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!

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