BABELIA: Living and Speaking Spanish in Seville Spain, a travel essay by John Julius Reel

Living and Speaking Spanish in Seville, Spain
by John Julius Reel

1. Learn Spanish in Your Car
If you consider yourself capable of learning another language in less than two years, without immersing yourself in it twenty-four hours a day, either you live in dreamland or you’re a genius. I know how these quick-and-easy language learning programs advertise themselves, but they just want your money. After you spend forty hours, or whatever it is, or even six months in a course, perhaps on the Internet, and you earn a certificate qualifying you as “fluent,” you’re still just a beginner, taking baby steps. Even if you go the traditional route, spending 150 or 200 hours of quality class time in a legitimate language academy, don’t expect too much. You can learn a language in an academy just like you can learn to dance flamenco in an academy. It’s a mere introduction, so you can start to understand the difficultly of it.

I began to learn Spanish in July of 2005. I was still in New York, with six months left before my TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) course began in Seville. I bought Learn Spanish in Your Car, a packet with three CDs and an accompanying booklet. I passed meticulously through the lessons one by one, never missing a day. I made cards with new vocabulary, hundreds and hundreds of words and phrases, and pulled them out of their boxes at random in my free time to bone up. Days before leaving for Seville, where I planned to stay a year, maybe two, to top off my studies, I had qualified as “advanced.” How proud I felt! As I got on the bus that would take me to the airport, I saw on the window next to my seat, “Salida de emergencia” (emergency exit), and I thought, No fear. You’ve done your homework.

Fifteen hours later, when I arrived at my destination, I remembered those now taunting words, and wished I’d bailed out when I still had the chance. The only words I heard in the avalanche of new sounds that assaulted my ears were Venga and Vale, which hadn’t been covered on my CDs, or at least not in the way that people were using them. I knew grammar, structure, and vocabulary, but what good did my knowledge do me if I couldn’t employ it when I attempted to understand or make myself understood?

Weeks passed and nothing changed. The situation actually got worse, because I’d lost my self-confidence. With language skills, with all skills, if you doubt yourself, you’re doomed. On my first day of work, I was greeted by the security guard of the industrial park where I’d be imparting an English class to a group of internationally-minded business folk.

“Buenos días,” (Good morning), he said.

I heard “podía” (could you).

“¿Podía qué?” (Could I what?) I asked.

“¿Cómo? (literally “How?” or “What?” in Spanish, when people don’t understand).

“¿Cómo podía qué?” (How could I do what?), I asked.

He looked at me like it was way too early for Abbot and Costello routines. “¿De qué me está hablando usted?” (What are you talking about?)

All I heard was “blando” (soft) and “usted” (you), and thought he was calling me soft in the head.

And that’s how I felt. I lived constantly on the defensive. I remember a guy stopping me once to ask directions for Santa Justa, Seville’s train station. When I told him I didn’t know, he shook his head and said, “¿Tú tampoco, eh?” (You neither, huh?)

What I understood was “tú eres tan poco,” (you are so small) for not being able to help him. Thank God I didn’t know enough Spanish to respond in kind to the imagined insult.

Meeting my future wife revolutionized my Spanish. From the very beginning, we spoke in her native tongue, reluctantly on her part, because she wanted to learn English as badly as I wanted to learn Spanish, or almost. I remember the conversation in which we decided that my Spanish took priority, or rather I decided it. “Look,” I said. “This is my moment, not yours. If we ever go live in the U.S., that’ll be your moment, okay?” Egotistical, yes, but I’d changed my life to come to Spain, and was damned if I was going to teach English on my personal time as well.

My wife is beautiful, has the patience to watch grass grow, and was head over heels in love with me, which are all ideal qualities in a teacher. Thanks to her, I reached the milestone of being able to understand the spoken language better than I could explain myself in it. That’s when I began to experience the biggest drag of learning a foreign language abroad, or least of learning Spanish in Seville: the natives began trying to finish my sentences. As I paused to correctly form what I wanted to say, they’d fall over themselves to try to guess it first. I suspect that they were trying to save me trouble, but I felt like the host of a game show trying to keep a bunch of overly-eager contestants from jumping the gun. I actually preferred when they used to gesticulate and shout in my face, as though I were hard of hearing.

Even after nearly a decade in Spain, the struggle to understand and explain myself in my new language is far from over. For example, my mother-in-law’s way of speaking continues to leave me perplexed. In defense of her grandson, when I scold him, she’ll say, “No relates al chiquillo” (Don’t recount to the kid), or “No hay que darle traquios” (You don’t have to give him booms). The first time she laid eyes on him, she said, “¡Qué bien despachao!” (How well dispatched!). When she’s hungry, she’s “esmayao,” which, if it had a “d” at the beginning and another between the “a” and the “o” at the end, would mean “faint.” When she’s tired, she’s “abriendo mucho la boca” (opening the mouth a lot), which apparently means to yawn. If her husband is in a foul mood, she says to him, “¡Anda que no tienes un fú!” (Walk that you don’t have a fury). And the most confusing of all, she calls me niño (boy) and my son padre (father)—lingo that, according to my wife, she picked up in the small town she was raised in.

My mother-in-law is to blame for the low point so far in my language-learning struggles. One day my wife and I were driving her to her hometown to pass the weekend. The whole ride, she spoke without cease from the back, at breathtaking speed and volume, with her head protruding between the two front seats. Finally, at the front door, before getting out of the car, she turned to my wife, and said something I managed to understand: “¿Cuándo va a poder hablar tu novio?” (When’s your boyfriend going to be able to speak?).

2. No Not Even Nothing
As if the Sevillians’ way of swallowing and passing over consonants, combined with the speed at which they speak, weren’t enough to frustrate a foreigner when it’s time to communicate, there’s their very singular habit of saying the literal opposite of what they actually mean.

A neighbor, referring to a butcher’s shop in Nervión, once said to me: “¡Anda que no es cara!” (Walk that it’s not expensive).

Taking the commentary at face value, the next time I went to Nervión, I bought a pork tenderloin at said shop, paid almost double what I would have paid in the supermarket and thought, Why on earth does my neighbor want to misinform me?

Another day, on my way out of my building, the elevator doors opened, and a neighbor emerged, announcing, “¡Anda que no hace frío ni ná!” (It’s not cold out, not even nothing). Once again, interpreting the words literally, I removed various layers of clothes as the elevator carried me down. When I stepped out the front door and the first gust of stiff cold wind hit me in the face, I asked myself, How in God’s name is it possible that I’ve lived two years in Spain and still can’t understand the natives when they talk about the weather?

When the neighbors’ linguistic idiosyncrasies don’t confuse me, I confuse them with mine, linguistic or otherwise.

“¡Anda que el crío no va a gusto!” (Walk that the kid doesn’t go comfortable), exclaimed a neighbor, when she ran into me in the street one day, as I carried Heir I, still only months old, mounted on my chest in a sling.

The old women in my building are generally traditionalist to a fault, believing that a man alone with a baby is an accident waiting to happen. This added to my miscomprehension, because I was expecting disapproval. My wife says I “ando (walk) among these women “con la escopeta siempre cargá” (with the shotgun always loaded). Well, at this woman, I fired. She had only wanted to make a passing comment, but I stopped square in front of her, with Heir I strapped to me like a bullet-proof vest. I shook my head in emphatic disagreement, saying that she was absolutely mistaken, that my son could not be more comfortable, irrespective of what she might think, that his head was extremely well supported, that German engineers designed these contraptions, and that pediatricians have shown, and personal experience has confirmed, that being carried around in an upright position does wonders for gas expulsion.

She looked at me as if I were, well, exactly what I was: a poor, lost foreigner.

Only once in my life have I managed to speak Spanish Sevillian style, that is, to communicate the exact opposite of the literal significance of the words that emerged from my mouth. I did it by accident, of course. When I speak my adoptive tongue, the words sometimes get caught in my throat, resulting in an “Ankh!” sound. Experience has shown that “Ankh” sounds like “¡Anda que…!” (Walk that), which in case you hadn’t noticed is the language marker to indicate that the Sevillians are about to pull the old switcharoo. One day a woman in the street managed to get a smile out of Heir I, and I wanted to explain to her that this was by no means a common occurrence.

“Ankh, he doesn’t smile a lot in the street,” I said.

The woman bent down, putting her beaming ancient face over my son’s beaming brand new one.

“¿Sííí?” (Ooo yeeeah?), she said. “¿Eres tú muy simpático, verdad?” (You’re a vewwy happy baby, arwwe yew?)

“Ankh, no,” I said.

“¡A que chi!” (Yes, yew arwwe!), she said, tickling his chin. “¡Papá dice que chi!” (Daddy says you arwwe!) I wanted the woman to understand that I was paying her a compliment.

“Ankh… common… you.” I managed to say, before my mind went blank and my throat became too dry and taut to even ankh again.

Back home, I turned to my wife, looking for compassion.

“Do you think I get overly nervous when I have to speak Spanish to strangers?” I asked her.

“No ni ná” (No not even nothing), she said.

Misunderstanding her, I felt reassured.

They say that one doesn’t understand one’s own culture until after living abroad. Walk that that’s not true! I hadn’t been back home in two years, and suddenly I realized that my mother also sometimes said the opposite of what she really meant. And what was even more bizarre, my wife, more Sevillian than the Giralda, failed to understand her.

“Look,” I said. “When my mother says that the grapes are a little bitter or that the cake is a little dry, what she really wants to say is that the grapes are succulent and that the cake is baked just right.”

“Well, when she talks like that I don’t feel like trying them,” my wife replied.

“How is that possible?” I said. “One of your fellow Sevillians would say, ‘The grapes aren’t in their point, not nothing’ or ‘Walk that the cake isn’t of sucking the fingers!’ Apply the same semantic logic that’s applied in your city of origin and you’ll understand my mother perfectly.”

Unlike American sarcasm, “Oh, that was a smooth move,” or “Fantastic restaurant you picked, genius,” also meaning the opposite of the words’ literal meaning, but which has always seemed to me like a dullard’s attempt at wit, Sevillians’ linguistic ironies are so ingrained and widespread that I can’t use them to draw conclusions about the personalities of those who employ them, because everybody employs them. I can only use them to draw conclusions about myself—that I’m still a baby in this language, and should be carried around in a sling. It would do wonders for my gas expulsion. Maybe then people would finally understand me.

3. En Paz
I’ve never had a Spanish teacher, at least not one in an academy, except during three frustrating weeks when a woman tried to undertake the task with a textbook. A good language teacher is like a tennis pro giving classes—never playing at full capacity, but rather working so that the pupil is always playing at full capacity. It turns out that Seville has been my teacher. When we’re hitting the ball back and forth, I feel like an amateur playing with professionals who don’t seem to realize my disadvantage.

Because I’m almost always straining and flailing, or at least a beat behind, when I come upon someone in Seville wearing a t-shirt that sports a phrase in English, I don’t care if it conveys foolishness, clichés, improprieties, or insults, it feels like a chance encounter with an old friend. They’re also a subtle form of settling the score or at least of temporarily turning the tables. For example, one day I saw a neighborhood kid wearing a t-shirt that said Over My Head, and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of smug satisfaction that, among the things over this kid’s head, were probably the words written across his chest.

As this essay manifests, I’ve never needed a t-shirt to call attention to my ridiculousness. At least not in Spain. I’ve only had to speak and fail to understand. But once, taking a stroll in the center of Seville with my wife, I bumped into a t-shirt worn by a young man who, to steal a Spanish expression, tenía más pluma que un aveztruz (had more feathers than an ostrich). His t-shirt said, “Are you sure?” about being straight, I suppose he wanted the world to extrapolate. In this case, because the wearer probably did know the meaning of the words across his chest, a phrase occurred to me that I could put and wear on a t-shirt that would serve me quite well, not only as a response to the t-shirt-wearer in question, but to any and all Sevillians who want to direct a question to me in their native tongue: “Pregúntale a mi mujer” (Ask my wife).

Walk that she hasn’t got me out of jams. Like the other day, when we were waiting in line at the local fruit seller’s. The woman in front of us put down her overflowing shopping bags to pay, and I said, wanting to prove helpful, “Señora, se han caido tus peras” (Ma’am, your pears have fallen). I didn’t realize that by saying “your” instead of “the,” I was referring to her boobs, not her pears. My Sevillian savior, ever at the ready, added, “Las mías también. Los años no perdonan” (Mine too. The years take their toll), and that way everybody could have a good laugh, not—or not completely—at the foreigner’s expense.

The solution, of course, is to live in peace with the imprecision of everything I think I understand, or will be able to communicate to others. After all, stumbling over foreign words and expressions, misusing and misinterpreting them, is just an extreme case of what happens in my mother tongue. The problem isn’t so much the language, it’s you and me; it’s the abyss that yawns between us.

Take the day I took my kids down to the park in front of our building, and said to a woman who had a months-old baby in her arms, “Very cheerful, no?”

“No,” said the mother. “He doesn’t have teeth.”

“But he’s very cheerful (sonriente), right?” I said, trying to articulate to the best of my ability, which somehow always makes matters worse.

She shook her head and looked at the mouth of her child, just to make sure.

“No,” she repeated. “He doesn’t have teeth” (dientes).

Out of politeness, I tried not to show the huff our failure of communication was putting me in, but, as my wife says, I’m too transparent, and, sensing my rage, the woman moved nervously away, probably asking herself, “Why is this foreigner so furious that my son has no teeth?”

I retreated to the refuge of my children, with whom I speak English. When they don’t understand me, at least I can console myself that it’s their fault. When I described the incident to my wife, she said that if I’d used the word “risueño” instead of “sonriente,” the woman would have understood me. I doubt it. “Risueño” sounds a lot like “sueño” (sleep).

People understand what they want or need to. Once the words leave our mouths, or are left on the page, the meaning is up for grabs—a smorgasbord of interpretations, no matter the nutritive benefits.

Although perhaps, on rare occasions, the problem, and therefore the solution, resides in the language itself. “Adiós,” for instance, doesn’t mean goodbye, but rather “To God,” which is profoundly different, although they say that the origin of the English phrase is the same (“God be with ye”). Or take the phrases “in peace” and “at peace.” I can be at peace with my surroundings, or in peace with them, but I prefer the second. At peace means I’ve only just arrived; the peace might change at any moment. In peace means I’ve already entered, am inside what I’ve spent my life yearning for. In Spanish, “en paz” is the only option. In peace with my surroundings, with the people I love, and with others that I have to live with, and of course with the language I communicate and miscommunicate in. So yes, in some cases, certain languages get it more right than others. My hope is that, because they impose a perspective on us, they can also impose a fate. En paz.

Originally from Staten Island, New York, John Julius Reel  has lived the last eleven years in Seville, Spain. ¿Qué pinto yo aquí?, a book he wrote in his second language, was published in Spain in 2014. He has collaborated as both writer and editor in El derbi final, a book about the Seville soccer derby. He has also written over one hundred articles in Spanish newspapers. His piece, “My Darlings: An Autobiographical Essay,” was recognized in the “Notable Essays and Literary Non-fiction” section of Best American Essays 2015.

Artwork Credit: Daniel Rosell
Author Image Credit: Virginia Fuentes Valencia


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