A present for my girlfriend Ester. A memory of when I raced her dog here in Spain.
A present for my girlfriend Ester. A memory of when I raced her dog here in Spain.
When Ester and I first arrived to Germany, my German friend Stephen gave me a book. It was called “Germany: A History”, and had all sorts of rave reviews on the cover such as “A tour de force!” and “If you want to understand Germany, read this book!”
The author said something in the opening paragraph that has stuck with me to this day; Germany is the only country in the world that has built monuments to its own shame.
That’s a powerful statement, and says a lot about not just the country, but about the people. Germany’s past is loaded with shame, and it’s architecture, sculptures, even the language, all share the same stark upright posture. The people are quiet, they do not wear flamboyant outfits or bright colors, nor do they talk loud and fast like the Spanish.
Instead, the German people seem to all feel the shame of their not-so distant horrendous past. They have that air about them of a professional with something to hide; proper, good posture, polite. But as an outsider, you can’t help but think about what happened 70 years ago.
Germany is a beautiful place filled with sleepy little towns, beer, and sausage. The people are very friendly, and often will bend over backwards to make sure a clueless tourist like myself walks away pleased with the exchange.
I like to listen in on people’s conversations to get a feel for a language, but in Germany’s small towns and cities I couldn’t hear anyone. It was like an episode of the Twilight Zone, where if anyone had a bad thought they’d be zapped to death by some unknown force.
I have a lot of German friends, and they all speak impeccable English, and they’ve all insisted that everyone in Germany speaks English. This is not true. While we had a German native and a Spaniard who spoke the language with us at all times, we constantly found ourselves desperately searching for anyone that spoke English. If it wasn’t for them, Ester and I probably wouldn’t have drank a single beer.
Like Spain, there are castles built on mountain tops, something the medieval monarchs loved to do. The more dramatic the vista, the better. But even the old castles were dark and brooding, like something out of Dracula, and offered no helpful explanation to it’s history, because everything was in German.
All in all, our time in Germany was calm and tranquil. There’s not much to tell for we spent much of our time meandering through towns and castles, Ester speaking with her friend Ani in Spanish while I ran around like a dog taking pictures.
Things got more interesting once we arrived in Switzerland.
I refuse to say I’m a bad snowboarder.
Once, when I was fifteen years old, I fell so hard on a snowboard that I knocked myself out. When that happens, you want to stop. You feel like you were just beat up by someone bigger and stronger than you, and you want to admit defeat. On that day, I did admit defeat; I took off my snowboard and walked down the hill. I couldn’t imagine trying to do that again.
We arrived at the Toggenburg Ski resort on the morning of Saturday the 11th, located in a small town called Alt St. Johann in the north of Switzerland. It’s the kind of place that someone like Tolkien would take one look at, run home and write The Lord Of The Rings. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen, people skied in shirts, it smelled of cow shit and old bearded men threw around big barrels of hay.
My day at the ski resort did not start off well. After departing from the chair lift, there was a another “lift”, nothing more than a little seat that dangled from a rope. You’re supposed to put the seat between your legs and it would pull you up the mountain, like you are skiing uphill. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t too excited about it.
I watched the other experienced riders take this thing and slide up the hill, and they made it seem easy enough. My turn came. As the rope sped by me I snatched it and threw the little seat between my legs and braced for the pull. But the pull never came, so I fell. The rope began to pull, and I was dragged for what seemed like an eternity while the snowboard attached to my foot dug into the snow behind me. After some stumbling I got my feet underneath myself and straightened out the board and began to glide up the hill, proud and upright. No pasa nada. The next patient rider behind me took their turn.
I hadn’t gone snowboarding for about two years at that point, so I was nervous but excited. My heart beat a like a drum in my chest, and I was already sweating despite not having done anything. I angled my board down the hill and began.
I turned a corner and fell really, really hard on the right side of my ass. I groaned, got back up, slid down the mountain for a moment, and fell again on the right side of my ass. The second fall hurt so bad I let out a weak little whimper like a sickly child, and it took me a moment to get back on my board.
When you get hurt like that, your confidence goes out the window. If an MMA fighter gets hit hard in the leg, he doesn’t want to get hit in the same place twice, thus he becomes slightly more hesitant when fighting. In snowboarding, hesitance is a death sentence. It’s an activity where you have to attack the hill, and where playing too much defense causes you to go splat.
What followed was one of the worst snowboarding experiences of my life. There were a few golden moments when I regained my confidence, but a slip and fall on the right side of my ass quickly removed all of it. Less than halfway through the day my butt was black and blue and covered in bruises. I was not having fun.
After a quick break with my German friend Stephen, who was having no problem arriving at the bottom of the slope unscathed, I psyched myself up for another go at the slopes. We decided to go higher up the mountain, near the top, and the view was amazing—that’s when we took this picture:
If circumstances were any different, the above photo would have been my last.
My heart was exploding and I banged my hands together, and we jumped on the hill.
I felt great, I felt confident, like a boss. I was an American exploring the Swiss Alps on a snowboard, scratch that shit off the bucket list! Fucking badass. Then I fell flat on my face.
I was on my stomach, sliding down the hill faster than skiers on their skies, like a boy on a slip’n slide during the summer. Stephen managed an “are you okay?” as I flew past him and I meekly muttered something like “I can’t stop, haha.”
For about ten seconds I slid like this.
I dug my hands into the snow in front of me and snow splashed up into my face, I slowly turned myself around and slammed my board into the snow, finally bringing myself to a grinding halt.
My confidence wavered, but I was a fucking badass American on the Swiss alps and I wasn’t going to let this embarrassment get the best of me. I waved Stephen on, letting him know I’d meet him further down, and I jumped upright and started back down the mountain.
I fell. Got back up, fell again, got back up. Fell again. Hard. Straight on right side of my ass.
I snapped. On hands and knees, I banged on the snow with my fists, head-butted the ground once, twice, thrice, my helmet buckling under the force of the blows, raised my hands in the air and screamed bloody hell to the clear blue sky.
A skier came around the corner and said “entschuldigung!” as she zipped by me. I hung my head, cold, wet, battered, and I had a headache.
I was utterly defeated.
I finished the hill, slow and clumsy, falling and growling like a rabid dog the whole way down. I found Stephen at the bottom, and he asked me the worst question you can ask a person going through this kind of turmoil: “Are you okay?”
I said I was done and needed to rest. The wonderful people of the Toggenburg Ski Resort provided beach chairs for individuals who want to rest and take in some sun. I found one of these chairs, but sitting was a challenge. I laid uncomfortably on my left side for about an hour, shuddering in cold, wet rage. I pulled down my ski goggles and slept in the blazing winter sun.
We always hear about being in flow, being in the zone, on fire. But what about the complete opposite? What about being in a state of complete self-denial that you’re literally paralyzed, where activities that you’re usually capable of suddenly become arduous and near impossible?
People say we learn more from our failures than our successes, and that day on the mountain is no exception. The first fall caused every fall thereafter, and I was not able to shake the fear of landing on my butt again. I was visited by the demon of self doubt and it was with me for the whole day.
What I did not learn, however, is how the hell do you get that guy off your back?
I can speak a little french, but I can’t speak any German. Well, now I can speak a little, but when we first sat down for our first meal in Germany, I realized that I didn’t even know how to say “Thank you”. My Spanish would not help me, and I was two languages away from my mother tongue of English.
Being in the French city of Strasbourg where at least I’d know how to say “Please” and “Thanks” made me feel like less of a mute, but only halfway from it. The French are famous for not wanting “Stoopid Amearicones” to butcher their language, so the locals would switch to English whenever possible.
It feels like defeat when someone switches to your language, especially after giving you a chance in theirs. It’s something the polyglot Benny Lewis calls “The Language Power Struggle”. A person wants to speak your language, while you want to speak theirs, so you go back and forth in different languages, trying to out-tounge the other.
I am proud to say that I purchased cheese in a store only speaking French. While I didn’t get exactly what I wanted, I still managed to communicate the desire for cheese in another language. In a foreign country, speaking even a little bit of a language can go a long way.
While I was able to buy cheese in French, I was able to only sputter a few words in German. Which is better than it was when I first arrived, when I had to substitute “Thank You” with convulsions and grinning like a fool.
When I did learn a little German and tried to use it, I might as well have put my tongue between my lips and blew a raspberry. German is a damn complex language, and even my German friend Stephen couldn’t explain the language’s reasonings.
When all else fails, at least I can always rely on the mighty English language, which many people in many countries speak at least a little. Also I have my hands, and you’d be surprised how far pointing and waving your hands wildly in the air can get you.
We wandered the streets of Strausburg for a good six hours, taking in the history, views, and people. The presence of tourists is strong there, and while I’m always trying to not stand out like just another tourist, my legs hurt from powersquating and snapping photos. We spent as little money as possible, for Switzerland drained our wallets, but we didn’t leave without sampling the coffee, cheese, and the buttery and flaky croissants.
Check out Strasbourg if the opportunity arrises, but study up on some German or French—English is scarce there.
There are days in Spain when one could say I am in the zone with Spanish, speaking with a level of fluency I never dreamed I’d ever have. However there are other days when the funk takes over, and I can barely mutter a “Gracias” without feeling like I want to jump off a bridge.
We’ve been back in Spain for less than a week as of writing this, and already we’ve gone to barbecues and children’s birthday parties. I’ve spoken with old timers who speak slightly more coherently than a drone, with kids who’s level of Spanish blew me away until I remembered that they were Spanish. I’ve been on fire and have spoken about my life and have been in a funk where I’d not realize people were talking to me, and I do not feel like I have control over it.
But I do. We all do. It’s paramount to everything that we do, from drawing, martial arts, to “crushing” an interview. Speaking is an activity like any other. I’m not talking about speaking another language, but speaking in general. We all have bad days and good days, but why can’t everyday just be a good day?
I’m no self-development coach, but with all things, maybe we just need to roll with the punches, and not let our own internal bullshit get the better of us. It’s been proven that you can generate incredible amounts of adrenaline while laying down; the body effects the mind and the mind effects the body. Theoretically, if you control one of these systems, you can dictate the state of the other.
This is an attractive idea, but life just doesn’t work that way. Sometimes fate has it out for you and deals a crappy deck of cards, and you start your day by spilling your freshly brewed pot of coffee all over the kitchen floor and your favorite white pants. The question is: What do you do in between those moments that insure you won’t lose it and slam your head through a table?
The trip to Germany was great, but the moment that stands out to me is in the mountains of Alt St. Johann, Switzerland, when after so many falls I lost my mind. Failure teaches us a lot, but only when you look at why you failed. Simply falling on the right side of your ass over and over without asking why only throws gas on the fire, and after so many falls, you explode.
I wasn’t attacking the hill. I wasn’t putting enough weight on my front foot, and I was leaning too far back in my front-side carves.
I wasn’t engaging myself in the conversation. I didn’t visualize the piece of music before playing it. I didn’t stretch.
I was thinking too much.
I refuse to say I’m a bad snowboarder.
I present the aftermath of yesterday’s 2 hour event – A Giant Leaping Through the Clouds.
Always reflect on what you’ve done, and try to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. Sometimes that means coming back to it in a day, or looking it at backwards, upside-down, etc. If you don’t like what you’ve done, don’t beat yourself up about it. Whenever we draw, we’re improving. If you want to improve, then draw.
There’s a word in Spain, “Guiri” (pronounced Gee-ree) which I believe only exists here. It describes a red faced pale skinned German tourist with short shorts, typically drunk and causing a ruckus. The word also describes someone like myself — I’m pale nor am I from here. Granadinos are a proud folk, and if you step on their traditions you’re stepping on their way of life. While they may humor you when you ask for a beer in awful Spanish, they may have the thought “Just another guiri”. At least, I imagine it that way.
El Albayzín, a small town that surrounds the Alhambra, is so beautiful that guiris flock to it like hipsters to a polka concert. In my opinion, it’s preferable to saunter through El Albayzín rather than shepherded through the Alhambra. In this small town you’re left to your own wits. You can explore the endlessly winding and narrow streets, drink and eat all the beer and tapas you want, and meet authentic Granadinos.
Ester and myself had the day off, so we decided to go behind the Alhambra and away from the swarms of Chinese tourists. The way was surprisingly difficult to find, even for Ester: Up through the garden, past the parking lot which under the sun is about a thousand miles in length, jaywalked through a brush next to some modern day aqueducts, and we finally found ourselves on a paved street that led up into the mountains.
The paved road was too paved, and the few people I saw were a few too many, but at least there were no guiris. A few hundred yards up the road we found a ancient run-down staircase that led directly into the mountain to the right of us. It looked treacherous and perfect. We took it.
It was only us on that hill, and the view of the Alhambra and Granada got better and better. As the trees cleared and we could see more of the city, I fired off my camera like a wartime journalist, standing on the mountain like Spiderman fighting for angles. However as we climbed the city continued to reveal more of itself, so I slowed my roll, slung my camera and waited until we reached the summit.
The path we were on took us to a turret that overlooked the mountain face that we were ascending. From there we could see everything west of the Alhambra and Granada, and south the to Sierra Nevada. On top of the mountain there were ancient ruins built within land that rolled like a turbulent ocean. We moved farther south and were presented with an unfettered view of the Sierra Nevada mountains and everything beyond.
We looped around to the other side of the mountain and continued north, towards El Albayzín and Granada. There were hundreds of pathways that led off into the mountains farther to the south, where countless bicyclists took advantage of the open roads. There was more to see towards the east – a lot more. Paths that led over, around and under mountains, hills and valleys, small towns and intimidating buildings built into steep lands. We took our last look, snapped our last photos, swore that we’d return and reluctantly made our way back.
Ancient ruins make you feel like a kid again. You’re in the company of hundreds, if not thousands of years of history. The Alhambra is known for it’s colorful history, and the formation of the castle mirrors the inconsistency of its occupants. Those same walls and streets were there all those years ago, used by peasants and kings, and then by you. The immensity of it all is humbling; it pours gasoline on your imagination and sets it on fire, and you can’t help but wonder what it must have looked like all those years ago.
We returned to El Albayzín, east of the Alhambra, and settled into one of the many cafes and ended the day with a well deserved cup of coffee. We sat in silence, watching the waves of people move by us on the street, the ramparts of the Alhambra looming over it all. The setting sun bathed all it could reach in gold, flags waved on the north facing turret, guiris filled the street unable to turn away from sight as the locals flowed past them. Huddled over our coffee the wind blew and we shivered, our stomachs rumbled, and we called it quits.
If you’re ever on a tour, look to where everyone is not going, and go there. The oblique angles of historical sites can offer unpredictable events, and are often less roped-off. That freedom, that feeling of absolute agency, does not hit you as dramatically when you’re standing next to Mr. Woo and his buzzing audio guide. It hits you when you take a left instead of a right, and move against the current of the crowds. You pay nothing, and there’s a chance that you will be presented with a view that no one else can see.
I’m sure I am breaking a cardinal rule of language immersion by writing this. That is – never break from your target language and use your own. But does writing count? In any case, I’ll call this a Cheat Day, solely because speaking / writing in English after being attacked by Spanish all day feels like eating a plate of brownies.
I’ve been in Spain for a week, I’d like to take a moment in my own language to reflect on my experience so far. I’ve been journaling every morning for the past three years, but since I got here I’ve switched it up and am now logging my mornings in Español. It’s awful. I have no clue if what I’m writing is grammatically sound, and I fear the day for when I’ll have to go back over everything I’ve written at the end of the month – incoherent dribble from some Americano painfully rendering his days in a language he can’t properly speak nor write.
When I speak, I’m a monkey. But not your typical run of the mill eat-your-face kind of monkey. I’m a shy, bashful, nervous little simian who speaks about 12 semi-tones higher while trying to communicate. The people talk so much here, the whole culture seems to revolve around getting together to talk and gossip. You know that wonderful moment when dinner has finished but conversation is still flowing, and people aren’t in any rush to leave the table because they’re having too much fun talking and gossiping? The Spanish have a word for that – Sobremesa – which is a testament to how much weight they put on hanging out and talking. They talk so much, that everyone is typically talking at the same time because they never stop talking.
As an American, I have to say that I’m not quite used to this. I’m trying, but god dammit if there’s never a day where I’d rather stick my head in a boiling vat of olive oil then to mutter a few weak phrases I’ve memorized. Like a bad martial art, I have a handful of practiced phrases that only work at the right time. Like a bad martial art, I’ll need someone to set me up just right so that I can execute my practiced maneuver.
When you first jump into the learning another language, you’re mind isn’t as blank as you’d think it is. You can already speak a language, and you can do it very well. I don’t think we realize how good we all are at speaking our native tongues, until we really give a go at speaking another. There’s all sorts of techniques out there on quick ways to learn, on achieving fluency with minimal effort, but what does it mean to speak?
When you’re learning guitar, when do you say that you can play? To say you “Can Do” something carries a lot of weight. You are able to—what, exactly? Play a song? Mutter a phrase? If I can cook an egg, does that make me Gordon Ramsey? The sliding scale of ability does not link up to the words “Can” and “Can Not”; it’s like comparing black and white to a rainbow.
Bear with me for a moment, and try to imagine it how I see it: When you learn anything, think of it like an incomplete web starting a stopping in random places. This is how learning looks in the beginning. Your knowledge is sporadic, you may know a thing or two but the dots have not been connected. Sometimes, one piece of the web will link up to another, and the strength of that connection is dependent on the amount you’ve practiced it. These come in the form of epiphanies. As you learn more, this process continues, and the web grows larger and more connections are made. The web you’re left with is the accumulated, executable knowledge you’ve collected and rehearsed over a period of time.
I like the web idea, because it’s closer to nature’s process of building by accumulation. But we humans are not used to creating webs, we like to create square buildings. When drawing analogies to learning we’ll say things related to building a house, like “Work on your foundations first”, and “Only once the walls are up can you work on the plumbing” *wink*. But when executing, like speaking, playing music, or drawing, we’re not traversing through our building looking for a misplaced word, we’re scanning our tangled web of knowledge on a specific subject. After a while everything has an equal amount of importance, and the advanced topics are no more advanced than the fundamentals. Eventually, everything connects.
Anyways, enough rambling. I needed to expunge some English out of my system like a bad case of diarrhea, and damn does it feel good. Not deviating away from a target language is like waving a glass of wine in front of an alcoholic – it’s right there, it’s so easy, all you need to do is take it. But the times when you spend the most effort, when you’re so fed up you want to punch yourself in the balls, is when real learning is taking place.