Finding Focus.

Well, I can’t believe it’s gotten to this point.

By which I mean both: “I can’t believe it’s my last Saturday in Madrid,” and also: “I can’t believe it’s March 25th and I haven’t blogged all month.”

I would be like “so much for my blogging every day goal,” but honestly the whole month has been a litany of “so much for this-or-that goal.” So much for learning Spanish, so much for getting up on time in the morning, so much for finishing work early and going out to explore the city. I’ve been struggling, and I think it’s only right in the interests of honesty to admit it. Working abroad is an amazing opportunity, but it is primarily that: an opportunity, and whether or not it actually proves to be amazing is up to you. It doesn’t happen automatically, and it can be frustrating to live under the pressure of having to make the most of your time abroad, especially when you are hyper-aware of what everyone else imagines your experience to be, and you want to live up to those expectations. Why yes, I am working from a bar, sipping my wine, watching the bustling streets of sunny Madrid pass by instead of holed up in my apartment, frantically trying to finish my latest assignment while there’s still daylight.

Does this sound whiny? It shouldn’t. I’m not trying to complain, I just want to be honest. I think we’ve fallen into a trap in the way we present our lives to others, in that we feel compelled to present the best face at all times, but feel false in doing so, and yet are afraid to admit when things aren’t all hunky-dory for fear of appearing glum, depressed or ungrateful. Well that’s the kind of nonsense I’d like to keep off my blog. This space is meant to be a real and honest exploration of shit I’m doing with my life, and that ought to include the things that aren’t working as well as the things that are.

So: I’ve had trouble pulling things together in Spain. And I’ll get into more of that in a second. But first I’d like to cover what I did over the past four weekends, which form part of why I’ve been so negligent in keeping this space up-to-date.

  1. Granada. I loved Granada. It was freaking incredible. If I come back to Spain for an extended period of time again, I may go to there. My last blog was on the Alhambra, and I meant to write more about the gypsy caves up by Sacromonte, and the city itself, but I got sidetracked by the other things and didn’t get to it. More on that to come.
  2. Barcelona. This was my other main travel destination when I came to Spain. It was nice, but much larger than I anticipated, and many of the attractions I wanted to see were quite far away from each other. Still, I discovered Gaudí, and that made the whole trip worthwhile. I think he would have made a great Hobbit architect.
  3. My friend Alaina came to visit. We had an excellent time exploring the city and discovering awesome places to eat and drink. We discovered my new favorite gin bar together. Good times.
  4. The UK. Originally, I had planned to devote my time in Spain to all things Spanish. But once I realized I was too distracted by ALL THE THINGS to do this (more on that later), I decided to pop over to the UK for a quick catch-up with some of my Uni friends. This is 100% the right decision, and did the more to help turn my month around than anything.

So there you go. Four pretty packed weekends sure put some perspective on why I’ve been remiss on, well, lots of things. In fact, they’re part of what helped me realize something very important about myself: I’m not a travel blogger. You know that last post I made about the Alhambra? It took me days to get that out. I was nearly to Barcelona by the time I managed to get it published, and that put me behind my schedule. I couldn’t decide if I should finish blogging about Granada before I moved on to Barcelona, or if I should skip the rest of my Granada post. Then I got back from Barcelona, and everything I felt I “had” to write about became this massive burden. I couldn’t write about what was actually on my mind because I hadn’t written these other posts yet. Blogging wasn’t an enjoyable experience, it was a task to cross off my list. An obligation.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I can only handle so many obligations. And if I’m prioritizing them, blogging is sure not at the top of my list. If I’m going to focus a lot of energy on making sure I get a thing done regularly, that energy should go toward something like my novel, or improving my languages.

All of which leads me to that “thing to come” I’ve mentioned in my preceding paragraphs:

I’m swamped. I’ve over-committed. I’m burning out. All the things I tell myself I’m going to do every day, they’re too much. I need to re-prioritize, and that mostly means that I need to cut back.

This is not an easy thing for me to admit. I like doing ALL THE THINGS, but in my excitement, I find I can’t focus on my actual priorities. So I planned my trip to Spain thinking that if I put in some intense study beforehand, and then really dedicated myself to practicing during the two months I was here, I could go home speaking Spanish. I think this would have worked, if I’d made my priority. Only I couldn’t bear to leave behind the books on Russian history I’d recently purchased, so I’ve spent most of the past two months desperately wanting to dive back into Russian practice. It doesn’t help that I made a stop by basically the most amazing fabric store in the world on my way to Madrid, and I’ve been antsy to get back home and sew again. Then there’s the apartment I’m moving into, which has probably cost me hours of productive work time as I’ve distractedly browsed the Internet for furniture and decor that I can’t actually afford. And of course at the bottom of all this is the thing that I really, actually should be prioritizing above all those other things, which is writing my novel. You know: that thing I said I had to do or else risk being a pretentious asshat for saying I would do it and then not.

I came to Madrid thinking it would put me back into that “everything is possible” mindset I had while I was in Vienna, only now I’m realizing that mindset was not a good place to be, even if it did make me happy. Because that happiness was an illusion built on a daydream of things I hadn’t done. And when the things you thought you would do don’t align with the things you actually can do, it leads to a pretty big crash. The kind that lands you in the doldrums for months as you beat yourself up for being less-than-awesome.

So Spain has been a reality check, which is not what I wanted, but certainly far better for me in the long run. I can’t do all the things—or at least, I can’t do them all well. I need to do the thing. And do that thing right.

Does blogging still have a place in all this? Oh most definitely. But not travel blogging. Not the kind of blogging that leaves me feeling drained for failing to live up to yet another obligation. Instead, this is my progress blog and my think space. This is where I’m going to keep dumping my spare thoughts, because it helps me focus. It keeps me accountable.

If that’s not useful or interesting or enjoyable to you, please be reminded that this is an opt-in space: you’re not obliged to keep reading. If you care to join me for the ride: thank you. I really do like knowing you’re here with me.

Becoming local.

I set out on a mission last Wednesday: find a cobbler, and get my shoes repaired.

Some stitching in the leather uppers had come undone, and I knew it would be a quick fix. The biggest question was: how would I find someone in Madrid who could repair my shoes?

This turned out to be not a problem, actually. Cobblers are more of a thing in Europe, and Madrid is large city regardless. But I’m not in the habit of tracking down cobblers while abroad, so it felt like a real adventure.

Cobblers, like barbers, are people you only need of you’re a local. I imagine few tourists ever track down a cobbler to fix burst stitching or a detached sole. For one, it usually takes a few days to a week for the repairs to finish, and many travelers can’t wait. So taking the time to look one up and track it down felt like mastering some aspect of daily life. It felt like I’d established myself in my neighborhood.

As it turned out, there was a cobbler less than a quarter mile from my flat. Even so, I’d never wandered down those particular streets, and they felt narrower, and a bit dingier than the ones I was more used to on the other side of the road. They also seemed targeted to a more local group of people: your typical corner shop, your hole-in-the-wall flower stand.

I’ve noticed a pattern in Spanish shop signs. They all derive their names from whatever product it is they chiefly sell. This in itself would be normal enough, but they can get oddly specific, probably because they’re small and only do one thing.

You get fruit from the frutería, and flowers from a floristería. You wash your clothes at a lavandería, and (most importantly of all) you drink your beer at a cervecería. So after all this, I suppose it should not have surprised me when I showed up to the cobblers and found a faded awning above the shop with the word zapatería in peeling white paint.

I went inside. “Hola,” says the shop owner sounding tired. It’s just past noon, so he has another hour and a half till he closes up for the break that always seems to come between 2 and 4pm. I set my shoes down on the counter and point to the areas that need to be restitched. He leans forward, nods, rattles off a bunch of Spanish I don’t understand. I think I catch the word “Thursday,” and I think that means they day he’ll have them finished. I suddenly forget the day, and holding up two fingers I ask “Dos días?” (My Spanish is truly awful.) The shop keep nods and repeats what I’ve said.

He has me write down my phone number, presumably so he can call when they’re done. I know I won’t be able to talk to him, but I go through the gesture. Two days? I repeat, and he nods. I’m about to walk out when I remember another thing. “Y hora?” I ask. He speaks more Spanish that I don’t understand, shrugging and pointing to the counter in what I assume means “come back at about this same time.” “Gracias,” I say, heading out the door.

I didn’t realize my confusion about the day till I got home and realized it wasn’t Tuesday. Whether I’d misunderstood the day, or he’d just agreed with “two days” because it was obvious I hadn’t understood I’ll never know. But I waited two days and went back today for my shoes. There they were, neatly stitched, just as I’d asked.

It cost me €3. I wandered home, feeling proud.

The better Toledo.

I hadn’t planned to visit Toledo when I arrived in Spain.

That’s mostly because I didn’t know where it was. Turns out, Toledo is super close to Madrid. As in: a half-hour ride by train. This came as awesome news to me! And it left me full of questions:

  • What’s in Toledo?
  • Is it a nice city?
  • Was it important?
  • What should I do when I’m there?
  • Is it worth going?

Basically, what all this should tell you is that I am profoundly ignorant of a lot of things in this amazing and beautiful country I’ve come to visit. My closest association with Toledo has been with it’s namesake in Ohio, a city about forty minutes south of my home town in Michigan, and the chief point of conflict during the Toledo War of 1835—proof that Michigan’s feud with Ohio has roots far deeper than football.

With a population of not quite 300,000, Toledo, Ohio is a reasonably sized midwestern town, good for its minor league baseball team and the occasional roaming Broadway performance. Somehow I expected its Spanish namesake to be much larger, but in reality, Spanish Toledo‘s historical consequence is far greater than it’s size might suggest. With a population wavering at the 84,000 mark, it feels almost diminutive. But oh boy, does it pack one heck of a historical wallop.

In short, it’s played host to a succession of rulers, from the Romans, to the Visigoths, the Moors, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. That makes the art and culture of the place a fascinating blend of Arabic and European, which—I am coming to realize—is somewhat characteristic of Spain more broadly.

This became readily apparent almost as soon as I stepped off the train. The moment I walked into the station, I (and half the other passengers) paused to gawk at the stunning distinctive arches and stunning tile work on display.

Inside the Toledo train station.

Only, to be honest, it wasn’t actually on display. It was just there. Casually hanging out like it was no big deal. Honestly, Toledo: way to make a first impression.

Being, as usual, unprepared, I hadn’t made any particular plan for getting in to the city. Would I have to take a bus? Could I walk? I checked Google Maps, and the answer was yes: I could walk. I headed off in the appropriate direction, and a few hundred feet down the road the city came into view.

Why yes, that is a city I would like to go explore, thanks.

This is one of the few moments where I’ve looked at a city and thought: Oh yeah, I see why this would be of such great strategic importance. Not that I’m an ancient military commander by any means, but the whole thing is built on a big rock with a river making a natural moat around a decent chunk of it. Add in those walls you see and some fortified gates and bridges, and I’d definitely want this to be my medieval stronghold.

The Puente de Alcántara, the Roman bridge leading into the city.

I should also add that the moment I looked at the map on my phone, I knew this would be the place for me. Just check out those streets:

A map of the old part of the city, looking like the cross-section of a brain.

Hardly a straight line among them! You could get so lost in there! And all built on a giant freaking rock promising all the ups and downs and twists and turns? YES PLEASE.

Again, actually being in the city did not disappoint:

A narrow street in the more tourist-friendly part of town, a spire of the cathedral rising ahead.
Well lost at this point, my strategy basically being: Ooh! This street looks promising!

I had a few things I definitely wanted to see, but as I’d arrived late I knew I probably wouldn’t make it to all of them. I decided to head first to the Cathedral, as I understood it was not only an incredible piece of architecture but also housed a small-but-impressive museum with some more El Greco, and a Goya, and super famous and also gigantic monstrance.

I spent way longer inside than I’d intended, and because I’d rushed straight there I was feeling nearly faint from hunger. And then, by the time I’d finished eating, most of the other places I’d wanted to visit were closed. Most importantly, the Alcázar.

The Alcázar, the fortress which made Toledo such a strategic key.

Apparently, this has been a major fortress for years, and unlike some of the other castles I’ve visited, was actually used as such. It played a significant military role as recently as the Spanish Civil War, and I hear there are places where you can still find bullet holes in the walls from that conflict. Today, it houses a museum, crypt, and documentary room.

By this point I was also too late to visit the El Greco house, so instead I wandered around the city looking at the tourist shops. Most of the time, this isn’t of particular interest to me, but it turns out that souvenirs in Toledo are actually incredible, and may even be worth more than sentiment.

Toledo is famous for its steelwork, which wouldn’t sound like glamorous souvenir material until you see what they make of it:

Toledo is famous for its gold and steel. These decorative plates are made by hand, with the drawings inlaid in gold and the steel blackened afterward.
More examples of Toledo’s signature souvenir.

The black and gold form a truly stunning combination, as does the mixture of European and Arabic influence in the design. And these don’t come cheap: unlike what you find elsewhere, these are the kind of souvenirs that you might want to actually use.

Most of the rest of my time I spent wandering the city, taking pictures and admiring the views. One thing I appreciated about my sojourn from Madrid was getting a chance to see a bit of the Spanish countryside. I’d seen pictures, but part of me always feels pictures are portraying the most stereotypical features, and that the reality will be quite different.

In this instance, although pictures I’d seen showed the country to be fairly sparse and rugged, I’d yet expected there to be more trees and foliage. Instead, I was surprised by how much scrubs and bushes dominated the landscape.

The Río Tajo, which encircles a good two thirds of the city. This is about as lush as the land ever looks.
Looking out over the rugged, sparse countryside.
More rock, crowned by the Academia de Infantería, which I don’t think is actually meant for tourists.

In short, Toledo delighted me at every turn. And since I missed some of the key sights, I’ll have to make a return trip some other day.

I’m already looking forward to it.

10,000 steps.

I started running a pedometer shortly after I arrived in Madrid.

This was part curiosity, part health goal, part desire to measure and track various habits and behaviors. I’d read that it’s recommended to walk about 10,000 steps a day, but that many Americans only manage closer to 3,500 due to our driving habits and generally more sedentary lifestyles.

This passed my sniff test, as I know from experience how my own habits shift between the United States and when I’m abroad. I’ve written before about my love for walking, and the sheer walkability of many European cities is part of what draws me back. I hate driving everywhere, the entire experience of navigating traffic, searching for parking spots, walking to and from my car through parking lots. I often feel like the parking lots themselves increase the need for cars, because they spread everything so far apart that they make areas less walkable. Part of what thrills my imagination at the thought of autonomous vehicles is that it may mark the end of parking lots.

So I was curious to see, here in Spain, how much I would walk, and how quickly I might burst that 10,000-step barrier in a day. It turns out that it’s very easy to accomplish on any given day, but much harder to do consistently.

Essentially, we’re talking about 5 miles of walking. That sounds like much more than it actually is. Almost any time I leave my flat, I’m likely to pound out 3- or 4,000 steps, just from walking to and from the grocery store (and wandering around inside trying to find some surprisingly elusive ingredient).

And yet, if I don’t particularly do anything in a day, it’s all to easy to miss that mark. It’s essentially the difference between one good walk and two. Did I not leave my flat at all? 3000 steps. Did I leave it once to walk to a coffee shop or do some grocery shopping? 6000 steps. Did I have a good day today? 10,000 steps.

Literally: there is a super high correlation between how many steps I walked, and how good of a day I had. And it’s not just because “walking” is code for “exploring this amazing European city where I happen to be living at the moment” (although that’s obviously a factor). No, it also has quite a bit to do with fresh air, sunlight, blood flowing through my brain.

I’m not sure where I’ll go walking once I’m back home. I’ve tried parks, and they’re nice when I remember to drive to them. Up and down the road can be a bit repetitive. Obviously, whenever I’m downtown I have plenty of walking to do. But I miss exploring. I miss wandering. I miss the feeling of endless discovery that comes when I step out my door, choose a direction, and head down the street.

It’s no wonder 10,000 steps go by so quickly.

A very ignorant impression of El Prado.

I don’t know much about art history.

At this point, I’ve been to a lot of art museums, but my knowledge comes mostly from what I read in the informational placards and my own personal feelings. For a while, this seemed like a fine way to do things. Then I had a few chances to overhear a guided tour and realized that, on my own, I don’t really appreciate what I’m looking at. It’s not just art, it’s also history, and boy oh boy is there a lot of it. So what you’re going to read here are my very semi-educated reflections on some of the most important and influential works in western art. I wish I had more to offer, but I’m not being falsely modest when I say I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

That said, on this trip, I had the good fortune to be guided through the museum by my friend Francesco, who is a) Italian (useful for when you’re viewing Italian art), and b) very good with art history. So, for instance, he explained to me the difference between the Italian school of painting and the Dutch, how the baroque style shifted over time, Raphael‘s masterful draftsmanship, Titian‘s attention to color, and Caravaggio‘s influential use of chiaroscuro. At one point, Francesco gestured toward a painting: “This painting is very famous, for no particular reason,” he tells me, which is a characteristic evaluation. Probably the next best thing after a well-informed guide is an opinionated one, and in this instance I was lucky to have both.

For my part, I felt most attracted to the works of El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya. Of the three, Velázquez is the most traditional (although I feel that is not the best word to use here), and his painting Las Meninas is one of the most famous on display in the museum. I only just now learned from the Wikapedia page that it “has long been recognized as one of the most important paintings in Western art history.” Which, again, shows you how much I know: I liked it and thought it was super cool and a bit of a mind-trip. Had no idea it was quite that important.

Velázquez, Las Meninas
Not only are they looking at you, but Velázquez has painted himself painting the painting you are looking at, and in the background you can see the reflection of the viewers viewing the painting in a mirror. That’s some serious fourth-wall-breaking shit going on right there.

El Greco came as much of a surprise to me as to his contemporaries. After halls and halls of precise aesthetics, the color and imagination come as a shock to the system. Many of the other artists we looked at shared chains of influence that ran in a direct line from one artist to the next. Meanwhile, El Greco belongs to a group of painters who won’t appear for another two to three hundred years. To borrow commentary from Francesco, when most people talk about such-and-such an artist or this-or-that painting being “ahead of its time” or “a precursor to X movement,” it feels like a bit of an exaggeration. With El Greco, you are without doubt looking at the precursor to Expressionism and Cubism—at the turn of the 17th century. I still can’t wrap my head around that.

El Greco, The Adoration of the Shepherds
I’m not sure anyone has ever painted a more shocking, vivid, fantastical portrayal of the nativity.

Out of everyone, I was most keen to see Goya. He was the painter I remembered most from what little art history I took in high school, and the only one I had read about since. As with everything else on display, El Prado did not let me down. While I greatly admired his portraits, I was mostly interested in his Black Paintings, specifically that of Saturn Devouring his Son. In his lighter or more formal moments, I detect a strong undercurrent of irony running through Goya’s work. His portraits of the royal family are so brutally honest, you almost wonder how he kept his job. Only in a few instances do Goya’s portraits seem to express a genuine admiration for the subject. As a whole, Goya’s paintings seem compulsively sincere.

Goya, Charles IV of Spain and His Family
Goya’s not very flattering portrait of the Spanish royal family. Note the influence of Las Meninas: Goya has painted himself painting the painting in the background.

Perhaps this is why I feel so drawn to his more horrifying subjects. Goya captures humanity, even in the midst of terror and suffering. His Disasters of War series depicting the brutality of the Peninsular War are one such example, as are his paintings The Second of May 1808 and its pair, The Third of May 1808. But his Black Paintings feel like a descent into some of the bleakest recesses of the human psyche, a deeply disturbed and deeply private expression of Goya’s soul. Painted directly on the walls of his house, he may never have intended them for public display. Perhaps that is why they make me feel as if I should turn away and look closer at the same time.

Goya, Saturn Devouring his Son
Probably one of the most graphic and horrifying paintings in Western art. Morbidly, also one of my favorite.

Somehow, even after 6 hours of intense exploration, we managed to miss Bosch, and we ran out of time to check out a temporary Goya exhibit upstairs. Fortunately, the museum is free for the last two open hours every day, so I’ll have a chance to go back.

Which I intend to do, several times. Great art humbles me, places me in a position of awe that very few other things are able to do. There is a deep beauty, even if the darkest subjects, which stuns me. I find myself paralyzed by wonder.

The octopus dinner.

I made Octopus for dinner last Wednesday.

What’s more, I invited friends over and served it to them!

This turned out to be, altogether, a far more unnerving task that I originally envisioned. To recap, during one of my first grocery store trips in Spain, I came across octopus in the meat section and decided I had to cook something with it.

Here’s what it looked like when I bought it in the store:

A culinary dare, if ever I saw one.

Looking all neat and shrink-wrapped like that, I really didn’t think this would be such a challenge. After all, from subsequent reading I have since learned that sometimes the octopus comes whole, with the beak still intact, and you have to remove it yourself along with the head. So I figured starting with what looked like already cleaned octopus would be mostly a mental effort. I googled a few recipes, and eventually settled on one that Food & Wine specifically billed as “a smart, delicious, Spanish-inflected way to cook octopus.

Sounded great to me. At this point, I noticed the recipe called for about twice the weight in octopus as I had. I considered doing a half-portion, but then while picking up the rest of the ingredients I needed, I noticed my more local grocery store also carried octopus. So I bought more. Because obviously.

Again, at this point I felt pretty certain that all I had to do was get over the idea of cooking octopus, and the actual preparation part would not be so bad. Unfortunately, the moment I cut open the package I discovered otherwise. The octopus had a distinct smell—a more pungent, oceanic smell than I expected—and was covered in a gelatinous slime, as if the brain fluid had leaked out and solidified after packaging, or the tentacles had secreted their own embalming fluid. I wasn’t sure what to do: was this stuff normal? Natural? A preservation byproduct?

What’s more, although the beak had been removed, half of the head was still attached. Because, as it turns out, what I had purchased were actually two halves of octopus. I wasn’t sure whether I should try cooking the head, and after a few moments reflection I decided that it didn’t look all that tasty and maybe the tentacles would be as much as any of us dare stomach anyway. So I rinsed everything off, hacked the tentacles from the head, and when I was done it looked almost like what I had expected to work with from the start.

octopus tentacles copped and ready to boil
Eight rinsed octopus tentacles, ready to cook.

For the record, the hardest part of rinsing the octopus off was that one point I think I nearly stuck my finger into its brain and dropped the whole thing in the sink.

The octopus heads, which I threw away. Pretty sure you can see the brains there.

The first part of the recipe called for boiling a pot of water with a copped onion and three bay leaves, dipping the octopus tentacles into the water 3 times each, and then simmering them for about an hour. For the record, almost every recipe I looked at began in this way, with variations on the stock ingredients and with the same tip of dipping the tentacles to help them keep their shape. The stock smelled nice, and by the time they were done I felt pretty sure (again) that the hard part was over.

Here’s what they looked like, drained.

The drained octopus, after an hour simmering in onion and bay leaves. As you can see, the purplish skin was practically falling off.

The next step involved removing the octopus skin without losing the suckers. Again, most recipes called for this step, and said you could pretty much just wipe the skin off. By the time I took the octopus out of the water, the skin was, indeed, practically falling off. What I didn’t expect was how gooey it would feel. My octopus anatomy is pretty bad, but it felt like I was not only rubbing away the thin purplish skin, but a layer of fat underneath. All while trying to keep the suckers intact.

Rubbing the octopus skin off with a fork. Apparently you can do this with a paper towel, too.

When I had finished, the round and chewy inner portion of the tentacle remained. I chopped it up into pits, and finished off the recipe. This cubing and boiling potatoes, chopping up some chorizo, cooking the chorizo for a bit in a pan, and then throwing the octopus and the potatoes in to brown them up and turn them golden.

Here are the results:

The complete recipe. Couldn’t tell from the directions if the chorizo was meant to be chopped in this fashion, but it turned out well.

I felt a bit nervous serving the above to my friends, which is perhaps why I kept the chorizo generously sprinkled on top. My guests, however, seemed far less apprehensive than I. Indeed, every one of them ate their full portion and told me it was fantastic. So I guess that’s a win for me?

For my part, after cooking the whole meal I found I wasn’t hungry enough to eat most of it. It did really taste good, though. The octopus had a somewhat chewy texture, but then so has most octopus I’ve eaten. It tasted salty, and fishy, and (of course) a little bit like chicken.

Would I try cooking octopus again? Actually yes. But next time, I want to be able to grill it, as I think the crispy outer texture is what makes it taste so good.

The biggest thing I learned from this experience is that I really want to try some more Spanish recipes. Particularly seafood. I’ve never gotten up the nerve to try cooking things like mussels or prawns, but it seems like it could be a rewarding skill to have. And I do truly love paella, which often calls for both.

When will I try this? Who knows. Hopefully soon.

In the meantime, the remains of my octopus dinner await me in the fridge.

Attempting Spanish.

I’ve started learning Spanish.

I should have started months ago, when I decided to come to Spain in the first place, but you know: procrastination.

Actually, I did start, but fell off the wagon and failed to get back on for about three months.

By the time I arrived in Madrid, I’d dutifully packed all my Spanish language textbooks and learning materials, but part of me wondered if I’d actually manage to learn anything. Then, to my surprise, I found that both my friends in Madrid had super high expectations, and were definitely not going to let me slack off in this area. For which I am grateful. Truly.

So I’ve hit the books again, and for most of the past week things have gone surprisingly well. I worked really hard on my pronunciation at the beginning, and so long as I’m only saying one word at a time I can usually get it pretty well. (Somehow, when I try to string more than one word together my accent falls apart.) Also, I’ve been surprised while reading my textbook how readily I understand the exercises. Like, I’m reading Spanish! How can this be! I only just started!

I even had a mildly successful interaction in the grocery store a couple days ago while trying to buy bread yeast. As this is one of the more difficult items to track down, I approached one of the store employees and declared (because I don’t know how to form questions): Yo deseo levadura, por favor. And then I smiled, because otherwise I thought that came off as rather imperious.

I thought I had told her “I would like some yeast, please,” but my Spanish friend informs me that a more accurate translation would be “I desire yeast.” Imperious indeed.

I’ve often heard that Spanish is a much easier language for Engish-speakers to learn than, say, German or Russian. I’m not sure if this is actually the case, but I have definitely breezed through my lessons so far. I’m not sure if it’s because my prior experience learning languages makes it easier for me to absorb grammar rules, or if the method I’m using actually does work, or if I just haven’t gotten to the hard part yet. I assume the last, and for most of the last week, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Today, I think it did. It’s not that Spanish suddenly got hard so much as my brain feels saturated. I’m on the verge of overloading my memory, and I need to start putting more of my grammar and vocabulary to use so that they’ll move into long-term storage and stop burdening my short-term memory. It also means I’ve run head-first into the absurd and unachievable pace I set for myself, and it’s time to back off and make sure I’m learning things properly.

This also means I’m now at one of the most frustrating parts of the language-learning process: I know a few hundred vocabulary words and the rudiments of sentence formation. It’s just enough to feel like I should be able to make some sentences, but every time I try to say what I want, I instantly run into a knowledge gap. A missing preposition. An irregular declension.

I often compare languages to music: you have families of instruments just as you have families of languages, variations in style and dialect, literary cannons and composers who define genres. When people suggest that the world would be better off speaking one common tongue, my standard response is to ask if the world would similarly benefit from only one instrument.

When you learn music, you learn notes, which are like words. Then you learn phrases, which are notes strung together. You create melodies out of sentences, layer them together in compositions, build paragraphs and harmonies.

Only right now, I feel like I’ve been given a sheet of music, and I’m learning all the notes out of order. And there are thousands upon thousands of notes, and I have only the faintest inkling of how to link them all together.

In the past, when I’ve hit this point, I’ve pressed ahead, focusing on the things I understood and falling into a lazy habit of repeating comfortable sentence constructions in order to keep my head above water. This time I’d like to do it right, and that means focusing more on the written word. Which is all the more painful, given the ease with which I write in English. I simply hate trying to write anything in another language. But I largely believe it’s because I’ve never disciplined myself enough to work at it. We’ll see how I do this time.