Woman Makes a Plan, Hoists the White Flag

I had a plan.

Which is weird, since nobody in our household is really capable of plans. But anyway, I had one.

“I’m going to Cuba for a two-week Spanish immersion at the end of April,” I went around telling everybody who would listen. “I’ll do a homestay, of course. That’s the way you really learn a language.”

I knew that, since I had lived with a family twice in my life to learn a language. The first time was in 1972, when I stayed with a family in Le Mans, France, for six weeks. I have never worked so hard in my life. At the end of my stay, I was even dreaming in serviceable French. (I had also been taught by the family’s mother that the Americans didn’t do much in World War II — it was mostly the French who saved the day; this is called cross-cultural exchange.)

Then, in 1993, I went with my husband and two kids to Costa Rica for a month. We stayed with a family there, too, while my husband and I took several hours of Spanish lessons every day. At the end, I could get by in Spanish, but forget about the dreaming part.

But time passes and minds empty out and plus ca change, plus you forget. At the moment, the only language I’m fluent in and dream in is my native tongue. So! Total immersion!

I fooled around on the Internet and halfheartedly filled out a fraction of an application to get a journalist’s visa to Cuba. (Evidently, my being there without a visa might prop up the Castro regime for another half-century.) That’s when I read something about an immersion program in Cuenca, Ecuador.

“I thought you were going to Cuba,” one of my nitpicky friends said.

“I’ve changed my mind,” I said.

“You’ll get a very pure form of Spanish in Ecuador,” another friend, Mary, said.

I took her remark as confirmation of my good choice — even though I wouldn’t know pure Spanish if it beat me over the cabeza.

Anyway, I really enjoyed those three or four days when I was going to Ecuador. But that was before my daughter suggested I go to Colombia, instead.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “You’re going to love Cartagena. Also, they speak very pure Spanish in Colombia, too.”

“Somebody told me the Spanish in Ecuador is quite good, too,” I said.

“I don’t think it’s as good,” our daughter said. She’d never been to Ecuador, but, believe you me, lack of experience never stops anybody in our family from loudly airing their opinions.

She told me to get in touch with her best friend, Carolina, who lives in Bogota. I did. Carolina was very enthusiastic about my coming to Colombia. She put me in touch with a travel agency. They were quite enthusiastic, too.

By this time, I was getting bombarded by emails from Cuba, Ecuador and Colombia. Everybody kept mentioning my trip. My friend Robin said she wasn’t brave enough to go to Colombia. I was just more adventurous than she was, she said. I am just about as adventurous as your average dish towel, but I nodded anyway and tried to look exciting.

Speaking of exciting, everything started happening at once. First, my sister announced she was getting married. (This is my only sibling, who was originally going to be writing this blog with me. But she’s been too busy to write, what with teaching English in Poland and getting engaged and everything.) The point is, her wedding conflicts with my going to Cuba, Ecuador and/or Colombia, and there’s no way I’m going to miss her wedding, even if it means my Spanish is going to stay at its current miserable level of ineptitude and apologetic smiles.

Then, then, I went to see my dentist and the news wasn’t good. Half my mouth is going to be excavated and replaced and reinvigorated with snazzy porcelain crowns, and it’s going to cost a small fortune. (You probably read this and wonder why we don’t have dental insurance. Well, we do. I’m talking out of pocket.)

So much for plans, so much for my mastery of the Spanish language. I intend to smile a really, really big smile at my sister’s wedding so everybody can see what an expensive mouth I have. I believe the word is boca in Spanish, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read my upbeat diatribe on what not to say at my funeral, dammit




18 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    I don’t know much about Spanish, other than four years of it in high school and college had zero impact on me and I can barely pronounce taco — but it seems that if you’re interested in purity, wouldn’t Spain be the place to go?

  • This sounds like how I plan a summer vacation. I am first sure we are going to one place, then another. It keeps changing. Hopefully I won’t end up spending it all on the dentist though instead.

  • My 14-yo daughter is learning French and darn good at it. It’s made me think about learning a language. I had one semester of German in college, and whatever the Mexican migrant workers taught us growing up on a cherry farm in Michigan (most of what they taught us wasn’t fit for public consumption). But… I dunno… it sounds like so much work and brain power. I’ve got to reserve those for the day job.

  • Loved this phrase: “Plus ca change, plus you forget.” I second that. Believe I am a bit ahead of you when it comes to dental bills. I will speak up if you run a competition. Oh, and my husband is at your level, I’d say, crown-wise. Yes, talking out of pocket. Isn’t it incredible? If someone had told me crowns only last 40 years, I doubt I would have believed it. Learning-The-Hard-Way

  • merr Link

    Oh, the crowns! (I’m getting new one, too.) Love the line…how you enjoyed those few days when you were going to Ecuador. I totally get that!

  • I took Spanish in 7th grade. The next year we had a new teacher and, when we all attempted to talk Spanish, she was hysterical. Apparently the 7th grade instructor was Portuguese and we learned to speak Spanish with a Portuguese accent…I vote for Ecuador – lots of beautiful scenery, expats (most of whom probably don’t speak Spanish) and cheap. Not that I have been there yet, but I figure I would give you my worthless opinion anyway. Ecuador in 2013 (or 2014)!

  • Christine Link

    This was so funny! I wish you were able to take that trip….

  • Oh, dear. Ruth, thanks for the giggle. I’m sorry about your teeth though. Congrats to your sis!

  • Here in eastern NC, I have learned the perfect place to absorb a foreign language– and without a visa! It’s informally known as The Language Center– aka Wal-Mart. In my section of the nation, we are presently overrun with relocated Mexican, Brazilian, Cuban, Korean, Chinese and Japanese populations. So, us natives just choose a favorite aisle at Wal-Mart and camp there for a weekend. This learning experience has Biblical overtones as well– somewhat like living at the foot of the tower of Babel.

    Speaking of overtones, I am somewhat skeptical of your “learning a language via immersion” theory. Since suffering the Latino-Asian invasions, phrases, such as, y’all come…, bless yore l’il ol’ heart…, ya ain’t gonna believe…, are rapidly disappearing from our Southern lexicon, but the invaders have picked up little English through their immersion into us. What’s up with that? Bless your l’il ol’ heart, it shore ain’t English! Y’all come, now, and hear for yourselves.

  • I had two years of Spanish before they convinced me in high school that French would be *the* second world language. Yeah, don’t know what happened to that, but I know I haven’t used it since the three years I had it in high school! My mother would be furious over what you learned in France about America’s participation in WWII, she always said it was the French who didn’t do much and we had to save their asses! 🙂

  • At least you know, without me telling me that you put deodorant on your sabacos. Of course I spelled it wrong. I think you also vacuum your alfombra. Those are the only Spanish words I remember.

  • Sheryl Link

    I totally get this. I call my mouth, “Mercedes Mouth.” There went my dream car…made into little crowns, instead.

  • I’ve tried a handful of times to learn Spanish. Can’t. Do. It. When we visited Mexico I felt so proud of myself that I wished someone Happy Birthday in Spanish. Yeah, I told her Feliz Navidad. No wonder she looked confused.

  • Si, boca.

    Our nephew and his wife have just moved to Peru from Cuenca, Ecuador, where they have lived for the last 4 years. They loved it there. Maybe you can pick up your plans again after the wedding, and once your wallet recovers from the dental expenses.

  • We’ve also got friends in Cuenca if you ever pick up the Spanish trail again!

  • Count me among the crown crowd — there went my plans for a spring break getaway (even with insurance, as you say).

    Loved this whole saga, Ruth, including the back story behind your blog’s title, which I don’t think I ever knew.

    Mostly I just loved how certain you were of what to do when push came to shove: Of course you’re going to your only sister’s first wedding. Enjoy it all — with a fabulous, fresh smile, to boot.

  • I speak Spanish but I’ve always had a problem with languages. So, despite 5 years of Spanish as well as visiting Spanish-speaking countries every year, my Spanish still isn’t fabulous. I’d love to take an immersion course, probably in Salamanca, Spain. It’s a great university town that’s very vibrant.

  • They say learning a language helps keep our aging minds sharp. After all how many crossword puzzles can you do in a week before the challenge wears off? It would be nice to go with a group so you’d have someone to continue practicing with once back home. How long do you think you’d have to stay to pick up the basics?

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