Monthly Archives: October 2015

Language Learning: Portuguese Potholes

This language learning malarkey is a bumpy old ride. One minute, you’re shouting perfectly coutured phrases from the rooftops; the next minute, the roof gives in and you’re on the cold concrete floor, spreadeagled, coughing up blood and dust.

I was on a total roll with my Portuguese in early summer. After two years of slogging away at it, I felt that I’d had some kind of breakthrough: I was chattering away to a bunch Portuguese people over Skype several times a week. Sometimes I even understood what they were saying to me and vice versa. A trip to Portugal in the first week of July saw me handling all the touristy stuff in Portuguese without breaking into a sweat (except when I accidentally asked for cock in a supermarket, see here for that story).

All was well until I took a one-month break from Portuguese in August while visiting my family in Germany. But on my return home to Spain, I found to my horror that I was suddenly “back to the mistakes of the beginning”, as my Portuguese teacher put it when I resumed my lessons with her in September. My Skype chats also dried up that month after a couple of fruitless conversations.

I have no idea how a mere four weeks of taking your eyes off the ball can cause such a mother of a setback. All I know is that I’m mighty peeved.

Well, no point throwing in the towel. I’ve invested too much. And I really really like Portuguese. It sounds cool and it has hilarious expressions.

And then, this Monday morning, a tiny ray of light… finally! The previous week, my teacher had suggested I’d join one of her other students for a conversation class. We’d already had a couple of attempts at this a year and a half ago, but said student was quite advanced, while I could barely string a sentence together at that point, and so we gave up on the idea pretty quickly.

Anyway, this week’s little Monday threesome turned out to be a very gratifying experience all round. We hopped across a plethora of topics, from fish feed to Portuguese rugs to the pitfalls of teaching Spanish in China. We wilfully mutilated the grammar, but conversation flowed and we laughed like drains. My classmate, who kindly gave me a lift home afterwards, remarked how much more fluent I was compared to last time we did this.

I guess that’s the thing with language learning. It’s like building a mountain out of gravel. Sometimes, when you pour another bucketful on top, it just slides down the sides taking the tip with it and all you can see at that moment is that your pile has lost height. Only by stepping back you realise that you’ve actually broadened the base, allowing you to construct a more expansive, bigger mountain in the long term. All you have to do is to keep heaping onto it. Bit by bit. Steadily and relentlessly. And remind yourself that, to fully appreciate how far you’ve come, you need to take the long-term perspective.



A Weekend of Hurricanes and Virgins

Joaquín is going to fuck up your weekend, my friend told me in a Facebook message. Who is this Joaquín and what has he got to do with my weekend, I wondered.

Joaquín turned out to be a hurricane set to tear through Andalusia last bank holiday weekend, when everyone had made travel plans. Including me. Sigh.

Well, a little wind and rain wasn’t going to deter us, and so my pal Noelia and I embarked on the five-hour drive down south on Friday evening to spend the weekend with some friends who had shamelessly abandoned us in Toledo and moved to Carmona, a small town about 30 minutes east of Seville.

In the end, Joaquín was very considerate, unleashing his unholy fury in the dead of Saturday night while we slept off our dinner.

However, despite being spared a torrential downpour in the daytime, it wasn’t the best weather for taking photos. But I shall post a few of them anyway. Coz my mum likes them…

A handful of shots of Seville:

Seville, River

Thanks for pointing this out, Noelia...

Noelia just making sure I didn’t miss anything.

Sevilla, houses along river

Sevilla Statue with bird

Torre de oro, Sevilla

Sevilla, gipsy church

Seville is obsessed with virgins...

Seville is obsessed with virgins…

A torero and some orange trees are an absolute must!

…and toreros

Seville is a stunner of a city, even on a gloomy day. Oh, and the food! But here’s the one thing I didn’t like: The town centre is thronging with hundreds of  horse drawn carriages, waiting to take tourists around. Nothing wrong with that per se, but at least one quarter of the horses I saw – though scrupulously clean and brushed up to the hilt –  were way too thin, too old and/or clearly unwell. Spain loves bureaucracy – so why is there no veterinary inspection service making sure that the only animals put to work were those that are fit and healthy??? I found this really quite distressing.

Get it sorted, Seville!

Get it sorted, Seville!

And a few shots of Carmona:

Carmona centre

A bar in Carmona, just about to open...

Carmona bar, just about to open…

And more virgins!

More virgins!

...and convent windows like these are designed to keep them that way

Forget chastity belts… how about chastity windows?! This one belongs to a convent, of course.

But it's not just virgins. There's also maids!

There’s also maids! There’s cakes in the back of that car, I could smell them…

Talking of which:

Some Middle-Eastern-inspired treats. Except for that big bulbous chocolate thing on the left, filled with marshmallow and Nutella(!) and scoffed by me.

Some Middle-Eastern-inspired treats. That big bulbous chocolate thing on the left, filled with marshmallow and Nutella(!), was scoffed by me. And no, I didn’t share.

A traditional Spanish dessert called

A traditional Spanish dessert called “leche frita” (fried milk), which is a bit like a semi-solid chunk of custard. Looks better than it tastes, though the sugar/cinnamon coating makes it somewhat enjoyable.

Language Matters: C-Words of Difference

A while back, I had a facebook chat with an American friend who left the US about a decade ago and settled in Costa Rica. It went something like this:

Her: So, now you’re in Spain… how’s your Spanish coming along?

Me: I’m getting there. Curious though that no sentence seems to be complete if it doesn’t contain either culo*, mierda** or coño.

Her: What is coño?

Me: Uhm… CUNT.

Her: ?!?

[*arse **shit]


The fact that my American friend, who’s certainly no prissy, had not encountered this term, despite having lived for many years in a Spanish-speaking country (and being fluent in Spanish), speaks volumes. Latin Americans, on the whole, aren’t given to peppering their soft, mellifluous language with expletives.

The Spanish, on the other hand, have a reputation for being straight-talking and potty-mouthed. Since I’m quite partial to this communication style myself, I fit right in, but, I must confess, even after four years in Spain, I’m still a bit shy of the c-word.

I should get over myself. Cunts get dropped into conversation left, right and centre. It’s no big deal. You could be showing someone an infected mosquito bite and they’d exclaim, ¿Qué coño es esto? – What the hell is that!? Or you might have had a glass of wine too many at the expense of coherence when your still relatively sober drinking buddy confronts you with ¿De qué coño estás hablando? – What the hell are you talking about? 

¡Coño! as an exclamation by itself can mean a million different things, like “Are you shitting me?”, “What the hell were you thinking!?”, “WOW!” and “FFS!”. You get the idea.

If something’s “a big bloody hassle”, then it’s a coñazo – literally: a BIG CUNT.

So, there you have it. The Spanish are comfortable with their cunts.

Until they move to an English speaking country and discover that not everyone else is.

A Spanish friend of mine, who’s been living in London for more than two decades, avoids the ubiquitous little English word “can’t” at all cost.

The subtle differences in English vowel sounds are a real coñazo for Spanish speakers. Spanish only has five vowel sounds, while English has more than twenty. For Latin Americans living in the US, this is not so much of an issue in this particular case, but in British English pronunciation, can’t and the ‘unmentionable’ are dangerously close. Too close for comfort for my friend, who painstakingly resorts to “cannot” instead.


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: