Last summer I had the extraordinary good fortune to travel back in time. Okay not really, but in many ways it felt as if I had. For the first time in 30 years, I returned to Colombia. It dawned on me, as I mentioned in this post, that the students I am teaching now had been in a Spanish speaking county more recently than I had…heck, they were born many years AFTER the last time I had set foot in a Spanish speaking country, and the time had come for my own person tune-up and a smack down.
I went with all sorts of goals (I will set up a service-learning program! I will create inroads to another Study Away opportunity!) Yadayadayada. The reality was, no one back home was expecting me to do this (in fact Colombia is on the State Department Travel Watch list and as such it would take a lot of work to steady people’s nerves, I realized, even if I were to create something in Colombia)
I investigated and I did my due diligence. I met people, I saw some interesting projects. But around day three it dawned on me: this trip was really supposed to be about ME immersing MYSELF in Spanish. I was supposed to be getting tangled up in tenses, feeling that grip of anxiety when you don’t know all of the words, the panic of being lost and having to ask for directions… all of the things I expect my students to do as they push themselves out of the comfort zone and into a new new level of language proficiency.
So then I started my trip again…this time with MY learning in mind.
One thing I reminded myself immediately: talking on the phone in another language continues to be one of the hardest things for a language learner to do. More than once I found myself staring at this thing, steeling up my courage to make a call. I found myself doing what I ask my students to do, that is, think of things to say when you have no idea what was just said. It worked, even though I was a wreck after each call. And yes, I am the teacher, and I was hyperventilating. Major reality check.
The city had exploded in the time I had been away. The hotel where I stayed was in the neighborhood I once lived, so I set off to see if I could find my way around. Another adventure. I got lost more than once, and remembering that taking risks is part of the game, I stopped (on numerous occaisions) and asked for help. And sometimes , it seems, the people I asked were just as lost as I was…
Streets had been added and subtracted, buildings had been torn down, city blocks had been entirely renumbered. After two hours of wandering more or less in the neighborhood where I once lived, I found my old house, now a doctor’s office. The outside of the building seemed to imply that the final address wasn’t entirely certain…
Feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, I stopped at a bakery where I once used to buy buñuelos: those wonderful round, cheese flavored, fried dough Colombian delicacies.
I asked for dos buñuelos y una botella de agua sin gas. The man behind the counter handed me my water, and put my purchases in a bag. I paid and sat down at a table. When I opened the bag, this is what I found:
Yep…two eggs. (At first I thought they were hard boiled -huevos duros- but later I found out that they were just plain ole eggs) Buñuelos…huevos. Total fail.
At this point, I was about ready to give up. I felt like a fraud. A language teacher who can’t make herself understood. Commence self-doubt.
But somehow…I kept going.
One of the things I wanted to do before leaving Colombiawas reconnect with the family with whom I had lived 30 years ago. I knew the father of the family had passed away, but that the mother, Mamaleonor, was alive (albeit having recently suffered a stroke). Prior to leaving the States, I had been in touch with members of the family and let them that “the gringa” would be back in Bogotá.
On the heels of the buñuelo disaster, I gave them a call (yes on THAT phone above). At the rate I was going I was expecting they would hang up on me. To my delight we connected and within minutes they were at my hotel, ready to whisk me away.
Mamaleonor, now in her late 80s, they told me, was not doing well. Since her stroke she was sometimes lucid, sometimes not. She slept a lot. They told me don’t expect her to recognize you…she sometimes doesn’t even know who we are. They told me they had not told her I was back, figuring it would only confuse her.
In her apartment, and at the threshold of her bedroom door, I took a deep breath and walked in.
Her nurse told her a visitor was here. She looked up from her chair at the doorway, squinted, looked back at her nurse, and then looked towards me again. And then to my delight she thensaid:
At that very moment, all of the misunderstanding and miscommunications and self doubt just melted away.
I was home again.
The remainder of my trip was spent my former Colombian family..a family of nine children, most of whom had married and now had their own children and even grandchildren. Sundays are family days and it was decided we would all get together. Alas, only a few could come (only…30..yikes) and it was an extraordinary, chaotic, noisy, and emotional reunion.
So, almost 30 years to the day from when I was there last, I went back to Colombia. I got lost, I got tongue-tied, I was misunderstood, and I looked stupid…but I was also welcomed back into a home and an extended family as if no time had passed and as if none of those bobadas mattered at all.
In the end, I realized, in order to learn a language your need the support of a community. Making mistakes is hard, but when you have a community that believes in you and supports you and encourages you (and good natured-ly teases you, as my family did mercilessly when I told them about the eggs)… you don’t give up. You keep on going. In short, I owe a great deal of my ability to speak Spanish to the love and the support that this family gave me when I lived with them and learned the language.
This morning, I had my first class of the spring semester for Advanced Spanish Conversation (HISP 205) I thought about Colombia and my family there. My hope for my students and for this semester with them is that we create that same sense of community, of support, and of good-natured teasing… so when those mistakes do happen (and they will) no one will feel like they have to give up.
I will keep you posted.