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Dining 101: Spanish for Dinner






Learning Spanish in Cartagena is difficult.  Its Caribbean nuisances puzzle even fluent speakers. My advice: have Spanish for dinner and every other meal. Here is a reflection on how I finally learned:


Dining 101

In 1994, I went to Quito, Ecuador as an exchange student to study Spanish and Anthropology. I lived at the Fernandez family home in Barrio Miraflores, an upper middle-class neighborhood. Gladys and Johnny, heads of the household, made sure I had everything I needed. They assigned their maid, Maria, to clean my room, cook my meals, and wash my clothes, which did by hand. Gladys oversaw my menu and social life. Johnny, a tire salesman and patient Spanish professor, answered my poorly constructed questions while reading the newspaper.
I ate all my meals with the family even though I thought about skipping out a few times. Maria was not the best cook. I didn’t know how politely mention that I despised soggy Corn Flakes with hot milk and uncuttable grey meat with a vein down the middle. The biggest meal of day measured by portions and guests. Normally, at least ten family members attended lunch. They left their different homes and jobs just to gather in this way. For two hours a day, I listened to them speak simultaneously while chomping on tough steak, slurping coffee, and smoking Marlboros. I wanted to make a comment or even better, a joke, but I just couldn’t converse. School had taught me vocabulary and verb charts, but not how to be a contributing member at the dining room table
After a month, I got a taste for caffeine and nicotine. They helped me play the role of Spanish speaker. As I sipped my Nescafe and took a drag from my cigarette, I mimicked the faces of the Fernandez. When one showed concern, I looked worried. When one laughed, I smiled. I became a good actress puffing on my Reds. After six months, I lost weight due to the meals, but my instincts improved greatly. I could feel my way through a conversation. I observed facial and body expressions to understand the new vocabulary and pronunciation. I could make a joke from a single word and look.  Members of the table glanced up from their plates when I spoke. They asked me questions about my family, school, and the US. I was even invited to dine at other family members’ homes.  I graduated as an official member of the Fernandez table, even though it never appeared on my university transcript.


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