Porteña Day 15: Just Keep Swimming

The first meal I ever cooked in Buenos Aires

This story was originally published on September 14, 2016 as part of a private blog series chronicling my experiences moving from the United States to Buenos Aires in August 2016 for a life reboot after a series of concurrent personal tragedies: the loss of my job, the loss of my life partner, and the near loss of a family member to suicide. A selection of those stories are being republished here, 1 year from their original publication date, as a testament to the power of human will to overcome any obstacle.

Porteña [pohr-tey-nyuh]: adj — Relative to Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina, or its inhabitants.

A young mother sits at the front of the bus with her ~1 year old daughter during my ride to school, pointing at the window as her little one peers out into the world. “Que ves, cariño? Que ves?”

(… bus stops near a corner with a shoe store… )

Daughter (banging on glass): Zzzah-pah-tos!
Mother: Muy bien!!! Y quién usa zapatos como eso? Quién usa???
Daughter: Mamí, mamí!
Mother: Claro, y de qué color son los zapatos?
Daughter (getting restless with the questioning): …
Mother (ever cheerful): De qué color, mija?
Daughter (spitting): BAH!!!

I hear ya, cariño… I hear ya. It gets tiring, this language learning biz.

The truth is, I would give anything to have a loving, patient, maternal figure hand-holding me through this brave new world. Someone to pose simple questions and celebrate even simpler answers. Someone who never leaves my side and is willing to teach me how to speak, in context, for free, all day long. And someone to hug me when my brain goes BAH!

People say that learning a language once you’re an adult is much harder, and it is — but not for the reason you might suppose. As an adult, we have all sorts of cognitive tricks up our sleeve that young children haven’t acquired yet in addition to a brain that, as recent research bears out, is still incredibly plastic under the right conditions.

So what’s the problem? In my experience so far, it’s our adamantine resistance to being wrong — to making even the tiniest mistake — in public. To be fair, it’s also our severely decreased amount of leisure time for purely academic pursuits, but removing that limiting factor, adults simply hate looking bad. Ever.

To learn a language as an adult, you have to get over this. You have to become a child again in the most important sense of the word. Quoting my favorite educator, Ken Robinson:

Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go.

The truth is, the Spanish class I sit through every afternoon isn’t that much different than the scene with mother and daughter described above. A teacher speaks slowly and repeatedly in a loud voice as if we were toddlers and asks simple questions like, “Erin, qué hiciste el fin de semana?” (What did you do last weekend?) or “Erin, qué comiste para el desayuno esta mañana?” (What did you eat for breakfast this morning?). I respond with my unique brand of Tarzan Spanish, making Charades-style hand gestures to indicate words I don’t know until the teacher says “muy bien” and moves on to the next poor sap. Much laughter and flailing of arms ensues as we ring-around-the-rosy for three hours before calling it quits.

On a good day, I make a couple dozen mistakes. On a great day, I make 100. More mistakes equals trying harder. I haven’t yet had a great day, but I’m looking worse and worse every day, and it’s feeling better and better. Give me time; I’m new at this.

On a related note, today is an important day for this little porteña… it is exactly two weeks since I landed in Argentina, which makes it the day my roommate and I agreed to cut off the English for good. I can no longer rely on the mental/emotional break of speaking in my mother tongue during the evening rest hours. I’m really swimming in the deep end now, folks.

The good news is that two weeks is also apparently the precise amount of time I needed to get settled here. And by ‘settled,’ I mean able to cook a full meal at home. Nothing is a better indicator for my comfort level with a new place. Marina and I enjoyed Southern style Vegetarian Rice and Beans a la Erin while watching episodes of Cómo Conocí a Tu Madre on Netflix.

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…

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