Thursday, November 6, 2014

Language Lessons

Along the sidewalk in Madrid
From grocery shopping to birding to touring outside Madrid, even the mundane takes on an air of mystery here. We start on Saturday morning with our round of small vegetable shops, the meat market, the cheese, ham and sausage stand, and the bakery, but find each in turn closed for All Saints Day, which I had to google. 

Thus we turn to the neighborhood supermercado, Carrefour, where we examine labels on bleach-like products that could be used in a front-loading washing machine. With more Spanish and a dictionary in his back pocket, Rich reads all the labels; I look for key words and distinct illustrations; Rich gets final choice since he has read the washing machine manual. I pursue box soups; Rich reads Listerine labels in search of "original."  We move to sour cream and yogurt. Either sour cream is rare or we need a different name. What I thought was real sugar instead of artificial sugar in yogurt turned out to be extra sugar; this time, I choose "natural." Rich settles for creme fraiche. 

Simple grocery shopping becomes adventure, and I haven't even gotten to the self-checkout machines, which are less confusing in Spanish than in English.Things get lost in translation.

Crowded city sidewalks
Under "actividades por la semana," in the newspaper, El Pais, I circle a bird walk to observe flocks of migrating cranes flying over the city. On Sunday, in Plaza Orientale just across from the palace, we find sensible walking shoes, backpacks and binoculars of the assembled group. We walk with little organization and very, very slowly through crowded city streets down to the Madrid river, which, to my delight, actually exists. I assumed an empty culvert like the Los Angeles river. The rio is indeed contained, like a canal, but is beautiful, with paths for walking and biking, trees, bridges. 
Rio Manzanares

I watch a large black and white bird soaring in the distance. "¿Que es eso?" I ask. I describe the bird using my limited Spanish, substituting arms for wings, and get only blank stares. I repeat the question and point to the bird. Finally, the group leader digs through his backpack for binoculars and says, "Cigüeña." "Stork," the group translates. I'm excited, but the others know it as a familiar site in the city. 

Parrot (Loro)
Watching the ducks
Then we see parrots like those in Parque Juan Carlos I. Everybody likes the parrots. But the leaders are there for cranes -- grullas. Four of us in the group of 15 or so are looking for birds, others, including the leaders, walk and chat. We tire of scanning the sky for migrating flocks and turn instead to heron, egrets, cormorants, mallards along the river. I spot a gallinule, new for me, but recognizable with its black/purple sheen, red legs and red face shield and beak. We spot small black and white birds -- lavanderas blancas, identified by the only woman with a bird book -- hopping about on concrete piers in the river. White wagtails, I learn later. Even though a few of us share the birding experience, lack of shared language beyond pointing and Spanglish leaves a barrier between me and the others.

On a cold, rainy Tuesday, Rich and I catch a Gray Line tour to El Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen. The two sites are related only by proximity to each other, just an hour outside the city. The Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a huge, often gloomy palace, completed in 1584. The main structure comprises the royal living quarters used by King Philip II (1527-1598) and his family, a mausoleum for Spain's royal family, a monastery, a Basilica, and a school. The gray-black stone building exudes the dreariness of a prison, but is made much more cheerful when bands of school children fill the stone courtyards with rugby balls and soccer games and playground glee. 

Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial
The palace displays impressive artwork, including José Ribeiro, El Greco, Titian and Velázquez. Rick Steves' Spain is a much better source for finding the paintings than our tour guide. Using a hand-held mic on the bus, the guide was clearly audible in Spanish and English; in the palace, his voice and usefulness dwindled. The guide ignored my favorite piece in the basilica, Benvenuto Cellini's marble sculpture, The Crucifixion, stark, white and elegant. If you visit us while we're in Madrid, I would encourage a visit to El Escorial if you've seen all the major sites and the better day tours, but I would suggest transit by public bus, audio tour, and Rick Steves' guide. If you also want to go on to Valley of the Fallen, then rent a car for the trip or combine the public bus with a $50 cab ride to the Valley.

Granite cross marking Valley of the Fallen
On the terrace outside the monument
Just a few miles from El Escorial, a 500-foot tall granite cross marks the Valley of the Fallen. Carved into the rock beneath the cross, the Basilica serves as burial ground and 
monument to 50,000 of the 500,000 victims of both sides of the devastating Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Inside, the huge Basilica is a cold, stone crypt guarded by towering angels bearing swords. Outside, the terraces are framed by fastigiate cedars and low mountains and valleys. A funicular leads up to the base of the cross, but was not operating the day we visited. The view from the top would be stunning, even on a cloudy day. 

Music, art, wildlife, beauty of city and countryside, shared passion, good food, good wine, basic kindness, children's antics transcend language, but I feel isolated without it.


  1. Fascinating! I saw lots of storks in Spain, esp up near Burgos. Nests on church roofs, etc.

  2. The bird life sounds similar to Florida in the winter. I love the purple gallinules. I can relate to the language problem - feel excluded and isolated. Will you be taking classes? I do love hearing about all that you are doing.

    1. Absolutely, as much as it scares me to walk into another language class. They always want you to talk and I'd much rather be writing. Have been back and forth with Maria Carmen on classes and she sent me to a friend who has recommended a language/conversation coach. Plan to make some calls tomorrow. Sallie

  3. I missed the last two entries. I guess I'll have to try subscribing by email. It is frustrating to be somewhere without the language. I had the same experience in Italy. I loved the increasing sense of belonging that came as I acquired the capacity for simple communication--but was forever frustrated by the fact that I was shut out of any intellectual exchange of ideas. But the overall experience of living in another culture was exhilarating. Helen (Sorry about Anon, but the site has shut me out again!)

    1. Don't know why you are being shut out or not receiving the emails from me on the postings. Perhaps my emails are going into your spam or because of the es designation being diverted to the ether world. Have signed up for two weeks of intensive Spanish lessons. That should be interesting or devastating. Sallie