I’d always dreamt of waking up one bright morning in the streets of a romantic colonial South American city, glowing with an aura of perfect Spanishness, walking around and being able to engage in meaningful conversations with locals. When this exhilarating fantasy struck, I often come back to the reality that to get there, I would actually need to at least sign up for a couple of Spanish classes.
I’d even dreamt in Spanish a couple of times. I’d mumble a couple of sentences in my sleep – and it was always the same crushing reality when I woke up, an unbearable feeling of hopelessness as I remembered that in fact my only conversation skills were still limited to asking directions to the closest taco stand and my ability to order the next round of cervezas at the bar. My frustration was intensified by the fact that I am of Uruguayan descent and still hadn’t reached a decent level of Spanish by the time I was 24 years old.
After mulling it over, I decided to take matters into my own hands and planned a nine-month backpacking trip throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Uruguay. I figured that instead of taking Spanish classes at home, a full immersion experience would be the best way to awaken the language of my ancestors, which had to be asleep in me, somewhere. And so I hopped on the next plane to Mexico City.
After four months in Mexico, I felt pretty confident in my Spanish skills, was able to have reasonably deep conversations with locals and was able to make my way around without much trouble. I decided it was time to take the plunge and I mustered the courage to leave the comforts of what really still is North America in a lot of ways, to go face my roots and the destination that was the main purpose of my trip: Uruguay.
Off I went, and after a couple of hours in the air crossing the continent, I landed in Montevideo, loaded with the cockiness only shown by people who have recently acquired the basics of a new language.
I made a couple of friends at the hostel where I was staying. They didn’t speak Spanish, and I was more than happy to show off my oh-so-wonderful abilities to speak the language. Gloating like a goat, I decided to lead the way and place my order before everyone else one day when we all went to have breakfast together. My order was pretty simple: I wanted a pineapple-strawberry smoothie. There is no way you can go wrong with three simple words, right?
I ordered a licuado de piña y fresa. There was an awkward silence from the waiter. So I repeated again, more articulately: un licuado de fresa y piña, por favor? I could feel my confidence melt by the second. After the third attempt I was really confused and embarrassed. I was pretty sure I had said it right! What was wrong with this waiter? Why couldn’t he understand my perfect Spanish??
After a couple more desperate tries, I explained that’s how I had learned it in Mexico and I had no idea what to do to get my stupid smoothie (I considered making a drawing on the napkin to make myself understood. My new friends snickered behind me). The waiter finally started to laugh and explained that in Uruguay (and Argentina, for that matter), licuado (smoothie) was batido, fresa (strawberry) was frutilla, and piña (pineapple) was ananá.
You see, although it is technically the same language, a lot of words in the Spanish language differ according to the country you find yourself in. This was a pretty big “a-ha” moment in my Spanish-learning journey: I have learned to accept that even if I am partly Latin American, I would not be spared by the universal rules of the “learning-a-language” process. There will always be mistakes, there will always be embarrassing moments like the smoothie debacle of 2008, and I will never master Spanish like Don Quixote. But I’ll tell you what: I’m OK with that. Learning a language is a fascinating adventure and I am glad it is never ending.
After completing my backpacking trip, I returned to Switzerland, sold all my stuff, quit my job and saved enough money to get myself on a plane back to Mexico. I am now based in the beautiful little town of Sayulita, on the Pacific Coast. After years of asking questions and resisting the urge to just give up and get by in Spanglish, I am happy to be able to say that I have – finally – become fluent in Spanish and made my dream come true.