Arriving in Chile, and being surrounded by words that hold no meaning, was more than a little overwhelming. My brain hurt by the end of the day from attempting to grab hold of one or two recognizable words in an entire conversation. The difference between then and now is that when I arrived I could speak in complete simple sentences, but understand next to nothing. Now, after 2 and a half months, I can string more simple sentences together to make (an almost) paragraph and understand close to 50 percent of conversation, if spoken slowly and with lots of body language. Things are starting to fall into place, and Spanish is beginning to make more sense to me, but I find myself, everyday, in situations where I have no idea what has been said or what I have agreed to after using my standard reply of “si!” I like to listen to native speakers, discussing, to remind myself that this is real, not a fake language like pig latin. People all over the world use these words to make themselves understood. And I want that; I want to be understood. But I don't just want to be understood, I want to use that thing we call Spanish.
Spanish is a mysterious, romantic, and beautiful language that twirls me around, blows kisses in my direction, but refuses to let me come closer than arms length. Spanish is like a distant lover leaving pieces of itself hidden all over Chile. Spanish is everywhere and at the same time nowhere. He wants me to find him, I think, but he teases and taunts me with his intangible clues. I find a piece of my mysterious lover in the sound of my alarm in the morning, and another in one of the many puddles of mud on my way to school. And yet I catch another as it is falling from the sky with the rain, and I can faintly see the trace of one lost to the green flame dancing the tango with the more popular orange flames in the chimenia. I gather all of my pieces together and hold them close to me for fear that I might lose them, which I do from time to time. I take them to my room and set about to make my puzzle pieces into a complete picture. Although Spanish has left me treasures of itself, he has failed to leave instructions or an example of what my puzzle should resemble as an end result.
Discovering my hidden treasures, and playing with how they fit into the jigsaw is a rather enjoyable game some of the time. But like a game that has gone on too long, or a distant lover who never lets his guard down, I tire, and just want to know the answer already. I want to know Spanish. I don't want to know him, like I know the many cities I traveled within when traveling around Europe staying only long enough to see the tourist attractions. I want to know Spanish like a traveler who sees what is meant to be seen, the outside of the shell, but also as a native, who knows where the after hours bar is in the seemingly deserted building, that requires a secret knock and a long , overcomplicated handshake.
Spanish occasionally reveals himself enough to dance with me. One hand below my shoulder bone and one hand gently holding mine. Our stature is gentle but stiff. I am twirling around the room, or shall I say, being twirled around the room, and I have to close my eyes because the world is spinning out of control. My eyes dart painfully around for something to focus on, but I can find nothing. He is a graceful and talented dancer, but I don't know the steps, and I feel so embarrassed. Why is it that everyone around me seems to know this dance, and I can't figure out what to do with my feet. I am going to fall. I know I am going to fall. I am afraid and embarrassed. Will everyone laugh at me when they hear me speak? How much more of this until I can go home, crawl into bed and never come out? No one speaks Spanish under my covers. I am safe there.
Learning Spanish has been a much slower process than I imagined. My standard saying, when someone asks how my Spanish is coming along is, “un poco a poco.” Somedays, it is hard to get out of bed, I am so tired of attempting this language. It is not that I am afraid of making mistakes, because that is a daily reality, but rather that I am exhausted from thinking so hard and drained from this overwhelming feeling of stupidity and my daily reminder of my inability to communicate effectively. I know it is a learning process, and I am aware that it takes time and effort, but constantly making mistakes, and not being able to express ones thoughts or ideas, takes a tole on a person's self-esteem. No wonder babies cry all the time, they just want to be understood.
There are days, when speaking, and understanding comes exceedingly easy, and I find myself soaring through the clouds, along with those felicitous souls newly in love. But it doesn't last. I always fall. It is inevitable. Like a substance induced high, I come crashing down, without a parachute, with bits of cloud remains embedded in my hair. My lungs feel constrained from the rapid change in altitude and my body is covered in bruises to remind me of how much work I have left to do. I am waiting for the time that my trip to the clouds lasts more than a day, maybe even more than a week. I am waiting for the day, that I will grow wings, and fly with the others who have accomplished their dream. And then I will really be in Heaven!