In Spain, of course, they speak Spanish. And I vaguely remember that that seemed strange for the first few minutes after I landed in Barcelona, because where I grew up, speaking Spanish meant certain things about the speaker. Generally it meant aged 25-50, a darker, more exotic look, people who had a little, or a lot, less than I did. There were exceptions, of course, and I’m not even sure how conscious I was of these generalities until I left.

Still, it was strange to be in Spain and hear everyone speaking Spanish – from the Chinese immigrants working in the convenience stores, to the kids playing outside (who otherwise looked just like American kids back home), to the old woman walking around with her cane and her furs, looking down her strongly European nose at everyone who passed her. It was different – but it felt somehow right, and after an hour or so, I completely forgot about the old connotations. Spanish after all is a living language, spoken by entire societies – their rich, their poor, their young, their old – and in the United States right now, our perception of Spanish-speakers has come out incredibly skewed and unnatural.

On my journey home, I went through Madrid first, and then Miami. The proportions of English speakers to Spanish speakers changed gradually, and the flight over was about half and half. This itinerary might have softened the linguistic transition for me, but it also brought me back face to face with the language’s reception in my own country.

The flight landed and the airport workers descended on us as we disembarked, herding us into different lines while shouting at us – in English, mostly, with one or two Spanish words thrown in, as a condescending afterthought, so mispronounced and devoid of context that they couldn’t have been helpful. “Go to the left for customs, you’ll have to show your passport… pasaportay! After that is baggage claim, those of you with connecting flights need to pick up your luggage too… equipajay!”

They hadn’t given us the customs forms on our flight, so I had to go up to the counter to get mine. There I found another worker standing imperiously over a tall counter, talking to a short and nervous looking woman standing below. “You need an address in the United States,” she was saying again and again. “Direcciones. Direcciones. You need to write down the address next time you travel. The officer needs to see an address. Direcciones.” She was getting more and more frustrated, speaking more and more loudly, as if that would help. I started filling out my own form, but stopped when the worker kept asking her who was coming to meet her, and she wasn’t understanding at all. I stopped for a moment to translate – it was such basic stuff, just, “Who is coming to meet you? Your daughter? Can you give me your daughter’s name? Your daughter’s address?” You’d think the customs officers in MIAMI would be trained to handle that.

I finally got in line myself and was called up to the passport check. I had an American passport, and obviously understood English, but I said few words, and it was noisy, and I have a Spanish-looking first name. I guess that was all it took. Every other time I’ve gone through customs, they’ve stamped my passport and handed it back saying, sometimes even with a smile, “welcome home.” And after a long journey, that feels… good.

But this time was different. The officer never smiled. Before stamping anything, he gave me one more long look. Then he thrust the passport back into my hands, gestured in the direction of the exit, and muttered, “Entre.” – “Enter.”

The implications made me want to throw up.

Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 14:58  Comments (2)  


Pass the - rubbery fish in tomato sauce? Not exactly my most traditional Thanksgiving meal to date!

Being away for Thanksgiving was a bit harder than being away for Halloween. Sure, I missed stuffing my face with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and dressing up with my friends, but Thanksgiving is more than a party and a sugar rush – it’s about pulling out cookbook’s with a years worth of dust on them, sitting in a circle pulling apart bread and painfully hot chicken by hand to make traditional Metheny stuffing, and playing Aggravation and Tripoli between mini-feasts.

On Facebook, my friends back home joke about how much turkey they’re going to eat and how much weight they’re going to gain, or count their blessings (sarcastically or in earnest).  Meanwhile all of my fellow American ex-pats have changed their Skype statuses to reflect their homesickness. Some of the international students are even putting on little Thanksgiving dinners in miniature – limited both by what they know how to cook themselves, and on available ingredients. 

As I told my sister, yes, I’m alone for Thanksgiving, but it’s not as if everyone around me is baking turkey and sweet potatoes and hugging relatives while I’m eating a turkey and gravy t.v. dinner. Life goes on as normal, and it helps. But it’s hard to ignore completely. The truth is I’m glad to spend only one fall abroad. The highlight of the day was talking to my family via Skype. They’re at Todd’s in St. Louis and it’s snowing there. Everyone took turns talking to me – Mom, Dad, Melissa, Uncle Bob and a barrage of cousins.  They even held up Tidbit for me to see/talk to… she could hear me calling her and was cocking her head back and forth – so confused about where the familiar voice could be coming from!

Ida from Finland tried to get into the Thanksgiving Spirit with this super-traditional Native American attire...

The International Office here held an event the day after Thanksgiving called “Spainsgiving”. A little cheesy, and confusing too – the meal had nothing to do with Thanksgiving whatsoever – not turkey, not green bean cassarole, not even pumpkin pie! Still, several of my friends signed up, so I went along too. The food was not terribly good, (although the chorizo appetizer was tasty), and the event as a whole was overpriced, but I guess it’s the thought that counts!

Published in: on November 29, 2010 at 16:44  Leave a Comment  

To Pain with Love

“Amaia Gabantxo: In Basque, there was just a very simple line that used the verb “to fall in love.” But, you know, it seemed so clumsy because the Basque is so beautiful. It’s maitai mindu. If you split the word, if you look at the two words that form it, it just means “love pain.” So, to fall in love in Basque, is to pain with love, you see. So, you can never love without pain in Basque.”


Published in: on November 5, 2010 at 22:03  Leave a Comment  
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Los Vascos no han visto Pocahontas

There is no grammatical gender in Basque, but they do seperate two categories of nouns, which each have their own cases. Aitor initially explained these two categories as being for ‘people’ and ‘places’ – but obviously that leaves out a lot of nouns. Later, he summarized the difference as being between ‘living beings’ and ‘everything else’, which satisfied us until we came to an exercise involving the word tree. A tree is sort of a place, thought some of the students – you can build a house in a tree, for example. Others of us thought trees might count as living things – they’re organic, after all. Aitor seemed almost puzzled by the question. “Trees aren’t living things!” he said, before realizing the ambiguity of his own definition a second later.

So, trees go in the second category, along with inanimate objects (including places). People and animals are in a seperate category. I scrawled a note on the bottom of my paper, to help me remember – “Los Vascos no han visto Pocahontas” – “The Basques haven’t seen Pocahontas.”

Settling Down, Settling In

When I reread my old blog posts, I can see how much I’m really settling in. Fall and winter are bringing their own challenges, but the initial panic is gone. I feel legitimate checking out in the grocery store. I rarely get flustered by a new and creative way they ask me if I want a bag or how I want to pay. Sometimes I have short conversations with the other residents of my building in the elevator or the foyer. I relax.

Today I went to campus an hour early to study for the To Kill a Mockingbird exam with Sofia. She’s Italian, but we always speak Spanish together. The exam was brutal, but I laughed about it with Sofia and Florencia (from Argentina) and Marta (from Pamplona). Sofia and Florencia and I were staying for the exam, so we ate a quick lunch together in the cafe first, speaking mostly Spanish but occasionally switching into English, since we all three spoke it. Switching between English and Spanish is getting easier and easier. Sometimes I forget which one I’ve just spoken. We went in to watch the movie and I had no real problem understanding it, just like I was able to understand X-Men and Fantastic Four and Anna and the King on the bus ride from Alicante. I laughed at Florencia putting her feet up on the desk. Hadn’t we been told a half-a-million times in Kiser and Altadonna’s classes that Hispanics and Latin Americans would kill us for even thinking of doing such a thing?

At the end of the day I put on my coat, swiped out at the door along with a flood of Spanish students, not slowing anything down, not confused, not sticking out in any way. Just moving out with the crowd into the dark night that wasn’t scary or chaotic any more. It didn’t unnerve me to be alone in a strange country, in a strange city. They’re just not that strange any more.

Published in: on October 26, 2010 at 12:35  Leave a Comment  

Cumbres Borrascosas

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Our Selva de Irati hike started out with a long walk across some windswept plains. The fog was so thick that we could only make out the bare outlines of things about twenty feet away… any farther, and they disappeared completely. Not the sort of place where you want to get lost!

Usually there was grass and small stones under foot, but once in a while there were patches of heather, just like in Scotland. With so much moisture in the air, soon our clothes and our hair were actually wet, despite the lack of falling rain. We kept walking, our hands pushed deep into our pockets to keep warm, oblivious to time and distance.

I thought again and again of Wuthering Heights, which I’ve just reread for my literature class here. In Spanish, they call it Cumbres Borrascosas. I told our guide what I was thinking, and he just laughed. “See Miranda,” he said, “What places I take you too – the canyons, the Pyrenees, and now to Cumbres Borrascosas itself.”

Published in: on October 25, 2010 at 21:52  Leave a Comment  

Winter is Coming

A Spider on my Window

Today the thermometer by the bus station read +1 degree. Celsius, of course, and the thermometer at the gas station was a few degrees warmer, but that’s still pretty chilly. The weather here is generally comparable to Missouri, but what I’m hearing is that it’s a cold October on both sides of the ocean. Someone’s even found a news article predicting Europe’s coldest winter for 1,000 years. Yikes.

But it’s still nice in the afternoons, when the sun is shining. We’ve so far had less rain than I expected, so that’s a blessing too. Really, if the heat in my apartment was a little bit better, I’d be coping fine so far. The heating is central, so the powers that be turn it on or off for the entire building at once. They waited as long as they could to admit that winter was coming, but now I notice that my radiator is warm in the evenings sometimes. An improvement, but I’ll be happier when and if they decide to turn it on in the mornings – it’s hard enough to get out of bed when you don’t have to freeze while putting on your clothes, and lately I’ve been crawling back into bed to warm up after I get them on!

Eroski Curry

One thing I definitely need to get through a winter is a steady supply of curry, so I spent some time coming up with a recipe for an easy one I could make with ingredients from Eroski – Heat up some oil, add some cumin and a chopped onion. Cook for a while until the onion is translucent. Add three cloves garlic, chopped finely. Add a lot of red pepper powder, a lot of curry powder, and a little cinnamon. Add a can of crushed tomato and a single serving of unflavoured yoghurt. Let cook and thicken for a while, add salt and honey to taste, and the juice of one lemon. Serve with any sort of vegetables or meat that you have lying around.

Published in: on October 22, 2010 at 10:03  Leave a Comment  

The Gombrich

I had my first exam here in Spain. It was for my Visual Culture class, and, as it covers The Story of Art by Gombrich it’s infamously called “El Gombrich” by current and former students. Now, I took an art history course in high school. I read the book in question. But the test swam in front of my eyes and both of the two choices always seemed right. Later, one of the students told me that they were both right, half the time, you had to pick the better one, and sometimes the difference hung on some minor point, some subtle linguistic shading. Lovely. And did I mention that it’s apparently common practice here for all the students to pass around the exams from the previous years? I’m glad they told me about that more than fifteen minutes before the exam’s were passed out…

But none of that really matters in the end. Either I passed, or I didn’t pass. That’s all that matters, because my grades here translate back as pass/fail. I didn’t really think about the possibility of failing anything, not before. I was actually shaking a little bit when I signed into ADI. The scale goes from 1-10, but it’s not exactly like our percentages. 5 or above is a passing grade. 5 or below is a failing grade. Either I passed, or I didn’t pass. Above 5, or under 5…

I got a 6,87. It’s nothing to be proud of. But I passed. And I did it in Spanish. 🙂 And some of the Spanish students didn’t, and I know because we all got an email informing us of the consequences for those students. And I passed. 🙂 I can do this.

Published in: on October 21, 2010 at 22:04  Leave a Comment  
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Far From Home

“In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny sublimal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth.”

– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I was never homesick before coming here. I used to laugh at the kids who were, at summer camp and even at slumber parties. But it’s different now, to be here. You don’t just miss the comforts of your mother and father and favourite sofa, you miss the comforts of understanding what strangers around you are talking about and recognizing the snacks in the vending machine. It’s fun at first, and then you can’t pretend anymore than it’s just a vacation. You’re a baby again, studying abroad, except not as cute – just helpless and awkward. I think that’s the hardest part for me – being stupid, confused, a burden.

And after a hard day, the stress somehow does seem to pull out the sense of distance, when you realize how far you are from home.

Published in: on October 10, 2010 at 14:34  Leave a Comment  


I had my first class tonight at 5. It was Cultura Visual, in Aula 2.

You can imagine how nervous I was, how illegitimate I felt going into the classroom, filled with a group of second year students who all seemed to know each other. I sort of pass here, I don’t look un-Spanish, and it’s both a blessing and a curse. I almost wish I could warn people right away that I’m different, that I’m foreign, that I may not understand – instead people treat me so legitimately, so normally. I’ve even been asked for directions once already. In the classroom, the students do not stare at me or seem surprised to see me or welcome me or pay any attention to me at all. They treat me totally normally, at least until I open my mouth to say more than a syllable, and it makes me feel like an impostor.

The lecture is pretty interesting, and I’m glad to find that I understand enough to take good notes, that I only occasionally miss a chunk big enough to matter at all. I think altogether I understand about 80%, including the explanation of the grading structure and almost 100% comprehension during one segment of the discussion, a most interesting one about America, our signs that say Walk, Don’t Walk – how street signs are a product of the cultural consciousness that gave birth to them, how in America these signs give orders – how in America the law is sacred, the law comes from God…

I think I can handle this class. I really think I can. It’s a new and strange thing for me to have any doubts at all, though, and doubts I do have. He’s asking us to make groups sometime over the next week, to split ourselves into groups of five and pick topics for a certain upcoming project. I don’t know anyone in the class, and suddenly I feel like I’m back in 6th grade. How am I going to find a group? Worse yet, how am I going to make a worthwhile contribution to the group? How can I be as good for them as a ‘real’ student? How can I be anything but a burden? I’m not used to this. I’m good at research, I’m good at speaking in front of the class. I’m used to having a lot to give to a group project.

They told us we would gain confidence by studying abroad. I’m wondering if that’s really true – right now I feel I’m learning more about my limitations than about my potential, although maybe the line between them amounts to the same thing. So far what I’ve gained is a healthy dose of humility.

Published in: on September 1, 2010 at 20:14  Leave a Comment