Chess in the Park With a Foreigner

DURING the three months my family lived in Costa Rica, we went daily to whatever city park we were near. Children's play equipment was rare, although there was a lot of grass and concrete benches, sometimes a rose garden or a fountain.

In Golfito, the southernmost town we visited, an old train engine was the sole climbing apparatus. Children would scale the height and drop into the cab to see if any stray cats were sleeping there.

Our favorite park was in Alajuela where we came to pick up our mail in the capital of San Jose. This park was huge. Late in the balmy clear evenings, vendors sold toys from small makeshift booths. Clowns and mime artists performed in the center of the square. Taxis lined the sidewalks. On Sundays, a band played while children chased one another around the pillars of a concrete gazebo.

Older men and women, admonishing children who came close enough to step on their feet, sat on benches under tropical trees heavy with orange and yellow blossoms.

Cement game tables, tops etched with squares, divided the benches that made a perimeter around the park.

We could practice our Spanish here. It wasn't like in the bank where one mistake could put a person in more lines than was necessary, or the market where what you thought you'd be buying was not what you asked for. The park was the place where mistakes introduced us to new friends, albeit in a humorous manner. People here were more relaxed and eager to help us learn the language.

Everything we'd been told about how easily we'd pick up the language wasn't true. We knew survival Spanish. My son, Dylan, learned early on how to order french fries. ``Please'' and ``thank you'' were pretty standard. Consistently, though, we found ourselves in situations where ``please,'' ``thank you,'' and ``Could I order french fries?'' didn't work. ``Help'' and ``Oh, is that a poisonous snake?'' would have been more appropriate.

Perhaps one of the reasons we were so drawn to the park was that it was a respite from our frantic language immersion program. We felt part of the community, even though we could barely exchange pleasantries.

The last town we stayed in was a mountain village called Turrialba. In Turrialba's park, huge trees formed enough of a canopy to keep us dry if it rained. The public phones were at the corner of the park. I would come here to use the phone while Dylan and Hallie played hide-and-seek or chased each other around the massive trunks.

By this time we'd added pertinent words to our daily dialogues: help, right, left, here, watch out, be careful, and the phrase, ``Could you please speak more slowly, I am only learning Spanish.'' We had successfully navigated in taxis, buses, propeller planes, and by foot.

We'd learned to read subtle signals that invited us to play soccer, checkers, or games of chase. Hallie carried a portable, magnetic chess set that came in handy on long bus rides or when we had to wait for taxis.

The day before we were to leave Turrialba, we came to the park. I was on the phone for some time, making arrangements to fly back to our home in Oregon. By the time I entered the park, Dylan was stretched the full length of a cement bench reading his book.

Hallie sat next to an older man, chess set opened between them. Hallie had been the most reluctant to learn the language. Talking to adults in English did not come easily to her. Talking to them in Spanish was harder. This didn't stop her from making friends her own age. Children often communicate without words. But beyond ``please'' and ``thank you,'' she rarely initiated a conversation with an adult.

This day she nodded to the man as he said a combination Spanish-English sentence and pointed to one of her chess pieces. Meanwhile, I sat and visited with an elderly gentleman who had been the engineer of the abandoned train the children had played on in Golfito. Small country, I thought. I no longer worried about saying things ``right.'' I felt beyond embarrassment where Spanish was concerned.

We would head home in two days, intact in spirit, maintaining our humor when we had to ``study'' in preparation for even the most minor conversations. And I had spent more than a few evenings wondering if the trip had been worth it; if I had been irresponsible to take my children on such a wild ride.

After an hour or more of playing chess, Hallie's partner got up and waved good-bye to us.

That night, in our hotel lobby, Hallie asked me to play a game of chess. It had been a pattern for her to win. For someone who rarely sits still, she had amazing powers of concentration when it came to chess. But it usually took a while. I was a worthy opponent. This time, though, she continued to beat me quickly until we stopped several games later. ``You have some new moves,'' I said.

She snapped the game shut, looked up at me and spoke to the question that I'd posed so many times over the last several months, ``Is it worth it?''

``That man in the park taught me,'' she said. ``We understood each other.''

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