The other day I decided it was about time I read Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, which has been on my ‘must read’ list for years. Because I’ve got a degree in Hispanic Studies, though, I felt obliged to read it in Spanish, and so far (nearly 200 pages in) I’m happy to report I actually understand what’s going on. Hurrah!
This probably shouldn’t be as surprising as it is. I studied Spanish for nine years, and spent the third year of my degree living in Madrid. While I was there, I went flat hunting (including phoning people up to make appointments), found somewhere to live, moved in, found somewhere better to live, negotiated the return of my deposit from the landladies (two little old sisters who lived downstairs) and moved out again. And that was just the first week.
My new landlady, Felicita, was in her 60s and was quite a character. First of all, she didn’t speak a word of English. She spoke a lot of Spanish though, not only to me but also to the various friends and family who came to visit me over the year (and who don’t speak Spanish, but she didn’t seem to mind that). In fact it was quite hard to shut her up long enough to get a word in, and consequently I spent most of the year saying ‘Sí’ and ‘No’, and not a lot else. But despite being clearly quite crazy, she was a lovely lady and although our agreement was that I was technically meant to cook for myself, she would quite often not let me leave the house without a bowl of soup, because she thought I was too skinny. Somehow I don’t imagine that would have happened in my original flat.
Over the course of the year, I figured out the transport system (never let go of your bag for a second or someone will stick their hand in there), braved El Rastro, the Sunday market, attempted to describe what I wanted to a Spanish hairdresser (it didn’t go well) and somehow managed to get through a year of classes entirely in Spanish. And in case that wasn’t challenging enough, then I sat exams. Also in Spanish. And passed them all, which was astonishing, to say the least.
You’d be forgiven then for thinking I should be fluent in Spanish now. And I can certainly hold my own in writing and reading, but I haven’t spoken Spanish to anyone for a long time and in fact go out of my way to avoid doing it. I still know the vocab and can put a sentence together, so why is it that despite having two colleagues at work who are native speakers, and two others who speak it well, I’m still not taking the opportunity to practise?
Well basically it’s because I’m a bit scared. Scared of saying something wrong and making a fool of myself. Scared that I won’t understand what they say in response. Scared that they won’t understand me because my accent’s so bad. And even though I know that they’re irrational fears, and that even if I did say something silly my colleagues aren’t going to laugh (and not only because for one of them, I’m his boss), that doesn’t make them any less real.
But I have a bigger worry that hits me from time to time – that all that studying and stress (and yes, money) will go to waste because I’m too afraid to take a risk. So I’ve decided – I admit, not for the first time – I need to pull myself together and get over it. I don’t mean I’m necessarily going to start chatting away to people I know yet (just in case!) but maybe I’ll join a language exchange group or even start with a class to get my nerve back. After all, it has been nearly ten years since I left uni (gulp), so long in fact that I had to scan the photos for this post. Actual physical photos – remember those?
A couple of years ago at work, I decided I was eating too many biscuits (stay with me, this becomes relevant) so I made a point of telling everyone I wasn’t allowed in the biscuit tin. And from that day to this I haven’t even looked in it because I don’t want to get caught going back on my word. I’m hoping the same will apply here. By telling everyone who reads this blog (all half dozen of you) that I’m going to start practising my Spanish, I’m committing myself. And you all have my full permission to nag me about it if you think I’ve forgotten or wimped out. I call it the biscuit tin method, and I’m hoping it’ll turn out to be genius. Or at the very least, not completely ridiculous.
By the way, the book’s brilliant.