Before Keenan moved to Casco Viejo, he bought an expensive language learning kit called the Rosetta Stone which forces its students to speak Spanish without the use of grammar drills or translation, a learning method analogous to throwing an infant from a helicopter into the Caspian Sea. In theory, the immersion system is a meat and potatoes, no-frills way of getting to the heart of matter, avoiding the extraneous and technical fluff. But what the men and women on the tapes forget to mention is that, until you’re semi-proficient at speaking their language, you’re lost like tears in rain.
He listened to the Rosetta Stone occasionally at his desk in Casco Viejo, with the volume turned way up. To an outsider, our apartment must have sounded like an incredibly polite gathering. “May I have a spoon please?” this one guy, Manuel would say. “Of course. And what about a fork?” Veronica would respond. “Would you like a fork too?”
To me, listening to these tapes was the height of stupidity considering real world equivalent was outside our door. In your living room in the middle of Omaha or from your prison cell, maybe. But using recorded lessons in Panama was like bringing an iPod to the Philharmonic: not only was there better options but he looked and sounded like a fool.
Considering, during his early months, that Keenan had no idea what his instructors were saying, he was left only to try and repeat after them, a habit he accordingly adopted in public. “Alright, are you ready to order?” a waiter would ask us in Plaza Bolivar. And the Rosetta Stone would kick in. “Are you ready to order?” he’d say.
“Yes,” the waiter would say. “What can I get you sir?”
“What can I get you?” was Keenan’s response. This wasn’t delivered with any stress on the you, as might a counterpunch question, so the waiter simply moved past him and onto someone who made more sense.
As a testament to the lunacy of Rosetta Stone and Keenan’s inexperience, I decided to insert into the recordings a few audio files of my own, primarily Spanish love audiobooks I picked up in Madrid, the kind that might have a rose and a dagger set affront a cascading waterfall on the cover. I renamed the files to match those of Rosetta Stone and was pleasantly surprised to find the day his computer spoke something like this: “The problem with love is that it ends every night and must be rebuilt the next morning before breakfast. So, Vladimir touched her bare breasts with the inside of his thigh and told her there’d be no tomorrow.” I listened giggling from a cracked door in the bathroom. “…and told her…there be no tomorrow,” Keenan said.
Before Casco Antiguo, back in college a professor once assigned the task of hanging out with several native Spanish speakers as a way for us to get outside-the-classroom experience and ideally form new bonds that would last long past graduation. What they neglected to realize though was that Richmond was an extremely homogenous school with what seemed like only three to five native Spanish speakers. Meaning, after those folks were selected, the rest of our class was left searching the janitor closets and bus stops for aides. I eventually found a man who worked in the dining hall kitchen named Jesus. He was built like an ox and had several large tattoos: over a blooming onion at the campus pub, he taught me the verbs to fuck and to assassinate.
I rarely used the words Jesus taught me but could see the point of what our teacher was getting at. Semantics are a good start to learning a new language, but there’s a certain intangible that comes with real-life conversation. I’ve always been a firm believer that necessity is the mother of invention and when you can’t accomplish anything due to a lack of lingual skills, necessity will inevitably kick in. It took Keenan only a few months of failing to work, eat, and make friends in Spanish before he got the knack and started to sound like a real human being, not just a pre-recorded voice asking for directions to a bank. To those who speak no Spanish and plan on relocating to Panama, the struggle will not be easy. New words will be tricky, thoughts will be mis-communicated, and people will mess with you hardcore. Just remember that we’ve all started somewhere, from the Panamanian infant to the maniacal foreigner assuring you of the word to love.