My daughter and I just participated in our first Spanish birthday party, an event much anticipated by kids and talked about by moms. I am now on a WhatsApp chat for mothers of children in the third grade. It is a wonderful way to practice Spanish because the conversations are all in Spanish. Even though the children are sent to the American School to learn English, many of the parents don't speak it, or are working on it.
In fact, going to a school parents' night is very different from going to a student orientation. With students it can be deceiving as to who are the locals and who are the foreigners. Many of the kids that speak with a perfect American accent are actually Spanish kids that quickly switch back to their own language during school down time. But, for parents, speaking English is certainly not a requirement. Most of the presentations are done in English and Spanish. And, the teachers often ask if it is OK to just speak Spanish without an interpreter. My husband and I tried to follow along and afterwards both agreed that what we had gotten out of the Geography presentation was that kids should absolutely, under no circumstances, bring their technology to class. Then, the teacher came to check in with us afterwards to make sure we had understood and it turned out that he had actually said they should always bring their technology so they could learn to work with modern methods. Luckily, our son's grade does not depend on his parents' understanding.
I am supplying this background to support the theory that this birthday party proved to be a little difficult for me linguistically. Out of the confines of the school, I knew that parents would not be inclined to speak English. I had some classic moments, such as calling a boy "candy" when I meant to say he was really nice and saying I was interested in sex, rather than the weather was hot. Halfway through a painfully slow conversation I was having with someone I thought only spoke Spanish, they interrupted me to say, "let's just speak in English." I tell myself it will get easier if I just keep trying despite my botched attempts. I watched my daughter doing much of the same thing. They had a small zip line and she was the only one that didn't know to put on a helmet. She also didn't know anything that the "birthday guides" were saying as they explained the games. She's gotten good at reminding her new friends that although she doesn't want them to speak in English, every once in a while she needs a quick interpretation.
The lesson is that people are nice when you let them be nice and make yourself vulnerable. They watch us try and struggle to even just show up for social events that they know will feel awkward for us. Usually I am standing by myself smiling, but this time four women came up and tried to welcome me. They are working on their English as I am working on my Spanish, so it is hard for them, too. It would be much easier for them to just smile and nod as well. Progress is being made.
The birthday party was an interesting view into a basic activity that seems so much more exotic here than in our American lives. First, it celebrated all the kids in the grade that had had birthdays in the last three months, so parents all chipped in for one present for each, plus the cost of renting an outdoor activity center. The party was held at a place about 6 kilometers outside of a rural town. Since Google Maps always breaks down here for me, I never would have found it unless a father who saw me on the side of the road trying to figure it out hadn't stopped and said, "Cumpleaños? Vamos," which I gratefully did.
Activities were organized by people that worked at the park, as well as supervision of a ball pit, a petting zoo, and a bouncy castle. At a very large dining hall, a "snack" was served by the establishment made up of orange Fanta, white Wonder Bread, salami slices, and Nutella. There was salami and potato chips set out for parents. There had to be about 100 people and, of course, there was wine and beer available for parents. The party began at 4:30 and was supposed to last until 6:30. However, it was a Spanish party, so we couldn't even think of leaving until at least 8:00, and even then it seemed a little rude.
The more I try and expose myself through daunting events that I wouldn't even give a thought to in the United States, the easier it becomes. More women step outside their groups to say hello in broken English as I recite rehearsed lines to tell them that I will try to get better at my Spanish over time. They now know who my daughter is and smile at her with affection. I try to tell them how kind their kids have been to reach out to my daughter. And, I watch my daughter running around happily throwing balls at other kids without the need for language. Every experience here can provide an opportunity for connections and understanding. Cumpleaños!
Sally and her family have moved to Spain for a year starting July 2017. They are living in a little town called Puzol, which is about 12km north of Valencia. Her kids, Carson and Celia, are attending the American School of Valencia, an International School located in Puzol. The goal for the whole family is to experience another way of life, and learn Spanish. This blog tracks their travels and experiences.