The Spanish Inquisition: Small Victories
The biggest surprise of my second tour is how comfortable I already feel here. My Spanish is much better than it was when I left; it’s as if my mind has been working on it behind my back for the last couple months. In May, I determined that when I could understand Mass, in which the words come rushed and slurred from decades of repetition, and music, in which they are stretched to fit the rhythm and stashed behind instruments, I’d be fluent. Already, when I concentrate, I can understand the majority of each. I’m no longer translating words into English to comprehend them. Rather, the Spanish goes directly from my ear to the inner, wordless workings of my mind. This language even feels like English sometimes. Writing and speaking it doesn’t take so much effort anymore. At times during this article, I’ve had to hit the backspace because I’ve started typing Spanish in the middle of a sentence. I’m even slowly cleaning up my lazy American accent.
Vocabulary is a constant challenge. I didn’t realize the sheer volume of words in the English language until I was speaking Spanish with my host family. Every few sentences, I’d hit a rhetorical roadblock and have to take the long way around it, such as saying “that which you put on a letter to pay the government to send it” in place of “stamp.” I used to consult my Spanish-English dictionary for every word I didn’t understand in the books I read, but when there are several dozen unknowns in a single chapter, I have to give up and plow through it. I have to use inference, like I did when I was reading the Indianapolis Star at age 10 and Bill Benner tossed out words like “sclerotic” to describe the mobility of Rick Smits. (Well, he didn’t actually use that one, but it suits the “Flying” Dutchman.) Yesterday, I went to the supermarket and simply read food labels for an hour and a half so I could learn words like napkin, anchovy, plum, and brains. (I can’t get that last image out of my head. Another surprise was seeing that none of the milk is refrigerated. No wonder it all tastes like it’s three weeks old.) Loitering in the market wasn’t my most exciting cultural experience, but I felt it was necessary if I wanted to be a viable Spaniard. This isn’t a struggle in which one, Gettysburg-like moment changes everything that comes after it; studying Spanish is a series of minor skirmishes with which I’ve struggled for seven years. Every day I take a little more ground.
The only time I feel like I’m out of my element now is night. Though the Madrid nightlife is world-famous, I didn’t go out very much on my first tour. I figured I’d merely speak English with the other Dukies or stumble through conversations with some Spaniards and look like a sot. Furthermore, I was so exhausted from my last semester at Duke that I wanted to take some time to reorganize my life. Now, I have my act together (at least until classes start), and I can take some risks. So, I went out Saturday night, met a couple other Dukies on the way (who, fortunately, want to speak Spanish with me), and danced and drank at some clubs with them until 2:45. After that, I spent an hour and fifteen minutes improvising my way home because I was alone; the metro was closed; I was miles from home, and I didn’t know the bus routes. (I felt like a badass when I got to my room unscathed, but those buses will never catch me unawares again.)
Though I felt uncomfortable in this strange new environment, I had a good time. Since I’m of legal age here in Spain, I started drinking in May, but I’ve never jumped off the deep end and never shall. My host father puts wine on the table for lunch, dinner, and even breakfast, so I’m always building up my tolerance in a tasteful manner. Last night, I discovered that I would have to pay a lot of money to get drunk in this city. (Perhaps price works as a natural social control here.) As for dancing, I’ve always tried to avoid it, telling myself I should take a Duke class first, but I’ve got rhythm, so I might as well develop the style to go with it so I can bust some moves. (Then all I’ll need is love; who could ask for anything more?) I acquitted myself well out there and had fun, too.
My first impression of the Madrid scene is that it’s much more mature than Duke. At a typical frat party, I sometimes feel like I’m wading through the bodies of the fallen. Last night, however, I saw hundreds upon hundreds of people in clubs and on the streets, but only one of them was visibly drunk, and none were hooligans. Though youths dominated the streets, people of every age were enjoying the night. Parents were walking home with their children at 12:30. Old couples were still out at 2:00. People were enjoying themselves, but they were also relaxed. One of the night’s indelible images was a plaza into which I wandered at 3:30 which buzzing with hundreds of youth, including a few street performers. Nobody was intoxicated; nobody was belligerent; they were just talking and smoking, whiling away the morning in peace. It’s a shame that our own drinking culture has to be so destructive.
The best discovery of the night, though, was Spanish pop music. Sure, the Spaniards in the club would dance to American songs, but when one of their own would play, they’d cute loose and dance from the jukebox and jump up and down. Sure, their pop sounds almost exactly like ours, but it feels so fresh! Perhaps our songs spend too much time in production to sound natural. Perhaps the subtle Latin overtones (salsa beats, harmonic scales) spice everything up. Perhaps our music moguls aren’t finding the most talented artists, so our songs are more banal. Most likely, the language difference is simply fooling me into thinking I hear something new. That’s fine with me. I’d rather enjoy music than hate it. I bought a radio so I can attune myself to the Spanish sound. (By the way, Spanish rap videos look like American rap videos…from the ‘80s. It’s a riot to see their white boys acting tough.)
I feel the same way about the music that I do about the whole city. Here, everything that was old is new again. I’m again a child looking at the world with wide-eyed wonder. That’s the magic of study abroad. This trip will likely be even better than the first.