Just Tango On

A Midlife Solution, Not a Midlife Crisis

Breaking Spanish

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Tangled Up and Tongue-Tied

Tonight you write from the relative comfort of the cot you call your bed. As you had foreseen, learning new things at fifty would be challenging on several levels. There is the embarrassment and hesitancy you feel when trying to speak a foreign language, particularly “immersed” in said language in a foreign land. You walk into a coffee shop and you can’t remember the word for “sugar.” The woman behind the counter speaks a little English and she asks you “what would you like in your coffee?” She helps you and says the word “sugar” in English. This upsets you because you really did want to order in Spanish. Then the word “azucar” rises out of the back of your head and you blush. You buy a bottle of water at a newsstand and simply hold out a five-peso note since you usually can’t understand what the person says when he asks for the money. You get the change and you slink away.

In a restaurant, even before you sit down, the waiter hands you a menu in English, which you politely put to the side as you read the menu in Spanish. Then you furtively peek at the English version and order in broken Spanish and he answers you in English. You sigh.

In class, you SPEAK…LIKE…WILLIAM!SHATNER!.  Short bursts of fluency, followed by hesitancy, followed by puzzling loss of memory, followed by a P-P-Porky th-th-the Pig stutter. Words that you can easily say on your own are giant moutains of tongue-tying torture when you read them aloud before others.

On a Monday, you show up in class, a little tired and you find that the instructor and everyone in class is different than last week’s class.  Three of the students are Brazilian so they have a little familiarity with Spanish. They speak with a Portuguese accent, your other classmate speaks with a French Swiss accent, and your intense young instructor delivers Castellano Spanish in a rapid manner. (It’s a special accent here–another story) You understand about a third of what he says. You feel that you have never seen a word in Spanish before, even though you passed the first level with flying colors.

Then you spend two hours pantomiming and searching for cognates with an intellectual and friendly instructor and you talk in some detail about American politics, world economics, the films of los Hermanos Coen, the plotting of Hamlet, and the difference between Argentine and American senses of irony, tragedy, and humor.  With all the scribbling out of words and the como se dices and so forth and a couple of lapses into English you manage to hold a conversation for a couple of hours.

Afterwards you drag yourself to your Tango lesson.  It is the same professora but a different crowd of students.  You have a new partner who is a head taller than you and either you cannot lead her or she cannot follow.  You are polite and say to the professora that YOU must be doing the wrong thing, because you do not wish to be a Tangorrista.  The entire class shuts down and you learn to just walk to the music again. Everything you have learned goes out the window. Now you are a Tango doofus. Holding your arms higher to accommodate the taller partner and struggling to find the right way to lead her inflames the arthritis in your neck and the accumulated tension from the day cramps every muscle between your shoulder blades, across your shoulders, and up your neck to your jaw.  You resist the impulse to buy a bottle of whiskey at the store since you do not want to get in the habit of drinking on your own in a foreign country.

You buy your groceries and you tentatively hand out a 100 Peso note and a 50 Peso note to the cashier and you gratefully accept the change, a wordless transaction. You drag the bags up the broad avenue and it is a very long six blocks and you don’t even know if you have the energy to shift the bags so that you can get your keys. You regain your belief in the Creator when you see that the security guard has the door open for some fresh air and that all you have to deal with is pulling the heavy cage door open and pushing it shut on the ancient elevator.

You have a sandwich. You lie down in bed and you write a post, the laptop propped against a pillow on your stomach. This sucks and it is all your fault, but you are in deep. You must Just Tango On.

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A Haircut

This was the week I had to confront the fact that the cape I wear is only one of mystery, not one that comes with superpowers. I struggled in both Tango and Spanish and now that it is the end of week three, I suppose a bit of sophomore slump has set in.

I started this project purposely making it as quixotic as possible and my visualization of the difficulties is proving accurate, but living it is quite a bit different. I have stumbled around like Mr. Magoo this week, a little disoriented, out of focus and wooly.

However, I decided I could do something about the wooliness. I could get a haircut. This takes enormous courage, you know. I am very vain and particular about my hair. I wore it in a layered Caesar cut for years and in the last year I’ve let my hair grow. The gray is coarser and there are curls that stick out. A rumor went around town that I had gotten a perm.

That said, Monday I took myself to the first hair salon I saw and went inside. A very nice young man volunteered to give me a corte de pelo and between pantomiming, como se dices, discussion of how I am a student, and a bit of vocabulary training from my barber, we got through the session just fine. I was proud that I actually had the courage to speak in Spanish, and to trust my hair to someone I had never met before. Spanish and a haircut. Two bits.

Serious Translation

This afternoon, I spend two hours trying to communicate with my instructor Juan, a very intelligent man, who tries to piece together the threads of my broken Spanish with the aid of gentle correction, pantomiming, and writing words down, so that perhaps I can see the cognate. We try to correct a translation I made of my post El Dîa de Máma and I can see that the contrast between my mother and the lost mother in the piece has him interested. He particularly likes the quote in the piece from my mother: “How can you be a Man of Mystery when you tell everyone everything?”  He laughs quietly, and my mother’s wry observation keeps him amused for quite a while.  Speaking in Spanish, he tells me that the quote is very funny translated into Spanish. He says that some of my other writing is difficult to understand in Spanish, but he likes the concept of The Midlife Protection Plan and is very amused that I have Le Béret as an author on the blog.

Juan is a therapist at a local hospital as well. You can see his gentle eyes light up as we review the blog and he realizes how truly screwed up I am. He enjoys the thought of me having a double right there and another double to spare. It is a doppelgänger-banger.

We try to illustrate the difference between irony, sarcasm and cynicism, and the difference between each in Argentina and the U. S. He chuckles as he observes that some of the humor is hard to translate from inglés a español. The sesson ends with a laugh as I observe that some people find my humor difficult to translate from inglés a inglés.

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In A Class of My Own

By last Friday, the frustration with Spanish had built almost to the breaking point. After the first two hours of instruction, I was in pain. The Spanish words had become fuzzy, floated towards the heavens, morphed into razor-beaked ravens that swooped down in flock after flock pecking at my eyes and making enough noise where I couldn’t understand nada. Nevermore. I was in serious shape. I had a terrible hangover, yet the strongest thing I had to drink that week was coffee. I felt as if I had been hit in the forehead by Javier Bardem’s cattle killing tool in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

Milagros, whom I call La Jefa (The Boss) was concerned about me. She suggested that I stop taking the group classes in the morning and just do the one-on-one classes in the afternoon. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about the ease with which the Portuguese learn and converse or the accents of the European students. I was ready to step back and take a deep breath and review, so I welcomed her suggestion.

Tuesday, Milagros asked me how the new arrangement was going. “Much better,” I said. “I think you really helped me. The problem was that I am used to being one of the top students in school and I kept falling farther and farther behind.”

La Jefa gave me a patient smile and said: “Now you are the top student in your class.”

No Translation Necessary

Defensa, San Telmo

Defensa, San Telmo

When I was walking to my tango lesson, I passed a newsstand. At the door, a young woman took gum out of her mouth and threw it towards the street. The gum hit me in the chest and bounced off.

The woman gasped and was ashamed. She hid her face in her hands. I started laughing, walked over and patted her on the shoulder.

As I walked away, I looked down and felt proud of how the gum had richocheted off of my manly chest.

¡Soy un hombre misterioso: fuerte e impermeable!

_____

As an experiment, I took the English part of the text above and used Google translator to translate it into Spanish. I then took the Spanish text and used the translator to translate it back into English. What follows is the translated text:

When I was walking to my tango lesson, I passed a newsstand. At the door, a young woman took the gum from his mouth and threw it to the street. The gum hit me in the chest and he would return.

Gaspar and the woman is ashamed. She hid her face in her hands. I started laughing, and walked over Patten on his shoulder.

As I walked away, I looked down and felt proud of the way the gum has Richochet out of my manly chest.

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3 A. M. Again

You wake up again in the middle of the night. This time it’s quarter to three which makes you think of that song by Frank Sinatra. Almost every night you are awakened by the compulsive neighbors’ “special time.” Those nights that are quiet, you are like a new mother. You wake up with a start in the middle of the night listening for the absent noise.

The couple next door are making their symphony of love again. They start formally like Bach, move to Mozart-like exquisite timing and inventive harmonies, become dark and tragic like Mahler, and finally bring in the brass, the woodwinds, the entire percussion section, plus a giant chorus, and end the performance with a spectacular crescendo that almost matches Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” You are bothered by this aural spectacular on several levels, which you do not have to nor will spell out for the reader. You remember great music you have made yourself. When young, your performances were like punk rock anthems: loud, tragic and short. In more recent times, you think of performances that received great notices from your critics. You basked in adoration, enjoyed applause, ovations, calls for encores, whistles, bravos. Currently, the theatre is dark and the stage is empty because you do not care for solo performances.

It is morning and you are still hungover from the pill you needed to get back to sleep after the neighbors’ concert. You have homework to do. It isn’t easy and you can’t focus. You go to the café and get a café con leche and three medialunas (small croissants). You don’t understand the charismatic waiter or the matter-of-fact counter workers and you order using signals like a third base coach.

You attend class this week with a Swiss woman about ten years older than you and a Brazilian woman who is about 15 years younger. Brazilians have an easier time in Spanish because Portuguese is a similar language, and the Swiss are often multi-lingual. You struggle to understand the Swiss woman because of her German/Scandanavian accent and because she mumbles and puts her hand in front of her mouth when she speaks. The Brazilian woman, like all Brazilian students you have met, speaks with a soft accent and speaks rapidly and confidently. You have two excellent profesores in the morning. The first is a porteña who speaks rapidly and always has to repeat everything to you slowly. The second is a very soft spoken gentleman who speaks very slowly and who now writes out everything for the class since he finds that you can’t understand nada if he doesn’t. He is very supportive and always says “muy bien,” drawing out the first syllable so that it sounds like moyyyy bee-en.

French words drift in and out of your head, since you have also studied French and they are in the FOREIGN LANGUAGE category on your mind’s Jeopardy board.

You are exhausted and confused and the words go in and out of focus on the page and start to echo through your head: habla, hablaba, hablo, hablaste, hablabamos, hablaron, hablado. The room is off-balance, the instructor chats easily with the other students, and you can feel the winds of incomprehension whizzing over your head.

You go to the store across the street from the school to get a sandwich to take home for lunch. You can choose a ham and cheese on thin slices of crustless brown bread. In addition, you can select ham and cheese on thin slices of crustless white bread. For variety, you can opt for a ham and cheese on small croissants (medialunas) or ham and cheese on large croissants (medialunas grandes). If none of those choices interest you, you can purchase a ham and cheese on four small rolls. You buy a ham and cheese.

You stagger home and intend to use your break time for lunch and a nap. You take off your street clothes and get into bed and try to relax for a few minutes. Directly outside your window a construction worker stands on a scaffold and taps a hammer. He continues. You wonder if the Blue Man Group is performing. You sigh, get out of bed, eat your sandwich, and walk back to school.

You are tense about the tenses. You understand the concepts, but you can’t put them into use. During your afternoon one-on-one tutorial, you feel that you are that kid who needs “special” attention. Your instructor couldn’t be any more patient, but you have to start from the start almost every time. You confuse the “I” form with the “he or she” form. You become so confused you try every possible ending. You second guess yourself and the first thought is correct. The next time you go with your first instinct and IT is wrong. Your instructor is very kind and tells you (in Spanish) that it is a matter of practice and you’ve only been here three or four weeks. You aren’t used to things being this hard to learn. Now you see why you made a D+ in your Spanish 101 course your first semester of college. You thought it was just because you didn’t give a damn.

You finish your class and you walk home. You think about writing a post even though your instructors and your friends tell you that thinking in English is not a good idea. Your mind wanders and you find that some of the words that come to mind are in Spanish. Now you are getting the two languages confused in both directions. You are bi-inarticulate.

Tonight you will watch television. Fox plays two hours of LOS SIMPSON each evening and you can sort of follow along. There is a CNN EN ESPAÑOL channel and you watch that because you can sort of follow it. The announcer says “Este es SAY-ANY-ANY.”

You take a sleeping pill, decide to bag your homework until the morning, and you hope to get a good night’s sleep. However, you know you will be awake at three, listening for the music from the room next door, whether or not the orchestra is performing. To get back to sleep, you will count verb conjugations: habla, hablaba, hablo, hablaste, hablabamos, hablaron, hablado…

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Sink or Swim

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

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.

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Breaking the Surface

Beneath the surface of the water lies an ever-expanding reservoir of self-doubt. I wistfully picture a life boat, a floatation vest, a flotilla of rescue ships, a Coast Guard helicopter hovering above with a friendly officer in a wet suit who offers me a strong hand that I grab gratefully. With remarkably white teeth that reflect the moonlight, he flashes me a rakish smile. He pulls me into an airship where I am wrapped in blankets and given hot strong coffee.

However, there is no rescue. There are two choices: ride the storm or abandon ship.

To abandon ship is too embarrassing. Like Odysseus, I tie myself to the mast, ignoring the siren song of quick abandonment.

I must find a way to rise out of the deep, to pull myself from the depths and move toward the light, break the surface, shake the water off like a Collie and breathe again.

Two weeks ago I hid in my apartment, afraid to go and interact with anyone. Countless times during my childhood I started a new discipline, whether learning the guitar or piano, playing tennis, or joining Cub Scouts. It wouldn’t take too long for me to give it up, teased out of it or talked out it by people who many times just were bored and claimed to only wish to “be honest.” I was easily discouraged and the guitar and the tennis racket or just about anything that caused me frustration or embarrassment would stay in the closet.

I had reached that point with studying Spanish. I didn’t have that smug self-congratulatory feeling I had felt when I had learned something easily in school. I was procrastinating and I didn’t want to do my homework. This was the second time I had arranged my change on the counter and the fourth time in the last fifteen minutes I had checked my e-mail. I wasn’t reading anything because I was guilty about reading in English when I should be studying my Spanish.  I had four Tango lessons a week, but the thought of going into a milonga and actually asking a woman to dance seemed impossible.

My coach Bradley believed that I had been trying so hard to publish posts that I was keeping myself from experiencing the very things that would make the posts, and more importantly my life, interesting. We talked about going out and meeting people and trying to speak. I could feel the beginnings of shame and embarrassment travel up my neck and my cheeks were starting to burn. I was ready to last out the rest of my stay taking a few hours of lessons a day, silently handing cash to the clerk in the supermarket, and dining each night alone. That seemed so much easier.

I traced it back, as all neurotic psuedo-intellectuals do, to my childhood. I always thought about what Dr. Freud would say when he delved into my unconscious.  I was the youngest of six cousins in a close extended family. At weekly family gatherings, it was a sport to trap me in small mistakes. This would lead to affectionate laughter. Some of it was cruel, some of it was okay, but it was all much less shameful than I perceived.

I lived in fear of misbehaving because I didn’t want to face my father’s and uncles’ stern faces and sharp lectures. I didn’t want anyone to laugh at me, and I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Yet my constant diet of Mad Magazine, the Flintstones and Looney Tunes made me want to get the laughs that I had solicited. Sometimes my jokes worked, sometimes they led to more lecturing, and sometimes the only sound after a joke was crickets.

I was sketching out a plan of retreat. The plane left in three weeks. I could write a piece or two about an entertainer on the Subte or a waiter that brought me cookies when I asked for a salad or whatever and no one would be the wiser. I could whine some more about how hard this is and how I am a wreck. Bradley was having none of it. He was challenging me to get out of the comfortable apartment on the shaded street and just do something. I felt that Bradley had some nerve and it was making me increasingly nervous.

Bradley and I started looking at Craigslist Buenos Aires (skipping my usual furtive peek into the personal and erotic services listings) and searched for some clubs for conversation. It seemed that most were for English practice for porteños and only one, “Spanglish,” had a Spanish component. It was no matter, though. I needed to make contact with the world. It was not unreasonable to think that if I met a porteño that wanted to improve his or her English that perhaps he or she would help me with my Spanish.

I went to the English Group of Buenos Aires. It was a pleasant evening in a cavernous and distracting venue. Although only English was spoken, I couldn’t hear or understand what anyone said. Yet, it was good to be out among people who were interested in me and friendly.

I started a friendship with Osmany, a Cubano who works in a nearby cafe. He is a friendly guy and he heard me struggling to talk in Spanish. He asked me where I was from, because he is learning French and English. We talked a bit in English and about his time in Buenos Aires. We also talked quite a bit about society and politics in Cuba. Now, I go back several times a week to get coffee and conversation.

The group Spanglish is an interesting structure for intercambio (language exchange) and it is set in a trendy bar in San Telmo, an old and charming part of the city. The fee is 15 pesos (about $4) and includes a beer. You wear a name tag and sit at a numbered table. The leaders instruct the participants to speak for 5 minutes in Spanish and 5 minutes in English. Then after the ten minute conversation, the speakers at each table change. By the end of the event, you’ve had about 7 or 8 Spanish and English conversations.

I was starting to realize that the best way for me to become more comfortable in Spanish was by making enough friends who would like to learn from my English. Each day in my afternoon Spanish classes, each Tango lesson, each Spanglish night I would speak a bit more and get a little more used to confronting my fears. I realize that I am not the best language student in the world, but it is also important to be of this world, rather than trapped in an apartment, marking the days off the calendar like a convict in San Quentin.

I also joined a service called Conversation Exchange, that matches people who want to practice their target language with a native speaker. In Buenos Aires, there are many people who place their names on the listings for this service.

Through Conversation Exchange, I had arranged a meeting with Laura, a 30-year old porteña, who arrived a bit late. Both by her appearance and by her accent she seems French but she is a native of Buenos Aires. She proceeded to tell me of her years in Paris and Vancouver. She is quite fluent in both French and English and I struggled through a bit of Spanish. I told her about my project and how it was about discovering new things at fifty. She said that when she had seen my contact, she felt it was fine to meet because she would talk to anyone from 20 to 80. After that comment I felt much closer to the latter than to the former.

Laura had been late and she invited me to go with her to meet her next conversation partner, Douglas.

We met Douglas, a Canadian of Thai descent also in his thirties, who moved his family to Buenos Aires 8 months ago. Once in the company of a native English speaker, I relaxed and talked more in Spanish. Of course, Douglas was more fluent, but I followed everything everyone was saying and added a bit of my own. I felt happy and relaxed.

Douglas is a lawyer and an investment manager whose ambition is to open a restaurant in Buenos Aires. A foodie through and through, he wrote down the name of an interesting Armenian restaurant and of its best dish.

Laura works for the Ministry of Culture and there was a concert in el Centro to which she invited Douglas and I to accompany her and a friend to see. Douglas demurred because it was family time. I decided to follow along.

We went to Laura’s friend Maca’s apartment and spent a little time talking before the concert. Maca, an actress, is a school friend of Laura’s from Paris and until we walked into the apartment, Laura had no idea Maca could speak English. 5 hours, two liters of cerveza, and a skipped concert later, the three of us had entertained ourselves with one of the best late-night bull sessions I have had since college. Maca and Laura said the only reason they talked to me for so long was that they planned to steal my money and my passport. Alas, their ambitions were thwarted.

I blearily slid into a cab and headed back to mi casa in Palermo at the end of an unplanned, over-extended, and very happy day. I had opened myself to the world and allowed myself to experience new people and new things with no plan. The pool of language that had seemed so overwhelming to me just two weeks before now appeared smaller. Even though I still needed water wings, I didn’t think I would drown.

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