I Travel By Myself.

I long ago realized that if I have a choice between traveling alone and not traveling…I’m traveling alone. I’ve traveled with friends, and sometimes that was great. Sometimes it made me wonder why the hell I was friends with that person at all.

 

I’m the first one to admit that traveling alone used to scare me. And there are still some places in the world where I am not entirely comfortable traveling as a single woman. But on the whole, traveling by myself is incredibly liberating.

 

From an entirely selfish perspective, when I travel by myself, it’s all about me. What do I want to do today? Where do I want to go? Where do I want to eat, shop, take pictures, people watch? Do I want to meet people, join a tour, or just be alone to take pictures and soak up the atmosphere?

 

As a teacher, I spend my life being responsible to and for other people. Especially when I travel with kids. Don’t get me wrong – I love the kids, and I enjoy traveling with them. But the responsibility of being the adult in charge of a wandering herd of adolescents is…HUGE. So when I have a chance to spend a few days being responsible only for myself, it’s a lovely change of pace and an entirely different experience.

 

Take my regular trips to Spain. First, I went with friends. It was awesome. Loved it. Then I went with students. It was beyond awesome, because I had the thrill of watching my kids experience another world. And then finally I went alone.

 

And you know what? I met people. I went into stores I would have missed. I took pictures I would have overlooked. I spent time in the small towns and the low-tourism rural areas I love – people told me regularly that I was the only American they had ever met. I had tapas in Basque bars, I hiked the mountain with a local guide, I rummaged the hardware store for local tools and handmade Basque ceramics. I convinced a pair of mounted policemen to let me photograph their horses, and I listened to taxi drivers tell me their life stories in the matter of a few blocks.

 

Because I was alone and on my own schedule, if I found someone interesting, I could stop and talk. That netted me on of my favorite overseas experiences – the day I walked out of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa to find a dog rescue event in full swing. Since I live and breathe for my dogs, I went straight over. The Spanish rescue volunteers and I ended up having a fascinating conversation comparing the state of animal welfare in our respective countries. To be completely honest, the museum itself didn’t do much for me – the art was a little too modern for my taste – but the hour I spent with the rescue volunteers was priceless.

 

A few recommendations if you’re contemplating a one person trip: Be alert. Observe everything. Ask questions. Talk to strangers. Smile. Go where the locals go. Take pictures. Buy local handcrafts instead of hokey teeshirts. Say thank you. Dress appropriately. Follow local customs – which means informing yourself thoroughly ahead of time. Be respectful. And never, never, never complain about how the USA is so much better than wherever you’re visiting.

 

Give it a try…you’ll get to know the the culture you’re visiting on a whole new level. And you might get to know yourself better in the process.

Living Language

As a language educator and translator, travel is critical to my professional development and language maintenance. Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It evolves and shifts in response to developments in the culture it serves. Think about it – is the English we speak in Texas the same as the English they speak in New Jersey? Or Australia? The speech patterns, accents, and word choices in these places have developed differently because each place has a distinct culture with its own set of influences.

 

Take my own speech patterns. I’m Texan born and raised, with a clearly evident Texas accent. But when I’m in a professional setting, I unconsciously turn my accent off and use a neutral dialect. When students or colleagues happen to hear my native accent pop up, their absolute astonishment just confirms how completely I switch dialects at work. And when I speak another language, my native accent disappears altogether.

 

I grew up in an English speaking home. French was added to my curriculum when I was in second grade, Latin in fifth, Greek in eighth (okay, to be honest, I took it to avoid PE class). I picked up a fair amount of Spanish along the way, and began to study it formally in college. Grad school – for Hispanic Literature – added Portuguese to my repertoire.

 

Because I have an ear for the sounds of a language, I imitate and internalize accents very easily. I’ve always been able to “sound right” when speaking a foreign language. But I hadn’t had much opportunity to go overseas and immerse myself in the languages or cultures I was studying, so it was all still a shade mechanical. I had actually already been teaching and working as a translator for several years when my first chance to go to a Spanish speaking country arose.

 

I went to Mexico for a few short days with several other Spanish teachers. And that was it. I was hooked. Different accents, ethnic clothing and food, new vocabulary – I couldn’t soak it in fast enough. I got to visit monuments, see exotic wildlife, and bargain with vendors in the mercado. The heavy black rebozo I bought is still one of my most prized possessions.

 

And I came home with a whole new appreciation for the history and culture of the language I was teaching. Teaching about the Mayans was much more relevant after walking through a Mayan village, and discussing the impact of the guerrilla movement in Chiapas took on new dimensions after teenaged Mexican soldiers stopped our vehicle to see if we might be taking contraband weapons to the guerrillas.

 

That was only the beginning. Since then, I have spent time in several other countries, most notably Costa Rica, Ecuador, and my favorite, Spain. Spain is where the language emerged, spinning out from Latin as the Roman Empire fragmented and other cultures found their way into the Iberian Peninsula. The Visigoths, followed by the Muslim invaders from Northern Africa, lent their vocabulary and cultural practices to a language already carrying traces of the Basques, the Celts, and the Greeks.

 

Every Spanish textbook points out that words starting with AL come from Arabic, while most words ending in MA come from Greek. Those facts were just abstract minutiae to me until I walked through the Mezquita de Cordoba, where Spain’s Muslim and Christian traditions coexist in casual harmony within the same structure, built on the site of an ancient Visigoth church. Until I walked over a 2000 year old bridge still in use by people whose modern dialect descends directly from the archaic language of the builders.

 

Once a language student begins to see those connections, history stops being dry facts to memorize. Language suddenly becomes a dynamic living entity, intimately connecting generations of experience and sociopolitical evolution. And those of us who speak that second or third or fourth language learn that bilingualism opens a door into a world that would otherwise only be available to us at the most superficial level.

 

And that’s when the fun starts.

My Bilingual Mind

One of my students asked me recently what it’s like to be completely bilingual. And how you know if you are. And when did I know I was?

 

First, I’m about as bilingual in English and Spanish as anyone can get. In order of competence, I speak English and Spanish, then French, with some Portuguese, Italian, Latin, and a few  words of Euskera.

 

I really had to think about my answer, as becoming bilingual is a process. I didn’t wake up one morning and think hey, I’ve arrived! Bilingualism is here! I WORKED for it. Yes, languages come more easily to me than to most people (which is only fair, since I have zero talent for math and science). But learning a language is time consuming, and labor intensive, and requires a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone into another culture and language in the full knowledge that embarrassing errors and moments of frozen mental blankness are going to happen.

 

The truth is that when I graduated from college with a degree in Spanish and French, I was not bilingual. I spoke Spanish. I spoke French. But looking back, I had not yet arrived at the comfort level and innate facility with the language that is the hallmark of a truly bilingual person. Grad school brought me closer, but even with a master’s in Hispanic Literature, I was not as comfortable with the language as I wanted to be. It took years of practice, and immersion trips, and spending time in Spanish speaking households and places.

 

Now, after 23 years of teaching and working as a translator, I am truly bilingual. Any topic I can address in English, I can address in Spanish. Any social situation that I can handle in English, I can handle in Spanish. (Truthfully, I might actually handle social situations better in Spanish, since I learned those skills with a deliberate eye toward learning to participate appropriately in cultural experiences.) Does that mean I know every single Spanish word there is? Of course not. But I don’t know every single English word either. There are some topics I cannot converse about in either language – things like calculus and nuclear physics come to mind.

 

So what is it like to be a bilingual person? I can’t speak for all of us, but I see the world differently than I used to. My perspective is broader and more inclusive. I see nuances of language, culture, and history that a single language speaker might not notice. I occasionally forget who I’m talking to and reply in the wrong language. Many of my friends are bilingual and international, which means that I have constant input from a variety of perspectives.  I’m comfortable traveling alone in places that my English-monolingual friends might not be. I ask a lot of questions, I constantly analyze social and cultural context, and I talk to strangers, especially when I see people with limited English struggling to communicate.

 

Living bilingually has made my world richer, more complex, and more interesting. There are moments of frustration, when the idea I want to express works better in one language, and I have to struggle to find the words for the equivalent concept in the other. But I love everything about the process of communicating with people from other countries and cultures.

 

This is the message that I want to share. Learning a language is time consuming and labor intensive. There is no magic wand – I don’t care what Rosetta Stone promises, it still takes years of effort and practice and attention to detail. The magic is in the result, when you discover that being bilingual opens doors for you everywhere you go, socially, professionally, and intellectually. And it’s pretty awesome.

Euskera

© 1996-2014 INTERNET Red 2000, S.L. – SPAIN

 

Nafarroako Foru Komunitatea (The Chartered Community of Navarra) is a semi-autonomous region in the northern part of Spain. It also happens to be my favorite place to visit. My Spanish speaking readers may be wondering what language Nafarroako Foru Komunitatea is  – take a good look. These unfamiliar words are written in Euskera, or Basque.

 

The Basque people are a separate ethnic group that lives in Navarra and the surrounding areas, loosely referred to as Euskadi. Their language is one of their most distinctive traits as a group. Most languages can be connected to other languages, and in most cases we know how modern languages evolved. Spanish, for example, comes from Latin, with substantial influence along the way from Greek, Arabic, and some Native American languages – the last because the conquistadores adopted indigenous words for things that simply didn’t exist in Europe.

 

Euskera, however, is a linguistic isolate. In regular non-academic language, that means that it is not connected to any other known language, modern or classical. It’s one of a kind.

 

Language changes and evolves in response to the lives of the people who use it. New technology, new cultures, new foods – they all mean that new words are needed. Some words fall out of use with time (heard anyone say “groovy” lately?), and others disappear because the item they name becomes obsolete (record player, eight track). So I find it fascinating that the Basque language has managed to sustain itself for 2000 years or so, in a small geographic area.

 

They made it through invasions, cultural and technological evolution, political redivisions, and even outright persecution. The Spanish Inquisition thought that the Basque villages harbored witches, and killed dozens of accused heretics. As recently as the twentieth century, Francisco Franco (the fascist dictator who ruled Spain from 1939-1975) tried to eliminate the Basque language and culture as part of his campaign to make the Spanish people as homogeneous as possible. He made it illegal to use the language in schools, stores, advertising, and any published material for 20 years or so, but the Basque people established underground schools called ikastolas – at great personal risk – to teach their children their forbidden language.

 

No one knows better than the Basque people that language is one of the most important symbols of identity. They fought successfully for the right to maintain both their language and their unique cultural identity. These days, Spain rightly recognizes them as a unique and vibrant cultural asset.

 

Footnote: Did you know that thousands of Basques immigrated to the United States to escape poverty and persecution? In fact, the largest Basque festival in the world takes place in Elko, Nevada every year.

Minnie Lou

Very early Tuesday morning, I got a call I had been both dreading and expecting. My grandmother was gone.

 

Minnie Lou Pinchback Britton was born in 1925 in a tiny backwoods town in Louisiana. She left home before she was 18 to go to nurse’s school, entirely against the wishes of her father, who hid her acceptance letter to the school. When her best friend got accepted, she figured she must have been accepted too, so she packed and left.

 

She went on to have a very successful career in nursing. She put my grandfather through dental school, and raised two daughters. By the time I came around, she had left the profession. My early memories of her are of her cooking killer fried shrimp, taking me swimming at the Riverside country club, and signing me up for vacation Bible school one summer when I spent a couple of weeks at her house.

 

She was the first person to put a gun in my hands – just a BB pistol, but still! How many people can say their grandma taught them to shoot? She totally scandalized my parents by allowing a sixteen-year-old me to go on a movie date with a friend’s (utterly harmless) 20-something son. She indulged my adolescent passion for shopping, and she dragged me to church whenever I was there.

 

She was always willing to listen, and sometimes we would talk for hours. About nothing. And everything.

 

In the last few years, we have watched her get weaker, and smaller, and crankier. We watched her give up the things she loved doing, one by one, as they became too much effort for her. Her lungs didn’t work very well, she was diabetic, and she had some autoimmune issues that slowed her down. As her physical strength faded, so did her filter. You know that filter that keeps people from saying and doing things that other people might not understand? That one. And phone calls to her were often followed by the family comparing notes about whatever hilariously inappropriate thing she said this time.

 

She was the only person I knew who could use “Jackass” as a term of affection. And in recent months, she took up throwing things at people who annoyed her. Rumor has it that she caught my grandfather squarely between the eyes with a pickle a couple of months ago because he asked her once too often if she was going to eat it.

 

When she was hospitalized this time, we all were pretty sure this was it. I went to visit her a few days ago, and when I arrived, she looked so tiny and frail and helpless in that bed, with fluids and a unit of blood dripping into her veins. Until she opened her mouth to inform me that this transfusion should perk her right up and then she’d get up and kick me in the butt. Ha!

 

Well, this time the transfusion didn’t bring back her butt-kicking powers. On Sunday, she started pulling off monitoring equipment and told the family that this was it, she was done. She meant it. At around 4:00 Tuesday morning, she slipped quietly away.

 

She was 89 years old, and she and my grandfather had been together for 70 years.

 

She was one hell of a woman.