The Voices in your Head

Thinking back, I realized I started learning Spanish from a young age. Sesame Street on PBS in the US taught me my numbers. Old Spaghetti Westerns from the 50’s and 60’s, while horribly racist depictions of people from Mexico, taught me some Spanish phrases that are ingrained in me. So much so, they’re interchangeable with their English counterparts. So I don’t even need to think about it.

Then there were all the shows I watched with my kids. Especially Dora the Explorer. I spent countless hours listening to her teaching Spanish to 3 and 4 year olds. Funny, she was able to teach it to me too.

But as I have pursued my Spanish language education – both formal and informal – I realized there were even more instances where, through osmosis, the Spanish had seeped in without me really knowing it.

Early on, we were in a restaurant on Playa de la Malvarrosa looking at a menu that was all in Spanish. I don’t like to ask for the menu in English because I need to learn. I was reading the seafood options and suddenly Ricardo Montalban’s voice – of the 1970’s American TV show ‘Fantasy Island ‘- broke into my head. He had done a restaurant commercial back then for ‘Steak and Langostino’. Which sounded exotic when I was 10, but it’s just small lobster or big shrimp. When I saw the word on the menu in Valencia I knew exactly what it was. He also did a famous commercial for the ‘Chrysler Cordoba’ so I can say that city perfectly. Although his famous phrase describing ‘rich Corinthian leather’ does me no good here.

But it was also at that moment in the restaurant, it occurred to me that when I’ve been learning Spanish, its Ricardo Montalban’s voice through which I mill the entire language. Sure, he was born in Mexico, and Mexican Spanish and the Spanish spoken in Spain isn’t exactly the same. But it seems to work for my purpose. Seriously, when I learn a new word or phrase, I hear Mr. Montalban’s voice saying back to me. Is that weird? OK – yeah, its weird.

And now that I know this, I intentionally tried it with voice of Sofia Vergara, the Colombian born actress on ‘Modern Family‘. But while she’s a native speaker it doesn’t work for me. Sometimes I can make actor Javier Bardem’s voice work, but I have to really try. Nope, I think for me its Ricardo Montalban. I have no idea why.

But I suppose I should be grateful to him. I have been told by more than one person here – including Mis Amigos – that my accent is ‘muy bien’. Although I will never reveal my secret weapon, now when I’m chewing on a new phrase, I just think of stately Ricardo Montalban in his white suit and black tie and smile. Muchas Gracias, Senor Montalban. This little Langostino thanks you.

Its About That Time

When I lived in San Francisco in the 90’s, there were earthquakes. A lot of earth quakes. Some larger. Some smaller. You took them in your stride. But you started to be able to understand the difference between the various kinds. ‘Rolling’ was better than the ‘Jerk and Snap’. That did more damage to people and property.

But I remember one that happened on a Sunday Morning when I had moved out of the city down to San Mateo on the Pennisula. It was a rolling quake and I could hear the roar – kind of like a lion – coming towards me and it was getting rapidly louder. It came in a wave, shook the house during the loudest bit, and then roared away. When I saw the first Harry Potter and Voldemort’s spirit goes through Harry holding the sorcerers stone – that’s what it was like. I later learned that the sound waves of a quake often precede the shaking.

That’s where I’ve been since last Summer. I’ll be 53 this July, so as a woman I’m at that age when it all begins – or ends, depending on your perspective. The symptoms started like that distant roar from the earthquake. I heard little warnings – but nothing big. Then, starting last Fall the roar has gotten louder and some of the symptoms more worrisome. So much so that I couldn’t ignore it anymore and last week decided to get some medical advice.

Yes, I have a doctor that speaks Ingles, but she referred me to another specialist whose ability to communicate with me is less than what I need right now. And her nurse just points and grunts – not even in Spanish or English. I mean, my ability to speak Spanish under medical stress isn’t where I want it to be, but normally I understand a lot. If they speak more slowly than normal. Otherwise, I’m forced to use my powers of observation. And that’s ripe for misinterpretation.

So I took myself to the specialist appointment yesterday and they were right on time. I must say, the offices are like a nice Spa and there are no complaints with how they do the business of medicine and patient privacy. I was taken back and then told to disrobe. This is where the trouble started.

I’ve encountered it before when getting massages here. In the US we take off our clothes to get a massage – all of them. Here they don’t do that. So the nurse at the Dr. office was taken aback that I disrobed completely – even with the robe for modesty. It’s a freaking doctor! Whatever. I wasn’t the mood for it.

Then as they’re checking my various lady bits, they start making faces to each other and speaking in rapid fire Spanish. The nurse looks at me nervously and then the Dr. says something to her. Now I’m freaked out.

‘Is everything OK?’ I ask the doctor – looking at the nurse’s face.

No one answers me but they keep talking to each other so fast I can’t understand, and still the faces looking at me. Grimaces and wide eyes. Like cartoon characters. There was no mistaking it. ‘Oh that’s not good’ isn’t said out loud in English but their faces are yelling it at me.

‘Seriously? Is everything OK?’ I ask again. Nothing.

Finally I try ‘Hola! Por favor.’

This seems to break their exchange and they realize I’m a human over whose body they are discussing things with faces that look like I’m not long for it. The nurse nervously leaves the room and the doctor smiles at me a weak smile.

‘It’s fine. We are going to order some tests. It will be fine.’ But her face is the one I gave Emilie after a serious bike accident that required hospitalization. I wanted her to remain calm, while inside I was freaking out!

I try to ask more questions but she clearly doesn’t understand me enough to answer in a way that is helpful – for either of us. And then I realized, with everything I’ve overcome moving here – navigating travel/transit, ordering food, driving, getting our visas renewed, etc. – when I need to understand the most important things about my time of life health, I’m lost. And with all the other stuff I’m experiencing, I’m more emotional than normal. So I teared up. This makes her more uncomfortable and she clearly wants me to get out of there as soon as possible.

She tells me to go out to reception to get the information on the scheduled tests right away and then tells me.

‘Next time I see you, you will know more Spanish.’

I asked her when I would be seeing her and she told me right after the tests on Wednesday. I’m not sure if she thinks I’m some sort of language savant or if there is some magic they put in the water they gave me, but she’s in for a sad disappointment.

I’m not going to say I ever loved my doctors in the US, any more than this specialist. It always felt like the Burger King drive thru when you went to your appointment back home. They barely looked at you. But the one thing they could do, when it really mattered, was speak to me in my own language and answer my questions. Because God knows, no one wants me Googling this stuff. Least of all Jeff. He’s made me promise.

I do understand that I’m just at the beginning of this journey. It will get worse before it gets better. And no one knows how long it will take. There are people who tell horror stories (Yes, I mean you Mom) and others who tell me it’s really not a big deal. But no one I know have ever gone through it in Spain, in a language not their own. I guess either way, I can hear the lion and the roar it getting louder. But I can take comfort that it will eventually, after the really strong shaking, roar away.

Mis Amigos

I have 5 new Spanish boyfriends. Well, not exactly. Don’t get too excited. But the way Jeff is reacting to my new crew you’d think I did.

There’s a bar in Benimachlet that I go to in the mornings sometimes. I’ll bring my laptop and write at an outside table over a cafe con leche. They make a mean one. Here, everything is a bar – so no, I’m not drinking booze at 10am. I’m pretty sure the local children’s hospital probably has a bar in it too.

I was enjoying my morning coffee one sunny day, when a voice beside me seemed to be directed my way. I looked over and there was a table of 5 older gentlemen and they were pointing at my laptop and speaking to me in Valenciano. I understood, maybe, 3 words. But I answered in my pidgeon Spanish. Thus began a whole new relationship.

It’s well documented that I’ll use any means possible to improve my Spanish. This means I’ve joined groups way above my Spanish language pay grade. You gotta put yourself out there and be willing to make a fool of yourself and fall down – A LOT. I have an abundance of those things in spades. But one thing I hadn’t tried was the ‘Old Man Morning Coffee Klatch‘ down at a local bar

I’ll admit, I had observed these multiple groups from afar. They always seem to consist of 4-5 retired, well groomed older men who meet at the same bar, at the same time, almost daily. They’re usually smartly dressed and cologned. Would I have ever been so bold as to approach them in their natural habitat? Never.

But on that day, one group decided to approach me and now I’m In-like-Flynn – as my Dad used to say. Paco, Jose, Jose, Francisco, & Javi are my new crew in the 75+ crowd at our local bar near the space. At 10am every lunes, miercoles y viernes (that’s Monday, Wednesday & Friday to you and me) they meet up, as they’ve been doing for decades. And now they insist I come and speak with them each of those days.

One of the Jose’s explained ‘We need to improve our Ingles. And you, your Espanol.’ Yes, improving their Ingles at over 75 seems like a just-in-time for heaven kind of strategy. I mean, I’m pretty sure God speaks Spanish – but who am I to judge? Never stop learning, right?

The other Jose proposed marriage today. I told him I thought he had a Portuguese wife. He said ‘No. Today finish.’ And he gestured a karate chop.

‘Does she know yet?’ I asked him

‘If you say YES, I go home and tell her.’

We all just laughed. Silly man. His wife is fierce and he’s 5 ft 2  and maybe 120 lbs soaking wet. She’d run him over with her loaded grocery trolley and take him out. Or maybe pay me to take him off her hands.

Mostly they treat me like their daughter and explain Spanish customs and social conventions. The other day, Paco explained in Spanish that Valencian men are too macho and their wives suffer for this. I have no idea if this is a universal truth but it’s certainly a perspective. I do know learning Spanish through humor and laughter is so much more fun than worksheets and a whiteboard. I much prefer the classroom of life in Benimachlet.

Most of these guys have known each other since they started kindergarten. Here, when children start school they stay with the same classroom, and the same kids, all the way through until graduation. So they’re friends that long. Impressive. One of the Jose’s didn’t move to their class until second grade and they still call him ‘The new guy’ after all these years. But their wives do not like each other.

‘But you, Kelli. You are muey simpatico, I think. You join our group.’

At first I thought I might just be a guest star periodically, but am now appearing in the opening credits. Its a standing 10 am date 3 days per week to intercambio with ‘Mis Amigos‘. And one of them always buys my coffee – which makes me feel sort of strange. I think it’s the macho thing because they fight over who will do it that day. But since coffee is a whole uno euro setenta, I guess they won’t run through their pensions too quickly.

Jeff just shakes his head.

‘Heading out to meet your boyfriends?’ He asks as I grab my keys.

I give him a kiss on the cheek ‘ Not enough Viagra in an entire Costco pharmacy. So no worries there.’

Sometimes I stop and wonder ‘Am I the strangest American in Valencia?’ But then I remember I was strange for an American, IN America. So I probably am. I guess nothing has changed one bit. And you know what? I find I don’t really care.

Guest Blog: Feliz Primer Anniversario – El Jefe’s Perspective

We have made it a whole year! I have a lot of stuff filed under “If only I knew then what I know now” and I’ll help Kelli out now and again with a guest blog post sharing my observations of living here in Valencia.

Do I need one of those?

I think living in the US conditioned me to the never-ending stream of advertising telling me that I need this or that.  There are ads on TV telling me that I should consult with my doctor to see if whatever medicine the pharmaceutical company happens to be selling at that moment is right for me.  There is a constant stream of messages telling the listener to be dissatisfied with what they have.  Ooh look at the new version of X! You need a bigger Y.  How have you lived without Z in your life?   The advertising is relentless. 

When we lived in the US I noticed it, but I never thought too much about how it influenced me.  Here in Valencia the only advertisements that I’m exposed to are either the 5 or 6 billboards in the Metro or the daily text message from Vodafone trying to get me to buy something new.  As a result of the absence of marketing I am not feeling like I’m missing out for not having the latest and greatest of everything. 

I had forgotten how much advertising there was in the US until yesterday.  I decided to tune into my old favorite radio station in Seattle by streaming their broadcast over the internet.  Why hadn’t I thought of this months ago?  It was great hearing the familiar voices and even the traffic reports of places I had been countless times.  One thing that really annoyed me though was the sheer quantity of ads.  After listening for about an hour I began to record how much time was spent on advertising.  It works out to about 20 minutes per hour!  It was quite an eyeopener.  Back in the states I would have just assumed that was normal, because it is. Here in Valencia I mostly listen to music on Amazon or we watch Netflix. Very little advertising and I think I’m happier for missing out on it.

Take my money,please!

When I shop, I like to do ample research so that I know exactly what I need.  There have been several examples over the past year where I was sure I knew exactly what I wanted only to find out that the “latest” model available in Spain is 2 years older than what is available in the US.  This is perhaps my biggest frustration shopping here.  Even Amazon fails to fill the void as not all products are available everywhere.

My second biggest frustration is the pace at which the shopping experience advances. Once I’ve figured out what I want, then I need to figure out how to get it.  Where to shop, online or a local store? Even when I’m able to determine that a local store has the item I want, there is a good chance it will not be open when I get there. We are still getting the hang of the holiday schedule here. Some days are still just a mystery as to why everything is closed.  Sometimes even when you arrive at the store on a non-holiday between the posted opening and closing hours the shop will be closed. We have no idea why. This wouldn’t happen in the US.

There have been a few times where I think I’m being perceived as more trouble than I’m worth to a salesman, rather than to try to understand what I’m asking for.  There is a bike shop around the corner that comes to mind.  Both times I’ve been there I have been turned away without being able to purchase what I need. Maybe it is because I don’t speak Spanish, but I always come prepared with either a picture of the item I need, or a Google translated paragraph of what I am looking for. Both times I’ve walked out feeling like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman thinking “Big mistake, I hope you work on commission” as I end up placing an order online. 

Overall though, I would say that most people that I try to communicate with are willing to give it a try. My broken Spanish and their broken English – usually better than my Spanish – and we work it out.

Today we were out visiting car dealerships.  The steps to the car buying process is like buying in the US.  Visit the showroom, pick out a car, test drive the car, pay for it and go home. I’ve purchased many cars or motorcycles in the US.  I go in armed with all my data and negotiate a fair price as quickly as I can. I mean who wants to spend an entire day at a car dealer? I think my record was when I purchased a Range Rover on Christmas Eve a few years ago. I stopped into the dealer as they were opening on my way to work, and the whole buying process only took a little over an hour and that was because I had to wait for them to wash it. 

The steps are roughly the same here but instead of using a stopwatch to keep track of the time, you had better bring a calendar…seriously.  You need to make an appointment to test drive your selected vehicle.  If you want to drive a few different cars then that will require a separate appointment for each vehicle, hopefully all on the same day but not guaranteed if the cars will be available. Then once you have picked out the one you want it is time to pay for it. Like many things here this next part doesn’t make much sense to us. 

The dealership we visited today told us that we had to finance the car.  It wasn’t a large sum of money but in order to buy the car we couldn’t just pay cash even though I could. The salesperson told us that the upside is that they will give us a discount on the price for financing. (as if I have a choice)  And the punchline was that it would take about two weeks for the finance company to get us approved.  Once we are approved then it will take about another 4-5 days to get our insurance set up. We already have a quote but the turnaround time is so slow in them responding that getting the car attached to the policy is a chore.

So, I’ve learned that it takes roughly just under a month to buy a new car in Valencia. I’ve heard that buying a used vehicle is quicker but that comes with its own set of potential issues. For instance, the previous owner may have some unpaid tickets and somehow, they get transferred to the new owner as if the car was responsible for them and not the owner. I’m sure there are ways to protect yourself from this and I know I still have a bit of learning to do. 

Overall my experience here has been a positive one. From day 1 there has been something new to learn every day. What seemed almost impossible and intimidating just a year ago is now easily accomplished. I’m an introvert but I’m slowly being forced out of my shell due to necessity.  Well, that and Pokemon Go.  (They are fanatical about the game here, but I’ll save that for another blog post) 

Sure, there is still a huge language barrier for me, but context is everything. I may not always know what the cashier at the grocery store is telling me but somehow, I just know what she is asking and can respond accordingly.  “No, I don’t have a loyalty card.”  “No, I don’t need validation for parking.”  “Yes, I’d like a bag.”  It probably sounds a little weird to a bystander.  The cashier talking to me in Spanish while I respond in English, but it seems to be working so far.  And with each day that passes the language barrier is not quite so tall.  Want to order a beverage?  All you need to say is “una cerveza” or maybe “una pinta cerveza” if you are thirsty.  But I’ve learned that ordering a “una grande pinta cerveza” while gesturing with my hands may be a little overkill, as I found out the other day. 

Now that’s a beer

Would I give up all my worldly possessions and move to another country again? Maybe. But one thing I’ve learned is that I don’t need nearly as many things as I thought I did two years ago. I’ve traded them for experiences.

This Old Dog

They say you’re only as old as you feel. But, as I’ve discovered, that’s not necessarily true. You’re actually as old as you are. And there is no way around that.

I have been playing on a women’s futbol (soccer) team here in Valencia. We practice every Monday and Wednesday. It took me a couple of practices to realize that I’m not young anymore. Mind you, I’m not ancient. I’m 52. But I’m not 25 either, and that seems to be the median age of those on my team.

Jeff decided to come to one of our practices. I had warned him in advance. In my time playing teams sports in my teens and 20’s, I was usually one of the better players for most of the sports I played. Not blowing my own horn, it’s just that I loved playing sports. And it’s what I always told my kids; You don’t have to be the most naturally talented, but if you’re the hardest worker it will get you playing time. Hard work beats natural talent every time – Just ask Malcolm Gladwell. I know Emilie took this to heart.

So Jeff joined me at the field to watch. Afterwards I asked him for his assessment.

‘Good News! You’re not the worst one on the team.’ he told me, as we walked back to the Metro. Since I’m the age of most of their Mothers I’ll take it. And I do try to work as hard as everyone else. Even though they’re hardly breaking a sweat on gazelle-like legs while I’m huffing and puffing red faced through all the drills. Its certainly harder than it used to be.

But I do have an ulterior motive for all this, and it’s more than just staying in shape. I’m taking a page out of El Jefe’s book and I’m learning Spanish in the context of something I already know. Yup – my soccer team only speaks Spanish. There is one girl who can confirm if I’ve understood correctly what the coach is saying, but 99% of the time I have to listen and understand ‘Futbol Spanish’. Then perform whatever instruction is given. And you know what, it’s working.

I’ve even put some of my ‘Driving Spanish’ to good use. La Derecha. Izquierda. One thing building on another. And I’ve also found that in Spanish, I’m not directionally dyslexic like I am in English. I’m not sure what that’s about.

Our last practice, I didn’t need any help with my Spanish. And I’m finding real dividends in everyday life. Because I have to quickly understand and respond on the field, it’s helping me to do that in restaurants, grocery stores, the optometrist – all sorts. Yesterday we went to lunch and my entire interaction with the waiter was in Spanish. And I didn’t even have to stop and ponder what he had said. I just knew it and responded. Some of it wasn’t the usual. And last week when we went to look at mattresses at El Corte Ingles it was the same.

So playing on this team is helping me in multiple ways. But like learning a new physical skill, combining that with learning Spanish is creating a muscle memory I can draw on without having to think about it.

Maybe with a little (OK ALOT) of hard work, this 52 year old dog can learn some new tricks.