I’m still browsing my full-color, 160-page guide to the Festival Internacional de Cine Político in Buenos Aires. It cost 10 pesos, and I was so proud to buy it. That sounds a little odd, I realize, but I was relieved to be in Buenos Aires, a city that felt familiar after my misadventures in Córdoba, and to finally – after more than 35 years of sporadic attempts to learn Spanish – be able to walk confidently into a movie theater in a country 5000 miles from home, ask politely for a festival guide, understand the response, know that I could read the book with very few vocabulary and grammar challenges, and be able to handle the cash – do the peso-to-dollar calculation, recognize a 10-peso bill in my wallet immediately, and do the transaction with no problem.
Granted, units of 10 are incredibly easy to work with. But this third trip to Argentina was the first time in all those years that numbers became automatic in Spanish. This is a huge change for me, and I’ve seen the same thing with my language school classmates, who are also middle-aged, intelligent adults who have studied Spanish for years and traveled in Latin America and the Caribbean. We’ve all had that annoying experience of reading well in class, hitting a year in numerals in the text, and struggling to squeak out, “Ehhhh, mil nove… cientos ochentiiiiii… nueve.”
My difficulties with numbers in Spanish have never surprised me, as I’m a writer who excelled at reading and had great verbal abilities from a very young age, but never truly grasped mathematics, didn’t enjoy studying the subject, and dropped it as soon as the New York State Regent’s diploma requirements allowed. The wrestling with numerals in Spanish has frustrated the hell out of me over the years. I’m not sure how the brain processes these things, but I’m not sure I’ve ever understood the particular language or grammar of numbers. My brain loves written language, which uses symbols to represent sounds, and puts them together to represent ideas. For whatever reason, my brain has never liked using numbers, written symbols that represent quantities. For me, recognizing a number in Spanish is a more laborious process than recognizing a word, letter, or phrase. For decades I’ve had to translate the number symbol(s) into something that makes sense to me in English, then translate that into Spanish, which of course takes a while.
On my first trip to Argentina, when my Spanish was rusty from years of disuse, I purchased a few books and T-shirts at the Association of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo bookstore. The pleasant young clerk gave me the total, and I forked over 10 times the amount needed – I was still learning the currency, and I’m sure I heard “one-thousand-something pesos” when he’d said “one-hundred-something.” He kindly handed back my extra bills, cautioning me to be careful with others who might take advantage of my ignorance.
On my third visit, I discovered that small transactions like this were finally kicking my “number brain cells” into gear. On my first evening, in Rosario, I was too tired to even understand the hotel desk clerk when he told me that my room number was 920, so he wrote the numeral on a business card for me. But after about 10 days and who knows how many tiny transactions with hostel managers, museum docents, restaurant servers, bus ticket sellers, and news vendors who sold me my daily copy of Página 12, math brain arrived: suddenly I could understand when they gave me the change for larger bills, and when I saw a street number on one of those pretty white oval enamel plaques that used to decorate every building in Buenos Aires, the number popped into my head in perfect castellano. This ability has slowed since I returned to the U.S., but it hasn’t left completely, and I’m sure it’ll return the next time I’m in a Spanish-speaking country – or neighborhood.