You had me at Hola! Learning a foreign language in a foreign country

Studying a foreign language in a foreign country was always something I’d dreamt of doing. So having planned a trip to Spain I made sure I had time scheduled to fit in a Spanish language course. It was both surprising and challenging.

The start of the week – let’s see how far that comfort zone can stretch…

With the help of google maps I wander my way across Salamanca in Spain, trying to locate the place I’ll be living for the next week. I’m dragging my small rolling suitcase along the cobblestone streets. It’s not working very well. I’ve chosen to do a week long intensive Spanish language course in this city and I’ve chosen a home stay option. That’s what I’m looking for. My homestay.

I know I’m staying in an apartment owned by Magdalena, a Spanish lady of 72, a widow and a regular homestay for students of the school I’ve chosen.

I find the place. Take a deep breath and press the buzzer.


What am I doing?


Oh man! I have no idea how this week is going to play out.

‘Hola?’ I hear over the speaker.

‘Ahhh hola? It’s Michelle here’.

Buzzzz click.

The door lock audibly clicks and I push the door open and enter the apartment block foyer.

I make my way up the elevator to find Magdalena at the door of the apartment, waiting for me. Hola – she says, followed by a few sentences in Spanish that I don’t understand. She shows me my room, the bathroom, and the rest of the apartment.

She has lunch ready but gestures to me to unpack and settle in first.


My functional homestay room

I go to my small but functional single room which has a desk, bed and wardrobe and unpack the small amount of luggage I have with me. I head out to the dining room where Magdalena has set the table for lunch – which of course is at around 3pm.

We chat for a while – well she does and I nod and smile and seem to understand a few words. I think she says that breakfast is at 10am or maybe 7am. Or was it 2pm? She tells me there is another student staying and I am relieved thinking that if he’s here to learn Spanish there’s a fair chance he might know some English. Then he arrives and I meet him. His name is Felix (not his real name – his real name is really long) and he is from……ETHIOPIA! He’s fluent in French and not too bad at Spanish (he’s in the advanced class)…but has only a minor grasp of the English language.

Magdalena sat us down for lunch and explained that the course convenors ask that she only speak Spanish with the students….great. That means that effectively there is no common language between the three of us. I start eating the potato salad she’s served and realize there’s tuna in the salad. They put tuna in everything in Spain I’ve noticed. It was too late to tell her I don’t eat seafood, and I especially don’t eat tuna, so I ate it, gagging only twice when my mind went to cat food. Then of course once I’ve eaten it, it’s too late to tell her I don’t eat seafood – plus I need to learn how to say that in Spanish in any case. I will spend the rest of the week hoping for no more tuna.

And that was just my first afternoon – classes haven’t even started yet. If I had any doubts about whether I could push the edges of my comfort zone any further after the last 45 days in this country, they have dissolved.

I have no idea what’s going on here. It will be an interesting week.

The Lessons

So for an entire week I get up early, eat breakfast with Magdalena, listen as she speaks in Spanish to me, hoping each day that I’m at least understanding more words. I meet new friends in class from all over the world and we soon start getting together of an evening sharing meals and wine and talking about the world and life and learning Spanish.


Plaza mayor
Plaza Mayor – meeting place

Make no mistake, the classes are really challenging and this stuff is hard. I had done a short course in Spanish before I left Australia, I had been using Duolingo and other apps to help me learn, but even with that, I was seriously in the deep end. Every word spoken by the teachers is in Spanish, the entire text book we are learning from is in Spanish (even the instructions for the exercises). Some days, alright, most days, I feel like I’m going backwards.

The Lifestyle

Then of course I go home and even though my brain is hurting from the day of intensive lessons, I have to strain and work hard to understand Magdalena and communicate with her. It really is challenging so much so that I often retreat to my small single room, for a siesta or to study. Some days I even force myself not to look at any signage or shop advertising because my brain is so overloaded the last thing I need is to be reading more things in Spanish that I don’t understand.

I’ve lost sight of my comfort zone I am so far outside of it.

Lost in Translation

There were more than a few trying moments during the week where I made an effort to put my new language skills into practice.

Shopping – I tried to buy myself a face cleanser after 40 days on the Camino de Santiago where I was washing my face with whatever I had, including shampoo. I had left my phone in my apartment so I didn’t have the benefit of google translate. It would seem that I accidentally brought a face mask instead of a cleanser. Learning to go with the flow that’s for sure. Will try for face cleanser again another day.


Face mask lady
Face mask not cleanser

Dining – Google translate is an excellent tool for use over here. However I decided against the menu item ‘pluma de cerdo ibérico’ today when google told me it was ‘Iberian pig feather’. I was intrigued….but went for the lasagne.

Google Translate
Thanks Google Translate

In class – I was doing a lesson where I was asked to talk about my family (in Spanish of course). Who they were, what they did etc. I said (all in Spanish) that I was married and that I’d been married for 28 years. Javier my teacher was looking at me incredulously and saying ‘wow, wow, 28 years’ in Spanish of course. I was saying ‘yes, yes’ feeling chuffed that he was so happy I’d been married for 28 years. I went on to tell him about the rest of the family in Spanish. At the end he asked me something that I didn’t quite understand. Turns out he wanted me to tell him a bit more about how I managed to have a husband AND a boyfriend who was 28! Ahhhh. I need much more than one week at this gig! Though I didn’t feel so bad when another student said, when asked what she’d done last night “I went to dinner with chickens and we ate my father”.

Out and about – well I made this mistake only once but it was a big mistake.   You see I wanted a beer and so I headed for the nearest Cerveceria (place that sells cerveza/beer) and I sat down at the first one I found. I ordered my beer only to be told I was in a Carcineria not a Cervezeria. The former selling meat and not beer (cerveza). I moved on a bit flustered and sat down at what I was sure was a cervezeria. Until I ordered a beer and found I was instead in a confiteria which sells confectionery!  I ate some pastries and sweets before moving on and eventually finding a beer.  Trick for new players.  Always be careful with your ‘C’ words.

The end of the week

The week that I, at times, thought would never end, finally ends. I’ve completed a week of intensive Spanish language lessons covering about 6 hours each day. The classes were challenging and most of my teachers were amazing! I brought a special shirt to wear for my last day. It got a few laughs from my teacher and class mates.


Spanish teacher
With my favorite teacher Pedro

My homestay host Magdalena gets home later than me most nights (and I’m not getting home until midnight most nights) and by the end of the week we communicate via a mixture of gestures, Spanish and google translate.

I got in to the routine of getting up early, going to class, having a late lunch and then a siesta before studying some. Then of course it was off to the Plaza to meet up with new friends and eat and drink and generally enjoy the city and company.

I was both relieved and a little sad to be leaving. I loved Salamanca. More than any other city I walked through over the past 2 months while on the Camino de Santiago.

I made some wonderful friends in class, who were all in Salamanca for between 3 and 12 weeks for their Spanish studies. I was sad to be leaving them after only one week. Once again though, I realize that I only get to experience the tinge of sadness to be leaving them, because I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with them in the first place. I look forward to seeing them in Holland, Switzerland and New Zealand sometime in the future.

Is it for you?

If you’ve ever thought about learning a foreign language in a foreign country, I can only say that it is definitely an experience and one that will challenge, and in all likelihood, delight you, if you can keep your focus on the moment in front of you. It might also be overwhelming at times, you’ll probably swear under your breath in class (or on the odd occasion, out loud) and you will likely meet new lifelong friends from all over the world. I can only guarantee one thing though – and that is that you will, most definitely, stretch that comfort zone of yours. You might even lose sight of it for a while you’ll be so far out of it, but you will find it again. Because you will grow to meet it and it will forever remain stretched because of your courage to allow yourself to lose sight of it for a time.


Roman Bridge
Old town Salamanca and the Roman Bridge

Adios for now

So for now, I’ll hang up my Spanish text book and head off for a month of travel around Spain and Portugal where maybe, just maybe, I can use some of the language skills I have learnt this week.

I hope I can do better than that one time on the Camino in a small village bar when I thought I had ordered 3 beers, only to realize, after many beers were placed in front of me, that I’d ordered 32 beers.

I’ve made worse mistakes in my life….

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi.

How to take 10,000 volts and enjoy it! Tough Mudder style.

How to enjoy a challenge – a guest post from Peter McFadyen.

If someone walked up to you and asked if you’d like to get hit repeatedly by 10,000 volts would you take up that offer? What if you were able to bring along your friends and family? What if there would be 26,000 other people with you to enjoy the experience?

Of course, though the voltage is high the current is low so there is little chance you’ll die …. but they’ll get you to sign a death waiver anyway just to be on the safe side! On top of that you’ll get to run about 20km and go through 20 other obstacles in blazing heat or freezing cold, and there’s a time limit.

Afterwards there is a valuable reward – a free drink and a headband and the knowledge that you are now a Tough Mudder!

Tough Mudder is truly a challenging thing to do. The course designers, ex-SAS guys, hit all the high notes on a variety of fears and phobias with remarkable skill and planning. Be it confined spaces, heights, dunking under a pool filled with ice or shooting out through a wall of fire you will find it there waiting for you. There is also the sheer physical endurance side of the challenge with the 20k run, wading through waist deep mud, the log carry and the Berlin Wall.

Not the least, ever present in your mind the knowledge going in that by the time you finish you will be exhausted, injured to a greater or lesser extent and before you finish you get hit repeatedly by 10,000 volts as you run the final gauntlet that is Electric Shock Therapy.

We do this in the name of fun, comradeship and family bonding! In all honesty we also do it because not too many of the population will do it, because it is a little mad, and to raise funds for a good cause.

I’ve completed a Tough Mudder course three times now, which gives me a blue headband, and I have looked on in awe and envy at those with a black headband. These 10 times veterans of the Tough Mudder experience are worthy of respect.

Twice I’ve had the joy of completing the course with both my sons and have loved working with them to overcome the obstacles on the course. I have seen them complete the course with cuts, bruises and sprains and on the brink of exhaustion.

At the same time we were all wearing kilts, calling each other ‘Lachlan’ and truly enjoying the day. Along the way our sense of enthusiasm and readiness to engage other Mudder’s won us a small group of fans who cheered us on our way and congratulated us afterwards – it’s amazing what a smile, a bit of encouragement and an outrageous Scottish accent can do to lift peoples spirits.


Family tough mudder
Family times at Tough Mudder

So the question has to be asked – if we do that for fun, what would we call pain? Or is pain just a lack of preparation and a poor mindset?

Not to stray into the metaphysical side of things too deeply, there is a lot to be said for attitude and preparation when it comes to the difference between enduring and enjoying. As always, if you go into something willingly and with a reasonable understanding of the challenges you will face then you are able to participate in the challenge with a sense of enjoyment and come away with a sense of achievement. Going into the same challenge unprepared and uninformed will increase the opportunity to be overwhelmed, overcome and disengaged.

Be it a new job, an adventure or an intense period of work, what can you do to prepare for a challenge? In the various planned and unplanned challenges I have met so far, the ones which I have come through in the best shape have been ones which I have applied the following steps to:

1) Learn as much as you can about what you are letting yourself in for – especially the deadlines, the deliverables and the likely delay points.

2) Prepare as thoroughly as possible with the time you have.

3) Break the challenge down into suitable chunks – nobody eats an elephant in one sitting.

4) Schedule the workload so you don’t get too tired to be effective.

5) Be kind to yourself throughout the process, there will be tough times and good times and you need to accept both as a natural part of the process.

6) Ask for help when you need it. You may be able to do it all yourself but it will probably be faster, just as good and more enjoyable if you accept help.

7) Go into it with a sense of fun and determination.

8) Be prepared to laugh along the way. Being too serious takes too much energy.

9) Let go of fear, it is exhausting and limiting.

10) And finally, believe in yourself. Know that you will come through this successfully.

The order of the steps can be moved around and you may need to revisit some of them throughout the process. In my experience none of them may be skipped if you are to come through your challenge successfully and improved for the experience. Your attitude and your willingness to continue throughout the challenge will be key in your success. Being able to laugh along the way at the small joys you find and revelling in the shared experience will also be key to your success.

After all, if being hit by 10,000 volts can be accepted as just part of the experience, then the human mind can surely adapt to most circumstance given the right preparation and a willingness to grow from the experience.

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi.

Right of Way – A Pilgrim on the Camino – Episode 3 – Groundhog days

Well I’m done walking – for now. I was on the Camino Frances for a total of 36 days and then extended to the Camino Muxia and Finisterre for a further 4 days – bringing my total to 40 days and 40 nights and around 920km.

I was contemplating my days toward the end of the journey. How each day is the same, and at the same time, completely different, and how the days, or at least the way I think of the days, changed from my first few weeks to the last few weeks.

There are some things that seemingly remain the same, every single day. Even after 40 days of walking.

Like these things:

I’m on the top bunk in a room full of other people all in their own bunks.

5.30am Plastic bag rustling commences.

I know the other pilgrims in the albergue (hostel with bunk beds for pilgrims) are trying to be quiet.

But they are failing at that.

I’m familiar with the sound now but wish they’d all brought dry bags instead of plastic bags. Less noisy.

I push my earplugs in my ear harder and cover my face. I need more sleep.

I get tired of trying to sleep with the noise and get up.

Sleep sack goes in the bag and I stuff my sleeping bag.

Find my toothbrush. Wait in line for one bathroom that services 60 people.

And wait.


Get dressed in exactly the same clothes I wore yesterday. And the day before and the day before….

Pack my backpack.

Pyrenees backpackOver the Pyrenees – blessed with stunning weather

Put in on hoping it’s going to miraculously be lighter than yesterday.

It’s not.

Leave the albergue.


Mostly it’s dark for a while. Hope I don’t twist an ankle in the dark. Keep walking for about 2 hours.

Think about what it might be like to not have to walk today. Briefly.

Then just walk.

Take a seat at the next cafe.

Cafe con leche grande (big coffee with milk), bocadillo con queso y jamon ( Ham and cheese baguette) and zumo de naranjo (freshly squeezed orange juice).

Then walk.

And walk.

Stop again after another 2-3 hours for another coffee or cold drink. Take my shoes off. Check my feet and blisters.

Talk to friends. Meet new friends.

Then walk.

Arrive at a place where I want to stay. Look for a bed.

Find a bed.

Fingers crossed for a bottom bunk.

Get out my sleeping bag, and my other set of clothes (my ‘going out’ clothes).

Check the line for the shower.

Get in line.


Find a sink and hand wash today’s clothes (which of course are tomorrow and every other days clothes). Wring the life out of them and find a line or some other obscure but sunny place to hang them.

Hope I remember to get them in before dark.

Go to the bar.

Drink a large beer. With lemon.

Talk to friends from all over the world.

Eat the pilgrims dinner.

And drink the wine that comes with it.

Go to bed.

Restrain myself from poking the guy snoring with my trekking poles.

Listen curiously to the person sleep talking.

Try hard to ignore the moans and groans.

Feel an itch on my leg.

Spend the night thinking the bed is infested with bed bugs (only once in actuality but the fear remains).

5.30am plastic bags rustling.

So while it seems from the above commentary that each day was the same – it was, and of course, it wasn’t.

Every day provided me with new experiences, new friends, deeper friendships, opportunities to stretch my comfort zone, the chance to push myself physically, daily tests of my mental endurance and emotional strength, many opportunities to laugh, differing views and vistas (mostly beautiful, some industrial), new food, the chance to practice my Spanish and of course, the unexpected. Always the unexpected.

What did change over the 40 days was the way I thought about each day.

I recall early on I would check the elevation profiles of the stage for the next day, and dread the hills I knew were coming. I would think constantly about the kilometers I’d walked that day, how many more were to go, how quickly that time might pass. I was forever focused on my blisters, my pain, my sore feet. The twinges in my leg muscles telling me to back off. Constantly focused on the body.

After a few weeks, I measured my day in hours. If someone said something was 10km away, I immediately translated that to 2 hours away. I stopped vigilantly checking the elevation profiles the night before, knowing that there would be hills, or there wouldn’t (unlikely) but that whatever the day held, I’d get through it. I measured the morning as the part before the sun came up (and reasoned to myself that any distances made pre-daylight were a bonus) and the part until I found a cafe for breakfast. The rest of the day just flowed along. Walking. Talking. Contemplating life. Celebrating life. Knowing that at a point in time that day, I would arrive somewhere to sleep.

So as they say, some things stay the same. But even in the sameness that was my walking for 40 days, there was so much to celebrate, so much that was different.

What kind of different can you find in your everyday sameness?

“Let your life be your message” Mahatma Gandhi.