Spanish Lessons – The Sky I’m Under

by learn a language journalist

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?

Bartender: Oh! Parlez-vous Francais?

Me: No.

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.

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.

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.

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