From the date of law school graduation in 2006 until about 2 months ago, I assumed my days of turning in homework and taking a notebook to a classroom every morning were over for good. It is a little bit of a shock, then, to find myself sitting in an extremely pleasant garden in Antigua, Guatemala one morning in late February, discussing, in Spanish, the marital strife in the household of my teacher, César.
Ahead of me lays four months of travel, from Guatemala to Panama, followed by a jump to Ushuaia, Argentina to begin working my way north to Brazil for the World Cup. When I booked my flight to Guatemala all the Spanish I knew was acquired by watching soccer on Telemundo as a child. (“ESTA NOCHE EN VIVA COPA MUNDIAL!!”) It seems practical to try to pick up as much as I can before I start traveling in earnest.
The first two weeks of school are spent in the aforementioned garden in Antigua. Each student has his own professor and instruction is relatively informal. César’s approach at first consists of speaking in extremely simple sentences and teaching me the meanings of a few verbs and how to conjugate them in the present tense. We move on to broken conversation quickly. Where am I from? What is my job? (already getting trickier). What is my house like? (Momentary pang of sadness that my apartment of seven years has been packed up for good). As the hours tick away, the subjects become more complex. As alluded to, César is not shy about discussing problems with his wife. Other favorite topics include Guatemalan politics, César’s former jobs, the attractiveness of women who walk past us, whether or not I have a hangover today, and awkwardly, frequent heapings of praise upon me: that I am intelligent, that I will learn Spanish quickly. The first time he tells me this I am flattered, by the 10th time i think to myself, “well I’m not learning anything right now, man.”
I pick up a lot of language quickly, but it’s all quite sloppy. I have trouble figuring out when to use the two different verbs for “to be,” ser and estar. César tells me that estar is generally used for temporary adjectives, like how you’re feeling at the moment, while ser is used for more permanent things, like where you’re from. Of course it all trips me up when I overthink it. My profession, based on recent events, does not feel permanent, but one still says soy abogado, whereas the locations of cities seem permanent, but the proper form is Chicago esta en Estados Unidos. I raise this last point with César who wisely points out that cities can be temporary as well – Antigua itself was once known as Santiago de los Caballeros before it was destroyed by an earthquake a few times, the capital was moved to what is now Guatemala City, and the city renamed to reflect its glory past. That’s to say nothing of shifting boundaries, invasions, and the ravages of time, so I accept cities as temporary. Really silly to think otherwise in the first place; typical human conceit in measuring things on the timescale of one of our laughably short lives.
At times, César looks a bit like Leonid Brezhnev to me, at other times, James Mason, and other times, like nobody famous whatsoever. Five out of five days, he mentions how his wife and him fight. He doesn’t seem like the type to fight anymore. I would have pegged him at 50, but he tells me he’s 60, and he has the demeanor of a man who has grudgingly come to accept the misery of his married life. He pantomimes the outline of his house and indicates which room he spends the day in and the opposite side of the house where his wife stays, like opposing corners in a boxing ring. When they meet in the middle…pelean. Things aren’t great with his son, either, but I get less information on that. Severely balding or not, César would like to be pursuing the ladies of Antigua, assuming of course that his wife was not busy being what he termed an obstáculo.
It’s not all personal gripes with César, though. We talk about the economy of Guatemala, the causes of poverty, and to my discomfort, religion. César asks me if I have a religion, a topic I was hoping to in what I presumed would be a 100% Catholic country (an erroneous assumption on several levels). When I try to dodge the question César doesn’t seem upset, it was really just a prelude for him to announce that he doesn’t really have a faith either. Subsequent conversations reveal he still attends church regularly, but you get the sense it’s a matter of social compunction, you take the grandkid to his religious studies, it’s just a thing you do.
After a week with César my plan was to move on to a school at San Pedro La Laguna at Lake Atitlan, but I’m delayed by a minor emergency. On Tuesday night, as I’m trying to sleep, I feel a movement near me and turn out the lights to find a medium-size bug in my bed. (This is not the emergency). That bug, in and of itself, does not worry me too much after I kill it, but having seen a large cockroach in the bathroom, I am a bit paranoid that one will crawl into my mouth while I sleep. A day goes by without incident, but on Thursday morning I awake, and in the pre-dawn gloom, without my contacts in, I see a dark spot on my pillow. I am convinced I have crushed a cockroach in my sleep and shudder, but I’m relieved to find, once I turn on the lights, that it’s merely a small puddle of blood — presumably my own.
Turns out my gums were bleeding. Went to a lovely English-speaking dentist in Antigua who informed me that it wasn’t a hygiene issue, and there were two usual causes: tobacco use, which has never been a factor for me, and stress. Did I have any stress in my life recently? If leaving your job, apartment, and friends behind to move to a country where you don’t know the language after getting excoriated by your parents right before you leave counts as stress, I guess then yes, technically, there may be some stress in my life.
The problem is mostly cleared up by Friday, but the dentist insists that I come back Monday for a follow-up. That means my planned move to Lake Atitlan is off the table for another week. I return to school in Antigua but elect to switch teachers (a fairly common move).
My new teacher is a woman named Bithia. Bithia has no interest in informing me that I am intelligent, and if she is in an unhappy marriage, she is certainly not going to tell her students about it. I think she knows that César was my teacher the prior week and she realizes she’s got her work cut out for her. Much less freewheeling conversation, far more rigorous drills. I practice the proper use of por and para, my conjugation in the past tense, Bithia even has flashcards to drill me on vocabulary. Other days she teaches me new vocab, most notably when she teaches me the words for all sorts of foods. We begin with vegetables which I copy down morosely, but as we move through fruits and into meats, I become incredibly engaged in the difference between chorizo and salchica. I want to know the name of every possible meat, but I won’t resort to English. I’m reduced to bleating like a goat and quacking like a duck to figure out the words cabra and pato. To find out what veal is, the best I can manage is que es los ijos de res? — “what is the sons of beef?”
Studying is only interrupted by the occasional shrill cries of a midnight blue bird that flits through the garden, and the infrequent thump of an avocado falling to the earth from one of the garden’s trees. No tables under the avocado trees; Bitia tells me the avocados come down hard enough to break the plastic.
Although César and Bithia were completely different teachers I felt that they were the right matches for me. It was a great feeling to be speaking and understanding Spanish on day 1 with César, who moved on quickly when he could tell I understood a concept. Bithia’s methodical approach would probably have felt frustrating then. But by the end of the week I wanted to make sure I was conjugating my verbs correctly and getting genders right, Bithia was much better suited for that.
After two weeks it’s time to move on to the town of San Pedro La Laguna for one more week of lessons. I’ll write about San Pedro later.