Leaving the Wall

Palacio de Hielo, Madrid

Last week, I gave a presentation in Spanish. Or rather, my fellow blogger Madi and I gave a presentation in Spanish. We’re American, but the words weren’t. Still, I understood everything she said, and I’m fairly positive that our audience understood some of what I tried to say.
This week, Madi and I received back a graded rubric from our presentation. Our professor is Spanish, and so were his comments. The numbers function in both languages, so at the very least, I understood those fluently, and I’m fairly pleased with my grade. This presentation marked the very first time in my very sheltered life that I have ever given a speech in a foreign language without relying heavily on note cards. Always before, my myopic eyes have so craved the comfort of my written words that my nose has almost smudged the trail of my trusty Ticonderoga pencils.
This time, though. This time was different. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, and in truth, I was somewhat scared of failure, but I did what I needed to do. I spoke Spanish. Haltingly, yes, but in my opinion, gutsily.
Granted, when I say I spoke Spanish, I mean I spoke a brand of Spanish that earned me a 7/10 on pronunciation, but for that reason, I often stay after class with our professor. So does Madi. We listen to tips about how to sound more native –harder R’s, shorter tonal ranges—and then we go out into the Spanish-speaking streets and try to make the changes.
Yesterday afternoon, though, I sought temporary refuge in a setting reminiscent of home. I arrived at the Palacio de Hielo, an indoor ice rink, after a subway ride spent listening to an NPR Politics podcast with my earphones in. Both the ice and the voices were familiar; as I listened, I understood truly all of what was being said, and as I skated, it was snowing in my native Pennsylvania. I have skated since I was four, spoken English since whenever I babbled “Mama!”, and taken Spanish for only five years. Thus, on the Spanish ice with my mouth closed, I fit right in.
Oh, how I flew over that smooth surface! My progress, so frictionless and free, delighted me, but eventually, I slowed down to speak. The last time I skated was with my sister over last winter break, but yesterday, I found myself in the happy company of five program mentors, two intercambios, and nine fellow students. Unlike my sister, some of them don’t know how to skate, so I broke my silence to stumble through some sage advice. “Tienes que … uh … elongar tus pasos,” I told my friend Amaya from San Diego. “You have to elongate your strides. Is ‘elongar’ even a word?” (NOTE: I have since googled the translation of ‘elongate,’ and my word works. Word Reference omits the lengthy pause that I inserted before it, though.)
Had I not labored over my Spanish, my intervention would have been timely. As it was, when it finally did leave my mouth, Amaya was grateful. She had been gripping the wall for dear life, but in her endless defense, she hadn’t needed to put herself in peril, risk life and suntanned limb to come skating. Or come to Spain, for that matter. But she had come, and slowly, step by slightly elongated step, she left the wall.
I’m returning to the US in about a month, but Amaya will be here next semester, too. My Spanish has started to improve, and I can only imagine how good hers will be after a full year of immersion. So good, I bet, that when she gives her next Spanish presentation on American soil, note cards will be unthinkable.
I don’t quite know how I’ll proceed, though. I confess that I actually watched the movie on which I gave my presentation with English subtitles, so maybe the next step is a switch to Spanish subtitles and no note cards. My daily life doesn’t come with closed captions, however, so maybe I should just throw caution to the wind and trust my Spanish a little. Yeah, that’s what I should do. Like Amaya, I just need to leave the wall.

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