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Learning Spanish in Cuernavaca, Mexico

© Trujillo/Paumier Scene from the Zocalo, Cuernavaca's main plaza.

Photo: Trujillo/Paumier

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.

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