Filed under: asia, food, language, thailand, travel | Tags: fish food, pedicure
I spent my first Sunday morning getting a pedicure and perusing a market alongside Chiang Mai’s old city wall.
That might sound like a typical tourist thing to do, but like with most things, I tried to imbue it with more cultural and moral significance.
I was the first customer of the day in a nail salon where several people were working, or at least sitting around in work clothes. I prefer to do this at the start of the day so there are less chemicals from nail polish and remover in the air. Arguably, I should avoid them altogether since I don’t think it’s great that women spend all day in such environments, but it’s a guilty pleasure. Once I was sitting in the window getting my toes done other foreigners started to enquire about their services – appearing busy with a customer is a good way to kickstart more business.
I like going to cheap nail salons when I’m in a foreign city, whether it’s New York or Beijing. Like travelling on buses (but more luxurious), nail salons gives an experience of how local people interact. This is a perk of cheap nail salons over spas, where quiet privacy is the norm. I deliberately chose somewhere with several people sitting around, so that I could immerse myself in Thai conversation.
I don’t expect to understand anything yet (though I did pick up ‘farang’ – ‘foreigner’ – a few times). But it’s good for me to be able to absorb Thai people talking to each other in a laid-back joking way, as opposed to the slower, indulgent way people would speak to me. Because Thai is a tonal language, I’m going to need to listen a lot before I have any chance of getting how the language works – it’s so different to English (or French, Spanish or Italian for that matter. They’re all useless to me here).
I was lucky in that the woman doing my toes spoke enough English that I could ask her to teach me some Thai. I had a free Thai lesson with my pedicure. I maxed out my learning capacity for Sunday morning as she taught me with laughter and gestures (when the pedicure process permitted). She taught me how to say ‘dai’ and ‘mai-dai’ (‘yes, you can’ and ‘no, you can’t) as well as ‘dee’ and ‘mai-dee’ (good and bad). I learnt some phrases such as ‘my name is…’ and ‘what do you call…’, but they’ve not yet cemented themselves in my memory. I know it will take two or three times before I remember them – though I might just recognise if someone is asking me my name now.
After my pedicure/Thai lesson, I went to the market. I avoided the stalls selling hill tribe-inspired handicrafts (like in this picture), because I want to buy such things in places where I can be confident my money is supporting hill tribe communities. Perhaps that market was an okay place to buy such things, but I don’t have enough knowledge yet to know either way.
There was a stall selling food that had a banner saying ‘local’ and ‘organic’ in English. The products had Thai labels only. I couldn’t communicate with the people at the stall besides pointing at things. I bought something that looked like some papadums as a pre-lunch snack. I attempted to communicate that I didn’t need a plastic bag, which not surprisingly they didn’t understand, so I took my snack in two layers of plastic, feeling eco-guilt.
Walking from the market to where I’m staying I pierced the plastic and started eating a papadum-like object. It tasted like what fish food smells like. It had a similar texture. I ate half of one, and then wondered if in fact it was fish food. What if I had bought and was eating pet food?
My pedicure/Thai lesson was an excellent start to the day. My market experience didn’t go quite to plan. I’ve left the papadum-like objects in their packet to ask someone who speaks Thai what the label says. I returned to my room and to get the fishfood taste out of my mouth I drank what was labelled as 100% pomegranate juice, which I bought from a minimart yesterday. It tasted like lollies. While that label included English, I’m skeptical of its veracity.
Pedicure/Thai lesson: dee.
Using labels to make good purchasing decisions: mai-dai.
After a couple of weeks my conversational Spanish was decent. My grammar, on the other hand, was nonexistent. Though I strongly believe immersion is the best way to learn to speak a language, sitting in a classroom and learning the rules should follow, so you can write as well.
So while Ian ducked over to South America for a conference, I went to Seville to give my Spanish some structure. I couldn’t really be bothered doing research on what school would suit me best (there are lots to choose from in Seville), so when a woman from CLIC posted a comment on this blog I decided her school would do nicely. I paid for a week’s intensive Spanish, staying with a host family. My mind harked back to sharing a room in a tiny apartment on the umpteenth floor in a northern Italian metropolis, then being cast out into Italian suburbia where public transport was long and sporadic, when I went on exchange as a teenager.
I found myself again in a tiny apartment (this is Europe, after all), but with my own room, with not so much a family as a host grandmother, a sprightly 80 year old woman who made great paella and scolded me for walking around in bare feet when I had a sore throat, like all respectable old-fashioned Spanish mothers would. I had two host sisters, one American and one Japanese, who were studying Spanish as well. This meant I got to my school easily on the first day, accompanied. It also meant I got lost every time I tried to get there myself afterwards, as if not navigating myself the first time rendered me incapable of memorising my route thereafter, like some lobotomised rat.
When I did finally make it to school in the morning I was in a class with half a dozen other students. I was pleased that my conversational Spanish efforts meant I started at the level above beginner (elementary, dear Watson), but this means that, like in French, I will probably never be much good at counting to one hundred or reading the alphabet.
Then after a quick lunch (which is not at all Spanish) I had another class in the afternoon, with two other students and a hilarious teacher called Adrian who was newly married, as we all knew because he proceeded every one of his corny Spanish-guy-jokes with ‘but don’t tell my wife’.
The school had a packed cultural programme that ensured I didn’t pine for Ian the evenings, including a flamenco show featuring both a female and male dancer, and a guided tour of the Gibralta tower
At the end of the week we were all quite disconcerted to discover we had to do an exam. A 60 year old guy studying on vacation with his wife said “this is the first test I’ve done since I was at university 40 years ago”. Despite the shock I kept my act together and managed to ace my first Spanish exam! Mostly A’s, with a B for writing, because as with my French tests, I accidentally wrote 15% in Italian (first second languages die hard).
But I passed with flying colours! I can now say with some authority that I speak (elementary) Spanish!
I’m living in a small Spanish town somewhere between Seville and the Portuguese border for the next month. As well as editing a bunch of books I’m going to learn Spanish. I’m off to a pretty good start because at the moment (due to the nepotistic rental market) we’re staying in a lovely rural residence owned by a very enthusiastic and interested middle-aged couple who don’t speak much English.
This morning I had a few missions. I wanted to find out whether I could do the laundry myself. The answer was no – but I may be allowed to handwash things, I was a bit confused by her response.
I wanted to get directions to the supermarket. Instead, I’m getting a lift to the supermarket this afternoon, which is nice – though it would be good to wander around the town to get a sense of place.
I wanted to ask if we could keep some salt in our bathroom for Ian to gargle with as he has a sore throat. That’s not the kind of sentence you learn in basic Spanish classes. This is why I’m not sold on formal classes. In this digital age I think it’s much better to get somewhere and learn by immersion, with the help of internet resources. Between Babelfish and this intuitive dictionary, I learnt to say everything I needed. Understanding the responses is a different matter, but hopefully that will come with time.
I found that with tricky expressions like ‘hand wash’, googling is better than using a crude translator, as someone else has probably written it somewhere online. So, in case people are googling things I learnt this morning, here are some phrases:
¿Puede darme direcciones al supermercado? = Can you give me directions to the supermarket?
Ian tiene dolor de garganta. ¿Podemos mantener un poco de sal en el cuarto de baño para él hacer gargaras? = Ian has a sore throat. Can we keep some salt in the bathroom for him to gargle?
Éstas son las palabras que he aprendido hoy. = These are the words I’ve learnt today.