HEREDIA, Costa Rica - I knew I was in trouble on my first day of Spanish class when I apparently told my instructor that the weather on my leg was cold.
My two-week immersion class had barely begun at the well-known Intercultura school - where the students are forbidden to speak English and live with families who are in on the scheme - and I had already managed to make an impression: that of a beginner.
I wanted to say I had taken Spanish in high school and that among the many courses in which I played the class idiot, Spanish for me was like Broadway. And I wanted to apologize for what I had just said. But I couldn't, which the teacher obviously knew. She looked down at my leg and politely said, "Bueno, Miguel." Then she scribbled my class level on my placement card: "Uno."
This was my girlfriend's idea: Let's go to a beautiful place and learn a beautiful language. My idea: Let's go to a beautiful place. Like most ideas we have, she liked hers more. So we chose Costa Rica - and this school - based on Internet research, which indicated the country was the perfect place to learn Spanish because Ticos - as Costa Ricans are known - are enchanting and tolerant people who love Americans who want to experience their magnificent country even if they are incapable of asking where the "banos" are.
Our "padre" and "madre" greeted us at the airport in San Jose. They even kissed us on both cheeks. We hopped in their pickup truck - men in front, women in back - and we rode about 20 minutes to their home in Heredia, an upper-working-class
town. It is a little like Gloucester, if you substitute coffee fields for the ocean. The car ride featured a conversation in which my girlfriend and I took turns saying, "No habla espanol," and our hosts replied, "No hablo ingles." It was cordial.
When we got to their house, it seemed clear that their children - Rebecca, Raquel, and Jonathan - spoke no ingles, either. There were plenty of awkward silences. We looked at one another a lot. This was, of course, the reason why we had come to Costa Rica: to be immersed in a culture and in a family where little ingles was spoken. Then we caught the kids watching "The Simpsons" in ingles. The kids laughed at the correct times. One day a cousin came over. I said, "Hola." He said, "How ya doin'?"
Aside from the language scam, our family was wonderful. The best moments of the trip were with them, especially because our madre cooked in a very serious way - breakfasts with fruits I had never heard of and will never be able to pronounce, elaborate dinners with chicken in sauces that were tangy and original. When she saw how much I loved plantains, she made them every night.
Our padre came out of his room only to eat. Scratch that. He also came out during a power failure. He seemed tired a lot and remarkably tan. By our second week, we learned that he and his two sons construct gutters on houses, and they always took a siesta when they came home.
We walked to class every day, not saying much, just staring at the mountains in every direction. We walked past a soccer stadium, several BMWs, dozens of stray dogs, and a boy in a wheelchair who paid people to push him up hills.
The school was in the center of town. It had about a dozen classrooms, a dance hall, and a patio that featured a wonderful hammock that I got to know quite well. Our class was limited to five people - me, my girlfriend, Andrea (from Quebec), Scott (from Miami), and Antoinette (from Switzerland). Our teacher, Erika Romero, was a sweetheart who had no idea what she was in for when she met me.
I deal poorly with classrooms. It has been a lifelong problem, and this time it was compounded by people who refused to speak ingles to me, and so I tried to make the best of the situation by being difficult. When we were asked to construct sentences based on pictures Erika showed us, I looked at one with a man who wasn't eating when everyone else was and decided I would try to construct a sentence with which I explained that he was on the Atkins diet. I failed.
What's important to understand about Spanish is that I believe they ran out of words while they were making it up. For instance, "perro" means dog and "pero" means "but." It was so confusing that Andrea produced a confounding sentence in which she used "pero" to mean butt, as in what she was sitting on.
"El reloj" means watch, like on your wrist. It also means clock, like on the wall. So when you asked someone about the time on "el reloj," they had to look at their watch and the wall. You can't even use the word "on" in common expressions - as in, "My computer is on my desk." You have to use the word "over" - my computer is over my desk. Bizarre.
This does not mean I learned nothing. I learned how to say a lot of things in the present tense - you don't advance to the past tense for a month or so - and I was excited about that, except when I came home to friends who asked me in Spanish about my trip. I could only answer by saying things in the present tense, like "Yo tengo divertido" - I have fun, which even then is not the correct way of expressing that thought.
What I did tell them, in ingles, was this: At the end of my first week, we had a test. I sat down at the table with my classmates. I filled in blanks, circled verb choices, and composed several sentences that apparently made sense.
I stood next to Erika while she graded my test with a red pen. Here and there, I had screwed up. I messed up "ellos" with "ellas" once or twice. "Nosotros" and "vosotros" also posed "los problemas." But when Erika was finished grading, she told me that I had gotten an "ochenta y siete." Several moments later, I realized that was an 87.
I brought the test home to show `"mi madre."