The Grammar of Saying Goodbye

Standard

Santullano y Catedral

While still trying to decide my exact return date to the United States, my emotional state would swing capriciously for two weeks between “Put Me on a Plane Right Now,” and “I Could Stay Here Forever.” Now that the date is set and fixed at May 20, the two previously warring emotions have been replaced by something entirely new: “I Don’t Want to Say Goodbye.”

You would think just by raw appearances that “I Could Stay Here Forever” and “I Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” are the same thing, but they’re not. “I Could Stay Here Forever” is a state of possibility, a moment of time in which the future is still conditional. Something in your current environment has brought you a serene sense of contentment, but you’re in no hurry to enjoy it, because as far as you’re concerned the future could be just like the present.

“I Don’t Want to Say Goodbye,” is all about finality. It plants you firmly in the here and now, suffocating you with the present tense. “I Don’t Want to Say Goodbye” carries a time-stamp; it exists only because the near future involves tearing you away from a place you’ve suddenly been reminded that you love, and every single day feels like the near future.

It’s something I think we are all experiencing now in our own way. As ready as we may sometimes feel to go back to the things we miss, we also understand that those things will soon be replaced by what we take for granted here and now in Oviedo. We stare out at the views in the hope that they’ll become more beautiful the longer our eyes linger on them. We twist our brains committing to memory the emotions coursing through our bodies fearing that in a few days they’ll evaporate like nothing more than good dreams.

I think the biggest lie I’ve ever been told is that your semester abroad goes by in a wink—right now my psychological clock is telling me I’ve been here forever, but I have a dreadful feeling that as soon as I return to the known routine that time will simply fold back over onto itself and disappear. I’m convinced that a person is formed as much by what goes into him than what he puts out, and possibly more so. The bold new beings that we’ve become after living far away from the safety nets of friends and family, unearthing and modifying our own strengths and weaknesses through trial-and-error brought on by a gauntlet of new situations never before faced let alone imagined, feel tenuously tied to the environment that served as their crucible. The version of me that’s used to waking up to a room darkened by persianas, to hearing Spanish on the street and in his head, to planning a trip to another city or even another country and not having to ask permission, and to leaving the house and not knowing where he’ll end up or who he’ll meet, worries that once all those things are taken away the personal transformations that came as a result, without any more opportunities to stretch their legs and practice, will simply whither and die.

Last weekend, Oviedo held it’s annual Feria de la Ascensión to commemorate and revive Asturian traditions both antiquated and ongoing.

Feria band

I used to not understand the fascination with keeping alive those things from the past which have lost their space to be useful in the present. Now I totally get it. Many of us are now living versions of ourselves tied to Spanish culture and infected with wanderlust, and we’d hate to see these versions of ourselves go. When we go back home the forces of routine and time may erode these mindsets if we do nothing to preserve them, because we are certainly not the same people we were when we left.

It’s a strange sensation when you cease to be able to feel nostalgia—when you’re not sure that old memories seem like wasted space in your head because they seem boring in comparison to what you’re doing now or because they don’t even feel like your memories anymore. Everything about this immersion experience was one giant unknown. Now that we’ve made that unknown familiar, it doesn’t seem possible, much less very appetizing, to go back to a world in which the unexpected feels pretty well ruled out.

It’s in the midst of this personal tumult that the importance of grammar becomes suddenly clear. Any and all of us over here who have ever struggled to conjugate the proper tense of a verb know that without grammar, that thing we all sometimes seem to love to hate, we would not be able to explain who we are, from where we’ve come, and what the future might hold—grammar is the one thing that keeps us from being lost and anchor-less in space and time.

And with that comes one of my favorite things about the Spanish language. There’s a certain verb tense that at some point has frustrated every Spanish student I’ve ever known, because it doesn’t actually exist in the English language: the subjunctive. This tricky little verb tense expresses moods and ideas so vitally important to the human condition, and yet it’s missing from our mother tongue. The subjunctive breathes life into doubts, desires, and possibilities. “Ojalá que haga buen tiempo hoy” (I hope it’s a nice day today). The English translation may seem straightforward enough, but the nuances are lost along the way.

The verb that’s being transformed into the subjunctive in this case is hacer (to “make” or to “do”). In this expression, hacer becomes haga, thanks to the introduction of words like Ojalá. My breakthrough moment in learning the subjunctive, when the pieces finally came together in my head, was when I read that Ojalá is one of the many words in the Spanish language with Arabic roots, in this case coming from a phrase that means “That Allah is willing.” You don’t have to be religious to understand the fatalistic yet hopeful resignation that emerges from the sense that things will happen “God/Allah willing.” It charges the future with desire, while still recognizing our inability to exercise full control over it. The subjunctive occupies a space in which hope collides with uncertainty. It’s a feeling that isn’t completely lost on the English brain, but in Spanish the idea is so strong that it reshapes the very words that express it.

And that is precisely where we all find ourselves in the present moment, in a subjunctive kind of mood. We all have friends and family waiting for us on the other side of the ocean, but once we’ve crossed it, many of us or unsure when or if we’ll ever be back. And so we all say to ourselves:

Espero que vuelva.”

“I hope to return,” but in the end who really knows?

But perhaps one of the most liberating sensations is that which washes over you when you realize that if you really want to come back, you can. If over time that desire fades, then that’s perfectly fine as well. There’s no correct way to approach the future. But the human spirit can be quite tenacious in getting what it wants. Nobody ever said we have to leave here forever.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Querer es poder.

vista de Oviedo 2013

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