High School Memories – Immersion Day

My friend Dave and I joined the Spanish Club our freshman year in high school.  It wasn’t for the love of the language.  We’d only been speaking Spanish for about two weeks; we could say our “Spanish Name” from class and recite the alphabet.  However, we were the only two guys in the club.  The rest were girls.  Even better they were upperclassmen – er, women.

At first we were treated like pond scum.  They eventually got used to us and actually spoke to us on occasion.  We stayed late to help put together a float for Homecoming and missed the club bus.  One girl – Stephanie – gave us a ride home in her car.  That was very cool.  One of the Eds from Drugbusters decided to get in on the action.  He joined Spanish Club with us in October and called us the “Tres Musketeers“.  We didn’t know how to say “Musketeers” in Spanish.

There was a special meeting of the Spanish Club at the end of the month on a Saturday morning: Immersion Day.  We took a bus down to the Mexican neighborhood in Chicago and planned to spend the day speaking nothing but Spanish.  After that, we’d eat at an authentic Mexican restaurant.  I wasn’t too wild about Taco Bell at the time, so I planned ahead and had a big breakfast before we took off.  Dave, Ed and I sat in the back of the bus and practiced the phrases we knew after a couple of months in Spanish I.  We figured that – technically – it wouldn’t be cheating as long as we said “¿Cómo se dice?” before everything.

The bus dropped us off at 23rd and Pulaski.  All the girls went off to do some shopping before lunch, leaving the Tres Musketeers to their own devices.  We walked into a bakery and bought churros.  I’d never had one before; it was pretty good.  The lady at the counter – an old Lithuanian woman – smiled at us and said “Adios” to us on our way out.  We understood that.  We gained more confidence when we discovered we could read a number of the signs on the street: BANK, PHARMACY, GROCERY STORE.  We found a discoteca (RECORD STORE) and spent a pleasant half hour looking at all the different selections.  I found a record by Julio Iglecias.  I’d heard of him!  I took it up to the small dark woman stationed at the cash register.  She looked at me, frowning slightly.

“¿Cuanto cuesta?” I asked in my best imitation accent from the language lab discs.  The lady raised her eyebrows and her eyes lit up.  She came around the counter and let loose a torrent of what I can only assume was Spanish.  The syllables blew past me; I found I couldn’t make out a single word.  I think I managed to stammer out something akin to “Huh?”  She smiled and patted my hand and went back behind the counter and through a door.  Dave and Ed and I all looked at each other.  She came out again accompanied by a girl, maybe eight or nine years old.

“Yes?  Can we help you?” asked the girl in perfect English.

We sort of slunk shamefaced to the restaurant.  We were the last ones to arrive and the girls had already ordered chips and salsa.  I had never had salsa before.  There were two kinds: green and red.  I figured red was hot, so I scooped up a big dollop of green and wolfed it down.  It wasn’t bad… at first.

Suddenly, I felt this odd feeling of warmth in my throat.  It slowly wrapped around my mouth.  It got warmer and warmer, then turned downright hot, painfully so.  I thought I could feel flames licking at the back of my lips.  One of the girls asked me how it was.  I managed a smile and nodded affirmative as the insides of my cheeks were dissolving.  I sat in tortured silence for what seemed like ten hours.  The waitress finally came with some water.  It didn’t help.  I ended up going to the bathroom and chewing on a wet paper towel.

I came home that afternoon downright culturally aware.  I found I actually enjoyed some Mexican food (I still don’t eat salsa much).  Except for some mumbling at the record shop and a few choice words in the bathroom at the restaurant, I spoke Spanish the entire day.  I was disappointed, however, when I got home and played the Julio Iglecias record.  He sang the song in English.


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