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What I Know and What I Don't: My First Week in Spain

Today, on the anniversary of one week with my host family, there are things of which I’m unequivocally certain, things of which I’m semi-certain, and things that I don’t know at all.

I’m certain:

  • That today is a national holiday celebrating Spain’s military police, El Pilar. As of last night, this had belonged in the “Semi-Certain” category, because one person had told me October 12th was a holiday celebrating a Catholic Virgin, and another had told me we were celebrating Christopher Columbus, and all of this was in Spanish, of course, so I probably misinterpreted even more than I should have. I did hear the word “Columbus,” though. And “Virgin.” I swear.
  • That my students’ hearts and minds are more open to me than I’d ever think to deserve. Yesterday, my first Tuesday at school, I began the day with twenty minutes with the infantils – the pre-school, essentially. As you can imagine, they speak and understand virtually no English. I thought, let me introduce myself (I made a little cartoon Jenna, with “Favorite Foods” and “Important People” and all that jazz scribbled over my body) and then we’ll play “Simon Says” in English. I’ll be able to pantomime the motions, and they can follow along. At least this will give them initial exposure to the language, to the most basic verbs. Now, pause for a moment to put yourself in the shoes (or smocks – they wear adorable, monogrammed smocks) of Spanish-speaking four-year-olds into whose classroom a stranger prances, babbling in a foreign language and throwing her hands up into the air and sticking out her tongue. Personally, I’d be dubious, at the least. I might keep my tongue in my own mouth, thank you very much. But these kids, like all of the others I’ve worked with over the past week, leap delightedly into the unknown. They absolutely gobble up our mangled, half-coherent interactions, the waving of the arms in front of the room, the “No lo se”’s and scrambling through dictionaries, my urges to try, try (I know it’s hard!) to articulate yourself in English, to mess up or to ask a friend, to tell me that your favorite foot is espaghetti, because Spanish is like this for me! And then we spend the afternoon outside in the park, racing and playing soccer and climbing trees, and we don’t need any common language at all.

I’m semi-certain:

  • I ended up in Portugal or near Portugal last night? (Yay, new country!) The two little girls in my host family are learning charro (charo?), a type of traditional song and dance typical to the region of Castilla y Leon, so specific, in fact, that I’m having trouble finding any information about it in English on the Internet. My host mom mentioned that their teacher was hosting a concert at the Roman Baths in a neighboring pueblo (no, not el bano like the one with the shower, no!), and asked if I wanted to go, and I did, of course, so at 8 her and I and the littlest girl piled into the car, picked up Abuela, and drove off into the broad, starless country night. Then we got lost. Hopelessly, I think. And getting lost in Castilla y Leon means travelling kilometers and kilometers down long, rumbling little roads past castles and cows making shadows against the sky before alighting upon a sign post and realizing you’ve just travelled a half hour in the wrong direction. I couldn’t help, obviously, so I sat in the back and watched, helpless. The concert was at 10, and it was 9:45 now, and my little girl and I began to get nauseous, and so we poked at each other half-deliriously, meowing, making animal noises. She said, “Hola Caracola” and I said, “Hola Concha,” and we’d go on like that for a while, and we’d giggle and then shut our eyes and press our heads back against the seat because suddenly we were nauseous again. She was the shell to my snail – we were in this together. At 10:15, we arrived and cheered about it, and darted into the hall, and watched the loveliest performance, with shrill flutes and drums and wide green and red dresses and headpieces decorated like city streets with mirrors and beads. I beat my hand in time with el pies, wheeling around at the ankles like butterflies, and the arms held up at right angles, fingers snapping softly and guiding the bodies around in circles and other shapes. At the end, we were invited up to dance, and I motioned towards my sleepy happy Concha and we danced and whirled together up front, albeit with a drop less grace than the dancers themselves, though she was picked up by one of the gentlemen and whirled around like a queen and I watched and clapped along. My host mom told her teacher, the leader of the group, that I was from New York, and when we lined up together for a picture, one of the dancers burst out, “New Yorrrrk, New Yorrrrrrrk!” Frank Sinatra-style, and we all laughed.

I have no idea:

  • What my address is. I know we’re house number 23. That’s got to count for something, right? I also feel awkward, this far in, asking my host parents, “Um…where do we live?”
  • What time anything is, ever. I haven’t mastered my prepositions yet, “at” and “on” or “during,” and so when my host mom tells me that music is at ocho, I don’t know if we’re leaving at eight, getting ready at eight, expected at music at eight, and so I’m constantly getting ready early and then loitering about like a kitten waiting to be adopted at an animal shelter. A happy, hopeful kitten, but the kind who gets her head stuck in peanut butter jars.
  • WHY I CAN’T STOP EATING JAMON IBERICO. At least sixteen times per day, I fantasize about the leg of jamon in the garage. When my host dad steps out to slice off jamon for meal times, I begin instantaneously salivating. I feel incredibly carnivorous.

And so, there you have it – the first week! Cheers to scooching more things into the

“Certain” and “Semi-Certain” categories, but embracing the undoubtedly countless new things that’ll plop into the “I have no idea” category in coming weeks. That’s what it’s all about, right?


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