervous chatter amongst my fellow passengers or just the fact that I haven’t covered the topic of ‘emergency aeroplane announcements’ in my Spanish lessons, but it was impossible for me to follow el piloto’s every word.

We had just left the North which is almost as notorious for its wet weather as the UK and we were aware of forecasted thunderstorms so, a bit of turbulence was to be expected. But this was more than just a bit of turbulence. This was the type that made me check that there was still a sickness bag to hand even though everything else in the seat pocket had been removed for fear of contamination. And when he repeated the word “tranquilo” (calm), I gathered that this was an instruction rather than a description of the weather…

We continued bumping through the clouds when suddenly, the plane lurched. I felt my stomach drop and people screamed and began crossing themselves.

Is this how it ends? I looked to the emergency exit row, two in front of me. A groomed man in pressed chinos and velvet Aladdin slippers (who had had to be reminded to fasten his seat belt before take-off) finally removed his headphones and glanced around with a look of terror, wishing he had paid attention to the safety announcements.

I don’t know what scared me more – not being able to understand everything being said or realising that this ignorant cabrón would ultimately be in charge of our fate if things took a turn.

Note: I, myself had paid extra special attention to the cabin crew safety demonstration since the linguistic geek within me was taking advantage of every opportunity to learn. And sí, I may have relied heavily on gestures to comprehend, but I was confident that I was in a better position to handle safety procedures than him. At least I knew we were on an aeroplane and not a flying carpet…

For at least 10 minutes, the pilot spoke, his calm tone unwavering throughout. He could have been talking about football or what he ate for lunch for all we cared because regardless of what he said, his technique of reassurance worked, and the fear subsided long before the turbulence. He stayed with us, and only when satisfied that all was ok, did he bid us adios, and the plane erupted in applause.

I joined in, grateful for this man who had foreseen the fear and had taken the time to instil calm amongst the passengers, who were already tense and nervous from travelling in these uncertain times.

There was no further announcement in English, but I understood enough from the little I could translate and from the admiration in the eyes of those around me.

Things calmed down and the crew began their preparations for landing. Once again, Señor Responsable in the emergency exit row had to be asked more than once to stow his Louis Vuitton man-bag to clear the area…

When the plane touched down in Madrid, we were all a little surprised to see that the sun was shining, the sky was clear and there was little more than a light breeze on the runway.

The memory of the incident in the sky seemed to fade as quickly as clouds, but it got me thinking…

It’s all very well knowing enough Español to be able to order food in a restaurant or exchange pleasantries with a neighbour, but what about times like this?

One day, someone might ask me for help, instead of for the time. Or the next time I fly en avión I might get seated in the emergency exit row and will be the one entrusted with understanding safety announcements to protect the lives of others.

And so, I must be prepared.

(I have also made a mental note never to trust a man who travels in velvet slippers).

Experience:

Language success:

Lemon preserve

Lemon preserve

Four years ago, we first visited Spain together. Inspired by a travel magazine article he read on his daily commute, R came home one night and proposed a trip that combined the best of both worlds –FOOD in the Basque Country, and WINE in La Rioja. The perfect fusion – I was sold!

We devoured the fine food and flavours of the north before heading out on the quiet, open roads to the Rioja region for a few days of visiting vineyards and exploring bodegas by bike.

And today, we are returning to Donostia-San Sebastian – the foodie city that captured our imaginations and our hearts and satisfied every food craving imaginable! I still get hungry when I think about it…

I remember that first night in a local bar in San Sebastián’s enchanting old town, absorbed in an atmosphere like nothing I had ever felt before.

The bartender poured txakoli (the region’s famous lightly sparkling dry white wine) from an impressive height into tumblers while, all around, the chatter was constant. (Side note: this was my first experience of drinking wine from a tumbler – it was a revelation).

Laid out on the bar (and just a safe enough distance from the splashing wine) were some of the most decorative displays of “finger food” we had ever seen. These were pintxos, famous in el norte. They are a more elaborate version of tapas, like a meal in one bite. And they are works of art – with regional specialities such as meat, peppers or seafood fresh from the Atlantic, balanced carefully on a piece of fresh bread, all held together by a cocktail stick (which is where the word pintxo got its name, meaning “spike”).

I remember watching on in horror as people discarded their paper napkins on the floor after wiping the delicious remains from their mouth and hands, but I soon came to realise that if there was ever a place to “do as the locals do” then this was it!

Despite the extremity of this casual dining, the quality of these beautifully crafted masterpieces was enough to rival that of any of the world-renowned restaurants that populate this culinary hub (the city has the highest concentration of Michelin star restaurants in the world)!

But we didn’t come for the Michelin stars. We came to sample as many pintxos as we could, and that meant hopping around the countless traditional bars in the labyrinth that is the old town.

We learnt that it was custom to try one or two before moving on (which is easier said than done when everything looks so tempting) and to wash them down with some txakoli or famous Basque cider. This is an experience I guarantee you will want to return again and again for!

But how to choose what to eat? Instead of just vacantly pointing at what I wanted to try from the arty array on show, I scanned the chalkboard menus for help (ordering fresh from la cocina is also highly recommended). My mouth watered as I watched food being served swiftly to more experienced pintxo-pro’s. These were people who knew what they wanted!

But the words written up there didn’t look at all familiar. Even with my lack of knowledge at the time, I knew this wasn’t Spanish. There were too many x’s and k’s for a start, and some letters I couldn’t identify at all!

Of course, this wasn’t Spanish, it was Basque. Or Euskara (as it is known in Basque).

A language completely unique and distinct from any other language in the world, it is incomparable to its neighbouring Catalan, Galician, Castilian Spanish or French. It is a “language isolate”, a language of mystery and possibly the oldest living language in Europe. Wow.

This time, we are returning equipped with more knowledge of the country, and its regions. Over the past year, I have met people from the Basque Country (País Vasco) and quizzed them endlessly about their linguistic experiences (of course).

There is no expectation to speak Basque on this trip. I’m not sure anyone out with the region is expected to know this enigmatic language! But what will I use instead? The Basque people are largely bilingual, which is impressive, but will my Spanish (or my English) be understood?  

I will soon find out.

Regardless, I am going to pay careful attention to the Basque language this time round, without the pressure of trying to decipher it, knowing that it isn’t necessary (or even possible) to draw any comparisons to Español.

In a few hours, we will be walking along the picture-perfect beach of La Concha –which must be one of the most photographed aerial shots in the country. We will retrace our footsteps in the sand and remember that first visit and our first impression of Spain. We fell in love instantly with this small coastal city, surrounded by mountains and famed for its beautiful beach and gastronomic greatness (even though it rained for days).

But a lot can change in four years.

This time, there will be less locals flooding the city’s ancient taverns, enjoying the important sociable aspect that has been going strong for generations.

There will be fewer tourists walking along the promenade, admiring the view of the Bay of Biscay whilst contemplating how early is “too early” for dinner.

And there will be no food laid out on the bars for us to salivate over (which is probably for the best). But will this pillar of local culture ever recover from the recent restrictions?

I hope so.

But one thing that I hope never changes is the ancient Basque language that has puzzled linguistic experts and researchers for years.

I hope it is protected and preserved for as long as it has existed already, for its uniqueness and mystery is unparalleled.

And this weekend, I cannot wait to hear those all-important words again: “On egin!”

Enjoy your meal!

Language intrigue:

Limoncello

Limoncello

My love affair with the Mediterranean didn’t start with Spain.

Many years ago, I fell head over heels for Italia, infatuated by its people, its culture, its beauty, its romance. And in September 2017, the Mayor of the small town of Varenna in Lago di Como commenced the formalities of our nuptials as we said, “I do” in one of the most beautiful places on earth. That’s amore!

Why Italy? Why the Med? What is there not to love?

The words on a Dolce & Gabbana perfume sample I tried sold one idea – claiming the colourful, adventurous, fresh and fruity scent “reflected the sexiness of the Mediterranean lifestyle”. You only need to see the advert for their ‘Light Blue’ fragrance to know what they mean. The perfectly bronzed models David Gandy and Bianca Balti lounging on a boat in their matching white swimwear are supposed to capture the “essence of a sunny Sicilian summer”.

Yet, when I thought of the Mediterranean, my mind conjured up less sexy (but equally appealing) images of really old people resting on benches, shaded by olive trees in hard to reach mountain villages, or of large families at meal times, sharing food that has been grown with care and cooked with love.

Because it isn’t all about yachts on glistening seas and tanned models in barely-there swimwear. It is more than that.

It is life.

And whichever Mediterranean shore you land on, you are sure to feel life. The fundamentals of the traditional healthy lifestyle which include: a good diet with fresh local produce, lots of time outdoors, gentle exercise, socialising and a few glasses of wine – have helped shape an identity of people over generations (and has helped keep them alive longer too)!

It is a way of life that is aspired to around the world, even the UK’s NHS promotes the benefits of the diet and healthy habits. It may be easy to follow but almost impossible to replicate entirely unless you are blessed with the environmental factors too, such as 300+ days of sunshine per year, rich soil and a place to live that has been designed with walking for convenience in mind.

And I think the language is also a big (and beautiful) part of what helps shape identity. In Italy, I think it is a recognisable characteristic of its passionate people and just one more factor that helped formed my love of the country – as if I needed another!

If there was any greater motivation to quickly improve my Spanish, it is so I can move on to learning Italian ASAP. It is the next logical step on my way to achieving polyglot status, because the two languages are “more similar than not” – I am told. Both are Romance languages, deriving from Latin, and have around 80% lexical similarity and I’m recognising more of this shared vocab by the day: sí, no, uno, libro, luna, arte, casa…

Some say that to the ear of an untrained linguist, the languages also sound very similar. But the differences lie mainly in the pronunciation, and to me (an untrained linguist), the Español I hear in Madrid sounds a bit monotone (albeit rápido), in comparison to melodic Italiano.

Another clue lies in the letter “z”. In European Spanish, the “z” in “chorizo” or “Ibiza” sounds like “th” whereas in Italian, “grazie” or “piazza” are pronounced with a “tz” sound. (Is it even possible to say the latter without an accent)?!

A friend here told me that if a Spanish person and an Italian person had a very slow conversation (which seems an unlikely scenario), then they would be able to understand each other, more or less. And I love that! Although I do wonder how much of the conversation would be spoken with their hands…

Of course, I’m being very general and not taking into account the other official languages and regional dialects within each country – of which there are so many!

But what has always amazed me about Europe is that for such a tiny place (in the grand scheme of the word), every single country is so unique. Cross a border in a matter of hours and you find yourself immersed in a new culture, with different food, different traditions…and different languages.

And in the Southern European countries of Spain and Italy, it can only be advantageous to have knowledge of both languages, and I can’t wait to embark on an adventure of comparisons between the two – any excuse to go back to Italy really!

And when I do make that romantic return trip to bella Italia, it will be as a self-proclaimed linguistic geek. But as I sip a perfectly chilled limoncello after a long day of swooning over the famous food and fashion, I will be swept away once more, and not even the lure of comparing grammar systems or identifying identical vocab could bring me back to earth…

They say you need a clear motivation for learning a language. What is mine for learning Italian? Well, other than being able to declare my undying love for the country that holds such an immovable place in my heart, it would also be great to finally translate our wedding certificate!

But I’m getting ahead of myself – I must be patient.

After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day…

Ambition:

Vitamin sea

Vitamin sea

Vamos a la playa!

Last Friday, we set off on our holidays, heading east towards Jávea in the Valencia region. On the outskirts of Madrid, we drove by fields of sunflowers for kilómetros y kilómetros. They were standing perfectly upright in their neat rows, swaying gently in the breeze, like they were waving at me as we passed. They put a big smile on my face and were a perfect reflection of my happiness. I was leaving the city, for the first time in months!

And we weren’t the only ones escaping the furnace that is Madrid in July, the city was gradually emptying as everyone starts flocking to la costa to cool down.

After about 4 hours of waving at sunflowers, I caught my first glimpse of palm trees and knew that we must be close….

And there it was, sparkling like a thousand diamonds under the midday sun. El mar. It looked so inviting! Continuing along a stunning stretch of rugged coastline, I wished we could stop at every viewpoint and golden beach on the way. But R still had a few hours of work to do, and I had some essential poolside reading and a lilo to inflate!

As soon as we arrived in the area, I immediately noticed that all the signs had English translations. This seemed so foreign, which was confusing, but it just isn’t something I am used to seeing in Madrid.  

It soon became apparent that we were “free” to use English. It is the language that the British, Germans and Spanish use to communicate here after all. And although I had the chance to relax my language learning efforts and speak in my native tongue for one weekend only, I was reluctant…

Maybe because I am trying to use every opportunity to practise my ever-improving Spanish and am afraid of all my efforts going to waste? Or because speaking Spanish feels like the “right” thing to do? Either way, I had been looking forward to finally be able to communicate a little as we explore this country that we now call home…but this was tourist territory.

I had been given a recommendation of a local restaurant which was owned by a German guy and was popular with British expats. We went along on the first night, looking forward to hearing some familiar accents after months of being so far from home.

But it wasn’t the friendly atmosphere I had expected, when things fell quiet and we were eyed suspiciously as we approached the bar. I decided that everyone must be a little out of their comfort zones at the moment (despite the chilled vacation vibes we are all supposed to be feeling).

Locals and territorial expats must be adjusting to their coastal resorts filling up again after months of peace, quiet and safety, I thought, and were perhaps suspicious of the smattering of tourists who felt bold enough to take a holiday, and who were still adapting to the new rules. Still, I was unable to think of a time I had been made to feel like such an outsider in Spain…!

I don’t suppose we helped ourselves really, scared that if our Scottish accents were overheard, we would be mistaken for holiday-makers who had sneaked into Spain during the air-bridge ban that still existed in Scotland. Equally, if we explained that we had travelled from Madrid, they may have been fearful of what we had carried from the capital, which had been so affected by coronavirus outbreaks.

So, unsure of what to do but hoping to slip under the radar, we settled on a dubious combination of Spanish (with the German staff) and some quiet Scottish banter amongst ourselves…

After that, we decided that the best option when out and about was to continue with Español. And it never felt so good!

Even the simplest exchange, like ordering a coffee had one waiter looking genuinely impressed, and surprised, by my capability to converse at a basic level. Having your efforts recognised is a boost everyone needs once in a while and all the uncomfortable encounters and linguistic challenges I had faced over the past year started to feel distant (or maybe those chilled vacation vibes were starting to kick in)!

As I lay on my lounger on la playa, listening to the loud and constant chatter of Spanish amongst the locals, I was struck by how carefree everyone seemed. There were friends and families enjoying some of the simplest pleasures on a day at the beach. Sharing moments, making memories and feeling the freedom of flashing their flesh!

There were tourists too, enjoying the same pleasures (only more quietly and with their swimwear firmly on).

Amidst all the ongoing uncertainty, we were all enjoying what sun-soaked Spain had to offer. Together.

On the way home, we detoured via Benidorm, clinging to the coast for as long as possible before the inevitable time came to head back inland. It was surreal to see the resort so quiet, during the peak of summer holidays. In all its years of being home to sun seekers will the beaches of Benidorm have looked like this, with more free sun loungers than occupied ones (and more bronzed bodies than burnt Brits)!

Unapologetic stereotypes only add to the charm of this tourist hot spot and it was worth the extra 40-minute drive for one last paddle in the crystal-clear Med (and to stock up on Irn Bru from a British supermarket)!

I always take a stone from the beach for memories, and this was certainly a trip to remember. Not only was it our first trip to the famous Spanish costa since living here but it was also the first-time leaving Madrid since lockdown began in March. There were times that I could not imagine ever getting out of the apartment, let alone the city, and after seeing so many empty holiday villas with their refreshing pools, I know where I would rather have been confined!

Now, I’m back in the sizzling city, where temperatures are at least 10 grados higher than the cool coast. If I close my eyes (and stand by the fan), I can almost feel the sea breeze that dried my hair into crisp waves, and the salt onto my skin.

I feel energised and restored and until I shake the last grain of sand out of my shoes, I am still reminded of the simple pleasures; sun, sea, sand (and sunflowers).

Now that’s what I call a staycation.

Language success:

Experience: