It was our first trip out of the Estació del Nord in Valencia, a grand, modernist train station adorned with colorful tile. My dad was a potter, and I could see his ghost standing in the middle of the lobby, neck craned to see the mosaic on the ceiling, then over to the wall where the message buen viaje was grouted in shimmering shards of tile. Here he would get close, maybe tap the tile with his nail to hear the sound and feel the hardness, maybe lick his finger and smear the tile to get an idea of…what exactly? Why did he do that? I’ll have to ask my mom. A few days earlier, since she’s visiting us in Valencia, she had stood in the same station looking around in awe, feeling grateful that buildings like this, functional buildings for the people, could be made with such attention to beauty. Beauty for the sake of beauty.
An hour into our train trip, we rode by Villena, and I realized that this was Andrea’s hometown. “Jojo, ¡Mira! íAlli es donde vive Pol! ¿Tu crees que Pol ha jugado en ese parque?” There was a playground right there flying by our windows and we wondered whether Andrea took Pol to play there. Later, Andrea’s face would light up when I mentioned passing by: “We spend hours and hours there!” she would say. It was surreal to have such ordinary aspects of our friends’ distant lives jumping out at us in person.
As our train pulled into Altea, where we had been invited to spend a weekend with our friends, I saw them through the window waiting for us on the platform. While we had gotten to meet Andrea in Valencia a few weeks earlier, we still had never met her son, Pol or her husband, Vicent. But Andrea and I had been talking to Pol and Jojo about meeting each other, and they had exchanged some videos over the past year—neither was really sure about who the other was. But they were both excited to have a playmate for the weekend.
At first, Pol kept his face buried in his mother’s legs, but Jojo, being a year and a half older, took on a big sister role immediately. And by the time we were half way to the house, she and Pol were holding hands, mostly because she told him he had to hold her hand while crossing the street.
The house, owned by Vicent’s ninety-nine-year-old great aunt, was an old fisherman’s home across the street from the marina. The aunt has lived in Benidorm, a massive beach destination ten minutes away, since before it had running water. If you know anything about Benidorm, you can imagine the changes she has seen in that city and in Spain in general.
Altea, on the other hand, is quiet and beautiful with an old city center. Up and down the Costa Blanca are towns just as old as Altea that have been marred by high-rise hotels and rows and rows of foreigners’ second homes. But Altea has preserved its cobblestone streets and white, stucco buildings. Credit is due partly to the town’s foresight in establishing regulations for building and preservation, but also to its location and natural defenses against cheap and easy tourism. The center of town, with its winding streets, sweeping vistas and blue-domed church, is on top of a hill, so if you want to get there from the beach, you have an arduous, twenty-minute hike ahead of you. Also, its beaches are made up of smooth, white rocks, not the soft sandcastle-making stuff of Benidorm.
So on a Sunday in August, while other beaches are slammed, with barely enough room to lay down a towel and pitch an umbrella, Altea’s town beach is quiet and roomy. But it’s beautiful; the water is a translucent green and the sound it makes hitting the shore and sucking rocks back out to sea is strange and soothing.
This is a blog about language after all, so in excruciating (or riveting, depending on who you are) detail, here is a rundown of our linguistic setup for the weekend:
Andrea’s target language with Pol is English, which is not her native language. She studied it in college and is an English teacher. She speaks it beautifully, and if you met her on the street you would detect an accent but you might guess Dutch or English and sometimes you might hear some American in there.
When she turns her head away from her son to speak to her husband, it’s in Spanish (or, Castellano, as they call it here). Even though she’s from La Comunidad Valenciana, her default language is not Valenciano as Vicent’s is. Her grandparents did grow up speaking Valenciano, but under government pressure (Franco), as well as social pressure (class status), they only spoke to their children (Andrea’s parents) in Spanish. As a result, Andrea’s parents raised their children in the language they knew best: Spanish.
Vicent’s grandparents worked the fields and lived in a small town where the homes were so isolated the pressure to forget Valenciano could hardly reach them. They spoke what they had spoken for generations. So Vicent only speaks to Pol in Valenciano.
Pol understands all three languages. He says little words here and there in Valenciano, his full sentences (“I want to read a book”) are all in English, and he doesn’t speak much Spanish yet. Both Andrea and Vicent are extremely dedicated to speaking to Pol in their own target languages and I did not hear either of them make a single slipup in the triangular Spanish—English—Valencian system they have established in their home. It functions beautifully and is a joy to observe.
Add our tiny family to the mix and if you’re the table next to us at a restaurant, you have a really confusing linguistic dynamic to figure out, partly because of the mix of languages, and partly because the native English speaker is only using Spanish with her daughter and the native Spanish speaker is only using English with her son.
Andrea and Vicent spoke to Jojo in Spanish (though, around Pol, Andrea found herself slipping into English without meaning to) with Jojo answering in whichever language was being spoken to her. And I stuck to English with Pol, often slipping into English with Jojo as well since the two of them were always together.
Over the weekend, Andrea and I traded more words and phrases in English and Spanish than we normally would trade in months. It was a luxury being able to turn to each other and say things like, “How do you say belly flop in Spanish?” We filled up three pages of a notebook with the idioms we learned from each other, and I left feeling inspired to keep going with the language thing and to work even harder at it. Andrea’s dedication to English and her tenacity in making it her language with Pol, was rejuvenating.
Pol and Jojo hit it off. Mostly they enjoyed being at the house where they could play hide and seek, and get each other all riled up, usually at midnight just before bedtime. But they were also great beach buddies. The first day we just walked up and down the beach in Altea, stopping to swim and lounge, then at a playground, then to get tapas, and then more swimming, and even a nap under the beach umbrella for Pol.
The second day they drove down the winding, mountainous coast to the playa de Moraira in a different town where there was sand to play in (and tons of tourists). And that night they drove us up the hill into Altea for dinner at one of their favorite places and treated us to what was the best food we have had in Spain so far. They took so much care in not just hosting us, but showing us around, and making sure we saw a little bit of everything.
Every morning and every night, and often in the afternoon, someone sat and read or told Pol and Jojo a story. Both kids will do anything for a story, and will listen to as many as you are willing to read them. As moms raising our kids in languages that are not our own, books are key to Andrea and I being able to expand our own vocabularies and help our kids along with theirs. Next time they see each other (hopefully we can host them in Texas), they will probably be able to read on their own.
We said a rushed good bye at the train station as the doors closed and I slammed my palm against the green button to get them to open again. “See you when we see you! See you next time!”