As a third-year Spanish student, I joined 21 other students and two professor-guides on my college's first study-abroad program to Argentina. I knew how to ask for the bathroom and call home, so I wasn't panicked about dinner. Yet my second night in Buenos Aires, to my horror, I ordered the squid stew instead of stuffed shrimp.
The next evening was a triumph: I managed to order the most succulent filet mignon I had ever eaten, along with salad without salt and soda with ice, in defiance of local customs. Then I pored over the dessert menu as my waiter stared down at me in anticipation.
"Chocolate caliente, por favor." Hot chocolate, I said.. No adjectives or verb conjugations.
"Chocolate caliente," he repeated, a mixed expression of confusion and irritation on his face.
"Si, chocolate caliente," I repeated confidently, but politely.
"Muy bien." He nodded curtly and walked away. Clearly, to him, I was a pompous American with no taste and no etiquette.
Moments later, he returned with exactly what I had asked for: a demitasse of bitter, steaming chocolate syrup. Touch.
I learned to order my hot chocolate con leche (with milk), but there were larger lessons in communication in store. I was still relying on my status of intermediate fluency to carry me through my coursework at the Instituto Americano where we attended classes daily. As long as I could order the steak and learn the tango, I was not concerned.
But our instructor in Argentinian culture viewed my status and progress differently. While her classes included music, dance, and art, the study of literature was a large part of learning the culture. And "Don Segundo Sombra," the dramatic tale of an early gaucho (cowboy), became a weight on my mind.
One of the first assignments she gave us was to take an excerpt from that work and give an oral presentation retelling it, emphasizing cultural themes. My study partner and I prepared that evening. We skimmed the story in about 15 minutes, before trading boleros for boy-watching. We had more important missions, like cruising the avenue. We were, after all, of the intermediate level, not requiring extensive practice for a simple improvisation about a cowboy who slung his bolero around the pampas all day.
We failed miserably. At center stage, and under the instructor's eagle eyes, one of us would mumble some chopped-up Spanish and pass the verbal baton to the other, who would inevitably drop it somewhere in the middle of the wrong verb tense or a gender disagreement. Hanging our heads, we slunk back to our seats, vowing to make up for our linguistic fiasco.
And try we did, though success continued to elude me. For every assignment thereafter, I made painstaking efforts to choose just the right vocabulary words. I pored over the Spanish dictionary until I was certain I understood every nuance of every passage I read.
But to no avail. The C's kept coming, along with what I felt was cruel criticism from my teacher. She exuded control and superiority when listening to or reading our attempts at fluent Spanish. Yet when she spoke English, she became a child, full of humility, modesty, and wonderment.
On only one occasion did I connect with my teacher on a bridge other than words. Our professors had invited her to join our group at a local estancia (ranch), for a day of horseback riding, folk dancing, and an asado, a feast of grilled meats with all the trimmings. With her family there, watching us absorb the best of what her country had to offer in music, art, and food, my teacher glowed.
She laughed and ate with us. And with the afternoon sun lighting up her shiny black hair and glassy, dark eyes, she sang the most beautiful gaucho love song we had ever heard.
BACK in the classroom, I continued to disappoint her, and she continued to burden me. I plodded through the rest of the coursework, with no expectation of success. I filled my experience with ballet at Teatro Colon. I scoured the shops for the perfect leather jacket and pondered a date with the bellboy (an Erik Estrada look-alike) at the hotel.
Our compadres at the Instituto gave our group a reception on the last day of class. Our semester-long assignment had been to keep a journal in Spanish about our impressions and experiences of the culture. As I snacked on a shortbread sandwich cookie with dulce de leche (caramel) in the middle, my instructor came toward me with my journal in hand.
The expression on her face was one I had not seen since the day at the ranch.
Reaching out to touch my arm, she said to me in Spanish, "This is the first thing you have given me that I have understood." And I understood her, too, every word.
I had written in my journal about the families we stayed with on weekends, where no spoken language was needed to express the love they showed in taking us in. I had told of the growth in friendship between my American classmates and I, some of whom would never have befriended me back home on campus. I wrote of the humility we'd needed to demonstrate to the families that had rebuilt their homes in preparation for our arrival because they believed we all lived like J.R. Ewing of "Dallas" fame. It was not perfect Spanish, but it was from my heart.
And everything I have written since then, if it has been devoid of judgment and criticism, has been well-received, if not completely understood.
I think my teacher would be proud.