31 January 2011

New Experiences

A week of new experiences. While sometimes I wish I could rise like the sun, leave the house at half past, walk by the same flower stand and say good morning to the its kindly florist, put in a good day’s work and break for lunch on the same sunny park bench, and walk home to the sound of familiar closing-up routines—in short, have my own routine—I realize that my life may never be this orderly. Academic study is a binge in the best sense: you gorge yourself on information, which hopefully you feel guilty about because you love it so much, and expulse it all in terms of exams, papers, projects, and discussions. It doesn’t lend itself to regularity, and you sleep hard when you can get it. At least, this has been my experience with life as my classroom.

I am straddling the overwhelming midpoint of a two-week intensive course in Catalan, a 9am to 1pm daily appointment that has finally booted out the jet lag and made way for a Spanish siesta. It is the beginner’s beginning, although I’ve captured some advantage from my roommates’ Catalan conversations. (And they thought I couldn’t understand!) It is a point when you feel like you’re learning at an incredible rate, until you realize you can only communicate in numbers, seasons, and the weather channel. I can provide stalkers with all the information they could ever need (my name, where I’m from, where I live) or, alternatively, tell the umbrella-holding celebrity that it is, in fact, raining.

Perhaps my perspective on this skills set is unfair; it is most certainly influenced by the course I’m currently taking in content-language integrated learning. CLIL, like bilingual or immersion education, uses language as a means to an end, i.e., teaching history in Spanish rather than Spanish itself. Over the course of studying the Spanish Civil War, for example, there will be plenty of opportunities to observe, learn, and use the past tense—without dieting students on grammar exercises alone. But here I am conjugating “to be” in Catalan, with which I can say an impressive amount of things:

Em dic Colleen.

My name is Colleen.

Sóc dels Estats Units.

I’m from the United States.

El meu pare es diu L i la meva mare es diu C.

My dad’s name is L and my mom’s is C.

Tinc dues germanas. Es diuen M i H.

I have two sisters. Their names are M and H.

Tinc un gos també.

I have a dog too.

Estic estudiant a la Universitat de Barcelona.

I’m studying at the UB.

Tinc dues campanyas de pis molt macas.

I have two really nice roommates. (By far Anna and Luz’s favorite phrase.)

Besides the new Catalan intensive, which I am taking free of charge with other foreign students thanks to the Catalan regional government, I started another course this week. It too is a cross-cultural experience, though of a more sweaty sort: Colleen meets Bollywood, dance of India. I realized how much I missed dance classes and looked up something new. Unfortunately, with masters classes at night, very few fit my schedule, and this one is in a faraway neighborhood. But for one night, I got to dance with bangles on my ankles, following the bird-hands and circle-hips and bare feet of an adorable little Indian woman. I hope to find another class closer!

And last new experience: I finally made it out of Barcelona for a cultural excursion down the coast to Tarragona. It took us an hour and a half to get there by train on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and not long at all to realize why the Romans picked it as a winter resort. The seaside setting is calm, the amphitheater and ancient city walls give it character, and the play of light in the airy colorful streets reminded me of a cool summer bath. We followed the walls, learned about the city’s role as Rome’s principle stronghold in first-century Spain, had coffee in a plaza as a rag-tag marching band drummed by, and walked along the cold sunset beach. It was, literally, a breath of fresh air.

19 January 2011

Back to BCN

When I left Grand Rapids earlier this month after spending Christmas at home, I felt sated on the long, warm, filling, and loving embrace of my family. While living abroad has become more manageable, and the Atlantic is now a well-beaten path under my feet, my heart can’t help but sink a little when I walk away from home and heartland.

What a blessing that life here in Barcelona is so rich! I had barely arrived Saturday morning when I received my first invitation, a comforting sign that I was missed. Surely I was the newly-recertified American: Saturday night was an American pizza party, and I came bearing PopTarts, rice crispy treats, and peanut butter. The first filled a request from Natalie, Texan-born Rotary scholar studying international relations in Barcelona. The second landed in the hands of my flatmate Anna, who spent a year in Wisconsin during high school. And the peanut butter? Part of the Hamilton stockpile. These are the things we miss (and fit into a suitcase).

I also spent time passing by my favorite places here, all languishing in the glorious Barcelona sunshine. My apartment is a short walk from Montjuic, the great seaside landmass that separates the city from its industrial port. To get there takes a ten-minute walk out my door, across the busy Parallel Avenue, and through a neighborhood called Poble Sec. The high, colorful, laundry-strewn apartment buildings are spotted street-level with bars, mini-marts, hair salons, and some odd shops. I love to walk down shaded Blai street, then right onto the street where parakeets chirp away, and sometimes past the intriguing vine-covered house. Then it’s a long staircase up through the parks that dot the hillsides of Montjuic. Then finally, the Lookout, a high rise garden that lays the city out before you. Most times I stop there, where you can catch your breath a little, above the city and watching the boats glide in and out of the pleasure port.

Walks like these will become my guilty pleasure, I suspect, as the semester’s work continues to pile on. Last week we all scrambled to turn in thesis research proposals, general areas that are meant only to pair us with a supervisor but seem also to carry the weight of a life’s work. The three areas I outlined were bilingual education, bilingualism, and content integrated language instruction. The first would pull me into a Catalan case study, as I’m especially interested in how the region integrates immigrants, children of course but especially adult language learners. The second area would involve a fun study of which languages people use and when and why, and how they all affect each other. Finally, the third area is a proven-effective teaching approach that has students learning, say, science through Spanish instead of a course on Spanish. In another week, my program professors will assign me an advisor and determine the course of my professional career. Or will it only be a 6-month thesis?

The general academic program is also intensifying, as visiting professors often appear on the scene for a week of four-hour lectures in their area of specialty. This week I’m enrolled in a hit-and-run on pragmatics, or the teaching, learning, and usage of language forms to express apologies, requests, refusals, invitations, etc. How we frame these phrases depends on the status of the speakers (think employer-employee, for example), distance between them (best friends or strangers), magnitude of the request or misstep (forgetting the forks versus the wedding), and to a great extent, cultural norms. Here in Spanish, it’s not rude to use commands and say, “Give me a coffee,” or “Pass me the salt,” no please, could you, or thank you ma’am. It’s perfectly acceptable, not bad manners, and not insulting. In fact, Americans or Brits are often ridiculed for being extensively, overly, annoyingly polite. I try to strike a balance.

Two more points, the first one short. Hooray, again and over again, for socialist health care. The Spanish government staffs and runs health centers, which provide general care and can be supplemented by private insurances. My residency card entitles me to my very own general practitioner, most necessary treatments, and a discount on already-cheaper prescriptions. In ten minutes of paperwork last week, I had my temporary health card and even got to meet my doctor! She looked into my ear, told me I had wax and to get over it, but these drops might help. I beamed.

And lastly, Rotary also vied for my attention last week, and I was more than grateful to consent. With the other Scholars, I lunched with Club Barcelona Pedralbes, whose members meet on the nineteenth floor of a very nice hotel on Diagonal Avenue. On Saturday I braved an early-morning rendezvous with Rotaract young adults to train out to the Autonoma University hotel for a day-long Rotaract District Conference. It was a day full of presentations, breakout sessions, and fun and games (we are all young!) that helped me make contact with the seven Rotaract clubs in the district. This week I will be presenting to one that meets at the Autonoma (after four hours of lecture, and after a PhD meeting at the university…). Life is miraculously full and joyfully filling!