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Thoughts on Spanish and English, and visits to two museums.

I am surviving with my limited Spanish. Every now and then I communicate something that makes me very pleased, although many times it’s more like lost in translation. Very few people speak English, or they speak very little. It is particularly strange when I am in a store or restaurant and American music is blaring over the sound system. All the songs – every song – is in English. Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, etc. Yet almost all the shoppers and sales clerks are Spanish. And they don’t speak any English.

My understanding is that English is a required subject here starting in elementary school. Of course, I took six years of French and can’t speak a word of it, and since I’m horrible at learning languages I am very sympathetic. But I don’t spend my entire day listening to songs sung in French, and I started French in 7th grade, not in elementary school. Rich thinks they actually know more than they let on, but lack confidence to speak in English. I get that.

I don’t mean to sound chauvinistic about the U.S. and speaking English. I’m not angry about the fact that they don’t speak English. I’m commenting on the contrast of hearing music sung in English all day long, yet people not knowing enough English to communicate. 

I always attempt to say things in Spanish. One of our funniest exchanges was when we were trying to figure out whether our purchase would qualify for receiving the Spanish value-added tax back. Rich was trying to ask the question in Spanish, I was feeding him words using the dictionary on my iPhone, and the sales clerks just weren’t understanding what we wanted to know. Finally Rich said the word tax, and their faces lit up. “Tax free!” they exclaimed. They didn’t know any other words in English (and this was a store in the center of Madrid, that must get a lot of tourists), but the English words “tax free” they understood.

At the supermarket the other day, the person ahead of us was British. She knew Spanish, and was trying to teach the cashier how to say, “You must weigh the fruits first.” (At this supermarket, when you buy fruits and vegetables the shopper weighs the items and attaches the price, as opposed to the US method where the cashier does the weighing and pricing). This system must flummox all English speakers (it got us the first time, too), and so the cashier is clearly looking for a way to communicate this. The Brit wrote down the phrase on a piece of paper, but when I saw she wrote “weigh” I knew it was a hopeless case. I’m pretty sure that putting an “e” next to an “i” in Spanish does not sound like our long “a” (in Spanish, “e” makes our long “a” sound).

I was also pretty proud of myself when I decided to listen to the radio that was playing in the bus on the way back from a day trip on Sunday. I figured out it was about the Australian Open. I didn’t understand what the announcer was saying, but at least I deciphered what he was talking about.

But I am generally hopeless when someone starts talking to me in Spanish. I’ll walk into a store, say “Hola,” they say “Hola” back, and then a string of Spanish words follows, which is probably “can I help you” but I don’t understand any of it. Which is pretty pathetic because I actually know that phrase if it was written out. I say, “Hablo ingles,” and that’s usually the end of it. I know my shoe size, the word for leather, the word for size, the phrase “made in Spain.” I pay with a credit card because while I know all the numbers, I can’t parse them out when they are said very fast. I don’t feel that my Spanish has gotten any better in the last 2 weeks – although my goal is not to be fluent, just survival.

I have decided to buy things that are made in Spain, like leather items (shoes, handbags). There is a lot of Chinese-made stuff – and I can find plenty of that back home. So here I am in my new leather bag and boots, heche en espana:



I am doing my best to fix the Spanish economy, single handedly.

Today we went to the Museo Sorolla, a small museum located in the house (mansion, really) where the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla lived. Sorolla painted in an Impressionistic style, which is my favorite painting style. The room where he actually painted, his studio, is startling. It’s a huge room, with a high ceiling with skylights. So it’s very well lit. It is crammed with paintings on all the walls, and his paintings tend to be very bright, and on the large size. But the room is also furnished the way it was when he used it as a studio. So his easel is there, a sofa, tables, bookcases crammed with stuff – and vases filled with paintbrushes. And his paints.

Both Rich and I exclaimed "wow" when we walked in:



Another view:



His paintbox and paint brushes:




He was particularly struck by the aesthetics of the city of Granada, and designed his garden after what he saw there. I’m sure the garden is gorgeous when the flowers are blooming, but it’s pretty nice now, with lots of tile work and even an orange tree.

I just looked him up, and discovered he was quite a prolific and successful painter, and this very small museum hardly does him justice. I certainly enjoyed today more than el Escorial.

On Sunday we went to el Escorial, a palace for the kings/queens of Spain. It’s an hour away, a humungous building filled with paintings. No heat, though. The wind was howling outside, and the place is built of stone. I hadn’t dressed properly, because (silly me) I thought it was indoors and I didn’t want to overheat. So I was shivering for the entire 3 hours we were there – except for the 10 minutes in the basement, where all the royalty are buried:



But truly bizarre, this is where all the royal kids who died young are:

For me, the most interesting part of the excursion was the train ride there. Our train was filled with two groups of people. One group was hikers (older than us, decked out to hike in snow). The other was a group of kids. In both cases, people joined the groups at subsequent train stops. It was pretty amusing watching the senior hikers – every time a new person walked on the train there would be a profusion of “Que thal?” and “Hola!” and then kissing both cheeks and big hugs. The kids were cute, too, except for the one little girl who was sobbing for most of the ride. People noticed and were trying to comfort her, but it was hard not to be really curious about what was happening in her life to cause her to be so unhappy.

We went to a flamenco performance last night. Unfortunately, the two flamenco dancers were not very good. Madrid is not really the place for flamenco – it’s a southern Spain thing. The male dancer was particularly amusing. He was wearing a pair of faded jeans, low waisted, with higher waisted black underpants and a short shirt. I hope you get the picture.


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slyvermont

March 2012

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