Paso a Paso – Spanish Practice

My Spanish has improved, though I seldom give myself credit for the progress I’ve made. I am impressed when I can (mostly) follow along on a conversation, go out to dinner, and ask for help – all in Spanish. One particularly simple but impressive instance (for me) occurred at a coffee shop this past week. It was the day I had traveled to Santiago for a job interview.

It had been such a long day. I was up early to catch the bus from Viña to Santiago. Then I hopped on the metro during rush hour traffic. My goodness – 45 minutes amidst a crush of people felt exponentially worse than the pleasant 2 hours I just spent on the bus from Viña to Santiago.

Then, of course (because it’s me) I get turned around leaving the metro, and go in the wrong direction for two blocks before realizing my mistake. I walk back the way I came, feeling a bit overwhelmed with all the travel and not enough food. I pick up an orange juice and coffee to revitalize me.

The interview is a demonstration class, and I do not feel positive about how it goes. My upbeat demeanor save me, but I feel I stumble a bit. My “students” are only two people. One is the gentleman interviewing me, and the other is a woman who works in the office. It was a bit of a challenge to connect and convey my points. By the time we finish up the follow up interview/feedback portion of our meeting, I am mentally pretty tired and beyond hungry. It is now after 12 PM. I have only had a banana, the orange juice and coffee all day. (so many reasons for this and none of them good!)

I am grateful the metro is empty on the way back to the bus station. I am more grateful that the bakery I head for has hot, delicious empanadas. I order one before getting my bus ticket. As I sink into the window seat, I sigh and say a little “thank you” for being headed back to my beautiful city, for lovely inter-city transportation options, for not having to live or work in Santiago and for hot empanadas. 😉

Back in Viña, I am meeting a friend to look at a room. I am still searching for a place to live (more difficult than anticipated, but I’ll save that for another post). The building and room itself are very nice. It has everything I need – even some space for me to do yoga, push-ups and sit-ups! So I’m feeling slightly better about my potential living arrangements. After this, Miguel asks me what I would like to do. I am starving! How I would enjoy a hot meal and a little relaxation. We head to a coffee shop, and I decide I would like to try “onces”. Onces is kind of like tea-time – it usually consists of some bread, butter and jam, alongside tea or coffee and perhaps some meat or cheese. I order the specialty “onces”, and this requires several choices. I must choose a type of juice, coffee or tea, type of jam, etc. Here is the entire point of the story – the waitress proceeds to ask me all these questions, one after another. And I answer her – correctly and without hesitation! – one after another. Both she and Miguel smile at me in appreciation of my little accomplishment.

That made my whole day better. When the food arrived, and I (finally!) fortified myself with something substantive, I felt human again.

All of this is possible, I believe, because I’ve made a consistent effort to meet Chilenos and to speak Spanish (at least some of the time). I am continuing Spanish lessons with a teacher I found in the U.S. (via Skype) He has been wonderful – helping me with the little grammar points I feel I need to gain facility in the language. I’ve also thought to offer Spanish – English language exchanges with some of the Chilenos I’ve met.

When I bought my cell phone, the man who helped me (Javier) mentioned that he would like to improve his English. So I offered to trade English practice for Spanish practice. We spent over two hours at a coffee shop one night talking in a combination of English and Spanish, going back and forth over things we did not understand. It was great fun, and so I enjoyed making a new friend in the process!

One of the other things I’ve learned is that in many situations, we intuitively know what phrases we expect to hear (and the appropriate responses to give). When we first meet someone, there are probably 3-5 different ways to say hello, how are you, and introduce yourself. There are also probably 3-5 different ways to respond. We’re prepared with responses without even really hearing the questions. Have you ever noticed this? If someone happens to greet you with something other than “how are you?” how many times have you instinctively said, “fine” before realizing your mistake and offering a different answer?

This holds true for Spanish as well. As I’ve met people, I have purposefully identified the different phrases likely to be used. Now, I find myself listening for those phrases that I expect to hear. This means I’m more likely to hear a specific phrase, and to reply appropriately. It also means that when I hear a “new” phrase, I can add it to my mental repertoire. This little method works equally well at the coffee shop, restaurants, the bus and metro (and I attribute that to my success when I ordered “onces”!).

This also means I’m becoming more comfortable, which means I’m also becoming braver, which means I can improve more. Little by little, I’m getting better. And it’s becoming more and more fun.

Just for fun – I’ve included pictures of Valparaíso. This is a city with which I am becoming more familiar and more comfortable (thanks to all my new friends). It is a beautiful place, which I’m appreciating more and more. I hope you enjoy!

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