This year I declared that I want to learn Dutch. Why? Why not? I’ve studied several languages in the past, and I thought I would share my methods before I really get rolling.
Languages are ranked by complexity, and there are four categories. Japanese and Arabic, for example, are both Category IV, partly because they have their own writing systems. There are serviceable estimates for how many hours of study it takes to become fluent in various languages. Dutch qualifies as a Category I, and that’s why I’m comfortable choosing it as a project.
Usually when people say they want to learn a language, instead of “I want to learn this language,” they say, “I want to get the Rosetta Stone” for it. I’ve heard this from dozens of people, but I’ve never actually met anyone who claims to have learned a language this way! I single it out because it’s expensive, and with the internet, there are tons of free ways to learn any language.
There are two important questions to answer that have already come up in this post.
There are four categories of language comprehension: speaking, listening, writing, and reading. We tend to be better at some categories than others, even in our native tongue. Most people picture themselves “speaking” their chosen language.
The basic problem with this, as I have found from experience, is that the better you sound, the more fluent people assume you are, and the faster they start talking to you! They will not realize that they should filter for you, so they’ll use slang, big words, and idioms. I’m a good mimic, so I purposely talk slowly and flatten my accent. If my vocabulary only has like twenty words, then I want to make sure that’s obvious to my listener.
This is why, for my purposes, when I say “learn” a language I really mean I want to be able to read it. I would only consider myself fluent if I could listen to a casual speaker and grasp 80% of what they were saying.
Fluency doesn’t mean we need to know a bunch of obscure surgical terminology or be able to have a conversation about numismatics - unless, of course, that’s the reason we’re trying to study.
This is where most beginners could use more specificity. We think of learning a language as a bucket list type of a goal, but we don’t necessarily color in the whole visual. Who are we talking to, and what are we talking about?
When we study languages in school, we start with grammar and classroom nouns, like ‘paper’ and ‘pencil.’ We might spend a year in class, get straight A’s, and still not be able to use the past tense. We get few opportunities to listen to natural speakers having casual conversations, which is probably how most of us would imagine fluency feels.
What I’ve learned from travel is that almost all of my opportunities to practice speaking are totally predictable, utilitarian transactions. Buying stuff. Getting directions. Getting directions in order to buy stuff. Asking what ingredients are in something. I realized that I needed to spend much more time listening, like 3:1, rather than speaking. I also realized that I needed to spend about 5x more effort memorizing lists of nouns.
This is where I get around to why I chose the Dutch language, out of all others, and how I picture myself using it.
The first time I traveled to a country whose official language was not English, I was blown away to realize how many travelers there are from other countries. Wherever you go, if it’s a tourist attraction, there will be French and German visitors! I had the opportunity to try to help a French tourist read an Icelandic map, and I realized that the French I studied as a 12-year-old kid actually had a real-world application. It was more than a thing of beauty and complexity, an interesting puzzle; it was a legit code for altruism and human connection. Whoa.
I went home and picked up a bit of French and German. As I did, I pictured all the friendly French and German faces I had seen on the trail and I imagined being able to trade travel notes and birdwatching tips. It was motivating.
Adding Dutch, for a linguistics nerd like me, is a way to stretch my circle.
The reason I’m focusing on a language for my first declared ultralearning project is that I’ve felt like I have neglected an innate talent. For other people, this might be something like drawing, singing, woodworking, playing guitar, dance, or a sport like tennis or swimming. I’m pretty terrible at every single one of those things, but language is something I can get into. Also, it’s supposed to help fight dementia.
Why Dutch, just to meet backpackers in other countries? Because it’s a Cat I, that’s why, and the grammar is similar to English. Later I intend to bone up on my high school Japanese. I can still read hiragana and katakana, I’ve had a couple of quickie conversations over the years, and my accent is understandable. I’m pretty excited to take on more Asian languages - I’m just rusty.
My ultimate fantasy would be to travel in every country on Earth, and spend enough time studying in advance that I could exchange greetings with someone there in their own language. That’s not necessarily a dream of unity, though. Why should someone else drop what they were doing just to entertain me?
“HI! GUUUD MORGNIEEN” *tries to wave, instead makes rude gesture*
“Uh, hi?... Do I... know you?” *rolls eyes*
In the meantime, I’ve started my project. I’ve chosen my language and I know why I want to learn it. I can picture the types of transactions and conversations I might have.
At this stage, I assemble my materials.
I don’t believe in going out and buying “foreign language dictionaries.” I used to! I used to check them out from the public library in stacks up to my chin. Instead, I start with the Babbel app. When I feel like I know a bit more, I go to TuneIn Radio and try to find a local station. I try to sound out news headlines. The next step would be to find a language partner for chatting online, and that’s where I balked back before I became a Distinguished Toastmaster.
That’s what is so funny about linguistics. A lot of us with a great passion for languages are actually really shy about using those languages to, ya know, talk? To humans?
All right then. My ultralearning language project is to study Dutch until I can test at the A1 level. I’ll also try to find a real Dutch person who will chat with me in Dutch for a minute or two, next fall or winter.
In forty years of regular library use, I continue to be amazed that I’ve been missing out on stuff. Every time I think I’ve finally hacked it, I stumble across yet another dimension of awesome and free library features. This has been another year of rediscovering how fabulous is Benjamin Franklin’s greatest contribution to civilization, the public library. Now I’m using it to plan a big ultralearning project for the New Year.
Here is a quick rundown of my favorite library hacks, before I show off my new finds:
I have five active library cards! A lot of people can access multiple libraries depending on where they live. For instance, both San Francisco and Los Angeles allow anyone who lives in California State to become a patron, and you don’t even have to show up in person. Other libraries will allow outsiders to buy in with an annual fee. I have a county card and four city cards, two of which give me access to regional library systems. On rare occasions, I request physical books or DVDs, where they show up on the hold shelf around the corner from my apartment. Mostly, I use electronic media.
I use four apps to get ebooks, audiobooks, and magazines. There is an exploit here, because I’ve discovered that all my holds are counted separately, on the four apps and the fifth way, through the physical collection. ALSO, for some mysterious reason, none of the resources in three of these apps show up on the library catalogue, only through the apps themselves, so there is virtually zero competition for those collections. About 80% of the time I can just check out a hot new book immediately, even when there are over 500 people waiting for it via normal means.
That’s the basic level. I can put somewhere around 90 books on hold at a time and I’m pretty sure I could check out over 100 if I really wanted. (This made me curious, and it turns out most of my resources don’t actually have a limit). (!)(!)(!)
Next I figured out that I could use an app to speed-read text. Simply copy and paste ebook text, one chapter at a time, into the Outread app. While you can listen to an audiobook at 2x speed through most apps, Hoopla can play them at 3x!
I was happily reading along, feeling awestruck and blessed by this abundance of books, when I realized that there was still more out there. Between my various libraries, I found out that I had access to The Great Courses AND Rosetta Stone. *thud*
Then I started poking around a bit more, partly because I am thinking about a foreign language for my ultralearning project. There are a bunch of different language learning materials...
And THEN I fell down a black hole. As I was writing this, it occurred to me that I almost never look at the main webpage of any of my libraries, and that I had never done a full overview of all their offerings. What else did they have?
Professional development courses
Practice exams for the GRE (and all the college-prep stuff)
Tons of genealogy material and historical archives
I even found out that there were yet more apps where I could have been checking out ebooks and audiobooks all this time. The reason most of them don’t have a wait list is that they have an unlimited amount of checkouts, so nobody has to wait!
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING
There’s a certain paradox with library holds. Classic books that are usually pre-copyright, like anything by Dickens or Jane Austen, will often have a months-long wait list. It never occurred to me to simply search for them elsewhere. The lesser-known apps have complete collections of all this stuff. For completists, your wait is over, and now you can read through your checklist as quickly as you like.
Something else that hadn’t occurred to me is that the library gives us access to entire collections in various languages. If I want to improve my skills in Spanish, for example, I’m not limited to textbooks or workbooks; I can try to read bestsellers or anything else that I would have read in English. This has just blown my mind because I was wondering what I would do if I ever managed to become fluent.
For language study, I have:
The Great Courses even has Latin and Ancient Greek!
At least one of my local branches has language clubs, where people meet to practice their skills on certain evenings of the week.
I’ve also been flirting with the idea of going back to school for a master’s degree (but in what?). I like to joke that it would be funny to have people introduce my husband and me as “Doctor and Mister” - which is only even remotely funny because he is an aerospace engineer with a master’s degree and multiple patents in process. He’s been far too busy for the past quarter century, so if one of us is getting a doctorate at some point it will most likely have to be me. Now that I know I have access to all these free math courses, and GRE practice materials, I can’t use either the academic calendar or money as an excuse.
For anyone thinking of their poky, musty little local library, don’t be sad. If you are reading this, then you are online, and you have free access to basically anything ever. Many universities, libraries, and museums around the world offer free access to their entire online collections. You could be browsing through those offerings right now instead of reading this.
The biggest hindrance that we have in learning new things, once we are no longer formally enrolled in a school, is that we have to choose our own materials and set our own schedules. All of us could find 10 or 15 minutes a day to learn something new, whether that’s a new recipe or a few words in sign language. We just have to decide to do it and move forward with something exciting.
My first step was to look at what materials are available to me. My second step will be to schedule when I’m going to work on my new ultralearning project. Over lunch? During my workout? My third step will be to start the new year with the hope that I’ll end it, in December, knowing something new.
How about you?
You try to prepare for anything when you travel, but you don’t really count on coming down with a cold. My hubby woke up ill on vacation. Later in the day, we determined that we should go out and find some cold medicine.
That’s when it got complicated.
Objectively, I feel that we are very lucky this is the only thing to have befallen us. All sorts of things can go wrong on holiday.
In fact, our first night out, we had just sat down to dinner when an elderly man fell on the pavement. He was alone. The waiters of our restaurant ran out to help him, offered him a seat (which he refused) and probably would have brought him water, called him a doctor, or anything else he needed. We’re right down the block from a hospital, after all.
He did what a betting person would assume an elderly British gentleman would do. He waved off all offers of help and limped off on his own. He probably would have done the same even if he had a crocodile attached to his leg.
Fortunately, all we had was one case of common cold and one case of man-cold.
We walked to the closest pharmacy to see what they had in stock and test my language skills.
This is one of the toughest parts of travel. Not only do you not have the terminology for anything you didn’t explicitly study, but your cultural and commercial assumptions only apply sporadically.
At home, we knew exactly where we would go to buy our preferred cold medicines and how to take them. We’d just go to a large grocery store and buy some NyQuil. Maybe they have the same brands?
Answer: No they do not.
At this pharmacy, even the vitamins were kept behind the counter. Almost the entire store revolved around skincare, shampoo, and baby stuff. We checked the grocery store later, and they don’t even sell bandages or aspirin.
We didn’t recognize ANY brand names or packaging.
Cover me, I’m going in.
My Spanish is pathetic. I mean, I have successfully bought train tickets, gotten directions, ordered food, and made change, okay sure. But there are probably junior high school kids who have covered more than that in their first term. I feel that as an adult person who has spent weeks in Spanish-speaking countries, I have no excuse for not trying harder, studying more. Practicing with my many Spanish-speaking friends. Preparing.
It doesn’t help that I am shy, and my embarrassment at my sloppy efforts makes this worse.
I’m going to leave out punctuation and accent marks here, because if you heard me talking, that is how it would sound.
Hola, mi hombre esta enfermo.
The pharmacist looked extremely professional and intelligent. She raised her eyebrows.
I nudged my husband and had him hold up his phone, where we had looked up “translate Spanish common cold.”
‘Resfriado comun,’ it said.
“Ah,” said the pharmacist, and gestured, holding her hand in front of her nose and mouth. She had two drugs to offer, one for cold symptoms and one for dry cough. That certainly simplified things. She told him (me) to take it three times a day.
We bought the cold medicine, and then it got slightly more complicated.
We were only a couple minutes from our hotel. I started reading the package of the medicine, looking for instructions. While I realized that this would be a powder to mix with liquid, there were literally no instructions on how much to mix it with.
This has got to be one of those vernacular things. Like when we buy tablets or capsules and we know that you just swallow it with whatever helps you wash it down, unless you are a chaos magician and you dry-swallow. A lot of countries sell their over-the-counter medicines in this powder form, and people probably figure out their preferred delivery method in childhood.
Like, don’t mash up headache tabs and put them in jelly. To this day I think raspberry jam tastes like aspirin.
My husband, an engineer, shrugged and poured the powder into a glass of water while I was still puzzling over the instructions.
My reading comprehension is really pretty good when it comes to jargon like this. Most of the key words are Latinate and medical terminology is similar everywhere. I was able to read through the list of contraindications. “Be careful if you’re lactating,” I tell him, and he replies, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The one thing we couldn’t figure out was whether this would be a wired-and-tired drug or a knockout drug like our friendly neighborhood NyQuil. The answer to that came a short time later, when he descended into a two-hour nap.
The next day, the maid came in. I had waved her off the previous day. “Mi marido es... sick.” (I haven’t been feeling that well either). She cleaned around us. After she left, I realized that she had brought us a pack of tissues, a very thoughtful gesture and not on the regular checklist.
Then I realized that she was checking IN, making sure that these strangers to her country were alive and kicking. I have no doubt whatsoever that, if she found us passed out or in distress, she would have taken the appropriate steps. She unlocked our door with purpose.
We had all sorts of plans when we came here to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. They definitely did not include lying around feeling ill or testing our language skills at the pharmacy.
You know what, though? Like most shared adversity, this is helping us feel closer. We’re taking care of each other, somehow throwing together hot meals, pouring juice and tea, knowing that everything could certainly be worse. We’re safe and friendly people are looking out for us.
Here’s hoping we’re over the worst of it before our dinner reservations, or at least our flight home...
I had a moment, a little moment of glory that probably wouldn’t impress anyone but me. Still, it was exciting.
We were standing around at our gate in an airport in Belgium. It had only been posted a few minutes before. Belgium is such a laid-back place that the reader boards literally say, “Relax,” and that the gate will be posted at a later time. For almost every flight. They leave about half an hour between notification and boarding. Until then, you’re left to sit wherever seems likely.
We were standing around, having waited for no fewer than six hours, feeling like our flight would finally be underway.
Then I heard an announcement in French.
Belgium is a multi-lingual place. Everything is posted in French, Dutch, and English.
The announcement mentioned our flight, but instead of gate fifty-five, it said fifty-eight. I was sure of it.
Then the same announcement came through again in Dutch. I barely know fifteen words of Dutch, I only dabbled a little a few years ago, but the counting words sound pretty similar to either German or English. That was definitely an eight, not a five!
I was nudging my husband, knowing we would need to change gates. I figured the English announcement would come through any second now. Then he would hear it and I would be validated by an unimpeachably authoritative source.
There was never an announcement in English!
This might have been because we were the only English-speaking people on this discount European flight. Who knows? In all our travels this was the first time we weren’t catered to as monolingual Americans. In our complacency it had never occurred to us to prepare for a flight where we would have to interpret everything.
Either the gate change came through via text, or it posted somewhere, because I finally got my hubby into motion. Through serendipity, not only were we at the correct end of a terminal that includes sixty gates, but we happened to have chosen the correct gate for lounging purposes. We had to walk only a few yards, back to where we had been sitting earlier.
We were on the plane not even ten minutes later.
Could we have sat there stupidly at the wrong gate, waiting while our flight left without us? Would our names have been announced? Not sure. In 35 years of air travel, I have never missed a flight.
In any case, this experience rekindled the fire within me for language study.
I have been fascinated with foreign languages since grade school. My beloved second-grade teacher introduced the concept that not everyone spoke the same language, and that there were different words for things if you visited other countries. Nothing in my life has ever excited me that much. It seemed like maybe you could get some kind of secret decoder ring and eavesdrop on people, or that you could learn extra languages and have super powers.
I went to the public library and discovered that there were entire shelves of dictionaries and language study guides, and I was done for. Then I found a series of miniature language dictionaries at the local bookstore, and any chance of rescue was demolished.
As an adult, learning to sound out a new writing system, or recognizing one or two words on a magazine cover, makes me feel exactly as lit up as the seven-year-old I used to be.
The question is always, why aren’t we doing the things that we know delight us the most?
I’ve seen it over and over again. The mom who hasn’t picked up a paintbrush since her first child was born. The dad who gave up guitar even though his kids would love to hear him play. Everyone who ever quit dance or yoga or journaling.
In my clutter work, the equipment is the reason I know about these shuttered dreams. Even decades later, we’ll still keep all our gear, our handbooks, our special outfits. This means it’s not a matter of money. The cash investment has already been made, which is of course why we hate to let go - sunk cost fallacy.
I could go back to intensive language study any time I like, without a financial hit. People think you have to take classes or buy Rosetta Stone, but really you just do a language exchange for free with someone who speaks your target language and wants to learn yours. If you live in a major city, you can even meet in person. For instance, in Los Angeles I could easily find a language buddy in anything from Armenian to Vietnamese.
Why? Because it lights me up and puts joy in my heart.
There are other things that light me up, and fortunately I know what they are. Even more fortunately, they are pretty harmless, and mostly things that my husband and/or friends and family are willing to do with me. Chief among these is travel. While language study is fun in its own right, it’s extremely helpful in the context of travel.
One of the first things we do when we get to a new country is to stop at a grocery store and buy food. Sometimes this is easy, like when we buy fresh produce and generally know what things are. (Not always!) Other times, it is fraught with peril, like when the packaging vernacular is different than what we have at home.
What else is fun? Trying to decipher a list of ingredients when there are as many as six to eight languages on the label, and none of them are English!
I once, and this is true, figured out what was in a tub of margarine partly because I can read Greek and I sounded out ‘extra-partheno.’
Being able to pick out a few cognates here and there is hardly the same as being able to do simultaneous translations, or actually develop deep friendships with people who don’t speak your native tongue. It’s little more than a party trick.
Still, developing a little polyglot power can be useful, it can help your travel companions, and it’s interesting in a way that passively consuming entertainment will never be.
If you were going to study another language, what would it be?
If you ever studied a foreign language in the classroom and came away without any practical conversational ability, this is the book for you. Janina Klimas explains exactly what is wrong with traditional language teaching methods, based on her own experience in becoming multilingual and teaching languages for decades. Learn ANY Language is a pragmatic, encouraging book written in an engagingly casual style.
The problem with foreign language classrooms is that they focus on grammar, move too quickly through advanced material, and offer very little that would be helpful in basic conversation. I have studied five languages in the classroom, as well as tried to communicate with locals in a foreign country, and I can attest to this. Almost everything you need to learn for your first trip to a new country revolves around travel itself. Explaining where you want to go, buying tickets, making change, spelling your name, reciting numbers, correcting mistakes in taking down your name and number, getting directions, hailing a cab... The amount of vocabulary you need on your first day is almost inversely proportional to what you will need in a casual chat with a friendly local.
Learn ANY Language is absolutely loaded with helpful resources. Not least of these is a section of study cues for different levels of language proficiency. This is how foreign language textbooks should be designed! Much of this book revolves around study strategy. Why are you studying a language? What kinds of things will you want to talk about? Textbooks tend to have model conversations about topics that are irrelevant for most people. When I was in Spain this spring, for example, we needed to be able to ask whether we could pitch a tent at an RV park and whether a store sold a certain type of propane canister. Some conversations are complicated in our native language, much less in a new language in which we don't know any specialized vocabulary. Looking at sample sentence topics really helps to clarify what we most need to learn.
Klimas advocates for appeals to schools and governments to redesign foreign language programs, and I agree. The way language is taught now is akin to dumping calculus on third-graders. Another issue is that classrooms focus on "correcting" speech errors, rather than encouraging confidence and fluency. We make mistakes in our own native tongues every day, yet we are still understood. People are generally pretty nice when this happens, no matter what language. They're just glad that we're making an effort to try to talk to them and reach across the linguistic divide.
Learn ANY Language is a quick, enjoyable read. It is aimed at anyone who has been frustrated and disappointed by previous attempts to learn a language in a standard classroom. The book includes some great graphics and illustrations of various students' study tools, methods that actually worked in developing real-world fluency. I highly recommend it. Learning a foreign language is the most commonly kept New Year's Resolution. Why not try it out and allow yourself to fall in love with foreign languages all over again?
I’ve been to four continents now. I can swagger around and say, “Yup, I’ve been to Africa.” It’s true, I really have. But we did it the entry-level way. We didn’t have to apply for visas, we didn’t have to get any extra vaccinations, we didn’t have to learn any new languages, and we didn’t go anywhere unescorted. We were able to get our feet wet with virtually no risk. We simply signed up for a cultural day trip and the tour company took care of all the complicated parts. It was enough for us to understand that committing to extended travel in North Africa on our own would be a more serious undertaking. The wing-it method had the paradoxical effect of motivating me to do much more advance prep.
We woke up early and checked out of the Algeciras Marriott. That hotel was an insane bargain. As far as we could tell, we might well have been the only guests! We took a cab to the Port to meet the shuttle that would take us to the ferry that would carry us over the 88 miles of sea to Morocco. It was rainy and still dark.
There was an important errand we needed to fit in between the arrival of the shuttle bus and the departure of the ferry. We had inquired about a place where we could lock up our massive backpacks for the day, and the only enterprise that would do it was a travel agency about a quarter mile up the road from the ferry terminal. It was a very brisk walk uphill, and a faster jog back. We barely made it. We were herded into line and given identifying stickers, much as I would do if I were supervising a kindergarten field trip.
The ferry was a fascinating experience on its own. Even the icon on the women’s restroom was dressed modestly. There were plenty of women in Western dress, and I didn’t get any funny looks, but I definitely looked foreign in this context. Especially considering that I had to get out my sewing kit and try to stitch down the strap on our little day pack before it ripped loose.
One of the many things travel will do is to teach you the precise meaning of the phrase You Get What You Pay For. We’re turning into gear snobs.
We disembarked and walked down the gangplank, on high alert that we were about to set foot on a new continent for the first time. “Ready? One, two, three:” and we both jumped down together, then jumped up and did a double high-five, to the amusement of a German man in our group.
Our guide appeared and we did a double take. Is it just me, or does he look oddly familiar?
He asked us each to say what language we spoke. We were Spanish, English, and German. He then ran the tour in each language, one after the other, telling the same mother-in-law jokes for each group. It was funny to hear each group laughing at the appropriate spot. Perhaps that’s the only type of humor that translates into every culture? It was a very rainy day, but our cheerfully chattering guide kept us smiling as he laughed at his own jokes. It turned out that he spoke NINE languages.
The van took us past the palaces (rather: compounds) of various kings and princes from across North Africa and the Middle East. Clearly these were places of great wealth, but you’d never know it from outside. Each of them was less architecturally distinctive than the last, really just concrete blocks less Brutalist than Costco-esque. All we could do was to imagine how many lush carpets and chandeliers might be inside.
Part of the tour included areas of Tangier that had been settled by various colonizing nations. There were mosques, churches, and synagogues. We passed a café that had a mixed-gender section and a men-only section across the street. We saw veiled women on the backs of mopeds. Our guide told us that a veil on a woman did not necessarily indicate religion; many women wore them out of convenience, to keep their hair from blowing around.
Can I say this? I’m a little envious and fascinated by the hijab. My hair has been the great annoyance of my life. I could easily see myself wearing a head scarf of some kind, complete with a bodycon dress just to confuse people. Strange how a piece of fabric can be so saturated with cultural resonance, perhaps more so than a national flag, such as that of, I dunno, let’s say: Fiji.
We stopped at a lighthouse that marked the division between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. There was a camel opportunity. You could go up and take your picture with the camels, touch them if you dared, and pay a tip to ride one down the parking lot and back. The one on the right seemed receptive to light stroking; she lifted her chin and closed her eyes. The one on the left jerked his head away and vocalized his dissent. I’ll do an impression for you if you ask nicely.
There was a pretty cool cave that was supposedly where Hercules rested after he completed his labors. The interior had been visibly carved out by human hands. People had been coming here to cut their millstones for who knows how many centuries. You could see these biscuit-shaped gouges of consistent size up the walls and ceiling. How big was the cave when they started? Was it even a cave, or did we turn it into one?
We passed a beach with a large mixed group of adults in street clothes, playing soccer in the sand. It looked like maybe a family party, with some older aunties joining in.
We had spent most of the tour sitting in the van, which was great because it rained pretty hard all morning. The medina was our chance to get out and really walk around. What a maze. Most of the spaces between buildings were so narrow that you could stretch out your arms and touch both sides. There were signs, but we couldn’t read them; English is not an official language in Morocco, so if you can’t read Arabic or French, good luck. Almost everything for sale was food, mostly fresh produce. Someone was selling baggies of cooked chickpeas. Tangier would be an extremely inexpensive place to pick up groceries, even in this tourist-inflected area.
The tour included lunch. When we came in, we were greeted by a live band, and by that I mean that the musicians said hello to each of us while they played. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I had brought snacks. The menu is really only for drinks; everyone gets served the same courses. First there was a fragrant soup that clearly had egg in it. Then, for the first time since 1994, I had a plate of meat plopped in front of me. I blinked at it in the same way I would if someone had presented me with a bowling ball. Huh? Me? My husband has enjoyed some large lunches on this trip, most particularly when we take trains. “Have some more bread,” offered the kindly Brits at our table.
Then something funny happened. Funny from my perspective, anyway, because I am usually guest non grata at home. The waiter leaned over me and said in concern, “You did not eat!” “Vegetarian,” my husband said, and the waiter hurried off. He brought me a double helping of the next dish, couscous with stewed vegetables. I was touched. It really seemed that he cared and wanted me to have a good meal.
We finished with the famous Moroccan mint tea, which is even better than its reputation, and there was baklava for those who partook.
After lunch, we were set loose in the souk. Part of the experience is that various merchants rush the group, doing their best to sell trinkets and leather goods. I bought a hamsa charm, and the same vendor kept following us around trying to sell us more iterations of the same one. Anyone who works in sales or marketing would probably get a kick out of this place. You haven’t seen motivation until you’ve seen someone trying to take advantage of a 20-minute window of opportunity to make some deals. My husband took me into a jewelry shop, partly to escape the barrage for a while, and helped me pick out a pair of earrings. These were the only souvenirs we bought. It’s a question of backpack space, and it’s also a question of space in our house. We’re probably the worst-case scenario tourists for this reason; if we can’t eat it, we’re probably not buying it. Earrings are portable. The significance of this particular pair will be made clear [FORESHADOWING] in tomorrow’s post.
I had a moment, a personal moment with a Moroccan man. He bumped into me and our eyes met. “Sorry,” he said. I had no idea whether he was Berber, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, or “other.” I could hear that he was not a native English speaker, that’s all. He could do what I couldn’t, which was to apologize that we had jostled each other. In that brief exchange, I felt an electric connection. I felt it. I felt that when our eyes met, he made the effort to communicate, not just a routine politeness formula, but genuine concern. Spaniards are exceptionally nice people, but my impression of Moroccans goes just that little bit further. Their hearts are open in a way that is rare in my part of the world.
We all got back on the van and went back to the ferry terminal. Success. We had gone to Morocco, we had learned a couple of words of Arabic, we had seen some sights and eaten some food, and we hadn’t even gotten deported. We helped a tiny granny lady lift a suitcase as big as she was onto the conveyor belt at security, which was hilarious because it was unattended by personnel.
Note: the guidebook claimed that everyone who goes to Morocco has to… putting this delicately… adjust… in a GI kind of way. We had no such problems. Just saying. But I accidentally drank tap water in Cancun and I was fine then, too. Robust gut flora FTW.
We got back to Tarifa, double checked the time on the shuttle, and ran up the hill to get our packs. I had my first and only success at making a Spaniard laugh. As we tried to get our burgeoning bags out the door, I said, “Elefantes,” and the clerk tittered.
We ran back down the hill, this time with our packs on. Also a moment of FORESHADOWING. We made the shuttle. What were we going to do tonight? We had no firm plans, though we figured we could check in at the Marriott again and eat at the same falafel place. As we looked at the bus schedule, we suddenly realized that we might be able to make it to La Línea that night! Nah. Could we? We could! We caught a cab at the Port and got to the bus station just in time. UNBELIEVABLE LUCK. The wing-it method had given us a scoop of serendipity.
La Línea had us in the place of uncertainty again. We leaned against a fence, trying to get wi-fi and figure out where we could eat. This was when I found out we had used all the data on our passport, and I couldn’t reload for some reason (debit card expiration, as I learned two weeks later). We needed stove fuel (thanks, Madrid train station) and we needed to figure out how to get to the camping. I was spacy from my light lunch and starting to bonk. The ten minutes after we left the bus station were ten very aggravating minutes. Then it turned out that we were mere yards from a fantastic Chinese restaurant that had vegan food! I ate an appetizer, two entrees, a bowl of rice, and lychees. We caught a cab to the camping, the famous Rock of Gibraltar visible to our right. It was the nicest camping we’d ever seen, immaculate and orderly in every way. We pitched camp and watched the sun set over the Mediterranean, taking the opportunity to dip our hands in and taste the salty sea.
The problem with travel is that every now and then, a city will break your heart. You’ll have to leave. You’ll have no idea when you can go back. You’ll add it to the list of other cities that have likewise broken your heart, and realize that this might be it. This might be the last time you’ll walk these streets. In your mind, there’s a private map, where you can walk from one cherished locale to another, even though they are thousands of miles apart and some of them haven’t existed in that form for decades. That a place of this caliber might exist in reality, rather than in dreams or isolated fragments, is part of what propels the travel fantasy.
We had to leave Barcelona. We had to go if we wanted to see any other part of Spain. Of course we also had to leave if we ever wanted to see our pets again, or when our travel visas expired, but this is a matter of the heart, not of pragmatism. We had a magnificent lunch in La Rambla, at Teresa Carles, which is the last thing you want to do if you intend to board a train with any sense of complacency or a casual air of practicality. Dammit, Barcelona, you gorgeous bitch. Why is there only one of you?
Then we got to Valencia and all was forgotten.
Let’s step back a bit. There’s a lot of reality in the blank wall between canvases. We got up in the morning and had to break camp. We stopped by the front office to check out and discovered that we’d lost track of time and overstayed by a day. We wouldn’t have found out (and neither would they) if we’d just walked away and boarded the bus, a trusting manner that is not universal in campings. We paid our arrears. We took the bus downtown, and the first two places we had intended to eat lunch weren’t open yet. When we hit the road again, we had to rush through the many Escherian staircases of the Metro, with our packs on, and we were sweaty and flustered when we got to the train station. Then we stood in line before realizing that our first-class tickets entitled us to cut through.
Probably the major reason why modern rail travel is not more prevalent in the US is that we have no idea what we’re missing. Our experience with train travel in Spain was that its punctuality was impeccable, its amenities were far nicer than what is offered by airlines, and it was safe, clean, and comfortable. Even as non-native speakers, we had no trouble figuring out how to use the system.
We pulled into Valencia with a feeling of success. All the travel arrangements we had made on our trip so far had been successful. There had been no delays, nothing had been sold out, we hadn’t lost anything or had anything stolen, and we hadn’t even been deported. We were in the place of uncertainty, only without the usual sense of discomfort. We went straight to the Tourist Information booth at the train station, and I got completely intelligible Spanish directions to a grocery store. The agent was fluent in English, so he checked with me afterward to make sure I understood. I thought that was tactful. We ventured out in the sunshine and caught a shuttle bus downtown.
Where Barcelona is magnetically cool and atmospheric, Valencia is fall-down pretty. It’s prettier than the pastel parts of San Francisco. It’s prettier than Victoria. It’s almost impossible to find a single view that isn’t photogenic. The question is how people get any work done at all in a place like this. How do you learn to tune it out?
The first thing we found was an “Herbolario.” It had the look of a high-end health food store, and we went in, despite our unwieldy packs. The place turned out to be ginormous. It had the widest selection of dairy alternatives and veggie convenience foods that I have ever seen, and I say that as a Portland native who lives in Southern California. We set ourselves up for dinner and breakfast, although we had yet to figure out where we would cook or eat these supposed meals, nor where we would sleep. I wished I had known to look for herbolarios in Barcelona, and I added the term to my Spanish lexicon.
We had a little time afterward – not enough to do any sightseeing, which we wouldn’t want to do with our full packs anyway. The priority was to get to a Starbucks, get on wi-fi, and find a camping for the night. I had gotten a message while we were in Barcelona that we had already used half the wi-fi allotment from our passport; it turned out that I had been on data part of the time when I thought I was on camp wi-fi, due to my phone settings. I’ve been using the same OS for over four years and I didn’t know about the ‘data roaming’ setting. This got more annoying when I couldn’t pay to extend our plan, got no error message, and found out only after we got home that it was all due to an expiration date on my debit card. Hopefully this digression can help a fellow traveler who hasn’t yet hit dumb stumbling blocks like this. To add another, the Starbucks we sought was in the process of relocation. We found another only a few minutes up the street. In Spain, if there are any Starbucks locations at all, they tend to cluster in a small area.
We found three campings in Valencia, all in a row on the same road and the same bus line. That was settled. We did have to watch out, though, because that bus quit running two hours earlier than the bus to the camping in Barcelona. (8 PM instead of 10). Cab fare can add up quickly, so we had to watch it. NEVER ASSUME that a bus will run on a particular day of the week, to a particular area, on a weekend or holiday, during particular hours, or on a predictable schedule of any kind. Also don’t assume that it runs the same route in both directions, that one coach will remain on the same route after a transfer point, or that every run will cover the same route, because detours happen for all sorts of reasons. Confirm, confirm, confirm. We knew this from using buses at home, so we did our homework.
Our next goal was to organize the rest of our trip. When I had chosen cities that looked interesting, I hadn’t factored in travel time; part of my assumption with the wing-it method was that we would plan as we went. I had given no thought whatsoever to how many hours it took to get from one city to another, or what time of day we would arrive. Essentially, any day of transition will be eaten up entirely by that transition. Between breaking and setting up camp, getting to and from bus or train stations, waiting for connections, making the trip itself, finding stores, buying supplies, and checking in at various desks, not much is left. I use physical travel time to catch up with my travel journal, which is usually at least a day behind, but otherwise it’s a wash. I realized I had chosen too many places and that our pace would be too rapid. We settled down to do some serious research and planning and make some decisions.
Our first step was to check travel times between cities. A cursory once-over of the rail map had led us to believe that we could take the train around the southeastern perimeter of Spain, seeing one city after another. Next on our planned itinerary was Granada. In point of fact, a trip from Valencia to Granada would take so long that we dropped it from consideration. We looked at shuffling the order of the cities we had chosen, tried approaches from other cities, and finally decided it would be easier to drop it from this trip entirely. There! Cutting a city freed up the three days we had allocated, and we felt we had breathing room. During the process, I reintroduced Madrid as a possible transfer point, and that stuck.
Over the two hours we bogarted our table, enjoying our steamy beverages, we spread out the guidebook, the index cards, and our phones. We had the bright idea that we could take a day trip to Tangier. We would be so close to Africa as we explored Gibraltar, how could we not take advantage of the opportunity? Thus we unthinkingly reversed ourselves, adding more rapid city changes and increasing our pace again. If we hadn’t had to leave for the bus, we might have gone through another revision, but we felt satisfied. We were winging it, after all.
We took off in a hurry. My husband was looking at the map and comparing it to street signs, which can be challenging to find and identify, as they are often nothing more than ceramic plaques attached to building fronts. He thought we were getting off track because the names didn’t match. This was when I realized I had already started decoding Catalan by comparing it to Spanish signs. I know a bit of French, Spanish, and Latin, and while I wouldn’t claim to understand Catalan, in the limited context of signs, advertisements, and public service announcements, I was getting by.
We took the bus to the camping and got there just after it had technically closed. The camp manager was friendly and brought us in. One of us (me) had to leave a passport as collateral, which hadn’t happened in Barcelona. We learned that the exact process of check-in varies depending on where you stay. I received a gate key to use if we came back late the next day. He walked us to our spot, a gravel rectangle between RVs, and bid us goodnight. We set up camp and had a nice dinner. We looked forward to a day of fine weather and exploration of the lovely town we had glimpsed, one mysterious due to its complete omission from our guidebook. We had no idea the night would lead to an unfortunate event that would color our experience of the next few days.
The “wing-it method” took over in unintentional ways on our second full day in Barcelona. We had an agenda. This was the one day of the week when local Catalan people gathered to do some traditional dance in front of the cathedral. There was also an event flyer I’d photographed, a street fair later in the afternoon where we could probably get lunch. We try to have one or two specific places we’d like to see, and let the rest of the day unfold naturally around that. Usually, it even works!
The bus into town stopped a mile short of our destination. We thought we’d misunderstood the schedule, and we were racking our brains trying to figure out what we’d misread. As we walked in the intended direction, we kept seeing people heading in our direction and wearing race bibs. Aha! By the lack of exhaustion and relative freshness of the clothing, I deduced that it was probably a 5k, although we never did find out. The race detour is a perfect example of something that could just as well have happened at home. We have to take these things in stride, to coin a phrase.
Detours are the best way to see parts of a country that you wouldn’t otherwise encounter. There tend to be official tourist zones where everything is scrubbed up and Bowdlerized. Local people avoid these zones. The prices are higher, there’s no parking, the food isn’t good, and tourist sites aren’t all that relevant to most people’s daily lives (unless they work there). Getting lost or shunted onto a different route is a quick way to peek behind the curtain.
We needed cash. This is an area where travel differs from home life. At home, we rarely need cash, but on trips, we’re constantly paying bus fare, tipping, or finding ourselves at restaurants that only take one form of payment. It also turns out that pay toilets are a common feature in Spain, so it’s best to hang onto those 10- and 20-cent euro coins.
What is more annoying than a pay toilet? An ATM that eats your card. What’s more annoying than that? Seeing the error message in a minority language spoken by fewer than 5 million people. Okay, there’s also a certain coolness factor, but it was hard to appreciate that at the moment. This was a full 60 seconds in the place of uncertainty, with one foot inching over to the place of panic. Fortunately, there was a customer service number with a live person on the other end, and we sorted out the problem. The card had simply expired. We had other options on hand, and we would have to accept that that old card was never leaving Spain. Oh well.
We went on our way, seeing more and more people in race bibs. We cut over toward the Cathedral, but slowed down when we saw a massive crowd in the streets. What was happening? This was one of the all-time great serendipitous moments provided by the wing-it method. We had no idea this was going on, but we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and only because of both the bus detour and the ATM mishap. After a few minutes, we started to understand what was happening. Some kind of acrobatic stunt? We hadn’t seen the first ring of strongmen in national garb, but we did see the men who climbed up on their shoulders. A gang of people climbed up the first two tiers of men and got up on the shoulders of the second ring. Wow! That’s impressive! We were astonished when they kept going, and going, all the way to seven. Lighter and lither young girls climbed up, and at the very top were some spry children. They had barely made it to the top when they immediately clambered down again, using the waist sashes as footholds. We realized it was a timed race, and that there were teams represented by different shirt colors. This was not something I would expect to see anywhere in the US on an average Sunday. It was over in minutes but I’ll never forget it.
We were close to the Cathedral at that point. We could hear the music. There was another crowd, and as we walked up, we saw the circle dance, just like it said in the guidebook. I was so excited! I was going to join right in and try to learn the steps. We saw about two minutes of it, the song ended, the dancers disbanded, and that was the end. What the book said lasted two hours was over in one, and we’d missed all but the last moments. This was our main objective for the morning, and we’d inadvertently traded it for the human tower and an infrastructure glitch.
Something shocked us. A man had set up a begging bowl on a blanket. He had his shirt pulled aside to display the hump on his back. Genuine kyphosis. Here we had a cathedral with a hunchback for a mascot. Hadn't anyone from the church noticed him? Surely he was on disability? I realized that both of these things were likely, and that he was making the most of his no doubt painful condition. I didn’t begrudge him his position, but it made me sad, and I hoped he had joy in his life.
Meanwhile, he would probably have preferred some money to my privilege-gazing.
We set off through a different part of La Rambla, which is really an enchanting place. The goal was to reach the Parc de la Ciutadella. We saw on the map that there was a chain of smaller parks leading from there in the direction of La Sagrada Familia. It was now about 2:00, and we figured we’d stop for lunch first. The closest place that fit our requirements turned out to be down a veritable maze of narrow, dreamlike alleys. Ordering our lunch there was one of my first real experiences with speaking Spanish. I fumbled and missed half of the dialogue – fortunately the waitress was fluent in English and humored me – but I was proud that I understood “integral o blanco?”
Lunch had put us in an expansive mood, and we walked out to a beautifully sunny afternoon. We reached the park. What an absolutely stunning place! Central Park has nothing on the Ciutadella park. It was full of people having fun in every way imaginable. People lounging on picnic blankets, blowing bubbles, roller blading, rowing boats, having birthday parties, playing music. We walked around the perimeter, and then my heart exploded. We had been hearing these wild parrots around town, but I hadn’t gotten a close enough look. They were Quakers! I had a succession of these birds over the years, and I have a soft spot for them. As we got closer, we found that there were dozens of birds with numbered tags around their necks. That surprised me quite a bit. They seemed cheerful enough. They were scampering around on the ground and collecting nesting material. I had read that Quakers live in huge communal nests year-round, but I’d never seen them in person before. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t picked up on this information anywhere, that Barcelona has Quaker parrots (and at least six other species of parrot as well). It was a real bright spot in my day; I wanted to plunk down and coax one into my lap. But they are bitey little buggers and I know better, so we kept walking.
The park got more unbelievably charming as we went on. Why would anyone ever go anywhere but here? It made me want to pack up and relocate to Barcelona immediately.
As we left the Ciutadella, we found that the other parks on the map were not on the same scale. Most were paved, barely wide spaces in the road. What we were seeing was more like a glorified bike path. A nice one, don’t get me wrong, and it would be hard to expect that kind of extravagance to extend for miles. We started to feel the miles. Then the park area ended and we were on ordinary city streets. We saw that La Rambla is a very special, extremely old part of Barcelona, and that the rest of the city is more modern and practical. Translation: not as scenic. This does help to bring perspective and a more well-rounded perception of a city, and it also leads to more reliance on the guidebook, as we realize that these guys know whereof they speak.
We reached La Sagrada Familia, a famous Gaudi building that remains incomplete to this day. The front and back are done in completely different styles. If you stare straight up at it, it appears to be endlessly falling toward you. It’s spooky and kind of atrocious. I found myself spilling forth forgotten Biblical lore, as I was able to explain Catholic iconography that was unfamiliar to my man. It never occurred to me, while I was absorbing all of that in my youth, that it would be useful as reference material.
We went across the street to an information booth and booked a tour for the next day, our last. I had three options in mind, and two of them… only ran on the other six days of the week. Guess we’re going to Montserrat then!
We took the Metro back downtown, an exercise in WHY U NO RESTROOMS? The Barcelona Metro has to be the only place in all of Spain that doesn’t have continually mopped, gleaming floors. It’s also the only place we went where people were not polite and cheerful. A man in a suit completely shoulder-checked me, then froze in place, not acknowledging me in any way, before walking off. It was one of those moments that could have really sealed my impression of the city, if I hadn’t stayed long enough to know it was anomalous. Spaniards are deeply warm and generous people. Maybe he had a headache, I dunno. Maybe he wasn’t Spanish.
When we got downtown, almost everything was closed. Sunday evening is not a rollicking time to be in Barcelona. We had planned on the street festival, which was supposed to run until 21:30. The location didn’t come up on any of our map apps. We found a small grocery store that was still open and picked out things for the next three meals. Then I took the plunge into the ultimate test of my language skills. I asked the clerk if he knew the address. He said no, and called over a young woman to look at the map, but she didn’t know either. Then a customer, who seemed to have had several beers already that day, asked to take a look. He said he knew it and gave me directions. We thanked him heartily and set off. The address was indeed where he said it was; the sign matched, at any rate. Disappointingly, nothing was going on there, and we triple checked the date and time. Impressively, I had totally, totally succeeded at asking for, receiving, and understanding directions in Spanish, even though I have, shall we say, below-average navigational skills. So that was the second of our plans for the day, although the unplanned day we had instead was a pretty darn good trade.
We went back to camp, ate dinner, and stayed up late washing our clothes. We didn’t have much choice in the matter, but we were getting up at 6 AM to make our tour.
Four beds in four nights. Well, technically it’s going to be two beds in 3+ locations in four nights, since one of them is a continually moving seat in an airplane and another is a sleeping bag. None of them are in the same country. I woke up in my own bed, spent a weirdly short night in a tin can next to the doppelgänger of Simon Cowell, physically closer than I would be to my own husband the next night in twin German hotel beds, and now I’m going to be an inch off the sandy Spanish soil on an airbed. Somewhere. But where?
We’ve spent the entire day on the move. We woke up early. I snapped awake at 2:30 AM Hamburg time, despite the fact that I had slept so little the past two days. There was nothing for it but to decamp to the bathroom, where I could turn on a light and get some work done for a couple of hours. My husband had had a few days to adjust to jet lag, and he slept soundly all night. I managed to drift off again in the lovely soft bed, just enough to be terribly groggy when the alarm went off. Now I’m trying to keep alert. Every single thing we do for the next several hours is important. Any object we leave behind will cause either logistical problems, financial outlay, or security concerns. Any wrong turn we take could lead to missing a transportation connection, plus the fact that we don’t speak the language and we wouldn’t know where we were. We have a lot of ground to cover. We eat protein bars for breakfast, check out of the hotel, and cram our huge packs into a cab to the airport. My husband’s business suitcase and laptop bag are artfully packed together and shipped home. He won’t be needing any suits or ties where we’re going.
Airport business takes focus. It’s in short supply for me right now. My boots set off the scanner and I go through secondary search. I have no idea what to expect. The uniforms and the stern language are giving me fantods. All that happens is that I sit down, take off my boots, they go through the scanner, and a distracted guard hands them back to me and wanders off. We keep having to hand over passports and tickets and answer very basic questions, like where we’re from. This takes much more concentration on my part than it should. I say “Huh?” a lot.
Being on a plane where every announcement and sign is in another language makes this whole enterprise feel both real and unreal at the same time. I think I’m going to get away with “Wasser, bitte” but the questions keep coming and I have to revert to Anglisch. German women have the most devastatingly translucent complexions. It’s like a dream in which beautiful people fade in and out of your awareness, asking incomprehensible questions, and suddenly you’re in a totally different country with totally different weather.
We’re in Barcelona! Now what?
Check it out. We’re standing in an airport with 75 pounds of backpack between us. We have:
No place to stay
No friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, or social networking referrals
Weaker language skills than a parrot who sits near a TV that plays telenovelas all day
This is what middle-aged suburbanites do for fun. Pull the carpet of comfort out from under yourself and test your powers of resilience. Start by squabbling over who has to walk up to the Tourist Information booth, and resort to the internet instead.
It really only takes about ten minutes of focused effort to figure out what to do next. This is because we’ve done a certain amount of advance research and we believe we can travel through Spain the same way we did through Iceland four years ago. We’re going to a camping. We find one on the map but we can’t immediately figure out how to get there by bus. We look for campings on a map app, but one campsite symbol turns out to refer to an outdoor store in a huge mall. Good thing we didn’t head straight there! We search to see if there are other campings, read reviews for the three in the vicinity, and see that the blog we’ve found includes bus directions. Hallelujah! We have to get downtown to catch that bus, even though it’s the opposite direction and we’re only three miles from the camping right now. There’s a bus directly outside that only goes to the city center. We board it, figuring that we can solve our next most immediate problems before setting up camp. Those are groceries, a propane canister for our backpacking stove, and a replacement bottle of melatonin, since everything I brought was saturated by my leaking deodorant bottle.
We’ve spent ten minutes in the place of uncertainty and emerged with a plan.
This is one of the sacred mysteries of the nomad. It’s what makes experienced travelers so charismatic. We build an emotional tolerance to having absolutely no idea what to do next. Just a few minutes ago, we were exhausted, stressed out, and annoying each other. Now we’re still exhausted, but we have a sense of purpose, and we’re outside the airport drinking in our surroundings. Hello, lovely nice Spaniards! Hello, bold Spanish architecture! Hello, sign in Catalan that I can’t read!
Riding a bus through a famously beautiful city never loses its novelty. Every single thing we see is fascinating. There are familiar elements: young people interacting with their cracked phone screens, people riding bikes and pushing strollers and walking dogs. This is what sharpens the eye. So much is familiar but so many small details are unfamiliar and surprising. For instance, we notice right away that one of the most common breeds of dog in Spain either is, or is closely related to, a rat terrier like our own Spike. Almost nobody uses a leash. Also, there seems to be a trend of wearing shirts with motivational sayings in English.
The first thing we do when we reach the Plaça de Catalunya is to find a Starbucks. You either love them or hate them. We love that they have soy milk, wi-fi, and reliably clean bathrooms. Soy milk turns out to be pervasive throughout Spain, available in even the tiniest convenience store in the smallest town. Wi-fi is easy enough to find, although you have to ask for a password with your purchase, and the restrooms have a combination lock. We sit at a table, drink tea, and start mapping destinations. It turns out that we’re only a short walk from a grocery store and an outdoor store, where we can get everything we need. We pass a pharmacy on the way. The melatonin is a huge relief to me, because 20 years ago, apparently its sale was restricted in at least parts of Europe. I had read some rumors that were stressing me out. It’s about 4x as expensive as the stuff I buy at Costco, but I’m not going without it.
We have to leave our packs at the front of the grocery store, where there are lockers and chains for packs like ours. We have no idea what to expect of the grocery situation; there were two occasions in Iceland when I bought the only can of beans in an entire store. We wander around for a while, looking at what’s on the shelves, confused by the lack of proper food, until we realize the produce and canned goods are on a basement level. We’re eating breakfasts and dinners in camp and looking for lunches near our activities in town during the day. We get breakfast cereal, cooking oil, curry powder, lentils, an onion, and the absolutely biggest chard we’ve ever seen. Then we get our packs back on and walk another quarter mile or so to the outdoor store. I spot a Fodor’s map on the sidewalk, marked with a partial boot print; it’s getting hit with a few light raindrops, and I don’t see anyone looking for it, so I snag it. We dub it “la mapa de basura.”
This is a moment of complacency. We’ve found everything we needed, immediately, centrally located, with convenient hours. Wow, this is so easy! Spain is made for backpackers! Let’s just take our loot and bus on out to our camping like champions! We will be reevaluating all of this a week down the road.
It starts to rain really hard. We’re chugging along the cobblestones, not really used to the weight of our hefty packs yet, and we’re carrying shopping bags. Fortunately, it’s at that moment that I realize we forgot to buy a lighter or matches for the camp stove. We really want to catch the next bus, because they don’t run all that often, and just in time I spot a newsstand and figure they’ll have lighters. This is another fortuitous moment that comes much too easily. Serendipity brightens a lot of moments for every traveler, but again, it can lull one into a false sense of security and dull the blade of cognition.
We’re on the bus again. It’s heading toward evening. We’ve spent the entire day on logistical concerns, and we’re not done yet, but we have a sense of optimism. We’ve succeeded! We’ve made it from plush order in Hamburg to reckless disorder on the streets of La Rambla. We have everything we need from now until our first official sightseeing venture. The “wing-it method” is working out perfectly.
We get off the bus at the proper stop, which unfortunately is about a ten-minute walk in the mud along a busy highway, but it’s stopped raining. This is important. We’ve counted on the fact that it may well rain on us every single day for the next two weeks, and we’re determined to have fun either way. We sign in at the camping, get the wi-fi password, and wander around, since we’re allowed to choose from any open spot. We find a grassy spot with electrical outlets, and we locate the restrooms. It takes about 20 minutes to pitch the tent, blow up our air mattresses and pillows, lay out our sleeping bags, assemble our folding chairs, and pull out the cooking gear. I wash the chard in the kitchen sink area, then tear half of it up by hand because it’s too outsized for our tiny backpacking cutting board. We eat our nice curry, feeling very pleased with ourselves, and check into the Hotel Denham, where I finally sleep a full night. When I wake up, we’ll be on Barcelona Time.
Supernerds, this is a story for you. What happens when an academic sets out to rectify the vast imbalance between book larnin’ and practical skills? I became obsessed with foreign languages in grade school. I used to carry home stacks of foreign language dictionaries from the public library. I could hardly believe these books were allowed out of the building! When I took my first language class in seventh grade, I talked so much about “M. L--- this” and “M. L--- that” that my parents thought I had a crush on my teacher. Uh, I’m 12 and he’s 30 and has a beard? My crush was on the French language itself. You never forget your first… Oh, but there were others, so many others. I took Japanese in high school, and Spanish, Latin, and Attic Greek in college, to name a few. It wasn’t for many years that I realized my years of classroom study had not led to any proficiency in speaking or conversing.
I mean, that’s the case for almost everyone in the US who has ever taken a language class, sure. What’s true for the majority has never mattered to me, since I think of myself as belonging to the 90th – 99th percentile. Unfortunately, that sets me up for fixed mindset problems. If I’m a “smart person” and I fail at something, then I must simply “lack aptitude.” It’s just not for me. Better to focus on something else where I can excel, right? We don’t like putting ourselves in positions where we’re awkward, where things don’t come naturally, where we might not be the best performers in the group. A new language puts us in the spotlight like nothing else. We literally can’t perform as well as diapered toddlers in using speech to communicate. It is really tough on the ego to go about with what feels like 1% of a complete vocabulary.
I learned recently that about 90% of Americans self-identify as shy. That tidbit induced in me an epiphany of grand scale. I have been wrestling with what I thought of as shyness, to the point that I’ve been in a public speaking club all year, and I still struggle to force myself to stand at the podium for more than 30 seconds. I have felt a similar issue with signing up for Skype language exchange or lessons. Being on video is an emotional experience for me, something I really only do with people I’ve known for at least 20 years. These specifics may be unique to me, but the feeling of shyness obviously is not. Suddenly it felt like a cop-out. Feeling shy is like not wanting to wash dishes, put away laundry, or stand in line. Almost everyone feels the same way. I don’t let “not feeling like it” or “not wanting to right now” stop me from cleaning my house. I’m not going to let those aversive feelings stop me from speaking my beloved languages, either.
What happened, though? What happened when I went to Spain and had to speak Spanish?
Blame my husband. He told me he had me all figured out. He’s a more or less completely fearless extrovert with an extremely high pain threshold. If he wants to do something, he does it; if he wants to say something, he says it. He’s not particularly strong on grammar, spelling, or pronunciation, but he’s an aerospace engineer, so he doesn’t have to care. He has nothing to prove. His identity isn’t built around language proficiency. Alas, I’m more of a Hermione Granger type. He knows I can’t sit and listen to him mangle a question or conversation if I know how to get the point across. It’s not that I’m correcting him; I despise that characteristic in other nerds and I find that the “correctors” are incorrect more often than not. It’s just that the interlocutor is left hanging, putting in extra effort and politely trying to understand. It’s more efficient for me to take over. He was right about me, which is maddening, but helpful. Once he primed the pump, I would find that I was able to speak.
He created a monster. Once I got over the initial speedbump of addressing a stranger in a foreign tongue, it wasn’t a big deal. I would quickly rehearse what I wanted to say. I went from “me Tarzan” level to confidently buying train tickets in just a couple of days. The first week, I was astounded that people clearly understood me, understood my accent, and responded the way I had hoped. This actually works?? Then I realized that this was one of the few areas where I had the advantage. My husband and I are both strong alpha types. He’s older, better traveled, has an advanced degree and a significantly stronger résumé, and seems to be good at everything. I asked him once if he could build a space robot that shot lasers out of its eyes, and, after confirming the specs, he said, “Yes.” Aha, but. Here we were in an unaccustomed role reversal. I could read all the signs. I mean, not to brag, but I once figured out whether a tub of margarine met my dietary requirements by reading the ingredients in Greek, because that was the one out of six languages on the package that I understood. He got nervous when we were physically running for a bus and the Catalan street signs didn’t match our Spanish map; I hadn’t even realized I was already mentally translating. I figured out the instructions for a German ticket scanner at the Munich airport. I read the French signs at Charles de Gaulle that got us to the tram. Suddenly, I was the natural leader with the unshakable confidence.
This could get interesting.
There are, as you know, four areas of language proficiency: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Most people perform at different levels in each of these four areas, even in their mother tongues. I have always been strongest at reading because it’s always been what interested me the most. I’m fair at speaking. I was fortunate to grow up in a multilingual neighborhood where I heard three or four Southeast Asian languages on a daily basis. My school also had music classes. I have a good ear and I’m a decent mimic. I’ll always have an American accent, obviously, but I have no problem pronouncing words and emphasizing the correct syllables. I can make a fair approximation of vowels and consonants that don’t occur in American English. What I found in Spain, though, was that I really, really need to work on listening comprehension. The trouble with speaking intelligibly, even at an A1 level like I was, is that the other person has no way of knowing how much you can understand. The better you sound, the more likely you are to find yourself suddenly drinking from the firehose.
There is a proportional mismatch between the conversation topics we’d like to explore, and the conversation topics we will confront in an immersive experience. My first experience of this was going through secondary search at the Hamburg airport. Okay, I can read and understand a bit of German, but I had never covered security-ese. I was scared and I felt really dumb and useless. Almost all of the vocabulary I needed on the first several days of our trip had to do with safety and security regulations, luggage, maps, directions, and buying tickets to specific locations. We were also hit a few times by waves of commercial speech, such as a store greeter who gave up on us only after about four sentences of advertising jargon. There were times when the conversation I wanted to have, such as whether a store carried a specific style of propane canister, was beyond my abilities. Sure, I can look up the vocabulary to say what I want to say, but the response often turns out to be only 10-20% intelligible. I feel like I’m imposing on people and wasting their time.
Sometimes we understand exactly what they said, but due to cultural context, we don’t understand what they meant. For the bar. For the bar what? Oh, you mean we can’t sit at this table unless we buy something. *facepalm*
We found ourselves in a couple of surreal situations. We went on a tour of the Pileta Caves to look at Neolithic cave paintings. We were on a tight schedule and we just wanted in. We agreed to go with the Spanish-language tour that was just leaving. I was almost completely unable to understand the simplest instructions about using the lanterns, walking in single file, etc. There were entire sections of academic talk about geology, material culture, paint composition, artistic techniques, etc, that I understood perfectly. There were a few 7-year-olds in the group, and the Venn diagram of our comprehension probably had almost no overlap. A few days later, we went to the General Archive of the Indies, and I was able to translate the display text line-by-line with up to 80% accuracy. It’s much easier to confront text, because you can pause, re-read, and go at your own pace. Listening to a human means you have to keep up, even if someone coughs and you miss a word, even if that person is also a non-native speaker like you. When you’re shopping or buying tickets, the clerk may not be a native speaker, either; every person in the transaction may be using an unfamiliar language. The complications are amplified. Language study can be practical altruism in action.
What I’ve found from being forced to speak is that it’s much easier than it seems. People anywhere other than the US tend to be really gracious and patient about listening to beginners speak. They will almost always correct your pronunciation or give you the word a native speaker would have used. If you attempt so much as a single word, it can often turn out that this person is perfectly fluent in English, and the transaction will be much warmer than it would have otherwise. Politeness formulas FTW. I’ve also found that listening to formal speech, such as a movie script or radio announcement, is a completely different skill than listening to spontaneous conversational speech. Conversation can be much easier, because people will slow down and accommodate you, but formal speech can be much more useful. “This is your captain speaking. Mumble bumble fumble.”
I’m diving into language study in a different way now. Now I understand how useful it is to drill down on those transportation chapters. I also believe that once you’ve nailed down the six basic verbs, it’s best to learn nouns. It’s easier to be able to say “smurf me a [propane canister]” than to use perfect grammar and vocabulary and have to try to sketch that vital object you need. I felt pretty dumb when, after sleeping in a tent for a week, I realized that I didn’t know what a tent was called. I felt validated about all the time I spent reading when I was in my familiar stomping grounds (museums, signs, brochures, academic lectures), but there was this big glaring gap when it came to activities of daily life.
I’ll keep studying. I’ll keep forcing myself to use the language abilities I have. I’ll keep pushing the boundaries of what I can do in a language: what I can communicate, rather than what I can consume. In ten to twenty years, I’d like to be pretty good.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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