I’ve ended up at Los Arcos, a friendly, casual café on the zocalo, Cuernavaca’s main plaza. It is the end of another pristine afternoon; a few stars have appeared, the beginning of another soft, balmy night. The zocalo here is a mix of old trees, winding walkways, and innumerable carts selling nuts, fruits, juices, magazines, tacos, bracelets, and key chains, all ringed by restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and an Internet café. There’s no church, which is unusual for a Mexican plaza. (The massive, brooding cathedral Malcolm Lowry evoked in Under the Volcano is about a half mile away, in its own small plaza.) On the zocalo, there is music nearly every night, coming from the numerous cafés, and out of the boom boxes that the corn, candy, and taco sellers use to keep themselves company. This evening, in the plaza’s northeast corner, a chorus of young people sing those sincere, positive songs I associate with Coke commercials, the kind that lift you up when you’d rather not be. At another corner of the square, elderly couples are dancing to recorded tangos, solemn and romantic, many of them clearly campesinos, their faces lined by sun and hard labor.
Beautiful young local couples wander around, weaving their ardor into the fabric of the night, some holding hands with old-world formality, others draped over each other, their forms as thoroughly mingled as shadows on the wall.
I am listening to whatever scraps of stray conversation I can pick up, eavesdropping with such effort and intensity that my head is starting to throb. I have been coming to this spot every evening for the past week to drink beer and eat grilled chicken, and I’ve been waiting, with varying degrees of hope, for that magical moment when something will happen within my brain to signal that my life as a monolingual American may be coming to an end and my time immersed in the Spanish language is, against all odds, beginning to pay off.
Taking seriously the advice of a neurologist friend who mentioned to me that learning a language is effective calisthenics for the brain and a useful way to revive it from exhaustion, I have come to Mexico not only to learn Spanish, but also to rehabilitate my mind, which feels worn down to a whimper after a four-year trek through what turned out to be the most challenging novel I have ever written. I chose Spanish because it seemed the most practical language to learn, living, as I do, in New York, with its millions of Spanish-speaking citizens, not to mention the millions more Spanish-speaking noncitizens, whose paths I cross daily.
After traipsing through the Internet and looking at Spanish-language schools in Spain, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, I thought I would keep it simple, and chose Mexico. A little more than an hour’s drive from Mexico City, the small city of Cuernavaca is the country’s center for Spanish-language immersion. The school I finally settled on is called Cuauhnáhuac, which pleased me because that was the name given to the town by the indigenous people who ruled the area before the Spanish conquest, so I felt that the administrators and teachers would have somewhat progressive politics, which I not only find more agreeable than conservative politics but which I also felt might mean that they would be a little less strict—i.e., easy graders. Finally, I thought that if I could learn how to pronounce Cuauhnáhuac (kwa-oo-now-wok), that would in itself be a great accomplishment.
A great accomplishment for me, that is, with my seemingly hard-wired resistance to learning a second language. In high school, at my father’s insistence, I studied Latin, little of which penetrated me, none of which I can recall. In college, a school where four semesters of foreign language classes were required for a diploma, I crammed and faked my way through French 1–4, sometimes reduced to begging the instructors for mercy in order to pass. I have stared at translations of my own novels as if they were out-of-focus photographs of distant relatives.
As soon as I enrolled in classes, a sense of impending failure came over me. Coming up short in French back in college was one thing—I only had to squirm for 45 minutes, three times a week. Here, I was going to be in class from 8 a.m. to 2:20 p.m., and there would be no more than five people in the room. The potential for embarrassment seemed boundless. Compounding my sense of dread was the school’s urging that we students stay with a Mexican host family. No afternoons at the poolside?No room service?No possibility of catching a few sets of the Australian Open on TV?No respite from self-improvement?I finally agreed to one week with a Mexican family, and I only did it for you, dear reader.
I think things would have gone better in the rather luxurious house to which I was assigned had I not been caught helping myself to peanuts when I was drunk one night and thought I might send a squadron of legumes down into my digestive tract to help me sober up. And as polite as the woman of the house and her ferociously fit boyfriend were, at times the realization that I was expected to be front and center for lunch and dinner made me want to howl with frustration. What I’m saying here is that most of the schools in Cuernavaca will urge the homestay option upon you and will even say it is an integral part of learning Spanish, and they will assure you that the houses are comfortable, which they are, and that the food is good, which it is, good and safe for the gringo stomach, and it is very, very reasonable, and that it is very interesting to be even a tangential part of a Mexican home, and, most important (and this is the part they won’t tell you) you should definitely stay in a hotel, if you possibly can, and if you don’t have enough money for a hotel then you should take out a low-interest loan from a friend, to whom you can, if you wish, show this paragraph.
My first day of school is a Monday—new students are admitted every Monday. The school’s director, a dark, handsome man in his forties with a melancholy, weary smile, makes a quick evaluation of how much Spanish I don’t know and decides there are no other students currently enrolled who are at my level. I am put in a class consisting only of a teacher and me, which might make someone else feel lucky, but which fills me with the kind of dread that can descend upon you at someone’s house when you realize no one else has been invited to dinner and you are going to have to participate in every minute of conversation.
My teacher, Alberto, is a 40-year-old man who looks about 20. His great gift as a teacher is to appear to be merely spending time with me. I have been given a bright yellow workbook in which lessons are laid out, and Alberto does trot me through the pages at a nice clip, but at least half our time together is spent conversing in Spanish, which means that he speaks—about his life in his parents’ house, his months in northern California, the rising price of tortillas, the price of a windbreaker in Mexico compared with its price in the United States—and I listen, though every once in a while, out of the sheer need to hear my own voice, I chip in some idea, a thought simple and small enough to be expressed in my trembling handful of Spanish words, hitherto random and unconnected, but with which I now attempt to construct a comprehensible sentence, much as a castaway might build a little lean-to out of junk he finds on the beach.
Classes run for 50 minutes, with 10-minute breaks in between. In the virtually unvarying Cuernavacan sunlight, breaks are spent either around the school’s small swimming pool or at the little outdoor cafeteria. Cuauhnáhuac has a Spanish-only policy, which the teachers adhere to virtually all the time, and most of the students do their best not to relapse into English. The school’s pedagogical strategy is based on the idea that if given no viable alternatives, even the most resistant students will learn how to make themselves understood in Spanish. But on that first day it all seems fairly hopeless, and the deluge of Spanish pouring over my head makes no greater inroads into my brain than dangling your feet in a rushing stream would quench your thirst.
Most of the other students were from a small Milwaukee college, and they were taking the Cuauhnáhuac classes for college credit, squeezing 15 weeks of instruction into four. The rest was a disparate lot, ranging from a physician from Minnesota who wanted to learn Spanish to enrich his Latin American tourism to an exterminator from southern California who wanted to communicate with his Latino clients to a raucous, drunkenly charismatic ex-Marine, who was often absent or late and who regaled the rest of us with incredible tales of his nights with various local women, and I do mean incredible.
A couple of zocalo strollers veer off the sidewalk, come into the café, and sit at a table next to me. She is pretty, round-faced, about 20, with curly hair and the amused, watchful gaze of a girl who has learned to hold her own in the company of domineering males. He is a fastidious 25, with a neatly trimmed little beard and precise gestures, and no idea, of course, that self-possession to this degree in someone so young might be perceived by others as a form of hysteria. The waiter comes and they order a Coke and a Corona, the Spanish of which I can follow. They fall into a silence and I am trying to filter out the great human tumult of this lovely town square because I know these two are having a moment of conflict in their relationship, and it seems to me there would be no greater triumph than to be able to eavesdrop and pick up even a fifth of what ails them. But all I can discern is mucho trabajo from him, by which I deduce he is pleading busyness at work, a standard male alibi. She is saying something about her sister, and about lunch, perhaps lunch in general, more likely a specific lunch, possibly at her sister’s house. I am missing 99 percent of what is being said but, leaving aside the ethics of eavesdropping, I have rarely before been in such intimate contact with the daily life of a foreign country. I’ve spent my adulthood traveling the world relying solely on English and hand gestures, and it has been my good fortune and my misfortune that my country’s global dominance has made this feasible. But travel has always had an alienated, dreamlike quality because the life of the people around me unfolds incomprehensively before me, and I wander around in a semi-childlike state, trying to read the minds of those around me based on their facial expressions and tones of voice.
And then it happens, the little miracle I had hoped for. I leave the café and wander through the mall-like cluster of stores behind it, where I come upon a cineplex. Of the six movies showing, five were made in the United States—but what I don’t know is whether or not they have been dubbed. In the past, I would either take a chance or resort to something grim and pathetic, like pointing at a poster and repeating the word English four or five times, hoping that the ticket seller would understand. But tonight I use my freshly minted Spanish to ask, movie by movie, if it is in English with subtitles. (Obviously, for the Spanish word for subtitle, I consult my pocket dictionary.) And then the ticket taker tells me, in a confidential tone, that if I wait until tomorrow I can see the movie for half price, because every Wednesday is 50 percent–off day. I stand there, stunned, in a kind of perfect storm of gratitude and joy. Somehow my fledgling Spanish has touched a generous nerve in the ticket taker, but what is even more astonishing to me is that I have understood her.
There are times when you are traveling that you can hardly believe your good fortune because you are finally able to gaze upon something you have always wanted to see—the Eiffel Tower, the minarets of Hagia Sofia. But nothing I have seen or done as a traveler quite matches the rush of pure pleasure I felt when that lady in the cineplex hipped me to half-price Wednesdays.
Flights are available to Mexico City, about 60 miles north of Cuernavaca, from most major U.S. airports. From there, rent a car in the capital and make the trip via the six-lane toll highway.
Where to Stay
Most language schools arrange homestays with local families, but if you opt for a private stay, Hotel Villa Béjar (doubles from $151) has 68 bungalows overlooking gardens, and a full-service spa.
Where to Eat
This restaurant on the main square has a tasty lunch and dinner menu, and it’s open until midnight. 4 Jardín de los Héroes; 52-777/312-1510; lunch for two $16.
Also a grand hotel (doubles from $252), this is the spot for Mexican dishes like cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork). 107 Ricardo Linares; 52-777/362-0000; lasmananitas.com.mx; dinner for two $160.
Where to Study
123 Avda. Morelos Sur, Colonia Chipitlán, Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico; 52-777/312-3673; cuauhnahuac.edu.mx.
Language Immersion Around the World
This well-known school in Morocco offers organized trips to nearby Khenifra’s carpet souks and classes on Maghrebi literature and Arabic calligraphy. 2 Rue Ahmed Hiba, Ville Nouvelle, Fez, Morocco; 212-35/624-850; alif-fes.com.
Wine and cheese appreciation in the language school’s 400-year-old mansion highlight central France’s excellent vintages and fresh goat cheese from the nearby Sancerre market. Classes from one to 12 weeks. 1 Place de la Panneterie, Sancerre, France; 33-2/48-79-34-08; coeurdefrance.com.
Combine courses at the 30-year-old program’s Paris and Nice locations, pairing language learning with specific topics, such as art history. 33-1/45-00-40-15; france-langue.fr.
Classes can be tailored to individual students’ needs and time constraints. Activities include city tours, day trips, and cultural events. Offered in 13 cities across the country, including Berlin, Frankfurt, and Munich. Courses from two weeks. 49-89/1592-1200; goethe.de/germany.
The Sicily-based school doesn’t teach much dialect, but there are plenty of ways to absorb local culture in the sun-soaked, seaside town of Taormina: students take classes in the kitchens of residents. Courses range from one to 24 weeks. 20 Via del Ginnasio, Taormina, Sicily; 39-0942/23441; babilonia.it.
All locations offer cultural classes reflecting the heritage of their city, ranging from music and art history in Florence and Rome to fashion and design in Milan. Classes run from two to 24 weeks. Florence, Rome, Siena, and Milan; 39-06/6889-2513; scuolaleonardo.com.
The Cultural Experience Program organizes homestays and offers hands-on lessons on Japanese cuisine, dance, calligraphy, and ikebana (flower arranging). Four-week intensive summer courses start in July. 21 Kamihate-cho, Kitashirakawa, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan; 81-75/722-5066; kicl.net/index_en.asp.
Cross-cultural courses teach a wide range of Chinese business and social customs; classes like calligraphy explore China’s heritage. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Dalian; 86-10/6568-8228; imandarin.net.
Hybrid Spanish and Tango courses spice up language learning with five weekly lessons at one of the city’s best dance schools. 571 Calle Hipólito Yrigoyen, 4th floor, Buenos Aires, Argentina; 54-11/4345-5954; academiabuenosaires.com.
Regular intercambio exchanges allow students to mingle with native Spanish speakers. The Marbella center offers flamenco dancing, golf, and tennis lessons. Multiple locations in Spain, including Madrid and Barcelona; 34/93-317-2309; estudiohispanico.com.