Random Musings, Uncategorized

They Called Me “Gringa”

I’m currently working on my portfolio that is required of me to graduate with a degree in Rhetoric/Writing. This is one of the pieces I am including. It has been over 25 years since I set foot in Costa Rica, but the memories I had of that summer will stay with me forever.

When I first went to college straight out of high school, I was a Spanish major. Don’t ask me what I planned to do with that degree. I have never wanted to be a teacher. By the time I dropped out of college I had been studying Spanish for 6 years; 4 years at a high school level, 2 at a college level. I was at a fairly fluent level.  But you know what happens when you don’t use a language? You lose it. I didn’t lose it completely, but I lost a lot.  Although I don’t speak it nearly as well as I used to, I can still understand quite a bit. (Those Spanish speaking janitors in the break room at work had no clue that I knew that they were talking about me that one time. Ha.)

Regaining my fluency is on my bucket list of things to do.

Anyways, here’s my story:

It was the summer I was sixteen. I had just stepped off a plane in another country, thousands of miles away from the other country, and I was lost. I was in the United States, and everything felt foreign to me.

Eight weeks earlier I had taken a similar trip, in an opposite direction; in a country where everything was in a language I did not understand. My two years of high school Spanish had not adequately prepared me for this experience. Looking back now, I realize that it could have been likened to a 3 year old child going straight from preschool ABC’s into a college level English class. But back then, I naively thought that my Spanish would be so flawless that no one would recognize that I was a “Gringa.”

Rather, I was the girl who wore long skirts with tennis shoes in the streets of a small town that wasn’t too small or too traditional for people to wear jeans and t-shirts like I was used to seeing. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was the girl who didn’t realize that the bill of currency I was using to buy a small bag of chips was equivalent to using a $20.00 bill on an item that cost 5 cents. I was the girl who on the first of 42 out of 56 days of rain needed to buy an umbrella, but was unable to ask where I could buy an umbrella because I didn’t know how to say the word umbrella.

On my first morning with my host family Marisol approached me in my room and asked me if I wanted “desayuno.” She could have been saying anything to me and I wouldn’t have known the difference. I must have stared at her with a blank enough stare. If I had understood the pronunciation of the word I might have looked it up in my Spanish dictionary that I never used the entire 8 weeks I was in the country. After a few minutes she suddenly said in her Tican accent, “Breakfast.”

Whenever I spoke, the natives would gather around me and listen with an intense fascination. The town I was in never saw tourists, and many of these people had never seen an American, let alone hear one speak. I was the novelty.

The entire time I was there I was homesick and I missed my family terribly. I missed other things, too. I missed my bed, peanut butter, hot showers, and iced tea; things that were not available to me in Costa Rica. I made a list of things I missed the most. At the top of my list was “Reading Words I Can Understand.” Above all other things, I missed the English language.

I made it through the summer better than I ever thought I would. By the time it was time to go back to the US I had learned how to read the bus schedule and find the correct bus to ride into the city. I could flag a taxi driver and give him directions to where I needed to go, and get to the right place. I could go into a restaurant and order something to eat that wasn’t horse meat (which I had unknowingly ordered and eaten all summer long). I could barter with a street vendor. I could communicate, at the very least, on a level that allowed me to function.

This is me in the mountains of Costa Rica when I was 16 years old
This is me in the mountains of Costa Rica when I was 16 years old

A week after I returned back to the US I randomly sat down on my mom’s lap and I started to cry. Everything that I had known and loved my entire life now seemed so foreign, including the fact that everything was in English. Return culture shock-they warned us that after being completely immersed in the Tican culture that we might experience it. Mine was in full force. I missed the people. I missed the food. I missed the cold showers. I missed the language.

For weeks after I returned home I’d sometimes randomly start speaking in Spanish without really thinking twice about it. Or I’d find myself translating English to Spanish in my head. If I was out and about and heard a random stranger speaking Spanish, I would strain to see if I could understand what was being spoken.

It’s been years since I’ve been able to fluently speak Spanish, but I am still amazed at my ability to understand a lot of what I overhear. I can also recognize much of it by sight. A professor once challenged me to read Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in the Spanish translation, and someday, I know I need to. The words seem to have stayed with me somewhere in my mind, ready to be used again, when the situation is right.