I believe I owe you some updates. Since I left you in Mendoza, I spent 10 days trekking by myself in Patagonia, four days horseback riding in Las Pampas, and a week in Buenos Aires taking intensive tango lessons (if by “intensive” you mean “frustrating”). I promise to write about these adventures. In the meantime, you should know that I’m now back in tropical Chicago and easing back into my “old life.” Thing is, I came back to find that my “old life” just doesn’t fit. Or maybe, like a pair of heels that look so good you overlook the discomfort, it never did. Either way, I’ve decided not to cram back into that version of myself. Instead of moving a million miles a minute, I’m not in a rush to rush. I’m here in Chicago for a few months, maybe longer. Point is, I’m taking things slow.
But even with the luxury of time, re-entry is a difficult thing. When I returned to my apartment I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. I put down my bags, and looked around–I don’t know what I expected to be different, but I was surprised that everything was exactly the same. I poured a glass of water, and for the first time realized that I have three different sets of juice glasses. Three! I never even drink juice. I was quickly overwhelmed by all my stuff and didn’t want to be around it. I headed to Caribou Coffee around the corner, figuring this would be the perfect jet-lag remedy. Once inside I carefully considered my coffee choices knowing full well that after 10 weeks off of American blends this was effectively going to send me into cardiac arrest, or at the least a series of wind sprints. I ordered a small, and only drank half.
On my way out I noticed a poster on the community billboard. It read:
“Hi, I’m Bea, I am from Spain and looking for someone to practice my English with. Email me if you are interested in practicing your Spanish.” I immediately sent Bea a note, and she instantly replied. And so began Tuesdays with Bea, and my gradual transition.
Having a cultural and language translator is invaluable. I’ve spent a lot of time tripping over words and phrases in Spanish. When I was trekking in El Chalten I met a girl from Colorado who was perfectly fluent. I asked her how she got so good at Spanish and she replied, “It’s easy! Just sleep with your dictionary!” I think of her often, out there climbing trails with her Tall Dark And Handsome Argentinean dictionary, while I sit at Caribou Coffee, sipping burned beans, and talking about the state of American health care with Bea. But still, I know it’s a Tuesday well spent.
Learning another language is an exercise in humility: you have to get really comfortable looking like an idiot, or in my case, a slut. If only I had arranged such a language exchange before my trip to Argentina, I would have spared myself a lot of embarrassment. Instead, I horrified everyone I encountered when I told them I needed to “coger un taxi;” a phrase common in Spain, but that carries a much different significance in Argentina. Turns out, rather than “catching taxis” I was proudly telling my Argentinean counterparts I was fucking them.
I just wish I had met Bea when I was 20, before I studied abroad in Spain. She could have helped me avoid the disaster that almost got me sent home on my first night in Seville. In honor of my arrival my host mother, Meli, arranged for an extended family dinner. Neighbors brought extra card tables so that all the aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents could fit around a single table. Dinner guests traveled from near and far to eat lentil soup and ham croquettes, and to stare at the American exchange student.
I don’t know whether it was the August heat, or the intense pressure to speak, but I started to sweat. Lacking the words for “I think I’m going to pass out,” I blurted the only phrase I knew: “Estoy caliente.”
Uncle Javi dropped his spoon. Meli looked at me like I had just put a knife to her cat, and cousin Marta started laughing so hard she almost choked. I knew I had done something really, really bad. And that’s when I remembered that caliente doesn’t mean “hot”–it means “horny.” In a quick attempt to undo it I told them I was embarrassed: “Perdón, estoy embarazada,” I said, turning bright red. Only that wasn’t what I meant, either. I had just announced to a table of horrified Spaniards:
“I’m so sorry, I’m pregnant.”
So when Bea speaks I listen with great intensity, knowing that under her careful tutelage the next time I jump borders I’ll be ready. I won’t talk about fucking taxis, or announce I’m horny to elderly people with heart conditions. Those days are over. With enough Tuesdays under my belt I’ll know how to approach a man, look him in the eyes, and say in perfect Spanish: “You look like an excellent dictionary.”
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