I got into this whole business of language teacher education because I loved learning languages. This weekend gave me a good chance to revisit what it feels like to be truly immersed in a language I don’t know as well as I would like, and to remember the exhilaration of being surrounded by people talking with each other at a normal pace, but still including me in the conversation.
Katty, my friend and colleague at U de Atacama, invited me to join her for her mother’s birthday party at her parents’ house in Caldera, a beachside town about an hour’s drive from Copiapó. She and her husband picked me up Saturday afternoon (I rode in the backseat middle, between the car seats of their 3-year-old and 5-year-old, both of whom fell asleep soon after we hit the highway). The highway* follows the river north toward the Pacific Ocean, through desert hills and past olive orchards and vinyards, some of which were damaged in the massive 2015 floods that covered much of the city as well. The ruined farm fields are still just cracked, dried mud with nothing growing. We sang along to classic American rock songs as we sped along past memorials to people who had died in traffic accidents.
Katty’s parents’ house is on a rise a few blocks above the Caldera harbor. From the front terrace, you can watch the fishing boats and oil ships sailing in and out. Inside, the house is cozy (although still not particularly warm, except in the kitchen when things are cooking) and filled with mementos from her grandfather’s time in the Chilean navy. I think he’s in his 90s now, but still drives a car and spends his days writing up his memoirs on his own PC. When Katty’s mom was young, the family lived on the remote Juan Fernández islands, which at the time had no cars and little interaction with mainland Chile. Today, her grandfather complains, the islands are overpopulated and polluted, with garbage everywhere and no fish left in the sea.
Caldera harbor view from the terrace
From the moment we arrived, I was invited to sit at the kitchen table with Katty’s father and grandfather. The table already had a large plate of olives, nuts, and other pickles, and Katty’s mom set out more plates with crackers and cream cheese (one block topped with honey and poppy seeds, the other with soy sauce and sesame seeds). Then they added some more appetizers and set out a few bottles of wine. Dad asked me questions about Hawai’i, and grandpa starting telling some stories about Easter Island (following the Polynesian connection).
Guests started arriving with gifts for mom, and each time new people arrived, we all stood up to kiss on the cheek (the Chilean greeting even for people you don’t know). I was introduced to many people whose names I didn’t catch. We then sat down at the table again, scooting over and fetching more chairs as the numbers increased. Everyone asked me a few questions, but then as they all seemed to know each other, they picked up conversations that had been started long ago. At one point, grandpa went back to his room and returned with a few typed pages which he proceded to read aloud. This it turns out is part of his memoir.
This party wasn’t meant as a big dinner–everyone had eaten their main meal in the afternoon. The purpose was to have a few snacks with a lot of wine and to share camaraderie and then cake. I think I sat down at the table around 4:30 in the afternoon. By the time the guests started leaving, it was 10:30. The stories had been flying all evening.
As an outsider who didn’t know the family and a language learner still struggling to keep up with Chilean Spanish, I think I managed to follow about 60% of the conversation that evening. Sometimes I thought I understood, and then everyone started laughing at something I had missed. Sometimes I thought something was going to be funny, and everyone looked sad and shook their heads. At one point, I apparently missed the entire story of how Katty’s mom and dad fell in love. Maybe it was also the wine followed by mango cocktails later in the evening, plus vast quantities of olives, cream cheese, and cake, or maybe it was mostly this total immersion in language, but by the end of the evening, my head was spinning.
I slept well that night and the next morning had a nice conversation over coffee with mom about work, art, and politics. Well, I maybe spoke for about 10% of the time. She kept up the rest of the conversation. I walked to the pier with Katty, Manuel, and their boys, where they bought some fresh fish and the kids got to jump on a big trampoline in the central plaza of the town. I realized that Caldera looks a lot like Monterey, California, in the off season, when there are few if any tourists and the locals can walk freely around their city. There are even signs warning to stay away from the lobos marinos (sea lions), just like in Monterey.
The fishing boats are like in Monterey. The moai gazing wistfully at Easter Island less so.
When we brought the fish back, grandpa prepared ceviche and mom prepped the rest of the fish to bake in the oven. Katty’s uncle and his wife came back over, and we all ate a nice dinner of salads and fresh fish, with more wine. Grandpa, however, was unhappy with the bottle of merlot on the table and brought out a bottle of cabernet sauvingon from his own stash, going on a rant about how it was a much stronger wine. He wasn’t wearing his hearing aid, however, so it was almost impossible for anyone to get a word in edgewise with him. He also scolded me for being vegetarian and not eating the ceviche he had prepared.
After lunch, we moved to the front terrace, where grandpa opened up the Sunday newspaper and the boys started a game of soccer. The 5-year-old is learning numbers, so the game had a running score count. At one point I got drawn into the game when all the other adults disappeared, and I discovered that even when playing with a 5-year-old, I was getting competitive and debating the score-keeping approach (great numbers practice for me, too!). At another point, Grandpa turned to me and told me that he was surprised I was not born in Chile as I spoke castellano so well and fluently. I know that he is hard of hearing and really couldn’t have heard my halting, error-filled language, but it was flattering nonetheless.
By the time we drove away, back to Copiapó and another day of work, I recognized that this had been an amazing weekend for my own language learning. Not only did I get hours upon hours of natural input from native speakers not modifying their language for learners or delivering scripted dialogues (as on TV), but I also had to communicate my ideas to people who didn’t know any English in order to accomplish any kind of communication. I haven’t had this kind of experience since Peace Corps (although at that time, I was using Russian, a language I already felt quite comfortable with) or even earlier my study abroad semester in Russia. It’s exhausting, but exhilarating at the same time.
* The highway between Copiapó and Caldera is Ruta 5, the Panamerican Highway, which I like to imagine running all the way up the Pacific coast of South America, through Central America and Mexico, and into the US, where it becomes Interstate 5. In a way, it’s a link between my current home and my family in California.
* * I also want to add a shout-out to the Two Writing Teachers blog, whose ‘Slice of Life’ Tuesday challenges are what get me writing.