Coming to Medellin was always supposed to be the final push on my Spanish skill levels. I would live and work in the Colombian city for four months, emerging with not just a introduction to journalism under my belt, but also with an easy fluency in the Spanish language and a legacy of Colombian friends who I’d been practicing with.
I may have overestimated slightly.
As it turns out, being in an office filled with foreigners who share English as their common language means I speak English. Writing for an English newspaper means, surprisingly, that I write in English. And though I look through countless news articles in Spanish every day, I don’t have time to decipher their meaning accurately in my head – so into Google Translate they go, and I skim read the bad English translation instead.
In short, I speak much less Spanish in this job than I ever thought I would.
There’s still a Spanish speaking role that comes with Colombian journalism, though. To make it as a reporter and a journalist – to get the stories, the sources, the facts – I need to talk to people. On the phone. In Spanish.
And for someone who really doesn’t like making phonecalls in their first language, let alone in their second, you can imagine how this situation has made me feel.
Yep, utterly terrified.
Making phone calls in Spanish
The first ‘trial by fire’ phonecall occurred in my second week at the newspaper, and involved calling someone to get a quote about an environmental issue. I was given a contact number and the office’s Skype login, but there the help ended. I didn’t know much about the background of the topic, so I figured I’d just ask for a concise rundown of what his opinions were.
Which of course proved utterly pointless when I realised that my Spanish was in no way good enough to discuss the Colombian environment with a stranger. This realisation occurred at the exact minute the guy picked up the phone.
Stuttering rather significantly, I attempted to ask him for easily digestible information, but even my basic questions fell flat: garnering only a repeated “como?” in response.
The next few calls I had to deal with went in a similar vein, until eventually the heart palpitations at the prospect of failing yet again led me to only calling people who I knew I could speak English to.
By the end of my third week in the city, I’d resolved to take some more Spanish classes. I knew that I wasn’t going to magically have the desire to call up someone and ask them questions in a language I’d lost confidence in, so a few hours with a teacher seemed the only way to go.
But chatting to my friend Larissa about the issue yielded an interesting response.
“You don’t need lessons, or grammar,” she told me. “You just need to talk.”
Speaking Spanish – and having problems
Over the last year in South America, I’ve resorted to classes when I felt at a language impasse. I enrolled at Spanish schools in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru in the hope that they’d be my key to improving – and for the most part those classes significantly helped.
But ultimately my biggest game changer has always been to speak.
So I spent the next month in Medellin trying hard to speak in Spanish as often as I could. Still terrified of phoning people in my journalistic capacity, I found other alternatives; language exchange evenings at my old hostel, chatting to locals on nights out, and trying to engage shopkeepers in a bit of conversation.
There were my two Colombian roommates too, who I had high hopes for, but we never shared more than a few casual passing greetings in the corridor.
Sadly, none of it really helped. I realised this when I went to the Caribbean coast for ten days with Josh: while it was easy enough to communicate with locals, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, in just two months, my Spanish skills had actually decreased.
Luckily, that trip to the coast – which acted as a break from the newspaper – made me see things with a bit more clarity. Namely, that I was being significantly self-deprecating about a situation that really wasn’t my fault.
A bit of Spanish clarity
Ok, so being unable to get a quote from someone because you can’t speak their language adequately enough is embarrassing. But it’s not like I ever said I was fluent in Spanish, or was granted the newspaper job because my editor thought I was. And if I’d really thought about it, I would never have assumed I’d reach a point where Spanish phonecalls would be a breeze.
I’ve only been learning Spanish for sixteen months, after all!
More than that, though, was the awareness that I really hated trying to make those calls; not just because of my lack of Spanish, but for the calls themselves. Try as I might, I don’t have the “give me a quote, I don’t care if you don’t understand what I’m saying, I won’t take no for an answer” attitude.
Or rather, I think I do have that attitude when I’m passionate about what I’m doing.
Moving out and moving on – to the next country…
I’ve loved living in Medellin. I pass the same faces on my morning commute into work, and I finally understand how the buses work.
I have my local bakery a five minute walk away, where the woman calls me ‘princesa‘ and automatically tells me whether they have ‘jamon y queso’ rolls that day. The laundry next door writes my name on the ticket before I say anything.
But my local life here is not what I imagined. The romantic traveller in me, as usual, expected a life filled with groups of Colombian friends, constant Spanish practice, and plenty of time to explore the city during the time away from the newspaper. In reality, the newspaper absorbs the vast amount of my days, with only six hours to chill out each evening. And spending the last month with my boyfriend living in Medellin too meant we spent most of our free time together, rather than hanging out with Colombians.
With Josh’s recent return to England, I had a sudden realisation of how the next few months would most likely play out: a combination of work, writing, and essentially preparing for my own eventual return to life in London.
So I’m striding out for pastures new. At the start of June I’m flying to Havana, for just under a month of Cuban explorations.
Cuba is a country I’ve long wanted to visit, but for some reason hadn’t entertained the prospect while being in South America. I guess it didn’t register on my radar?
So why Cuba?
Going to Cuba – quite apart from simply being an awesome place to go – also makes sense in terms of flights. I always knew I’d be heading back to London in July, to prepare for my Masters degree which starts in September, so I’d been looking at flights from Bogotá to London which ran at a hefty £600 or more. But flying Bogotá to Havana and then Havana back to Europe comes to a rather pleasant £530. Which basically meant I had no choice but to go to Cuba…
Much as I’ve loved my time here, I can feel myself becoming slightly stagnant. It’s my second time in Colombia in a year, one of five countries I’ve spent sixteen months travelling through. I feel a bit too comfortable – and I’d prefer to feel challenged by somewhere completely new.
I don’t want to look back and realise I spent my last month in South America simply waiting to fly home. Seems like a pretty tame end to such an eventful journey.
And lastly, let’s not forget what a month in Cuba will mean for my Spanish. After sixteen months of learning the language, I figure this is the best my Spanish is ever going to be – on this trip, anyway. So what better way to use it than by attempting to only speak Spanish for a month in a totally new country?
Cuba is known for its very friendly locals who love to talk to strangers, which, combined with a distinct lack of internet to provide any kind of distraction, means I’ll be able to spend a month getting under the skin of the country by going back to basics. Speaking in Spanish with anyone who’ll listen, and then writing it all down.
With only pen and paper, for once.
Have you ever been to Cuba? If you have any tips for me they’d be seriously welcome!