It’s been a month since we left Seattle for Málaga, Spain, thanks to my husband’s perseverance through the gymnastics of the visa labyrinth. Once we got here, I could no longer be a detached bystander. In our first two weeks, we found an apartment, arranged for electricity to be turned on, opened a Spanish bank account, bought a phone so we could have a Spanish phone number, and arranged for Wi-Fi to be installed. I conducted these transactions in my intermediate-level Spanish, grateful that the realtors, banker, and retailers all decelerated their normally rapid speech for me. Because, honestly, as I listen to conversations around me in public, I don’t know if my brain will ever operate fast enough to distinguish the words that fly at impossible speeds from the lips of los andaluces. But it’s not just the velocity, it’s the economy of syllables they practice, omitting the endings of words so that “hasta luego” sounds something like “ha lueg.”
Sometimes all I hear are a few words in a long string of sounds. And sometimes they are the wrong words. I always use my Spanish even though many café and shop workers speak at least some English. So I was speaking Spanish to our waiter at a café when he said something that threw me off. I thought I heard “despedida” (farewell), which made absolutely no sense in the situation. I was stumped. The waiter then proceeded to lecture me in English. “You spoke to me in Spanish so I spoke back to you in Spanish. If you don’t understand, then speak to me in English.” Well, okay, then, young man, shame on me. I felt bad for a whole five minutes. Then I let it go. Life is short and I’m old. By the way, what he’d said was “las bebidas.” Duh. Context is everything. But really, it was more like “la bebida,” with the end sounds characteristically chopped off.
I’m still doing my weekly online Spanish lesson with my Mexican teacher who moved from Toluca, Mexico to France about six months ago, so we’re sort of neighbors now and in the same time zone which is more convenient for scheduling classes. Yeah, I know, I’m learning Mexican Spanish while living in Spain, but she’s a fabulous teacher and I don’t want to quit her. If you’re looking for an online Spanish teacher, who is smart, fun, and kind, I highly recommend Nathalie through italki.
I figured I should also start in-person weekly lessons with a Malagueño but it turns out Sebastián, who I found through a poster on a wall, happens to be from Chile. He’s a linguist and polyglot who also speaks English, German, and Russian. I imagine the brains of multilinguists with multicolored wiring and firecracker explosive synapses. And then there’s mine —flameouts, sputters, the occasional tiny, feeble spark.
Speaking of linguistic feats, I’ve been attending a weekly Writers’ Meetup of ex-pats, temporary residents, and peripatetics, at which I’ve listened to two Poles and a German share their writing in English. Will I ever reach a point where I’m writing creatively in Spanish? ¡Qué milagro sería!
Milagro. That’s my segue to Semana Santa. I witnessed the pageantry and spectacle throughout the week both up close and deep in a sea of onlookers. The sound of drums and trumpets reverberated in the centro from late afternoon to the early morning hours. One evening I came home after spending a couple of hours in the street watching processions to find my husband, all comfy on the couch, watching them on TV which provided angles and close-ups difficult or impossible to see in person. What the TV couldn’t provide were the incense-suffused air and the intensity of the ribcage-rattling drums and melancholy beauty of the trumpets—a highly emotive sensory experience even for a nonreligious person like me.
Much of Spain’s history—well, history in general—is shaped by religion. So we went to a Catholic cemetery for some stories from the past. Actually, our excursion to the Cementerio de San Miguel de Málaga, built in the early 19th century, was prompted by my accidental discovery that the American writer Jane Bowles is buried there. While googling some other topic related to Malaga, I came across a reference to Bowles, whose novel Two Serious Ladies was among the 900 or so books I had to give away before moving to Spain. I knew a little about Bowles’s life, but I didn’t know she was buried in Málaga, given a place among the city’s notables. It’s a beautiful old cemetery, whose architecture reflects a variety of styles. It didn’t take long to locate Bowles’s gravesite – a large black marble slab with a quote from Truman Capote engraved on it: Cabeza de gardenia, his name for her. Not far away is the grave of the Málaga poet Salvador Rueda. Some of his lines appear on decorative tiles outside of the legendary El Chinita’s restaurant near our apartment.
Our lives are slowly taking on a rhythm here. Walks in the early morning, at our desks until mid-afternoon, then out for errands and maybe lunch, back for a nap, and then more desk time. The routine is punctuated by Spanish lessons and the occasional social encounter with people I have met here. My favorite evening activity is reading in the cathedral garden. I’m reading La Insumisa, dictionary by my side. It’s an autobiographical novel by Cristina Perri Rossi, a Uruguayan writer and activist who in the seventies was exiled during the dictatorship and has since lived in Barcelona. The book delights me in two ways. The first is that I’m able to move through it fairly easily (reading Spanish is so much easier than speaking it!), though there are plenty of words whose meaning I have to look up when context fails me. The second is the often-deadpan delivery by the charming, rebellious main character of her quirks and escapades, as well as the unsparing look at the solemn and the tragic. Anyway, that’s my assessment after four chapters. But don’t take my word for it. I’m someone who said aula (classroom) when I meant jaula (cage) and received cava when I asked a waiter for agua.
And so it goes. That’s it for month one. Hasta la próxima mes.