Alive in Spain

A travel diary

Language, Blonds, and Beans

A view of Gijón from its outskirts.

A view of Gijón from its outskirts.

In my current neighborhood, there are Spanish-style houses, mountains, and moss. Snails travel fences and steep wooded trails. At the bottom, the beach. It’s as if Ibagué, Colombia (my birthplace), and Connecticut (my former home) had coalesced. It’s akin to the way we commingle people and facts in our dreams. In my dreams, my mother (four years gone this month) is alive and dead, and we’re all in our house in New York. Aunts whom I’ve never met and my grandmother, who died 30 years prior to my birth, are also there. And I’m present, invisible, and omnipresent. That’s the strangeness I feel in Gijón.

One of many trails in the area.

One of many trails in the area.

Growing up in the U.S., I’ve been conditioned to expect that people with fair skin, blond or red-hair, and European features speak English. Here, most everyone matches that description, yet it’s Spanish they speak. But the Spanish is different to my ear.

When I was little, my maternal aunts would chide me: “Hable Catellano!” Speak Castilian! But the language I speak is not quite the Castilian of Asturias. In Colombia, the soft c’s and z’s are pronounced as s’s. Here, they’re pronounced like “th’s.” On my fourth week in Spain, saying gracias as “grathias” has become second nature. Other words do not come as easily. If I paused to think about the spelling of the words, I could pronounce them like a continental, but who pauses to analyze spelling in mid conversation? So, I confuse my c’s, z’s, and s’s.

There are other things that peg me as an alien. Last week, for instance, I decided to purchase white beans at the local market. In Colombia, beans are fríjoles. In the Dominican Republic, they’re called habichuelas. The Spaniards don’t use either name. I was clueless. I pointed to the lower shelf behind the counter. “Los blancos,” the white ones, I told the shopkeeper. She pointed to a jar of garbanzos. “No, not garbanzos, the white things,” I said.


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