My first memory of Spanish class takes place on a dark blue carpet (which we always called “the rug”) in the corner of a classroom on the first floor of Barbieri Elementary School in Framingham, Massachusetts. I spent most of my time next door with Mrs. Gray, but us English-speakers went to the other side for an hour every day. Seated in a normal-size hard plastic chair, not like the little ones they had for us kids, our teacher pointed to a poster with the lyrics of the song we were learning. I recall exactly two words from this song, along with the tune they carried: “bomberos, bomberos.” We were singing about firefighters.
The next Spanish class I remember was one year later and a couple doors down. All I understood about the science lesson was that when Sra. Garcia added red food coloring to a bottle of water and shook it, the red coloring spread. I remember sitting cross-legged on the left side of the rug and having no idea what she was saying. When we lined up to return to the comfortable land of Mrs. Shea’s English class, my classmates and I discussed how our names would sound in Spanish. I decided that Macy would translate to Mesa, but I knew that that meant table.
Last weekend, I helped my host cousin, Antony, with his English homework. Other than adults poking their heads in when I was trying to let him figure stuff out on his own, it went pretty well. I asked him why he chose every answer, that old self-doubt teacher trick. One of the exercises practiced the difference between “is” and “are.” I explained that you use “is” when talking about one person and “are” when there are multiple. “He is from New York,” for example, and “Charlie and Bill are hungry.” At the end, there were some questions for the student to answer about their own life. One question was, “Are you from the U.S.?” I asked Antony how many people the question was asking about so he could choose a conjugation.
“More than one,” he answered.
“Because it says ‘are.’”
I told him that English is weird.
A few days later, I sat down with my thirteen-year-old host sister, Alanis, to go through a similar worksheet. In her place, I would’ve needed a lot more than the instructions on the page for the homework to make any sense. To make things more difficult, she and her cousin lack the vocabulary to understand the sentences they’re supposed to put together. I had to resort to translating in order for things to make sense, and if I’ve learned anything in my years of Spanish classes, it’s that you don’t learn one language as a translation of another.
Living in Spanish has taught me that there aren’t enough words to describe different types of foods. In English, for one thing, we have grains (rice, corn, quinoa) and legumes (beans, peas, lentils). Here, though, those are all granos. Even though some are good sources of protein and others are just fillers, they all fall under the same category. (Side note: I’ve gone from constantly being asked where I get my protein to eating rice and French fries for dinner with my host family.) In Spanish, galletas are cookies and crackers. I’ve heard jugo refer to fruit juice, tea, and smoothies. I can’t tell if aguita is just a cute word for water or if it actually specifies tea. Papas—potatoes—can mean any sort of chips, even if they’re potato-free. And this one kills me—frutos secos, which translates literally to dried fruit, means nuts. Like almonds and cashews. Not dried fruits.
Now, back to my Barbieri days. There was one kid—I forget his name, but he always called the art teacher, Ms. Tsardeli, “Mrs. Deli.” (Another side note: There’s a cafe in Quiroga called The Deli Shop. My host family asked me what it means, and I told them it’s a bit odd—you either have a deli or you have a shop.) Anyway, in my mind, that boy wears a white t-shirt and baggy blue jeans. He and other native Spanish-speakers in my grade made the same grammatical mistakes in their second language. When games got intense, they would challenge, “I’m gonna win you.” My grammar freakness is no recent development, so my friends and I didn’t hesitate to correct them. It’s taken years and some time abroad, but I finally understand why they said that. In Spanish, the equivalent challenge would be “Te voy a ganar.” Literally, this translates to “I will win you.” Those kids weren’t stupid; they were making the same mistake I make when I refer to granos as legumbres.
As a kid, I thought that languages were all just variations of each other; that every dictionary held the same set of words. I’ve learned that you can’t always find a perfect translation. Sometimes, when your host sister laments that her beans and rice are too much grano, you might try to defend your favorite inexpensive vegan protein by telling her that beans are not grains. And, well, you might be wrong. After all, it was carpet, and your teachers always called it the rug.
Tune in to radiopublicacotacachi.com at 5 PM EST (4 PM after daylight savings) every Monday to hear my new program, Historias y Melodías. I’ll be popping tunes and explaining the stories behind some of my favorite songs.
We went to visit Carlos and his doggos at the military base.
More pics of Alizeé and Bruce, because I can’t decide who’s cuter.
Even the locals were giggling at this one.
I’m taking a break from short stories to work on something bigger!
Massachusetts, brace yourself for Macy and her chocobananas.
This weiner dog was straight’ chillin until I took out my phone. I guess he’s camera shy. (That’s the end of the hill on my running route. It’s a long hill. I’m excited to return to sea level with these Ecua-lungs I’m building.)
Imbabura was glowing!
At the radio, we’re working on a report about trash collection. I got to go to the dump! People throw all their trash out together, and town employees sort through it for recyclables. Talk about single stream.
On a bus that advertised wifi: “There is no wifi but there is beer, which makes communication easier.” On the right is the wifi password, which translates to “buy your own wifi.” I’m confused. Was there wifi or not? Will I ever know?