Today, we were in three different countries in the space of an hour. Andorra, France, and Spain. It’s a strange feeling driving from one country to another in such a short amount of time. I was trying to compare it to crossing the border into the US, but it’s not like that at all really. Things actually change, most notably the language, as you cross a border. For example, as you are driving from France on the way to Spain, you are following signs for Espagne, then when you get into Spain, you are greeted with a sign saying Espana, and when you leave Andorra, you are guided by signs to Espanya. Yes, they are subtle differences, but the whole language change is not so subtle.
In France, the official language is obviously French, and in Spain, it’s Spanish, but there are areas of both whose actual language (official or not) is Catalan. One of those areas is the Pyrenees-Orientale, where we are. And, Catalan is the only official language of Andorra, although Spanish is widely spoken as well. It feels like this language is a sort of mix of Spanish and French, but I think I’d be shot down by an actual Catalan speaker for saying that. I read somewhere that it is actually more similar to Italian…one of the Romance Languages apparently. I don’t know, but it sure makes for some interesting and confusing attempts at conversation. In fact, language in general seems to be making me really confused – fascinated, but confused just the same. I often find myself thanking people in a language that doesn’t really belong, because:
A. whatever language they are speaking is familiar, yet unfamiliar, and
B. I sometimes forget where I am.
I’m forever saying Grazie, when I should be saying Gracias, and Gracias when I should be saying Merci. And I don’t even know how to say it in Catalan. Fail.
And, speaking of language confusion, we met the local shepherd this week, a wizened little woman who introduced herself as the “bergere”, and who has clearly spent her entire life up on the mountain tending her sheep. But when she’s not up there doing that, she’s down here offering to show us the “quatro petit lapins” she has at her place! We all followed her down the hill a couple of days ago, and she showed us the rabbits, her dogs, her chickens, and the place she keeps her orphaned lambs when she has any. We stumbled through our conversation catching words of French, but with Spanish words thrown in as well. We didn’t do very well. It’s amazing how, when faced with an actual conversation, you forget all the French you ever knew. It was obvious she was making an effort at using French words for us, since she didn’t know any English ones. Mairi did manage to figure out just enough to get us the basics, and after a while, we left the tiny “shepherdess” with a big handful of a chard type vegetable from her garden, which I cooked last night, followed by five fresh eggs the next day from her hens, which made us a tasty omelette this morning. The girls were very shy of her at first, but now Mairi has started having a good go at communicating, and has since taught her sisters to ask “Can I play with your dogs?” in French. Plotting and planning for tomorrow!
What I do love about all this language confusion is that the kids are really starting to pick out the similarities between different languages. Common roots, or words that obviously derive from the same Latin word. Instead of just dismissing a word as “foreign” and something they can’t understand, they will sometimes attempt to figure it out based on what they do know. And as an English teacher, that is exciting to me. It may be confusing and difficult for us when we are trying to find our way around, and figure out what we are buying, and I must admit, I have cursed the fact that every time we get used to a new language, we are faced with a new one on more than one occasion. But when I stop and think of the richness of the experience, especially for the kids, I need to give my head a shake and embrace it. And say thank you. Or grazie. Or efharisto. Or gracias. Or merci. Or whatever.