This post is Part II of the previous one.
The Spanish national volleyball tournament was in León, a northern city with a beautiful aviary park and a roundabout with flower beds shaped like music notes and clefs to which I was especially partial. One day at lunch it was revealed that one of the girls on the team had spent the last two months thinking I was Mexican, which was funny but flattering (“It’s because you speak castellano so well!” the coach joked).
We placed third and received even more (forgive me, but it really is the appropriate linguistic situation) legit medals. I even got to play for the majority of the last match!
We also endured a second round of initiation that involved going, mustachioed once more, to a bar, but this time we had the pleasure of also wearing plastic glasses with penis noses. Even sans the unfortunate glasses (not a fan), it was a challenging social situation. After talking about where I’m from and my novata status, (in Spanish, mind you), one of the few people with whom I attempted a conversation asked me, in English, “So do you speak Spanish?” This moment exemplifies a phenomenon that I will generally dub “Silly Questions that Spaniards Ask Me.” Others include: “So do you understand everything in Spanish?”; “Do you prefer Spanish food or American food?; or, the winner, “Which is better, Spain or the United States?”
These queries are not ill-intentioned. They are, however, ridiculous. I would have to absolutely loathe the US to prefer Spain after three months. That claim doesn’t stem from patriotism; I often say that I’m not especially proud of being American but that I am certainly grateful to live in the United States. Rather, the US is home—it’s the place of my parents and friends, of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and OneRepublic, of Whitman volleyball and Newport High School marching band.
As for food, it’s an unfair comparison. There are some things that Americans really do better, such as milkshakes, peanut butter and Mexican food. I never knew how much I liked broccoli until I went a semester without it in a society that doesn’t eat very many vegetables. But Spain has better lemons, bread, olive oil, jamón, and coffee. I will dearly miss the garlicky edge of gazpacho, the crunchy delight of croquetas, and the salty-sweet contrast of fried berenjenas, or eggplants.
Admittedly, Spaniards are not the only silly question-askers. The American rendition to which I’ve grown accustomed is, “So, are you fluent?”
If you take nothing else away from this post, heed me in this request: when someone tells you they are learning a language, don’t ask if they’re fluent. Ask instead how comfortable they are with it, because fluency has more twists and edges than a yes-no question allows. Every time I get closer, fluency just runs away and shrouds itself in another realization of how much I still don’t know.
One fascinating change is that now I can hear my own accent. I can hear why, even though I look passably Spanish, with my dark hair and eyes, as soon as I open my mouth, people ask me where I’m from. A passage from Duende: A Journey into the Heart of Flamenco by Jason Webster, which chronicles a Brit’s attempt to find himself through flamenco guitar, struck me as apt:
“You’re English, aren’t you,” he said. “I can tell from the accent.”
The comment smarted a little. Despite looking very foreign, I always tried to speak Spanish as well as I could so that at least I might not sound like an outsider.
“Yes,” I said. “Perhaps that’s something I should work on a bit more.”
“No! Absolutely not! That is you. That is who you are.”