It is back-to-school time. Cultural guilt has made me return to the classroom in an attempt to learn more of our local language, Papiamentu. It is a gumbo of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English with a pinch of Arawak Indian and African dialects for good measure. Papiamentu has the distinction of being one of the few Caribbean creole languages that has survived to the present day.
Less than 300,000 speak the patois and it is really not heard much beyond the ABC Islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, or in the venacular—Ruba, Boneiru, y Korsou. But I am trying to bridge the linguistic gap between the local Antillean community and myself. Sure, I could easily continue to get by on English and Dutch on Bonaire, but I am missing out on daily cultural exchange. Knowing Papiamentu is key for me to become more integrated on the island so back to school it is.
My teacher is Xiamara Anastasia Frans who simply signs off on her e-mail address as Lady Xiamara. She’s a three-decade veteran of teaching here in the public schools. Xiamara fluently speaks four languages but Papiamentu was her first. Born on Aruba to a mother from Sint Maarten and an Aruban father who was the middleweight boxing champion of Central and South America back in the day, she now has her own family who lives comfortably in their Nikiboko home on the outskirts of that neighborhood. Her house is easily found by spotting the remains of a twin-engine airplane wreck in the yard. That is the other classroom on the property where Xiamara’s husband, Jacinto, teaches aviation mechanics to young aspirants.
My classroom is the 10’ x 20’ porch of the family’s home. There are three rows of two desks each, but we are talking old school here. They resemble school desks of my earliest student days—made from wood, ink well in the top right corner, hinged at the front so the lid can be raised to store books & supplies, lunch & spit wads. I feel right at home although my memory of these desks and former school daze are faint at best. I believe my fellow students view the school furniture as museum pieces. I am probably tossed into that category as well since I am double their age. Any of the three could easily be one of my kids. There is Nat, Jenny and Sam. They are all working on the island (unlike myself) with trades of environmentalist, bar tender and parrot scientist respectively. The young people are a good group to be around. After class one evening, they even took me to the ultra-hip Little Havana Cigar Bar to tip a few. This place is so youthful and trendy that I have avoided it until now. It was nice to have a thirty-something escort with which to comfortably absorb the cool.
While I really enjoy Xiamara’s class, I have discovered learning a new language at this time of my life has been difficult at best. I used to know The Sixties as one of great cultural transformation. The Sixties for me now are simply my personal 6th decade. I don’t hear as well as 40 years ago. I tend to confuse some Papiamentu words with the basic Spanish equivalents that I’ve absorbed along the backroads of Mexico. I am certainly the oldest crayon in the box and show quite a few more cracks and wrinkles than anyone else in our open-air classroom. But hey, I am having a blast, learning a few things and enjoying the day. I can’t ask for more. And as they say in Papiamenu, poco poco, little by little I am learning the language.