The Awkward Guide to Immersion Language Learning

So it’s like this. I’ve spent 12 years learning French, starting with high school. Then after 6 collective months in Spanish-speaking countries, my Spanish is passible.

What’s happens after that? Naturally, I fall in love with a Brazilian whose entire family speaks no English except one sister with a strong affinity for Las Vegas.

Back to the drawing board.

I’m finishing up my second stint in Brazil now, all together 3 months and some change stumbling through the awkwardness of a new language.

Other places I’ve traveled, it’s been possible, if not easy, if not unavoidable to fall in with other travelers where the lingua franca is English.

But this has been a real, true immersion experience. The kind where English often isn’t an option. It’s either terrible Portuguese or charades, usually an awkward mix of both.

I’ve learned some things from this experience so far.

Embrace the awkwardness.

It’s going to be awkward. That I can promise you. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun to expect that and laugh about it.

With passing conversations like cashiers, it’s a fun challenge to try to pass as Brazilian. Play it cool, say only what I need to say. Try to get the accent right.

With anyone I’m going to talk to for longer than 29 seconds, that isn’t going to cut it. They know I don’t speak Portuguese, I know I don’t speak Portuguese. No one’s fooled, so I find it more effective – and more fun – to switch from cool pretend Brazilian to witless fool trying to learn/court jester.

And then there was the time I asked 2 friends whether they liked to eat banana jelly on a penis – a word that’s oh-so-close to “bread” in portuguese. So.

It’s a game of percentages.

I used to believe that language was an on/off thing. You’re learninglearninglearning and then BAM! you’re fluent. It’s more of video game where you level up periodically. And usually it’s like listening to a radio station with terrible reception that gradually becomes clearer over time.

So at first I might have heard this:

Tomorrow /[/[/[[[/[& /[/[/{{{{/[/[}} boots /[/}}{/[/{{}//??][[]][[

Now it’s maybe more like like:

Tomorrow I []]//[]///// wear boots because ][].>>./. rain.

It’s still a big guessing game, it’s just getting easier to guess right. Although there’s definitely many times every day when all I hear is static.

Don’t pretend to understand.

It doesn’t work. And then it gets even more awkward when the person is no longer telling a story you don’t understand but are laughing along to and suddenly asks you a question you don’t understand at all. And then you say “yes!” because it seems like the right thing to say and you end up with a third cup of coffee you don’t really want to drink.

In other news, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” is so terribly valuable.

Ask questions you know the answer to.

When I was doing a work exchange on an organic farm in Chile, I made a habit of asking everyone – the workers in the restaurant, the guys on the farm, the man who inexplicably lived above the kitchen – what the weather was going to be like tomorrow. It’s a good opportunity to practice and gain some confidence while also getting used to the accent.

Context makes a huuggeeee difference.

When I lived in France for 2 months, I went to yoga class with my host who taught some classes all in French and some in an amazingly agile half-French, half-English.

I understood what was going on because of the similarity of yoga across countries and because of visual cues, so my brain could pick up new vocabulary by matching what I was seeing with what I was hearing.

So everyone’s sitting breathing and settling in at the beginning of class, and Kate says, “Inspirer …. et expirer….” Ah yes, breathe in and breathe out. Check.

For the same reason, we recently watched the Incredibles – a favorite sober-up movie from my college days – in Portuguese with Portuguese subtitles. Because I knew the story, I could fill in the gaps where my vocabulary failed me, and by watching the subtitles, I could learn new words like cape and superhero and rocket.

Play charades.

Even if you have the option to switch to English when you don’t understand something, don’t. Learn the super-useful phrase, “How do you say ….. in Portuguese/French/Chinese?”

Comment dit-on …. en français?

Como se diz … em portuguese?

Como se dice … en español?

So you’re telling a story about weather at home and come to a word you don’t know – snow. (Because why would you ever need to say “snow” in a place where it’s always hot as balls?) It’s time to play charades.

“How do you say the thing that falls from the sky, like rain but more cold. It’s white.”

The 360-degree approach.

Language immersion works best when it’s a real immersion, when you’re getting hit from all sides by the language. Bombard yourself.

Some ways to do that:

  • Talk to yourself. I’ve got a robust inner monologue, and in those moments during the day when I’m alone – the shower, in the car, walking the dog – I elevate them to out-loud conversations in another language. I interview myself about my life, which is good practice for when I meet someone – I’m more ready with an arsenal of phrases about where I’m from, what I do for a living, what the heck I’m doing in the middle of Brazil.
  • Read. Everything. My eternally patient boyfriend lets me read aloud to him from Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, corrects my pronunciation and fills in the words I don’t know. I’m also working on The Little Prince, which I’ve read in English, French and Spanish. When we’re watching English movies or tv shows, we put on Portuguese subtitles. I read signs driving down the street, not unlike this guy.
  • Listen to music in the language
  • Language learning apps to get some of the grammar down and learn new vocabulary. DuoLingo is great for learning basic vocab and keeping things fresh when I’m out of Brazil.

Celebrate the milestones

I frequently tell my boyfriend when I learn something I didn’t know before. “Hey look! I ordered all by my big girl self!” “I talked to Marcelo’s mom for 5 minutes and understood everything!”

Sure, I like to brag, but it’s more that it helps to acknowledge progress out loud so on the days I don’t understand a word of Marcelo’s mom, it’s easier to not despair.

Expect the blank stare days.

Some days you’re firing on all cylinders, you feel like you understand almost everything, you’re learning, you’re getting the jokes, you’re laughing with your new friends and feeling tres chic. Look at how cool and smart you are! Such a citizen of the world!

Then some days, everyone sounds like the teacher from Peanuts. You’re constantly a step behind. You feel like an idiot constantly.

Yeah, that happens. it’ll pass.

It’s been a while, eh? This blog has taken a backseat in the midst of the rest of life.

The summary is that I’ve been working on Offscripting (the social venture my brother and I started to help people get unstuck), doing some writing (on the OS blog and also a book) and splitting my time between home in the States, Brazil with my boyfriend and a wee bit of a travel, including another Camino last summer. And I’m writing this from Guatemala City, where I’m spending a week with a friend. 

Much love to you, in whatever part of the world you find yourself!

Beware the Real

I wrote this at the end of February on the last days of my 6 weeks in the Dominican Republic.

Traveler? Tourist? Vagabond? Backpacker? Choose a label, folks.

I’ve seen cutesy lists and quizzes, variations on this theme recently.

What am I when I travel?


Me+Cascada El Limon, Las Terrenas

The label seems arbitrary and generally unimportant, but I feel the difference.

I’m more sensitive now than I once was to the modern colonialism of tourism, the white folks who arrive already drunk from the plane, ready to mine whatever they want from this island—the sand, the sun, the fish, the rum—and leave the rest.

They don’t arrive empty-handed. They bring their culture, and from what I can tell, it doesn’t occur to them to question why they would go to the Caribbean to eat French pastries and pizza.

The DR is a starkly divided place. There’s rich white folks relaxing in the Disney Land version of a Caribbean island where Cuba Libres are bottomless, the buffet serves all-you-can-eat steak and sea bass, and “local culture” comes in the form of handicrafts in overpriced gift shops and Dominicans with jobs ensuring the white folks have fun.

I saw this artificial side of the DR in my first couple weeks. It made me uncomfortable, so I thought, “I want to experience the real DR.”


Be careful what you wish for, kid.

I got to experience the real DR. And stuff got real ugly, real fast.

I write this on my second-to-last morning here in the DR, and I’m feeling overwhelmed by the schizophrenia of it all. The crazy beauty and joy here, and the deep, deep ugliness.

How do you hold it all? How is there room for so much fun and laughter and dancing, and also for so much darkness?

I’ve been embraced by the family that runs the guesthouse, the mama who adopts each backpacker as her hijo or hija, fussing and caring, and endlessly feeding with filling, delicious meals that taste like love.

But then over pancakes with bachata blaring in the background, my friend tells me about getting sexually assaulted the night before while another backpacker tries to sort out getting a new phone after a prostitute pickpocketed him.

There’s the thrill of dancing all night with men who know how to dance. But the floor is shared with old white men dirty dancing with gorgeous Dominicans in their 20s. Looking for a night’s work, a little cash, a way out.

The dancing is fun, but the conversation inevitably accelerates to: “Tienes un novio?” Do you have a boyfriend?

Yes. The answer is always yes.

“Está aquí?” Is he here?

No. But the answer should always be yes. The answer should always be, Yeah, see that tall muscular guy who could kick your ass? He’s mine.

“Pero necesitas un novio de aquí. Ahora soy tu novio.” But you need a boyfriend from here. Now I’m your boyfriend.

I don’t know what they see when they look at me, but it feels like dollar signs. It feels like a passport. It feels like easy sex. It feels like they know what they want and will aggressively pursue it. It feels like they will take without asking.

It makes me deeply uncomfortable, but here I am, a traveler/vagabond/backpacker born into a wealth these people will never know, newly arrived in their country to take what I want and leave only with a phone full of photos and some cheap souvenirs.

I’m critical of the touristic colonialism, but I’m part of it.


Las Terrenas

I’m part of that imperialism that comes and wants to interact only with my idea of what this culture should be: bachata and fried fish and sunburn. I want what I want and not the rest. Not the poverty, the social issues, the ugliness of gender inequality, the culture of cheating.

How can I blame them for taking what they want when I’m doing the same thing?

When I only want to leave behind pesos, how can I blame them for looking at me and seeing only pesos?

When I only want to interact with people on my terms, how can I blame them for only wanting to interact with me on theirs?

When I live according to the arbitrary lines of my social norms—dancing close is fine but don’t you touch my ass—how can I blame them for living according to theirs?

There’s parts of this place I’m sad to leave. And there are parts I can’t wait to get an ocean away from.

I’m ready to go back to a place where I don’t get hit on constantly, where I can walk down the street without getting whistled at and catcalled. So I can go back to complaining about not feeling beautiful.


Rio San Juan

A place where I don’t get asked 4 times a day whether I want a boyfriend. So I can go back to complaining about men not being forward enough.

A place where gender inequality isn’t slapping me in the face constantly. So I can go back to pretending it doesn’t exist because I don’t see it.

How do you hold it all?

I was debating posting this for a while – what will people think? Would it be offensive? Do I seem ungrateful? And ultimately decided that as a writer, I need to speak the truth I see. And sometimes it’s uncomfortable.

But I’m interested in your reactions to this. Do you agree? Do you see it differently?


Resistance, or why I’ve been MIA

What keeps you from doing the things you most deeply desire to do?

It sounds rhetorical, but I do have an answer: Resistance. With a capital R.

It’s been awhile since you’ve heard from me, eh? Three months. Long time.

Here’s what’s been happening.

I was in the Dominican Republic for 6 weeks. I was supposed to go to Brazil but my visa got rejected for insufficient documents (ugh.) So, my soon-to-be-boyfriend and I changed course and ended up in the DR. Different story for another time. IMG_0755

Now I’m back in St. Louis, planting for a few weeks before … going to Brazil. Visa accepted. Yay!

January and February were actually really difficult. Parts of it were awesome – I mean, falling in love on a tropical island is pretty awesome. But professionally? I felt like I ran head first into a brick wall.

And that wall, my friends, is called Resistance.

I’m reading a magical book called The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. It came to me by way of my brother, the way most good books find their way to me.

It’s about Resistance, that force that stands between a person and what they’re meant to do. It keeps the artist from painting, the entrepreneur from starting the business, the writer from writing. It looks like procrastination, self-medication, feet-dragging, fear, distraction.

And for me, Resistance looks like napping. When I’m uncomfortable or scared, I want to check out to the maximum degree possible. Napping.

So as I’ve been working on starting a business and getting back into writing, I’ve been coming up against that force. But now that I know what name to call it, I have started learning how to kick its ass.

Right now, Offscripting – the business, blog, books and podcast project my brother and I are working on – is in a really good place. We launched our website, and I’m kind of in love with it. I like to open it up randomly and look at it like a mother does with her newborn. ❤ ❤ ❤

And now, I’m writing again. For me, not writing is like constipation. There’s stuff that needs to come out that isn’t, and it’s very unhealthy.

Every time I would try to write, I’d get halfway through a post that was going alright and then suddenly hate it. So I’d quit.

It’s Resistance again, that voice whispering that I shouldn’t bother because what I’m writing is shitty anyway. It tells me to stop trying. It tells me to nap.

War of Art suggests that a writer must sit down and write every single day. And if half of it is shit, or 75% or 80% – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve conquered Resistance for the day.

Mary Oliver talks about a similar idea in her interview with Krista Tippet on On Being. She says that you have to show up every day, and the Muse will learn to trust you. Then the Muse will show up too (my paraphrase).

So I’m back, it’s flowing. I’m where I need to be.

Side note: If you happen to be a writer in a similar situation, try the Most Dangerous Writing App. It’s a simple website that sets a timer for writing, and if you stop typing for more than 5 seconds, everything you’ve written is deleted. It’s a way to silence the editor inside and just let the ideas flow. It’s like a Resistance cannon.

Speaking of writing, you might be wondering where the heck the book is that we’ve been working on for over a year now. It’s …. coming.

Tony and I are directing most of our writing efforts towards the Offscripting blog, but I expect that once that’s up and running, we’ll be looking back to the book(s).

It’s good to be back. I’m sending much love your way, wherever you are. Conquer Resistance today! Go get ‘em, tiger!

Another side note: A little shameless plug (because it’s my blog, and I can do what I want):
Our first major product offering for Offscripting will be a retreat-in-motion walking the Camino de Santiago this summer. Everyone’s invited, and we’re offering a 10-day version for folks who feel stuck but aren’t sure where to do and still have a 9-to-5 vacation schedule, and a 30+-day version that includes life overhaul, retreat programming and a lot of blisters.

If you’d like a refresher on how the Camino changed my life, here’s my post from the last day of our 2014 Camino.

Snapshot: 3 Pairs of Shoes

The Boots
I wanted a pair of cowboy boots in a vague sort of way. Like “Hmmm, it might be nice to have a pair of cowboy boots. Red ones.”

Then desire turned to need when faced with traveling somewhere un-boot-y (southwest France in November) to somewhere boot-y (Germany in December).

I walked into the Saturday flea market in the 300-resident village of Mourbourget, France with a goal: a pair of boots. And there, on the first table was saw, was a pair of beautiful, brown leather cowboy boots.

They were authentic, from Texas, well-kept with tissue paper stuffed in the toes. The middle-aged Frenchman sold them to me for 25 euro and 3 pairs of Argyle socks thrown in for good measure.

Perfect, because they needed at least 2 pairs to fit perfectly. Also good because Berlin in December requires two pairs.

The TOMs
When I wear words, more often than not, it’s less a statement to the rest of the world than a reminder to myself.

My sister – who knows me better than I know myself – gifted me a pair of white TOMs with a Gandhi quote scribbled in black so whenever I look down, my eye is caught by “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

They came with me to Spain, then France, Switzerland, Germany and the Czech Republic. And then Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Chile and now here we are in the Dominican Republic.

They aren’t looking quite so white these days. TOMs don’t have the best shelf life, but that message is applicable everywhere.

“I don’t care where you are or what you’re doing,” they tell me. “Don’t be an asshole.”

The Reefs
It’s cute that I thought I would wear fancy sandals in the DR. I envisioned some scenario involving a non-rice-and-beans dinner with a glass of wine and a dress. We can’t be underdressed, can we?

Reality looks more like cutoff jean shorts, $1 rice and beans with a side of fried plantains, and a glass of that cheap local beer ubiquitous in every country, ice cold and super refreshing. Here it’s Presidente, in Nicaragua it’s Tona, in Costa Rica it’s Imperial, in Chile it’s Cristal.

And aside from the one day of hiking, I could’ve easily survived with my well-worn, brink-of-extinction black Reefs.

It’s a metaphor for life, eh? When you go against what your heart is asking for (Reefs, in this case), you end up hauling around way too much crap in your stuffed backpack. Simplify, simplify.

Someday I’ll learn.

Hi friends! I’m writing this from the Dominican Republic, where I’m hiding from winter for 6 weeks. I’ve been traveling around, speaking Spanish, nursing my motorbike burn, falling in love and turning 32.

There’s a lot going on these days, a lot of internal shifting and life planning. I’ll get a proper update in soon. But for now, I’m sending lots of love and warm, sunny thoughts from down here.


Reason vs. Passion

I think I’d be hard-pressed to find a situation in my life that couldn’t be directly addressed by Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

And fortunately, I have a brother with a photographic memory and an affinity for poetry who can sprout passages as needed. He’s like a magic 8 ball for poetry.

Mr. G talks about the tension between reason and passion, how they can be in conflict but are also both absolutely critical.

Sometimes I feel like this: “Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgement wage war against your passion and your appetite.”

But really, when I’m balanced, life looks more like this: “Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.”

Tony the Bro and I have been working the past several months on Offscripting. It started as a co-authored book about our experience of giving the middle finger to the status quo and choosing to live stories of success that weren’t written for someone else. And since January, it’s morphed into a multifaceted project, then a blog, then a podcast and now a full-fledged let’s-start-a-business project.

Now we’re both in it to win it, dedicating many hours a week, working under the tutelage of a coach and with the support of a mastermind group. This is, like, a real thing.

And aside from learning about things like customer acquisition and business models and the founder’s trough of sorrow, we’re also learning a lot more about each other in this side-by-side working capacity we’ve never experienced before.

And recently we had a telling revelation—I’m the reason, and Tony’s the passion.

In so many aspects of my life, my reason has been helpful and profitable, but it’s also a huge defense mechanism that I use to shield myself from getting hurt. I hide behind rationality and talk myself out of doing courageous, passionate things.

For Tony, well…I’ll let Kahlil chime in: “Passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.”

His passion shields him from the horror of a boring, mundane life. Sometimes good, sometimes destructive.

Tension had been building for a few weeks, bubbling under the surface: I felt like Tony was all over the place and refusing to focus on what I saw as crucial foundational groundwork. Tony felt like I was raining on his parades, shutting down his fun, creative ideas too quickly with logic and practicality.

And as we talked through this, recognizing what the other was saying while also appreciating the incredible value the complementarity brought to this experience, I had the Eureka moment: “I’m the rudder! And you’re the sails!”

On the heels of this conversation, we also talked about a decision I was making about whether or not to go to Brazil in January in pursuit of a crazy romance. And my logic was kicking in and telling me how cray I was being.

“Chris,” Tony said. “You’ve done a commendable job of being cautious in your love life up until now. But I think the time has come to throw caution to the wind.”

So here’s to the complementarity of life.

To different gifts and different strengths.

To finding the sweet spot in the middle of polar opposites that allows space for the creation of something beautiful and incredibly fun.

And to the need to sometimes let the pendulum swing dramatically in the opposite way.

Like, all the way to Brazil.

If I end up with a boat tattoo in the near future, you’ll know why.


I’m starting to notice a pattern. Perhaps you have too.

  1. Christie prepares to leave the country. She writes a whole bunch in joyful anticipation.
  2. She leaves the country. She writes a whole bunch about sights and sounds and emotional roller coasters and earthquakes. 
  3. She comes back to the country.
  4. Radio silence.
  5. Re-entry.

So here we are: No. 5.

I came back from Chile at the end of October, straight into a 5-day retreat in the mountains of North Carolina. Then home to sleep for 5 days, then to San Antonio to pinch-hit parent for a friend who needed a nanny at an education conference.

I’ve realized I need a looonnngggg landing strip when I come back. It doesn’t matter how good I get at this nomad business, there’s no such thing as “hit the ground running” when I’m back. Unless by that you mean, “hibernate for a week.”

But I’m back I’m back! I’m in a coffee shop in St. Louis at the moment, trying to alleviate my guilt at not working the past two days (a burden of self-employment: your boss is an asshole who thinks you should be working ALL THE TIME).

In the spirit of T-Day, I’m thinking about gratitude. Here’s why I’m feeling blessed:

  1. Work that makes me laugh. My brother and I are starting a business around the idea of Offscripting, and it brings me such joy. When I’m not terrified, of course. Which is a lot. I was sitting here sipping fancy hipster coffee, working on our homework for the week, cracking up.
  2. Being home to make a mess. This is the first T-day in 3 years I’ve been home for, and probably only the second in 6 years. Cooking has emerged unexpectedly as a super-fun joint hobby of me and my Dad. So Thanksgiving was spent chopping and stirring, making a big ole’ mess in my parents’ beautiful kitchen.
  3. Aunthood. I didn’t get it before, what all the fuss was about. And then Kensi happened, and suddenly as that little hairball popped out of my sister, a part of my heart got carved out. Permanently. I’m totally in love, the annoying kind where I talk about her constantly – especially the uninteresting parts like how she yawns – and I want to be around her always and I can endure end-of-the-world screaming cuz the milk factory wouldn’t be home for another 45 minutes. 
  4. Ridiculous people. Like the ones who play cards with you in a hotel room instead of going out three nights in a row. Or the ones who institutionalize West Wing/nacho Wednesdays. Or the ones who meet up on Sunday mornings to play Scrabble over coffee. Or who drink beer and do crafts on a Friday night. They bring out the silliness in life and keep me laughing until I snort. 

Sending lots of love from this STL corner of comfort and joy. Until next time friends. Mwah!



4 Songs, 4 Loves

Choosing favorite songs is like choosing favorite children. But here we are.

This is a soundtrack of four of my all-time faves, each correlated with a specific person in my life.

Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel

Admittedly, I don’t even know what this song is about.

What moves me is the music. It’s wing music. The beat carries me out of my funk. It’s a song that transcends. It’s an up song. It makes me fly.

Somewhere along the way, it got attached to my brother. I don’t know what the correlation between Solsbury Hill and Tony is, but in my mind, they’re linked. And it brings me joy and sparks the irrepressible need to dance awkwardly and violently.

Cecilia by Simon and Garfunkel

Again, not meaningful. It’s about infidelity, for goodness sake.

But the melody, dude. It’s the melody.

It holds a very specific memory: cruising down Highway 270 with my sister, Michelle, coming home from school on a beautiful spring day with the windows down and Cherry Coke Slurpees in our hands. How can you listen to Cecilia and not be dancing? It just doesn’t seem possible or wise.

The song captures those hours we spent together, to-and-froing from school, through all the loneliness we individually endured. But at the end of each day, we had our time sitting beside one another for 30 minutes to just be sisters. Priceless moments, these.

Leaving on a Jet Plane by Peter, Paul and Mary

This is a Mom song, linked to a vague knowledge of hearing it as a child and knowing Mom loved it. It’s still my favorite song to belt in the shower.

There’s something in the sadness that resonates with me, but i’s a comfortable sadness. Like the sadness of leaving home but the comfort of knowing it will be there waiting when I come back. Makes sense that this song is intertwined with Mom. She represents the epitome of comfort, of acceptance and of totally unconditional love.

But there’s sadness too because, even as she has empowered me to be strong and independent and believe in myself and go after my dreams, I think it’s she who suffers most when I leave her side to pursue them. There’s that sadness in leaving, for me, for her, and for me again because it saddens me to sadden her.

Tangled webs we weave, eh?

My Girl by the Temptations

And this, this is a Dad song. A Daddy song. An I’ll-always-be-your-little-girl song. Dad is the epitome of strength and security in my life.

This song makes me think of slow-dancing with my Dad, a potent reminder of when he used to hold me in his arms every night before I went to sleep.

I remember the sadness I felt when I realized I was getting too big for him to hold me. But a great thing about adulthood and being too big for your Daddy to hold you is that we’ve got a replacement: a slow dance, often waiting for us at weddings, to have that moment again, even if just once a year.

It’s a great soundtrack, eh?