“Eoy caliente!” I proclaimed to the taxi driver taking me to my brand new digs in Granada, Spain. I had completed exactly one week of a Spanish Language Learner’s cassette tape before arriving in the country, and was very proud of my achievement.
He met my clear, 21-year-old eyes in the rearview mirror, amusement chasing alarm over his features. I assumed my accent was terrible. Only later would I learn I’d told him I was horny, rather than hot.
I laughed when my teacher, a Spaniard named Inma, later explained to me the very important difference between what I’d said and “tengo calor,” which is what I should have said. It was a slightly desperate laugh. Not because I was ashamed but because, after a few weeks in Spain, I was starting to panic about my inability to communicate. A voracious reader from a young age, language had long been my tool, my weapon, and my security blanket. People would like me if I made them laugh or feel good about themselves. I could defang enemies with a sharp verbal thrust. With a few deft sentences, I might help people understand the world as I understood it, and feel less alone.
I was shocked by how often I drew my gun, my beloved English language, now that it wasn’t loaded with the same meaning to those hearing it.
For the first few months, I communicated in Spanish like a belligerent toddler.
I LIKE BOCADILLOS.
BRING ME FANTA LIMON BECAUSE HE IS DELICIOUS.”
Even after months in Spain, I’d only improved to the level of a slightly less belligerent second-grader, one who clearly thought she was more clever than she proved to be.
“I HAVE MUCH FEELINGS ABOUT THIS THING!” I would announce. And then I’d realize I didn’t know the words for those feelings.
“MUCH FEELINGS!” I would repeat, sitting back in my chair to signal to my friends that no clarification would be forthcoming.
The miracle is that I did have friends, especially ones who spoke only Spanish.