Monthly Archives: June 2014

Look Up Look Down: Salamanca Cathedral

A couple of months back, when my friend Noelia and I spent the weekend in Salamanca visiting friends, we trudged all the way up to the top of Salamanca cathedral. The neverending and, at times, devilishly narrow staircases were regulated by a traffic light system to avoid collisions. To my great surprise, everybody seemed to heed the green and red lights. Which proves that the Spanish can follow rules after all 😉

I thought  these pics would make the perfect contribution to travelwithintent’s weekly Look Up Look Down photo challenge.

Salamanca view from Cathedral 1

View of Salamanca from the top of the cathedral

Top view 2Salamanca Cathedral details 1Salamanca cathedral detail 2

View of Salamanca cathedral from the Roman Bridge

View of Salamanca cathedral from the Roman Bridge

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Language Learning: You’ve Got To LIVE IT!

Every language I’ve ever tried to absorb just from books, classes, and, in recent years, the internet, I’ve forgotten. Sure, there may still be some linguistic remnants floating about in the murky Everglades of my brain – rotting limbs of Russian, Japanese and Chinese trapped in the undergrowth – never to be re-assembled again in a futile attempt of making conversation.

It comes down to this: If you want to speak a language, and I mean REALLY speak it, it’s not enough to allot it a fenced-off little corner of your consciousness and shine a torch on it every once in a while. Language is the most sophisticated communication tool ever devised by the human mind; it is designed to allow people to share complex thoughts, infectious ideas and a laugh, to convey their feelings, to empathise with each other. Language needs to be taken out to play, it needs a human connection to really thrive.

As enjoyable as it is to be totally hooked on a book or engrossed in an epic film, language acquires a whole other dimension through person-to-person interaction. When you’re using your verbal and your listening skills to build a relationship with another human being – whatever the nature of that relationship may be – that’s when language really comes alive.

With one’s native language, this happens naturally, but, as most of us will have experienced, when we try to learn a foreign language in an environment where real-life exposure is limited, our enthusiasm usually peters out way before anything resembling fluency is achieved.

Going to class once a week, reading the occasional newspaper article, spending a holiday once every while in a country where the target language is spoken, although useful parts of the learning process, these sporadic activities are not going to push anyone beyond tourist-level competency.

If you want to get more out of it, you need to put more into it, and I’m not just talking more of your precious time. You need to let the language mesh with the fabric of your life, to entice its little tendrils to find their way from your head into your heart.

In practice, this means creating firm links with the country where the language is spoken and/or building and maintaining mutually enriching friendships with native speakers. In this way, you create an emotional dimension rather than limiting yourself solely to the intellectual domain. The former is much more permanent than the latter, it stays with you for life, it doesn’t just slip from your memory banks like a dried-up verb table.

A new language - a door to a whole new life

A new language – a door to a whole new life

As I’ve already lamented, a number of languages I had spent some time learning in the past never made it beyond the launch pad, because I failed to integrate them into my life in a meaningful way. My three main languages, German, English and Spanish, on the other hand, are firmly rooted in my psyche. They are not just something I “do” twenty minutes or so each day. They are part of who I am. If one of them were taken from me, it would be like losing an arm.

German is my native language, and although I left Germany back in 1991, I still have family and friends there. As for English, I lived in the UK for over two decades, virtually all of my adult life, and so I maintain a rash of personal and professional connections with this country, which, incidentally, I still consider to be my home. Also, my day-to-day work life takes place in English. English is, if you will, my main operating language.

And Spanish… well, Spain is where I live right now, so my attachment to this country is growing deeper by the day, as I’m slowly crawling towards greater proficiency in the language. I guess I should point out that my primary reason for moving to Spain was, in fact, to get to grips with Spanish, a desire I’ve been harbouring ever since I was a teenager.

Besides tinkering with my Spanish, I’ve embarked on another linguistic challenge, which is Portuguese. I started learning just a bit over a year ago, and I guess it’s time to start thinking about how I’m going to weave those loose strands of Portuguese into my world. Moving to Portugal is not an option right now, that would be too much of an upheaval too soon, and my level of Spanish still leaves much to be desired.

The good thing about being in Spain is that Portugal is right next door, and that flights are pretty affordable. Before I packed my bags to come to Spain almost three years ago, I signed up for a couple of week-long stints with a language school here. They arranged accommodation for me with a local couple who I’m still friends with, and I made my first few contacts from that base. Seeing as that strategy had already served me so well, I was thinking of taking the same approach with Project Portuguese.

When I started thinking about this a bit more in detail, however, I had a realisation: I don’t actually want the language school bit. The truth is that I don’t enjoy spending hours and hours in a classroom. I’m often left so worn out, that all I want to do afterwards is lie flat on a bed with a wet flannel over my eyes. Plus, I do have a great Portuguese teacher who I see every week, so I’ve got the teaching part covered. The whole point of being in Portugal is to get some practice, to interact with Portuguese people, not have a forced conversation with a Dutch classmate.

Well, I thought, why not try and find someone in Portugal prepared to rent out a spare room to me for a week or so? That would give me the chance to talk about everyday domestic stuff, exchange a few opinions over breakfast, and maybe do some grocery shopping together. After all, I don’t need a 24/7 babysitter nor a full-time tour guide, I can entertain myself and, as a roving freelancer, I shall bring my laptop and my work with me.  I can also offer a language exchange, if they wanted to practice their English or their German.

So, this is going to be my new project 🙂

A friend of mine has already passed me a potential contact, which I still need to follow up. If anyone out there has any useful suggestions or knows someone in Portugal who may be interested, please get in touch.

*    *    *    *

[What does it take until you finally “sound like yourself” in another language? Here is a post I wrote on this topic.]

 

Marziporn

Toledo is famous for its marzipan, and there are a number of places dotted around town (mainly convents, but not exclusively), where they produce marzipan confectionery. Some sell directly to the public, which works out cheaper than buying from the shops.

My friend Cristina took me to one of these “marzipan factories” a couple of weeks ago to pick up a few gift boxes. I took some pictures while we hung about waiting.

This is the expensive stuff with the highest almond content

Delicias de Mazapan: This is the expensive stuff with the highest almond content

Marzipan 2Marzipan 3Marzipan 4

[I’ve posted on Toledo’s marzipan bounty once before, which included some pics of “nuns” slaving away making the stuff. Click here if you want to see it.]

 

A Sunday Walk. Lots Of Colours. And A Happy Ending :)

Sunday was the last day of Corpus Christi week, Toledo’s major annual “fiesta”.  My friend Catalina and I decided to take to the streets with our cameras before all the decorative splendour disappeared back into the box again for another year.

Toledo Calle Ancha

The main shopping street

Even the local theatre got some fancy curtains

Even the local theatre was beautified with some very fancy curtains for the occasion

Part of a floral display outside the cathedral

Part of a floral display outside the cathedral

Never mind the giants lined up in front of the Town Hall - what's with the hundreds of bags filled with water dangling down from the balcony?!

Never mind the giants lined up in front of the Town Hall, they make an appearance every year – but what’s with the hundreds of bags filled with water dangling down from the balcony?! I’m guessing it’s to do with spending cuts…

Is it me or do they look like they've got goldfish in them...?

Is it me or do they look like they have goldfish in them…?

Catalina. I think she may be off-side ;-)

Catalina. I think she may be waaay off side 😉

You didn't think we'd be out there, toiling away in the streets of Toledo, without adequate sustenance, did you?!

All that hard toil out there in the scorching-hot streets deserved a reward at the end 🙂

Thyme Liqueur? Seriously…?!

Some things just don’t sound like a good idea. Until you try them. And such was the case with said thyme liqueur. A total winner!

But who’d come up with such a thing? Answer: The eccentric people of Toledo. In particular, a guy called Ricardo Sánchez Butragueño, who is attempting to commercialise this odd-sounding concoction following an old family recipe.

There’s a back story, of course. For hundreds of years, Toledo has been celebrating Corpus Christi (which fell on Thursday, 19th June this year) for all it’s worth. I mean, they seriously go to town on this one. I must confess, I’m not a particular fan of watching church furniture being lugged round the streets for hours on end by people in stuffy costumes.

The only thing I like about this gaudy spectacle is that they sprinkle the streets with thyme and rosemary. It smells nice. And all I can think about for the entire Corpus Christi week is Welsh roast lamb with butter-drenched new potatoes.

So, when Maria told me that someone had managed to “bottle the Corpus” and that the product launch was going to happen on one of her clients’ venues on Tuesday, we just had to go.

Three botles

Photogenic bottles!

Even the local press turned up for this momentous occasion

Even the local press turned up for this momentous occasion. Note the thyme sprigs strewn all over the floor. Nice idea, but they kept getting caught in my dress, making their way up towards my knickers. A bit scratchy…

Bottle with the back story in the background

Bottle with the back story in the background

 

Maria and I faffing with our cameras

Maria and I faffing with our cameras

This taking selfies thing is definitely NOT my forte...

This taking selfies thing is definitely NOT my forte… and I wasn’t even drunk at this point!

They let you have as much as you wanted... a fatal concept!

They let us have as much of the concoction as we wanted… a fatal concept!

Some people even turned up in bottle-matching outfits ;-)

Some people even turned up in bottle-matching outfits 😉

View of Toledo

View of Toledo from the venue

So, thumbs up to thyme liquor! Where have you been all my life?! The kind organisers gave freebie bottles to take home 🙂

[The event was held at Cigarral Del Angel Custodio, one of Toledo’s most splendid historical country houses. It has amazing garden and terrific views of Toledo, some of which I captured a few weeks back, when the roses were in bloom. Click here if you’d like to see those pics.]

Language Learning: Darn Interference!

Teresa, my Portuguese teacher, harbours a dark fantasy. She would love to get hold of one of MemoryEraserthose Men-In-Black memory eraser sticks and expunge every trace of Spanish from her students’ brains. Then she could finally teach us proper Portuguese from scratch.

Sadly, since this fantastic gadget doesn’t exist in the real world, her little fantasy is doomed. She’ll just have to keep on rolling her eyes every time we say “pequeño” instead of “pequeno”, and sigh in quiet desperation over us pronouncing what should be a mellifluous sing-song language in the machine-gun-like staccato characteristic of Peninsular Spanish.

But it’s not just poor Teresa who suffers.

My brain is no blank canvass. Besides being littered with useless factoids, it comes with two languages fully installed that don’t always play very well together, a third one is running at 72% (and still loading), and now I’m attempting to pour another one into this turbid pond.

In general, I guess it does hold true that the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another one, but the downside is that they interfere with each other in menacing ways. For instance, the similarities between Romance languages are both a blessing and a curse. Because of their considerable lexical overlap, if you’re a laid back kind of a person and just want to “communicate”, you’ll do great by kidnapping Italian words to plug the gaps in your Spanish, but if you’re a stickler like me and you care about getting it right, it’s the road to insanity. Verbs are among my biggest headaches, as I’m still battling with the fifty or so versions that exist of each Spanish verb. With Portuguese thrown into the cauldron, the putrid, gurgling broth isn’t going to turn into a bowl of translucent consommé any time soon.

More of a messy stew...

More of a messy stew…

...than a clear broth

…than a clear broth

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some people I know have given up. One of my Spanish friends, while living in Barcelona years ago, attempted to learn (the local language) Catalan. She abandoned the attempt, because every time she tried to speak it, Italian (acquired during a year studying abroad in Rome), shot out of her mouth instead. An old college friend of mine keeps insisting that all those years studying Italian as a youngster have prevented her from communicating in coherent Portuguese to her Portuguese husband’s family.

I follow this blog http://myfiveromances.wordpress.com, owned by “Bernardo”, a very witty Australian guy, whose personal challenge lies in tackling Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian simultaneously. I believe he spent last summer in Romania to get to grips with the latter. His grammar posts from back then made my head spin. I’ve no idea how he maintains his sanity, I really don’t.

It’s not just closely-related languages that cause an interference problem. During the early-to-intermediate stages of language learning, it’s a very common phenomenon that our brains, while labouring hard to retrieve the required vocabulary, dredge up the corroded remnants of languages we haven’t used in years. When I first started learning Spanish, what kept popping into my head was my long-forgotten Russian from half a life-time ago.

Green thicket

Interference can manifest in many ways. For instance, I seriously struggle with gender agreement in Spanish and Portuguese. It’s not too difficult to match nouns with adjectives that directly follow them, but if the adjective or a pronoun refers to a noun, which occurred in a previous sentence or even further back, I tend to get it wrong. And it’s not my fault. It’s my German that’s doing it.

Grammatical genders are, for the most part, entirely arbitrary, and so German and Spanish genders don’t usually coincide. Since German is my native language, its genders are indelibly etched into my brain stem. I never realised this would lead to so much trouble.

Naively, I thought I had an advantage, because I was, at least, familiar with the concept of genders. Unlike native speakers of English, Japanese, Chinese, etc, I didn’t have to go through the futile questioning stage: “How can a table be male/female – it makes no sense!”

In the early phase, the gender issue creates some minor problems for Germans learning English. We may refer to inanimate objects as “he” or “she”, but this usually doesn’t persist for very long. Everything is “it”, and even for animals sporting discernible genitals, you still get to resort to the convenient choice of “it” – now if that ain’t an easy rule, I don’t know what is!

I never thought I would keep jumbling my Spanish genders about in such a dilettantic fashion after all this time, but, as it turns out, overriding one’s primal programming is harder than herding cats with firecrackers up their butts through a dog pound.

As always, I’m curious to hear from my readers – how does language interference play out for you? Which “cross-contamination issues” are you struggling with? Were some of these unexpected?

It’s Full-On Cherry Season!

I love cherries. We’re in mid-season, and soon they will be gone for another year, so I felt I needed to mark the occasion with a quick snap taken outside my local greengrocer’s  🙂

CherriesI’ve complained before about my disenchantment with Spanish fresh produce (you can read about it here), but cherries are a delightful exception.