“what country are you from?”

I like to at least try to fit in when I’m living in other countries – to outwardly appear as little like the foreigner that I am. I fancy that I passed fairly well as a German when I lived in Germany. But in Spain it’s hopeless. This is my everyday:

My hair swirls around my head in a frizzy, light brown mane as I powerwalk – my natural pace – between and around the sauntering, bronzed Spaniards with their flowing, deep brown locks. For the sake of comfort and relieving stress on my shoulders, my backpack is lashed to my waist with its wide, grey mesh straps, and it bulges with my tennis shoes and other workout paraphernalia, as well as textbooks and a massive umbrella.

I can feel the eyes of the women toting their oversized purses – never a backpack, no matter the load! – fall on me as I pass. Or maybe they’re staring at my blindingly pale arms, which my tank top exposes to the world. It’s 65 degrees and I’m still sweating from exercising; what else am I supposed to wear? Perhaps if I moseyed along at their pace, I wouldn’t be drenched even if I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, like the rest of the population. I doubt it, though.

My feet are squished into my comfy Toms, which have neither heels nor platforms to make me seem taller. Nevertheless, my strangely broad shoulders stand the chance of knocking some of the Spanish women I pass in the chin. That would be tragic indeed, as I’m uncertain if their wispy frames could withstand a brush with my solid one, especially with their ankles suspended at odd angles several inches off the ground. They might tumble over, their flowy blouses fluttering all the way and their smoker’s lungs wheezing out gasps of surprises. If that happened, I’d grasp their delicate fingers with my meaty paw and lift them to their feet before apologetically speeding away.

They are different stock here, and I’m never going to physically fit in. So I’ll enjoy my sleeveless shirts and throw my fuzzy hair up in a bun on all the humid days, and I won’t be surprised when the first question I’m asked is, “What country are you from?”


misadventures in translation

On my first quiz in translation class a few weeks ago I had to stifle my laughter in the middle of the quiz because of the ridiculous Spanish “words” I was inventing to translate the phrase “four-wheel antilock minivan brakes.”

Today, I didn’t laugh during the quiz but did turn it in with the general sense of unease that comes when you’re nearly certain you royally butchered a key word in the text but you don’t yet know which or how badly.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my version of the short article from today’s quiz, back-translated to English from my painful rendering in Spanish. I chuckled all through lunch.

Please imagine this scene as vividly as possible:

In the results that make obvious that appetite is often a case of “the mental over the material,” a new study says that the memory of a big recent meal can fill you up. But the memory of a stingy portion of food – even an incorrect memory – can make you hungrier and cause you to eat more the next time, said the researchers.

The study published Wednesday in the journal Public Library of Science One, used a naive trick to manipulate the memory of the subject’s lunch: at the bottom of a ferret filled with cream of tomato soup, they installed a hidden pumpa* that they could use to secretly refill or take out its contents while the subjects ate it.

The researchers wondered if the subjects who were tricked by the said manipulation would then remember the sight of the big 500-mg portion of soup they ate or if they would in some manner remember the smaller 300-mg portion they ate. And they wondered if the appetite of the subjects as the hour of dinner arrived would be lead by the lunch they ate or the more satisfying food they thought they ate.

When asked how hungry the subjects were as the hour to eat dinner arrived, the memories of the food the subjects saw – not the the food they ate – had the most influence. Even when their ferrets of soup were being slowly emptied, the subjects who sat in front of a big ferret of soup were less hungry. And they who were presented with a small ferret of soup said they were more hungry – even if the researchers in back of the stage refilled their ferrets.

*I made up a word for pump. It does not exist in Spanish.

Now, the original article:

In a finding that makes clear that appetite is often a case of mind over matter, new research finds that the memory of a hearty recent meal can fill you up. But the memory of a stingy serving of victuals — even an inaccurate memory — can make you hungrier, and prompt heavier eating at the next meal, researchers found.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Public Library of Science One, used an ingenious trick to manipulate research subjects’ memories of a lunchtime meal they had: At the bottom of a soup bowl filled with cream of tomato soup, they installed a hidden pump, which could be used to surreptitiously refill the  bowl while the subject ate or draw down its contents.

The researchers wondered whether subjects tricked by such a manipulation would later remember the sight of the hefty 500-mg serving of soup they were asked to eat, or whether they would somehow register the punier 300-mg serving they actually ate. And they wondered whether, as dinnertime approached, the subjects’ appetite would be driven by the actual lunch they had eaten or the more satisfying meal they thought they ate.

When asked how hungry they were as dinnertime approached, subjects’ memories of the meal they saw — not the one they ate — seemed to be most influential. Even when their soup bowls were steadily drained, those who were seated in front of a large bowl of soup were less hungry. And those who were presented with a small bowl of soup pronounced themselves more hungry — even if researchers behind the scenes were steadily refilling their bowls.

How I came up with the word turón for bowl, I’ll never be sure. I was aware I didn’t consciously know the word, so when turón popped into my mind, I just went for it. My only guess is that it reminds me of the word tureen in English, which is indeed a bowl. And the word turrón (two Rs make all the difference) is a food and also a word I’ve been seeing a lot recently, since it’s a nut-filled Christmas nougat that appeared in grocery stores last week. I guess I combined the two in my subconscious to come up with the unfortunate turón, which literally means polecat – a ferret. It even has the same accent pattern as the actual word for bowl: tazón. Tazón tazón tazón. Heaven help.

second language confusion

Vivobarefoot evo pure

Humor me for a moment, and let’s imagine something together.

You’re nine years old. For as long as you’ve been able to talk you’ve been calling your mother “Mommy” – or “Mom,” if you decided to be cool really young. When you want to get her attention, “Mom” jumps out of your mouth without so much as a thought. Not even a split second. It’s just there. It’s the word you associate with her.
Now comes the fun part. This year in school you’re in your mom’s class. She’s a teacher, and this year she’ll be your teacher (for the sake of argument it’s a small school; one teacher per grade). Along with all the weirdness and embarrassment this brings, you’re going to have to call her Mrs. [insert your last name here] in class.
The first several weeks of school are incredibly frustrating, because this scenario keeps repeating itself over and over: you need to say something to your mom, but instead of saying, “Mrs. Iylnh, can you —?” you automatically blurt out, “Mom, can —?” and then catch and correct yourself. The first week the word “Mom” springs out without any hesitation, and you only realize after a few seconds, and maybe a glare from your mother, that you’ve said the wrong word. The second week you slip up less frequently but somehow you feel more confused. A split second before you hail your mom, your brain holds back your lips, as you remember that “Mom” isn’t the right word to use. There’s another word. What is it? Why would you call your mom anything else but that? What is it, though? You hesitate, and if anyone was looking at your face, they would see the slight furrow in your brows and the blank look in your eyes. What feels like at least a few seconds later – who knows if it was just miliseconds or much longer – the muddle clears. Oh, right! “Hey Mrs. Iylnh —”

A battle that I can only describe with the story above has been playing out in my brain ever since I returned from studying abroad in Freiburg last summer, a whole year ago now. I have some serious second language confusion: that is, a lot of transfer from one of my second languages (German) to my other second language (Spanish). It’s never the actual word “Mom,” but it’s ones that feel just as familiar in the language I’m speaking. Up until today and to my great consternation, I accidentally threw German words into my Spanish sentences or, worse yet, was unable to complete my sentences because the word that I once knew perfectly well in Spanish would only come to mind in German. What are called “functional words,” like conjunctions and prepositions, were/are particularly prone to this problem, as well as filler words like “so” and exclamations like “really!?” (well, their equivalents in German, that is). Well, today I finally experienced the opposite.
I went to the gym (where I got to use my new Vivobarefoot tennis shoes! – I get a bit excited about trying new kinds of zero-drop shoes) and briefly met a German girl. She spoke to me immediately in German, because she’d heard me speaking Spanish when I’d accidentally throw in that German word for “so.” I attempted to respond in German without freaking her out with my rabid, pure joy at having the chance to switch from my still rusty and halting Spanish back to oh-so-comfortable German. And then a Spanish word jumped into my sentence! I saw it there in my mind just before it happened; it was a strangely vivid and visual experience. The Spanish word hovered in the twilight in bold, prepared to march forth, but in the background was the muted, hazy form of the equivalent word in German. Then it was over. She laughed, and I threw up my hands in exasperation as I explained how I constantly mix the two languages. She kindly sympathized. I shut my mouth.

Anyway, I’m glad my Spanish is slowly returning enough for it to start bullying my German. And the blessing it is to even have this problem is not lost on me. But it’s high time I make both Spanish and German friends, because I think the only way to solve the problem is by speaking both languages on a daily basis. And speaking English all the time, as I’ve been doing with my American classmates, isn’t going to help a thing.

After my Panorama of Spanish Literature class, I paid a visit to one of the abundant bulk candy stores that appear around every corner here. No one ever mentions Spain as being a prime place to find candy, but, well I guess it is. They’re stocked with gummy, chewy, and marshmallowy candies of (literally) scores of different shapes, flavors, and sizes. The pepper-shaped one I tried was shockingly spicy – an odd sensation!

spicy candy

Highlighter for scale.


namelyGermany is a confusing place; talking with or corresponding with new people can be daunting. Of course, the language barrier caused by my halting German is an issue, but often a more immediate problem presents itself: namely, what to call people. This particular quandary occurs when I’m sending an email to someone I’ve never met in person. He? She? Frau? Herr? Here, I’ll illustrate for you.

Let’s play “Guess the Gender of This German Name:”


Wrong. Male.


Yup, male.


Doesn’t follow the pattern. Female.


Nope. That’s short for Florian. Despite its reminiscent-of-flowers sound, it’s a guy’s name.

Usually I do a quick Google search before I email someone with the first name “Uwe,” for example, to ask him – that’s a masculine name, apparently – a question about housing or classes.

As if the names themselves weren’t ambiguous and befuddling enough, then there are the spellings. You can’t just hear someone’s name and then know how to spell it. Oh, no.

Lorenz  = Lawrence with the accent on the second syllable.

Marija = Maria, but my immediate reaction is, “What on earth is that J doing next to that I?!”

Niklas = Nicholas; I guess they just toss out the middle vowel.

Sure, they’re all logical, given how the letters of the alphabet are pronounced in German. But it still catches me off-guard.

It was particularly bothersome in Portuguese class on Monday when we were learning how to tell people how to spell our names. When I did the same exercise in German and Spanish in the past, it was easy, because I could guess. As my American classmates spelled “J-E-S-S-” I could anticipate “Jessica” or “Jesse.” Alternatively, if I knew that my neighbor’s name was “Andrea,” I could wait for the familiar letters with unfamiliar sounds.

But not in Germany. Nope. When Lorenz spelled his name, I naively expected “L-A-W-” et cetera. I should’ve known better. Instead, my face probably betrayed my confusion as I struggled against my intuitions and attempted to decipher the German spelling of a familiar English name recited using the Portuguese alphabet as spoken by a German.

What. have. I. done?

that freshman feeling

People kept staring at my massive, black umbrella as I walked from the tram stop to the central plaza of the university in the grey drizzle. Maybe they were awed by its span. Maybe they wished both the tops of their backpacks and the tops of their heads were dry like mine. It’s a struggle to maintain both when you have a diminutive umbrella. But all my belongings were free of moisture.

However, the downside to a venti, triple-shot, extra-special, super-sized, double-the-fun umbrella is that it holds extra water when folded up. Mine drip, drip, dripped a trail of darkened rain on four floors’ worth of average stairs, across a wide breezeway, and around and around a deep-summer-strawberry-red circular staircase to the fifth floor. The two other people there in the tower-like corridor slouched against the radiator by the window. I wandered to the end of the short hall and peeked around the corner, hoping to appear nonchalantly curious rather than lost or clueless. Then I joined them and swiped at the screen of my phone, feigning a deep interest in its display.

Between serious-looking phone-staring sessions, I alternated my furtive, upward glances between door 3501 and the spiral staircase and my watch. The time displayed on my phone didn’t register in my mind. Three minutes til class time, and still none of the three professors, who had raised my hopes with their footfalls on the staircase, had entered the appointed room. One minute more and I would have to try the door myself; I would be forced to contend with its lack of a rotating door handle; I would be required to figure out what the light switch-like button to its left meant. I would surely be foiled in my attempts to enter – as I had been with previous German doors of that nature – and would turn back to hunch over my phone in embarrassment. But, wait. Hallelujah! A fourth person emerged from the stairs! She headed straight for the terrifying door, buzzed the doorbell with all the confidence of a German accustomed to dealing with a wide variety of confusingly closed entryways, and slipped into the room – a library? – when the lock clicked open to admit her.

I quickly followed her example, and inside the – sure enough – library, we exchanged whispered inquiries:

‘You looking for Byzantine–‘

‘Yeah, Byzantine Archeology. Is there a classroom in here?’

‘Not a clue.’

Our mutual confusion was reassuring, and we padded down the faded industrial carpet side by side. An older man appeared from an office beyond the end of the bookshelves, a half-dozen yards in front of us. He cheerily beckoned us to the end of the little departmental library with the glad tidings, ‘The classroom is down here.’ Success!

My fellow loiterers from out in the hall were just seconds behind us. And soon I found myself seated in a cushy chair, surrounded by nine classmates, listening with bated breath to the professor explain Introduction to Byzantine (Art History) Archeology, waiting for the axe of daunting assignments to fall, and wishing I knew the definition of every other word he uttered. I’ve never felt so much like a freshman in my life.

an ode to mustard

I’ve always loved mustard. I put it on everything. I think my love for it rivals my adoration of peanut butter. That’s serious.

But lately I’ve appreciated mustard more than ever. I’m doing a Whole30 – perhaps I’ll explain in further detail in another post – and brown mustard has become my go-to flavoring for everything. It makes life bearable – no, wonderful!

And so, I wrote an ode to mustard. It should be sung – not read! – to the tune of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. I’ve conveniently included a link to a karaoke version of that song, which will provide accompaniment to your singing. So, there’s no excuse for not belting it out as your eyes skim along the lines.

To mustard!

An Ode to Mustard (to the tune of “My Favorite Things“)

Dijon on omelets
And yellow on burgers
Honey on mushrooms
And spicy in dressing
Mustard, my condiment,
Fills me with joy.
These are the ways
That I mustard enjoy.

Yellow mustard with french fries
Is better than ketchup.
Mayonnaise and hot sauce
Just cannot catch up.
I wish my yard was
Full of mustard weeds
Then I could jump
In piles of mustard leaves.

All salad dressings
Taste bland without mustard.
Marinades for grilled meats
And sauces for fishes
Must include mustard
To taste just right.
Otherwise I might just
Put up a fight.

When the dish is bland,
When the eggs taste eggy,
When I’m feeling sad,
I simply remember
That mustard exists
And then I don’t feel so bad!

Sometimes people try to
Add odd ingredients
To mustard.
Wasabi and horseradish
And dill or some ginger.
These all distract
From mustard’s perfection.
I don’t know why people
Try such concoctions.

In the fridge door
We have our collection
Of mustards.
A row of happy
Yellows; my heart beats gladly.
A different flavor
For each different mood.
What joy it brings me
To see my mustard brood.

For breakfast I flavor
My fried eggs with mustard.
Spicy brown is
The perfect accompaniment.
At lunch I eat sandwiches
Slathered with yellow.
And Dijon goes well with
My black bean salad so mellow.

When the dish is bland,
When the eggs taste eggy,
When I’m feeling sad,
I simply remember
That mustard exists
And then I don’t feel so bad!

so Houston is home, huh?

home is where the puppy isI’ve thought about the concept of “home” some more.  And I’ve concluded that there are varying degrees of “home.” It’s a spectrum. At the furthest, most home-y end of that spectrum is where my parents live.

I started to realize that when I was tagging my last post. I have a category for posts that I’ve written “from home.” I didn’t use that category when I lived in Peru for three months or at my grandparents’ for two months, during my gap year. I don’t use it when I’m at college. But, by golly, I’m going to use it in Texas. Once the best friend and I road trip down there in December (oh yes!), you’d better believe the food-filled posts popping up one after another on here will be all categorized as “from home.”

Maybe, if my parents someday retire to the mountains or decide to become nomads and circumnavigate the world in a sailboat once they are empty-nesters and my brothers and I are scattered across the US, then the place I associate with my “from home” category will change. Even more likely, if I manage to find a job and a place to live after college – though a linguistics degree is a far cry from a guarantee of that – then that place will be my “from home.” But for now, it’s where Mom and Dad are.  And that’s Texas.

Just please don’t call me a Texan. Not yet, anyhow.