Learning language

I haven’t made many posts in this post because I’d moved on to other things, mostly my blog on menus and food in Spain. So I’ll do a brief update. I started this blog because I had to leave my house on Sundays to avoid an undesired family interaction. So I spent most of Sunday at Starbucks and just Net surfing got boring. Also when I discover new information I like to talk about it and I had no one to discuss. So I just thought I’d talk to the void, i.e. make posts that probably don’t get read – but so what. Having to write posts, since there might be a critical reader, forces me to consider my words more carefully so actually writing down thoughts sharpens my own thinking.

Since I started the blog several very important events have occurred. First my mother died and so for almost two years I have buried in settling the estate. The work here in Nebraska was too deep since it dealt with various liquid assets. But my parents owned land and/or mineral rights in Oklahoma which turned out to be a nightmare to resolve. The land passed through multiple generations (and estates) and purchases. Unfortunately the legal records were seriously incomplete and thus the titles were not sufficient. I discovered this as an oil company provided a “divisional order” (the declaration of which landowners receive what shares from a producing well) with numerous exceptions in the title. I finally sorted this out (I thought) but it seems there are still some gaps in title. Despite that the oil company finally accepted the title and is now paying me my share of my inherited mineral rights.

I was the executor of the estate with only two heirs, me and my sister. My sister is older and wanted to liquidate her share of the property so she could spend that on travel. Her physical mobility was declining a bit and so she wanted to get in as much travel as she could while she still could. So the funds from the estate would make that easier. So with the first distributions from the estate she did more “luxury” trips to Russia and India, like going first class and hiring dedicated guides with transportation.

She was looking forward to getting her share of the property in Oklahoma when suddenly and unexpectedly she was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I was on vacation at the time and had to get back home and then to her home. It was a very sad visit, of course, but also disappointing in that she had many friends who all wanted to see her. Her health had declined and she was heavily drugged for the pain so she could only spend a few hours a day speaking with people. So I, as her only living relative, basically stood in line while other people in her home town got their time with her. I left after ten days, having only spent a few hours with her, hoping I could come back and see her again. But my next trip to visit was for her funeral and then a second trip back to a vast feast she had planned as her own memorial.

So now I’m without any immediate family. For a while, when I was doing some therapy and reacting to my mother’s death, the therapist described my feelings as that of “an orphan”. My dad had died shortly after I moved here but now I had no family nearby, only my distant sister. Since my sister wanted cash I accepted our parents’ house, which is where I am now (instead of stuck at Starbucks). But that was a totally weird experience to go through their house and try to distribute useful or semi-valuable items from their life and put 2.5 tons of stuff in the biggest available dumpster.

So all of this has been the most significant time in my life, both losing all my family and also having to do the responsible adult thing of taking care of all the legal and financial and material details of these lives. Often I was busy enough to not spend much time dwelling on my loss and often the nightmare of the estates and titles fully distracted me to the point of panic attacks at night, thinking I’d never get this resolved (perhaps I could have just walked away from the properties, they’re somewhat valuable but not so much that I couldn’t also just let them go, but I have a moral and legal responsibility to my sister and so had to keep plodding through.

For any of you who are actually following this story, let me tell, it’s a quite an experience and one that when I was younger I could never have imagined doing. And now that it is (mostly) over what I’m left with is the emptiness of being an “orphan” but also unavoidably thinking that I’m the next to go and how will that go for me.

I’m still in good health with no major issues (except for any readers who followed my weight loss and exercise posts, having relapsed back to excess weight and now I’m unable to muster the diligence to address that). My mobility has not been directly impaired but now I’m beginning to feel my age. And some of my sister’s sense of urgency of doing things while it is still possible has rubbed off on me. But my own home situation is preventing me from acting on impulse to carpe diem and get some bucket list things done while I can.

Which brings me to my last point which I’ll use to introduce future posts. I once stumbled on the movie The Way, a story about a father who lost his son and thus decides to complete the trip the son started when he died, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, known as the Camino de Santiago. While the emotional content of the story affected me what really happened was the idea was planted that I should walk the Camino, the whole 800km from southern France to northwestern Spain.

Now I don’t believe that will ever happen (the fantasy of the trip as presented by the movie is quite a bit different than the reality I now better understand). I’d never heard of this very famous (and now quite popular) pilgrimage route but somehow I just had to do it.

This has happened to me before, it’s amazing to me how quickly an idea gets planted in my head. Once shortly after moving to California for my first real job I had gotten a decent bicycle and began to ride a lot. Biking was an interesting challenge for me since I was a very slow learner as a kid. Also I don’t have much fitness and so once I had the embarrassing childhood of having to ride, probably only five miles, to a summer camp and being unable to make it and having to be hauled there in the back of a truck. Then I had a horrible bike and the other kids were both more fit and had better bikes, so of course they laughed at me not being able to ride that short distance. Despite rowing crew in college and as I grew through young adult years to better body for any form of athletics I still was a poor cyclist. So one day, riding the in hills near Palo Alto where I was exhausted by a short, but steep climb, and was resting alongside the road. A guy in the usual biking attire and with a much better bike stopped and we chatted. I asked him where he was going and he said he was doing a “Century”. What! I’d never heard of that but then he described doing a 100 mile ride, that day, sponsored by a local bike club. To me the idea of riding 100 miles in one day was beyond my wildest dreams BUT somehow I knew I had to do it. So two, better bikes and a couple of years of training I finally did my first Century, a fairly difficult one. As I was finishing the last few miles, quite tired, but obviously going to make it, I thought of those kids who ridiculed me – how many of them, now at 40 were doing 100 mile rides.

Not long after that I saw the Ironman Triathlon on TV and once again the idea popped in my head that I’d do that. After some study and serious though, also about being 45, not 25, I found there was a shorter (and for a time more popular and also available) form which was the Tinman (about 1/3rd of the Ironman). I knew I could, fairly easily, do the biking part and I’d done a lot of running (never liked) for conditioning for crew, but the swim seemed impossible. Like cycling I’d had a tough time as a kid trying to learn how to swim and I was actually a bit afraid of open water. Nonetheless, after a year of training in a pool (my first swim I was exhausted after 50m) every day and then either doing running or biking, I entered a couple of even shorter triathlons and finally did my Tinman. Once again I thought that was pretty good for being nearly 50.

I’d done a lot of backpacking and so, sorta, had the dream to either do the Appalachian Trail or even harder the Pacific Crest Trail (I’ve done segments of both) but: a) I didn’t have the time (was then a Silicon Valley workaholic), and, b) was very deterred by the logistics of getting new supplies on such a long hike. My longest backpack was 10 days and that was the very limit of supplies I could carry (I still remember my first day with nearly a 60lb pack) so that “dream” I decided was beyond me.

So back to the Camino – what I saw there was a long walk but with the overnight lodging, water and food readily available. Now retired and with time the only question was whether I could work up to 20 miles/day of hiking. As my previous readers, if any still look at this blog, will know is that I began to do the conditioning to work up to that.

But circumstances have not evolved as I hoped and so doing that walk seems impossible, not so much the pure physical part, but my old bones (and some difficulty sleeping in noisy bedrooms) discouraged me. While every now and then I get the idea of doing something well outside my comfort zone I’m not crazy and I didn’t think I would succeed on the Camino. Plus while that kind of trip is a lot cheaper than a vacation two months in Spain would have exceeded any budget I could have. So that will remain a dream.

But a part of it stuck with me and so, like I talked about in other posts, I set out to do a “virtual” version, converting miles on a treadmill in the basement to the Camino. You can find posts here where I did the same thing for the Pacific Crest Trail. So while the real experience would be far superior I do what I can. When I did my PCT “virtual” hike I used modern tools, specifically Google Earth and the geotagged photos, to “see” the trail which at least gave me something to make boring stationary exercise more interesting.

So for the Camino I set out to do more “virtual” touring. Unlike the PCT most of the Camino route is near roads, sometimes major highways. So the ability to “see” the route, via the Google Streetviews, is almost complete. I might not ever seen any of those towns but at least I could study them. And, I like to cook and do a decent job of it, so I decided to also learn what I could about food in Spain.

Once I went to a wonderful restaurant in Carmel California where the entire menus was in Italian (with no English). I puzzled through that menu and then decided to create a “cheatsheet” of Italian food words. This was just barely after the Mac II had come out and before the Web and with only a dial-up Net connection so my compilation of terms mostly came from a couple of dead-tree dictionaries I bought. I eventually, with the smallest font size possible and as many columns as would fit and on both sides of the paper and with early laser printers manged to create a single page with almost all the Italian words for food.  And to try to actually memorize some of that I built my own drill program and did a lot of experimenting with how to do drills smart (instead of just purely repetitive).

So today I’m doing the same  today, for Spain, but with much better tools – better computer, plenty of online resources, Google Translate, and many website with menus from restaurants in Spain. My idea was fairly simple, collect as many menus as possible, translate them as best I could (with various aids), compile a corpus and then use some “big data” ideas to compile a translation dictionary. So instead of a single piece of paper I also realized, since it is more open, I could also code an app for Android and thus, even in nowhere Spain with no net access, have a tool for translating menus.

And so my latest project began. While I didn’t assume I’d walk the Camino following most of it by car, maybe a few walks, was a feasible (although not any more, due to other complications) “goal”. Now just getting a translation dictionary and app is not enough as many restaurant menu items really don’t have a translation per se, so that also meant studying Spanish cuisine which was easily accomplished with a few cookbooks and now, also an online store where I could even buy food items from Spain that would never been available locally.

My sister, a few years earlier, has also developed a fascination for learning Spanish (about her fifth language) and also about cooking, although more from Mexico than Spain which she denounced as fairly awful cuisine (unlike me she had been there numerous times). So she thought my idea was silly, to just do food. So she badgered me into learning the language. Now, I have little knack for language (maybe even English) and so while I’d had both French and German in school I never developed any fluency. And being in California learning Spanish is a good thing. So I tried decades ago with the tools available then, literally audio cassette tapes and a textbook – total failure. Later when CDs came out there were better, but not very good, language learning programs. But also Spanish is well known as a very rapidly spoken language and also with sounds that are tough for a native English speaker. So I never thought Spanish would be possible for me.

But in doing various “research” for the my menu corpus I stumbled on some now much more sophisticated online learning tools. I found Duolingo particularly good and the prize is right (free, but with ads; there are other online tools which can be fairly expensive and who do provide free demos and frankly I think Duolingo is as good as any of those). So, amazingly, I am now learning Spanish, now with a 117 day “streak”. Along the way I also decided to do the French (easier, for me, than Spanish, partly because I already knew some, and it comes back more easily than learning something new) and German (and Catalan and Portuguese are on my ToDo list).

So, finally wrapping up, it’s helpful for me to “talk about” my experiences and the few people I can actually speak to are sick of hearing about my lessons, so once again I’ll use this blog to, fairly infrequently, relate some interesting (to me, at least) things I’m learning. Putting myself out publicly (even if no one is listening) creates a goal that I then have to accomplish so I’ll use some posting here as an incentive to keep going. And, learning language (and even cooking) is only one part of a culture, so now I’ve been trying to master geography (and climate) of Spain and even some of the history, certainly as it relates to shaping modern culture in Spain.

I may never get to go to Spain but certainly Mexico is a plausible vacation, maybe even one of those exchange things. My sister found a website that hooks up families in Mexico who would host a foreigner and require speaking Spanish, doing some chores (mostly cooking, which was interesting anyway) and thus learning more than staying in gringo resorts and hearing only English. And then there is Ecuador, which also somehow holds some fascination to me, so all this is a way to overcome my inertia: 1) admit publicly I’m learning Spanish (not exactly a great feat with huge numbers of fluent speakers, but a challenge for me), 2) use that as pressure on me to stick with all the learning I’ve been doing, my original menus project and now actually learning to read (easiest), hear (less easy) and speak (hardest) Spanish, and, 3) having put in all that work then overcome the issues that keep me from traveling and find some compromise trip that actually can happen

So we’ll see and perhaps some of this will make for interesting posts so you, Dear Reader, can go along with me.


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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