How do we learn? Sometimes, for me, acquiring a new Spanish word -- like, for realsies, not just for a fleeting moment -- requires the creation of a mnemonic device and other times it requires an embarrassing situation.
I just hadn't been able to keep the word(s) for "straw" in my brain until about a month ago, when I met Jesús at a taquería in downtown Oakland. I had finally remembered bombilla, but that's really just for drinking mate (so really only of use in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay). J reminded me that a common word in Mexico is popote (also used: pajita). That struck me as sounding pretty indigenous, sort of like the tongue-twister (and lip-bumper, I guess) street name we came across during our vacation in Mexico City: Popocatépetl (took me probably 5 tries to get it right). So I made myself a little sentence incorporating as many puh sounds as possible: Vamos a la calle Popocatépetl para comprar popotes para Penélope.
Speaking of streets, that's a simple word -- calle -- but I used to have a hard time remembering whether it was feminine or masculine (English is a harder language to learn than Spanish, but damn it, at least we don't have gender attached to nouns). I finally connected la to calle after listening to the Julieta Venegas song "Eres para mí." The lyric that made this click in my head is "la calle que canta su canto de diario," which also is full of alliteration.
As I mentioned earlier, embarrassment works, too. Almost exactly a year ago, within a half-hour of checking into my hostal in Madrid, I knocked a glass ashtray off a table in my room, causing it to shatter on the tile floor. Lots of glass everywhere. I had to tip-toe into the private area to ask the señora de la casa if she had a broom I could use to clean up the cenicero. I had to use my nerdy electronic dictionary to look up that word, but I haven't had to look it up since then. Watching a little old Spanish granny clean up your mess (hey, I offered but they shooed me away) will make a word stick.