Beginner's Mind

I'm at the neighborhood supermarket in my little pocket of Laureles, Medellín. It's been an incident-free trip so far. I have not wished anyone good morning in the afternoon, I have not accidentally made any offensive hand gestures, and when a well-dressed middle-aged woman saw my watch and asked me the time, I replied with a confident "Tres menos diez." That's right dear reader, "Ten 'til three." Not the stiff "Two fifty" of the casual tourist, but a beautiful, idiomatic "Ten 'til three."

On a roll, I approach the cashier with my bread, peanut butter, and snacks for the following week. "I can do this. I can do this. I can do this," I think to myself, but not out out loud because that is something a weird gringo would do, and today I am not a weird gringo. I am just some schmuck buying groceries.

We exchange pleasantries. Nothing suspicious. I'm obviously not from here, but maybe I'm from Brazil or something. One time a guy who runs an empanada shop asked if I was a visitor from Brazil and my heart sang.

She starts ringing me up; I'm so close. I don't think any part of this interaction will require me to conjugate in the subjunctuve. Oh no, she just asked me a question. I didn't understand it. Stay cool! Context clues! I'm going to guess it was something like "Did you find everything OK?" and confidently declare, "Sí." I have a 50-50 chance.

She's staring at me expectantly. Dammit, she asked if I have a rewards card. And now she is justifiably confused as I fail to produce the rewards card that I claimed to possess. She notices the mild terror in my eyes and puts two and two together. A tourist. She mumbles something to the effect of "Whatever, alright then," and finishes bagging the food. Bread on top. What a pro.

We exchange pesos, then farewells, and I'm out. I tried my best. Some day, I tell myself. Just not today.

I walk home and manage to cross Calle San Juan without getting struck by a motorbike, always a small victory. When I graduated college two months ago I felt so old. I had to start thinking about a job, a place to live, and health insurance. Adult things. But here I am young. I have the manners of a ten-year-old and the vocabulary of a four-year-old.

My youth has been a popular topic of conversation recently. My friends at Spanish school like to point it out. Most of them are in their late 20's, in between jobs at big consulting firms or on summer break from their post-graduate studies. Compared to folks who have already ridden a motorcycle through the Himalayas, done a Peace Corps rotation in Vanuatu, or worked in agricultural development in Ethiopia, my 21-year-old self is indeed young and inexperienced.

But it doesn't stop at school. My Colombian host mom, Gaby, likes to call me joven and niño. For a while Gaby even insisted on making me sandwiches to bring to school. (I eventually asserted my desire to pack my own lunch; it was one of the biggest victories I have yet earned in the Spanish language.)

Maybe sensing the maturity whiplash I'm feeling, a school friend asked me a few days ago, "Does it bother you that we keep bringing up how young you are?"

I cocked my head to the side and looked skyward to signal the deep thoughts I was thinking, as is my style. I answered her, "No. It's a good thing. It's like being the worst person in the band, right? That's exactly where I want to be. The more time I spend around people who are older and more experienced than I am, the more I can soak in." And I believe that, as long as I can keep finding the right people to soak from.