Archive | April, 2011

On Learning Castellano

Posted on 27 April 2011 by American expat!


Something happened in Spanish class the other day that got me thinking about languages.

Whenever you mention to Americans that you speak another language, the first question usually asked is “are you fluent?” But really, how do you answer that question? Do they mean: Can you order stuff in a restaurant? Have a conversation in the supermarket? How about on the phone? Argue about politics? Each of those things take a different level of language understanding to which you could truthfully answer Yes to the question of fluency. When I learned German, I got to a point where I was dreaming in the language and forgetting words in English. I was fully immersed in the language, and also a lot younger, which makes a difference. Of course, I immediately forgot all of the language I spent over a year learning upon leaving the country.

When I moved to Spain at the end of 2008, I fully expected to be dreaming in Spanish in six months. Two and a half years later, I am finally reaching a level of proficiency where I no longer avoid certain social situations because I know there would only be Spanish spoken and I will not be able to hold up a conversation. Try that for three or four hours and you’ll understand that more than once a week is too mentally exhausting not to mention humiliating.

So I’ve been diligently attending four hour, five day a week Spanish classes since November (though I cannot make it every week, for example I took a six week break in December/January because I was in the US). I’ve been two three different schools of varying excellence or lack thereof. I also study every day for another hour. This is how much work it takes to learn a new language as an adult. There is no learning by osmosis just because you are surrounded by another language. You will invariably seek out your native language speakers at some point just to feel a connection with with people.

But classes are great, I love going to school. I feel totally at home with the wake up, go to class, study at home, go practice with someone in person over a coffee routine.  (Maybe that’s why I spent 5 years in University and another 2 in graduate school. Or maybe that was just to avoid getting a real job, I don’t know.)

I love the international microcosm that the classes hold.  And I especially love when Japanese students are in the class. Not only because their cultural references are so different from the rest of the Western world (we picked a team name of “The Sharks”, another team chose “Lightening Bolts”, and a third team, who happened to all be Japanese students, chose the very sporting title of “Mountain”), but their fashion sense is awesome. Last year, I had a girl in class who one day wore giant clip on earrings, tube socks with shorts, and big Roy Orbison style black framed glasses with no lenses – just the frames. And that was just one day of many such delightfully fashionable outfits.

So anyway, my story about the other day: We had an exercise to do in class involving creating a name, slogan and advertising points for a fictional business to open in town. My partner (another American) and I chose “Internacional Casa de Pancakes”, our direct ripoff of IHOP, which would probably not be well received in any way by the Spanish since

  1. they do not eat pancakes
  2. they think our coffee is shit (which is true)
  3. their idea of syrup, indeed of anything sweet when it comes to breakfast, is either chocolate or caramel, and only chocolate or caramel
  4. they don’t really eat butter either

So blueberry syrup on a stack of pan fried doughy disks with butter would be triply repulsive. But we persevered nonetheless, and we put blueberry syrup in our list of features to lure in the clientele. Except no one understood the word I was absolutely, positively sure was the word for blueberry.

I said to the teacher over and over: Mirtillo. Mirtillo! I spelled it out. No one recognized the word or what I was trying to describe. Finally the doubt crept in. Maybe those are the red berries, not the blue ones?  The teacher told me arándano. I looked it up: arándano. Where had mirtillo come from?

As you know, there are two official languages in this region, and occasionally, especially with food because I learn the names in the markets but sometimes words to do with household related things, I learn and use the Catalan word for something. Finca instead of edificio for building, pruna instead of ciruela for plum, and I don’t even know I’m using a Catalan word. Here, if you are speaking Spanish and throw in a few Catalan words, it goes unnoticed as everyone does that anyway. So I figured, ah ha, I used the Catalan word and my teacher is from Peru, so she didn’t recognize the word.

But I just looked up the word in Catalan for blueberry. It’s nabiu (nah- BEEu). Mirtillo is Italian. I’m mixing three languages. I sound like my boyfriend when he tries to speak Spanish – it starts out OK then degenerates into a big mess of Italian/Spanish/Catalan. Everyone understands him, so it’s fine, and he doesn’t care in the slightest. But I want fluidity. I want no one to be able to detect where I am from and I want smooth, unhalted conversations on complex topics.

So I may be studying for the rest of my life. If nothing else just to keep what I have already learned in my head. But I like school, so I’m OK with that.

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More Spanish efficiency

Posted on 05 April 2011 by American expat!


A while ago, I wrote about how efficient the Spanish blue collar workers are. But now I have an exciting new story to share. Believe me, this one is so much better!

A few weeks ago, because of the way the air flows through this flat, one of the windows literally was blown out by the wind when I accidentally left the bedroom doors open. The wooden doors on the opposite end of the house open out onto a tiny balcony. The nails in the flimsy wood pieces that held the heavy glass part of one of the doors were sucked right out by the wind tunnel that formed, and the glass smashed onto the balcony railing and shattered onto the narrow pedestrian street below. Fortunately no one was on the receiving end of the falling glass shards. But it did grab the attention of the neighbors, who then called the owner and the fire department. (I was in class, so I came home to some serious mayhem.)

The owner of the flat arranged a repair company to come out the same day. Two guys showed up to  measure for new glass. Then they told me it would be ready in one week. Now, knowing how these things typically work, I did not even bother telling them I would not be in the country for the next 9 days. So I put plastic over the window and left.

After my return, it rained. It even hailed one day, sending little ice balls smacking against the plastic taped over the window in my living room. All so very relaxing. And still I had no phone call.

Finally, 12 days after original visit, the company called on a Monday to set an appointment for two days later. It rained the day of the appointment, so evidently that means they don’t work, so no one shows (or calls). Friday a man arrives at my door. He arrives empty handed.  The guy looked at the window, asked where the missing piece of wood was (um, it’s broken? It’s with the rest of the window in the trash?) and left. The purpose of this visit still eludes me.

He is supposed to call the next day to confirm returning either in the morning  or the following day in the afternoon. He doesn’t call.

I wait four more days.

Finally, my landlord calls to ask if I will be home that Friday for the company to come out. I say Yes. I am ready for a window. They show up one hour late, but with wood and glass and silicon. And then they display the level of expertise that is unfortunately what you can normally expect here:  They fumble about and remove nails from the old wood, then put tiny dots of silicon where the nails used to be, and reuse the old wood to hold in the glass. Even I, someone who is nowhere near a carpenter, know that six blobs of silicon on balsa wood is not strong enough to hold in a 15 pound lead glass window that sits at the end of a powerful wind tunnel. Hello. I’m guessing at the very least you should at least cover the wood with silicon? I stare open mouthed and try to wrap my head around how these guys are make it through life.

Hey, I’m not complaining, it could have been worse. For example (and there are so many examples to choose from!) recently a friend caught electrical transformer and subsequently his wall on fire. He had no electricity for over a month and, having all electrical power (no gas for hot water or stove) had to shower and cook at a friends house. The day the workmen arrived (one month later, remember), they arrived an hour late, immediately left for a one hour breakfast break, then left before the work was complete because they had another appointment. I think there were three more visits before all was said and done.

So let’s sum up. It took three weeks and three men to cut a piece of glass and a 2 foot piece of balsa wood and glue gun it all in place. And that wasn’t even an extreme example of inefficiency.

I just hope I don’t have any better stories than to share with you in the future.

PS As hair pullingly frustrating as all this sounds, this level of workmanship, responsiveness and efficiency is far better than the bureaucracy should you decide to legally reside here as an American. But that is another story.

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Spanish TV is Painful.

Posted on 03 April 2011 by American expat!


Since I’m on a “Complain about Spain” streak, let me complain about television over here. I’m not much of a TV watcher, but I do try to use it to enhance my listening skills and vocabulary. But there are three things I absolutely cannot stand about Spanish television that inevitably will make me turn it off after a few channel rotations:

1. Dubbing television shows and movies here is standard. Now, I cannot stand dubbing in the first place. Give me sub titles any day or make me try to figure out the story on my own by looking at the images.

But the problem is not the dubbing in itself. It is that there are two people (one man, one woman) who do all the language dubbing for programs bought from foreign (American) markets. I am so sick of hearing their voices I want to scream. And not only because they are overused voice “actors” and rarely fit the character on the program. And also not because I know that Brad Pitt does not sound like a 50 year old radio announcer.

It’s because they aren’t actors at all. I swear they don’t even try. They sound like two people reading a bedtime story to some kid, altering their voices to portray different characters and doing a shitty, lazy job of it. Imagine whiny, cranky sounding whimpering when someone on Law and Order is weeping over someone’s death. I’ll wait. OK, got it? It’s worse than that.

2. The music put to news stories never has anything to do with the story. Example. Today a story about a credit card scam was backed by – ready for this bit of production genius? – Huey Lewis and the News, Power of Love. I am serious, and this is not an anomaly. That dumb-ass song has the line “don’t need no credit card to ride this train”. And therefore the professional editors felt it appropriate to use this jaunty tune to enhance a story of thievery.

Another brilliant example is the use of the 1960s song “California Dreamin'” every. single. time. the state of California is mentioned. And as a location too, not the subject of a story. If you must have the word California in a song, there are around 700 other songs to choose from. Does another, more un-newsworthy song exist with the word California in it? No. And how amateur (or lazy?) is it to just use a song about California instead of the theme of the actual story? Where do these media people learn their craft?

3. Did I mention there are only 2 people working in the dubbing department for every single movie, Simpson’s episode and Sex and the City re-run? Because there are. Only two. Ridiculous.

4. Belen Esteban with her bright yellow, home hair-dye job, and her horrible, smoke ravaged, heavily made up face with it’s protruding lips and eyeballs is on the TV constantly. Girl, I have some advice for you: skip the lip collagen and plastic surgery and invest in some Botox, and maybe a facial peel or two. It may also be time to start using some sunblock. (Note: link on her name goes to a Facebook page dedicated to her “old” face, the one before she lost a lot of weight, had a bunch of plastic surgery, and evidently started smoking so much and baking in the sun. Enjoy.)

I think I’ll stick to the news for practicing my listening skills, since the irrelevant music is the least offensive of the three crimes. I’ll just crank up the volume and sing along with Huey next time one of his songs backs a story (which is often) since it’s gonna remain in my head for the next week regardless.

Or at least until California is mentioned in the news again.

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