World Book Day & What I’m Reading

AmorToday is World Book and Copyright Day, promoting reading, publishing and copyright and also Spanish Language Day so while I listen to the live streaming of the national Gabolectura a simultaneous reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s No One Writes to The Colonel across Colombia’s libraries, plazas and parks – I figure it’s a good time to share what I’m currently reading in Spanish.

I’ve written before about the disappointing lack of a reading culture in Colombia, yet the death of the nation’s most famous author and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez last Thursday has catapulted literature and reading to the front page and top of mind in all Colombians. In response to the passing of this national icon (although he lived in Mexico) the country is in mourning and the government has organised a week of activities celebrating his life and literature. One of the initiatives is today’s national reading of his novella No One Writes to the Colonel and giving away over 12,000 copies of the book to promote reading and to encourage families to read aloud. So great is the movement that mi novio, who rarely picks up a book, has said that now he wants to read Gabo’s most famous work One Hundred Years of Solitude. I hope he will, and I hope that it encourages others to read his work and savour delicious descriptions and eccentric characters. I know am.

I have to admit to reading very little apart from the newspaper in Spanish. When I read novels I like to devour them and reading in Spanish is a much slower process for me, however I like to always have a book in Spanish on the go alongside another in English. For Christmas mi novio gave me Amor by Isabel Allende. It is an anthology of stories of love in all its forms with a personal commentary and Isabel’s own memories followed by selected passages from her books. I think it is the perfect format for non-native Spanish speakers and it definitely suits my reading style in Spanish as it includes short excerpts from books I’ve already read in English and I can easily pick it up and read a few pages and put it down again without losing the sentiment between readings. It’s also nice to know I’m reading her actual words and not those of the translator interpreting her phrases into English equivalents.

So, while I’m reading a book in Spanish by a Chilean author on this day of international celebration of books and Spanish language, I’d like to encourage you to add a book by a Latin American or Spanish author to your reading list and open your mind to another perspective.


Terms of Endearment

I remember my Argentinian teacher of Spanish back in Melbourne telling me that Colombians are muy cariñoso. Meaning they are warm and cutesy, especially when it comes to describing things.

Colombians will often go overboard on the cutesy-fying by adding -cita/o or -ica/o or ita/o to the end of any word. A cute cat is not a gato, it is a gatico. To describe something soft they will say suavecita not suave. You don’t just have a juice because your jugo becomes jugito. Adding these suffixes becomes a gentle way of describing things and actions. It’s quite adorable and I have been guilty of using multiple cutesy suffixes in one sentence for example in reference to seeing a new lamb with the flock of sheep that walked past my office window daily I exclaimed “Ooooh! Es un bebecito corderito rather than simply saying “Ooooh! Es un cordero.”

Another type of diminutive is mami and papi. The Spanish equivalent of mum and dad is mama y papa and so when we say mummy and daddy they say mami y papi. Easy enough to figure out, right? That is except for the fact that mami and papi are also general adorable descriptions for anyone. Parents will call their daughter mami and their son papi. Grandparents will call their grandchildren mami or papi. People will call their partners mami or papi. And complete strangers like bus drivers and shop owners will call you mami or papi. It’s quite confusing and there is no parental relationship required for the moniker.

For example, on the bus the other day I climbed into the front seat (always my favourite place to sit in Santa Marta’s dilapidated mini vans that swerve down the streets with the side sliding door jammed permanently open) the driver said to me “Shut the door well mami“. Had I been fresher off the plane, I think I would have been slightly offended by this, but now the indiscriminate use of mami and papi is nothing to bat an eyelid at.

It should also be noted that mami is far more respectful than mamacita, something that is more of a phoar or catcall in the street and something I haughtily turn my nose up at.

Whilst it’s not solely Colombians who use diminutives, they certainly take it to a whole other level in comparison to other latinos.

So rather than signing off with chau, or bye, I will say chauito.

What are your favourite Spanish diminutives?

PS Partway through drafting this post, la suegra used tareaitas (little homework) when speaking to D about having to do his homework. I’d never heard that one before!

Cue TV addiction

My mind is still spinning. I can´t believe that I didn´t find this out 6 months ago when I first arrived in Colombia.

Whilst I´m not much of a TV watcher – perhaps a product of not converting to digital TV when they turned off the analogue signal in my hometown a few years ago because I had already stopped watching due to sucky reception and didn´t think it was a priority to upgrade my antenna – television in your native language  is oh so very comforting when you live in another.

I don´t mind watching programs or movies filmed in Spanish and I do have a favourite telenovela (the Colombian soapie Amo de Casa), but I abhor anything dubbed from English into Spanish. Urrrgh! I refuse to watch dubbed movies at the cinema, only going to the sessions in English with Spanish subtitles. I cannot stand the horrible voices that don´t match the characters, the actors or the mouth movements.

So whilst it´s much easier to find English language programs in Colombia than it is to find Spanish language programs in Australia, it´s mostly dominated by the Kardashians, celebrity rehab programs or other trashy reality TV shows. When I´m desperate, they suit just fine for a fix.

The other day when refusing to watch a movie with its non-original language, I had to explain to D what doblada (dubbed) means. He was confused because in Spanish, doblada also means folded. While I was at it, I also had to explain subtitulada, which hopefully you´ve already guessed means subtitled. I told him that it is very hard for me to watch something in Spanish when it was originally filmed in English and proceeded to explain that the TV show he watches Mi niñera es una vampira (My Babysitter´s a Vampire) was filmed in English and that someone else says the words in Spanish. D then said to me something which has changed my world.

You can change the language on the TV to watch it in English.


He proceeded to casually demonstrate with an expert flick of the remote control how he could select to watch a show in Spanish or English. Oh. My. Gosh. Upon seeing my astounded but gleeful face he asked if they were speaking English, to which I practically sobbed, yes! I didn´t realise the TV cable box was so smart. Far smarter than me if it´s taken over six months to discover this functionality that the nine year old has known about forever.

He told me (and showed by way of more flicks of the remote control) that it doesn´t work on every program, which is a given if it wasn´t actually filmed in English, but I love that the original version is available as an option. I think my sanity is one step closer to being kept!

Suddenly a whole new range of entertainment options has been opened up to me. I can watch a movie in English instead of Spanish. I can watch TV shows and documentaries in English. I can vegetate in front the TV instead of in front of my computer. Only one thing stands in my way, the non-English speakers in my household who have preferences for watching telenovelas and cartoons in Spanish.

Do you prefer watching foreign language programs dubbed into your native language, or with the original sound and subtitles?

Making a dictionary worth its weight in words

When I was packing my bags to move to Colombia my hardcover Collins Concise Spanish Dictionary was on the yes list. Then on the maybe list. And ultimately ended up in danger of landing on the no list.

At 1.977kg on the kitchen scales it took up a decent portion of my luggage allowance. I started out adamant that it would be coming with me. I wasn’t going to buy a new you-beaut dictionary in Colombia that would cost a bomb and run the risk of not being as good (as discovered in a previous experience buying a not-to-be-trusted, inadequate dictionary in Latin America). I had also decided that my He-Man novio could do me the favour and carry it; it would be useful for him too and help to tone his muscles.

After seeing the mountain of belongings I was taking begin to grow like the local rubbish tip, I panicked about how much everything would weigh and started to think up weak reasons for not packing the dictionary.

Only at the final hour when everything was packed and weighed did I find I had both the physical space, and a spare two kilos for the behemoth. And so the dictionary joined us on our international journey and breezed through the airport check-in.

When we changed our plans mid-journey and decided to forgo our plane tickets, we suddenly had a much tighter (and stricter) weight limit to take on the bus. On our international bus trip we had to pay excess baggage, twice. Whoops! Suddenly the dictionary of my dreams was a dead weight, costing us money to keep it on the journey.

Cut to 2 months later and I’m now grateful I decided to bring the world’s weightiest dictionary with us because I’ve landed myself a gig updating some translations in a tourist guide to Santa Marta and I need to get the words right. At first I thought pobladores meant villages, but after confirming with Señor Diccionario, discovered it means settlers. It’s tricky little words like this and aledaña (outskirts) and the one I always forget destacar (to emphasise or stand out) that mean my dictionary is now worth its weight.

El Alquimista – reading in Spanish

I have just finished reading my first book in Spanish.

The Alquimist cover, in Spanish
The copy I gave mi novio

Yay me!

It took me awhile, but I finally got to the end.

It started in Bogota in September last year. I was wandering the streets one Saturday morning and in a little plaza off Calle Septima, I found a tiny used book store. Unlike most bookstores we’re used to, there weren’t any aisles to browse, just shelves of books behind a glass counter.

I asked if they had The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, indisputably my favourite book, one I have read at least 7 times in English and gifted to others many more times. I figured that since I already knew the story so well, I would understand it even if I didn’t know all the words.

They showed me a few copies and I selected a lovely embossed paperback that felt slightly furry. It was beautiful. In between a couple of pages I discovered a homemade bookmark of tiny pressed flowers arranged and laminated. That was a lovely surprise.

I started reading and it was slow going because I noted every unfamiliar word in my book and at the end of each section, I consulted the dictionary, translated and reread the passage again.

My progress stalled when I went looking for a copy for mi novio in Santa Marta. It seemed that in a city of half a million people there was only one bookstore, and they didn’t have a copy of The Alchemist. I tried a stationery store that had a few books as well, and the large supermarket chain Exito, and even held out hope to find a copy from a street vendor but I couldn’t find it anywhere in Santa Marta. Out of options, I decided to give mi novio the beloved copy I’d bought in Bogota.

Cover of El Alquimista, the 2oth anniversary edition
My copy of The Alchemist

I found my current copy of The Alchemist, a 20th anniversary commemorative hardback in the spiritual section of a fancy bookshop in Cartagena’s old city and I brought it back home with me to keep practising my Spanish.

During certain times, I get the urge to reread The Alchemist. Usually it’s a feeling of being out of control or when I’m feeling like the road ahead is long, boring and hard. Paulo Coelho’s words help me to see that everything is connected and it is all part of the journey.

Being away from mi novio for such a long time is so hard and one day I decided I needed to read The Alchemist to feel better. Since I’d already started it in Spanish, I said to myself “Righto, I should finish reading it in Spanish.”  But I didn’t want to trudge my way through it with a dictionary in hand so I made the decision to just jump right in, forget about the words I didn’t know and just keep reading.

This is probably one of the best things I could  have done. I came across about 3 or 4 words per page that I didn’t understand. Some I figured out just by reading, and others I guessed. Only a handful still baffled me, but the most important thing was I was reading and following the story! When learning another language one of the eureka moments is when you are able to read a book in that language. Starting with books you’ve already read in your native language makes it easier to follow the story in another.

I’m already looking forward to having another one of those “I need to read The Alchemist” moments, but the next one will most likely be

“Bueno, necesito leer El Alquimista.”

Do you speak more than one language? What was the first book you read in another language?

Getting in a routine

So here I am, back in Bogotá studying Spanish at International House.

After I arrived in Colombia I discovered a couple of things about my ability to communicate in Spanish:

  1. I´m not really very good at speaking Spanish, but at least I can get my message across, mas o menos.
  2. I cannot for the life of me understand Colombians. They are supposed to have one of the clearest accents, but instead I find myself staring at them as though they´d just said something to me in Russian.
  3. I don´t like not being able to participate in a conversation.
  4. I HAVE to get better.

I do love speaking in Spanish. I love the novelty of being an Australian who can speak another language. I love being in Latin America.

Now that I´m in Bogotá for a couple of weeks, I´m taking this opportunity to get into a little routine, something I craved by the end of my roadtrip.

So I go to my classes in the morning, then at 1pm I go to a restaurant called Mele that has quickly become my favourite for the daily special and then either go to the after school activities or come back to the hostel to do my homework and study a little more on my own. I´m trying to avoid speaking English wherever possible, because that doesn´t help my fluency in Spanish.

I like that I´m the only foreigner at the restaurant amongst a sea of Colombian students and business people. I also like that today three of the staff of the restaurant recognised me and had a little chat with me. I want to be a regular!!

First visit to a taco truck

Taco truck dining
Tucking into tiny tacos from the taco truck

On the way back to my place from the comedy show the other night, my Friend Who Puts The A in LA swung by a taco truck just off the 101 Freeway for a late night snack.

Two taco trucks were parked in the front of an auto parts store. At first we pulled up to one, and then changing his mind, A moved spots and we pulled up alongside the El Matador taco truck. Apparently it is the awesome truck, while the other the less than awesome one.

As we got out of the car, A asked how my Spanish was and I almost did a doggy roll over with glee at the chance to break out some Spanish. While eyeing the menu which I didn’t understand, I asked A how many I should order and if there was anything that he recommended. He said the Al Pastor and Carnitas were good. So I went with that and added a Carne Asado to the order when the man asked me what I wanted.

He asked if I wanted chilli, and I think both he and A thought I didn’t understand, but instead I was just thinking if I did and decided no (which is probably a good thing for a first time taco truck experience). Then I got a bit confused as the server asked really quickly if I wanted cebolla o cilantro. Although I know that cebolla is onion, I had forgotten it, so he repeated it in English and I said no to the onion and yes to the cilantro (which is American for coriander).

The tiny tacos were great. The meat was so delicious and I didn’t regret the no onion or chilli as the coriander sauce was spicy enough. So as a first visit, it was amazing. I’ll be going back there for more tiny tacos and more Spanish practice!

Essential skills for buying a car…

…are Spanish language skills.

Gin, J and I went on a tyre-kicking tour of LA which took us to Florence-Graham, a predominantly Hispanic part of LA. They were checking out a red 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee listed by Jose on behalf of his mum. I always thought good mechanical minds, or excellent negotiation skills were important in buying used cars, but it seems that so is speaking someone’s language.

After a little test drive, they said they needed to think about it, so we went for a little cruise around the block and found a grotty old car yard called Almazen Kar Sales. We pulled into the lot and got out to have a look around. An old man came up to Gin and said “Hablas espanol” so I came to her rescue and started having a conversation with him about finding a car. He was a little difficult to understand because he was missing quite a few teeth.

When I told him of Gin and J’s limited budget, he got a lady from the office, who could speak a little bit of English but you could tell she felt far more comfortable in Spanish, to show us some cars on the other side of the fence. This woman was wearing tight jeans, a jewel coloured knit jumper and had hair and make up that looked like they’d come straight out of a Mexican boutique like the one called ‘Fancy’ that I went to in Merida, Mexico, last year.

The cars there were really rough, and not as good as Jose’s mum’s car, and a lot more expensive. So we continued our tyre-kick after the lady whispered that we might find something more suitable in one of the car dealers on Alameda Avenue.

So we followed her advice and went to a yard on Alameda where the older gent was very proud to tell me they had three businesses, a chicken shop, a mechanic and a car dealership. They were really helpful in saying that for Gin and J’s limited budget, they would be better off going for a private sale and looking on Craigslist.

Gin and J about to buy a car from Jorge

So it was back to Jose’s to check that the seats folded flat and another little ride around the block. Following this, Gin and J negotiated a bargain with Jose interpreting for his dad Jorge. All this while, I remained in the hire car with Karen the GPS lamenting my own lack of luck in finding wheels. When the girls got back in with uncontrollable smiles at purchasing new wheels, all grinchy-ness left me and I was over the moon for them.

We drove off to Bank of America in order to get cash for the transaction and then it was back to the house of Jose, Jorge and Maria. This time I got out and joined in the fun, which also turned into my interpreting skills coming in handy as Jorge explained what to do if the alarm goes off. Maria (Jose’s mum) came out to write out the pink slip and was relieved when she looked up to ask a question and I said I spoke some Spanish. Because Maria couldn’t write the amount in words in English, I had to do it. I also found out that Maria’s daughter LOVES Guy Sebastian and has his posters and CD, so we laughed about that. Jorge was also quite impressed at my language skills, but that was when he thought we spoke French in Australia and that I knew three languages.

I never would have thought I’d be dusting off my Spanish today to help buy a car for Gin and J, but it was such a great feeling and I look forward to more Spanish conversations.

Parla italiano?

Once upon a time, six years ago, I wanted to learn Italian. I had just returned to my hometown from a year-long journey where I had learned Spanish to the point of  being able to read, write and have conversations with people.

I had found a job with Italian employers, and whilst some random words sounded familiar to my Spanish-enabled ear, I decided I wanted to learn Italian. So I did all the things you do when you decide to do something. I bought a lesson book, audio CDs, a dictionary and the Big Green Book of Italian Verbs, 555 conjugated Italian verbs.

Like a health kick, it started off well. I dedicated some time to it, and completed a few lessons. Then somewhere along the line, my enthusiasm waned (no doubt distracted by the most recent infatuation) and I abandoned my Italian studies. I think I justified it to myself as “I don’t want to forget/lose my Spanish by learning Italian.”

In my desire to downsize pending the move to LA, the Italian resources got the chop. A Facebook status update advertising all these resources free to a good home netted a response from a friend who is passionately in love with the Italian language, has been to Italy a number of times and who admitted to me today, dreams about having an Italian boyfriend.

So over a coffee at a cafe run by my former Italian bosses, we exchanged plans for 2011 and I handed over the books.

My plan is to focus on improving my Spanish. I’m sure there will be ample opportunity to learn, study and practice Spanish in LA, so rather than spread my language skills thinly like Vegemite on toast, I’m going to focus on immersing myself in Spanish like a big thick goop of peanut butter instead.

What language are you learning (or continuing with) in 2011? My best wishes and encouragement go out to you as you pick up the lingo.