Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Say "hello" and I will love you forever

On owning a language

I was standing on the Metro today reading To The Lighthouse. Its cover is unmistakably English, the title screaming to everyone my native tongue.

When I want to appear Spanish I don't read it. Instead I read ADN, a free city paper (primarily available in suburban neighborhoods, another plus for my disguise). I gasp or chuckle at some article or another, thereby demonstrating my ability to read and understand the Spanish language.

But today I felt more like absorbing words rather than walking among them, occasionally having to tap one on the shoulder and ask, excuse me, what do you mean in this particular context?

So I chose Ms. Woolf. I looked up to see what stop I was at, and that was when I saw it. Smeared vulnerably across the face of a man of about 40 years. The look. The "please say something, anything, in English!" look. Floating there so exposed, above his cheeks that were gently etched with wisp-thin lines, like a palm.

It's a look I know well, because I give it to others on days I feel most lonely, when I see someone reading in English, or pass by people speaking it. One time in Chueca I meandered around three people talking about their English teaching experiences like a silly satellite, waiting for a way to break into the conversation. But there didn't appear to be an opening, so I shuffled away.

This is one of the more difficult aspects of being here. I am at an intermediate (some days low, some days high) level of Spanish, and I often feel trapped inside of myself because of the language barrier. I'm trying every single day, talking to people, reading newspapers, books, study materials, watching Spanish telenovelas. I am listening, always. I am putting myself out there; I am trying hard enough.

But when I start to think deeply about language and communication, as I have been lately, I feel that I might not be able to know another language intimately. To the point where I can express, for example, that sometimes I feel like a paper bag billowing in the breeze of someone's departure, gulping up thick mouthfuls of the air he leaves behind, my lips caked with dried longing. I am not able to pour things out of myself in another language, and I don't know if I ever will be.

There are moments to the contrary, of course, where I'm able to see the beauty of not needing words. Zoe, a girl from London who I befriended in Spain, was in pain over the recent burial of her grandmother, and she wanted to explain it to her Spanish friend, Cristina. She wasn't able to be there for the burial in London, so her family emailed her photos. She showed a picture of the box of ashes to Cristina and said, simply, "Mi abuela."

And she said the simplicity of that was comforting, that she didn't have to explain everything surrounding the death of her grandmother. That she could just say those two words and it was enough. That, essentially, the limitation was freeing. Freeing her from saying unnecessary words and, perhaps, the trouble of not knowing where to start or end, and allowing her to express herself in just two.

I am so drawn to the Spanish language, and I intend to be fluent in it. But maybe fluency is different than knowing a language intimately, the way an artist uses language, as threads for weaving. You don't go digging for threads; they are already there, and it is the final artistic product that takes the effort. Maybe I will create art with Spanish words someday.

Or maybe I won't.

And that's the interesting thing about living in another country. You learn things about yourself you did not expect. For instance, I am in love with the language I already own. It's almost as if I feel I need to explore English more, because these words are my tools, because I am a writer and can be nothing else.

But as for the man on the Metro, I will admit — he and I didn't need words.

Images: #1, "Raining words," Flickr user pfv; #2, snow-day in Madrid, Amy Segreti


  1. You are an amazing writer. I love reading your blog. I tell my boyfriend that your writing is so good you can actually taste the words as you're reading them. Thank you for being so inspiring.

  2. Wonderful stuff. There's a huge emotional as well as an intellectual investment in learning a language.

    But the return in terms of understanding a country and her people is enormous. You can see a country as a tourist, but you can only really begin to appreciate it fully by living there.

    Hasta la victoria siempre !

  3. Amy, I enjoy reading your blog. When are you going to write a book so I can carry your words with me? :)

  4. hello/hola!
    I just found you. You describe perfectly the frustration and beauty of living in a place where you lack the words and grammar to express yourself. I often feel this way on the metro: sometimes I'm glad I can't do more than smile and nod; other times I wish I could swear like a Spaniard! ...actually my Spanish isn't all that bad though sometimes it's useful to pretend its worse than it is...
    Anyway, i also live in Madrid and so if we happen to cross paths on the narrow streets or meet eyes on the metro, I'll definitely say 'hola'.

    p.s. if you like, come over and visit me at my blog.

  5. Beautifully put Amy. Please keep blogging in English so that I can continue to enjoy your journey from afar.

    Boulder misses you.

  6. Great post, very well written. I remember hovering around a group talking that I thought was speaking English while I was in Spain, hoping to hear something familiar, but never got the nerve to break in.

  7. this is brilliant. i was thinking the same thing the other day in spanish class.