If you don't watch for it, the process of becoming used to a place will have seemed to occur all at once, without lines of demarcation or truncations. You suddenly find that you have a local cafe, a couple of friends (or at the very least, well-wishers who will tolerate your presence semi-voluntarily) and a place to put your keys when you arrive at home. You know it wasn't always so, but you can't imagine it any other way. A new place, if not home, has suddenly become pedestrian, drinkable. Acclimatization has always been thus for me. That we were created for transition gives me cause for wonder. Of course, everyone has those heartbeats of unspeakable sadness when nostalgia and bitterness hang in the air like a still odor. But as an organ, the heart actually rests for the majority of its work; likewise, the majority of our moments pass in increasing acceptance of our new lot in all but the most extreme cases.
When you throw a new language into the mix, though, everything becomes piece-wise. Minutes explode into hours, and days condense into ticks and tocks. Time no longer makes sense; it is the passing of moments that is most arduous, the milliseconds of extreme attention that must be paid to catch every phrase, every nuance, every syllable of newness that flourishes all around. Was the world you knew before this loud? Did taking it in require this much effort? The hours in between, spent conversing with the din of the city's ceaseless activity amid falling twilight, fly by. This is the quietest yet most powerful undercurrent of cultural shock.
I knew abstractly that language acquisition would be hard. It's not that I don't have bursts of knowing exactly what I'm saying or hearing; rather, enduring the twists and turns of professional and personal conversation is deciphering a complex linguistic map for which you have a legend drawn in Crayola. In the firmness of reality, ironically, moments of difficulty and elation are most akin to our most feared and loved dreams. When I have a question about an accounting concept in the office, already a language of its own, attempting to sort out the various mediations and translations I must make somewhere in the crannies of my frontal cortex is like the proverbial nightmare of running while the world stands still. My mind zooms, but my speech is frozen. Every phrase is offered with an unspoken plea for grace. Fortunately, Mexicans are a graceful people, honored that I am even trying.
On the other hand, there are moments when the cogs synchronize and I spin a phrase that surpasses semi-proficiency into real, expressible ideas and feelings in a foreign tongue. It is lucid dreaming, flying through the cloudbreak to reach eternal blues and golds. Those moments keep me faltering, stalling out, continuing to accept grace from coworkers and passers-by, while I navigate upward.
Speech is the most tangible picture of the painstakingly discrete process of becoming used to a place, but the real magic happens through other media, too: in glances to co-workers that slowly fill with recognition, in daily greetings that beat with hints of anticipation, in lunch conversations that absorb you into the invisible but heretofore-impenetrable circle of trust. Day by day the number of errant steps and errant keystrokes I make decreases, the way I greet the employees at the local corner store becomes less stilted, and the time it takes to remember where I am each morning lessens. It's all quantifiable. Perhaps pretending that becoming familiar with a place is a viscous, unobservable sleight of hand is our gentler modus operandi, but I wonder if I will ever be able to go back.
In the two-and-change weeks I've been here, I've been pushed into metro trains, lost in La Lagunilla, astonished by the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan and Tepotzlan, and forced to stay out until 5:00 a.m. salsa dancing in Plaza Garibaldi (I'm glad I did). I thought that these grand moments would be milestones along my path to cultural awareness, but so far, the quieter moments of knowing how to give proper greeting (a handshake and a kiss on the cheek for ladies, shake-hug-shake for men), discern edible street food (always look for a heat source) and assist the cab-driver with driving me home (always start with the larger reference streets and don't be afraid to be a human GPS) have been my smallest and largest victories. Milestones are wonderful, but you can't analyze them. They are singular, self-evident. The micro-epiphanies, on the other hand, have inertia. They count. And in this fragile beginning, I'm holding on to every one.