Trujillo To Córdoba – A Day Of Sweaty Alliteration

On my fifth day of being in Spain I am now quite confident of what I can say about breakfast. I have got the right vocabulary for el desayuno to allow me to order stuff I can eat.

It doesn’t really match what I usually eat in the UK. However I think it is a balance between using words I know AND sampling the local culture.

When I went down for breakfast, it appeared that I was the only resident. As I entered the restaurant my host Ricardo asked if I wanted to go outside. Thankfully there were enough hand gestures and I think I caught the word “fuera” (outside) to understand what he meant.

I think what is becoming increasingly obvious to me right now is that the work I have done so far to learn Spanish has left me almost completely unprepared to understand the spoken word.

Spanish People Speak Really, Really Fast!

I hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the dialogue and find it incredibly difficult to distinguish individual words. Occasionally there will be a word I recognise but it passes so quickly that I struggle on a couple of counts.

Firstly my brain at the moment is too slow to recognise the word and recover its’ meaning before more even words appear.

I am at that stage where I know that I have heard is something I understand but I am too slow to decipher it before something else appears.

Secondly even if I latch on to a word or phrase everything else has moved on so quickly that I can’t make sense of the context in which the word is used.

It’s like this:

rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat mirar rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat para mi rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat ahora rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat veinteuno rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat Trabajo rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat rat-a-tat-tat

But it is not all doom and gloom. I know that I have enough vocabulary and can form enough sentences to make myself be understood.

So my Spanish communication abilities are still a bit of a one way street. But that’s ok because my goal for this trip was to be able to speak enough Spanish to be broadly functional.

And I think that I have hit that goal pretty well. Certainly I haven’t starved or dehydrated. I have been able to check in and check out of my guest houses and I have even asked for directions – all in Spanish!

Sure the grammar and pronunciation haven’t been perfect but successful communication has been achieved (at least on my side of the conversation anyway!).

I am not sure that after only four months of learning this fabulous language that I could expect anything else.

…Back To Breakfast And An Unexpected Alliteration

So back to this morning.

My conversation with Ricardo, as he set up my table beneath a tree on the patio behind the restaurant, included complimenting him on how beautiful Trujillo was.

As he diligently placed the solitary table and chair under the tree, I noticed it had green fruit on it so I pointed and asked “¿Que fruta?”.

“Higos” (figs) came the reply. Another of the words I had encountered in my preparations – so I understood.

I then established with him that I didn’t eat meat but could eat fish, eggs, toast etc. Sadly, I had given up on the idea of asking for protein shakes and brocolli with humous a long time ago!

He brought out a platter of fruit for my first course. It included higos of course.

Mmmmmm….

I didn’t know how to eat them so I thought I would ask.

“Como” means “how”.

“Como” also means “I eat”

I can’t tell you just how much I looked forward to asking Ricardo “¿Como como?”

Little things please little minds LOL.

He did show me without a hint of irony at the double use of the word. And now I know how to eat figs. This trip is becoming educational on so many different levels.

This language stuff works. Though I am not 100% convinced of the grammatical correctness of the phrase that had me chuckle so much.

After another brief conversation about replacing the coffee he brought out for the green tea I had asked for. I understood his comment that he had gone into automatic to bring out the coffee.

I then had a glorious breakfast in a beautiful location.

Have I just Met An Alien?

Later Ricardo came and asked if he could clear the plates after I had finished breakfast. Or at least that’s what I surmised he said from his gestures.

I didn’t understand and certainly can’t remember what he said in Spanish. As usual, I just responded with a “si” or a “no” when I thought it was appropriate.

I had engaged in that game of “I think I know what you mean and I’ll give you that impression by using words that have a high probability of being what you expect to hear based on what you have said!”

For all I know he could have said (in Spanish):

“Excuse me I am from another planet and now that you have eaten my food, I am going to tell the mother ship that we can transport you back to our planet in a distant galaxy where we will probe you and conduct experiments to find out how you tick”.

And I accepted that with a hearty, heavily accented “Si”.

Paying The Bill And Departing

After breakfast I went in to pay the bill. At the bar was someone I hadn’t met yet. I wasn’t sure whether this was the owner or whether he worked for Ricardo.

So I said “¿Puedo pagar por favor?” (Can I pay please). To which he responded in English “I hope so”.

Perhaps it’s obvious that my current grasp of the Spanish language doesn’t convince some of the people I speak to that I can hold a good conversation in their language!

It’s clear I am not Spanish. But then it’s not just my accent that gives that away.

Perhaps he wanted to practice his English or maybe he was just trying to be funny!

Either way it was another indication that I have to work on my pronunciation. And the only way I can think of doing that is speaking more Spanish.

I didn’t let his comment revert me back to English and so I continued the rest of the conversation in Spanish.

“No quiero ir” -( I don’t want to go) was received with a hearty “gracias”.

My last Spanish encounter at this place with Ricardo was when he thought I was departing without leaving the key as I packed up my motorbike.

I understood what he said but didn’t have the vocabulary to tell home my helmet and bike jacket were still in the room.

Ahh – Now It Is Starting To Come Back To Me

As I write this now I am reminded that I have covered the word for coat before. It took me a few moments to think about this and recall it from memory, but it did come.

I don’t know where it came from but the word “abrigo” sprung to mind. I then recalled that I had also learnt the word for Jacket – chaqueta.

These things are always easier in hindsight. Though perhaps that is the performance anxiety that kicks in.

Perhaps another lesson I need to engrave on my heart is that learning is an iterative process. It might take several bites at the cherry for me to internalise a word or a phrase.

Missed opportunities to use certain words or phrases should be seen as the opening of a loop that I can then consciously close with dedicated effort. These will be powerful learning experiences.

The trick is to see them as that and not as an indication of how bad I am at Spanish. These occurrences are merely points of feedback to direct my learning and effort in a targeted fashion.

That’s the growth mindset in action.

It still doesn’t feel “comfortable” though.

But that is what years of educational brainwashing about getting the right answer has done to me.

The real secret is learning how to embrace that discomfort when it occurs and then embrace the sense of achievement when I shore up that particular leak in my language abilities.

And the last bit of Spanish I used in the beautiful town of Trujillo was to say “Señor!” To a van driver and gesticulate that I wasn’t happy he had blocked in “mi moto”. He moved it.

Another job done!

Getting Pronunciation Right Is Soooooo Important!

I have discovered that pronunciation is one of the main keys to being understood. Getting something approximately sounding right is not an option.

This is because even the slightest difference in emphasis or perhaps a minor tweak in pronunciation from the norm can render a word completely unintelligible or even worse, give it an entirely different meaning.

In the popular TV comedy series “Allo, Allo” of the 1990s the Gendarme character was an English Agent pretending to be a French Policeman in occupied France.

To the French characters, it was obvious he wasn’t “French” because of his pronunciation. His version of “I am just passing through” came out as “I am just pissing through”. A mistake with obvious hilarious connotations.

Well when I say obvious…. it took me four years of watching that show to get the joke. I can still remember the incredulous look on my poor (ex-)wife’s face when I tried to explain it to her as though she didn’t know it!

Hopefully I am living proof that you don’t have to be smart to learn another language!

This can happen in Spanish too. If you mix up anos with años and you are talking about your age you could end up telling someone your child has 5 anuses instead of being 5 years old!

I have had many times when a Spanish native has looked at me blankly when I have tried to say something that to me sounded perfectly correct.

Today I asked the gas station attendant who put petrol in my bike how to get to Zorita. I used the ZZZ sound instead of the softer Thhh version.

So it sounded like I was asking the way to ZZZZOOOR-REEEETA instead of THHHHOOOR-REEEETA

She responded with the correct version and pointed which way to go. It was then that I realised I had got it wrong. I asked her to say it again so I could make sure I got the pronunciation correct for future reference.

Another small step forward.

Sometimes It Pays To Write Things Down

One of the many joys about visiting Spain is stopping off at a roadside bar or restaurant and enjoying a cool drink and some local food.

When I reached Almadén I got some fuel (didn’t understand a word the attendant said) and then parked up to stop for something to eat.

Guess what I had to drink?

Yes…

Zumo de naranja y una botella grande de agua.

Given that it was really hot, I also asked her is she could fill up my water bottle too.

I asked the young waitress who took my drink order “Soy vegetariano. ¿Tienne comida sin carne?”

She went off and checked then came back and listed off the Los Primeros dishes (starters) and then Los Segundos dishes (main courses).

I asked her to repeat the main courses and then asked for “el segundo de los segundos” – The second of the “seconds”. I had no idea what it was. But I established it was some form of fish dish.

So far when encountering a new word I have just repeated it a couple of times… and then done nothing with it. That has meant it has whistled through the 20 second half life of my short term memory and disappeared forever.

And I am pretty sure I am not the only one who experiences that!

So this time I thought I would do something about it.

Wanting to learn from this experience, I asked the girl to repeat it again slowly. I then got her to write it down.

Saying “No Entiendo” Is A Conversation Killer

I realised at this point that I would need to start saying something other than “no entiendo”.

That is a phrase that can stop a promising conversation opportunity dead in its tracks before it has even started..

So I had a think and came up with this phrase:

“Please speak slowly, I will try to understand” – “habla despacio, trataré de entender”

Thank heavens for Google translate to help in these sorts of situations!

One of it’s most useful features is you can actually listen to what the phrase sounds like.

I didn’t use my new phrase this time because the opportunity had passed. But now I have something I can try next time.

Just have to make sure I get the pronunciation correct.

Back to lunch….

After a hearty meal of fish (mercuza – hake) and salad, she came and cleared away my plate.

I understood her offer of dessert (postre) and of the dishes she rapidly reeled off, helado (ice cream) was the only one I recognised. So I opted for that.

Just like last night, when I had decided on ice cream, she then rattled off the list of ice cream options.

By now she had the measure of my Spanish abilities… or lack thereof.

She saw my puzzled look, laughed and then said something I didn’t understand. However her accompanying gestures indicated she would bring me something to help with my choice.

Sometimes You Just Have To Point and Say “Si”

And then bless her, she came out with 4 ice creams on a plate and offered me to choose from the selection.

It was a sophisticated version of me pointing at the menu (see a BBC article on this very subject). I was touched by her attempt to ensure communication had taken place.

We all appreciate that communication is a two way thing – you speak, I listen, I speak, you listen. That is how it works.

But it also goes deeper than that. It is also about making sure your message gets across.

What I have found with just about every Spanish person I have spoken to on my trip, is they really appreciate it when a foreigner tries to communicate in their language. Even when the vocabulary is limited and the pronunciation is suspect.

When that connection is made, they will go out of their way to make it easy for you to understand.

All it takes is a smile, the courage to try and the willingness to learn from the experience.

In hindsight I should have pointed at the chocolate ice cream I eventually selected and asked “¿tienne carne…?” (Does it have meat?)

I am sure it would have drawn a smile… it certainly made me chuckle when I thought about it later.

Sweating My Way To Córdoba – More Alliteration

But I had to get on and continue my journey. The destination was Córdoba and it was still a couple of hours ride away.

With the heatwave across Southern Europe at this time I had the joy of experiencing riding in temperatures that peaked at 41.5 degrees celsius. That’s quite warm in shorts and a T-shirt so imagine what it is like in double layered protective bike kit AND helmet AND gloves!

To say I was sweating a lot is an understatement. Fortunately I was drinking at least as much as I was perspiring.

To say arriving at my overnight stop was a relief is more than an understatement.

Tonight’s accommodation was a guest house located in the leafy suburbs of south east Córdoba

My host let me through the security gate and I parked up. Of course arriving as a complete stranger, our initial conversation was entirely transactional. I think she was also a bit surprised to see a booted and suited biker turn up at her front gate.

I introduced myself and discovered here name was Lola.

I couldn’t help myself…. but I had to…

“Hola Lola” I said.

…A day of alliteration! LIke I said earlier….little things…!

Back to checking in…

First thing was the paperwork and obligatory check of the passport.

Inside in her lounge, it was cool and dark compared to the bright heat and light outside. As she photocopied my ID, I could feel the sweat dripping down my arms.

I looked to the marble tiled floor and could see a couple of pools of sweat forming. Embarrassed I said “lo sciento por el sudor” (I am sorry for the sweat).

El sudor was one of the many words I had learnt as part of developing my vocabulary of the most frequently used words.

It is hard to describe the satisfaction of being able to comment on something happening around me in Spanish. It felt so natural and wasn’t contrived or rehearsed.

I was communicating about something that didn’t include asking for orange juice or ordering Calamares.

The word I needed was there in my memory and available to me because of learning the most frequently used words at an early stage.

I am sure I will find this happen again. Though I hope that I’ll be able to comment on situations other than my levels of perspiration!

After sorting out the bike and having a shower, I took a dip in the pool and then went out to find something to eat.

Guess what I ordered?

Zumo de naranja and calamares fritos y papas fritas…

Can’t make too many language breakthroughs in one day you know!

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