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Tower of Babel

by Stephanie Alfaia

“I want to be bilingual.” he said, with frustrated eyes that saw the world in gray shaded English.

Convinced language would bring color into his life, he chose to dedicate to Spanish – fluid, deliberate, and necessary. The brilliant world traveler felt it wasn’t enough to learn ten numbers in every country visited. He was fascinated with experience, and wanted to delve into the origins of one.

I, on the other hand, was born into languages. Brazilian natives for parents, Argentinean babysitter, Greek preschool, and English ABC’s. My childhood was an internal tower of babel. Waking up to “bom dia,” replying “buenas papi, te amo,” reprimanded with “please speak English in school,” and toiled frustration that my baby sister didn’t understand a word I said to her – in any language. To make matters worse, I had a terrible time communicating with kids my age. Apparently, portu-eek-an-glish was not accepted. The confusion meant spending hours conversing alone, dressed in character, facing a mirror where I understood myself. Now, as a self-proclaimed polyglot, I understand Elijah’s eyes. Language is color, it’s a spectrum of verbiage to a curious mind in need of tools for expression.

How do you describe a mole negro with foreign words?
Spices, herbs, ingredients are translatable, but taste is not. The feeling of that warm complicated dish, is nearly impossible to understand in any other color than it’s original deep brown. Words go beyond interpretation, translation, and communication. They are direct tunnels into the soul. Grouped letters are a way of expanding your internal territory and venturing beyond the walls of your culture and family.

Words create culture. Letters represent history. Together there is a phenomenon of spiritually distinguishing one person from another. The tower may live in eternal chaos, but the atmosphere is beautiful. Unknown sounds, matching horizons seen for the very first time. Syllables that seem senseless, like a rooster’s crow at breaking dawn. Distinct tone, true to green pastures and wooded hills. Blended into a freshly roasted cup of Brazilian coffee, indulged on a hammock, as the sun rises in Morro Azul,  to greetings of a distant bird. What makes the moment colorful, is his swaying in the hammock beside me, taking in the view, slowly letting “que cafe delicioso” roll off his tongue. That is language – the experience of living a moment in it’s intended origin, not the recounting of. Learning a new phrase fills the inner cup with meaning.

Elijah decided  he would teach English in Costa Rica. A courageous attempt at fully immersing himself in a world of words. A beautiful exchange, where teacher opens doors for a student, whilst the pupil unknowingly changes Eli’s universe. Daily laughter at mispronounced grammar, struggles with uttering a need, and adrenaline sprung from a successfully written paper. How could I not be a part of this evolution?

The look in a child’s eyes at a world of opportunity. That shy look when called on to repeat after me. Slow and sporadic use of the language we have mastered. An originally dark tunnel, that slowly begins to shine, with each step towards the exit. We are born into chained caves, where the shadows we see dancing on walls are those our immediate family provides. We don’t dare to look away, with fear of losing the only connection we know: our culture. We often forget that love is unconditional, and the love we should feel towards the rest of the world, is lacking.

I would leave this routine a hundred times over and share the change in his eyes. To see color enter and expand into his soul. Someone I barely know, yet the commonalities are inexplicable. Two unique paths, crossed and realized they were headed in the same direction. Inevitable? Perhaps. For no two people meet by chance. Despite the romantic undertone, the mental stimulus overturns all previous sense of ‘reality’. The world is overpopulated with simple and safe moments. With people who can only see shades, who can only speak one close-minded language. To share in someone that freedom, that curiosity, that courage, is priceless. It quickly puts everything in perspective. Suddenly, a year long adventure seems completely rational and becoming a tetrachromat – necessary.

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