The Big Issue : Edition 450
Hola? #?!*? When Words Fail 28 THEBIGISSUE24JAN–6FEB2014 WHILE ENSCONCED IN SPAIN, KOREN HELBIG DECIDED TO TAKE ON THE LOCAL LANGUAGE. THE RESULTS WERE LESS THAN MAGNÍFICO. IN HINDSIGHT, I suppose my approach was a tad cavalier. Pop into a few classes, listen to the odd podcast and – voila! – I’d be fluent in a second language. “You’ll pick it up quickly,” all and sundry proclaimed on the rare occasions I expressed niggling unease over my inability to croak out even basic sentences despite my rapidly approaching relocation to Spain. “Don’t worry, Spanish is easy,” they declared in a far too reassuring manner. Impossibly easy, I’d posit, with emphasis on the impossible. My absolute incompetence became all too evident circa day three in fair España, as I fronted up to the government office in a bid to authenticate my residency visa. This, it turns out, is an utterly bewildering, gazillion-step process that’s confusing even for the most eloquent Spanish speaker. It’s a survival-of- the-fittest affair in which only those who can while away hours queuing (only to be told to go elsewhere) will make it through. Enter the girl who can barely pronounce hola. As an indecipherable torrent of words rained down upon me (instructions, I suppose), I realised I might have gotten myself into a bit of a pickle. Two months later, having squandered close to €1000 on lawyers to help translate and navigate the system, I decided it was time to start learning Spanish in earnest. My housemate was a Spanish teacher. Serendipity, I thought, and promptly signed up for one-on-one classes. It began well enough, but soon descended into a daily 90-minute berating session as my infuriated tutor battled to understand how each lesson could fly so completely in one ear and out the other. Little by little it became easier, or so I thought. Walking the streets one afternoon, I excitedly understood scraps of conversation taking place between two genteel ladies nearby. “I’m finally getting it!” I exclaimed in glee, to which my companion dryly inquired as to when I had taken up Italian. My lack of language rendered even the simplest things impossible. I couldn’t call a cab or make a hairdressing appointment without assistance. Dreaded were the supermarket items packaged without pictures. Eating out became a painstaking lottery in which I never quite knew what would appear on my plate. I stopped answering my phone after a particularly shameful call in which I cheerfully pretended to understand what was going on, only to later realise all that shouting constituted directions. I had no idea where I was supposed to be going or why. I even hid out from my flatmates, unable to face yet another incomprehensible conversation. It’s a distinctly humbling feeling to observe vast streams of vocabulary flying by without understanding a wink, or to be left gaping like an idiotic fish when the small selection of words that have sunk in fail to order themselves into a coherent response. It’s all the worse when every second European appears to have effortlessly mastered at least six languages. But, over time, I became aware of the beautiful ambiguity of some words, such as suerte: used to describe a range of bullfighting manoeuvres, it seems to symbolise the unpredictable, volatile nature of the so-called sport. Translated it could mean hazard, trick and doom, but also fortune, luck and destiny. Then there’s duende, which to most Spanish speakers means a mythological elf, but to arty types in Andalusia is used to commend a quality dance, music or even bullfighting performance. There’s no single English equivalent, but it describes with beauty the precise moment in which a performance reaches its pinnacle. Here was an end goal that could make the difficult learning process bearable: with perseverance I could immerse myself in a culture and express myself in ways that do not exist in English. For this I could endure the fumbles and embarrassments, and press on despite assuring my Spanish language classmates I was ‘very easy’ rather than ‘very busy’ or informing friends that I was ‘hot’ in an unintentionally lewd way. Grasping Spanish remains a daily test and I’ll likely always be labelled a guiri – the colloquial term for foreigner. But, little by little, poco a poco, new words committed to memory are unlocking a new world. » Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist based in Europe. Her last story for The Big Issue was ‘Fun Free’ (Ed#448). See thelittlegreenhouse.net.