NB: Long-term readers may remember that during my travels through South America, I wrote a series of articles about my Spanish learning progress called ‘The Spanish Challenge’. It’s been a while since I added to the series – but the Camino is the perfect place for its resurrection!
“Que es una chinche?!”
It was almost 11pm in our narrow dormitory. I was tired, my feet were aching, and getting into my slippery sleeping bag for a well deserved night’s sleep was the most attractive idea on my mind.
Until I’d spotted a huge unidentified black insect crawling on my pillow – which is when I screamed. Loudly.
Within seconds Tonio was beside my bed in his boxer shorts, headtorch flashing as he peered down at the offending creature.
“Es una chinche!” he cried, and the dorm room erupted into a flurry of hysterical laughter, eager Spanish and shaking heads. Some of the guys began investigating the skirting boards. I was totally lost.
“Ok, gracias… pero que es una chinche?!”
I didn’t know the Spanish for ‘bedbug’, but as my friends shouted Spanish words and mimed pincers that pinched at their skin, it wasn’t looking good. I didn’t know if my new insect buddy had been on my bed when I arrived or had emerged from my sleeping bag. What if he had some of his own friends hiding inside, ready to attack my ankles?
The albergue was seriously lacking in wifi so my tired brain had to think outside the box. Grappling for adequate Spanish, I asked people if a chinche is an insect that bites? That itches? Does it live in beds? I tried my best to describe what a bedbug might do, while Tonio grabbed my arms and began looking for picaduras.
Eventually, the less insect-infested beds of my friends were too tempting, and they began drifting into sleep. I unhappily climbed into my unsafe sleeping bag as Tonio decisively smushed our conversation topic between his fingers. “Mira! No pasa nada!” he said.
No problem? I didn’t entirely believe him.
(and it took me another week to learn that chinche definitely does mean ‘bedbug’.)
Want to speak Spanish on the Camino, do you?
In August, while I was preparing to walk the Camino, one of the aspects I was most looking forward to was speaking Spanish.
“I haven’t been practicing enough,” I’d lament to my friends. “It’s been way too long since I was in a Spanish environment. I really hope I end up walking with some Spanish speakers at some point…”
Little did I know that the Camino seemingly has infinite power to provide its pilgrims with exactly what they need.
And then it pushes their limits, just to see what happens.
Before I get into this story properly, I want to point out to any concerned Camino-walkers that being able to speak Spanish on the Camino really is not a necessary skill. Plenty of pilgrims barely have a grasp of more than ‘hola’ and ‘gracias’ but still manage perfectly fine throughout their journeys.
But as someone who’s spent a significant amount of time shedding blood, sweat and tears over the language, I felt that I’d be wasting an opportunity if I didn’t at least try to speak as much Spanish as possible on the Camino.
And then it happened.
After a week of walking, I met my Spaniards.
I’d been speaking Spanish daily up until then, but only occasionally: asking locals for directions, checking into albergues, translating for other pilgrims when they were unable to understand. With every interchange, I smiled inside as I felt my rusty Spanish brain-cogs start to shudder and turn. The words were coming back, albeit slowly; the phrases began to fall onto my tongue like dripping wax.
At second-breakfast-time on Day Seven, I stopped outside a cafe to say hello to a kitten and was promptly screamed at by a girl from Barcelona. Behind a nearby house, a dog was waiting to pounce – ‘playfully’ – on the aforementioned kitten, and the girl was concerned I’d get caught in the midst of a Battle of the Strays.
Once we’d cleared the delicate dog-cat situation, Carol and I walked along the highway together, chatting away in her native Spanish for long enough to discover that we had a lot in common. By the time we came across her motley crew of fellow Spaniards, the introductions were ones I knew I’d remember:
“Chicos, mira! Aqui es Flora!”
I felt welcomed from the moment their various strong hands clapped me on the back and loud voices praised me for how quick my walking pace was.
Falling into step with a very Spanish Camino
Forming a pseudo-family on the Camino is a common concept. I’d read a lot of stories about how quickly and easily relationships develop; how patterns and traditions begin to shape your days together.
When you add a different language and a different culture into that mix, it makes things very interesting. Like when you walk with a Spanish crew for a couple of hours until they decide a lunchtime bocadillo is in order.
That, and a beer.
Sitting at the table and massaging my aching feet, I realised with sudden clarity how difficult it was to understand Spanish when your new friends’ mouths were full of beer and bread. I watched lips moving quickly, trying my best to pick up half-forgotten phrases and listening to the lilt of the language.
There were different accents to contend with. Carol, Javier and Jordi all hailed from Barcelona and had various levels of the Catalan twang, totally different to the speech of Maria Carmen and her brother Tonio, living in the Canary Islands where they speak Castilian yet with a distinctly Latino accent. Then there was Ruben, all the way from Mexico, whose Spanish reminded me immediately of my friends in South America: long, casual sonidos, familiar slang words, and my absolute favourite, a wonderful absence of the fifth person vosotros form.
Most of them had started walking the Camino on their own, but had found themselves together and enjoyed each other’s company repeatedly enough to form a little crew. As the afternoon wore on I did the same, falling into the same pace as Ruben and Maria Carmen, enjoying easy conversation as we climb an upward stretch of gnarled tree root through a forest filled with splinters of fading light.
This was the first group I’d walked with, and I loved how I could flit in and out of conversation – yet the ante was nevertheless automatically upped as my Spanish went straight into a different level. Instead of simply understanding what my new friends were saying, I was actively involved and expected to reply, to make observations and jokey comments.
Luckily, the chinche incident cemented my inclusion into the group, not to mention becoming an in-joke in its own right.
The Spanish crew and I didn’t part ways for the next seven days.
“Flora… Ya es seis ahora… Levantate amiga…”
Six o’clock in the morning, in the darkness of a hostel dorm room, awakened by Ruben softly squeezing my toes through layers of sleeping bag as he whispered for me to wake up, before moving on to the next bunk to rouse another member of our group.
Before I even sat up in bed, I was thinking in Spanish.
I loved the daily routine of our group, though. Crowded around a table in the albergue’s kitchen, Tonio adopted the role of ‘group dad’ and laid out yoghurt, bread, grain biscuits and various breakfast foods he’d bought the afternoon before. Before we started walking he gave us a banana each, intended as our morning snack, and we shared out the remainder of the food into our bags.
Walking through the darkness in our headtorches, my head was filled with burgeoning sentences that couldn’t quite get themselves going. A caffeine lover already, I began to associate the morning’s first coffee with renewing my Spanish abilities.
Walking with the Spaniards meant finding myself in bizarre situations.
There was the morning we were waylaid for an hour, drinking local beers at 8am because the cafe I’d stopped at for using their toilet also had its own brewery. There was the afternoon I had feet issues and sat on a tree stump in the middle of a forest, massaging the offending toes and reapplying my blister plasters while Ruben and Javi sprayed my aching leg muscles with Reflex and blew them dry again.
Moments when the Camino is nothing short of hilarious.
Most days though, I settled into my own pace, accepting that I’d be somewhat alone for much of my walk as a result. I trusted that I’d see them again – usually at least once a day where I reached a cafe filled with familiar faces waiting for me, sitting outside in the sun with shoes off and blissful expressions.
Even if I hadn’t seen the group by the time I arrived into town for the night, the power of Camino coincidences meant I always found them. One afternoon, Carol and I reached the albergue we’d all pre-chosen than morning and asked the receptionist, “which dorm room are the two Canaries in?” We walked in and saw Tonio and Maria Carmen waiting for us, holding claim to the empty two top bunkbeds above theirs – and even as Carol and I began to lay out sheets and pillows, the siblings shouted us down.
“What are you doing? Go and shower while we make up the beds!” Maria Carmen shook her head as Carol and I looked confused. “The quicker you get ready, the quicker we can go and eat! We’re starving!”
Adapting to the Spanish culture
I’d never been so close to or involved with the wonderful energies of Spaniards before – and I loved it.
Everything was shared, from supermarket shopping and rounds of morning coffee to blister plasters and washing machines, and the generosity was so immediate that we almost grew aggressive as we attempted to pay for each other.
Everyone took on familial roles to look after the group, whether it was Ruben as a human alarm clock, Tonio giving out breakfast, Maria Carmen plotting which albergue to sleep in each night, or me facilitating conversations with any foreigners who didn’t speak Spanish.
By virtue of being Spanish, every event occurring in every town we passed through was both known about and then embraced. It was mutually agreed that there was no time for showering after twenty kilometres of walking when there was an octopus eating festival in a marquee nearby – and did you know that Galicia is famous for its fresh octopus?
Each evening, there was no question about us waiting for each other to finish showering and getting ready before embarking out for beers, or food, or anything remotely social. But equally there was no evidence of behaving like a clique, as I occasionally noticed other ‘Camino families’ doing; a sense that some people felt somewhat belligerent when the introduction of a new face meant familiar dynamics were inexplicably changed.
What happens when you speak Spanish constantly as a foreigner?
As the days continued, my behaviour began to alter.
Being around Spaniards forced me to pull myself out of my British sensibilities, and I realised I had to speak my mind whenever I had an opinion, instead of patiently awaiting my turn in a quiet corner. It’s not being rude, exactly, when they talk over one another, but it’s definitely a Spanish trait – and I needed to roll with it.
I had to play the Spanish version of myself again, too. My hand gestures grow grander and more expansive; my voice gets louder and more cocky; the way I carry myself changes as I get more confident. And I felt a fluttering of pride go barrelling through my chest when Maria Carmen continually observed that she’d never heard a Brit speak Spanish with so little of their native accent.
Speaking Spanish occasionally feels like I’m acting a part in a play – but I’m re-establishing myself and my confidence in the process.
Even so, the lack of chances to speak English became a challenge. Walking eight hours a day is a mental struggle as much as a physical one – maybe even more so – and there were so many emotions running around my head which I needed to put into words. But my Spanish didn’t stretch far enough to let me.
I began to truly realise just how difficult it is for those travellers who always have to communicate in their second, or even third, language. When you reach a particular level of skill in a language, it’s easy for your new friends to forget you’re not actually a native speaker – or even ‘just’ fluent (god, I wish!) – and they talk at a normal speed, with their normal slang words thrown in, and get confused when you can’t keep up.
As ever, I remembered how lucky I am to speak English. But also just how desperate I am to continue on this fascinating, terrifying, incredibly rewarding path of learning other languages.
An improvement in my Spanish and my confidence
Looking back, I realise that my Camino has been all about words. Before I started walking, I blithely assumed I’d spend the time talking like crazy to complete strangers about my writing, my travelling, my masters, and my life in general.
Instead, I spent seven days straight with a group of people whose nationalities forced me to filter everything I said through the spectrum of what foreign words I knew to use. I was challenged to think actively about language and word patterns and letters and forms: all things I’m passionate about, yet had barely linked all together before.
This past year back in London has been tough. Travelling is such an integral part of my identity: it’s always been the reassuring factor that by experiencing new things each day I’m constantly growing and changing, improving my life and my learning process. So to choose to return to London and stay in one place has often felt like weighing myself down.
I’ve felt vulnerable in my London life.
Yet whenever I speak Spanish, I remember that a commitment I made to myself almost three years ago has grown into something substantial, long-lasting and above all, something damn useful.
Speaking Spanish for a week might not sound like a huge deal, but it’s more than just a skill to me. It’s a visible (or audible, I guess) verification of what travel can achieve. What I can achieve. And knowing that I haven’t lost that skill is monumental.
I’ll be writing at length about what I’ve learnt from walking the Camino, but it’s obvious that this linguistic experience was one of the the most important aspects. Thanks to a month of pilgrim life in Spain, I’m absolutely resolute about steadily improving my language skills – and not just with Spanish, either.
But that’s for another article.