How do you say ‘giant box of cereal’ in Spanish?
It was in the post office that I first ran up against the language barrier — something that up to this point had been an abstraction, but now presented itself in the very concrete form of a Peruvian postal employee who had no idea what I wanted from him.
“Arriba,” he said, gesturing upward as though swatting a mosquito. “Está arriba.”
I tried to explain that I’d just been upstairs in search of the package my mother had sent me, and that the office there was closed. There was no one at the window, and the sign had said to go downstairs. I said all of this in what I thought was correct, if not exactly beautiful, Spanish. He stared at me like I was a talking llama, only without the kind of amused wonder and eventual respect you might afford a talking llama.
He told me he’d send someone to open the office upstairs, and when he did, the man I spoke to there told me to go back downstairs and ask for the first man. When I said I’d already done that, the look he gave me suggested that it was actually Portuguese, not Spanish, I’d been learning for nine years, and that maybe I was supposed to be in Brazil right now, or in Lisbon, but whatever force had sent me here to Lima was clearly, severely equivocado. No matter what I said, no matter how quickly or slowly I spoke, I got the same uncomprehending look, until my voice cracked with frustration and I started to doubt my own words.
Suffice it to say it took me most of an hour to pick up the giant box of cereal my mother, with the best of intentions, had shipped two weeks before, and that my repeated trips up and down the stairs started to resemble something from a Monty Python sketch. When the box was finally in my hands, I collapsed on a bench and sent off an expensive international text to my boyfriend declaring that I wanted to go home.
These are the moments when all f the phrases you toss around before you go abroad become real: “Immersion will be great for my Spanish — it’ll really force me to speak it. Of course it’ll be hard sometimes, but in the end I’ll be much better for it.” When you hear that in a pre-departure meeting or say it to your family, it’s hard to picture the cracked blue plastic cushion of the bench in the Miraflores post office where you’ll sit, cradling a cardboard box, cursing your clumsy Spanish. Even when you say, “The first few days will probably be rough,” you can’t anticipate the headaches two weeks in, when you’re dreaming and doodling in Spanish but still need your host mother to slowly repeat her question about what kind of tea you want.
You’ll want to explain yourself: Look, I really am an intelligent person. I understand what you’re saying and I know what I want to say in return, but I just don’t have the right words. And you won’t be able to, and you’ll feel like a toddler who has no right going to the bathroom, let alone to a foreign country, on her own.
That day in the gray, crowded post office was the first time I ever felt like I might not be able to make it in a new place. When I went to college 500 miles from home, and even when I spent four months in Ireland, I could count my instances of homesickness on one hand, and they were always fleeting. I’d never felt this overwhelmed, and the frustrations didn’t stop that day. But over the next month, the breakthroughs started to pile up, and they started to outweigh the moments of crashing into the barrier. We’d meet up with friends and I’d talk with someone for half an hour about music or movies, in Spanish that came out so naturally I realized I wasn’t translating in my head anymore, just speaking. I’d get to the afternoon of a given day and realize I’d barely spoken or thought in English all day. None of those moments suggested that I had perfected the language for all time, but neither did the failures mean I was doomed.
The most frustrating things in the world are the ones you can’t just knock out in a day and cross off your to-do list, but somebody smarter than me can probably affirm that the frustrating things are also the rewarding ones. And so I compiled the rewarding moments: the final class presentation I gave where I barely looked at my notes at all, just explained, for 20 minutes, the facts I’d studied in English and Spanish but now presented only en español. The time a barista I chatted with in a touristy part of town was shocked to learn I wasn’t a native speaker.
As it turned out, that package afforded me one more chance to practice my communication that day: When I unwrapped it, back at my host mother’s house, I had to explain to her what I was doing with a box of cereal four times the size of a normal one, why my mother had sent it to me, and whether I was being sure to tell my mother that I was getting plenty to eat (which I was). After dealing with the post office, no other conversation that day — even one with a concerned mom — could possibly intimidate me.