Sunday, December 28, 2008

Fun With Diane

I have two more days left in Buenos Aires, and then I return to San Francisco. I am looking forward to returning home.

My last week has been fun because my friend Diane is visiting. Tomorrow another friend arrives and also Diane's sister is coming to visit. I was Diane's tour guide, but she will be here for a whole week without me, so she is going to show her sister and our other friend around.

It is fun having people visit because it gives me an opportunity to speak a lot of Spanish and also to show them places I like. I took Diane to many different parts of the city. It was fun for me to go around one last time and see everything.

These days I am feeling very comfortable here and I feel like my Spanish is pretty good. There are still times I don't understand things, but I feel like I am understanding more than when I first arrived, and I don't feel so shy about speaking Spanish. I feel happy and satisfied with this trip now that it is almost over.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Back in Buenos Aires

Last week I left the hot city of Buenos Aires to go to the beautiful beaches of Buzios, Brazil. Buzios is about 2 hours north of Rio de Janeiro.

It was a nice trip. I went with my Argentine friend, Hernan, and we traveled with a group of Argentines on an Argentine airline with an Argentine tour company. The beaches we visited had people from many countries, but to the Brazilians and to the other people there, I appeared to be an Argentine.

It was an interesting experience. I didn't speak much English and no one knew I was American. I don't think there were any Americans in Buzios. It seemed like the area was mostly visited by Argentines, Germans, Russians and Brazilians.

There were some obvious differences between Buzios and Buenos Aires - the food, the language, the people. It was nice to get away, and it was also nice to return. When I came back to Buenos Aires, I missed Buzios, but I was also glad to be home, in my apartment that feels like home to me, in my neighborhood that feels like my neighborhood. It was nice to hear the bird that sounds to me like an ice cream truck, and to see the guy who stands on the corner on Sunday and listens to the soccer games on a small radio.

Yesterday I went sightseeing with my friends from San Francisco, Lorena and Tess, who are here to study tango. They are leaving on Wednesday. I helped them talk to vendors who were selling souvenirs. One guy asked me if I was from Argentina. I told him no, from the United States. He then said I must have been born here and then lived there. I told him no, I was born in the United States. What is happening to me? I think I am becoming an Argentine. When I return to the United States, I wonder if I will feel different from before I left. I wonder how I have changed and if the changes will be permanent. For now, I am happy to pretend to be Argentine.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

My Teachers

I have three language teachers here in Buenos Aires. As a teacher myself, I am very critical of language teachers. I know what I want, I know what I like, but I am not always able to tell my teachers what I need. Even if I do tell them, sometimes, they are not able to do what I want them to. I try to be flexible as a student, but sometimes I get discouraged and don't want to study anymore.

My Italian teacher's name is Blas. He is an Argentine guy who is about 30 years old who studied Anthropology. He also went to Rome and studied Italian for 2 years and since he can speak Italian, he is teaching it here.

In the beginning I liked his class, but now I am beginning to feel uncomfortable. He is very loud and likes to laugh and joke. I don't always understand the jokes, and sometimes he makes jokes about me or the other students. I try to hide in his class and make myself invisible, but he always looks at me and calls on me (even though he doesn't do that to all of the other students equally). I like that he has us work in groups sometimes, but I don't like that there is so much conversation about things that we are not studying. For example, he always asks us what we did on the weekend, but we never studied the past tense, so it is difficult to talk about that. I am learning some things in his class, but I will be happy when it is over because I feel uncomfortable.

My Arabic teacher's name is Ybtisaam. She is originally from Syria, but has been in Buenos Aires for 25 years. She speaks Spanish fluently. Arabic is difficult because we have to learn a new alphabet. Ybti doesn't give us enough time in class to practice things. She goes over things once and then moves on to something new. I need more practice in class. I have to study a lot outside of class because many of the other stdudents in my class already know some Arabic. I felt like I was the lowest student in class. But I am learning. Ybti doesn't make jokes about me and I feel comfortable in her class most of the time. What I don't like is that sometimes she talks about another student when she is not in the room. I don't think it is good for a teacher to do that.

And finally, my Spanish teacher's name is Leo. I started having Spanish lessons in my apartment a few weeks ago. I found Leo on Craigslist. He is great. He is my favorite teacher so far because he gives me what I need the most - practice.

I have had many Spanish teachers, but most of them didn't give me enough time to practice speaking. My last Spanish teacher here in Argentina liked to talk. When I started speaking about something, she would get excited and interrupt me and start talking. I would spend most of our lesson listening to her. But Leo is different. He gets excited and likes to talk too, but he always remembers that I need more speaking practice than listening. After he talks for a bit (I like listening to him), he will always say, "excuse me I'm talking too much" and ask me a question to make me talk more. I am very shy about speaking Spanish and am afraid of making mistakes but he is helping me to have more confidence. We meet for two hours once a week and usually I speak for most of the time. I'm really happy I found him.

It is interesting how different teachers can be. Teaching is very difficult and everyone likes different things in their teachers, but I know as a teacher and as a learner, that practice is really important. I like teachers who give me opportunities to practice and who make me feel comfortable in their classes. Leo is the best teacher I have here in Buenos Aires, and maybe the best teacher I have ever had!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Happy and Sad

Tuesday night I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. to watch the end of the 2008 election, when President-Elect Obama stood in front of a huge crowd in Chicago and gave another inspiring speech. I cried along with everyone else who believed that the United States needed a new direction. The last 8 years have been a disaster for us and for many around the world. I am hoping that President Obama can end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can begin to do something about global warming and can help keep people from losing their homes. It felt like a new era in the United States.

Before I went to bed, I checked the status of Proposition 8, which was on the California ballot. It looked like it was winning.

When I woke up on Wednesday morning, after only 4 hours sleep, I checked again. It looked like Proposition 8 had won.

Proposition 8 was put on the ballot in response to a recent decision by the California State Supreme Court that said it was unconstitutional to deny the right to same-sex couples to marry. Proposition 8 would change the constitution so that they did not have that right.

This is the first time in the history of the United States that voters have voted to change the constitution to take a right AWAY from someone.

There are many kinds of discrimination and prejudice that still exist in the United States, but it was ironic for me that on the day that the first Black man was elected President of the United States, California took rights away from another group of people.

I know many gay and lesbian couples who were so happy to be able to get married legally in the past few months. Even though I myself was not planning on getting married, I feel the pain that they feel now that this right has been taken away.

The United States is supposed to be the land of freedom, equality and justice for all. But on Tuesday, voters in California made a decision that will affect people for years to come. Their decision to take away this very important right sends the wrong message to people in the United States and around the world. I'm happy to have a new president who I think can bring positive changes to my country, but I am very sad about what happened in California on Tuesday.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Good Week

This week was good. I felt relaxed and comfortable here and I'm feeling healthy again after having some problems. I also feel like I got over a bump in my road to becoming more fluent in Spanish.

I like speaking Spanish, but I am very aware of my mistakes. One of my first Spanish teachers was very strict. He always corrected me every time I made a mistake. I was not able to finish a sentence without him interrupting me. Then he would make me repeat the sentence again. It was very frustrating for me and I think made me really afraid to make mistakes.

I was trying to find opportunities here to speak Spanish, but there were other opportunities that I had that I didn't take advantage of. I have a friend here, Hernan, who is from Buenos Aires. He speaks English pretty well, so we mostly spoke English with each other. Once he told me that if I want to speak Spanish with him I need to remember how difficult it is for him to listen to me! He was criticizing my Spanish. He has said many things like that to me over the time I've known him. I finally decided to only speak English with him.

Then one day I met his friend who didn't speak English. We spoke Spanish and I think Hernan saw that my Spanish was not that bad. After that, he started speaking Spanish with me, but I felt shy and didn't want to speak.

This week I started taking lessons with a new teacher. I told my teacher that I really need practice just speaking, because I don't speak enough. So, for two hours we sat and had our lesson and I did most of the talking. It was really good for me. I felt more confident after and I also felt like something in my brain had changed!

Later that night, my friend Hernan came over for dinner and started speaking Spanish to me. I responded to him and noticed that I felt really comfortable. We had a nice conversation and I only made a few mistakes.

I think my Spanish is improving. I know I have learned many new words since I came here 3 months ago. But also, my willingness to speak Spanish more is also improving. I'm less afraid and more willing to take chances. I think that things like my conversation partners and my lessons are helping, but more than anything, letting go of my fear of making mistakes seems to be helping me the most.

Today I want to post a video of an electronic tango group that I like. They are called Gotan Project, and they play a new style of tango. This song is called Mi Confesion (My Confesion) and is a mixture of tango, electronic tango and hip hop. I like it alot.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I'll Be Missing the Kissing

Last night, my good friend and wonderful colleague, Diane, skyped me from her ESL class at City College, Alemany Campus, where I also teach. It was great to see some of my old students and also some of my future students (maybe). It reminded me why I love my job so much.

The students had some really good questions for me, but I wasn't prepared to answer them and I was a little bit nervous. I think someone asked me what I would miss when I leave here.

Today as I was walking to the gym, I remembered something that I really like about Argentina that I won't have in the US - kissing!

Argentines kiss everybody, or almost everybody. It is a typical Argentine greeting. Men kiss women, women kiss men, men kiss men and women kiss women. I kiss my Arabic teacher when I go to class, and sometimes I kiss my classmates. I kiss my friends when I meet them and if I meet their friends, we also kiss. I kiss the receptionist at the chiropractor's office, but my chiropractor shakes my hand - we don't kiss (I don't know why).

I think the kissing is really nice and I will miss it when I return home. Maybe I can start a new tradition in San Francisco of everyone kissing everyone!

The other thing I will miss are the Argentine gestures. Argentines use their hands a lot when they speak. I think it is because there are so many Italians who immigrated here. My family is Italian, so these gestures remind me a lot of how the people in my family speak. Not all of the gestures here have the same meaning as Italian gestures, but I found this cute video on You Tube of a guy explaining Italian gestures.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cultural Adjustment

This week I felt like I moved into the best phase of culture shock - adjustment. This is the time that life in a new culture begins to feel almost like home - with good days and bad days. It is different from that time at the beginning when everything is exciting, and not the same as that time when everything is really difficult. I like the adjustment phase.

Today I went to the supermarket and felt very comfortable there. I didn't feel stressed out that I would not understand the questions the cashier was going to ask me. I wasn't frustrated that I couldn't find the things I was looking for. I didn't get upset because the lines were really long and moving slowly. Everything seemed normal for me and I felt very comfortable.

I'm also feeling comfortable on the street with the broken sidewalks and people blowing smoke in my face and all of the traffic and noise and dog poop and everything else. Today when I left my Arabic class and walked out on to the street at the end of rush hour, I felt the excitement of being in a city with so much energy. I was glad to get home to the quiet of my apartment, but I also enjoyed being out on the street with everyone else.

I think cultural adjustment is a difficult thing. I don't know if I will ever be fully adjusted to life here in Argentina. I think there will always be things that I miss about my home and things that I don't understand here. For example, I won't take the bus because I need to have change. The smallest bill here is a 2 peso bill. But the bus costs 90 centavos. So, to take the bus, you either need 90 centavos in exact change or you need a 1 peso coin. But nobody has change! In the cafeteria at my school they have a sign on the cash register that says "no coins". Because so many people need coins for the bus, it is almost impossible to find them.

I think this is crazy. I don't understand why they just don't sell bus passes. Some people take the same bus every day. It would make so much sense to just sell regular bus riders a bus pass every month, like our Fast Pass in San Francisco. So, because I think it is stupid that you need change for the bus, I walk or take the subway or a taxi!

On the other hand, there are things I like about living here that I know I will miss when I get back to San Francisco. A friend of mine who lives in Victoria, Canada, just sent me an article she wrote about reverse culture shock. This is what happens when you return to your native country. I was glad she reminded me about it, because I want to continue my blog after I am back in San Francisco so I can write about what happens when I come back.

Culture shock can be difficult sometimes, but in the end, I think it is a positive thing and I think makes our lives much more interesting!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Back in Buenos Aires

After a short trip to Uruguay, I am back in Buenos Aires in my apartment that feels like home. It is nice to be home and in familiar surroundings.

I had a nice trip to Uruguay, but it is always challenging visiting a new place. I didn't know where to eat or where I could find a shop to buy water, even some of the food vocabulary was different. It is amazing, because Argentina and Uruguay are neighbors, yet, when I looked at the menu I didn't know many of the words for the food. It would be like visiting Nevada from California and finding the words on the menu completely different. Still, I had a good time, I found some good food and I made it there and back safely.

It is spring here in Buenos Aires. The trees are turning green, the birds are chirping and it is warm. People are beginning to wear shorts and t-shirts on the streets. Uruguay was still cold. People were wearing winter coats. It is nice to be back where it is warm.

The trip was good for me to be able to realize that my life here is comfortable. I have familiar surroundings and I can do things fairly easily here, even if it is still more difficult than San Francisco, it is easier than Uruguay!

I am finishing up my breakfast now and am on my way to the post office and the gym. I have not been to the post office here yet. I am sure it is different than in the U.S., and I am sure I will be confused. I am expecting it to be difficult, but if it turns out to be easy, I will be pleasantly surprised. I'll let you know how it goes!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Culture Shock - Finding What You Love

Today it has been 2 months since I came here. I arrived at the end of winter and now it is the beginning of spring. The weather still changes from day to day, sometimes it is warm and sometimes it is cold, but I can tell it is spring. The trees are turning green and birds are chirping everywhere.

In my two months here I have gone through different stages of culture shock. In the beginning I was excited about being here, but it didn't take me long before I was feeling tense and nervous about things. I was afraid to speak Spanish, especially at the supermarket, and every time I went there, I got nervous. I didn't like the pollution or the people smoking on the streets. My culture shock experience began making me sick.

I feel like now I am moving into a new phase. I am not sure what it is, but my health is better and I feel more relaxed about things.

I was looking for something on You Tube and I found a video that I really like. Every time I watch it, it makes me laugh. The more I watch it, the more I laugh. I sent this to some friends and now want to put it on my blog.

The reason I love this video is because for me it describes everything I love about Buenos Aires. It is hard for me to describe Buenos Aires only in words, but this video does a really good job doing it.

This is not a video of all of the famous tourist sites here. Instead it is a confrontation between some people and the police.

The video was shot in San Telmo. San Telmo is one of the oldest parts of Buenos Aires. It used to be where the rich lived, but there was a yellow fever epidemic and the rich people left. Their big homes were taken over by the newly arriving immigrants who often lived in very crowded conditions. Today, San Telmo is a working class neighborhood. It is a little dangerous. Some buildings need repairs. But it has a lot of character.

Every Sunday in San Telmo there is a street fair. There are vendors selling clothes and handicrafts, there is typical food and music, and of course, tango.

This video was part of a documentary about a tango orchestra called Orquesta Tipica. It is a group of musicians who decided to form a tango orchestra. They wanted to set up on the street in San Telmo and play. The police came and told them they could not play.

I love the interaction between the musicians, the people on the street and the police officer. The officer is very respectful as he tries to enforce the law. The people are varied. Some are respectful, but others become very animated. This is Buenos Aires.

Here the peole are very animated. They use their hands when they talk. They use many different gestures and are very passionate. They protest everything. I love watching this video because it reminds me of the things I love about Buenos Aires and why I came here.

I think it is good to remind myself about the things that I enjoy about being here and try not to focus on the things I don't like. It makes me feel better.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Loving What Is

I was sick most of this past week. In addition to the cold, I get attacks of vertigo from time to time. The vertigo makes me dizzy and sometimes I get nauseous and vomit. It's a terrible thing. I am lucky that I am not working, and was able to spend a lot of time at home resting.

I think that these health problems I am having are due to stress. It is difficult living in a foreign country and trying to speak a new language. I thought it would be fun, but in fact, it is very difficult and stressful. Plus, because I am not working, I don't see people every day. I have a few friends here, but I am kind of isolated and don't have interaction with students or co-workers like I would if I were working. I realize how important it is to be around people, but right now, I don't know how to do that.

When I read other blogs by other foreigners living here in Buenos Aires, I find that many people have the same problems as me. They have trouble communicating and adjusting to the culture. A lot of people complain about things. Everybody misses the way things were back home.

It's funny because I don't hear my students in San Francisco complain that much. I wonder if maybe they don't complain to me, but complain with each other. Or is it because I, and these other foreigners are spoiled and are so used to having conveniences and luxuries that most people don't have?

Last night I went for a walk. It had been raining all day. I thought the sidewalks would be nice and clean and everything would be fresh because of the rain.

Instead, the sidewalks were very dirty and muddy. Why? Because the sidewalks here are made from tiles. The government is not responsible for the sidewalk, but private citizens are supposed to take care of the sidewalk in front of their home or business. But people don't have the money to do this. So many sidewalks are missing tiles and the dirt is exposed. Because of the rain, this dirt turned to mud. So when people were walking down the street they stepped in the mud and this mud covered all of the other tiles on the sidewalk. It was a big dirty mess.

A few years ago a friend introduced me to a woman named Byron Katie. Byron Katie wrote a book called "Loving What Is". Her idea in the book is that we can not argue with reality, and if we try to, it will make us crazy. So, the easiest and most peaceful thing we can do is to accept things the way they are.

These broken, dirty sidewalks are a good way for me to practice "loving what is". I could walk down the street and criticize and think 'these sidewalks should be clean', or I can see them the way they are and just accept them.

I think a lot of my stress about living here, and a lot of the stress that other foreigners are feeling comes from wanting things to be different than they are. But I think the secret is learning to accept things as they are and just loving that.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Honeymoon is Over

I just finished reading some of my blog from last year, when I first came to Buenos Aires. On my first trip here, I LOVED it! I was excited about everything and it seemed like this place was magic. I was excited about learning Spanish and meeting people and doing new things and the weather seemed beautiful to me even though it changed often and sometimes got very cold. It was fun reading about that time because that was the honeymoon. I know that with culture shock, as with everything else, the honeymoon doesn't last forever.

It is clear to me that the honeymoon is over. When I read other blogs from other foreigners living here, I can tell if they have been here for a long time or not. If they are fairly new here, they still have that excitement that I felt last year. If they have been here for longer, they usually are complaining about things.

I don't have many things to complain about here. I have a fairly good life, and I am glad that I don't have to work and I have a flexible schedule that allows me time to relax if I need it. This past week I had a cold, so I didn't do anything besides going to my Italian and Arabic classes. If I was working, I probably would have had to take some medicine so that I could go to work, instead of stay home and recuperate.

But, I don't have that feeling of excitement that I felt when I came here for the first time. I remember being excited with every new thing - going to the supermarket, using the ATM, finding a store that sold seafood! It was all new and exciting. Now, I know that the supermarkets are not that great, and I miss Trader Joe's. I don't use the ATM because my bank charges me a fee, and the seafood store is kind of scary for me because I don't know the names of so many fish in Spanish.

I am no longer on my honeymoon with Buenos Aires. I'm not in the worst part of culture shock either - the part where everything is awful. I am kind of in the middle. I can see the good things about being here and I can see the bad. I am glad I will get to return to San Francisco for a short time before coming back here again next year.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Am I Learning?

Learning is an interesting thing. Sometimes we are learning but we don't even realize it.

When I first came back here in August, I felt like I was learning and improving in my Spanish on a daily basis, especially with all of my interactions at the supermarket. But even outside of the supermarket, I was speaking a lot of Spanish with conversation partners, friends, in all of the classes I am taking, and with people in other shops. It was very exciting and I was feeling like I was improving very quickly.

But now I am involved in learning other things. I'm feeling like I am getting better at tango, after a VERY difficult beginning. I'm starting to be able to read in Arabic, even though I had no confidence that I would be able to do that. But for some reason, I am feeling like my Spanish has stalled. I don't feel like I am speaking as much Spanish and don't really feel like speaking Spanish with people. I am very aware of my mistakes now and there are so many things I want to be able to say that I can't. It's not as exciting as it was in the beginning and is beginning to feel like a lot of work for me.

It will be interesting for me to see what happens with the other things I am studying. Maybe one day Arabic is going to feel like work and not be fun, or I am going to feel like my tango dancing it not improving anymore. My guess is that when we learn something new we go through different phases and that sometimes these phases are fun and exciting and we can see our progress, and other times these phases are not so exciting and we feel like nothing is happening.

Whatever the case, I think it is very important to continue. I read somewhere that people often give up when they are learning something new because they stop feeling excited about it. I guess this might be what is happening with my Spanish. I still do something every day to try to practice, like watching the news or reading the newspaper. And even though it doesn't feel as exciting, I feel like I am still learning, though maybe a little more slowly now.

I think it is good to stop every now and then to think about how I feel about learning. It is good for me to recognize that I am feeling a little bored with Spanish right now and I am feeling like I don't want to speak. I think a good thing for me to do would be to try to find a way to get excited again. I'm not sure what that is, but asking the question is a good way to begin.

Friday, September 5, 2008

One Month

One month has passed already since I arrived. Time seems to have flown by very quickly. I'm feeling pretty comfortable - not totally, but better than the week of culture shock I experienced.

On Wednesday I had a private lesson with my tango teacher Marcelo. I had my Italian class in the morning. When I first saw Marcelo, we chatted a bit, I think about my Italian class or what I had been doing since I last saw him. He told me he thought my Spanish was improving. I thought it was interesting that he said that. I think it is improving too, at least it is becoming more fluent. Having more opportunities to practice really helps me. I have to say things beyond things you say when you first meet someone, or asking for things in a store. Telling stories and having conversations with people requires some advanced grammar and vocabulary, and putting myself into situations where I need that helps me to put into practice some of the things I've studied in my advanced level classes. It's all starting to make sense now and I'm feeling more comfortable using things like the subjunctive and conditional.

What I found interesting though was that I felt my tango had improved. Even simple things like walking, which Marcelo has me do as a warm up, felt more comfortable for me. I felt like I had better balance, like my walk was more confident and like I was walking in time with the music better. When I danced with Marcelo, I was leading, and I felt like my lead was strong and clear. Marcelo didn't say anything about any of that, but even so, I noticed an improvement and I felt good about it.

Learning is interesting for me, but I think it is important for us to take time to recognize the progress we are making. Sometimes we might feel like we are not improving at all and that can be frustrating. But when we feel our improvement, whether or not someone tells us they see it, I think it can encourage us to keep trying, even though things might be difficult.

For me feeling like I am improving as a tango dancer and as a Spanish speaker encourages me to keep going out and looking for opportunities to practice.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Getting Better

I had a good week after a scary start with the difficult tango class. First, I have to say that I am feeling very comfortable being here. My Spanish is functional, though at times it fails me and I can't hear what people are saying to me, but in general, it is working fine, and I am able to communicate, and I understand everything at the supermarket now!

I am enjoying my conversation exchanges and my Italian and Arabic classes. Italian is very easy for me because this is the third time I have taken beginning Italian. But in this class the teacher speaks only Italian (which I like). Actually, it kind of puts me at a little advantage, unlike in my Arabic class where there is a lot of Spanish spoken and I get lost easily. Both classes are really fun though, and the other students are interesting. I enjoy just sitting in the class and watching them.

Tango was scary for me this week. I took another class on Tuesday that the guy at the tango school recommended, saying it was a little more basic. It was still hard, but it was better. I got nervous when I had to dance with partners, but the three women I danced with were very kind and helpful and forgiving when I made mistakes. But what happened is that my fear motivated me to do something about the fact that I seem to be a very slow tango learner.

First, I found some videos on You Tube that are tango lessons. I also watched other videos of people dancing. I think it is good to see what the dance is supposed to look like. I bought some tango instruction videos and watched them and practiced a little in my living room. I contacted my private tango teacher and set up some lessons. We had to stop because both of us had the flu. Dancing with him is very good because he gives me correction every time I make a mistake. Sometimes it is frustrating, but I am learning a lot. And finally, I called a friend and asked him if he wanted to go to a class with me. We are going this afternoon. Then we can practice what we learned together in my living room.

I know the important thing for learning something is practice. It is the hardest thing for me to do. With language, if I am not living in the country where the language is spoken, I hardly practice. Even here, where I am trying to become fluent in Spanish, I am still hesitant to speak Spanish as much as I could. With tango, when I was studying in San Francisco, I never practiced at home. But now, because I feel so nervous about dancing with other people in class, and because the level of the classes are more difficult, I am motivated to practice. I practice in some way every day now.

It's true what they say, "practice makes perfect". I don't know if I will ever be perfect in Spanish or in tango, but I know that if I practice, I will get better.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A New Challenge

Yesterday I had my first tango class. Argentine tango is a beautiful dance. Here is a clip from a movie called "The Tango Lesson". It features one of my favorite tango songs called "Libertango" by one of the most famous tango composers, Astor Piazolla. One of the musicians is Yo Yo Ma. It is a beautiful song, a beautiful clip and I hope you can see how beautiful tango is.

Unfortunately, my tango lesson yesterday was not as beautiful nor as romantic as that. It was a horrible experience. The class was too difficult for me and I was super nervous. It was not like a language class where I could sit in the back and hope the teacher wouldn't see me, I actually had to dance with people, and as a leader, I was supposed to be in control. I had to lead my partner around the dance floor, communicate to her with my body and make sure I didn't bump into the other students.

Finally after about 75 minutes of torture, I left the class. I asked if they could recommend some other classes that were easier, and I am going back to try a different teacher today.

There are some important lessons here for me both as a teacher and as a student. I was a new student in the class, and I think the other students had all taken the class before. I'm not sure. The teacher never welcomed me to the class. He just told everyone, "dance", and then he said, "change partners". The first time he spoke to me, he asked me if I spoke Spanish, and then he offered me some correction. After that, he ignored me and helped the better dancers in the class. It was obvious that I was struggling, but neither the teacher or his assistant came over and tried to help me out.

I understand now how important it is to help a student feel welcome in the class. Sometimes I have students who come to my class after the class has been meeting for weeks, or months. All of the students know each other and feel comfortable with each other, and for new students it can be very intimidating. Sometimes I don't want to stop what I am doing to welcome the new student, but I put my students into groups and have them work together and hope that the other students will help the new student feel welcome. It is kind of like my teacher telling us to "dance". The teacher needs to take responsibility for people's comfort, and I need to make sure the new student feels comfortable.

The other thing I learned is that it is not possible to do something that is too far above your level. This class was way too diffcult for me. You can see from the video that tango has some very complicated steps. There are other things that are just as complicated that you can't see, for example how you hold your partner, how you communicate to your partner where you are going, etc.... I am still at the basic level, even though I have been taking tango classes off and on for two years. I might be in a level 2 tango, when yesterday's class was like level 8. I can't jump that high.

As a learner, this is a good lesson for me to find a place where I feel comfortable, but also I am going to learn about persistence. I really want to learn how to dance tango. When I watch tango videos I feel the passion of the dance and I want to be able to do that myself. But the only way to do that is to keep going and not give up. I might find some classes are too difficult. I might find some partners that are difficult to dance with, but this is part of my dream and I don't want to give it up.

Now it's time to get ready for class.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Finding Ways to Practice Spanish

I've been here 3 weeks already and I am beginning to settle in and feel more comfortable. One of my reasons for being here is to experience what it is like to live in another culture and speak another language. I also hope that by doing that, I will become more fluent in Spanish, a language I first studied over 30 years ago!

My Spanish is pretty good, not great, but it is good enough for me to be able to survive. My problem is confidence. When I get into situations where I make mistakes I feel shy about going back and trying again, but I am learning. Fortunately for me, one of the scariest places for me, the supermarket, is also a place that I need to go to alot. In fact, I have been going to the supermarket almost every day. I am beginning to learn the different questions that they ask me at the cashier and beginning to feel less nervous about answering those questions and dealing with the money. Each time I go back now, I feel more confident and less scared.

But I have done some things that are helping me feel more comfortable. One of them was putting an advertisement on Craigslist for a conversation exchange partner. My ad said I was looking for someone who wanted to practice English in exchange for speaking Spanish with me. My idea was that we would meet for about an hour and spend half the time speaking English and half the time speaking Spanish. I got about 5 or 6 responses to my ad and so far have met two people. Both times we spoke more English than Spanish, but I was glad to be able to meet people from Argentina and I was able to ask them questions about things that were confusing me. I hope that the next time we meet I will have more of an opportunity to speak Spanish, and I know that if I want that to happen, I need to just do it.

From one of my conversation partners I found out about a kind of music that is popular here called cumbia. Cumbia in Argentina is a little different from cumbia in other parts of Latin America. I wanted to find out more about it and went to You Tube to find some videos. I watched some music videos and found the lyrics and read along with the music. From there I found some other videos, short documentaries and interviews with people. You Tube is a good place for me to practice listening to Argentine Spanish, and also I can read comments that people post and learn some of the vocabulary that is special to Argentina.

One of my conversation partners recommended a TV program called Patito Feo - it means Ugly Duckling in English. It is a program for teenagers, but it is interesting and it is a good place to learn vocabulary. I found a website on the internet and was able to learn a little about the show and the characters. Now I try to watch that and the news every day for listening practice.

Finally, maybe one of the best things I am doing is taking language classes. I am not taking Spanish classes though (I have a private Spanish lesson once a week). I will be studying Arabic and Italian while I am here. My idea was that if I took another Spanish class (I did that last year), I would be in class with other Americans or other English speakers, but if I take another language class, I will be in class with Argentines. Today was my first Arabic class. There are 12 students in the class. All of them except me are Spanish speakers. Even the teacher, who is originally from Syria, speaks Spanish fluently. There was a lot of Spanish spoken in class, and I also spoke Spanish in class. Of course we were studying Arabic, but there was so much discussion in Spanish I felt like I was in a Spanish class! It was great. The conversation was fast and natural and I think this class will be a good place for me to meet people to talk to outside of class. We might even have some field trips, or go to movies or restaurants together, and that will give me more opportunities to talk to people.

Finding ways to practice Spanish has helped me to feel more comfortable here. When I am successful communicating with people I feel better about my Spanish and it encourages me to keep doing it. When I have problems communicating, I try to ask someone to explain what happened. I learned that when I went to a supermarket called Dia, they asked me if I wanted a bag because that supermarket charges money for bags. Now I know that when I go to Dia they are going to ask me if I want a bag.

I know I will continue to have challenges and I know I will make more mistakes, and maybe even be embarrassed, but, I really like the way they speak Spanish here and I want to be able to communicate better with people, so I am not going to let small failures stop me. Maybe I can't do everything in Spanish and spend 24 hours speaking, reading, writing, thinking and dreaming in Spanish, but if I do one or two things every day, after 5 months I think I will see a big improvement in my ability to speak Spanish. At least I hope so.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Culture Shock

It didn't take long for me to begin experiencing the symptoms of culture shock. I knew I was in culture shock when I felt myself being negative about everything around me. Last year, on my first trip here, it took me almost a month to begin getting negative. At that time I just loved everything about Buenos Aires and didn't see any of the problems.

This time I started to see the problems right away - the pollution, dirty streets, too many people, problems communicating, etc. I think it is good to know that what I am experiencing is culture shock. Now that I know what is happening to me, I can try to find ways to make myself feel better.

Culture shock is a sign of growth. It means that I am out of my zone of comfort and in a situation where I am unfamiliar, and need to find a way to adjust and therefore, grow. Because I have problems understanding what the cashiers at the supermarket say to me, I am afraid to go to the supermarket. But today when I went to the supermarket and the cashier said something I didn't understand and had to point to show me he was asking if I wanted a bag, I realized what I can do the next time. My Spanish is good enough that I can tell people I don't understand and ask them to explain things to me. When I have done that, people have been very nice. When the cashier said something that I didn't understand, after I understood what he was asking, I should have asked him, "what did you say to me?" so that the next time I WOULD understand. I realized that part of my problem is that I want to fit in here, but by trying to fit in I am afraid to let people know that I am not a native Spanish speaker. That is stupid. I should let them know that I am trying to learn. I think they will be more impressed with that than by someone pretending to speak Spanish when they don't really.

So from now on I am going to try this new strategy of asking people to repeat things so that I can learn them. I need to get a little notebook that I can carry with me so I can take it to places like the produce market and write down the names of fruit and vegetables that I learn. I could ask my Spanish teacher to teach me things, but it is better in this case if I just take advantage of the many natural language learning situations that I can find on the street.

So for now, my culture shock is at a medium level. I don't feel terrible, but I don't feel great either. I want to see if I can adjust my attitude and also make some changes in the way that I interact with people and see what effect that will have on how I feel.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Only Thing to Fear is Fear

I'm not sure which American president said that ("the only thing to fear is fear itself") or what he was referring to, but when it comes to learning a new language, I think fear is a big thing. It is what keeps me from using the language because I am afraid of making mistakes, afraid of being embarrassed, afraid of looking stupid, etc., but it is when I use the language and make mistakes that I learn something new. What am I so afraid of?

So far I have had different experiences here, some good, some bad, but not terrible, and certainly none of them were in any way dangerous for me - my life was never at risk. I guess what I am saying is if I make a mistake, I will live through it. The best thing to do is to have an attitude that includes the ability to accept the fact that I am not perfect and I WILL make mistakes. Combine that with a strong desire to learn, and a need to use the language, and I think in 5 months I will see the kind of improvement that I want in my ability to speak Spanish.

I am still at a point where I might understand anywhere from 50-90% of an interaction with people. Sometimes I understand less, sometimes nothing. But when I don't understand, often it is because the cultural differences are contributing. Something like asking if I am the final consumer at the supermarket, for example - I understood the question, but I didn't know what it meant.

The past few days I have been sick with the flu and have not been very adventurous. After I am feeling better I am going to try to get back out there and put myself in situations again and again until I feel comfortable. I hope to be able to stop being afraid.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don't...

I found a Disco around the block. Disco is not what you think. It is a supermarket. It's a little expensive, but I like some of the things they have.

Yesterday I walked past and saw that it was not crowded. Last year when I went to a Disco, the line was so long and moved so slowly. But since it wasn't crowded, I went in and picked up a few things.

When I got to the cashier, she asked me in Spanish, "usted es el consumidor final?" - I didn't understand what that meant, and said, "eh?" with a puzzled look on my face. She responded in Spanish, "if you don't know what the question means, it doesn't apply to you". I breathed a sigh of relief, but wanted to learn, so I asked her what that meant. She explained that if I was buying products to sell again in a little store or something, they would not charge me tax, but if I was buying products for myself I had to pay tax.

When I left, I was very satisfied with the exchange. I thought it was good that I was able to hear what she said, and the fact that I didn't understand wasn't about the language but it was a cultural thing. I also thought it was good that I was able to ask her what it meant, and that she was so kind in explaining.

Today I went out to get some empanadas, but the empanada place across the street was closed, so I went back to the Disco to see what I could find.

I picked up a few items, including three empanadas and went to find a place to check out. I saw the express lanes didn't have many people and went and stood in line. I didn't see that there were three cashiers and one of them was available. She called to me and I went to her register.

As I approached, I thought she was going to ask me if I was the "consumidor final". Instead, she said, "effectivo?" It kind of caught me off guard - not what I was expecting. I hesitated, and then she said in English, "cash?". I knew what effectivo meant, and wondered why she automatically assumed I didn't speak Spanish.

She rang up my items and the total was 105.93 pesos. I gave her 110 pesos and then pulled out the change in my pocket thinking I could find the 3 centavos so that I wouldn't end up with a lot of change. I had a few 25 centavo coins, and some 10 centavo coins, but no 1 centavo coins (I don't think they even exist). I said in Spanish, "I don't have 3 centavos". As I was about to put the change away, she grabbed three 25 centavo coins and two 10 centavo coins (total 95 centavos). She seemed a little frustrated with me, but I just laughed. I was confused by the money, especially all of these different coins.

She then finished bagging and gave me my receipt with a bunch of coupons and mumbled something to me that I did not understand. She pointed down to the floor. I thought she was pointing to the wad of papers she just gave me and held out my hand. She said no and sighed, and pointed down again. I picked up my basket, thinking that was what she wanted (but not knowing why). She sighed again and came around to the front of her register and showed me that my other bags were in a hole in front of her station. I didn't see her put them there. Again I laughed, but she just rolled her eyes and made me feel like I was really stupid.

Ok, so two days, two different cashiers, two different experiences. Now I know that when I go to the express lane, my bags will end up down at my knees and I have to bend down and pick them up.

This is all a learning experience and these little mistakes have nothing to do with me or my ability to speak Spanish. So far, most of the confusion has been about the fact that they do things differerently here than they do at home. Sometimes I understand, and sometimes I don't.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

First Day

It's after midnight and I've taken two naps since I arrived, but now I can't sleep. I can see a clock on my computer showing the time in San Francisco. It's 9:10 there. Maybe I need to stay up a little longer before I can go back to sleep.

Today was not a bad day, but it was a little stressful. Getting from the airport to my apartment didn't go as I had planned, but I made it. After that, I started noticing the fear and hesitation I have that stops me from doing things that I want or have to do.

The first time I noticed it was when I went to eat lunch. I went to a restaurant I had looked into many times, but I always felt intimidated by it. Today I saw a delicious looking pizza on the menu and the restaurant was not crowded, so I just took a deep breath and went inside. I found it to be like any other restaurant. The server brought me a menu and took my order. She was very nice, even though I felt very uncomfortable. Why was I uncomfortable? It is my first day back here after one year. I need some time to get used to the language, especially the language that they speak here, the special Argentine accent, the vocabulary, the speed, etc.

But what I realize is that each time I put myself into a situation, even if it is uncomfortable, I learn something. For example, today I kind of messed up after I asked for the check. The server and another guy came to my table. I had not finished my lunch, but was full. The 2nd guy said, "la retiro?", which at first I thought he was asking me if I wanted to take it home. It was just an impulse because that is what they usually ask in the US. I said no. But then I remembered that I understood what that meant and said yes. Now I think I will remember that here they always ask if they can clear your table, but I don't think they ever ask if you want to take unfinished food home.

I hope that I will gain more confidence so that I can put myself into more situations where I have to talk to people. I notice how I avoid asking questions in shops because I am not sure exactly what to say, but if I do talk to clerks in shops, or servers in restaurants, they are always nice and often they tell me how good my Spanish is.

Overall, today was not a bad day. I bought a cell phone, went out for lunch, changed some money and went to the supermarket. In one day I am pretty settled. Now tomorrow, I am going to go to the gym and try to get a membership. I have no idea what to say, but I am going to do my best.