In Other Words
She stood at the foot of the bed, pleased with herself. Short-pants had just brought in two cups of coffee with frothy milk for De-facto and me. Some traditions have been carried from Paris to Barcelona, Sunday morning coffee-in-bed service the best among them.
“Are you ready for the word of the day?” She shifted her weight from her left foot to right foot and back, her quirky gesture when she’s nervous or very excited. Today because she was excited; she loves her new job, augmenting our Spanish vocabulary.
De-facto and I, obedient pupils, repeated the word, in tandem.
“Know what it means?”
We sipped our coffees, waiting for the answer. She gave us a clue. “At the end of knitting, you need them.”
“Knots?” I asked.
She shook her head. Using her fingers, she made a cutting motion.
“Yes. And do you remember yesterday’s word?”
“Derecha,” De-facto shouted, exaggerating each syllable. It’s a bit of a caricature, his foreign accent, which is the same whether he’s speaking French or trying out Italian or Spanish.
“Derecho,” Short-pants corrected.
“Right,” he said, “derecho.”
“Sí!” She beamed.
We ran through all the words we’d learned this week, courtesy of her tutelage: reloj (watch), bigote (mustache), roncar (to snore), hombro (shoulder, not to be confused with hombre, man or hambre, hunger) and a personal favorite: semafaro (traffic light). She stood at the edge of the bed smiling at us, our proud teacher, pleased with our progress.
It doesn’t surprise us that Short-pants is the purveyor of words and language in our household. She is the most avid reader, reading and re-reading several books a week. Her trophy from last year’s spelling bee victory is a prized possession, one of the few personal objects she brought from her Paris bedroom. At school she’s plunged into both of the local languages, Castellano and Catalan, and she’s always happy to practice with us.
Her sister, Buddy-roo: not so much. Sometimes I’ll initiate a conversation with her in Spanish and she’ll bark at me.
“Mama, I don’t speak Spanish!”
Her resistance doesn’t trouble me. It’s all around her and she’ll pick it up. One day she’ll just let it rip, and she’ll speak it better than all of us.
I’m far from fluent. My three years of high school Spanish (and embarrassingly, two years in junior high before that) are buried somewhere deep in my brain. Little by little, phrases and grammar constructions seep to the surface, triggered by the day-to-day Spanish that surrounds me. My annual jaunts to Pamplona and the trek on the Camino last year have helped only a little. I have miles to go before I speak Spanish comfortably or articulately.
I have my excuses. A heavy itinerary of professional travel this fall has made havoc of any routine I might have tried to establish in our new home city. It’s hard to keep up with the regular demands of life – most of them administrative – with this kind of travel schedule, let alone making time for consistent language instruction. I can navigate at the market and handle simple restaurant encounters with barmaids and waiters. Last week I successfully deposited money in the bank, bought stamps and took my sweaters in to be dry-cleaned. But I can’t convey who I am or what know in this language, and I’m still lost when I have to speak it on the telephone. This is when I ask myself why do I do this? Why do I choose to live in a place, once again, where I have to start from scratch – or nearly from scratch – to speak the language?
It doesn’t take me long to get to the answer. When given the choice between easy and different, I usually choose different. Although some might argue that Spanish isn’t such a different language, and what I should be studying is something not so easy, like Mandarin. But my goal is to get truly operative in Spanish, and to open that door for our daughters as well. Madrid or any other Spanish city might have been a better place for that, given the Catalan bias here, but it was Barcelona that called to us, and so here we are, struggling one word at a time, to put our thoughts and feelings into other words from other languages.