It was the end of my first month in Spain. I was in Madrid for the weekend, travelling alone. I decided to go to an Italian restaurant for dinner. I asked for a table for one, and was seated in the centre of the room, all the other tables had couples or groups speaking rapid fire Spanish broken only by loud laughter: I was the only person sitting alone.
The waiter brought out the menu, and I found myself sitting there, staring, unable to read a word of it. I had been feeling so proud of my slowly improving Spanish but this menu was, I realised, Italian. I confirmed that it was Italian with the waiter, and attempted to joke about how I didn’t think my Spanish was that bad.
I successfully ordered gnocchi, and ate my meal in the quick way you do when you’re alone. I asked for the bill, and the waiter asked me if I’d like an aperitif. I was hazy what an aperitif was, exactly, but I figured it was a drink. “Yes,” I said. After all, free things are always good.
Briskly, the waiter placed a glass in front of me, smiled, and walked away. It was a water glass filled with a blue liquid. Suspended inside, though, was something that looked like a test-tube filled with a yellow liquid. The whole thing was garnished with a slice of orange. It was incredibly pretty, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to drink it. So, having nobody to ask, I attempted to surreptitiously take a sip of the yellow liquid. But for some reason, I couldn’t seem to sip any from the tube so I figured I’d take a tiny sip of the blue liquid and find out what it was.
Just as I raised the glass to my mouth, the waiter saw what I was doing from across room. He raised his hand and cried “stop” and rushed over.
The whole room turned. I could feel my cheekbones.
The room stared, as he explained – in very loud and very slow Spanish – that the blue liquid was just food colouring, and not meant to be drunk. Everyone watched. Needless to say, I did the yellow test-tube shot as fast as humanly possible, paid the bill, and left my cheeks still red.
Lesson: Learning a language is hard; learning a culture is harder.
Today is officially 6 months since I left Adelaide; 5 months since I sat in that restaurant. I’m living in Granada, a beautiful city in the South of Spain, I’m here to learn Spanish. It’s two weeks, now, since I finished my first semester, spent entirely dedicated to learning the intricacies of the language at ‘El Centro de Lenguas Modernas’ through Study Abroad. At the end of this first stage, I have summer holidays, followed by the start of my formal exchange at the University of Granada. I’ll take classes in literature, art history, and fine arts come autumn. They will all be taught in Spanish.
This last semester has been incredible. I arrived in the depth of winter to find my Spanish lacking as I struggled to get my head around new accents and idioms. I’ve marked my progress by my capacity to converse at the local fruit and veg market and my ability to describe art with complexity. It is the first time in my education that I’ve had the opportunity to focus on only one goal: to learn a language in a country where it is spoken.
I’ve been baffled, disheartened, confused, shy, and made a thousand mistakes. But somewhere along the path, I started to pick it up, little by little. I’ve fallen completely in love with the Spanish language and its unique expressions.
I’m not a native speaker. Some days it feels like I’ll never speak Spanish that well: as though I’ll never master all the idioms. But there is still time. And in a way, that’s the greatest benefit of a year-long exchange: having the time to learn, and buy fruit, and drink from the odd test-tube. I can’t imagine a better way to learn.