Spanish Lessons

After nearly a month in France, we arrive in San Sebastian, in Basque Country, Spain. The official language here is Catalan, although Spanish is widely spoken too. After training myself to speak only French at all costs, the language transition is…rough. Every interaction feels like a multi-car pileup in my brain between two years of high school Spanish, 4 years of college Italian, a month of French immersion, and the out-of-control tractor trailer that is a lifetime of English trying to make a dramatic comeback.

My first time attempting to order pintxos (the famous Basque version of tapas) at a San Sebastian bar plays out like this:

Me: Bonjour. Buongiorno. Hello. DAMNIT. Hola.

Bartender: [Rolls eyes and gestures to coworker who speaks English to come over and help the dumb American]

English-speaking bartender: Hello! Can I help you?

Me: Oui.

Bartender: Oh! Parlez-vous Francais?

Me: No.

San Sebastian

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Due to a poorly timed housing switch, Nick and I have to check out of one Airbnb and wait at a park for 3 hours for our next Airbnb to open up. It’s super hot and we have all our stuff with us — three months’ worth of suitcases and gadgets and grocery bags full of olive oil and half-eaten salami. We pile our stuff on a bench that’s partially shaded by a tree, near a playground where kids are playing the internationally beloved game called “Run in a circle really fast while yelling at the top of your lungs.”

The park is a square surrounded by local businesses — pintxo bars, a bakery, a pharmacy, a butcher, an optometrist, and secondhand clothing boutiques. Nearly every wall and empty surface is tagged with graffiti calling for Basque independence. It’s mid-morning but the mood is gregarious, with the kids yelling and people drinking wine and laughing at the outdoor tables of the pintxo bars.

Nick and I take turns going for walks to pass the time. Shortly after he wanders off toward the bakery, an old woman in a long floral skirt, matching floral blouse, nylons, and low heels walks over and sits on the opposite side of the bench. She nods at me, smiling, and says, “Buenos dias.” I do the same. It’s quiet for a moment, and then another old woman in a matching floral outfit appears out of nowhere and sits down next to the first. They immediately start talking and giggling. I can barely handle the cuteness when another one shuffles over. Then another, this one using a walker and accompanied by a nurse. Before I know it there are 7 or 8 impeccably dressed elderly Basque women and a few nurses crowded around me on the bench. They are speaking fast in a mix of Spanish and Catalan. Every few minutes, one of the women says goodbye and leaves, which prompts a brief moment of silence followed by dramatic murmurs as the remaining women discuss her private affairs. As far as I can piece together, the juiciest dish involves diner (money) and a no-good hermano. The women seem to barely notice me and my teetering pile of luggage parked right in the middle of what is clearly their daily gossip sesh. I try not to move too much, lest they get skittish. I want to remain an honorary member of these Basque Golden Girls forever, and then I remember: Nick could come back at any moment and ruin everything. 

Remember that scene in The Departed when Matt Damon has to text Jack Nicholson to warn him the cops are planning a raid without taking his phone out of his pocket? I use the same technique to text Nick, my phone in my lap, eyes darting sporadically toward the screen as I craft my message: 

ive joined an old lady gossip group don’t get 2 close or youll scare them away!!!!!!

A few minutes later Nick appears on the other side of the park to survey the scene for himself from a comfortable distance. He sees me surrounded by floral-clad women, our massive pile of luggage perched in the middle. Two more women have scooted their walkers up to join the conversation. Their nurses are hovering nearby. I’m sitting as stiff as a mannequin, pleading with him with my eyes across the park not to interrupt this perfect moment. Nick steps behind a tree to conceal himself, but I can still see him. He’s laughing and laughing and laughing.

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I’m at the supermarket down the street from our apartment in San Sebastian. There’s a sample plate of chorizo out on the deli counter, where I’m surveying the cheese selection and mentally reviewing my deli ordering vocabulary. Another customer walks up and takes a piece of sausage. I absentmindedly take one too. We’re both standing there chewing, and suddenly the guy is jumping up and down, fanning his mouth and speaking in lightning-fast Spanish, looking at me to commiserate. “No hablo español,” I say apologetically. “Picoso!” he gasps, pointing to his throat. “Picoso!”

“Oh!” I think to myself, “Picoso must mean spicy!” My eureka moment is interrupted by a fire in the back of my throat. “Si! Picoso!” I choke out. Some vocab lessons are more painful than others.

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San Sebastian

We go to the butcher to pick up something for dinner. An old woman is in there with a wire-haired terrier on a leash. The dog’s name is Jorge, pronounced Hor-hay, which I only know because the woman is talking to the butcher and pausing every couple seconds to yell “JORGE!” and yank on the dog’s leash. Jorge is, to put it mildly, losing his shit. And who can blame him, because he’s an excitable little dog surrounded by vast quantities of meat. Jorge is bouncing around, barking hysterically at the jamon iberico hanging from the ceiling, nipping at the glass case of sausages and chicken thighs. “Jorge!” the woman scolds, “No, Jorge! No! No! Jorge! Hor-HAY!” I am examining a jar of olives on the shelf a few feet away, silently vowing that when I return to America, I will replace the phrase “like a kid in a candy store” with “like a terrier in a Spanish butcher shop.” I’ll never forget you, Jorge.

French Lessons

Oregon State University, 2003

The worst grade I ever received, in 16 years of schooling, was a C- in French my freshman year of college. After a particularly disastrous oral exam in which I claimed my father was a mango, my teacher took me aside and said, “What you’re doing is, you’re laying down and peeing into the air, and the pee comes back down on your own face.” I nodded somberly. I had no idea what he meant, but I knew I sucked at French. In one way or another, I was totally peeing on my own face.

—–

Montreal, 2016

Fast forward to present day. Nick and I are kicking off a multi-city tour through Europe with a stop in Montreal, a city where 68% of the population speaks French. The majority of people here speak English too, but I’m dedicated to learning French, to getting it right this time.

On day one, I’m trying to order a sandwich in French and completely butcher a simple sentence. “Désolé,” I say, “my French is so bad.” The woman at the counter smiles and says, in perfect English, “Thank you for trying. It means a lot to us when people try,” and then, with a wink, “especially Americans — no offense.”

——

Nick and I are at a sushi restaurant in Montreal, and we’ve managed to interpret almost the whole menu except for one word: “homard.” “What does ‘homard’ mean?” I ask Nick, who doesn’t know either. We’re stumped, and too hungry to spend extra time figuring it out. We order other things. They’re delicious.

Walking home from lunch, we round a corner and come face to face with a towering billboard with a picture of a lobster on it, labeled “HOMARD” in 10-foot-letters. “So I guess homard means lobster,” I say, craning my neck to read the rest of the text on the sign. It’s an ad for a lobster festival, but it might as well be a giant vocab flashcard. That’s the beauty of immersion language learning: half the work is just paying attention.

—–

There’s so much that I genuinely enjoy about being in a new place where I don’t speak the language. I love the richness of new sounds in my ears, the mad rush to figure things out before making a fool of myself (that almost always ends in failure), the feeling of sparks in my brain as new connections are made, as greetings and advertisements and interactions start to make sense. But there’s one thing I really miss: making jokes. It’s hard to be funny when you only know about 10 words of a language and 4 of them are “Where is the bathroom?” 

One day I’m standing in line at a coffee shop. There’s a big cookie sitting out on the counter. It is, in my estimation, hilariously big.

Oh my god, I realize, this is my chance.

I order my coffee (“Je voudrais un cafe, s’il vous plais”) and then I pick up the cookie and point to it, eyes wide. “Grande!” I say. This is literally the most complex joke I can create at my current level of French: pointing out that a big cookie is big. Is it even a joke? Maybe we’ll call it “observational humor.” Or prop comedy. If only I had an oversized hammer to smash my grande cookie.

I stand there frozen in my silly facial expression, holding my cookie prop aloft. There is a horrible moment of silence. And then she’s laughing. She’s laughing really hard. And I don’t know if she’s laughing with me or at me and even though I’m 99% sure it’s the latter, I don’t care. I made a joke in French. And I killed.

A couple days later I try the same line at another cafe. The cookie isn’t as big. The barista is confused. I walk out in shame.

—–

Paris, 2016

From Montreal we head to Paris, which is nearly empty because everyone goes on vacation in August. Most businesses are closed, and for a few weeks the normally loud, bustling, crowded city has the vibe (and population) of a small town. Thankfully there’s a fromagerie next to our apartment that’s still open. A mother and daughter work there, and although I can’t understand most of what they’re saying, I understand that the mother is teaching the daughter the trade, with the expectation that the daughter will take over the business one day. I ask for their recommendations and say “oui” to big chunks of Brie de Meaux and aged chevre. I buy apricot yogurt in a pretty glass jar.

—–

While walking around Paris Nick and I stumble upon a boutique called “Winona.” I get so excited I run inside. The store is empty (because it’s August) except for a single saleswoman. “Je m’appelle Winona!” I say to her triumphantly, as if I’ve cracked some kind of code and won the game. She looks vaguely amused and slightly concerned, the same reaction one might have to a young child professing their love for an oven mitt. My friend Sarah will later point out that this is kind of like walking into a Forever 21 and yelling, “I’m 21!”

—–

I love ordering espresso at brasseries. Specifically cafe noisette, which is a shot of espresso with a little bit of steamed milk. I love sidling up to the bar next to old Parisian men pounding white wine at 8AM. “Une noisette, s’il vous plais,” I say, and then I stand there sipping from the little ceramic cup, watching, listening. An espresso in Paris is always around 1 euro, but the price varies a bit from bar to bar. When I’m done, I ask, “C’est combien?” (“how much is it?”) and this is when all my illusions of being a cool, polished, French woman come crashing down.

I don’t understand French numbers, which is partially my fault for not studying them hard enough, and mostly France’s fault for making them CRAZY CONFUSING. Once you get past 10, the phrases to describe numbers get more and more ridiculous. “Ninety-eight,” for example, is “quatre-vingt-dix-huit,” which translates to something like, “Four twenties plus ten and eight.” 

So while it seems simple, asking a bartender how much I owe for my coffee, in reality I might as well be saying, “How much is my coffee but could you answer in the form of an old-timey riddle in a language I don’t know and also speak as fast as you possibly can?”

So every time I take my last sip of espresso, I ask “C’est combien?” only to stand there, slack-jawed and confused as the bartender responds with a jumble of French math equations.

“C’est combien?” I ask again in a more high-pitched tone, leaning forward, tucking my hair behind my ear as if I simply didn’t hear the answer the first time. They say it again, slower and louder, and I’m finally cornered in my incomprehension. The bartender, rightfully annoyed now, repeats the price one more time, as loudly and clearly as a cranky preschool teacher. Defeated, I hold out a handful of euros and have them choose the correct change.

—–

Nick and I meet up with our friends Sarah, who’s French, and Shawn, her American husband, for a road trip down the French coast. We go to Brittany and eat massive piles of fresh seafood. We buy striped shirts. We drink sparkling rosé. We head south toward Spain. During a long stretch of driving, as I’m annoyingly reading every road sign aloud to work on my pronunciation, Sarah looks at me in the rearview mirror and says, “Winona, your French is really good.” This is maybe the best compliment I’ve ever received. The only thing that might be better? If she said, “Winona, there’s no pee on your face.”