What I Learn Besides Catalan in Catalan Class

Lake Sevan, Armenia. Photo via Flickr.

Lake Sevan, Armenia. Photo via Flickr.

Renoi. /rəˌnoɪ/ Language: Catalan. Meaning: Holy Crap! The only appropriate response to what I heard today.  

Twice a week since October, I’ve been attending Catalan classes offered by the Catalan government, both because I’m a language nerd and am desperate to make new friends. Most days, we review homework, do group activities, and talk about why Catalans have funny accents—typical language learning stuff.

For a tiny group of ten students, the class is very diverse. We’re a hodgepodge of ages and nationalities spanning four continents. Our lingua franca is Spanish, but sometimes we make up words to understand each other. I knew we all hailed from different backgrounds, but just how different, I only now discovered.

On a normal day, I expect to end class with a few new vocabulary words under my belt, and maybe some insight into a strange and fascinating Catalan custom. Today, I took away much more than that.

It Began With the Past

We’ve been learning how to talk about the past and to correctly conjugate the imperfect tense. Today’s plan was to put it to practice by speaking about what we did during our summer vacations as children.

I’m from California; I usually attended soccer, art, or theater camps, and who knows, went to a movie or barbecue here and there. Most summer’s we’d take a family vacation, before my sister and I grew too bratty to appreciate traveling with the parents, all-expenses-paid.

V.’s from Milan; she spent every summer vacation until she was 15 lounging at her grandparents’ house on the Italian Riviera. Beach days, jumping off rocks, focaccia-filled lunches, repeat.

M.’s from Galicia; she spent June through September on horseback, riding around Spain’s northwestern province with the animals her family raised and trained.

But A.? In nearly perfect first-year Catalan, A. revealed to us that her childhood wasn’t so idyllic. Because, from the ages of four to eight, she spent it underground, in a bunker.

Haghpat Monastery, Armenia

Haghpat Monastery, Armenia. Photo via Flickr.

What She Revealed

A. is from Armenia and was born shortly before the Nagorno-Karabakh war began between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the late 1980s.

She explained to us how, when war broke out, her family, along with a number of her neighbors, moved below ground.

How 50 people shared a bunker half the size of our Catalan classroom, and her family was allotted a space just larger than our teacher’s desk.

How, when rations ran out, her grandmother would head above ground for more, and twice nearly didn’t return, since bombs exploded just three meters away.

How, even after the war, she and her sister couldn’t play outside because of the mines.

How she became her little sister’s caretaker at the age when most of us learn to ride a bike.

How, when she moved to Barcelona two years ago, at the age of 28, it was the first time in her life that she understood what it felt like to live in peace.

A.’s voice shook as she told the class this, but she remained strong. It used to be difficult to talk about this, she said. But now, it’s in the past.

A New Source of Knowledge

I’m not a person who connects with the news. I’ve never been the most informed person on current or historical events, which makes me the unequivocal black sheep of my family. My grandfather was a political science professor at Stanford University; my dad’s published books on wars in the Middle East and narcotics trafficking in South America. My grandmother writes a Letter to the Editor to the New York Times every.single.day, and my mother goes door-to-door canvassing for presidential campaigns. In 2003, at the age of 11, I was so stressed out from nightly dinner time discussions about the impending war with Iraq that my parents had to send me to therapy (!!). I guess I’ve since traded up being highly informed for staying moderately sane (and maintaining a slower heartrate).

So yes, I’m sure I’m a huge disappointment to the household as far as the whole “informed” thing goes. I’ve learned to not mention anything even rhyming with “Ukraine” on Skype calls, lest a conversation come up that reveals my ignorance, and my parents suffer unwarranted trauma. My grandma must cry a little every time she hears from me, and I don’t have new opinions to offer up on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

I’m not a person who connects with the news. Sorry, family. But I am someone who connects with people and one-on-one accounts. Hearing about stories first-hand isn’t news or history; it’s reality, and it bridges the disconnect I too often feel when my source is a computer screen or a Twitter feed. It’s hard for me to process what’s happening in the Middle East when I read about it from some unknown Associated Press reporter. It’s hard for me to piece it all together when I can’t ask follow-up questions to the news anchor.

But I’ve found the knowledge source that works for me. I’ve touched upon this before, when I talked about what I’ve learned from living with two Russians. Some people scroll the New York Times on their iPhone; some people rely on Jon Stewart to provide comic relief to an otherwise painful series of events.

Me? I’m inspired to learn more because of travel and a foreign postal code. And now, I suppose, a Catalan class.

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  • Beth

    I, too, to my family’s dismay, never follow the news or keep up with current events unless it’s through other people I meet and talk to. I knew a little bit about the Ukraine incident, only because one of my best friends was also born there in the 80s and their family soon after escaped to the US.

    As much as I love the world and traveling it, sometimes you have to admit it can be a little crazy!

  • Really awesome story – thanks for sharing!

  • Oh boy, how we must not forget to cherish and not take fro granted the small things like sunshine in the summer or the bigs things like living in a peaceful country. Thanks for reminding us!