Moving In

"El hormiguero" is Liza's host family dinnertime program.

“El hormiguero” is Liza’s host family dinnertime program.

LIZA LEONARD- I live with a lovely woman named Lola in Alcala de Henares, Madrid. As lovely as she is, the move into her home was a big transition. Lola doesn’t speak any English, and my jet-lagged, textbook Spanish, was not conducive to immediate bonding. I accepted that genuine, nuanced communication about our lives would come in time. The first day, I was happy enough understanding her instructions about how to unlock the door (two turns to the right, click), so I could go out and see my friends in town.
For the first few weeks, we chatted about safe topics, mostly about food that I liked and my plans for the weekend. I had to tell her that pasta and bread have the same ingredients, and therefore I prefer not to eat them together, but other than that it was smooth sailing and she caught on to my preferences and habits.
I quickly discovered her obsession with knitting, and she taught me about the important differences between “bufandas”, “pashminas” and “pañuelos.” My Spanish vocabulary for words for scarves was improving by leaps and bounds! Over dinner, she would ask me if I understood the TV (watching TV during meals is something I am not very used to or comfortable with, but Lola assured me that it would be helpful.) She told me that her four-year-old granddaughter learns English words from watching TV. Though I was skeptical about the same learning tactics being applied to a four-year-old and a twenty-year-old, I went with the flow.
During those first few weeks, Lola and I enjoyed each other’s company during dinner time. Between mouthfuls of Spanish Tortilla and the ever-present pan (bread), we would comment on the chatter of the television in front of us. At first, I didn’t understand everything that was going on or every word that was said. Lola said I would in time. I didn’t understand why American actors appeared as guests on talk shows, responding in English to questions asked in Spanish. I couldn’t comprehend the feeling of a pop-culture constantly switching between languages, but I tried to accept the fact that I would one day be okay with watching exclusively dubbed movies during my time in Spain. I didn’t understand why the talk show that is on during our dinner time often has interjections by Muppet-like talking puppets. I noticed differences, and let them sink in, hoping to learn more about what I was seeing and hearing. I reminded myself that American television programming would look bizarre to foreigners, as well.
One night, though, I knew exactly what was going on as we sat at the dinner table and dutifully watched the TV. “Noticias” (the News) were on as we enjoyed a “sobremesa” (a period of relaxation and conversation at the table after everyone is done eating.) The news channel was showing footage of Syrian refugees, many of them children, huddled together with their families in squalid conditions. The images were not new, we had read about the Syrian refugee crisis and seen the heartbreaking images before. The reminder that innocent people are displaced from their homes and hurting and suffering was in front of us, during our dinner. We were feeling for the people on the screen, for the small children and the families, but we did not know what to do with our sadness.
As she does when she accidentally flips to a horror movie, Lola covered her eyes and whimpered, “ah, los pobrecitos.” Oh, those poor little children. She looked like she was about to cry. She looked like she was thinking about her own children and her adorable grandchildren.

Liza Leonard, Tufts in Alcalá

I was thinking of my family too, and I tried to express that as best as I could in Spanish. “La familia es la cosa mas importante.” Lola responded, yes, of course. That night, our “sobremesa” continued as we shared details of our family trees and why they were the most treasured parts of our lives. We were beginning to understand each other more clearly. Through a deteriorating language barrier, a tradition of watching TV during dinner that at first did not make sense to me, and a wide gap of years and experiences, we found a genuine point of connection and communication. Moving to this city, in a country I have never been before, with Lola and with her big heart full of warm fuzzy “bufandas” and grandchildren was a transition, but it is starting to feel just like home.

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