I am enrolled in group classes at La Montaña Spanish School. Students arrive at 9am, make a cup of tea or coffee, and chat for awhile in English in front of a sign that reads “We speak only Spanish here.” We have class for two hours, take a 20-minute break with more coffee plus cookies, then resume until 1pm. Some people, like Pete, take private lessons in the morning or afternoon.
My first week I joined a group of four guys: Itamal, a recent engineering grad from Israel; Matt, a media buyer who quit his job in London to travel for several months; Alex, also from the UK and also in his late 20s (partially visible, below); and Ramon, a sweet, precocious 18 year old from Chicago (with headband, below). It was a good group, although I was struck by Matt’s incomprehensible Spanish. When he came in two hours late and hungover on his last day, he insisted—without irony—that he had been practicing his Spanish the night before and at one point had acted as translator between his Argentine friend from the hostel and a Dutch woman they met at a club.
Our teacher is named Mirna (wearing the black t-shirt, above). The other day she asked me to talk about life before the Internet (practicing perfect and imperfect past tense), and as I struggled to describe card catalogs and encyclopedias, I got the feeling she had lived in that world too. She doesn’t volunteer information about herself, but it came out during a conversation about the higher cost of living in Bariloche that she is originally from Buenos Aires. She said she moved to Bariloche two years ago because “el ritmo de la vida” (the rhythm of life) is different here and every weekend is like a mini-vacation because of the proximity of skiing, snowboarding, and biking and hiking trails. It’s clear she knows English and enough French to spot my Frespañol. All instruction is in Spanish—even grammar concepts that would be easier for all of us if she just explained in English—and she insists that we practice spontaneous oration, no matter how painful it is for everyone in the room. I like her and think she’s a good teacher.
In seven days of instruction, I have progressed from near mute status to being able to generate statements such as “I saw a glass of wine, so I drank it” and “I realized that I need a dictionary.”
This week Pete started lessons a few times a week with Sasha. He is focused on refinement, and if he makes enough progress he may be able to take an international certification exam in January.
The school is important for us beyond language acquisition. The directora, Véronica, has been sending Pete suggestions for ways to get involved in the Bariloche community and she recommended the preschool her five-year-old son attends (we tried!). Our teachers are, of course, willing cultural informants. Last week, a teacher named Gaby led a hands-on demonstration of empanada making (the best empanadas I’ve eaten so far), and Pete was able to ask his teacher about an invitation he’d received to a Rotary Club dinner. Networking and having companionable time with other foreigners is also necessary for staving off loneliness and successfully navigating life here. (Thank you, Ramon, for showing me the verdulería with beautiful produce and far more variety than the grocery store carries!)