‘Are you Spanish?’

Every few days, someone asks me that, and I am flattered beyond reason. Granted, it’s usually fairly early in the conversation, and for all I know Spaniards are famous in the Latin world for their tenuous grip on the grammar of their own language. I have real trouble with the direct and indirect object, and though I live my life in the subjunctive tense, I cannot clearly express myself in it. But still. I glow.

I studied Spanish by accident, and never much cared for it. The Irish university system is unfortunately rigid, and at seventeen you choose your subject for your whole college career—medicine, English literature, engineering. We liberal arts students were given some leeway, mainly because we were cheap to teach and considered a bit dim. In first year, we picked three subjects, then dropped one to continue with a double major. One of the many drawbacks of this system was that it encouraged us to stay with subjects we were already familiar with from secondary school. It was too risky to sign up for four years of philosophy or Greek and Roman civilization. What if it didn’t suit? Transfers were difficult to arrange. Ireland is not famous for forgiving mistakes.

Girls, especially, were encouraged to ‘pick up another language’, so I thought I’d try a year of Spanish along with English and history. Unfortunately, at the end of the year I realized history was not my bag. I was already in the grip of an English department obsessed with the question of post-colonial Irish identity, and couldn’t face chewing the same cud in the history department. I loved the French Revolution and the Renaissance, but the endless drab near-misses of Irish history seemed better told by our poets and novelists.

That left Spanish. Almost everyone else had studied it for six years in secondary school, and I felt like the class dunce. Spanish was rarely taught outside Dublin, so I was further alienated by the fact that my class was largely comprised of posh South County Dublin girls who knew each other from hockey practice. I tolerated them at best—’Eau, roiysh‘ (‘Oh, right’) was their favorite affirmation—at least until I developed a braying Dublin accent of my own.

The Spanish department staff were hoary Golden Age traditionalists, not trendy Latin American specialists, so I ended up parsing Garcilaso’s 17th century rewrites of Virgil’s Eclogues before I was able to use the past tense. Mine was the first year of an experimental program in which students from the Commerce department took Spanish as part of an international business degree, and these go-getters were horrified at being forced to read Don Quijote and El Cid instead of being drilled in derivatives terminology and international law. I didn’t know enough day-to-day Spanish to cash a traveler’s check.

So I went to Spain for a year at twenty, and half-heartedly taught English to middle-aged engineers who were wasting their money. I learned fluent bar Spanish, hung out with kids from New Jersey, gained twenty pounds, and developed a lifelong distaste for the Spanish bourgeoisie—the pijo kids with helmet hair, neatly-ironed Levis an inch too short, and penny loafers. Spanish family culture is very strong, and it easily excludes timid young outsiders.

I came back wily and cynical, and despite limited choices picked the courses and teachers that would guarantee good grades. Poems and plays were much easier than novels. It was a question of volume for a reader who still moved her lips reading Spanish. I knew what a synecdoche was, and I understood that Spanish literature was relentlessly obsessed with female honor. It all seemed like poor stuff compared to Joyce and Shakespeare—Iberian Spanish literature (as opposed to Latin American) still seems low-grade to me—but it was easy. I graduated, and didn’t speak Spanish for ten years, except when ordering tamales in Sunset Park.

But now, in Ecuador and Mexico, I am glad for the first time that I made the effort, and I enjoy the physical act of producing the sounds of Spanish. I’m a reasonable mimic, and the shrugs and gestures come naturally now too. Perhaps it’s a sympathy with fellow post-colonial nations that I lacked in Spain; maybe it’s just that I’m older. It’s a great joy, after months in Southeast Asia, to be able to chat casually for hours and to learn about a country from some of its people rather than from mute observation and reading. And I’m highly surprised to find myself flattered at being taken for Spanish, in spite of my crumpled jeans.