Call me Rosa

Aula de educación infantil

Started my Spanish class last Tuesday. As soon as I sat down, I  realized that I had brought neither pen, pencil nor paper, which is not an indication that I am a digital native so much as a marker of how long it’s been since I’ve been in a classroom.

While calling roll my new professor suggested Spanish names for us based on our actual names. I was delighted when he chose Rosa for me – it has the same old lady ring as Ruth but with a Hispanic flourish that brings to mind a cute little abuela. My eighth grade French name was Sabine, and I’ve taken to imagining her as Rosa’s sex kitten granddaughter with a heart of gold. Who knew language classes could breed multiple personality disorder. Continue reading

that time my brain was like Apple’s spinning wheel of death

book retrieval

Last night I got a taste of how dumb it was to sign up for a Spring 2015 Spanish class on the heels of exclusively and intensely practicing French for a year. My Israeli cousin was in town with her four and a half year-old daughter. Even though I hadn’t spoken Hebrew in about a decade, I assumed it couldn’t be that hard to make conversation with a small child. I assumed wrong. Her vocabulary was way (way) bigger than mine, and every word that came out of my mouth was delayed by the process of first thinking it in French, then translating it back to English, then searching my brain like a Rolodex for the same word in Hebrew. And inexplicably, every time I wanted to say kayn (yes), si popped out instead.

Meanwhile, my cousin, who never spent more than a couple weeks at a time in an English-speaking country, is perfectly fluent in my mother tongue, because Israelis start learning English in second grade. When my brother, sister and I were little and used to visit our also-little cousins, we always returned to the States babbling in Hebrew. It was an equal playing field then – both sets of cousins picking up words from the other via immersion, both equally reliant on making ourselves understood through miming and the international language of child’s play. That kind of language acquisition is sometimes fun but more often frustrating, and I distinctly remember breathing a sigh of relief when the last of my cousins started second grade and the American kids could shift the weight of responsibility squarely onto the Israeli ones. From then on, English became the lingua franca between us. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized the unfortunate consequences of that youthful decision to throw in the towel. Namely, I’m limited in how close I can get with one full side of my family. And I feel like a child when everyone gets together and wants to speak Hebrew but begrudgingly defaults to English so I can follow along.

Everyone has their own method of self-motivation. For better or worse, shame and embarrassment is mine. Ranking lower than a kindergartner on the comprehensibility scale had me wondering whether it was not too late to somehow crowbar a year in an ulpan into my language learning plans.

But realistically, there’s only so much time for these things. And I’ve prioritized French and Spanish because the one is the foreign language I know best and the other is the foreign language that is most useful. Hebrew will have to wait. And after all, soon enough all my cousins’ kids will get to second grade…

[Photo: Richard Cawood]

Wild Tales

wild tales poster

I went to see “Wild Tales” knowing nothing about it except that Almodóvar was one of the producers, and I love Almodóvar.

Embarrassingly far into the movie I realized it was set in Argentina and not Spain as I had originally assumed. I wish I had recognized the distinctive accents but they went completely over my head until one of the characters said he was on the road from Salta to Cafayate, city names I recognized from my tour book.

Ever since my trip last winter all things Argentine fill my heart with joy, and this film was no exception. But it would have filled my heart with joy regardless of its provenance. It had all the trappings of the best of Almodóvar – dark twisted humor, absurdly over the top sex and violence, flamboyantly flawed characters. Some of it was a little anxiety-provoking but the net effect was glee.

The movie was comprised of a bunch of thematically related vignettes and in the last one I *think* the actor was the same guy who was pointed out to me in a Buenos Aires restaurant as a famous Argentine star. I’m not entirely sure, but I remember thinking the guy in the restaurant looked like a blond Ben Stiller, and this guy looked like a blond Ben Stiller*, and how many blond Ben Stiller lookalikes are there in the world? Either way, I recommend the film!

*…though not at all in the image above. So maybe I’m completely off.

mon oreille

ear sculpture

Tonight during my weekly French Skype conversation with Philippe, I said that if I did come to Paris this January, I would probably want to take a side trip to Alsace. He kept asking me to repeat myself because he had no idea what I meant. I said over and over again, “Alsace. Alsace. Alsace.” Finally he exclaimed, “Oh, Alsace!” I asked, “Isn’t that what I said?” Apparently the s in Alsace should be pronounced more like a z.

Immediately after my call, I headed to the laundromat to pick up my wash. I told Millie, the Latina woman who works there, that I was thinking about taking a Spanish class this spring and that if I did I’d start talking to her only in Spanish. Forgetting all about actual conjugation, I added, “Tratar,” which means, “to try,” though I intended to tell her, “I’ll try.” Millie kept asking me to repeat myself. I said over and over again, “Tratar. Tratar. Tratar.” Finally she exclaimed, “Oh, tratar!”

So there you have it. I can learn all the French and Spanish in the world but people are still going to have no idea what I am saying because my ear and my accent are so terrible.

Merde! (Another word I cannot pronounce correctly.)

(Photo: Colin Mutchler)

My own personal not-very-dramatic cliffhanger

selfie in the parkMy new miles credit card arrived in the mail and I was thisclose to registering for the NYU Spanish class with it, but nagging doubts held me back. Is it completely stupid to begin studying one language when you are just getting the hang of another one? Will it confuse my brain and ensure I learn neither French nor Spanish effectively? Wouldn’t it be a more satisfying use of $500 to go on a vacation somewhere Spanish-speaking instead? Or to put the money into my savings account towards my immersion sabbatical? Do I have the discipline to attend three hours of class each week after eight hours at work? And will I actually put in the time to do any of the homework when I already spend two nights a week practicing French?

Then there are the misgivings about my nascent plan to spend my winter vacation in Paris. Why on earth would someone with seasonal affective disorder go to a place that’s even grayer and damper than the one where she lives? Shouldn’t sunshine and heat be on my agenda instead? Why would someone with limited funds go somewhere she has been before and did not feel the need to ever go back to? Is it not silly to spend my one week out of town in another humongous town, doing things that are the French equivalent of the same things I do back home?

Both decisions seem like they come down to one central question: Will I allow myself to embrace plans that are completely illogical simply because I really want to do them?

Stay tuned to find out…

(Photo: my most contented moment in Argentina, posted here to remind me that sometimes the best decisions are also the most random ones, made by an inscrutable heart.)

I love it when a plan comes together

blurred stars in parisAfter I went to see one of my favorite bands play in Williamsburg a couple of weeks ago, I told Philippe he should see them when they come to Paris in January. He had recommended Agnes Obel to me, and I liked her music a lot, so I thought I’d return the favor.

Well, somehow or other I started joking about jetting off to Paris for the weekend just to see the Stars show. And then somehow or another I started seriously considering it… And then I looked up the price of flights, reality checked myself, and went back to figuring out how to put my real January plan to take a Spanish class into action. I had heard about a 5-week course offered by Instituto Cervantes that would have been perfect in many ways, except that the 6pm start time would butt up against my work hours. I was searching for better options but I hadn’t found any.

Then today I came home to two pieces of mail that serendipitously fit together like pieces of a puzzle: the NYU Continuing Education course catalog, and the same Delta miles credit card offer I get on a monthly basis. I noted that NYU has a February – April intensive beginner’s Spanish class that starts at 6:45, costs less per hour than Cervantes, covers two semesters of Spanish in one, and provides a reason to leave the house all winter. Perfect.

I read the terms of the credit card offer and realized that if I put the class on my new card I’d be halfway towards earning the 50,000 miles they promise you’ll get after spending $1,000 on it within the first three months. If I hope and pray and wait for a post-holiday fare sale and then put a $500 Paris flight on the card (do $500 NYC-Paris flights still exist?), I’d get a $50 credit and end up with almost 70,000 Delta miles to my name, enough to go almost anywhere in the world for free for my next trip. Which would be really convenient in April, after I finish the Spanish class and want to reward myself with a week of immersion somewhere like Mexico City, or Valparaiso, or Southern Spain. Two trips for the price of one. Mucho perfecto!

I signed up for the card and I’m already fantasy packing my suitcase…

And listening to the people who inspired it all, on repeat:

(Photo by Ilhan Gendron of “blurry stars in Paris” – an appropriate choice for this post about my blurry plan to see Stars in Paris.)

stockpiled links

bathroom readers

Have been meaning to share these for awhile… Luckily none of them are time-sensitive and perhaps they even get better with age. 🙂

Awesome idioms from around the world (my favorite is the Polish one)

Andre in Argentina! (My personal motherlode – French practice & Argentine nostalgia)

Ways (beyond Duolingo) to learn Spanish on your phone

A new (beautiful) French bookstore has opened in NYC

How to be French

This book sounds right up my alley

So does this one about French food idioms

folletos y signos


In the waiting room of the doctor’s office recently, I read the “patient’s bill of rights” in Spanish. Pamphlets are extremely easy relative to other reading materials, since they stick to simple language and sentence structure so that people at any reading level can comprehend. They are therefore an excellent way to convince yourself that you know more of a language than you actually do. What a pick-me-up!

On a related note, here’s a sign I once saw in the hospital:

es la ley sign in hospital

At first I thought dar a luz must mean something about giving out to the light, i.e. fainting, but then at the mention of del nino que aun no ha nacido (the baby that is not yet born) I realized I might be a wee bit off.

The English version confirmed my suspicion:

it's the law sign

Isn’t it cool that in Spanish, “to give birth” translates literally as “to give to light”? I love it!

(Top photo:Landahlauts)

why learn Spanish, part 2

Isabel Allende's Eva Luna

Because Isabel Allende’s “Eva Luna” must be even more beautiful in its original language.

I’m reading it in English now on the recommendation of several people who told me that if I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez I’ll love her, too. They were right. I’m halfway through and absorbed in the story in a way I haven’t been since grade school. I read it every day on the subway to and from work and am amazed when I find myself at my destination seemingly without commuting.

On Monday I skipped French conversation to go to a filmmakers’ gathering at a bar instead. When the bartender saw me carrying “Eva Luna” she broke into the hugest smile and just gushed and gushed about how much she loves Allende and how halfway through “The House of the Spirits” (which I’m planning to read next) she put the book down because she never wanted it to end.

Can you imagine if something is that powerful in translation what it must be like in the original?

One day! One day I will know, because I WILL learn enough Spanish to at least take a clumsy stab at it. Con Dios como mi testigo. I should learn that phrase in every language, I seem to use it far more here than, “Where are the toilets?”

P.S. Why learn Spanish, Part 1.

the slow decline

star wars lego man sisyphusI don’t know why I’m so discouraged. I have been going to French conversation Meetups every Monday, and this past Monday I even Skyped with Philippe from home and then immediately hopped on a train to talk French some more and then caught myself talking to myself in French on the way home.

But I originally committed to a half hour a day of French and a half hour of Spanish, and I have now all but abandoned Spanish and reduced French to conversation alone. I’m afraid all the progress I made through the hundreds of hours of work I put in at the outset are going to disappear.

So, I need a new plan. I am thinking about signing up for a Spanish class, maybe through Fluent City. I also think my company may have renewed its Rosetta Stone license in which case I can try to do a Spanish course that way. I’ll try to watch one episode of Destinos every weekend because I do wonder whatever happened to Raquel and whatshisface (sure sign it’s been too long). Oh yeah, Arturo! I wonder what happened with Raquel & Arturo’s overwrought romance.

And maybe I will start reading French books as a way to jog my memory about verb forms and vocab I keep forgetting. I need to bug Thomas for one of his novels. Thomas, if you’re reading… bring on the books!

I guess I was overambitious and need to lower my expectations for myself. There have been other things I’ve become interested in doing that I wouldn’t have time for if I kept up the hour-a-day routine. It’s not because I’m lazy, it’s because I lead such a jam-packed, engaging life. Yeah, that’s what I’ll tell myself…

(Photo: Kristina Alexanderson)