I’ve been staying with friends in the small and lovely town of Barichara in the Satander district of Colombia. This whole post could be dedicated to pristine whitewashed walls, orange tile roofs, cascading vines of flowers, red cobble streets and enormous trees infested by parasitic moss that hang down from branches like old man beards. It’s a pretty magic place.
Instead I’m going to write about silence. In the last 3 months my Spanish abilities improved, degraded then stagnated. Staying with Spanish-speakers has been a test not only for my language but also for my patience (with myself). Coming here I planned to become conversationally fluent, however my self-diagnosed ADD has gotten in the way. Having the attention span of a butterfly doesn’t help when new, shinier things come along and language study gets tedious. So it’s my own fault when I say that I’ve struggled with my own silence in the world of animated and lively Latin conversation.
I often felt this way living in Belgium where my French was poor and Dutch non-existent. Sitting at a table where I could understand snippets but never fully express my own thoughts was an excellent exercise in becoming a better listener and also in realizing that when you say nothing you can’t really get yourself in too much trouble. Except when you join in the laughter or smile with those smiling and they ask you “did you understand that?” and you didn’t really, but the laughter was contagious and the smile just seemed like the right thing to do. But no, you don’t really know why things are amusing. All you can stutter back is “…sort of” and hope that they don’t expect you to say anything more while at the same time desperately wishing that they won’t turn away so you have someone to talk to just a little bit longer.
That said, my hosts are the most gracious and tolerant teachers. They also all speak English and have seemingly infinite patience for my lame smiles and nods, sensing my irrational but very real fear of conversation. The Sound of Silence is Colombia’s favourite song for the panflute. Simon and Garfunkel understand me… maybe Paul also tried to order something other than eggplant for the first time in 5 days in a rural China. Perhaps Art found himself two Ecuadorian towns past his destination because he couldn’t make himself understood. Silence could be
good for inspiration.