a wandering woman writes

Friday, July 29, 2005

By any other name...

What is it about the Spanish and non-Spanish names?

I often lament that Europeans, well, the Spanish at least, don't view foreigners as exotic, glamorous, THE people to invite to the party:

You know, the way we do in the States where the new kid is always the cool kid and every foreigner's an instant celebrity.....Imported! Worldly!!

OK, so I'm not instantly interesting. OK. But really, what is it with a foreign name? My "fine Irish name", as it is usually greeted in Chicago? I made a doctor's appointment yesterday. And the conversation went like this:

-Your name?

-First name Erin...e-r-i-n...Erin....Last name...

-Wait! wait! wait!...what is it?? Elena?


-What is it? What is it???WHAT??? It's Irene?? no? Ay reee.. What is it?


-Never mind, never mind.
The last name?

-is Corcoran..cor-cor-an..c..

-Ayy!! Mother of God. (A direct quote.) Say your first name again?

-Ay-reen. Erin.

-Ok, I'm writing Ay Reen. Just say that when you come. And bring me something I can copy it from.


I probably should have given her my middle name: Patricia. See how nice and phonetic that is? Spanish bureaucrats love it. See it, grab it, latch on to it: THIS name I know!! Señora Patricia!! Señora Patricia!!

Which explains why every official visit -- to a clinic, to the bank, to the Ministry of Whatever to do What Needs to Be Done with my residency card that day -- every official visit finds me leaping into the air, scared out of my wits as a firm, authoritative voice bellows:


Words I formerly heard only from one woman, you guessed it, when I was very, very young......and, usually, caught red-handed. At something I shouldn't have been caught red-handed at.


Postscript 2. Yeh, I guess it's not an anonymous blog anymore.


Thursday, July 28, 2005

Kindness of Strangers

Raquel, my guide to the pinsapo forest in Grazalema.

I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.........

Especially when travelling alone! This is Raquel, mother of 2, Valenciana turned Andalusian forester's wife,and my guide to the Sierra of Cádiz. I wanted to see the pinsapo forest with a local guide, just to spend the day chatting with someone and learning what I wouldn't on my own, but the only guide I found who would even consider taking one lone hiker wasn't available. As I gave up and picked up my own hiking permit, my cell phone rang. The guide's friend Raquel would be happy to hike with me. She picked me up the next morning at my hotel, taught me every tree and every flower on the hike, generously shared her dried figs and taught me to hug pinsapos. 7 hours later, her husband picked us both up at the end of the trail and bought us each an ice cream cone. The kindness of two strangers who are very, very happy with the life they've chosen.

It's time to hit the road!! I have 3 days and a bus ticket to Extremadura. First stop the medieval city of Cáceres, second stop Trujillo, now a quiet little town, once home to the all those lovely gentlemen who conquered the Inca Empire and brought Montezuma's daughters home as wives.

Here's hoping the Cradle of the Conquistadores comes equipped with internet cafés.

It's a dangerous business ... going out of your door ... You step out into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.

JRR Tolkien


Friday, July 22, 2005

Todo mal quita

Q: How many Spanish maintenance men does it take to fix the barely functioning handle of a barely opening door?

A: None, if you have a quart of olive oil and the eldest daughter of a Spanish locksmith handy.

After months of painfully ungraceful exits and entrances (best described as a short woman grabbing hold of an uncomfortably high door handle, then jumping up and down until the mechanism miraculously catches and the door opens) I am now gliding in and out of my apartment, sneaking in unnoticed at all kinds of odd hours....and basking in the luxury of a door that actually works.

I asked for help. My Spanish landlady suggested I try toothpicks. I asked again. "Toothpicks", she told me. I tried toothpicks. Nothing.

Then a friend, an equally short woman, tried to leave my apartment without going through the jumping ritual described above.

And everything changed.

"Where's the olive oil?", she hollered as she made a beeline for the kitchen.

It was the next line that got me.

"¡¡Aceite de oliva, todo mal quita!!"

Roughly translated, olive oil fixes everything.
An oft-repeated adage, apparently.
Particularly among locksmiths.

She repeated it at least 10 times as she poured Spanish Extra Virgin into my door. Maybe that's part of the ritual, I'm not sure.

A few hundred milliliters and a hundred turns later, the handle was catching with the touch of a finger. Smells a bit like a summer salad in the entrance hall but who's complaining? Three months later the door still opens like a charm.

"Trust me", she said. "My father was a locksmith."

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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Forget Botox - Language lessons are the fountain of youth

I'm learning my trees.

Every once in a while (ok, often) I jump head first into a new conversation only to discover that I have NONE, absolutely NONE of the required vocabulary. I learn every day what few monolingual people seem to realize.

That fluent is a really big word.

And Yes, I speak Spanish comes in a thousand shades of well, pretty much.

Ever been there? You're sailing along, happy little local-language-speaking expat that you are, till wompf! you run right into it. I've never talked about garden tools, you realize as you head upstairs to borrow a screwdriver. Or try obscure body parts. The small of your back, anyone? Nape of your neck? Shoulder blade????

Take, for example, trees. Ordinary every day part of your life trees. Oak? Maple? Fir? You planted a what in your yard?

All of that to introduce:

7 ways learning Spanish is keeping me younger than any LA surgeon ever could

Well, as I said, I'm 42 and I'm learning my trees.

How old does that make me in Spanish language acquisition, about 4?

After trees I want to learn my animal sounds. I write a decent memo, I read literature, and I've got the whole subjunctive deal more or less covered, but nobody ever stopped to teach me that Spanish horses say hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.

That's pronounced heeeeeeeeee if your phonetics are of the English persuasion, by the way. And dogs? guau guau.

And should I suddenly find myself with a small child...and, for example, a duck???? What then? Animals sounds will be essential.

When I'm a little older, Bego's going to teach me to swear.

Comic books! When you first start learning a language, you read childrens' books, then, ok, they hand you some boring school stuff to read, grammar and literature and all that, but later, when you just want to figure out how to sound less like a book and more like your native friends, you get to read comic books! Comic books!

I'm working my way through the adventures of Mortadelo and Filemon, 2 "T.I.A." secret agents who find their way out of trouble by jumping into one of their countless and always-ready disguises at just the right moment. In my last episode, our heroes travelled to Tirania to retrieve a stolen vial of a secret bug-expanding potion developed by Dr. Bacterio. Picture 30 foot grasshoppers.

I use to run a $65 million business unit and I'm now happily racing home to catch up on Dr. Bacterio.

In language learning, laughing is allowed. Even encouraged. At yourself, at fellow non-natives who make errors, at what your r's and j's sound like after a long day in the trenches.

Singing silly songs helps you learn faster. Tongue twisters, ditto. I've found the Spanish particularly generous with tongue twisters. Every time my r's fail, Ana gives me a knowing look as she says, in the taunting voice of a cool 11 year old who's just executed the perfect cartwheel in front of her nerdy friend who's completely missed hers:

Rápido corren los carros cargados de azucar al ferrocarril.

Fine, she has r's. I got a better score on the math test yesterday.

Singing along with the radio helps. So does reading aloud, even if you run into the new neighbors heading out to work in the morning and just know they overheard the live Mortadelo and Filemon reading the night before. The reading when you decided to really work on intonation. In Dr. Bacterio's voice.

And one that makes me just want to start a whole other list:

Why learning a language is better than a corporate VP job

When you're not a native speaker, no one expects you to know ANYTHING. You get to ask all the stupid questions you want. And they seem to like it.

OK what's THAT in Spanish?
you ask, pointing to the object of your choice, often the unidentified pincho that may be artichokes or may be chopped pig's ears...or....the possibilities are endless.

At least you'll know how to pronounce it.

Never a need to do the boardroom shuffle while you pretend to have a clue about what a client or your CEO is blabbering about.

You get to celebrate the small victories. And you get to take naps, or the language learning equivalent.

Some days my r's just leave, for example. I try to be considerate by announcing it, particularly at work:

Atención. My r's have now left for the day. We'll carry on without them, thank you.

Then I surprise myself and spit out a sentence like Ana's twister (Rápido corren..) and all those sweet little r's just rrrrrrrrroll off my tongue and leap into midair.

That's a small victory. And I promise you it feels better than 20% annual growth 5 years in a row.

At least to me.

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

House guest

I had a surprise house guest last night.

This morning, as I was frantically typing emails at my laptop, I had the oddest feeling that somebody else was in the house. I live in a big, rambling apartment with paper thin walls, so I told myself the little rustling sounds were coming from next door and set back to work, rolling my eyes at these wax paper walls. (Paper walls, which, without letting you in on my neighbors' secrets, if they have any left, I can assure you I have experienced more up-close and personal than I'd care to.)

But after an hour of rustling, curiosity got the best of me and I followed the noise down the hallway into the bedroom.

And there I found a sweet, fat little bird, sitting calmly on my huge marble windowsill, staring out at the world he longed to join!

The window was closed. In fact, all of the windows in the house were closed. I had left a window open (to let out a fly who had spent the afternoon hanging inside and refused to leave, actually!) for a few hours last night, then closed it when I turned in about midnight.

My guest was reasonably calm (grateful perhaps? I try to be a good hostess) and simply ducked into the closet for a moment while I cleared a few plants out of his way and opened the window for him.

So where was he all night? Did he really find a place to sleep, or wait, or shiver with terror, or think about how'd he tell the guys back in the church eaves next door about this one? Did I pull off a Snow White scene with him on the other pillow without knowing it? I wake at anything, and I didn't hear him until morning.

Ah, the ways my new home is changing me....

Walking toward the Plaza Mayor on my breakfastless way to a meeting this morning, I checked for change in my bag - passionately debating the "croissant or no croissant" question as the scent of chocolate wafted out the croisantería - and I sent 10 or 12 coins tumbling along the Rua.

And then I saw myself, can't-be-late-and-never-have-shown-any-respect-for-money- dropped-or-otherwise Me, stop to pick up every coin, even the tiny .01 euros, just to avoid putting my fellow citizens out. Because, without stopping to think, I knew if I missed one someone would chase me down with it, even if it made him late. I knew from the experiences a disorganized clutz experiences that if I didn't get them all, some poor Salmantino would feel compelled to retrieve and return 50 cents.

My mother, who spent years trying to accomplish the same thing by repeating "Take care of your pennies and your dollars will take care of themselves" as often as humanly possible, will be thrilled.


Monday, July 11, 2005


I carry my El Pais to my usual sidewalk cafe facing San Esteban. My regular waiter must be on vacation; a young waitress I haven't seen before answers when I pop my head inside the bar to order. A few minutes later she emerges with my tostada and olive oil, TWO coffees and TWO glasses of orange juice. She seems thoroughly shocked to find me alone. As she carries the extra coffee and juice back into the bar, she apologizes.... up.... and down... so quickly and with so many words I'm not sure I catch them all.

As if the only thing worst than being alone for breakfast is pointing out that someone else is alone for breakfast. Sorry, she says in at least fifty words, for some reason I assumed.....

I take a quick look around and notice that, as usual, I am the only table for one.


-Tienes pareja en Estados Unidos, claro.
-You have a relationship in the States, of course.

-No? Ah, then your partner lives in Spain, too, that's great.
-No tienes pareja? You're alone?

Incredulous party guests:
-She's alone here.

Yes, the friend who has introduced me explains. She's alone.

She's alone here.

The thing is, if I wasn't here alone, I'd likely just be somewhere else alone. Is it so different to be "alone" in another Western country than to be a native New Englander who's just moved to Southern California or a first-day city born freshman 1000 miles from home, deep in the heart of Midwestern farm country?

I've always been very comfortable in my own company. I am good at alone.

And what is alone, anyway? I've spent many a Los Angeles night alone in a room full of people. One of the things I love about my life here and the open, approachable character of the Spanish (even in famously reserved Castilla Leon) is that I almost never feel alone.


Spanish acquaintances have been telling me since my first visit in 2001 that I am not a typical American. I'm here, that's their evidence. If I were a typical American, I wouldn't be here.

Which gets me to thinking about the open mouthed "Oh I could never do that!! Move alone to another country?! ¡Imagínate!" stares.

I'm betting there's more than one wandering española in Chicago listening to incredulous lifelong Midwesterners ask her if she really is alone in the States.

Because they could never do that.

Sorry, but at the end of the day, who isn't here alone?

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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Little People

Sorry to have disappeared for a whole week. Then again, what's an expat blog without a long absence explained by ADSL trouble? I now have a new ISP, crossed fingers, and a lovely collection of unwritten post ideas scribbled on random scraps of paper.

I've been collecting expressions in Spanish. As a further step in my neverending quest to sound more like I live here, since I do live here, I'm trying to pepper my Spanish with slang. And colloquial expressions. To sound less like the books I read, which my teacher Bego tells me just will not do.

Yesterday I stumbled onto a gem.
Straight from the mouth of my effervescent officemate, the lovely Sol, who in a moment of frustration threw up her arms and let this beauty fly:

¡Es que me crecen los enanos!

Allow me translate: Her midgets are growing.

Confused? So was I. But isn't it a fabulous phrase?

Turns out it's a my-luck-is-so-bad, nothing's-going-my-way, I-can't-get-anything-to-go-right castellano classic.

It's shorthand for a longer complaint:

Me pongo un circo and me crecen los enanos.

My luck's so bad I start a circus and my midgets grow!

Now, for my own arm-throwing moments, I've always been partial to blues lyrics: "If it wasn't for bad luck I'd have no luck at all" comes to mind, sung off key while faking a little Albert King air guitar. And I've been known to use "I can't stand up for falling down", although I suspect the Elvis Costello quote dates me. But I'm switching. From now on, me crecen los enanos. In English and Spanish.

You have to love a phrase born of frustration that conjures up such a fantastically fun visual. Who can be frustrated with visions of a circusful of tall midgets?

May your midgets be short, your fat ladies large and your fire-eaters fearless.
And may the gods be with my ADSL.

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