by Sarah Wu
Photography by Sarah Wu
I walked into the building, took the lift up to planta dos and gently knocked on the door. A girl about my age answered the door in Spanish.
“Hola!” Tina said.
“Es la oficina de Where Madrid?” (Is this the Where Madrid office?) I asked.
I told her I was there to see Rocio, the editor-in-chief, and she eagerly let me in. Much to my surprise, I later found out that Tina was also an intern. She carried herself naturally, as if she had been living in Spain for years, but in reality, she had only landed in Spain a week before me. It also turned out that one of my co-workers had moved from Mexico not too long ago, and my boss had worked in several different countries, hence her near-perfect English she spoke in at the end of my interview.
“You are not allowed to speak English in the office,” Rocio said. “You need to practice your Spanish.”
This was tougher than I thought it would be, not because I didn’t want to practice my Spanish or that I was defaulting to English, but because I was constantly switching between the languages for my job.
During my internship program abroad at a travel magazine, in addition to traveling to Europe for the first time, I was forced to speak a different language. Although I began learning Spanish in the 7th grade, I felt like I had hit a wall. I was becoming restless in the classroom and needed to get out and explore. Full immersion was the logical answer.
One of the trickiest aspects of the job was trying to keep the languages straight. I was forced to be bilingual from day one; I’d be writing and editing in English, but be translating texts from Spanish to English and speaking with my co-workers in Spanish. Sometimes I’d help one of my co-workers, Lara, with her English homework. Later in the day, I’d go to class and speak Spanish with my professor and with my host mom back at the apartment. It was exhausting mentally, but the eight weeks gave me an intellectual challenge that wouldn’t have been matched sitting in a three hour lecture.
It’s almost a confidence booster when you’re waiting at the bus stop and someone walks up to you asking for directions, assuming you’re a local. The first few weeks are filled with you asking questions, and soon it’s reversed and suddenly everyone is asking you the questions only the locals would know the answers to.
Throughout my formal Spanish education, I have been told countless times to not worry about the vosotros conjugation, because “you’ll only need it when you go to Spain.” Well, there I was in Spain, not knowing a clue about a verb tense that I should’ve learned almost 10 years ago. ¿Entendéis? No, I don’t understand.
I also learned the specialized vocabulary and picked up the accent once again. The first two Spanish teachers that instructed my first four years of learning had “Spain” Spanish accents; even though their influence on my accent wore off as my Spanish progressed, I now have the ceceo lisp down to a t, much to the dismay of most of my Spanish-speaking friends. I like to think that instead of my accent sounding like alphabet soup—aka Spanish learned in a classroom from teachers with distinct, but different, accents—I actually sound somewhat like a Spaniard as I constantly drop vale (okay) and ¿Qué tal? (what’s up/how are you), as well as a few words like coger that have a VERY different meaning outside of Spain.
As the weeks passed, I began to see myself as I saw my fellow intern the first day on the job. I became an expert on Madrid attractions, restaurants and Spanish events as I wrote about them for the publication and was able to take my visiting friends around without Google Maps. I would be the first one to peel away from my desk when someone rang the doorbell or knocked, and laughed when Rocio would yell out, “OH MY GOD!” out of nowhere, reminding me that she was bilingual as well.
Journalism is the perfect profession for anyone who both hates and loves routine. You’re always writing, editing or translating, but the texts and subjects change day to day and you never know where your research will bring you. I ended up in Spain.