If the sun on my face wasn’t good enough reason to be sprightly, having an appointment; some business to attend to, while hurriedly strolling down a dusty backstreet in Spain, felt quite good and purposeful. I could almost imagine that I lived there in Sitges, hastily checking my watch as it got closer to 9 am. That is if it weren’t for my pasty skin buttered in factor fifty, and the plasters on my ankles where my new sandals chaffed.
We’d decided it’d be a good idea to take Spanish lessons for one week at the start of the holiday. A week in Sitges then up the coast to Barcelona by train for the weekend of Sonar. I’d never learned a language. Unless you count nine school years of Irish and three years of French. But that didn’t count. Then I didn’t want to learn, and now I found I couldn’t learn.
Two idioms merged to become truisms. One involves old dogs and new tricks. And the other, a slightly lesser known fact; it’s much harder to learn a new language if you haven’t already learned a language in your younger years. So trying to teach an old dog a new language is quite the battle.
The first thing I learned in Spanish class was that I was the only person in the dunces’ class, the absolute beginner’s class (the missus just needed some brushing up, and took the expert class). The next lesson I learned quite quickly too; they don’t speak English in Spanish school. I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish. And my teacher wouldn’t speak a word of English. Well, I had the holster of usual phrases but that was it, so this impasse was a major inconvenience. It was as though they never actually expected an absolute beginner in the absolute beginner’s class. Not really. Surely everyone would have some basic Spanish at least? It was a very slow start. I stared at her blankly as she made funny sounds and gesticulated. It was like a game of charades but even if I’d know what she was mimicking, the answer in my head would still be in English.
One phrase I learned quite quickly and used frequently was “no entiendo” (I don’t understand!). It was my deflated sigh of defeat. Uttered with the familiarity of an ageing Señor with long white whiskers …No entiendo. But despite being on holiday I worked hard, and did my homework, and made some progress. On the last day we were ending on an exercise that was going quite well, though still quite basic. I had to describe my father in short phrases.
While elsewhere in the same building, the missus discussed Spanish politics and perfected her imperfect tenses, I sat there like the village idiot and pronounced : Mi padre es inteligente. Then scraped the barrel of my soggy memory for some more words I could use, true or not.
“Mi padre es gordo”
“Mi padre esta feliz”
“Mi padre es pequeño”
“My father is fat”
“My father is happy”
“My father is small”
Just as I was beginning to run out of adjectives, my mobile rang. It was my mum. “Madre” I said apologetically, eyes going up to heaven, then gesturing more seriously to indicate I should probably answer. I found my next adjective in the call but hadn’t yet learned its Spanish equivalent. I hung up and finished the exercise in English:
“My father is dead.”