On Thursdays I bike to Lobster Street and feast my eyes on Vista Hermosa, a neighborhood known for its closeness to the sea and its huge, colorful houses. About a year ago, I found a sign in Rafa’s Kiosco (where I like to stock up on magazines and mints), hung by a retired university professor who wanted to improve his English in exchange for the opportunity to speak Spanish. I was still very new to the area and surprised at how different Spanish sounded here than in other parts of the world I had traveled. Since then, I’ve been going to Manuel’s house every week to practice speaking el andaluz, which is its own version of Spanish. Of course, I understood in a superficial way that all countries have their own language, and that the Spanish in Mexico isn’t the same as the Spanish in Cuba, for example. But to really experience those differences I think you have to go to the places themselves.
This is because it’s not just the words that are different: it’s mannerisms, ways of thinking, perceptions of what things mean, and patterns of behavior that all work together to create culture and certainly, or at least hopefully, most of us know by now that this is subject to vary widely from place to place. It has dawned on me several times since moving here that the word culture, something I have long been fascinated with, is rooted in the word “cult.” This is not a very inspiring thought, considering my western education has admonished all things seemingly cult-y.
Actually, culture stems from the Latin word colere, which means “to cultivate.” During dynamic conversations with Manuel, both in Spanish and English, I have come to appreciate even more the intrigue inherent in examining how we are cultivated. Just as a gardener plants, weeds, tills, and feeds a garden, the wider culture surrounding us informs who we are. Once you travel or live in other places, the experience of knowing yourself only gets richer. You have to confront ideas and mechanisms you’ve learned and practiced since your pre-verbal days on the planet and decide what really fits you and what doesn’t.
One of the many things I’ve learned about myself, and am still learning, of course, is how to be in the face of someone’s apparent intensity or bravado and not be affected by it. People in Andalusia interrupt one another frequently, raise their voices regularly, and are not afraid of conflict. It’s part of their banter. They see advice-giving as a form of care and make judgments about your character in the process. So, my skin is thicker these days. I’m able to hear a barrage of consejos and just say, “Vale,” and move on with my day.
Alternatively, I stop someone if the barrage or behavior is too much in some way. A few days ago in a classroom where I teach English, one of the students leaped out of her chair to physically attack her sister and without thinking, I stopped her with my voice and said, “You have to control yourself!” I didn’t scream or yell, but I told her what to do and made it clear that I wouldn’t tolerate her violent behavior. That was pretty invigorating: it was a three-second transmittal of words that left no residue and it worked.
It helped me understand why sometimes, being directive and loud can be an effective tool. It can solve the problem in the moment and leaves little to no misunderstanding about what has gone on. The more I do this in a moment-to- moment way in my life, the lighter I feel: I either let it drop away or name it head on, and then drop it. This is something I could have learned anywhere, but being a guiry in southern Spain has definitely helped.
And the time I’ve shared with Manuel, speculating on various cultural tendencies or asking questions about why someone “says it that way” also began with its own speculative observations.
In Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain
My language partner says, Es-Spanish does not
difficult, but English is very hard. I smile at the
sound of two S’s, want a soft way to amend his
earnest presentation. I say our first language brings
such small transgressions in the second.
He asks, Do you know the Andalusians? This is his
way to say he won’t bother being so polite, won’t
sing me a starry melody while I stumble through his
native spaces. ¡NO – se dice así! Each syllable
a staccato-y negation, his punctuation a jumpy alarm.
Later I will remember the feeling of an honest introduction.
For now we sit at his table like two low tide
waves and watch pools of our newly spun words.
A third language swims in a billowy liquid, all those
misunderstandings resting quietly down shore.