About poker: If you look around the table and you can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.
–Spoken by Paul Scofield in QUIZ SHOW
BUENOS AIRES, JANUARY 23-27
The water is cold. Too cold for swimming. I dangle my feet to keep cool in the heat.
I am sitting on the edge of a pool at my friend Joaquin’s apartment building. There are lots of families enjoying the sultry Saturday afternoon. Joaquin and I are busy talking about the difference between Argentine politics and American politics. Corruption versus Incompetence, or maybe both.
There are two young boys swimming in front of us. One is chubby, the other wiry. I find out later that they are brothers and that the chubby one is six years old. They have heard me speaking Spanish. The six-year year old swims near me and says, “Hel-low.” I say hello back. He swims over to his brother and they have a short conference. He swims back and says deliberately, “My name is Facundo. What is yours?” “My name is Sam.” He swims back to his brother and they have another conference. “What do you do?” “I swim,” I say making a motion like a breaststroke. He dives back under the water and goes back to his brother. They have another conference and Joaquin tells me Facundo is telling his brother that it is his turn. Negotiations ensue, but the brother is the author, Facundo the messenger. Facundo swims back and says, “I play football. What do you play?” “I play tennis.” “I am six years old.” “I am fifty years old.” Finally, the other brother runs out of questions to write for Facundo and they say “chau” and swim away.
It has been a difficult week. I realize that my Spanish is bad and has become worse since I spent the month back home. When I attempt to use it, no one understands me and I don’t understand anyone. I go into a pastry shop and attempt to buy some medialunas mantecas, the delicious little croissants that form the basis of my diet here, but the counter girl doesn’t understand my gringo accent and I have to say ME-DI-A-LU-NAS. I order tres and she gives me seis. More negotiations ensue.
I don’t understand the simple word “cincuenta” for a 50-centavo piece. I walk down the street rehearsing what I will say in Spanish for “I don’t speak well. I am a student. It is good that we speak Spanish.” I go to school and there are two young Brazilians in my class and they chatter on rapidly and confidently since Castellano Spanish is so close to Portuguese. The review sections of the unit I understand–the grammar is clear—but the conversation between the pretty profesora and the two Brazilians swoops past me like a boomerang and occasionally the boomerang circles and hits me on the back of my head.
My friends that have learned other languages tell me that I should immerse myself. Practice. Practice. Practice.
I write no posts for a few days. I watch television, both English with Spanish subtitles, which helps me review a bit, and news and cartoons in Spanish, which frustrates me, because as in my eavesdropping on the street and in the Subte, I can only make out words, not meaning.
I try to talk, but aphasia sets in. I remember the right verb conjugation three minutes after the encounter. I have to say “como?” to everyone who speaks to me.
My distraction becomes the butt of jokes for the brasileros. They believe it is the result of my obvious attraction to most of the pretty girls who work at the school or study there. I must be broadcasting lust, an antenna beaming out phallic waves, the beeping of Morse Code punctuating my loss of concentration.
On Friday, we have to work longer because one of our instructors was out sick Thursday and we have to make up a class. In the final hour, I completely lose my comprehension. I can’t understand any of the illustrations or definitions of the grammar points. The brasileros rattle on about the financial crisis, about travel, about their families. My male instructor tries to engage me in conversation; the others are talking very loudly; there is construction noise on both sides of me; the sunlight is streaming into the atrium outside the classroom; the visual scene attracts my attention. A very pretty girl paces back and forth, swishing in and out of the sunshine. She has a summer dress cut about a foot above her knee. Each time she walks into the sunshine the light shines through her dress and highlights the entire length of her long legs. Other students join her on their break. One girl has on a pretty white skirt with translucent material and she talks to her friends with her back to me. The light plays a similar trick, but with the longer length of her skirt and the white fabric’s gauzy haze, the visual pleasure is even greater.
The male student notices notices my attention deficit and asks me if he should close the curtains to keep down my distractions. The instructor notes that this is a “problema masculino.” I say it is the noise. No one buys it. The Spanish words run together in a blur, and outside the girls and their friends chat very loudly. A crew drills on one side of the classroom, bringing memories of the dentist. On the other side is hammering, the thumping enhancing the throbbing in my head.
The lesson moves quickly and the instructor sees I am not following along. He sniffs the air and asks if the problem is “la perfuma de las mujeres.” I blush and squirm. I am replicating the dreamy distractions of classrooms of long ago.
I am relieved to leave the class, but I am now intimidated and afraid. There must be another method to learn. I go to the newsstand to buy some magazines, taking some of Tim Ferriss’s language-learning advice. One of the titles is Psicología Positiva, an autoayuda (self-help) publication. One of the articles is 20 maneras de renovar tu vida. (20 ways to improve your life.) One of the points says:
Afrontá un miedo por día. “No ha aprendido la lección de la vida aquel que no vence un temor cada dia.—Ralph Emerson.
(Face one fear a day. “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.”–Ralph Waldo Emerson)
I’m facing big fears every day. I have always been intimidated by new social situations and feel self-conscious meeting new people. I have no special aptitude for learning language. I am afraid of making mistakes and looking stupid. My ego doesn’t allow me to function when I am the slow kid in the class.
I shudder as I write this.
When I talk with my coach about the problem, he speculates that I am not a particularly verbal person and that I learn visually. I’m confused. My friends would laugh because of my incessant punning and sometimes exhaustingly long stories (perhaps like this one?) I ask how I can be a writer if I am not verbal.
My coach says, “you write in pictures.” I take pictures, too.
Tuesday, I have a Tango lesson in a new studio. I confidently mark it on the map and set off in the Subte, get off and walk the ten minutes to the location. I am early. I walk to the address and it is a parking lot. I recheck my notebook and it is the address that my instructor Guadalupe wrote down. I look at my map and I have a different street name written down. I wait a few minutes and I still do not see Guadalupe. I worry that maybe I misinterpreted the computer map and I start walking through the neighborhood looking for that other street. It does not exist.
I have forgotten my cell phone, so there is no way I can check with Guadalupe and no way she can check with me.
On top of the slight depression and discouragement I felt earlier in the day, I now start to feel extremely anxious. I know that Guadalupe has written down the wrong number, but I feel slightly culpable because I left the cell at home.
This is a Jewish neighborhood. Gentlemen with wide-brimmed hats and long black coats file by. Very young women dressed in headscarves push carriages with young babies. There are boys that run by me playing that universal chasing game that all children play, their peyos (curled sideburns) swishing back and forth. They hold their yarmulkes in their hands so they do not lose them as they speed up. The Casher (Kosher) butcher shop is fragrant with the smell of meat and blood.
I know how to get back to my apartment and yet I am lost. I don’t know how to ask anyone for help. I don’t know how to call Guadalupe. I am increasingly anxious and I regret missing the lesson. I worry that she will have to pay the studio rent and will miss out on the income from the lesson. The street signs are missing on some of the corners. I check again the name of the street she wrote down and the address doesn’t exist.
I am in a dream. Time slows down. The people dressed in clothes from the old country silently float by. These are the people of my people, the Jews, yet we are foreign to each other. They are so much more religiously observant that they look at me as one of the goyim. I am your lansman (fellow Jew), I say to myself, but it is pointless.
Even though I try to rehearse questions, the Spanish words will not rise to the surface. I have jumped headfirst into an ever-deepening pool of language. Occasionally, I tread water on the surface but then I fall under again, ever deeper. I swim back to the surface, fighting for air. Another wave of words crashes down on me and I sink again.
The water is cold.