Speaking the Lingo and Talking the Talk-

A language cannot be hard to learn. A child can do it.

OK, although most linguistics experts agree that children are quicker and learn new languages with ease than adults.

Of course there are some notoriously difficult languages, such as Japanese and many of the obscure African languages that utilise clicks and other sounds that are not in our sound vocabulary, but where European languages are concerned I don’t believe there is anyone who cannot become familiar enough to understand and make themselves understood in a relatively short space of time. And while heavy work is made of conjugating verbs and swatting up vocabulary lists in schools it is only necessary to spend some time living, working or travelling in a country to learn the basics of that country’s language.

For some, however even the radical step of moving to a new country does not lead to language acquisition-you have only to visit some of the areas of the Spanish Mediterranean with large concentrations of British to see this. Many ex-pats remain solely English-speakers in spite of adopting a new land. Heaven knows what the Spanish think of this…

Our latest trip covered a number of countries and languages, prompting some challenging demands on my inconsistent language skills. As a schoolgirl I learned French, German, Latin and Spanish with varying degrees of success. That I had most success with French I attribute to long summer camping holidays in France with non-French-speaking parents. Like many I gave up on Latin early, seeing no point in continuing and I was a miserable failure at German, whose grammar mystified me [and still does]. The Spanish was an add-on to A-levels, and seemed easy for being similar to French.

We travelled across Northern France into Germany, then Austria. Unlike the French, Germans are not only excellent English speakers but are also happy to speak in English-particularly, at this time on the subject of Brexit. ‘We DO NOT understand the Brexit!’ they told us on more than one occasion. What are we to say? We could only agree that, no, neither could we. On then to Italy. Italian is a most beautiful and musical-sounding language, enough to make anyone want to learn it for the sheer pleasure of speaking it, but for anyone who has learned Spanish the similarity between the two languages leads to much initial confusion. I consistently muddled my ‘grazie’ with my ‘gracias’, my ‘due’ with my ‘duo’ and my ‘per favore’ with my ‘por favor’ etc. After a week or so I fared better and, armed with the ‘Lonely Planet Phrase Book’ was able to stumble through some phrases. I felt inordinately proud when my much practised ‘lavatrice giettone, per favore’ resulted in the swift handing over of a washing machine token, more so when ‘prego’ was the response to my ‘grazie’.

Of course most people understand a nod or a shake of the head and when one set of words doesn’t work another way of saying something often does. And we are yet to meet anyone who doesn’t understand a smile-

 

[Not] All about Mexico…

So, Mexico then. We’ve had a short, winter sun break there. Of course I realise my impressions are not too representative, since we’ve only looked at a small, sanitised-for-tourists part, but here are some observations about this much-maligned and despised by reactionary Americans country.

Weather

                The eastern coast on the Gulf of Mexico, the principal tourist destination, is termed part of the Caribbean and rightly so, since the climate, like most West Indian islands is warm, tropical and cooled by a breeze. During our ten days there was one overcast day with the occasional five minute shower. It was, however still very warm-a perfect destination for those of us who’ve tired of our harsh, British winter temperatures.

Interior

                We did venture inland, albeit in the care of the [excellent] tour guides running the excursion. I was as fascinated [being possessed of a writer’s nosy nature] to see the villages with their pastel-hued cottages and the thatched, traditional Mayan homes as I was by the ancient archaeology of the site we went to visit. The open countryside was tropical forest and extremely flat. Here, away from the coast it felt much hotter.

History

There are many fine archaeological sites to visit but we opted for Chichen Itza since it’s the best known and was nearest to our resort. It has been very well excavated and restored, extensive and the only drawback is the cacophony of howler monkey calls fabricated by the stallholders using wooden devices for the purpose of attracting attention to their wares. Our tour guide was experienced and knowledgeable. We went on to the beautiful city of Valladolid, where the colonial buildings lining the streets make for an elegant setting, no more so than our lunch venue in a wonderfully restored Spanish style house with a palm-shaded courtyard.

Mexicans

                All those we encountered were friendly, cheerful and helpful. This applies not only to the hotel staff, who you might expect to have been indoctrinated with a corporate hospitality vibe, but to people we met when out and about in the town, helping us when we were consulting the map, serving us in bars and using public transport [which was efficient and very cheap]. Mexicans, on the whole are smallish, an attribute that I find particularly endearing being somewhat height-challenged myself.

Food

Everything we ate was delicious. The hotel breakfasts and dinners were a spectacular plethora of everything comestible you can imagine, so much that three meals daily would have been impossible. We especially loved the variety of fruit, vegetables and salads available although one could easily have lived upon burgers and chips [fries] for the entire time-as indeed many seemed to. I am still a little uncomfortable with the ‘all-inclusive’ mentality, where anything is served at any time to anywhere, so that if I am reading on a beach I still prefer to get up and find sustenance for myself rather than be waited on. I realise this is a dated attitude and we were, to an extent berated by the waiting staff themselves for under-consuming…

So-to conclude. We did not venture into the lawless, violent lands of the drug cartels. We eschewed the west coast and the south, where heartless kidnappers commandeer innocent travellers and ransom them to their families. We met nobody who wanted to burgle, extort or shoot us at close range. Everyone we met was lovely. Some people are nice and some are not. QED.

The News, Les Nouvelles, La Noticia or Las Noticias?

We are at the end of our first camper-van trip of this year, an odyssey very much unplanned that took us to Portugal, Spain and France, depending on where the weather was best according to the forecast.

Unlike the many who rumble around the roads of Southern Europe in search of sunshine we have not succumbed [yet] to a satellite dish to give us the evening diet of TV that we would get at home. Ideally we would be near enough, when parked up to access a lively bar or two but circumstances don’t always work out this way and we are sometimes left with the choice of books, internet [if it is available] or local TV. Failing all this I am forced to write!

We are at the mercy of Portuguese, Spanish or French TV programmes; most often their news bulletins or the equivalent of our ‘BBC News 24’. While we are adequately equipped linguistically in French to inquire the whereabouts of the nearest ‘boulangerie’ etc neither Husband nor I have more than the sketchiest idea of what is going on in Spanish, less still Portuguese, so the results of our viewing are often confusing and down to guesswork using pictures and the running text along the bottom of the screen.

All this gives a sense of what it may be like to be a young child learning to decipher the squiggles and symbols of words when learning to read and makes you realise how crucial the pictures are as an aid. While I like to think it is improving my linguistic skills I somehow doubt this is the case, since we’ve no idea whether our guesses are correct.

One excellent benefit of watching other countries’ news is that the angle is no longer at UK degrees, the world does not revolve around our own country. At home, even world issues will only be dealt with from a UK viewpoint. The Alpine air disaster item will focus on any British passengers, a climate summit will centre on our own delegate; grim beheadings will be given scant coverage unless the victim is British. Elsewhere in the world the focus swings to their own delegates, victims or disasters. Here is an aspect of that broadening of the mind that travel is supposed to offer.

Another advantage is missing a huge chunk of tedious UK election coverage broadcasting which, judging by the un-edifying glimpses caught since our return has been a blessing. From the quality of their baby-kissing to their stance on pot-holes, is there any pebble left undisturbed in the relentless unearthing of new stories about the opposing politicians?

And what can they possibly write, spout, blog or tweet about once the entire circus has left town? They must be praying for a heatwave/earthquake/alien invasion-otherwise it will be back to road congestion and house prices.

Spanish Nights and Gourmet Delights

We are sitting outside at a restaurant table in Caceres, central Spain. It is 9.30pm. The balmy evening sky is a clear cobalt blue and I pause in my perusal of the incomprehensible menu to zoom my camera lens up to the summit of a church steeple where two storks have mounted guard over their mountainous nest. It is a pleasing shot-mostly silhouette. At any rate-I am pleased.

Meandering up from Portugal through central Spain has become an unexpected pleasure and explains why this kind of travel is such a joy. You happen across places you’ve barely, or never heard of and yet they may be tourist magnets [underlining your ignorance] or simply unpretentious, lovely and little known.

Caceres is evidently well known, judging by the thronging masses clogging up the centre on this Tuesday evening, although it is Holy Week-only the most important week of the world in the entire Christian world, which explains the crowds waiting outside the cathedral, lining the roads and blocking our access to any likely-looking restaurants. From the grand cathedral doors some elaborately got-up figures have emerged. They are dressed in white habits with purple capes and some sport alarming pointy headgear a la Klu-Klux-Klan. One is trudging along with a black timber cross slung over his shoulder, for all the world as if he is off to complete some roofing work.

We perform some lengthy manoeuvres in order to access the square offering up most of the restaurants which takes up enough time for Husband to become vociferously grumpy, such are his hunger pangs. He has expressed a desire for steak and nothing else will do.

Having accomplished the mission and found a table by virtue of being only two rather than a family of eight we enter a period of confusion involving several waiters until someone is found who can explain the list of delights. The attention of a Spanish diner at the neighbouring table is captured. My schoolgirl Spanish fails beyond ‘carne’. Earlier I’d thought myself accomplished when asking ‘Hay aseos aqui?’ in the tourist office but my understanding of the rapid stream that issued as reply let me down. Fortunately the toilets were next door.

We finish our starters-enormous plates of salad-and some small plates are brought, plus steak knives-we are evidently to get a shared dish. A large area of table is cleared. A waiter emerges bearing aloft a platter the size of a tray which spits and sizzles like a cornered alley cat then lowers into the cleared space something that may be the pieces of half a cow. Full of salad we stare speechless at the mountain of sputtering ribs before dissolving into semi-hysterical laughter, which is vastly entertaining for the neighbouring Spaniard.

We do our best, struggling through as much as we can before admitting defeat. Would we like desert? Er…

When I ask Husband why they are taking so long with the bill he tells me they are in the kitchen chewing on the returned ribs. He mimes this, using his hands, prompting a loud explosion of laughter from me and causing the Spaniard’s face to crease into mirth despite having no knowledge of the cause. I mop my tears with the napkin, we pay up and leave, only to discover we’ve missed the last bus back. Ho hum.

The Rock and the Hard Place

                Gibraltar is an absorbing place. If you are driving there, as we did, you must first negotiate one of the most unattractive parts of the Mediterranean coast of Spain, consisting mainly of a gigantic oil refinery at Algeciras, then deal with crossing the ‘border’-a matter of sitting in a vehicle queue for an extremely long time [even more so at present] and often in very high temperatures, followed by having to drive across an airport runway, which is at best an unnerving experience.

                Most people know Gibraltar to consist of one enormous great rock sitting on a peninsula which protrudes into the Mediterranean just before the rounded corner of Spanish coastline where the East meets the South. For some complicated, historic reason dating back to 1704 when it was captured by the Dutch and the British it actually belongs to the UK. Its area is only about two and a half square miles, but the population, which inhabits a crowded area at the foot of the rock, is 30,000.

                This population is remarkably mixed, for a UK territory, but consists of a vast number of Spanish, among others. Despite this Gibraltar retains a strong colonial flavour, sticking strongly to what used to be British traditions, cuisine and customs-more ‘British’ than the British. As you stroll along the shopping streets you could be forgiven for thinking you’d been teleported to Exeter High Street or Swindon town centre-with a few flourishes of Whitehall from the odd palace or mansion house flanked by plumed guards and a forest of flags, plus red telephone and post boxes.  All this is peppered with Ye Olde British pubs plugging pints, Sunday roast with all the trimmings and fish and chips whatever the weather.

                There is a cable car to get you up to the top of the rock, where you will have to dodge the marauding Barbary apes in order to catch what is a breathtaking view- the distant African shores and the sparkling Med dotted with myriad oil tankers. While you are taking it all in the bandit monkey gang will be mugging you for everything you have whilst spitting, baring their teeth and even biting in a most delinquent manner should you dare to remonstrate.

                All this renders Gibraltar a small gold mine in terms of tourism, but still more, it is the online gambling hub of the world and offers cheap fags, booze and petrol as well as being the gateway to Africa. So little wonder the Spanish would like it to belong to them.

                I fail to understand why countries should continue to own small bits of other countries far away, when the reasons for their ownership are so entrenched in the distant past. Spain itself owns Ceuta, a small bit of land sticking on the end of Morocco. The UK insists on hanging on to The Falklands. Yes, we all know it’s all about resources, and the inhabitants don’t want the change, but the handover can be over a period of time, as with Hong Kong, to give everyone a chance to adjust.

                Colonialism should be firmly set in the past. These days we ought to know better, oughtn’t we?