This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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Past tense

SS-16The Spanish preterite tense is not my friend. How can poder become puste, and venir vino? Vino, as in wine. Really.

When practicing past tense, talking about biographies is a natural topic. We were asked to write ours in simple sentences. I kept adding to my list of dates and events long after the others were done, and I am still in my thirties. When I read it out to class our teacher’s comment was “your life is like two entirely different halves.” She was right. In one I was a scientist living in Finland, married to a Dutch man. In the other I am a business woman living in Denmark, with a Spanish man. For now.

My young British housemate came home at 1 am last night, again clomping over the floor in her shoes. She closed the door to her room with a bang, and after a moment’s silence there was a huge crash. I thought her suitcase had slipped and fallen onto the floor. In the morning I was happily surprised that she followed me to school – and filled me in on the details of the previous night: it was not the suitcase that had crashed, but she herself.

My beauty sleep was doomed anyway, due to a catfight at 3.30 am (yes, literally, between two whining and spitting cats), and a drunk brawl at 4 am. Indeed, my dreams were visited by two drunk French men who argued about a third person who was not even present. Later I heard they woke up not only me and my landlady, but my Dutch classmate in a house a few hundred meters away. Indeed. This hotly contested third person must have really mattered to them, the way they sorted out their differences in the calles at 4 in the mañana.

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)

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Conferring fish and curious crayfish

SSaq-1I spent the afternoon studying conferring fish that look like plants growing from the sand, curious lobsters with bulging red eyes, and schools of tuna and sardines. The aquarium of San Sebastián is tucked away at the end of the old port. Half of the exhibition was about seafarers, types of trade and ships, corsairs, fishing, and whaling. I learned that Basques were famous for their shipmaking and seafaring skills, even if they rarely represented as captains on ships.

The aquarium was nicely built but enveloped in the noise of Spanish kids. It shames me to say I find Spanish children very rudioso (and sometimes their parents, too). Everybody could hear each other so much better if only they turned down the volume a notch or two. I hope the sea creatures have soundproof glass.SSaq-2My new housemate came home last night at 00.30 am, clomping over the floor in her shoes and having no discretion to us sleepers. This morning she got up in time but said she would catch up with us later. She did indeed, not by coming to class but by taking photographs of my homework when I got back. I guess it can sometimes be more efficient to only focus on getting homework right.SSaq-3(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)

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Probably the longest job title ever

SSaq-4Did King Carlos of Spain hold the longest job title in the world? ”King Carlos of Spain, king of Castille, Leon, Aragon, the two Sicilies, Jerusalem (!), Navarra, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Mallorca, Sevilla, Cerdeña, Córdoba, Córcega, Murcia, Jaen, the Algarves of Algecira, Gibraltar, the Canary Isles, the East and West Indies, and the Isles and Continent of Oceania; Archduke of Austria; Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, and Milan; Count of Habsburg, Flanders, Tyrol, and Barcelona; Lord of Biscaya and Molina etc.”

“Etc.”? What does that even mean? How long was the full list of his titles?

(San Sebastián aquarium, San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)

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País Vasco

SS-14The Basque region, or Euskal Herria, stretches across the French-Spanish coastline border, from West of Bilbao to East of Bayonne; and South as far as the Spanish Navarra region goes.

In and around San Sebastián (or Donostia in Basque), all road signs and street signs are first in Basque and then in Castilian Spanish. Most restaurants have a Basque name. It seems to be widely spoken, as there even is a Basque language university. Yet, in San Sebastián the language seems to be buried under the tourists as I cannot hear it spoken on the streets at all. Maybe it is more spoken in villages?

The Basques have a simple but confident culture, with some pizzazz. Their idea of sports involve lifting 300-kilo blocks of stone. They love artesanal cheese, ciders, pintxos, pickles, meat, and fish. Food is obviously a big deal as San Sebastián as a city has the most Michelin stars in the world. Yet the gastronomic “sociedades” or clubs are still only open for men. Basque music sounds a little Celtic or Scottish, with flutes and percussion and bagpipes. Their rudimentary version of a wooden xylophone is played by two people using two wooden stick each, and the sound is a melodious percussion with a beautiful timbre, a little like a tribal beat from Africa. I was told Basque men do not like to dance, and move in tight-knit gangs from childhood called quadrillas which are impossible to join later in life.

The stereotype comes across as an introverted culture, either mountain-dwelling or seafaring and exploring. Quite something else as the passionate, flamenco-dancing culture of Andalusia in the South.SS-15(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)

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Upgraded means more work

SS-11Monday night, linden flower infusion from a huge yellow Winnie the Pooh jug, and homework. Today we were moved into A2 level Spanish. Nobody congratulated us for reaching the end of A1. Instead, past tenses were thrown at us, and this is where the confusion begins when learning Spanish. The preterite form is a swamp which only the most determined ones cross, and not without sinking a few times.

I tried to remember the preterite form from my Rocket Spanish level 1 classes, but I could not. I thought there was a hole in my memory. I sweated. I wrote. I worked my brain in overdrive. During the break in passing the teacher mentioned that we had all been upgraded to A2 level today. No wonder this was difficult; I had never in my life seen these verb tenses. And while I did not learn many words in the preterite today, I learned that it is indeed much better to work and sweat alone at home all winter and then repeat the lessons in class, diving deeper into familiar content.

I spent an hour on my deberes. I suspect this last week will be tough. And then I need to start over at home, with more time. Because how can hacer become hago and then hice but ella hizo?

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)

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This hot afternoon

SS-12Sunshine, with shade under the tamarind trees
White tables and chairs against white boardwalk
Women in flowy flowery dresses and gentlemen in panama hats
Behind a white-painted Belle Epoque iron railing, a busy beach with bathers
White Ferris wheel spinning
Orange Apérol spritz is (unfortunately still) the choice of many
Hiking sandals, on both men and women (why?)
Straw hats, very few baseball caps
Murallas of Parque Urgull
Patatas fritas and calamares

I have a new housemate. And she is the new girl in class. She is young, from Newcastle, does not do any exercise, does not like to work, and she smokes. Also, she favors to pronounce Spanish as if it were English. All this I found out in our weekly introductions exercise in class. I try to not judge her because she is different from me. At least she is here, working hard on learning Spanish. And I am sure the rest of the class has pigeonholed me in some way as well. Perhaps they think I am snooty because I wear pearls practically todos los días.

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)

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Capoeiristas, concealed toilets, and unordered life plans

christinaenea-4Spent the morning in Christina Enea park and was quite distracted by four white-clad, surprisingly chubby capoeiristas spinning and tumbling about to drum beats from a boom-box. What’s the deal with wearing white? These well-rounded capoeiristas seemed to represent a local club, with Brazilian flags on their shirts and cameras rolling to capture their dancing battles. The one lady of the trio revealed her convex belly and an awfully bright yellow yoga bra, but who cared? She rocked the outfit, and she could do things while wheeling on her hands and feet that I will probably never master. christinaenea-2I seemed to sit right under a quince tree, as a lady with a little fat dog busied herself around my bench, picking fruit into a bag. The dog was quite as interested in what was on the ground as her mistress, but not helpful at all in picking quinces.

Gave up on the summit of the park and the capoeiristas’ acrobatics in favor of looking for a toilet. Or “los servicios comunales” as they are often called here. Thanks to a quick Google search pulled up a map of the park and found the toilets, unmarked and well hidden from anyone who necesita el baño. The peacocks I passed on my way look at me with disdain. There is nothing elegant about a tourist desperately in need of a bathroom.

After I successfully completed the comunales project the park was nearly empty. Most families had probably retreated for a late Sunday lunch, and I repaired underneath a tree which at close inspection appeared to be a Californian redwood tree. In Spain. And it certainly was not planted yesterday – or less than a century ago.christinaenea-1The whole aim of this trip to Christina Enea park was to create a life plan: what would I like my life to look like 10 years from now? 5 years from now? What needs to be kicked off next year, or this year? I sat underneath the redwood tree and gathered bits and pieces: getting hold of Spanish and then spending the rest of my life trying to decipher French; completing the book manuscripts I have in my head; ensuring my job either includes home office time or a max commute of 20 minutes door-to-door; and ensuring I have enough creativity and headspace in my life. And oh yes, living by the sea. And oh yes, the person I live with wants to move to a landlocked country. 

The bits and pieces refused to create order among themselves. Like the insane pioneer claims in a favorite poem by Margaret Atwood, “this is not order but the absence of order. He was wrong, the unanswering forest implied: It was an ordered absence.”

I gave up and went for pintxos and local wine.christinaenea-3(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)

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Sunset at the pop-up bar

SS-13Sidra, olives, and a setting sun in San Sebastián. There was my Swiss housemate, whom I had found earlier in his room feeling miserable about a broken eardrum which ended his surfing afternoons. There was my classmate who was going to Paraguay for two years. And her mother, who had just arrived and would join school next week. There was an American classmate who had spent a year traveling in Europe, looking for her father’s lost Jewish family. There was a Filipina ex-classmate whose boyfriend was local; and her two Filipina friends. And there was I, listening to my new friends talk and from time to time turning to look at the sun still warming my back.

Parque de Urgull now has a pop-up bar, and it is popular. Also, the sunset happens to be magnificent. My American and Filipina classmates climbed all the way to the foot of the Christo statue for a good view. My Swiss housemate was enjoying the moment with every cell in his body, which is more than one can say for most 25-year-olds.

Here the sun sets late, and fast. It is as if it falls into the ocean, just like in the tropics. We are also more West here than most of the British isles; yet we are in the Central European time zone. Hence the day is longer towards the night: the sun does not set until just past 9 pm in late August. It also does not rise until past 7 am, so the mornings are dark. I squinted at the sinking sun and wondered whether this had contributed to the late eating habits of the locals. After all, most restaurants open only at 8 pm which is still an hour away from sunset – and two hours too late for my early health-habits.SS-10(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)

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Week 1: completed!

grammarYesterday we completed the first week of class. Some students are leaving, and some new ones will arrive. The pace of the lessons may be fast for someone who hears everything for the first time, but for me this is a highly useful repetition of the Rocket Spanish Level 1 content which I completed last winter. Together with the vocabulary cramming I also undertook last winter I am able to stay afloat and relaxedly listening to what is brought to our attention, obtaining a deeper comprehension of the grammar, and picking up 3-6 words every day.

When I go home I have a lunch with fresh or steamed vegetables (yay! No pickles or pintxos!) and complete one chapter from our grammar book, on top of our official deberes as well as a good helping of the the frequency word list.

I am happy to notice this system works for me. I am (limitedly) communicative in Spanish and able to carry out a longer but simple conversation. I just need a little more time and education to climb across the hurdle that is becoming effectively communicative. I am already dreaming of the day when I can finally add a fifth language to my list of “fluents”.

Last night I celebrated the successful completion of week one and tried to be quiet the following morning, as my land lady’s door was still closed. She comes home late every night and I often do not hear her at all, as I get up early for yoga. But around 10.30 am I desperately needed the ironing board from her room and moved to plan B, hunting around for a shirt which did not need ironing.

Suddenly the front door opened and my landlady entered, looking surprisingly fresh for an all-night-out. Turned out she had not been at home at all that night. Naturally my mind swung into all sorts of ideas about the adventurous life of my landlady, until she brought the boring reality down: she had been with her family and ended up too far from home so she stayed over with them.

Ah, if only I had discovered that my otherworldly-efficacious landlady did not only run two jobs and a social life, but was the life of the party every weekend as well.

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)

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Pintxo bar survival guide

padronesMore pintxos. Of course. This is San Sebastián. I lust for fresh vegetables but all I find is pickled olives, pimientos de padrón, or grilled red peppers on bread (which I do love but in moderation!). At home I steam tenderstem broccoli or flat green beans every day. Word is spreading among my classmates about a restaurant that specializes in fresh vegetarian fare. Sounds like heaven to me right now.

The original pintxos were apparently simple fishermen’s food. They seem simple, but keeping a menu of 20-30 pintxos and bocadillos requires a lot of salting, pickling, blending, and deep-frying. A potato tortilla is a pintxo (or bocadillo), and the “original” pintxo with green olives, green pickled peppers, and a small slice of pickled anchovy requires quite a lot of preparation if everything needs to be home-made. GetariaBasque bars are not places for relaxing, thinking, and writing. The music is loud and energetic, and if there is no music the other people are loud and energetic – and there are no seats. Eating at a pintxo bar is not for the timid, and some command of the Spanish language does make it much easier. The best is to just elbow in, look at what is going on and what is on the menu (and everybody’s plates) and then do like everyone else. And if there is no need to elbow one’s way in one is probably better off by going somewhere else. Some pintxo bars are order only. Others require the guest to take a plate, fill it at the bar, and pay at the end of the counter. Some bars have table service for the lucky ones who manage to grab a table. Finally, in the most traditional bars one elbows one’s way to the counter, orders just 1-2 pintxos and a small glass of cider, and flees into the street to eat after paying in cash at the bar. 

Each bar may serve 20 different kinds of pintxos, but there is always one signature pintxo that the locals know to choose. Some are proper dishes (I’ve even heard of a risotto “pintxo”). Thus on a Wednesday pintxopote night (or a weekend night) people pintxo bar crawl, having one or two bites and a small drink at each place before moving on. Ordering 10 pintxos in one place in one go is what tourists do. 

With pintxos most locals choose to drink Basque cider, or txakolí, a local cider-like wine. Both are very dry and contain little or no bubbles. Therefore they are poured from a special cork which is added to the mouth of the bottle. The glass is placed several dozen centimeters below, preferably at arm’s length, and the drink is poured in one long stream (like something else yellow…). The idea is to freshen up the flavor by aerating the drink before serving. Both txakolí and cidra taste surprisingly strong and yeasty and even bitter. The cider is strong and alcoholic while the wine is not, and both are served in the same large tumblers which are only poured one-third full or less – some 100 cl at a time. Just enough for a pintxo.SS-9

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)