Learning Spanish in Seville: My Story

 When I used to tell people that I worked in the little town of Olivares in rural Andalucía, all those big fancy sevillanos used to flip their hands as if to say, ain’t no big thing and gasp, “chiquilla, ya tienes el cielo ganao” – you’ve earned your spot in heaven, girl.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to move back to Spain to learn Spanish. Then I decided to call up my new Spanish roommate to practice.

“EEEE?” Sí.· Yes.
“Erm, Está Melissa?” Is Melissa there?
“EEE. Yen ereh?” Quién eres?” Who’s calling?

Shit. I hung up.

My Spanish accent, the product of American teachers and a few weeks’ time studying in the cradle of modern Spanish, was no match for the fast-talking Andalusians and their tendency to comerse las palabras, or just not bother to say the last syllable. 

I began to get nervous about my incorporation into the Spanish life I wanted to have. After all, most of my decision to move to Spain after college was to become fluent.

Luckily for me, Melissa was raised in London and, despite her indecipherable Spanish, speaks the clearest English I have ever heard. We spent most of our three years as roommates speaking in our first languages – English. Thank God, or I may have been cleaning the bathroom with glass cleaner instead of bleach. Nevertheless, I adopted her gaditano accent from Cadiz: perahh for espera (wait) and amovehr for vamos a ver (we’ll see).

In Olivares, words and tenses I knew became, literally, lost in translation. I was supposed to play dumb and say I only knew enough Spanish to get around, but my high schoolers aren’t that dense. I would try to hide my giggles at their jokes, punish for swear words (clearly the first and most important topic in language learning) and let a bueno or hombre slip every once in a while. I couldn’t understand them half the time, as evident when a kid came to the teacher’s lounge and motioned me over.

“tee-shaiir, ehn.” Teacher, ven. Come here.
Eh kay allay t heugh kayr poh lakaleruh, pa pehdeer-tay pairdohn  pour aber-me ray-i-oh. COMO? Es que ayer te vi caer por las escaleras, para pedirte perdón.

Baby talk, right? Nope, the second accent I picked up. The kid called me over to apologize for having laughed at me when I tripped on the stairs. I had to get another teacher, raised in Valencia, to step in as a translator. She laughed and in her perfect British English, warning, “Don’t learn to talk like them. It’s absolutely wretched to listen to some of these villagers.”

Nevertheless, my adoption made me popular among my students who began to call me one of their own. And, after three years teaching, I subbed Que pasa chica? for Que’pah, mache?, olivareño for “What’s up, pal?”

photo by Jeremy Basetti of APOML

Then there’s the boyfriend accent. The Novio was born in Madrid and began schooling there, leaving his accent clear and manageable. Only when he’s using Andalusian slang does he begin to slip into the realm of misunderstanding, which has actually resulted in a few fights. When I don’t understand something, he’s quick to jump in and explain.

I remember that, during our first year of dating, when we used to spend every weeknight at La Grande. He and his friends would joke around about people, issues and memories that were already foreign to me, on top of the accent and slang. Towards the end of my third year, his friend David paid me a complement when Kike picked up a book from a trash heap in front of the same bar. A que somo unos gitanos, verdad? “Coño,” David said, “I remember when you used to fume because you couldn’t keep up in conversation now. Look at you now!” 

So, if environment and the people you’re with are akin to the dialect you speak, I had an outdoor classroom in my old neighborhood of Triana, the magical place so Spanish, it killed me to leave it. Once outside mini Cádiz in my apartment, I was free to roam amongst the lifelong inhabitants of the island carved by the Guadalquivir and its canal, people who are so fiercely from their barrio that even Triana has its own accent. And you better believe I picked upon it. People could identify my place of residence just from hearing me speak with the bartenders who served me beer and montaditos, the grocer who I often ran into on public buses, Fernando at Java café.

But as much as I tried, my accent had too many outside influences to let it be trianero for too long. I moved across town, spent two years teaching babies whose Spanish was far worse than mine (and correcting them, too), and then took up a job teaching English with Anglo coworkers. In fact, when I took the DELE a few years ago, the oral fluency examiner guessed I lived in Utrera.

My accent seems to be suffering from lack of practice these days, despite conducting a relationship in Spanish and finally being able to watch TV without subtitles or without desperation for trying to keep up with the plot.. It’s become a little orphan accent, trapped between the olive trees of Olivares, the empty extremeño plains and a barrio called Triana. 

 

Looking for Spanish classes in Seville? Sevilla Habla is a top-notch language school whose unique methodology will have you perfecting verb tenses and improving your confidence in lengua castellana. Not only are they great, but the classes are also wallet-friendly.

I’ve teamed up with both Sevilla Habla! and COMO Consulting Spain, a relocation consulting company for North Americans, to run this great contest: two weeks of free non-intensive courses with Sevilla Habla!

 

 

 

 

Entering is simple: leave a comment with your favorite Spanish word or phrase, and then earn extra entries by following Sevilla Habla! on social media (or a mí, también). The contest will run until March 10th, but you can use the classes until the end of the year.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Even if you don’t win, Sevilla Habla! is offering Sunshine and Siestas readers a great promotion – on top of already economical classes, you can grab a 5% discount on non-instensive courses (4 hours a week) or 10% on intensive courses (20 hours a week). When Pablo and Marta ask how you heard of Sevilla Habla!, tell them the code, COMO.

Have you ever tried immersion learning? How did you learn to speak Spanish? 

Making the Choice to Live Abroad (and Stay)

My first steps in Spain landed in a big wipeout.

Armed with two suitcases, a carry-on and my laptop bag, I tried to hoist my backpack onto my bag, using a round, aluminum can as a platform from which to ease my arms into the padded straps.

Yes, I brought all of that with me. Two free pieces of luggage? Those were the days.

 

And I fell, right on my culo. I roared with laughter, falling over on my side and howling. That’s just kind of been my story in Spain.

After five years of living abroad, I’m often asked why I’ve chosen to live a life abroad in sunny Spain. The reasons that have kept me here are quite simple – ask any of my dozen friends who have been here to visit over the last few years, question my parents, read this blog start to finish in one sitting to really swallow the heartbreak of defeat, the uncertainness of a new relationship, crap work experiences. I have slowly made my life in Spain, from the first few shaky steps and the fall on my butt to establishing my version of happiness in my little burbuja in Seville.

—–

Studying abroad is what made me want to move away from the US in the first place. Perhaps after reading too many of those Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul books, I decided that living abroad was ever going to happen, it needed to be right after graduation.

 

Just days before commencement, the North American Language and Culture Assistant Program offered me  visa and the promise of a job in a high school somewhere in Andalucia. The summer before leaving was full of hurried preparations, tearful goodbyes, and a yo-yo like inner peace with my decision. I kept telling myself it was just eight months, and that no one would be mad at me if I messed up and came home.

My reasons were simple enough: to learn Spanish and travel during a second chance at studying abroad. DJ Yabis, the blogger behind Dream Euro Trip had similar intentions. He writes: I wanted to study and live in Europe so I applied for a prestigious full scholarship (read: tuition, roundtrip flights, insurance and monthly allowance for 2 years) sponsored by the European Commission and GOT IT! Similarly, Mariann Kun-Szabo of tiny girl with a big bag said: I was selected for a scholarship to spend my internship in Spain, with all the costs covered, then I could not stop traveling. Like DJ and Marianne, I had an opportunity fall right in my lap to obtain a visa, work and live in Europe for eight months.

Then suddenly, a week before my plane took off rumbo Madrid, I felt like Spain was where I needed to be. On the plane I went, waving giddily to my parents as I skipped through security at O’Hare and into the International Departures terminal.

My year was not without its ups and downs – I struggled to learn Spanish, had trouble making friends and tried to not think about the life I was putting on hold for a year. Facebook became my enemy, my Skype calls home barely concealed my homesickness. I felt that every label I’d ever used to describe myself had suddenly been stripped away, leaving me fumbling for some sense of self-awareness. But I met the Novio, and he was worth sticking around for. My Spanish Adventure began to take root.

—–

I have started looking at my life in terms of school years, just as I always have. After all, I’m a teacher and a student, and my worklife is measured in school years. My mother said, “Think of Spain as your super senior year of college.” Poor woman didn’t know I’d be on super senior year número six already, but giving myself a few months’ break in between keeps one foot in each bucket – one in España and the other in America. No one is really making my choose just one yet, but I’m sure that will come.

Seville throws me curveballs every other day it seems. If it’s not dropping my clothes out of the window when hanging them to dry (no tumble dryer), it’s the sting of not knowing if I’m always making the right decision. But the feel of the sunshine on my face, the fresh produce and the andalú that has kept me here. If I had to put it down in 25 words or less, I’d write that the folklore, the daily challenges and the blunders have kept me here, not to mention love.

—–

 

When I put the question to my readers, it was clear that moving abroad is a change that many have decided to make. Be it the draw of adventure or to try something new, the promise of fresh love, language learning and running your fingers along walls that have existed far longer than you have. Spain is the romantic realization of sultry Latin dreams and of wild jet-setter nights.

Many of them wrote that they, too, had been lured by Spain’s familiar, yet exotic traditions and the chance to live a new adventure. Jackie’s response that she ended up in her happy place, Shannon remarking “I’d love to live in a place where something centuries old is still considered new. I want the romance of history, culture and new adventures,” and Robin of A Lot of Wind just wanted the adventure: We chose to live abroad because we wanted to reach out and grab a bit of life that wouldn’t have dropped into our laps otherwise! And I just love how Marianne of East of Malaga summed it up: It’s a land of beauty, wine and dance – with always a hint of a little romance ;)

 

And I’m not the only one to follow my heart when it came to sticking around in Seville for more than just the sunshine and siestas. Four readers met their partner while on short-term stays in Spain:

Natalia’s husband danced right into her heart on a week-long trip to la Hispalense: Feria de Sevilla, 2009—I spotted a charismatic Sevillano in a caseta and asked him to dance. Happily married and still dancing sevillanas! while Kaley met hers after a pick-up basketball game in Salamanca while studying abroad: 2009 Salamanca. Basketball win. Hemos quedado. Spilled the wine. Climbed the cathedral. Fell in love. 3 years later: I said yes! And Steph of Discovering Ice uses her boyfriend as the perfect scapegoat for her wanderlust: I was in love with a Colombian who was literally half the world away…we just used travel as an excuse to be together! :)

I sometimes think how different my life in Spain would have been had I not accepted the invitation from Kate to go out the night the Novio and I met. Like Melanie: I met my Spanish husband on a bus traveling from Madrid to Cáceres. One seat away then could have meant a world of difference now.

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Travel Bloggers’s responses interested me, too. As I make connection with like-minded travelers, I find that we have much more in common than the T-word. When it comes down to it, an adventurous spirit and the will to do something about it. When I think back on the times when Spain almost didn’t happen because of my own fears or the unwillingness to miss a Hawkeye Football season, I cringe at being so stupid. Alexandra Kovacova of Crazy Sexy Fun Traveler said: I hate boredom and wanted to learn more about this amazing world out there and different cultures. Raymond Walsh of Man on the Lam confessed: I wanted to cover the earth before it covered me.

Some worldly parents, like Talon Windwalker of 1Dad, 1Kid, 1Crazy Adventures said he “wanted my son to see the world and be raised as a global citizen & I wanted to get more living into our life,” whereas Durant Imboden told me that he “didn’t have a choice” because his parents took him along. My parents encouraged my traveling – even if it was just running from one end of the house to the other when I was a kid – and I feel I owe them for instilling an adventurous spirit and apetite for me, and taking me abroad when I was just old enough to have it stick in my head and put me on a direction for life.

Ash of The Most Alive hit the proverbial clavo on the head: Decided to build my life on the principles of adventure, learning and justice – not the social norms of 9-5 mortgage and retirement…
 
…now there’s something to live and travel up to.
 
Lex of Lex Paradise had the mentality for why I came, seizing a pasing opportunity and fulfilling a dream. He wrote: Well, I am now living in Spain as well ;) never thought but it just happened as it suppose to be ;)” which is why I’ve chosen for him to win the $15 Amazon Gift Card. I loved this project and the responses, so don’t forget that Karen’s book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, full of loads of laughs and sage advice, is available on Amazon for purchase (in paperback and Kindle format).

On Spanish Tacos and Balls.

Ah, Spain. Land of bullfighters, flamenco, tapas and tacos.

Wait, no. That’s Mexico. Four years later, my friends do ask me, “How delicious are the tacos in Spain? I bet you don’t want to eat any when you’re home.”

Quite the opposite, amigos. To a Spaniard, edible tacos are much too spicy, and tacos to a Spaniard is a generic word for swear word, meaning the same as palabrota. A Spaniard’s favorite taco? I mean, joder and mierda more than get their due, but in the South, cojones reigns supreme.

It makes sense, when you think about it. I remember when I went to the hallowed ground at Pompeii and was initially shocked with the remains of a woman trying to crawl away from the lava, only to be preserved for camera-happy tourists by being swallowed up by ash. Then, on our free hour to explore, I noticed strange symbols on streets and buildings: a phallic symbol. Come on, we’re in the Mediterranean, and everyone knows that machismo is alive and well here.

That’s right, cojones is best translated as balls.

I’ve gotten an exercise in the language this weekend at the Novio and I have been painting our 42 square meter casa (and here is your special mention, corazón). From the extreme temperatures to the falling plaster work, the word cojones has converted itself into the taco del día, the swear word of choice.

I once read a book that talked about the meaning of the word, which claimed that in older ages, having cojones was another way to say one was courageous. I am exposed to the Spanish language the majority of my day, and I’ve heard that expression infrequently. The cojones I’m talking about conjure disgust, exasperation and good old anatomy.

Estar hasta los cojones – to be sick of something

Literally meaning to be sick of something, cojones can be replaced with el mono (bun), la polla, narices, or any other body part. Since it’s got the use of a taco, it’s typically for anything severe. For example, Estaba hasta los cojones de sus tonterías might mean, He was sick of her silly games. Likewise, Estoy hasta el moño con este trabajo, is a more polite way of saying you’re f-ing sick of your job.

Tocar los cojones – to annoy, to be annoyed

This is the Novio’s favorite, and it’s often said to me! Tocar los cojones (pelotas, polla, huevos) is meant to express being bothered by something. Generally, it’s used in the negative command form, or in the positive present simple form. My nov loves to tell me, No me toques los cojones, or don’t bother me/stop doing that/you’re being annoying, go away. In the simple form, however, it states a fact and that something annoys you on a regular basis. Repasar este puto blog me toca los cojones. Proofreading this blog annoys me (hence the many mistakes).

Por cierto, tocarse los cojones, a reflexive play on the phrase, means to just be all-out lazy. What did you do today, Cat? Pues, me he tocado los huevos (though I did write this blog!) Thanks, Buckley, Jose and Juanjo for the clarification!

Mandar cojones (huevos) – what a pain, geez

This is the newest palabra acojonuda that I’ve learned, and it’s usually employed as an interjection to express surprise. For example. Your annoying neighbor leaves his fish-ridden garbage outside your door overnight and the smell has wafted into your house. That is something that manda cojones. Or you read that the Bolsa has dropped yet again and that those clowns in the parliament still have no idea how to stop it? Well they sure do mandar cojones, right? More than anything, it’s just used as it is: Manda cojones.

Sudarse los cojones – to not matter

If I ask the Novio what he’d like to eat for lunch, he sometimes answers me, a bit annoyingly, Me suda los cojones, which literally means, it makes my balls sweat. Más bien, it translates to I don’t care or it doesn’t matter. I’ve used it to tell someone to do whatever he feels like (also an eloquent, haz los que te salga de la polla, look that one up).

De los cojones – stupid (as an adjective of emphasis)

If something is bothering you, it’s athonishingly simple to add “de los cojones” to emphasize your point, such as, este calor de los cojones, this f-ing heat. It can also be used in a much more severe way, but my neighbors read this blog!

As I write this blog, Kike has started preparing his lunch. He’s bought huevas, the so-called manjar de dioses, or Gods’s treat. I was once with a vegetarian friend in the Corte Inglés supermarket when she inquired as to what exactly they were. The fish monger simply took the orangey and veiny fish part and stuck them up under a headless fish. That’s about as close to cojones as fish have got, I guess.

Any other good ones to share, Hispanophiles? Write me in the comments. This will all be useful to me when I take the DELE in a few months!

Is My Travel Habit Irresponsible?

On St. Patrick’s Day, I had one of those overwhelming chuche cravings. I need sweet, tangy gummies or I likely would lose my dinner appetite.

Stopping by the nearest gummy wonderland, I lost my ganas upon seeing a plastic plane with a dog and gumdrops inside. A perfect little gift, really, for my pilot boyfriend whom I call Puppy. I dropped my bag of candy and checked out.

Five minutes later, I had finished heaving up five flights of stairs and presented him with my purchase. He laughed, but told me, “You shouldn’t have wasted your money on something like this, Puppy.” It was only two euros.

Recently, we were talking about our plans for the summer, for life, the usual. He said, “The thing you should do right now is save. If we want to have a family, we need a bigger house, and you need to save in order to be able to have your name on the deed. None of this inviting friends to beers, buying clothes, going on trips. That’s irresponsible.”

Wait, what!!??

Didn’t I move to Europe in the first place to travel and learn languages? Didn’t I adopt the, ‘Get ‘er done’ attitude when it came to speaking Spanish, reaching 25 countries before my 25th birthday, trying new things and meeting new people? And, really, isn’t that what travel is all about?

When I came to Spain nearly four years ago, I was working 12 hours a week for 631,06€. I had been thrifty the summer before and managed to save quite a bit of money, plus the scholarship money that was paid out to me just before leaving. I used that to pay my plane ticket to Spain. Having a short work week and the idea that the job was an “intercambio” a Spanish word meaning an even exchange, an auxiliar tends to take the long weekends and frequent holidays as a good excuse to see the rest of Spain and Europe. It became a running joke in my school to ask where I’d go each long weekend. I always had a trip planned. From every corner to Spain to seven new countries, I was convinced that traveling was my biggest hobby.

The following year, much poorer and with an even bigger desire to travel, I started knocking off destinations I never expected to go to, like Asturias in Northern Spain, and I also solo traveled and couchsurfed for the first time. Slowly, my goal became more and more reachable, and I became more confident. I realized that travel isn’t just about snapping the famous sites or racking up frequent flyer miles, but as savoring the lifestyle. I spent more time in Seville, having beers in Salvador, visiting new museums, making friends. Bullfights, Erasmus parties and days at the beach became my life.

And for the last two years, I’ve been changing my attitudes on travel, on settling and on life. After completing my goal of traveling within 25 foreign countries, I started to slow down a bit. I traveled Northern Spain to beat the heat, worked at a few camps around Spain, then began to work a full-time job. Gone were puentes, Spain’s excuse for long weekends, gone were quick weekend trips and gone were my ganas to do anything on the weekend but rest. I have had the chance to go to Valladolid, Lisbon, Ireland, Amsterdam, Lucerne, Berlin and all over Romania (ok, wow, that’s epic), but since Kike and I were talking about settling down and I applied for my five-year residency, I started thinking: Is my travel addiction a little irresponsible?

Honestly, I see his point. I make more money than a sevillano, pay less taxes and live rent-free. When Kike and I talked about the conditions of my living in his house, he wouldn’t let me pay rent because I had no job lined up for the following fall, and when I did start earning, he told me to save. And, I mean, I have, but who can resist taking a trip during a ten-day break? He called it silly when I could go to the beach cheaper (where it poured all week, while the Dacia got just four drops of Romania rain.

When contemplating my trip back to America this summer, I realize just how much it will cost out-of-pocket, now that my relatives´s generosity is running thin. And, since  won’t be working, how far will my small salary last when all of my friends are making big paychecks back home? How can I possibly justify trips when the one I am most looking forward to is the biggest cost?

And, really, when it comes down to it, I’m kinda losing the travel bug. How did this happen?

Return to the Homeland

Above: the Ayuntamiento of Valladolid, where I studied for five weeks in 2005
Below: My Spanish family: La abuela, Lucia, Aurora, Jose Luis, Carmen and Monica

My love affair with Spain started nearly three years ago when I studied in a town called Valladolid in the northern half of Spain. Located just two hours northwest of Madrid, this town was once the intellectual, political and de facto capital of Spain. It wasn’t until the early 17th century that Madrid (then a realllllly small village of like 5.000) became the capital. For five weeks, I studied modern Spanish lit and cultural at the Universidad de Valladolid and lived with a family in the neighborhood of Rondilla. I really had it all – the opportunity to live in Spain and speak a lot of Spanish, live like a Spaniard and meet Spaniards. Part of this was due to my luck in living with a family that took really good care of me and helped me learn a lot. Aurora and Aurora (mother and eldest daughter) and I have kept in contact over the last three years, and they invited me to visit them and stay with them in Valladolid. And after being here nearly seven months, I finally had a chance to go! Though Spain is about the size of Texas, the road system isnt as advanced, so going from south to north took about five hours, not including pit stops.

We left Sevilla, a toasty 28 grados, and drove straight north on the Ruta de la Plata. When riches from the New World came to Spain, they passed through Sevilla’s port, past Roman Mérida, Cáceres and up toward Madrid. I have wanted to see Extremadura for some time because I have a friend from Mérida, and I was in awe of how rustic it is. Cows and sheep wander in and out of ruined stone houses, towns of forty houses cluster around a central church spire, the valleys are covered in trees, green grass and yellow and purple flowers. And, once we hit Salamanca, it got flat like the Castilla-León I know. We passed all kinds of castles, and my excitement just kept growing once we got back into Vdoid.

Since I was there last, young Aurora had a baby girl, who I was really anxious to meet. Although we had problems with the directions, I remembered the city really well. When we arrived at the apartment, the abuela greeted us. She’s a little bit senile, so she thought I had traveled from the States with my American boyfriend. She was like, “He speaks Spanish really well!” And I said, “Well, he’s Spanish and has lived here for 28 years.” And then, like the good mama she was, she asked if I needed any clothes washed! Aurora arrived home with her baby Lucia, who is 20 months old. She looked like a mini Carolina with soft brown hair and big eyes and a big barriga (belly). She is one of the sweetest and smartest kids I’ve met. She and Kike immediately fell in love with each other, and it was really sweet watching him play with her and teach her things. She’s even learning English in school! Aurora the younger one has hosted a lot of students in the past few years, but I’m the only one who has made it back to Vdoid. She also said she remembered me speaking in Spanish better than anyone, but had noted an improvement. Truth be told, I was so nervous to be there, unable to speak. I have good days and bad days. Lately, they’ve been bad days. And I know plenty of Spaniards. I get nervous with my boyfriend and roommate! But anyway, we all sat around drinking wine and talking (Lucia even knows the famous, ARRIBA! ABAJO! cheer and joined us with her bottle). I showed Kike around some of the sights at night that were lit up and we went to SU for 2lit beers (for 3,00 euros) and Sotobanco for some copas. Sadly, Enrico was not there and I had to pay for my drinks. Good times.

The next morning, we took a walk around the city. Even though Kike lived in Salamanca, which is just over an hour away, he had never been in the city. We saw the Antigua, the theatres and Plaza Mayor, the cathedral, the university, etc. Really, there isn’t much to see, but it’s a gorgeous town. It’s very stately and very well-preserved. But after living in Andalucia for 7 months, I realize just how Catholic and reserved it is. People in Sevilla really do live in the streets because of the heat, and though they’re Catholic, it’s not as out in the open. There’s so much variedad in this country, and Sevilla is worlds away from Valladolid. I almost felt like I was bringing Kike home to meet my family there, and show him around my city. But we spent much more time back at Aurora’s on her terraza drinking Baileys and playing with the kids. Monica has grown into a little brat who dictates EVERYTHING, but I suppose that’s four-year olds. After spending the whole day snacking and talking and drinking, Kike and I headed out to a bunch of bars in the area.

Although the weekend was really relaxed, I was happy. Really, really happy. I’ve come a long way in the last seven months, and now I really feel comfortable here. I feel like I have every last thing I need here. And I’ve only got two months left here.

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