With September came a change in the weather. For the first few days, there were clouds and a bit of rain, and when the sun returned, it was with a tempered presence. No more scorching hot days. No need to cower indoors until evening or skitter from scarce shade to scarcer shade in the height of the afternoon. It was still hot enough for tank top and shorts, but you could feel it—the hint of a nip in the air. Atmospheric and seasonal change always stirs a restlessness in me—sadness for the evanescent moments already lived combined with a sense of anticipation and excitement for whatever might lie ahead and roiled with reflection on what changes or growth, if any, I’ve realized.
The growth I most wish I could measure is my Spanish competency. When I came here in March—with a good grasp of grammar but no verbal fluency— and started Spanish classes with Sebastian, I wondered what my level of language competency would be in six months. I still wonder, because it’s hard to gauge since any paper test would only show my theoretical understanding of the language, which I think is high, and not the practical—the pudding wherein lies the proof.
Sebastian says I have definitely improved. He’s probably right, though I fall far short of an errorless, stammer-free flow of words, which is my dream, impossible though it may be. There are days when I feel utterly stupid, my brain a blank—like in the elevator recently when a neighbor made a friendly, small-talky remark and I dithered my way through a response. On other days, sentences flow more readily from my lips as if from a gently opened, playtime-limited spigot.
Like the evening I had a video call with my friend, Seattle writer Maria Victoria, and the first part of our conversation was in Spanish. I felt comfortable as the words seemed to slide with relative ease from my mouth. After a while, we reverted to English, which I admit brought me a sense of relief, but I felt a sense of triumph about the thoughts I’d been able to express in Spanish.
After a busy summer, I resumed my participation at the Sunday intercambio I’d begun attending in early June. I also tried out a Tuesday intercambio, a more structured group with a policy for assigning conversation groups that made me hesitate to join and has since made me question my return.
The Sunday intercambio is relaxed and seems to have a phantom organizer. The participants just show up, take a seat at the table, and join the conversation. The mix of participants is always different since many are on short-term stays or just traveling through. Others are longer term, like Karlo, whom I had the pleasure of sitting near at the last two intercambios. He’s a young Croat, teaching and studying at the University of Málaga this academic year. His Spanish is very good and I gratefully accept his corrections when we converse. At the recent meetup, there was also a Frenchman—fluent in Spanish and English and learning Arabic, the language of his Algerian parents—who was very helpful as well. I was the only American in this group which also included a Dutchwoman, a Spaniard, a Swede, a Belgian, a Pole, an Argentinian, a German, a Lithuanian, and an Irishman. And, of course, they all spoke English. Whenever the conversation switched to English, I could always turn to Karlo for Spanish practice.
When I told Karlo I had a trip planned to Bilbao in the north of Spain, he grew excited. The rainy Basque region of Spain was where he had hoped to be placed for his year of work and study, not ever-sunny Málaga. He had even begun studying Euskera and, as a lover of languages and grammar, continues to do so here in Andalucia. He asked if, while I’m in Bilbao, I could find him a copy of the novel Obabakoak by the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga (pseudonym for Joseba Irazu Garmendia) written in the Basque language Euskera. I happily agreed. My interest piqued, I decided to download an English translation of the book to my Kindle to read prior to my trip to Bilbao. This is the kind of interaction with people I love—when I learn about a book, an author, or a place from someone that will open me up to other discoveries.
I had a different kind of discovery when I attended another intercambio a few nights later. I had been avoiding this one because of its policy to separate participants by age. It didn’t make sense to me. It seemed the only natural way to group people was by language level. I am invariably one of the oldest at the Sunday intercambio, but my age has never seemed to be an obstacle in my interactions with other participants. I wanted the extra practice in speaking Spanish so I went to this weeknight group. When I arrived, I was directed to an empty table and was assured that others would be joining me soon. I sat alone for about ten or fifteen minutes while at tables around me conversations in Spanish were well underway. Soon a British woman, in her seventies like me, arrived at my table and together we sat without a native Spanish speaker until well after the half hour, at which point, the person in charge pulled a man from a table with what looked to be forty-year-olds and reassigned him to us. The whole experience made me feel first like a pariah and then like leftovers. The next day I messaged the organizer to ask the reason for the age separation policy. I was told that both Spaniards and foreigners had expressed a preference to be grouped with people their own age. That was a revelation to me. I myself am eager to talk to, learn about, and benefit from the experiences and ideas of people of any age. Or is that just the sad and lonely illusion of a septuagenarian? Anyway, the organizer offered to next time put me in a group of thirty-year-olds. But do I want to impose my old self among people who’ve purportedly expressed a preference for people of their own age?
That’s its own small-world story. Here’s another one that is more pleasing.
One evening I was in the cathedral garden engrossed in my friend Jen Soriano’s book Nervous, when someone called my name. I looked up to see Tricia, the psychologist, sound healer, writer, and frequent traveler I had met at the now-defunct Writers Meetup I started attending within weeks of my arrival in Málaga. We caught up on each other’s news and then I described to her Jen’s book—an intelligent, heartbreaking, and hopeful memoir about transgenerational trauma that resides in the body. It turns out that Tricia’s childhood friend, the writer and editor Lisa Factora-Borchers is also a friend of Jen’s and was a beta reader for her book. And she was coming to Málaga for a visit! So we made a coffee date and there we were—three Filipina Americans in Spain enthusing about pastries, the perfect September weather, and Jen’s most excellent book.
This month I also read Circling Home: What I Learned from Living Elsewhere, a memoir by Terry Repak. Terry’s experiences of living and traveling in Africa and Europe, though not without difficulties, are enviable, but she never loses sight of her privilege. Trained as a journalist, she was not allowed to work as a trailing spouse to her epidemiologist husband who held positions in Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Switzerland. She focused on raising their two children and running the household, but her desire for connection to place and people led her to engage more deeply in the community and culture through volunteer work. She balanced child-rearing, community work, and cultivating friendships with both expats and locals with the solitude needed for writing. I was riveted by her story and was always eager to turn the page, not just for the next new adventure, but for Terry’s reflections on it in terms of human relationships, individual growth, and finding one’s place in the world. After years abroad, Terry is now a resident of Seattle and part of its cauldron of literary riches that I miss, but still enjoy and applaud from afar.
I ended the month with a few days in Madrid to rendezvous with longtime friend Pat who was on a Spain and Portugal trip with her husband and daughter. How satisfying is this friendship that began in our late teens and has survived geographic distances and periods of inattention due to the vicissitudes (a favorite word from nineteenth-century novels) of life? We talked and laughed, shared our current woes and joys, and reminisced about old times in little National City as we sat in outdoor cafes in a cosmopolitan Old World capital city. This big world made smaller by a forever friendship.