How a visit to a bizarre Welsh town in Argentina encapsulated the peaks and troughs of studying Spanish
A guest blog entry by Sam Howe
About half way down the coast of Argentina there’s a town called Gaiman where people speak fluent Welsh. It turns out that Welsh immigrants moved to the area about 150 years ago to escape religious persecution. They also wanted somewhere remote to preserve their language from the increasing influence of English.
Despite the 1 hour 30 min journey (on two separate buses) the locals insisted that going to this typical Welsh town – along with its afternoon tea house – was well worth the visit. I think the concept of afternoon tea is considered to be a bit exotic here. It turns out that Princess Dianna went there in 1995 so with a shrug we decided to give it a shot.
After a long, uncomfortable journey we jumped off the bus and began following a huge sign which read ‘Casa De Te Galés -260m’. Despite the area only having 14.8mm of rain per month, the experience was made all the more realistic with some truly Welsh, persistent drizzle. After a 30 minute walk through muddy paths fighting off farmyard animals it became clear that the tea house was not 260m away. Growing more and more frustrated (and wet), with the help of a lumberjack, we eventually found our way to the front door and rang the bell.
A poe-faced Professor McGonagall lookalike poked her head around the door and glared into our souls. The question, ‘Esta arriba?’ (it is up?), asked by my girlfriend, helped set the tone for the ensuing confusion. Those who have attempted to learn a language will be forgiving of the mistake as – if they’re anything like me – the ability to speak fluently deteriorates when feeling flustered/ stressed in any way. After failing to understand most of what she was saying, we did grasp that they weren’t open until two. She proceeded to shut the door in our face thus leaving us to wait in the cold and rain in the full knowledge that we were in the middle of nowhere – I’m guessing Princess Di didn’t get this treatment.
It’s at times like this I curse myself for not having the language or quick thinking to sort the situation. Why had this role play not been covered by our Spanish teacher? Even when they eventually took pity and served us early we couldn’t understand a word the waitress was saying. I found it difficult to appreciate dainty little Welsh cakes when feeling damp, embarrassed and frustrated. Even when I asked how to get back to the bus station she looked at me like I was a maniac.
At this point everything changed. A couple next to us overheard we were going back to Puerto Madryn and offered us a lift back. The prospect of an awkward, hour long car journey with our fleeting Spanish initially put us off. However being spared a taxi ride and two buses was far too tempting. The couple – both from a rural area of the Santa Fe district – spoke to us slowly, clearly and we exchanged pleasant small talk for the entire journey back.
This was a timely reminder about why learning a language was great. We were able to discuss sport, travel and culture, however basic it may have been, with a rugby-loving sheep farmer and his wife from the other side of the world. I was indebted to the couple not only for their altruism, but for teaching me that persistence pays off; don’t fret when you hit a trough because you never know when a peak might be around the corner.