Language is a funny thing, although "fun" isn't always the first word to come to mind when learning a new one. It is funny in the sense that it can be as revealing of the student as it is of the people and country where it is spoken.
I began a crash course in Spanish here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a few weeks ago and gained some insights of Mexico that were new to me, despite a number of trips I had previously taken to our southern neighbor. The experience also reminded me of why learning can be difficult for those of us who don't take naturally to embarrassment, humiliation, and rattled self-esteem.
Full of confidence after my first class, I marched into a cafe and girded myself for placing an order in Spanish. The waiter approached. I leaned forward on my elbows, took a deep breath, mentally repeating "Buenos días, buenos días," only to find my wayward tongue going its own direction.
"Adiós," I said with beaming pride, signaling my departure before my chair was warm. "Ya?" ("Already?") he answered with a bemused smile, before politely asking me - in English - what I wanted.
Attitude, I have learned, is an important element in learning a new language. Confidence is essential, sort of like trusting one's body to make the right motion in athletics, momentarily forgetting the learned mechanics of a tennis stroke, golf swing, or jump shot.
But focus and concentration are also important. It is good to plow ahead and trust what you've learned, but it needs to be tempered with a calm grounding in what one actually knows. Go for it. Just don't overreach.
The experience here was rich with other, more pleasant, revelations. My time coincided with Mexico's Independence Day and its celebrations. The day of the major festivities, I was out at dawn prowling the streets of this fast- growing town, with its cobblestone streets, charming town square, and occasional pack mule along the side of the road.
It is my usual routine in any new place to get up early when the streets still belong to people, not cars, load my large old-school camera on my back, and search for revealing images. The images that appeal to me are ones that bring out simultaneously the individuality and the universality of a place and its people.
I thought I'd found that in a quiet plaza outside one of the town's major churches. Quiet benches were just beginning to be bathed in the dappled light of early morning. I positioned myself on some steps that rose to the plaza, setting up equipment, loading film, and setting the shutter for a lengthy exposure.
As I was about to depress the cable release, 20 or so schoolgirls marched up the steps in front of my camera and flooded the small plaza. They squealed with delight to find me there, alternately mugging for the camera and running away in embarrassment.
It was all done with an evident and refreshing dose of courtesy, good humor, and innocence. The class instructor restored order quickly and began marching them across the plaza in preparation for their appearance in an Independence Day parade. The moment helped shape my accumulating sense of and admiration for the dignity, pride, warmth, and amiability of Mexico and its people.
During this plaza episode, there was another moment that spoke of the universality of what it means to be a teenager. Most of the girls, when not marching in order, disassembled into jumbles of fidgeting bodies and nonstop chatter. But amid the jumble, one girl caught my eye. Without warning, she seemed to pull away from the crowd, enter some mental space that seemed to me the very picture of adolescent contemplation. Ah, I thought, a teenager is a teenager the world over.
Later that night, the central plaza of San Miguel flooded with Mexicans of all ages. Fireworks, dancing, and music gave way to the final affirmation of an independent nation.
"Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!" the crowd chanted. The fervor, pride, and joy of the pronouncements have not left me. This was not an exclusionary chant riddled with an us- versus-them patriotism. While strictly a Mexican event, its underlying sentiment was as universal and as welcoming as it could be.