23 November 2010

Life Doesn't Settle Down

Routine is hopeless. Just as life is becoming less busy, it becomes more intense. My Spanish courses have ended, but my roommates decided it is time for me to learn Catalan and insist that I become accustomed to common phrases now to begin full immersion in January. Although I would like to understand Catalan and to have more exposure to specific Catalunyan traditions and history, I keep begging for more time to improve my Spanish. They argue it’s quite sufficient.

Of course, they’re right on both points, and the policy holds for all immigrants: Catalan helps integration and Spanish acquisition is nearly unavoidable given its omnipresence. I have some examples to illustrate these points. This weekend I returned to the Girona country villa where I was invited to celebrate Luz’s birthday, again with the group of friends who gathered for the cena two weeks ago. The ambiance had changed, as everyone had just seen each other recently, and perhaps my attitude had also changed. I was quicker to connect with individuals, who also made more efforts to address me directly in Spanish, and the topics of group conversation in Catalan seemed more accessible. I found I could get the gist, and I was more willing to interrupt to confirm and comment. We had a great time! I had read and worked all day in front of the woodstove and enjoyed relaxing in the evening in the amazing facilities Luz’s house affords: bar, group dining room, and dormitory with bunk beds. You can host great get-togethers when you live in a retreat center! The weather was beautiful, full moon included, and in the morning some people went mushroom hunting while others visited the horses…and of course we all cleaned up. I can’t overstate how nice it is to get out of the city.

Then yesterday I had occasion to prove my Spanish competence, despite ignorance of complicated grammar. I presented solo at the meeting of Rotary Club Barcelona Mar, which gathers every Monday in a beautiful hotel on La Rambla. Lunch was divine and the presentation was more an exchange that incited some interesting discussion about immigration, languages, politics, and economics. I was thrilled to connect so well with them, and they declared me a “guest of honor” and invited me to their Christmas dinner in a few weeks. Here is a photo of the cheery group:

As I mentioned at the beginning, routine is impossible. I finish two classes this week and enter into preparations for final projects, due in a few weeks. Most deal with designing studies or testing a certain instrument or method of analysis. In the meantime, I start a new class on content-integrated language teaching, for example teaching math in a foreign language. And also in the meantime, I’m using a long weekend to travel to France and visit old friends and old cities.

16 November 2010

Friends and Visiting

One thing I love about life here is the endless cause for celebration. So far not a week has passed without festivities, whether in the region, the city, or our apartment. I arrived during the Festival of the Mercè, metro’ed through film and now music festivals, blended Halloween with the Catalan chestnut holiday, and am preparing to host a Thanksgiving meal next week. Last week, my festivities revolved around visits from friends from around Europe, including an Australian road-tripping from Spain to France with a German and a Breton who also happens to be my banker. With these friends from my years studying in Strasbourg and teaching in Pontivy, I revisited all the Barcelona sites: Gaudi’s Park Guell, the beach, Montjuic’s fortress, the Gothic Quarter, and the lively Boqueria market. I’ve included a selection of photos for your enjoyment.

On Sunday we even ventured out of the city to the famous pilgrimage site of Montserrat, home to the Moreneta or Black Madonna. The monastery is built into the mountainside, supposedly around the Moreneta statue because it could not be moved, and we enjoyed hiking around on some mountain trails with amazing valley views. There were a stupendous number of tourists and so it was difficult to appreciate the legendary holiness of the site, but easy to appreciate the natural beauty.

This weekend I was also invited to present at a meeting of Barcelona Rotaract, which is a young adult version of the Rotary club. We met outside of town in Castelldefels, a beautiful beachside suburb where we had a picnic lunch meeting. The group is incredibly welcoming and has an international flavor: only one member is actually from Spain, and the rest come from South America, Russia, and France. For those of you from Michigan, never fear, I taught them all how to locate Grand Rapids using their hand as a map!

This week holds much work and study, catching up from last week’s distractions. My Spanish courses are coming to an end, and I’m looking for a language exchange to take its place, along with cultural activities sponsored by the University and possibly a gym membership. It’s about time to move on from the adjustment phase and settle into a routine, I think.

08 November 2010

Weekend in Girona

After some weeks of getting to know Barcelona, this fantastic city where I live, I had the opportunity this past weekend to venture out to the city of Girona. My roommates, both from this town located one and a half hours by train north of Barcelona, invited me for the town festival. I could compare it in some ways to a county fair: there were carnival rides and games, concerts, and food booths selling all sorts of regional goodies. There were no animals or competitions, but the festivities lasted much later into the night and morning.

On Friday I went with my roommate Luz to her house in the valley of the Llémena, a stream that flows down into Girona. Through my young American eyes, her house looks like a mix between Italian villa and medieval manor. In fact, “Can Sala,” belonging to the Señor Sala, was built around 1100. The latest addition to the house was built in 1773, and all has been renovated extensively by Luz’s family. They have turned it into a magnificent mountain retreat center called CEL, Centre Ecològic Llémena and Catalan for “heaven.” The family manages an organic and natural foods brand, bioSpirit, and the house has a shop, restaurant facilities, and guestrooms. I loved spending a sunny fall day in the countryside in such a beautiful setting, visiting the horses, swinging in a hammock on the balcony, reading on the sunny patio with the cats, and exploring this grand house. I hope I’ve made a good impression and will be invited back!

After a relaxing day, we returned to Girona on Saturday evening for a friend-guided tour of the city. Girona began as an Iberian city, expanded later by the Romans, inhabited by the Visigoths, conquered by the Moors and then Charlemagne before being incorporated into Spain. Most tourists come to Girona to see the “Call” or Jewish quarter, a cramped but beautiful cobblestone neighborhood that reflects the flourishing community that was then deported during the 15th century Inquisition. We also walked along the city walls, strong fortifications that protected Girona during many sieges. Part of the tour took us through the festival food booths, where I tasted local cheeses, sausages, sauces, candied almonds and roasted chestnuts.

My roommates, back in their hometown, had organized a cena (late dinner) for everyone to get together. The restaurant was located in the old part of the city, so the ambiance of stone walls and wooden beams was magical, but something about the evening gave me a new perspective on the very subject I came here to study: multilingualism. These friends, like most youth in Catalunya, speak Catalan amongst themselves. This shows a strong resurgence of a once-banned regional language which is now used across Catalan society. The same youth also learn Spanish, both through bilingual schooling and its use as a community language.

At this cena, I was the outsider in all senses, but this time I was limited by my nonexistent Catalan instead of intermediate Spanish. At first, friends were careful and spoke mostly in Spanish, and it wasn’t until later that I realized how awkward this was for the group. I had assumed using a common language with people who speak it natively would be a smooth transition, forgetting that sustained interactions usually fall into one language, and clearly in this instance that language was Catalan. I spent the last hour of the meal barely catching the gist of the conversation, much less jokes and references to other friends I didn’t know.

It was frustrating to come face to face with a situation that I have often argued against: language as a barrier instead of a bridge. Through experiences and research and writing, I have maintained that the beauty of linguistic diversity is people’s capacity for multilingualism. But there I was unable to integrate into this multilingual group because of their natural preference for Catalan. I understand the context, the tendencies, even the absentmindedness, but I was at a loss for how to address the situation. How often can you interrupt to politely remind people of your own linguistic limitations?

Tonight in class I’m going to check with some of my Catalan classmates for their perspective on this situation, how they would address it, and how it interacts with the concept of Catalan identity and history. Not to mention how they think I should address it! And then next semester I’m starting Catalan courses!