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Going Solo: I've Moved to Madrid and I Don't Speak Spanish...Eep!

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A Torontonian who thinks her city is the centre of the universe; Lauren left Bloor Street, brunch, and the capital of Canada behind to take a crack at living in Madrid. Her blog is about learning to speak Spanish, re-learning how to make friends, and flaunting her learnedness in eating delicious food.

Let me share some background to bring you up to speed on what I'm doing in Madrid. About eight months ago I felt I needed a bit of spontaneity and adventure in my life so decided to move (temporarily...Mom!) to Spain. Eight months ago. To be spontaneous.

Since doing things without a plan is not exactly my forte, I've taken time since last November to meticulously prepare for my new life of not meticulously preparing. I had a visa, apartment, hint of a job prospect and, apparently, a relatively good grasp of the Madrid metro system before getting on the plane. From here on in my time is TBD.

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Mmm...pig's ears!

Despite my knowledge of delicious Spanish food, it turns out I know virtually no Spanish. If this does not surprise you, it sure as hell surprised me. I didn't think I would be moving to conversational Spain, but figured seven years of French immersion, one year of Italian classes, and even one year of Spanish classes would help me make some sense of what the people here are saying. My calculations were way off. The Spanish accent is very specific and I am perpetually lost in a sea of "th."

I spent my first 10 days in Spain gallivanting around Madrid and Barcelona with my dear friend, Matt. My mother could not have been happier when I told her I would have a partner accompanying me on the first leg of my decidedly solo/independent/lone wolf adventure. When I told her of his plan to meet me, she begged me for his email address so that she could personally thank him for being so selfless as to take a trip with me to Spain.

I was looking forward to Matt joining me, but felt like I was copping-out by starting this exercise in being on my own by, well, not being on my own. Though I had some hesitation, my mother knew before I did that being with a friend at the start of my journey was going to be invaluable. It is so much easier to feel in the loop when someone close to you is nearby to remind you what it feels like to be home. Fear and disorientation were sure to sink in eventually, but Matt kept them at bay for a while so I could get my bearings and fall in lust with my new city.

Though most of our trip was planning-free, Matt and I spent our last day in Madrid running errands and finding me a language school. I picked out three schools to visit and planned on making a well-informed decision on where to study by the end of the day. This didn't happen and we ended up no-showing third school as the second intimidated me enough to make me believe it was the best fit.

I walked into school number two and asked for information on their classes. The receptionist immediately began speaking in the brisk MadrileƱo Spanish that I've already come to know and fear/love. I was able to decipher that she was asking me if I had ever taken Spanish lessons. I responded in English that yes, about five years ago I took one Spanish course. She threw up her arms in excitement, grabbed a few a pieces of paper, and motioned-slash-garbled at Matt to come back in half an hour. Five minutes into the second school and I was already taking a test. (OK so really the only reason I didn't take one at the first school we visited was that they offered it online and I had already written it in 5:30 a.m. one anxiety-filled pre-Madrid night in Toronto.)

Looking at that test, I knew I was screwed. It's not that I didn't know what I was doing that freaked me out -- it's that I sort of did know what I was doing. Apparently the one thing all those language classes did give me was an intuition for proper Spanish grammar. I am relatively sure I could have conjugated the shit out of that test. But I didn't understand a lick of it. I could see the verbs, I could figure out if they were talking about you or me or we or they, but what did they all mean!!??

I found myself purposely leaving answers blank for fear that too many correct ones would lead the excited receptionist to place me way above my comprehension level. I'm not saying I could have come anywhere near a praise-worthy score on that test. I'm just saying I wanted them to know that my Spanish is not praise-worthy. The excited receptionist placed me in level two, which scared me because it was not level one, but I went with it thinking that it would likely be filled with other grammar-loving language-posers like me.

This, until I attended my first class today. Did I mention I don't speak Spanish?

My fears were realized and I have been, without question, placed in a level way beyond my capacity. My first class was super hard and I have no idea what I'm doing. I will admit to having had a moment of wanting to cry when my instructor asked me a direct question. Crying under pressure is kind of my thing. Interestingly -- and I can probably count on one hand the number of times this has happened -- I was able to will my fear of authority away by declaring to myself that I WOULD NOT be the 25-year-old who cried in her first Spanish class. Because 25-year-olds don't cry in Spanish class. Or in baseball.

When I was in grade 2, I cried when I didn't understand my French teacher and ended up moving to an easier class. When I was in grade 3, I was too intimated to ask my Hebrew teacher to go to the bathroom so I peed in my pants. Then I cried at home so my mom called the teacher and I had a bathroom pass forever. I can think of countless times in my life where my tear reflex has kicked in and saved my sorry ass from doing something it did not want to do. As much as I hate it, that reflex sometimes comes in handy.

I guess today I decided my ass didn't need saving. What I needed was a challenge. And thanks to my 7:1:1 (French:Italian:Spanish... keep up) I was handed one. So I'm staying in terrifying level two and maybe just maybe I'll stand a chance at learning this language. Hasta luego!