Editor’s Notebook: Things we should have learned in high school
Everybody takes a foreign language in high school or college. We do this to ensure we’re worldly and well-rounded people of the world when we graduate, or at least that’s what they tell us.
I started off in high school with French, and it was a miserable year-and-a-half of my educational life. To be fair, I was 15 and a walking hormone at the time, far more interested in Motley CrYe and learning to drive than in learning French, which to me has always sounded vaguely like people trying to speak while eating spaghetti.
I hobbled through French I with a C- but by French II Madame Bouvier took a most personal dislike to my sleeping in class and I ended up with an unlovely red “F” on my transcript. I fled to German to fulfill my graduate requirement, a language whose guttural tones agreed more with my psyche. German also has, I’ve found, almost no practical use outside of Germany these days, unless you watch a lot of foreign movies.
My foreign language experience in “real life” has been pretty limited, as most of my foreign travel lately has been to New Zealand, my wife’s homeland, where they do speak something relatively akin to “American.”
Of course, I never took what would’ve been the most practical language for a California journalist — Spanish.
We took our annual “get the hell away from the snow” mid-winter trek recently, enjoying a week in the San Diego area.
For a few nights, we decided to head over the border and down to Ensenada, Mexico. It was the first time either of us had been south of the border before, and it was, just like school, an educational experience.
For some reason, we didn’t expect there’d be a particularly huge difference between Southernmost California and Mexico; the population of both is heavily Hispanic, and the climate is the same.
But instead, everything changed, and somewhat like that famous moment in “The Wizard of Oz,” there was color everywhere, the babbling of a foreign tongue and everything suddenly seemed gloriously, bafflingly foreign.
Strange impressions rush by in a rushed 24-hour tour of Mexico.
— The toll road to Ensenada, where you pay about $7.50, each way, for the privilege of driving on a nice, straight road. The road is nearly deserted, because it appears most Mexicans take the curvy, potholed non-toll road.
— Soldiers, boys who barely seem old enough to shave who might come up to my shoulder, carry awfully big automatic rifles and stand at the toll checkpoints trying their best to appeal authoritarian.
— A strange, desolate carnival atmosphere pervades the border crossing back into the U.S.A. Cars back up for miles, and trinket souvenir vendors are everywhere, using their last, best chance to get some American dollars. A man with no legs sells candy bars. Tiny Indian women stand with a cluster of children just a few feet outside the U.S., hands outstretched. One man is selling what appears to be a 3-foot ceramic relief sculpture of the Last Supper.
The lyrics of a Lyle Lovett song echoed through my head as we zipped down the lonely toll road.
“The road to Ensenada
Is plenty wide and fast
If you head south from Tijuana
Then I’ll see you at lastE”
It was a little too much to take in with just 24 hours, but Mexico seemed somehow stranger and grander than I had thought it would be. It seemed older, somehow, than California with its strip malls and AM/PM Mini Markets.
I imagine we’ll try to head back again one day, for a closer look at a country far too fast to hurtle through in one day.
Perhaps by then I’ll have learned a little Spanish.
It’s never too late to learn a new way to speak, or at least I hope so.
Sierra Sun editor Nik Dirga grew up in Nevada County.
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