On the Mediterranean Coast of Spain, somewhere between Valencia and Barcelona, lies a small city called Vinaròs. As part of our family’s year long travels we chose Spain as a spot where we could improve our Spanish. In Mexico we had learnt quite a bit from using the app Duolingo. It helped us function at cafes and in shops but we struggled with making conversation. We hoped some time in Spain would help. We were in for a treat because when we arrived at our accomodation, our landlord, an amazing woman named Mila, told us she was learning English and wanted to swap lessons. And so began our Spanglish adventure in Vinaròs.
Twice a week for two months Mila came over. Initially it was formal. But very quickly things lightened up as we settled into a rhythm. Our phrases often focused around questions we would need around town. Because Vinaròs is so off the beaten track, not many people spoke English, and if they did, it was as broken as our Spanish.
The first few things we learnt was for using the bus or a taxi since we still needed to take Carmelo to the hospital for x-rays and check ups. This worked out to be insightful because we saw the functional side of Vinaròs and it’s healthcare system. Most of the younger people understood English really well but the older staff had studied French. This made some of our hospital interactions a bit tricky. The administration staff usually didn’t speak any English so we ended up asking Mila to help us book appointments and get referrals.
Vinaròs is such a small town that the we came to recognise the taxi drivers. Initially when we couldn’t work out where the bus stop to get home was, we taxied. And to get to the hospital speedily or to the trains station easily calling a taxi was the easiest method. Unfortunately, the actual calling part was the difficulty. We didn’t have phones that were connected outside of internet access, so we relied on calling through WhatsApp and Viber.
On one of our taxi rides home from the hospital I was requesting our driver if she could pick us up in the morning to take us to the train station. She didn’t speak a word of English and Carmelo’s ability to hear Spanish and comprehend it is quicker than mine. Eventually we worked out that she was saying there are only two taxi companies in Vinaròs and neither of them are operational in the morning, so we couldn’t book a taxi in advance. I managed to explain that I don’t have a phone and by the time we reached home she told me not to worry because she would call the taxi for us at 6am. She repeated multiple times that if we weren’t waiting outside then the taxi would leave. Needless to say, we were waiting outside on time.
On another taxi ride (because I like to practice my Spanish by making conversation) I asked when Mother’s Day was because New Zealand had just celebrated Mother’s Day. The driver said he didn’t know and then he jumped on the RT and asked “When is the day of mother’s?” (literal translation). I was surprised that I understood the response over the radio to be the Sunday prior.
Eating out was very rare, being on a budget, but we did find some great spots to eat. One of the places made a vegetarian paella which was awesome for me, since it’s not normal to have a vegetarian version. Most places had at least one person that spoke English but we preferred to practice our Spanish and our hosts were happy to speak to us in Spanish, even if it was poor.
Our favourite cafe was across the road from the beautiful beach front. We would walk along the sandy beach, playing in the various playgrounds or chill on the many different styles of chairs they had where we could enjoy the view, and then pop in for ice-cream or coffee or chocolate crepes. When my friend Vienna came to see us, we taught her how to order her own coffee in Spanish. We were all stoked at the small achievement.
There were still some narrow, windy streets that were a few hundred years old. It was along one of these streets that Ajay found a great barber. Barbers and hairdressers are great for practicing longer conversations. Our taxi rides were often too short to talk about much more than how is your day going.
Right next door to that barber, Giselle and I decided we needed a haircut. I was looking forward to chatting but my hairdresser was still in training and was more obsessed about checking every little thing with her trainer, than having a conversation. So, instead, I listened in on their conversations and imagined what they might have been saying. Because it was toward the end of our two months in Spain, I was able to understand when they were speaking Spanish or Catalan. Catalan is widely spoken in Vinaròs and is very similar to Spanish. It’s used by 20% of Spain.
One thing that makes it hard is the speed with which the Spanish speak, but practicing with Mila and listening to her speak in Spanish helped our ears tune into the different sounds.
On another note, no, the trainee did not do a good job. But at least hair grows back 🙂
At the end of our hospital treatment Carmelo needed physio. Our medical Spanish had not improved so Mila arranged the referral and a physio appointment for us. We thought we might be practicing more Spanish but as it turns out we met a lovely young lady who spoke really good English. There are a few funny differences in Spanish like when we say “Let’s go” the Spanish would say “Let’s come” but it means the same thing. Or we would say “I am 40 years old” and the Spanish say “I have 40 years”. Our physio was so well versed in English that it was only little nuances like this that would pop into conversation.
It was great that she spoke English though because then I could have a yarn with her about her travels, Vinaròs fishing licenses, favourite foods, etc which would have been harder for me to convey in Spanish. And of course, it meant that Carmelo easily comprehended the exercises he needed to do at home.
Because our supermarket was right across the road from the apartment complex we popped in daily. As we became less diligent about our shopping list, we would send Carmelo or Giselle for any small forgotten items, or more important breakfast items like fresh baguettes. Towards the end of our stay someone had to go across the road for fresh bread each morning. The bread is so fresh it is crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. But it also has no preservatives so it goes off in one day, just like the baguettes of France.
Initially when the cashier would tell us how much our shopping total was, Ajay and I felt like they were speaking a different language. We couldn’t understand anything. But through our lessons with Mila we understood the accent was different and the speed was much faster than in Mexico. By the end of our stay it was very easy to hear the numbers clearly.
The biggest challenge was when they would make conversation, which they often did because they were super friendly. The first time I couldn’t understand anything. Mila taught us to ask them to slow down. We met one lady in particular who would say hello every time we saw her, and on quiet days she would chat with us. I used to be so scared of extending a conversation in case I got stumped by what their reply was. But as I grew in confidence, I would converse anyway and guess my way through the conversation.
Mila was helping our Spanish immensely. Her regular visits inspired us to continue learning Spanish by watching youtube or studying the material she left for us or reading books on how to learn Spanish. But more importantly, she had a great sense of humour so we had a lot of laughs in our study sessions.
We loved spending time with her in class and wanted to have some out-of-school time so we invited her and her husband over for a coffee. She introduced us to a yummy pastry that was plaited with raisins or nuts through it and icing on the top. I found this at our supermarket and began having it as my go-to treat. She also brought over the Spanish version of French profiteroles but they were filled with chocolate cream. The kids loved them but we couldn’t find those again.
As we realised our time was coming to an end in Vinaròs, we began feeling sad about leaving our beautiful new friendship with Mila. She had become so intimate with our family routine and had helped us in so many ways. She invited us over for a paella at her place. It was such a lovely outing for us. Ricardo speaks fluent English, and has even written a novel in English as a way of practicing the language, so we were able to have a much faster paced conversation together because Ricardo could translate if any of us could not understand something.
Mila had decorated the place we stayed in and she always dressed stylishly so I wasn’t surprised by how stylish her home is. She had lovely outdoor areas that were well shaded with lush greenery. She had beautiful artwork that she had painted of landscapes from around the world she had visited. She had modern styles homely styles throughout her thirty year old house. And she had also created an amazing art studio for herself which Giselle and Ajay eyed up. Meanwhile, Ricardo had a room full of instruments where he practiced his cello every day. There space was very much designed for creatives and for relaxing.
We sat down to a typical Spanish meal with roasted veggies served with Ricardo’s yummy paella. I was surprised by how much all our kids enjoyed it since they aren’t usually open to new foods. There were little quirks we had learnt aThere was a jug of lemon water on the table. After lunch Mila served fresh fruit for dessert and then some ice-cream for the kids, followed by a coffee.
There were little quirks we had learnt about each other, for example, we love lemon water so we would offer it to Mila and she had a glass of lemon water every session. Also, one of the phrases Mila had taught us was how to order a pot of hot water with a black coffee because Ajay likes to add extra water to americano. At our lunch it was really special, for us, to see Mila had paid attention to these details, serving Ajay’s coffee with extra hot water and serving lemon water to everyone.
One literary thing we learnt about Spain is a book called Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervante who is like a Spanish Shakespeare born in the same time period. I’d never heard of this book until Ricardo told us about it, and after reading the synopsis, I’ve read so many literary references to it.
When we left Vinaròs we felt like we hadn’t become that good at Spanish. We are definitely nowhere near fluent, and I wouldn’t even say we are good at Spanish. It was a few weeks later when we were settling into our homeschooling routine in Serbia that we had a change of mindset about this. We found an audio file on the nzqa website for NCEA level 1 Spanish ie Carmelo’s practice exams. We listened to one of the audios. The speaker was talking much slower than a Spaniard but still at a decent pace. We were so excited because Ajay and I found that we could understand most of it. We realised that we know enough Spanish to function and that was rewarding to realise.