My second and third weeks in Mexico formed an uncomfortable, linguistically pubescent transition as a language learner and a traveler. In cultural terms, I’d finished my soft segue in comfy Americanized Monterrey with my overprotective adopted Mexican family, so culture shock wasn’t such a concern. In terms of the Spanish language, it was active again in my head: years of forgotten classes had been not only thawed out under the Mexican sun but were even brought back to a slow simmer, bubbling to the surface and steaming off enough awkward sentences to see me successfully through my trip.
Language and travel always seem to intersect at people: I like bumming around from place to place because I constantly meet new and interesting and different people. Learning their languages lets me meet them and talk to them and learn how they think in ways that I don’t. Getting to know people that I otherwise wouldn’t have or learning to understand how our languages and thoughts and perspectives and ideas differ makes me feel like I’m a stronger link in the big worldwide web of interconnected citizens that’s bringing us all closer together.
But that’s all kind of higher order language learning; first, I just wanna get through a beer. Which I think I can finally do now.
Taking the plunge
When I contacted my Couchsurfing host in San Luis Potosí, I made it a point to do so in Spanish. I’ve been trained by the unforgiving Dutch, who pounce on the first sign of linguistic weakness and force your entire relationship into English and never look back. So after leaving my Spanish training wheels behind in Monterrey, I decided to do my best to make the rest of my time in Mexico an English-free trip.
I arrived in San Luis Potosí, the capital and largest city of the province of the same name, around 7 at night, just after dark. I was proud of myself for finding the right bus to get myself to our agreed upon meeting point — a ‘plaza’ that, to me, was just a shopping mall — and not falling into any trouble on the way. Sandra and Jorge arrived to pick me up and I jumped in the tiny backseat space of their pickup truck.
Sandra and Jorge were a couple, and according to their CS profile, while Sandra was pretty comfortable in the language of the gringos, Jorge could speak about as much English as the average American could Spanish. Which was perfect for me. I immediately launched into my standard Spanish greeting: Hi, I’m Jake! How are you? Good, thanks. Listen, I’m still learning so if you could please speak a bit slowly for me… Sandra looked amused and Jorge looked relieved.
I spent that evening and the next morning with them, with lots of ¿cómo? and ¿una vez más? and lo siento, no entendí, but both of my hosts were patient with me. Before bed the first night I had the opportunity to chat with them about Couchsurfing and whether or not gringo is a term I should be offended by (they both voted yes), making for the first instance of anything I could call ‘chatting’ so far.
But it still wasn’t really quite platicar (chatting, conversing, a word for sort of aimless conversation between friends), but rather more of hablar, focused speech. I was on the whole time. It was structured, like Spanish speed dating or that first day of class get-to-know-you activity. And I didn’t want to just tell my name and my hometown and my major and one interesting fact about myself: I wanted to make an organic sarcastic comment that led to sticommy banter and a real conversation.
The next day was a bit less forgiving. I spent it exploring San Luis Potosí’s small but charming city center, and when I tried to go home, a combination of disorientation and a series of communications breakdowns landed me… well, I still don’t really know where.
Over the three and a half hours I spent trying to get back to Sandra and Jorge’s house (which would have been about 45 minutes away walking), I rode three different buses and walked several stretches of unfamiliar road. I never asked the driver of the first bus if he was going the way I needed: I was pretty sure he was, and I was intimidated by the idea of trying to talk to him with the distracting bus chatter and the captive audience of judging native onlookers. When we reached the other side of the city and I was the only person left, he asked me where I was going. I told him, and he responded with machine gun-like rapidity (probably just normal speaking pace). I nodded, surely with a dazed and vacant expression, and sat back down.
It was a series of instances like this — too proud or uncomfortable to tell someone I didn’t understand — that gave me a stressful nighttime tour of, I believe, the entirety of San Luis Potosí. Meanwhile my phone had died, and I realized I didn’t have my hosts’ address written down anywhere.
By the time I was rescued by Jorge and taken back to his parents’ house, where my MIA status had interrupted their weekend family dinner, I was too stressed and mentally exhausted to do much talking. I made awkward small talk with his parents and sister, and mostly busied myself with petting their dog.
The next morning wasn’t much different. Sandra walked me to the bus stop where I’d catch a ride to the Central de Autobuses, from which I’d head south to Querétaro. I was painfully awkwardly aware of our lack of conversation on the ten-minute walk to the bus stop: stiffly structured small talk about Couchsurfing was suddenly a luxury that I realized I had never appreciated until my ability to socialize in Spanish had been totally depleted.
Tabula rasa at the Blue Bicycle
My miserable logistical and communicative failures in San Luis Potosí left a bad taste in my mouth, so I spent the three hour bus ride south translating those feelings into optimism for Querétaro. There I’d have a fresh start; no one knew yet how awkward and socially uncomfortable I was in Spanish, so I could try really hard not to be either.
I normally Couchsurf or stay with a friend, but in Querétaro I was lucky enough to have a few days of work from a Dutch NGO, so I decided to check into a hostel for the week instead of using a stranger’s house as my personal office. The Blue Bicycle House (which I chose partly just because its name made me think of Holland) is in the historic center of Querétaro, overlooking the Acueducto and a taco’s throw from half a dozen tranquil plazas with cafés and street food and free wifi. They have an on-site chef, a perfect terrace, and two namesake blue bicycles for exploring the city.
One night I was having a chat with Pablo, the nighttime receptionist. There weren’t many guests in the hostel, so I’d talked to Pablo a lot in my two or three days there. I had told him I wanted to improve my Spanish, so he took into account my limited vocabulary and difficult listening comprehension. I was used to his voice and way of speaking, and was in general getting fairly comfortable with our multiple daily one-on-one conversations. But then came the plot twist.
“Hey, a friend is gonna come over and have some beers on the terrace. Wanna join us?” I panicked a little bit at the invitation, my entire Spanish-speaking life flashing before my eyes.
I remembered the judging Mexican faces on the bus in San Luis Potosí when I couldn’t figure out what the bus driver was trying to tell me (there were no judging faces; they exist only in this made up memory). I remembered going to a small party of five or six people in Monterrey and ending up sitting quietly in a corner, mentally alphabetizing my favorite TV shows or imagining a world where people just had an extra pair of legs and feet where there arms and hands were supposed to be. How would I even pick up my beer at awkward terrace parties where I didn’t know anyone or understand the language and had foothands?
I said yes anyways, 30% out of adventurousness and 70% out of not being able to think up an excuse to say no. I went for a walk to get some tacos and when I came back Pablo and his friend Alex were on the terrace with beers as promised. I had prepared some mental notecards on the walk back with topics of conversation I could bring up that I would be comfortable talking about, so I frantically reviewed them and reminded myself that I did in fact have opposable thumbs as I climbed the stairs to the Terrace of Social Doom.
But actually everything went really organically. It was gezellig.
Pablo introduced me to his friend, telling him that él habla muy bien español, which at first just added to my discomfort. But ironically I was pretty comfortable with the vocabulary I needed to talk about how, no, I don’t actually speak very good Spanish. We chatted, platicamos, about all kinds of things: travel (because hostel), Mexico and the places I’d been, what we all liked about Querétaro, other places I should see in Mexico. Alex liked Mexico City, Pablo a bit less, and they spent a few minutes doing impressions of the capital city’s Chilango accent (which was mostly lost on me).
The guys taught me a dozen different slang words for beer and drinking and getting drunk, and after a couple of hours of chatting and drinking farts — or ‘getting farted’? Something to do with using the word pedo (fart) to either refer to beers or getting drunk, I can’t remember the expression — I gave in to mental exhaustion and headed to bed early, relaxing my brain with one of those TV series I had indexed in the last such social situation.
Gezellig doen op z’n Mexicaans
I mentioned in an earlier post that I think it’s limiting to talk about languages in terms of ‘fluent’ or not or what ‘level’ you’re at; I think it’s more useful to tell what you can and can’t do in a language. “I speak intermediate Spanish” could mean, depending on the speaker and the context, anything from being able to navigate customer service and public transit situations to comfortably joining a small group of Spanish speakers for a meal.
In the last month or two, when friends in the Netherlands have asked me how my Spanish is coming, I normally tell them something like “yeah, it’s improving quickly, I can handle lots of situations now, but I’m still not quite to the point of gezellig doen“.
This sentiment always seems better expressed in Dutch: gezellig doen is sort of sitting around in a group of people and chatting more or less aimlessly. Platicando. It’s not exactly small talk, because it’s not forced or burdensome, but it’s also nothing serious, not making deep interpersonal connections. The closest I can come to it in English is ‘shooting the shit’, which I think is probably a regionalism from the South of the US. It’s sitting around, having a beer, and chatting with a group of new friends.
Gezellig doen is one of the big medium-term benchmarks of language learning, I think. It comes after learning to introduce and talk about yourself, discussing what you’ve done today or will do tomorrow, navigating prescribed social situations like customer service interactions, and telling stories. It’s sort of the first phase of organically using your new language, engaging your new skill to get to know people in a way you couldn’t before.
And I did it for the first time a few days after arriving in Querétaro. Those beers on the terrace were just another night on my trip, but it was the first time I felt comfortable just enjoying a chat with some new friends. I still had to ask Pablo and Alex to repeat themselves, had to ask them how to say this or that in Spanish, but it was all super agradable, congenial, gezellig.
I adore Querétaro, partly because of making this gezellig memory and having felt differently about my Spanish ability since then, but also because it’s a vibrant and charming little city. Now I’m in the capital, constantly navigating the ‘what language do I speak to this person’ question in the hostel where I’m working, and thinking about some of the differences between cities like Querétaro and Mexico City. I’ll be sharing thoughts on all this soon.
Can you remember the first time you were able to just sit around and chat in a new language? Share your insights, stories, or questions in a comment here or a tweet to @JakobGibbons.