“No, no, I was just wondering if you had any medical adhesive tape. I hurt my toe,” I repeat in Spanish for the fourth time to my host mom.
“Now I understand,” she says in her rapid-fire Andalusían accent. “You mean you need cream. I have it right here. This will help.”
“No, no, it’s inside – the bone; I need tape to… put it together with my other toe.” Why don’t I know how to say attach?
“Oh, esparadrapo! Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” So apparently there’s a single Spanish word for medical adhesive tape. Good to know.
My first realization upon arriving in Spain was that I don’t know nearly as much Spanish as I thought I did. Conversations like this became common, in which my intermediate Spanish slowly mangled the meaning of my sentences until I couldn’t quite get my point across. Even more common was the need to ask people to slow down. 13½ years of instruction and you’d think you’d be set, but when you’re thrown into 24-hour-a-day Castillian Spanish with a distinctive Andalusían twang, communication is still a struggle.
That’s not to say that my time in Spain was unsuccessful. Between a week in Madrid and four weeks in Cádiz, it’s safe to say I learned a lot of Spanish, but I’d be hard-pressed to say exactly what I learned, grammatically speaking; it seems more as though I gained some level of confidence, or a familiarity with the language, that I had been lacking, and that allowed the language to flow more easily. By the end of the trip, although I still frequently had to ask my mom to repeat herself, I found I could have meaningful conversations with her and be caught up in the dialogue rather than reeling from a lack of understanding.
However, I think that Spanish language made up only the smallest fraction of my learning. Most of my education in Spain was cultural, because that type of learning was entirely unavoidable. Unavoidable cultural learning is the hallmark of immersion experiences, and it is exactly what I was subjected to for my four weeks in Cádiz. Within hours of my arrival, the rules and norms of the city cemented themselves in my mind: you will always be hot; you will see no air conditioning; you will eat inordinate amounts of olive oil and grease; you will never feel like you have the space to spread out; you will eat lunch at least two hours later than you’re used to and dinner at least three hours later; you will walk everywhere and visit the beach often; you will take a siesta after lunch. These are the rules of the game, and for better or worse, you’ll accept them immediately – there’s nothing optional or gradual about them. That’s immersion. And for me, it’s difficult. I find myself resisting at first, not actively in the form of refusing to participate, but passively in the form of mental stress and homesickness. Wouldn’t it have been easier not to do this?
But that’s a question I guess you can’t answer; you have to push it away, and make room for the more subtle and interesting cultural education, which comes after the shock has worn off. A week into the trip, my homestay family’s granddaughter, a 12-year-old named Alba, started teaching me card games; her father and I had discussions about the Canary Islands, where he had lived until four months ago, and about the shortcomings of the Spanish education system (though I think he was actually trying to explain why his daughter had failed four classes and was taking remedial summer school); at my inquiries, my host mother expounded in colorful tirades on Spanish politics and the failed economy. Sure, I was attending classes, but my cultural education came primarily from outside the classroom.