I REMEMBER THE EXACT MOMENT I DECIDED to spend my next vacation at an intensive Spanish-language school. I was in a cab at a traffic light in Acapulco when an American woman rolled down her window to ask my driver for directions. “ Say-nyor!” she called out, speaking loudly and slowly, as if he didn’t understand much Spanish. “ Don-day es-tah el aero-puerco?” Without batting an eye, the cabbie gave her directions—not to the destination she’d requested but to the airport. Either he was accustomed to hearing his language butchered every day of the week, or he simply didn’t know the way to the flying pig.
A few months later I found myself climbing the steep hills of Guanajuato, a picturesque town in the mountains of central Mexico, to the Instituto Falcón, a private school that teaches Spanish as a second language. Locating the school’s small sign above a nondescript door, I climbed on, this time up a long flight of steps, thinking that this truly must be an instituto of higher learning.
It had been a long time since my four inattentive years of high school Spanish. When school director Jorge Barroso handed me the placement exam, just opening it caused my palms to sweat. I had hoped to be placed in an intermediate-level class, but I didn’t have a clue about direct object pronouns or copreterit tense conjugations. Proving that I had not come so far since high school, within minutes I was reduced to peeking at the exam of the woman next to me. Finally, Señor Barroso returned and gave my papers a cursory glance. “Oh, so you haven’t studied any Spanish at all,” he said.
That was the first time I thought about sneaking out of school and never coming back, and it wasn’t the last. But I stayed, mostly because I’ve got 300 million reasons for wanting to learn Spanish. That’s the number of Spanish-speaking people in the world—people with whom I can’t manage more than a perfunctory exchange. I’m tired of being an ignorant gringo, and I can’t afford to be one: Mexico bought $27 billion in goods from Texas last year. We’re a bilingual economy, so we might as well start acting like one.
The Instituto Falcón’s teaching method is simple: Classes of no more than six students speak Spanish all the time with smart and energetic teachers. The program is flexible, with new students starting every Monday and staying for as many weeks as they like, and my two weeks of study cost $220. I had five daily classes, and during each I filled page after page with copious notes: vocabulary, rules of usage, and conjugations, all the while feeling as lost as the lady searching for the flying pig. Somehow I couldn’t quite keep up with anything. I’d open my dictionary to look up a word I didn’t know, and while I was doing that I’d miss five more.
Exhausted at the end of the day, I excused myself as my classmates made plans for drinks and dinner, and headed to my hotel. To provide a total immersion in the language, the instituto recommends that students stay with local families, a bargain at only $19 a day, including meals (arrangements should be made in advance through the school). But long set in my traveling ways and unwilling to give up my privacy, I was staying at the venerable Hotel y Museo Santa Fe. The former Prussian Embassy, it features spacious rooms overlooking one of Guanajuato’s main plazas. The Santa Fe also has one of the best restaurants in town, and I spent much of that first evening sitting at its outdoor cafe, studying my class notes and reading Spanish Lingo for the Savvy Gringo, an excellent book that sprinkles palabras españolas with gringospeak. (By the way, technically speaking, a gringo is any foreigner, not just a visitor from the United States.)
I had chosen Guanajuato for my schooling because, unlike San Miguel de Allende and Cuernavaca, which have large English-speaking communities, this place is typically Mexican. Only two narrow one-way streets traverse the four-hundred-year-old town, both of them winding uphill through a narrow valley full of buildings. In an ingenious solution to modern traffic problems, at the top of the valley traffic goes underground, moving back beneath the city on a thoroughfare built in the channel of a diverted river. You can get where you’re going by car or cab, but it’s more fun to walk the streets, one of which is so narrow that a couple on facing balconies may kiss above it.
Among the many people parading by my hotel that night were my fellow students from the school, several of whom joined me for refreshments and a chance to practice what we’d learned. Everyone seemed to be working on our tarea, or “homework,” which was to tell a story in Spanish the next day in class. My story was a chiste, or “joke,” that seemed to go over well: It was about a man I saw in the streets who was wearing a hat shaped like a giant wedding cake. Hardly believing my eyes, I followed him through the crowd and discovered that he was a baker delivering a special order that was balanced on his head.
As the week progressed, these stories in carefully constructed Spanish became the highlight of my day. A student in his twenties told us excitedly that he was renting a room from a family with four college-age daughters, all single. This sounded like trouble to me, but by the end of the week he was considering getting engaged. A teacher named Kimon, who was on a summer sabbatical from a private high school in California, told us of his upbringing in a strict Greek family. When he was thirteen, he went away to summer camp, where he changed his name to “Ken” so that he’d fit in with the beach kids. Alas, after camp was over, his father found out when kids started phoning the house and asking for Ken.