I spent this past weekend exploring Paris with a group of friends. Between mouthfuls of crepes and macaroons, the sparkling glow of the Eiffel Tower at night, and the tolling bells of Notre Dam, we were all wildly aware of how little French we spoke, and how obvious that was to any native Parisian. In my one year of middle school French experience, all I’d really retained was “merci beaucoup”, “bonjour,” and “bonsoir” (which, but the most generous estimates, are the three most basic phrases one could say). At the same time, we all couldn’t help but notice how this compared to our level of Spanish.
When we arrived in Madrid on September 1st, one of the first things Susan told us was that we were going to have great days speaking Spanish, but we were also going to have bad days. This has been a very accurate way to describe my language experience abroad; some days I feel extremely confident in my Spanish, while others I have trouble spitting out basic phrases. As the semester has gone on, our vocab and fluidity have grown, and the “good” Spanish-speaking days have begun to dramatically outweigh the bad ones. In fact, going to France gave me an interesting perspective of our level of comprehension. Although we are not fluent or native Spanish speakers (by and means), the fact of the matter is that we’ve been operating in this language for 10 weeks now. I can go to the store and have a chat with the cashier, order food, carry out a dinner conversation with my extended host-family, and go to my internship at an NGO in Madrid. Sure, I still sometimes mix up “por” with “para” and the subjunctive will never cease to make my head hurt, but my confidence in being able to function in a Spanish-speaking country is worlds above where it was when my plane touched down in Madrid in September.
This doesn’t stop at the linguistic; our fit into the culture of Madrid has been a slow and steady process as well. While we’ve experienced our share of wine tastings, trips to museums, and strolls through the streets of the city, the whole process of “becoming local” has been less about seeing Madrid and more about finding our rhythm here. For instance, eating lunch at 3pm and dinner at 10pm doesn’t seem strange to us anymore. I know when I walk into or out of a store or classroom, I must say hello and goodbye. I know that my host mom isn’t thrilled with me when I leave my bedroom light on, and that I should never pay more than 1.50€ for a cafe con leche. Giving “dos besos” doesn’t seem like a foreign concept anymore.
Going to another country, one with it’s own language and culture (one in which I’m entirely inept) definitely opened my eyes to just how much we’ve adjusted. While chatting with my parents last week on the phone, my Dad reminded me that I come home to Boston in about 6 weeks. He was slightly alarmed when I let out an audible groan. When he asked why, I responded, “I’m just finally starting to get the hang of this Spain thing!” The scary fact is that we’ve got a lot more to learn and experience in Spain in the next month or so, but for now I was glad to take a step back and appreciate just how far we’ve come. And it turns out, we DO actually speak Spanish.