I know, a more remarkable topic might be “How I managed not to learn Spanish living in East Coast America”. Because growing up in the Washington D.C. area really means you have to learn Spanish. How else are you going to order arroz y frijoles (rice and beans) at the corner Cuban carryout? How else are you going to ask the multi-talented Leon to glue your zapatos (shoes) and cut your llaves (keys)? More importantly, how in the world are you going to get the busboys at Tom Tom’s restaurant, where you pretend to be a competent waitress, to secretly scrape customers’ lamb scraps in a doggie bag for your arthritic retriever?
To be perfectly honest, I’m not quite sure how I learned Spanish. Like everyone else, I took it in school from junior high school onward. But unlike my classmates, I didn’t think Ms. Tyler was a joke at all. In fact, I took notes whenever she pulled out a handy idiom. I mimicked her Argentinean-influenced pronunciation. I used the subjunctive to impress her. To me, she was the linguistic version of the Dalai Lama and, to this day, I have never forgotten her wise Confucian advice that went something like: Language will flow forth unencumbered when pride has finally let go of its hold over the mind. In other words, your Spanish will positively sparkle after you’ve been in a minor car accident and are lying all puffy and sore on a Buenos Aires hospital bed drugged to the eyeballs with painkillers. Your friends will be impressed.
It was probably following Ms. Tyler’s advice that I began reading for pleasure in Spanish. I started with elementary-graded readers and soon made the next logical progression to One Hundred Years of Solitude. I didn’t lose the habit of reading novels in Spanish even after moving to Italy. Once while my brother was doing a university year abroad in Seville, I went to stay with him at Easter for the Semana Santa festivities. When he turned up with a local friend to greet me at the train station, I launched into a detailed Spanish description of my trip, all those interior narratives of the novels suddenly flowing forth unencumbered.
“Wow,” my brother said. “I didn’t know you spoke Spanish so well. How did you learn it?”
In my great wisdom, I replied, “No lo sé.” (I don’t know.)
But I had even amazed myself and continued to do so throughout that entire week of following religious processions through the narrow streets amidst the smell of hot wax and frankincense and afterwards hopping from tapas bar to tapas bar till the moon disappeared. I was intensely motivated to keep up with the conversations my brother and his fellow architecture students were having around tables strewn with jamón and cigarette butts. It didn’t hurt that I developed a harmless crush on one of them. Or that we all stayed up every night well past my bedtime. And the red wine didn’t hurt either.
Naturally, my story of how I learned Spanish involves the opposite sex. To those of you who say, “Oh, no, not again! Can’t you learn a language without a man?” I say, “Can you eat toast without butter?”
Speaking of butter, I have to make a special mention of Alberto. He was the Spanish lettore at my university, the native-language assistant teacher from Barcelona who all the girls had a crush on. All the girls who were studying Spanish but also a few studying Russian and Sanskrit and Japanese too. Why did they all have burning, unrequited crushes on Alberto? It wasn’t just that he was a relatively good-looking foreigner with impeccable hygiene. It wasn’t just the fact that he elegantly rode that fine line between being a professor – our superior, for goodness’ sake – and being a casual friend who wasn’t actually much older than us. No, it wasn’t just that. I think they all loved Alberto because he was so unItalian, so unhairy, so gentle, so soft – and not just in the charming Iberian way he liquefied the hard consonants of the Italian language. He seemed shy and unaware of all the whispering outside the lecture halls. He tucked in his shirt. He had dewy and slightly bulging eyes, a chiselled nose and tapered artist’s fingers. On top of that, his mother was gravely ill. You would have melted too.
A girlfriend wanted to introduce me to Alberto – in a large group situation after hours – so that I could confirm to her how charming he was. Purely out of a sense of rebellion, I was determined not to be effected by Alberto. Still, when we met, I couldn’t help but whip out my most sparkling Spanish. Although reportedly he had never ventured with students past the university cafeteria, I somehow managed to persuade him to cross the city of Naples on foot at eleven o’clock at night to accompany us all to some nightclub. His eyes were particularly dewy in the dim light, his eye contact surprisingly engaging. Inhaling second-hand smoke with every breath, all night we whispered to each other in Spanish, the only way to talk through the blasting music. All my friends looked at us hungrily, as if it didn’t matter who in the end caught that fish, as long as he was caught.
I was flattered that Alberto would be quietly, politely drawn to me: I was just a student, after all. Perhaps, I assumed, he felt an affinity with me because I too was a foreigner in Naples. Or maybe it was the comfort of being able to speak to someone in his own tongue. With the passing hours spent with the lettore Alberto, and our subsequent and mostly spontaneous encounters, my Spanish skyrocketed. By now the language had become effortless, warm honeyed milk I could sip whenever I felt the desire to curl up with it.
One night Alberto accepted a group invitation to dinner at my place in the worst ghetto in Naples, ironically named The Spanish Quarter. He lingered after the others had gone and I remember looking out over the balcony with him, the big moon and the streetlamp competing for brightness. We talked about his mother and about how he would soon have to go back to Barcelona to see her. What followed was a heavy silence, infused with the smell of exhaust and the screeching of Vespa tires across blackened cobblestones. On the railing, our forearms brushed against each other. Then Alberto looked at me, with a solid, unfaltering look I hadn’t seen before. He didn’t say a word but he looked on the brink of blurting out something that he probably shouldn’t say to a student. His gaze infinitesimally dropped to my lips. Or did it? It was hard to tell what in the world was happening. My chest felt pummelled as if I’d fallen under a racehorse. Could he possibly like me, in that way? The soulful, unattainable, beautiful Alberto? The anticipation was leaden and excruciatingly long.
Then suddenly his look softened again and he said, “Bueno, I guess I’d better go then.”
Oh, Alberto! You turned out to be (just) a Spanish teacher after all!