It is 4:17 a.m. There are still people in the bar, leaning on their chairs and singing (badly) with the sound system. Depeche Mode. There is place in my heart for eighties hits in the predawn hours, but unfortunately, that place called it quits around three hours ago.
Dos cervezas, ¿puede ser?” someone is interrupting my stray thoughts.
The guy across the bar laughs. I do this all the time, responding in English to a question asked in Spanish when I’m caught off guard. He repeats himself. Two beers.
“Dale,” I tell him. Ok. “Diez y seis pesos.”
He pays, wanders off, chuckling with his friends about the American chick at the bar. I don’t mind so much. It really got to me when I started bartending that people would laugh or shake their heads when my piss-poor Spanish gave me away as a foreigner. But now…well, besides the four-something in the morning apathy, I’m used to it. And really, it makes me learn, if nothing else. Spanish classes with Diego are one thing, but my most useful learning tool is located on the corner of RodrÃguez PeÃ±a and Arenales—The Shamrock Bar, in the upscale Recoleta district of Buenos Aires, usually open between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Plus, I get free beer when my shift ends.
4:26. This night is crawling. Even after four months, I still marvel at the uniquely PorteÃ±o (the nationally recognized term for Buenos Aires inhabitants—they live in the port city; hence, PorteÃ±os) ability to socialize till dawn on a Tuesday. There must be some sort of genetic alteration with people in this country, the way they dance right up until it’s time to go into the office. If I weren’t actually behind the bar at this very moment, I would join them and just pretend I got genetically lucky too.
Truthfully, the city’s done wonders for my social habits, and simultaneously wreaked havoc on my bank account. Fair exchange, I say — there’s simply no dollar amount you can assign to an insane night at the multi-story mega dance clubs known as boliches along the Costanera Norte, and Lord knows you can’t put a price on a balmy November afternoon in Parque Vicente Lopez in the middle of the city. Still, all the priceless stuff was starting to add up monetarily, so I went ahead and got a job.
At first, it was hell — I didn’t know what anyone was saying to me, even when they repeated themselves six times. I could speak alright, but listening was killer; the Argentine accent deserves a dictionary all its own. I swore to myself I wouldn’t quit, even after I dropped an entire cajon of beer on the stairs, and even still after I accidently charged a bachelor party twice the amount they owed. How was I supposed to know? I thought. This isn’t my language.
It was easy to think that way, especially when I got frustrated, and not just at work. Some nights, eating with my host family, they’d ask a question and I would answer with something completely irrelevant. They would all do that face, the one that tried to hide what they were thinking, which was namely, ‘what the hell is she talking about?’ I got embarrassed, and consequently, indignant. How can they look at me like that? I’ve only been here a month. Besides, I like to hear them take a stab at English. This was an unreasonable and completely egotistical line of thinking, obviously, but that’s never stopped thoughts from guest-starring in my head before.
Following one of those painful dinners, though, it occurred to me that in a way, language is power. The ability to move fluidly from one culture to another — to understand the tiny nuances, to pick up on the little, subtle ticks that define a language and a people — is not just a skill. It’s a key to a multiplicity of other things. To understand, to be able to express the minute points of what’s going on in your brain in the precise way you want to express it in a tongue that’s not your own is, at the end of the day, more powerful than an army of millions, really. And powerful in a way that doesn’t entail the stupid negativities of grabbing power for its own sake. My inexplicable, unfaltering desire to learn Spanish (really learn it, not high-school Spanish class learn it) wasn’t about becoming a super-powerful monster — it was about the ability to be myself, but better, in a different way. I wanted to know what the people on the underground Subte were saying, be able to understand what the good-looking waiter was asking me between the appetizer and the entrÃ©e. I wanted to be multi-dimensional, and that started with getting over myself.
It took me a while to swallow my pride. I’d say weeks, but months is more accurate, if we’re talking about how much time passed before I stopped being humiliated when I couldn’t process what someone said to me. But when that day came…
I was at work, coincidentally, and two girls sauntered up to the bar. PorteÃ±as, my age, probably. Girls are harder; they don’t care if I’m blue-eyed or blonde or obviously foreign. They sat down and asked for some drinks, which I proceeded to make while I eavesdropped. One was telling the other about a date she’d been on, how it had gone great and the guy was a real doll. But then, at the end of the night, as they were kissing goodbye outside her apartment, her dog ran up and starting peeing on his shoes! I couldn’t help it, I started laughing and shaking my head. The two girls looked up, amazed or affronted, I couldn’t tell. Then, in an instant, they broke, and all three of us were laughing even harder as I handed them their drinks. I turned around, still shaking my head, and realized: I did it! I understood!! I understood a whole conversation without asking for clarification one time, and it was awesome!!! It was like a little man had crawled into my head and knocked something loose. I wanted to find him and thank him.
It would be deceitful of me to say that after that night, the world was my oyster. I still struggle occasionally, and asking for clarification did not just disappear. But I had a new tool in my belt: confidence. I had forgotten what trusting myself could do. If I stopped freaking out internally every time someone approached me, I wouldn’t be such a disaster when they asked me what time it was or what block the bus stop was on. My speaking got stronger, my listening was definitely not at a preschool level anymore, and my happiness skyrocketed. It was like someone handed me the map I’d missing for 12 weeks.
“MÃ¡s dos cervezas?” My little friend is back at the bar, and this time I’m ready for him.
“SÃ, claro, ¿algo mÃ¡s?” I ask him. This time he’s caught off guard. I smile as I pull two beers out of the cooler. I have to stop myself from chuckling, so instead I turn, take the cash, and smile.
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