Today, as I went hunting for a corner shop to get a packet of pasta and a bottle of orange juice, I found myself walking down a familiar street. A wide, tranquil dual carriageway with freshly trimmed palms, reluctant patches of frequently watered grass and persistently sandy walkways. Two workmen were busy grinding the paintwork off the grey metal fence which surrounds one of the condominiums so that they could paint it a cheery yellow, but otherwise the street was pretty much empty. One of those cars with a large speaker attached on the roof, held down with heavy-duty ropes passed by, calling out to the seagulls, blaring out an advert for a garage where mechanics can tend to your needs any day of the week, located where Cuatro Esquinas meets Ruta 5.
There are many things which are surprising about this observation, although from the perspective of the street, nothing special happened. The first observation is that I was there, in La Serena, at the edge of the desert, a quarter of the way around the world from home. It feels like yesterday that I left, and yet it’s been eighteen months. To say I am elated is an understatement. Being here is my teenage rebellion, although I stopped being a teenage over a decade ago. It’s something I selfishly want, for me, without rationalised explanation, probably to prove something to myself. The second observation, and the one which I had never expected, was that I understood the advert.
When I was first in La Serena, doing anything was difficult. My Spanish was a complete mess, childlike and limited to a narrow vocabulary which I’d studiously learned with a heap of flashcards. I was learning the language fast, out of necessity, but you cannot learn a language overnight, it takes time and effort and a lot of discomfort. My lack of fluency meant that even simple transactions led to a shot of adrenaline. After going to the bank – which I always find stressful in Spanish – I would treat myself to a slice of cake in the café opposite. I learnt a hell of a lot of Spanish in those months I spend in La Serena, words like toque de queda (curfew) and cuarentena (quarantine) and a lot of Chilean words (wea, bacán, cuático) which I don’t know how to translate appropriately. Yet it remained a fight.
Within weeks of returning to England at the beginning of the pandemic, my pronunciation had nosedived, and my recall of words felt sluggish. Occasionally, I took out my grammar book and studied for a little while, but I had other things on my mind. I did continue speaking in Spanish, using it to talk to friends and occasionally, when appropriate, with students. But I have no explanation as to why when I returned to Santiago and I spoke Spanish in an imperfect yet easy-going manner, without exhausting myself. I’m not sure entirely how it happened. The language perhaps had settled into a part of my mind where it could be chewed, processed and consolidated into something which, then regurgitated, came out as my own voice.
And although the seagulls didn’t understand the advert, I, for the first time, did.