When I was 22 years old, I made a rather unusual promise to myself. I decided that by the age of 40, I will speak Spanish. I don’t really know why I made this promise. At that time, Spanish was absolutely irrelevant in my life. I had no exposure to the language in my daily life, I did not need it for work or to communicate with friends, I was not dating a Mexican girl. I was yet to visit my first Spanish-speaking country. So, the whole thing made very little sense. But life works in mysterious ways, and 17 years later here I am, on track to keep my promise. To be honest, my level is still very basic, but I have enough español to hold a conversation and get around a Spanish-speaking country without resorting to English. And for now, that’s more than enough.
But how did I get here?
In 2005, when I made the promise, I was fresh “off the boat,” having arrived in the US only two years prior and was still learning English. Naturally, Spanish was not my top priority and I had to shelve the idea of learning it until later.
My first trip to a Spanish-speaking country was in 2006 to the Dominican Republic, to an all-inclusive resort of all places (the first and the last time I went to an all-inclusive resort), where for 6 straight days, Julia and I spoke with the staff only in English. The following year, we went to Puerto Rico; yet again, I did not even try to learn anything beyond “buenos dias” and “gracias”. The year after that, we discovered what became our favorite city in the world, Mexico City, but again, no hablo español. Two weeks in Spain in 2010. Not a single word of Spanish. The word “tapas” does not count. You see the trend.
But what started to develop in these travels to Latin America, the Caribbean, and Spain is that Spanish words began seeping into my consciousness slowly but surely and became something closely associated with the excitement of travel. On these trips, in airports, restaurants, and museums, I started to see and hear more and more of the same words: entrada (entrance), salida (exit), abierto (open), cerrado (closed). The passive learning through constant exposure to the language via regular trips to the Spanish-speaking world started to rub off on me and work its magic.
In 2012, in Buenos Aires, I had my first serious thought about starting to learn Spanish. We were at a coffee shop, and I picked up a copy of a local newspaper. The headline on the front page was screaming something about corruption in the local government, and I remember having regrets for not knowing how to read Spanish to get a valuable scoop and insight on local life.
The benefit of knowing Spanish was also manifested in how easy it was to travel in Argentina when you travel with someone who speaks the language. We were in the country with our friend Ayala, who was visiting relatives in Buenos Aires. Ayala spoke fluent Spanish and was our reliable translator for two weeks, so the entire trip was just a breeze without major hiccups. In Buenos Aires, we met her relatives who showed us around. One day, Ayala’s cousin Daiana took us on a walking tour of the colorful barrio of La Boca. As Ayala and Daiana were walking in front of us and catching up on the family news in beautiful and melodic Spanish, Julia and I were goofing around. Like two clumsy parrots, we cherry-picked their conversation and started to ask each other the same question “cómo?” (how?) with a non-sensical answer - “mucho” (much!). The entire dialogue was absurd, a pure mockery of Spanish we overhead and probably an unconscious jealous reaction triggered by our inability to understand the language. It went something like this:
- Cómo mucho?
We would switch intonations, speech speed, and accents to create an illusion of a real conversation, but it was all gibberish nonsense. After hearing this annoying dialogue for good five minutes, Ayala finally had enough, turned around, and asked:
“What are you two weirdos doing?”
“Nothing!” I blurted out.
“Spanish!” Julia confidently said. “Cómo?”
Ayala sighed, slowly coming to terms that she was traveling with two idiots.
“You have to say “Mucho!” Julia yelled at her back and we both giggled.
But in all seriousness, Buenos Aires was the first place, where I started to have a nagging thought for the next five years that I needed to learn Spanish.
Two years later, while visiting Panama City, I made my first genuine, yet awkward, attempt to speak Spanish. I was by the entrance to an archeological site on the outskirts of the city, but the place was closed. I approached the security guard who was stationed there and conjured up several words I knew (abierto, cerrado) into one full but, most likely, grammatically incorrect sentence asking him about the opening hours. The guard responded but my Spanish quickly ran out to understand his response. He kept saying “martes, martes” which meant “come back, Tuesday”. But I was just staring at him not knowing what he was saying.
The turning moment when I finally realized that it was time to get real about Spanish was during our trip to Guatemala in 2017. As we were gliding through the shimmering blue waters of Lake Atitlan, I kept repeating in my head “trenta cinco” “trenta cinco” trying to determine what our fare for the boat ride was that the boat captain quoted on the shore (it was 35 quetzals). Sitting in that rickety boat, in the middle of the lake surrounded by beautiful Guatemalan volcanoes, I had to admit to myself that despite traveling extensively to Spanish-speaking countries for more than a decade, I still did not know numbers in Spanish or how to communicate, even on the basic level, with the locals. That needed to change.
I came back from Guatemala a different person, determined to devote more time to learning Spanish.
Next week - Como estoy aprendiendo español.