We stumble out of the café into a Spanish night which catches us like an embrace. I am wearing a thin linen shirt, but I am not cold. I have forgotten what cold feels like.
“Did you like the show?” asks my friend Marie at my shoulder.
I start for a moment, and realize that I have been thinking in Spanish. I almost let, “Si, muchisimo” tumble from my lips and catch myself — Marie doesn’t speak Spanish. I force my mind to switch back to my native tongue, but my reply of “Yes, of course” feels strange against my teeth.
Upon my arrival to my study abroad program in Valencia, Spain I felt nervous switching to my second language, and my words sounded halting and abrupt, distinctly and horribly American. But as my feet slowly begin to learn this city’s slippery marbled streets my tongue starts to learn what a Valenciano sounds like, and imitation begins to sneak into my words.
I was raised on Central American Spanish, having grown up in Northern California. The people I knew who spoke Spanish to me — friends, neighbors, the babysitters who cared for us while my parents worked — all knew Central American dialects. I knew somewhere far away across the ocean that people spoke a different way, but they weren’t part of my daily life. And when I arrived here, the lilt in their c’s — the soft gracias — sounded like homesickness. I was disoriented and in fact, a little frightened. Where was the “con permiso” I was used to? Why did Spaniards say “Perdon”? Why “zumo” and not “jugo”? My ears ached with new ways of speaking, and I strained to understand a new people and culture.
But slowly, that began to change. I find myself saying “Vale” constantly, a Spanish mannerism that I now find charming. Vale means “fine” or “good” and Spaniards use it as a catchall in conversations. As I adapt myself and my tongue to Valencia , I have realized how much the Spanish lifestyle suits me — delicious tapas and sunny siestas. Spain seeping into my skin, the warmth of this country and its people thawing me from the inside out.
I feel less like an outsider here every day. When I first arrived, I felt as though there were a sign on my head which read, “American”. We believe our ancestors were Spanish who emigrated to Italy and then to the United States, but Spain always felt very different and very far away, less familiar than Italy, where I have family and memories of childhood visits. But I have realized that just as my tongue is learning new ways to bend and twist, my heart is learning a new home. I am realizing that everything seems strangely right to me here, as if I have found a piece of myself I had no idea existed, lying dormant, waiting for the waves of the Mediterranean sea to wake it up. I feel strangely and deeply connected with this place. I see myself in Spanish women’s dark hair and quick smiles. I find myself speaking less English every day, but I do not miss it — or the Spanish I grew up with. I am finding my voice in Valencia.