I call myself a language jock; others might say language nerd. Tomayto, tomahto. Either way, I’ve been fascinated with foreign languages and cultures since I was a little girl. I think my first real exposure to anything foreign was when a couple from India rented out a room in our house. John was a student and I’m not sure what his wife did. Until they came to live with us, I could not remember seeing anyone with skin darker than a deep summer tan. I was six and lived in a small town in the Midwest during the early 1960s. John would tease us kids and make up stories about why he was so dark. “I was dropped in the Black Sea.” We would all laugh, but I’m not sure my little brothers and I knew entirely that he was joking. When I visited my dad in Chicago, I heard Spanish for the first time. His neighborhood had many Puerto Rican residents and I became friends with the kids on my monthly visits for the weekend. I was in awe of how my friends spoke in rapid Spanish to their parents and then turned to me and spoke equally rapid English. I was hooked. Ever since then, I’ve studied languages, six or seven of them. I’m fluent only in German and I can communicate, more or less, in Spanish and Russian; the rest are just there for the memories.
I mention my interest in language because I’ve started speaking a lot more Spanish these days. To begin with, my landlord is Mexican-American; David seemed rather cool and distant when I first met him, all business, but he’s warmed up since then. I think it began when I threw in some Spanish words to the conversation when he was talking to the lawn guy. He got a kick out of it. David is a realtor, and he has a few people who work for him regularly to keep properties in shape. Both his handyman and yard guy are named Jesus, so I was confused when I met the first one; I didn’t realize there were two called Jesus. There is Jesus numero uno, who speaks better English, and Jesus numero dos, who doesn’t speak much English at all. My landlord laughed and said whenever there’s a problem at the house, just to call for Jesus, which is kind of funny considering I’m not Christian. He doesn’t realize I’m a Jew, and I decided not to make a joke about it, unsure of his appreciation for irony. At any rate, the lawn guy Jesus comes every two weeks and we usually chat for a bit. He likes that I try to speak to him in my rusty Spanish and I like trying to brush up on it. We’re about the same age and we’ve talked about our kids and life in general. He knows I had a fire at my house and that it’s tough right now, and his suggestion is that I should get a novio (boyfriend). I just laugh and tell him I have no time. But really, what man would want to get involved in the messiness of my life right now? I don’t even want to be involved in it!
The other Spanish-speakers in my life have been tearing the guts out of my house and are now starting to put it back together again. I wander around inside my house at least once a week. Depending on the time of day, there may or may not be workers there. When there are, I talk to them. I think it makes a difference if they know whose home they’re helping to rebuild. It may be just a job for them, but for me it’s a home. I’m also grateful for their hard and sweaty work in a house with no working AC at the moment. The younger ones speak more English, but since the older ones don’t, I attempt to speak Spanish so they aren’t excluded from the conversation. I’m relearning words for smoke, walls, paint, and more. Maybe they’re glad for a break in the work, but I believe they also enjoy chatting with me in my halting Spanish. I’d like to think my Spanish teachers from decades ago would be proud. As long as I’m in the rental house and watching the work on my own house, I guess I’ll continue speaking un poco español.