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Jugo de Piña

It was my third week in Spain, and I still felt hopelessly out of place. I had studied Spanish for three years in school, but when I stepped off the plane in Madrid I was in a completely different world. No amount of classroom work could have prepared me for this.

I struggled even in asking directions. The first person I asked spoke with an accent that left me baffled. I could pick out a few words, but not enough to help me get where I needed to go. When it was clear to him that I wasn't following, he tried his second language—French.

This was nothing like the safe environment of Spanish class. Though I had just arrived, I was ready to return home.

But as the days went on, I began to really pick up the language. I met many patient people. Often I was able to practice Spanish with locals who wanted to practice English. I would ask a question in their language, and they would answer in mine. With every conversation my comprehension—and confidencegrew. By the end of the second week I could sometimes understand whole sentences, and by the third week I felt like I was really getting it. But I still had lingering doubts.

I arrived back in Madrid toward the end of the third week after traveling through northern Spain. Walking downtown, I saw a street vendor selling juice. To quench my thirst and to practice my Spanish, I stepped up to the cart. There were a few people ahead of me in line, and I listened to them out of habit, to see if I could understand what they were saying. I heard one person ask for "jugo de piña"—pineapple juice. That sounded good to me, so when it was my turn I asked for the same thing. The vendor told me the price. I counted my coins and paid him.

As I walked away, I heard the next person in line ask in English, "What kind of juice was that?" And the vendor replied in English. I realized I had just conducted a transaction entirely in Spanish with someone who also spoke fluent English. I was no longer a confused tourist struggling to navigate a foreign land. For the first time since I arrived, I felt like I belonged.

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