Tag Archives: total-immersion language learning

When Life Hands You Lemons, Bring on the Lemonade

Sūsana and I spent this spring and summer preparing for 27 months of Peace Corps service in Tonga. We shopped for luggage, clothes and supplies. It consumed our thoughts and actions most days. We tied up loose ends as we looked forward to making a difference in a beautiful part of the world.

I retired from American Airlines in March, the same day Sūsana returned from eight months of Peace Corps Response service in El Salvador. I picked her up in Miami after working my last shift and we celebrated with steak, grilled asparagus and chocolate cake at a favorite restaurant.

Susana teaching butterfly biology in El Salvador during her service with Peace Corps Response. Click on this photo to read about her experience.

Susana teaching butterfly biology in El Salvador during her service with Peace Corps Response. Click on this photo to read about her experience.

Renting a car in Salt Lake City in April, we traveled 6,000 miles through eight western states, taking two months to visit family and friends, many of whom we had not seen in decades.

In June, we sorted through personal belongings and consolidated everything into 75 square feet of climate-controlled storage.

By July, we had traveled to Spain, one of our favorite destinations, to participate in a week of Pueblo Inglés, a total-immersion English program for Spaniards with intermediate and advanced language skills.

Hotel Doña Teresa in La Alberca, Spain, our favorite Pueblo Inglés venue.

Hotel Doña Teresa in La Alberca, Spain, our favorite Pueblo Inglés venue. Click on this photo to read about volunteer opportunities at Pueblo Inglés • Credit: Diverbo

Later that month found us house-sitting in Costa Rica on a lush 26-acre estate in the Orosi Valley, taking care of four parrots, chasing blue morpho butterflies along the cascading Rio Negro and enjoying the ¡Pura vida! lifestyle.

Then our Peace Corps plans crashed and burned. Word from Washington arrived the last day of July that I was not medically cleared for Peace Corps service. I appealed and lost.

Over the next six weeks, I continued to importune Peace Corps to allow me to accompany Sūsana to Tonga. Multiple positive medical opinions from my long-time physician failed to change their minds. By mid-September, with our Peace Corps group already two weeks into pre-service training, it became clear that Peace Corps service wasn’t going to happen.

What do you do when life hands you lemons? You squeeze them, add a little sugar and make lemonade, of course. That’s just what we did.

We bought tickets to Tonga to create our own adventure. We arrived in early October and have spent the past month falling in love with this place.

Turquoise Wave at Blow Holes

A turquoise wave crashing ashore at Tonga’s Blow Holes near Houma on the main island of Tongatapu.

Tonga is tranquil. Tonga is peaceful. Tonga is the epitome of relaxation with tropical breezes and Polynesian sunsets, a different masterpiece in pastels each evening with the melodious call of wattled honeyeaters in the bush as twilight falls on the kingdom.

Tonga is its people. They’re friendly. They’re polite. They laugh heartily. They sing into the night in multi-part harmonies.

Tongan landlady and her granddaughter

Our Tongan landlady and her granddaughter dressed in Sunday best.

There’s a church across an open field from our house, perhaps a quarter-mile away. We hear the choir practicing every Saturday night as we play cards on our front porch. They sing Sunday mornings and during Sunday afternoon services. Most Wednesday evenings they are back at it, filling our world with angelic praises.

Two doors down from us, a group of Tongan visitors from New Zealand laughed and sang into the early morning hours as we fell asleep a few nights ago. Far from being disturbed by their merry-making, we were lulled once again by the rhythms of Tongan life.

Our future in Tonga is starting to take shape. Last week, Sūsana was appointed senior information and communications technology (ICT) teacher at Ocean of Light International Schools. She starts her two-year contract in January.

Ocean of Light International Schools

Ocean of Light International Schools in Nuku‘alofa, Tonga. Click on this photo to read more about the school. • Credit: Ocean of Light International Schools

Ocean of Light is the premier K-12 school in Tonga and the only one in the kingdom with an international curriculum. Plantations of coconut, papaya and breadfruit surround the peaceful campus three kilometers (1.9 miles) west of Nuku‘alofa, Tonga’s capital. I’ve signed an agreement to volunteer at the school on a regular basis. We’ve applied for employment visas in Tonga to make our residency official.

So, we’re creating our own Peace Corps-like adventure in Tonga. We will still make a difference in this beautiful part of the world. Had we come here with Peace Corps, we would have been assigned a site and told where to live. We would have been restricted in our movements and transportation options. We would have had pages of rules to follow. For us, it’s better this way.

Life’s lemons are indeed a gift. Squeeze vigorously. Sugar abundantly. Sip, savor and smile.

Tongan Stature, Perfect Timing and the Sweet Symphony of Life

Like the recurring themes of a symphony, life has a way of reprising melodies, descants and rhythms in later movements. Thirty five years ago today, Sūsana and I met and, for me, it was love-at-first-sight. For her, it took a while longer.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra • Credit: VSO

But, stop the orchestra! I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s rewind this tune back 12 days.

One cold evening in late January, I saw her at the time clock of the language school where we both taught. It was easy to tell that she was on the Spanish faculty like me because her name tag sported a red background. So mesmerized by Sūsana and so delighted that we both spoke Spanish, I forgot to actually read her name. After exchanging hellos in passing, I also failed to find her timecard among the hundreds in the rack.

Her smile was intoxicating and I realized moments after she left that this was the same lady who had playfully winked at me days earlier in the corridor. She claims that she winked at all the male teachers. I’ve never believed it for a minute and maintain that her wink was just for me–that one, at least.

Thus began the most agonizing 12 days of my existence. For nearly two weeks I actively watched for this mystery co-ed on campus, at work, while shopping–anywhere and everywhere–with no success. She was driving me crazy!

It turned out that she normally taught during the day, but on that one occasion she had exchanged shifts with an evening instructor. So our paths didn’t cross again until the 12th of February.

Sweet relief came during a linguistics class, specifically devised for us total-immersion language teachers, watching Professor Taylor draw his lecture on a transparency sitting  on the illuminated glass of an overhead projector. (Google “overhead projector.” The way we measure time with technological advances, it was eons ago.) Classroom lights were dimmed during his presentation.

Overhead Projector

Overhead Projector • Credit: Wikipedia Commons

When the lights came back on, there she was, sitting just a few seats away and one row back. She wasn’t there before, so she must have arrived late to class. But, there she was now and that’s all that mattered.

I don’t recall anything that transpired in class after that moment. All my academic fervor was directed toward devising a strategy of getting to the door before she did, so that I could casually greet her after class. I didn’t want anyone in the room to buttonhole me while she escaped again, so I had to be strategically placed.

She was not going to get away that night without me discovering her name. Anything we happened to say to each other after that would be icing on the cake.

Class ended. I worked my plan and positioned myself in the hallway, then waited. She finally walked through the door. I smiled, said hello and we stood and talked for perhaps ten minutes in spite of the fact that her “boyfriend” was at her elbow and wouldn’t take her hints that he could, “Go on to class,” and that she would be along shortly.

I didn’t care! Boyfriend or no boyfriend, I had to know who this chick was so I could call her later and ask her out.

Finally, I got her name and, as I started to breathe easier with my mission accomplished, our small talk rambled into medium-sized talk, then into Tongan-sized talk.

Yes, it’s true! In that first conversation one of us brought up the naturally large stature of Tongans (you really can’t make this stuff up) and we chewed that fat for a while.

Queen Sālote of Tonga

H.M. Queen Sālote Mafile‘o Pilolevu Tupou III, who reigned as Tonga’s elegant sovereign from 1918 to 1965, stood a stately 6-feet 3-inches (1.91m) tall. Beloved of her people, Queen Sālote was also a renowned poet and song writer. Click on this photo to read more about Queen Sālote, including an example of her poetry in both English and Tongan. • Credit: State Library of Victoria

I located her listing later that evening in the student directory, called her up, asked her out and we had our first date that weekend. Only four months and two days passed from that first conversation about Tongans and such to the day on which we became Mr. and Mrs.

Our courtship was agile adagio and while we paced ourselves with mostly perfect meter toward the second movement, friends kept asking us what was taking so long.

So here we are, 35 years later, preparing to teach in Tonga, the land of our first discussion. Coincidence or serendipity? Cause or effect? Whimsey or just whatever? Or is it perhaps a recurring theme in the sweet symphony of life?

Ponder that thought and remember to hold the applause for last. Next movement’s about to start.