The day after Paul and I got married, I received an offer to be an artist-in-residence in San Miguel de Allende (which is where I am now). I felt sort of bad. “Hey, new husband, I’m going to Mexico for five weeks without you. Adios.” Luckily, Paul was able to use his frequent flyer miles to come visit me for a few days this past weekend, which was great. I’d been missing him dearly.
On Paul’s first day in San Miguel, I took him to the artisan market. Paul jumped eagerly into Spanish, asking a ceramics vendor if he had any espresso cups and small plates. The man cocked his head, confused. Probably because Paul was speaking Spanish with an Italian accent, and, in fact, half of the words he’d just said were actually Italian. If that had been me, I would have felt embarrassed, flustered, but Paul only laughed and tried again. Words — half right and half wrong — flowed out of his mouth in a never-ending stream of attempted communication, and eventually he was able to make himself understood. We bought a nice little collection of ceramic dishes for an absurdly cheap price then went to lunch.
Later that day, we hiked up the cobblestone streets to the botanical gardens, where some dudes were using the multi-purpose area to shoot off very loud fireworks in the middle of the afternoon for no reason. “That’s San Miguel for you,” I said. I was still laughing at the way Paul spoke Spanish. He kept saying capito by accident. And yet, I was amazed at his confidence and his willingness to put himself out there.
The next day, Paul and I drank free margaritas with friends at a nearby restaurant and met a random American woman who certainly had confidence and a willingness to put herself out there. She was loud and drunk (well, I hope she was drunk — if this was her natural state I might be concerned), bursting often into manic, cackling laughter, and she told us about the books she had written, including Falling in Love with Me: Every Woman’s Guide to Adoring Herself. Ahh, retired gringos. “That’s San Miguel for you,” I told Paul.
Let’s see — what else did Paul and I do? We went to a cantina and sang along to the jukebox. We went climbing on a homemade rock wall at a Mexican artist’s house. We ate paletas in the jardin, watching the roaming mariachi bands and smelling the enticingly meaty aromas of the taco trucks. Every day we ate delicious tamales and burritos and organic salads and drank jugo verde.
And, every day, Paul spoke Spanish to anyone who would listen. He developed something of a crush on our housekeeper, Conchita, and talked to her every chance he got. “You need to talk to my wife,” he told her in Spanish. “Eva needs to practice her Spanish. You should make her talk to you.”
Conchita laughed, and I flushed. I should be talking to Conchita more. I’m taking Spanish lessons twice a week with an American ex-pat, but what better way to practice than to chat with the native Spanish speaker who comes to my house every day? And yet, I’m always nervous about saying much more to Conchita other than buenos dias and como esta? because I’m afraid of sounding stupid or saying something wrong.
In fact, that’s my number one problem when it comes to communicating here in San Miguel. I’m so afraid of being wrong or sounding stupid that I hardly say anything in Spanish — I certainly don’t strike up conversations like Paul does — and therefore my Spanish never gets any better.
On Paul’s last night in town, we ended up drinking wine on the rooftop with my housemates. “You have one hour,” Marico told Paul, “to ask me anything you want.”
Paul leaped at the opportunity and began asking some intense and perhaps politically-incorrect questions on various sensitive topics.
At first, I was a little on edge. I hate to offend people or sound ignorant or seem insensitive, and Paul was asking questions that had the potential to do all three.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m probably wrong, or maybe I’m not even asking the right questions… I probably sound ignorant, but I’m just trying to understand.” He laughed. “I mean, you see how I speak Spanish, right? I just start talking and half of what I say comes out wrong.”
And in that moment, I was so proud of my husband. I go through life afraid to ask hard questions or write about sensitive topics. Afraid to speak Spanish. Afraid to be wrong or sound stupid. Paul might be wrong sometimes, and he might sound stupid sometimes, but at least he’s attempting to communicate. And in the process he’s learning. He’s gaining a better understanding of the world around him.
As the night went on and the bottle of wine was consumed, our conversation turned to the topics of race, white privilege, and people with disabilities. I have attempted to write about all of these things, but I often chicken out. I’m afraid of being offensive, of saying the wrong things, of seeming stupid.
“You can’t worry about that,” my housemates said. “I mean, you do your research, you treat the topic with respect, but in the end, if you have a story to tell, you should tell it.”
And they’re right. If you’re afraid of writing something stupid or offensive or just plain bad, you’ll become paralyzed by you’re own fear. If you are afraid of the words coming out wrong, chances are, they won’t come out at all.
So perhaps we all need to be more like Paul. Let the words flow — the right ones and the wrong ones — and clean it up later. Don’t be afraid. This is the way you learn. The way you communicate. When it comes to writing (and to life), have the confidence to be wrong sometimes and the willingness to put yourself out there.