Snapshot: Chloe Wheeler (Spain, 2019/20)
In Galicia, the tapas are delicious; the seafood, amazingly fresh; the people, some of the most welcoming I’ve met in Spain. I am proud to be able to say that Lugo, Galicia, was once my home. When the world gets back to normal, I know I’ll return someday.
It’s difficult to choose one part of my Fulbright year that illustrates the holistic experience—there are so many layers! There’s the “Fulbright” layer of the past few months: what it was like as an educator in a foreign country, responsible for cross-cultural exchange and the technical curriculum of my school. From that layer come the stories from the classroom, from the volunteering I did with the local language school’s library, from the experience of making a podcast. And then there’s the “foreigner” layer: what it was like to live in a new region of Spain. I wouldn’t have heard of Galicia if not for Fulbright’s placing me there. It’s in this “foreigner” layer where you get the spontaneous Galician chestnut parties in the woods, the special Galician music from local festivals, and the views from gorgeous wine country along the coast.
I have a story for each of these layers. First, the “Fulbright” one: One week in the middle of October and an Aeromechanics lesson about fly-by-wire electrical systems, I was pulled out of class without warning. My school’s director summoned me to his office and had me grab my coat. He said in Spanish, “We’re going to the city hall.” In a confused panic, thinking that somehow my residency documents hadn’t processed, I responded, “Wait. I don’t have my passport with me!” He frowned, then told me that it shouldn’t be a problem. I had no idea what was happening.
We drove in pouring rain to the city center. At the city hall, he ushered me through a door. Together, we walked into a conference room. I was still irrationally suspecting a deportation back to California.
The conference room was filled with other teachers from my school and a group of Norwegians giving a PowerPoint presentation in English. Everyone looked at me with relief as I entered. My school’s director introduced me again: “This is Chloe, she’s here to help translate!” Turns out, they were having a press conference with a new Norwegian start-up company, called “Newton: First Scandinavia,” and they needed someone who could speak both English and Spanish to translate for them as they discussed new flight simulator technology for the Aeromechanics program of our vocational school. I suddenly understood my director’s confusion over my concern about lacking my passport. Why would I need my passport to help translate?
My experience as translator that week culminated in another press conference and networking hour where I was introduced to the President of Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, and held a full conversation with him about California and American politics. That’s probably the moment where my Spanish was put to its best use. It was very exciting to represent the U.S. in my capacity as a Fulbrighter.
My second story, this time as a “foreigner” in Spain, comes from February, during Carnival season before Lent and Easter. Friends and I rented a car for the day and drove to the pueblo of Laza in central Galicia.
After arriving, we walked through the town’s mud-paved streets. The main event was soon to come—the one that makes Laza famous around Spain for its ancient way of celebrating Galician Carnival, or in Galician, Entroido. The crowd around me was dressed up in every type of costume you could imagine, as if the kaleidescopal contents of a time machine had spilled out onto the streets of Laza.
The crowds gathered in anticipation. A jolly fellow dressed as a rat played the lively Galician bagpipes. A set of friends, all in anteater costumes, sang haunting harmonies in Galician along to the lilting tune of the gaita bagpipes. Off to the side, a cluster of teenage mantis shrimp bobbed their heads to the music and drank a strange neon green liqueur called xastré as an exhausted-looking donkey trotted past the whole ensemble, carrying more revellers in mud-covered wetsuits.
I moved through the golden light of the day as if reading a magical realism novel, wondering: This can’t be real?
Together, we—foreigners, Galicians, and Laza residents alike—experienced a communal “waiting” for the sun to set. The sun crouched beneath the horizon and suddenly bells on the costumes of frightening-looking peliqueiros startled us all as they emerged from the creeping crepuscular hour: these characters, grinning with the cartoonishly-clear paint of their masks, brandished whips to part the crowds of costumed beings. They were harbingers of the next phase of that twilight.
The scene from a fairy-tale gone berserk got only more surreal as giant metal fans parted us to throw heaps of ant-filled dirt into the crowd. The crowd shrieked with joy as a giant red paper-mâché ant danced, puppet-like, above the crowd, accompanying his displaced brethren currently in flight and in our hair. Clumps of dirt and ants pelted our heads and we brushed biting ants from our limbs, shaking ourselves free from stray insects creeping into our sleeves and socks.
Before we could breathe, the dirt storm changed: I opened my mouth to exclaim something and instead my words were met by the smack of chalky flour across my face. I was expecting a more earthy, insect-y flavor. I licked the white powder from my lips and laughed.
It was a laugh of enchantment from the montage of the day: the melancholy tune of the Galician bagpipes combined with the eerie otherness that came across the group of people in Laza dressed as mythical creatures from the make-believe of the tales we are told as children. It was then that I had the following realization: in the communal, Bacchic loss of identity in Entroido, paradoxically, all foreignness was forgotten.
The sun left us for more sensible activities and in its place were white clouds of flour. The entire town, powdered in flour and costumed in every combination of color imaginable, rejoiced as one.
The Pintxos Podcast
Audio formats like podcasts offer a powerful potential for technology to support marginalized languages like Galician. They also provide a resource and model—a safe space, digitally—for cultural sharing and language learning
It wasn’t until moving to Northwestern Spain that I became conscious of two things in particular: First, that the term formación profesional meant vocational school, and second, the fact that there are regions of the world where trilingual education is the norm. Galician, Spanish, and English are co-taught in all of the public schools of Galicia. Since most people in my town in Northern Spain prefer speaking Galician, they continually must define themselves and their minority language in relation to the majority (and quite linguistically similar) languages of Spanish and Portuguese. As a result, Galicians are language-conscious in a way that Americans in general are not.
To many Galicians nowadays, speaking Spanish is a sign of upper-class, city residence; meanwhile, speaking Galician is construed as showing a more rural, even working-class side of your person. This last point is relevant to my Realization #1 about the formación profesional branch of higher education because Galician tends to be spoken in higher proportions depending on your employment sector. For example, my Marketing classes preferred Castilian Spanish instruction; in contrast, my all-male Auto Mechanics classes never ceased chatting in Galician. When asked, the mechanics confessed that they didn’t consider themselves fluent in Castilian Spanish. This was shocking to me—the notion that in their world, being bilingual in Galician and Castilian wasn’t an automatic association. The Auto Mechanics also pointed out to me that Spaniards not from Galicia assume that Galicians speaking their native tongue automatically have a substandard level of education; they’re supposedly unpolished and from a poorer area. Hence, the push for Marketing students to learn their subject in the “upper-class” Castilian Spanish.
However, beyond class status, for Galicians, I’ve seen how speaking their regional language is a matter of preserving a cultural memory and tongue that’s been present, in some form, since the Roman empire; Galician has evolved with time from the Medieval era and Portugal into its present form.
With all of these linguistic and cultural layers in mind, The Pintxos Podcast stems from my interest in Galicia’s trilingual education system and how that might inform other plurilingual forms of education around the world. The podcast is actually an alteration of my initial side project proposal—my first proposal had consisted of starting an after-school arts education program. That idea changed completely during a walk to work when, interested in learning more about my region, I searched Spotify and Apple Podcast’s databases with the terms “Lugo” and “Galicia” and “formación profesional” in every possible manner and language I knew—only to come up with the disheartening “No results found.”
I thought: What if my students and I embarked on a podcast project not only as a fun, technical way for them to learn and practise English, but also as a way to put Lugo, Galicia, on the podcast map? After all, over half of the U.S. population listens to at least one podcast every year. When the Galician teacher-training program Centro Autonómico de Formación e Innovación (CAFI) reached out asking if they could work together with a Fulbrighter on a technological project, I took it as a sure sign: this podcast could easily combine STEM and English oracy and become a future resource for teaching.
The students were wary at first—the podcast format is not that well-known in Lugo—but after lots of brownies and promoting from me, we scheduled several laid-back interviews, and all of a sudden, interest grew. At a distance in the midst of the chaos that COVID-19 wreaked on my teaching plans (and sent me back home to California), the podcast has now become a survival method for our cross-cultural connection and a coping activity for our many days in quarantine.
Working on this podcast in the context of English education has also given me insight into the diverse kinds of spaces that digital media open for us. Audio formats like podcasts offer a powerful potential for technology to support marginalized languages like Galician. They also provide a resource and model—a safe space, digitally—for cultural sharing and language learning. While working on the podcast in Lugo, an incredibly diverse array of students interviewed with me: students who’d immigrated to Lugo from Argentina and Venezuela; students whose families have always lived in the same pueblo in Galicia; first-generation students from the Spanish gitano background.
Together, we discussed everything from cultural differences between Spain and the U.S. to plurilingualism on campus to my confusion about how to spell the word for the cold tapas famous in Lugo served alongside the warm ones from the kitchen—are they “pinchos” or “pintxos?” Apparently, “pintxos” is Basque, not Galician, but that confusion about the “x” (a letter very frequent in Galician!) made the Basque spelling even more appropriate for our podcast’s title: For me, the “x” serves as a reminder to always engage in “linguistic questioning,” no matter where you are. There’s always more to learn, and I hope The Pintxos Podcast fosters more of this healthy type of “linguistic questioning” in its listeners.
Before coming to Galicia, I had no idea that in this rain-drenched region of Spain, legends of chestnuts and witches and magical stone-dwellers take on a whole new meaning. How was I to have guessed that the word used to describe the prickly shell of a chestnut—o ourizo—is the word for its spikey lookalike, the hedgehog? And a sea urchin? That’s an ourizo de mar, a sea hedgehog. Galician is a regional language influenced strongly by its unique geography: sea and forest. The word ourizo de mar (sea hedgehog) demonstrates as much—uniting chestnuts, terrain, and marine life all at once. So, for one, I love how their language and their geography are so linked. As someone who is fond of taking on new languages as a way of discovering the world, it’s no surprise that I love the Galician language.
Aside from linguistic interest, I also love the history of this place. It’s layered with Romans, Celts, the Camino de Santiago, and always has been saturated by a strong regional identity. Fascinatingly, there’s debate about the origins of the Celtic people, and some have thought they originated in Galicia and migrated North to Ireland and Great Britain. What I love about a modern manifestation of this Celtic-origin detail is that at any given local festival in Galicia—take my experience in Laza, for example—you’ll hear dozens of bagpipes (called the gaita). Combined with the gorgeous rolling, lush greenery and frequent rain, Galicia almost feels like Ireland.
Though people warned me about the excessive rainfall, as someone coming from Southern California, I can honestly say that I loved the dampness of the region and never grew tired of the rain. I pushed myself to research more deeply their environment: I found that their green forests are endangered by summertime fires and an invasive eucalyptus species that’s all-too-familiar sounding to a Californian. I watched Galician films every Sunday in the local theater and absorbed the quiet melancholy and life-sustaining family ties that underlie rural Galician life. The films and rain made me fall even more in love with the region.
Overall, the tapas are delicious; the seafood, amazingly fresh; the people, some of the most welcoming I’ve met in Spain. I am proud to be able to say that Lugo, Galicia, was once my home. When the world gets back to normal, I know I’ll return someday.
Chloe Wheeler is a Spanish and Comparative Literature graduate from Occidental College and a 2019-2020 Fulbright ETA from Los Angeles in Lugo, Galicia, Spain. In Lugo, she taught the complexities of technical English to adults in a formación profesional (vocational school). When she wasn’t teaching Aeromechanics and Marketing, Chloe learned Galician, wrote a column for the local library, and started the first Galician podcast called The Pintxos Podcast. This fall, back in the U.S., she’ll enter UCLA’s Post-Baccalaureate Program in Classics and apply to Comparative Literature Ph.D. programs that unite literatures in Castilian, Ancient Greek, and Arabic. You can listen to The Pintxos Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Anchor. If you’re a fan of Spain, trilingualism, or would like a map of the best pintxos in Lugo, follow @thepintxospodcast on Instagram.
Find more of Chloe’s projects on her website: https://chloetryblog.wordpress.com.