Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stopped in my tracks...

One of the rich blessings of learning a second language is the joy of recalling exactly where you were and what you were doing when you learned certain simple words. There are words that will be with me forever, along with the context of their acquisition. These words are the special ones. I have this experience in my first language, also--but for bigger words, rare words, that entered my world in high school, words like "celerity" and "Hellenistic" and "indigenous."

In a second language, I have memories of very simple words and where I was when someone first said them to me. Take this one: La parada. The sounds stopped me in my tracks. My high school teacher, from Madrid, had a voice that was like bells over water. She read our vocabulary lists aloud, right before lunchtime, at the public high school where I studied Spanish under her tutilege. La parada. Bus stop. I can still picture the page in the textbook, with a winding train track (la vía) and the platform, (el andén) and a bus stop. La parada. The "p" sounded like a "b" and the "r" in the middle sounded like a "d" and the "d" was soft, like a "th". Something inside my soul stopped for a moment the first time I heard that word. My memory etched the sounds on a mental list of words that bring me back to reality when panic sets in. Along with a couple of Shakespeare's sonnets, and some kind words from loved ones that came at really low moments, this list of words can get my life back on track fast when I get struck by one of the "golpes en la vida" that make me, with the poet (Vallejo), say, "yo no sé".

There are other words, not quite heart-stopping ones, perhaps, but memorable. "Resbalar" is one. I was wearing muddy boots, up to my gills in muck, down in the bowels of the earth inside a cave in the Pyrenees. I was having my doubts about the quality and brightness of the headlamp that was supposed to be guiding and preserving my presence in the group. Mental gears were shifting from the headlamp issues to the words of a fellow traveler, and I was just inhaling to ask "¿qué quiere decir 'no resbales'?" when I hit my knees and slid into the darkness. I guess no one felt like stating the obvious. My bruised shins helped me remember that one.

Memory gets a boost from all directions while learning language. Some memorable words are false cognates, that woo us in only to rear their ugly heads in our moment of weakness, tinging the cheeks a faint pink: words like "embarazada" (pregnant); it sure looks like "embarrassed" and can lead to confusion. Or, "la americana," (in Spain it means a blazer or suit jacket), which caught a midwestern farm girl friend of mine off guard when a Catalan friend took her shopping only to say "la americana esa es muy fea" to another shopper, only to leave my friend feeling very judged and rejected. Those stories and the ensuing laughter when they are recounted over coffee make the words "inolvidables."

And there are others. "Vamos por partes" a phrase that belongs to someone I haven't seen in a dozen years, even though I hear others say it often enough: "let's take this one thing at a time." Another is "despejada" - meaning "bright-eyed, bushy tailed," or "the way the sky looks at dawn on a clear day." Despejada: I was on the deck of a ship, curled up in a sleeping bag, crossing the Mediterranean night on a lawn chair as a penny-pinching undergrad among a group of hostel rats, when the sun came up and I learned that word from a fellow passenger.

Trótola is Italian for top (the kind that spins)--and I was standing with my room-mate in the kitchen in my New York apartment in 2001. Krava is Bulgarian for cow (Silvia and I were drinking wine and eating fried potatoes). Crujiente is crunchy (Spanish--in Barcelona, with Susana, over a bowl of muesli) and "la solidaridad" is solidarity (in class in the Casa at Columbia, studying Blas de Otero). La nuca (nape of the neck) is one I guess I haven't forgotten (same classroom, different class, on the poetry of Claudio Rodriguez). "Solet" is the diminutive of "sunshine" in Catalan that I acquired from a children's song (Teresa Puig, BCN). And I am still holding the pieces of the word "saudade" that I picked up from a Portuguese short story years ago (Elzbieta Szoka's office in the Casa).

I can close my eyes and picture where I was, and hear another person saying the words as I savour the memories in my mind. These vivid recuerdos are a benefit of learning languages as an adult. It's never to late. And may your recollections be sweet and long-lasting, too.

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