I spent my first several months in Guatemala mostly isolated and alone, going to work, gym, home. One day, after the rhythm of the season had been well established, a five-foot-nothing little Guatemalan woman threw a wrench into everything.
I was wrapping up a back workout on the ancient rusty cable machine, and she walked past me. I had seen her in the gym for several months, but always assumed she was ‘taken’ because of the confidence in her shoulders and the dark depths of her Latin eyes. She passed by and I took my shot.
“Hola!” I said about as smoothly as Lego bricks on the carpet. “Como se llama?”
She told me her name was Claudia, and I told her I’m called Ethan. I asked if she knew English and she said no.
Now, there’s one more thing you need to know about my escapade in Guatemala: I moved here without knowing a lick of Spanish. I work at an American school, so I speak English throughout my workday, but outside of the school, I was pretty lost. By this point however, I at least knew how to ask someone’s name and introduce myself.
And that was it.
We fumbled through the next stage of conversation and had to pull over a friend who knew both languages. He helped translate for us and somehow I still wound up with her phone number.
First it was coffee. Most of our conversation was done through our translation apps rather than actually verbally speaking. To be honest, I don’t know why either one of us followed through after that first date because it was basically an hour of texting the person via the SpanishDictionary App while sitting across from each other. It was painful.
Then it was dinner, then spontaneous hangouts, then afternoon movies, and over the course of our time together we figured out how to communicate. We spent time together most days and our talking began to look more like actual conversation as her English improved as did my Spanish. We slowly began to learn, and only had to occasionally use our apps when we couldn’t pinpoint a word.
If you ever want to learn another language instantaneously, date someone who speaks that language. Nothing motivates you toward that end like romance and the ability to communicate more clearly with the object of your affection.
Our first kiss was after watching the film Pan’s Labyrinth. After that we were basically ‘dating,’ however you want to interpret that today.
One day, I realized something about our relationship which was new to my dating experience. I enjoyed being with her. I liked showing her things and I liked our occasional kisses. It was relaxed and fun. It was the way dating should be.
I met her after school and greeted her with a kiss. Most days she tasted sweet like a summer day, but today she was smoky like a backyard barbecue.
We were going to a cafe near our gym and with my arm around her, I made a joke about her height. Then she called me gordo for missing the gym two days in a row and then I pretended to punch her in the head. She was laughing and I began to wonder why I had scarcely reached this point with other women I’ve dated. Months later, I think I have an answer.
On our very first coffee date, I discovered something about Claudia which previously would have been a deal breaker. She told me she was Catolico, and I explained that I’m not Catholic, but I am a Christian. That was about the extent of our religious conversation on the first day. The boundary was essentially forced upon us due to the language barrier. I wanted to know more about her beliefs, as well as share more of mine with her, but the difficulty of communicating all that just made me forgo it. I accepted it and moved on.
Looking back at first dates with other women before Claudia, I realized what a disaster I’ve been. Sure, I’m a theology nerd but that doesn’t mean I should call things off with a girl just because she’s an Arminian. Or maybe she didn’t share my views on predestination or the spiritual gifts. It’s almost like I was looking for a little trigger to nitpick; a spiritual reason to call things off. You could say I dated with a fearful mindset more than one that actually wanted to find a best friend to eventually marry. I was scared if her beliefs varied too much from my own, and always had to call it off.
Dating Claudia taught me patience in a number of ways. Obviously, having entire conversations by typing them out and translating them is toilsome, but the biggest was learning how to pace a relationship. I’ve learned that it’s a big mistake to try to cover the five points of Calvinism on the first (or fourth) date. Being with Clau forced us to simply have fun; to enjoy each other’s company and talk about things which were simple enough to communicate in Spanglish. It took mammoth effort to try to have a deep, intricate conversation about politics, religion, etc., so we just didn’t until we knew better how to communicate with one another.
Just as a child learns to read with Dr. Seuss before he can read Schopenhauer, Claudia and I were forced to take our time learning all of the elementary things about one another before advancing to the more divisive issues. Moving forward, I intend to institute this method of not-diving-into-the-deep-end-on-day-one, but simply having fun getting to know the person before making a serious judgment call.
I came to enjoy Claudia’s company in a unique way because I got to know her as a person—as a friend—before I projected a panoply of beliefs and political categories upon her. People are not just a collection of opinions, but they’re humans. If you’re dating, get to know the human before you discard them based on a differing opinion.
Date with grace more than fear.
I’m grateful for Claudia, the fun we had, and the lessons she taught me.