Salamanca: Language and Intercambios

Only two weeks late, here’s an update on my life in Salamanca!

Today marks the end of my first month in Spain.  Thus far, it’s been a rollercoster of emotions, which is uncomfortable to hear from a guy, but whatever.  Honestly, there are many days where it’s hard to find the will to get out of bed and face my roommates (who are Mexican, though they speak excellent English).  The largest barrier is language: no amount of mental exercises can prepare you for the difficulty of live in another one.  Living here is giving me a peek into the daily life of an introvert, I do believe.

We’ve all heard those stories, the ones where the stupid American says something funny in another language by accident.  Unfortunately for me, I’ve become the stupid American in too many of those stories.  They started before I left the States, when I told my professor, “ella tiene mierda.”  That’s not how you say someone is afraid.  My favorite version of this story comes from a couple weeks ago, when I told my friend who I thought had done a fabulous job making pancakes, “Tu eres una buena cochina.”

THAT IS VERY MUCH NOT HOW TO SAY “YOU’RE A GOOD COOK”.

If you know me at all, you have probably noticed I’m a little cocky.  You may have noticed that whatever I’m doing, I tend to act confidently, especially when I don’t know what to do.  What you probably haven’t noticed or considered is how much of this exudes from language.  I can be confident in whatever I do, because even if I make a mistake I can bluff my way out, negotiate a compromise, or just plain fix it.  Understandably, then, when I find myself not able to understand the question, “how are you?”, this confidence drains away quickly.

Yesterday, after a short run, I stopped in a small park overlooking the new city of Salamanca to stretch and pray.  As I prepared to leave, I noticed a gentleman exit a building attached to the park and begin making his way towards me.  Not just meandering in my direction, but cutting a beeline path for me.  Normally, I would have stood my ground to see what he had to say, but in the split second I had to make the decision, my brain short-circuited and the only thing I could hear was, “You’re about to get yelled at in Spanish, RUN!”  So I did the reasonable thing and looped my way out of the park the back way, both so I could make sure he was following me (he was), and so I could get out without encountering him.  Did I make the right decision?  Who knows, but I certainly didn’t make the confident one.  (For those who know, it was the park attached to the Facultad de Ciencias, across from Zacut.  Is that a closed park?)

Salamanca life has been a humbling experience, and one that I wouldn’t trade for anything.  Don’t misunderstand me, even on those bad days, the ones where I get chased out of parks or the ones where I wake up and it seems like there’s no way I’m going to make it through the day, the first revelation that hits me is how awesome it is that I get to live here.

Seriously, I get to live here.

Another thing that strikes me is how welcoming local students have been.  In the last couple weeks, I have been blessed to meet with five non-English speakers to simply hang out and practice language.  Next week, I am starting a regular meeting with a Dominican student to do more focused lessons in our respective languages.  The unbelievable amount of patience these students show towards my painfully weak Spanish is truly inspiring; what’s more, their willingness to speak slowly and clearly is helping me improve my listening skills, and not just in Spanish.  By forcing me to be intentionally present and actively paying attention to what they are saying, having a weak grasp of the language causes me to really listen and consider what they are saying, instead of thinking of a response before they finish.

Although my brain is usually dead tired by the end of these “intercambios”, or exchanges, I never find myself regretting the time spent getting to know another student.  From politics to studies to bands, these little hangouts are never boring, especially since half the time I have no idea what I’m say!

In all, though I feel like an outsider some days, maybe to some extent that’s a good thing.  Not fitting in means I don’t have to agree, I don’t have to be right, and I don’t have to know what’s going on to be accepted.  Despite all my fears and doubts, I know God has brought me here for a reason, if only for the nothing-short-of-miraculous amount of conversation I’ve been able to have in a language I don’t speak.  I’m blessed to live here, and blessed to have this opportunity to grow.

The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me.  My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.

-Psalm 28:7, NIV


Shoutout to the En Vivo team for the way they’ve accommodated my flawed, no failed, Spanish.  Especially Los Chicos, for inviting me to hang out on a bad day, and the native speakers, for putting up with incredibly dumb questions.

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