“This child,” my grandmother announces, “cannot say her r’s. She sounds like she’s speaking French.” My mother and my aunts nod in agreement. I am three years old, and I haven’t yet mastered the apical-alveolar trill that is the correct way to pronounce the letter r in Catalan and in Spanish. Instead, no matter how hard I try, all I can produce is a French-sounding guttural r.
Far from feeling criticized, I interpret my speech problem as another aspect of my uniqueness—something for the women of the family to shake their heads over—like my ungovernable hair. Still, I want to achieve that elusive trill, just as I want to learn to tie my shoes and ride a bike. But for now all I can manage is a strangled “ggggg.”
And then one summer afternoon, while the adults are napping, I lie in bed muttering test words, turrons, correu, ferrer, and suddenly there it is, like a burst of fireworks in my mouth, the apical-alveolar trill. I run out of the room, bellowing, “I said the r!” Except for my uncle, who was up all night with a farrowing sow, the entire family emerges from their rooms to applaud me. I practice all the rest of the day (carro, carrossa, ferrocarril), until my grandfather assures me that my r’s will be with me forever, and begs me to give it a rest.
Another summer, a few years later. I have been given a bicycle. My father and my uncle take turns teaching me to ride, but I keep veering away from them and falling off. I am so disgusted by my failure that I announce that I am not interested in riding, and hate the very sight of my bike. Shaking his head in disbelief (what child doesn’t want to ride a bike?), my uncle puts the bike in the barn and the lessons end.
A few weeks later, a couple of kids, year-round city dwellers, come to visit. They cannot believe their luck when they learn that there is a bike on the premises, and country roads on which to ride it. They spend the afternoon taking turns on the bike while I watch. “Don’t you want a turn ?” they ask me. “Sure,” I say, feigning indifference. And I get on the bike and pedal confidently down the road without a single swerve. That night, at dinner, the family raises a toast to my success.
Another summer, this one in Quito, Ecuador. I am twelve, and have just finished a disastrous course of swimming lessons at which I have failed to master even the dog paddle. In fact, during the final exam I sank to the bottom of the pool and had to be rescued by the instructor, Señor Padilla. Nobody can understand what my problem is.
Now I am with my parents in a resort south of the city. While they chat with friends over drinks, I am left on my own in the pool. Staring up at the clear blue Andean sky, not thinking of anything, I flip onto my back, float, and am inspired to move my arms and legs—and there it is, the backstroke! I flip over and do the crawl to the shallow end, then cross again with the breast stroke, the side stroke, and even the butterfly.
That same summer marks another milestone: I learn to tell time. How does the only child of attentive parents reach puberty without knowing how to tell time? In my defense, I should mention that Spanish and Catalan differ slightly in the way they express the quarter hours. True, millions of Catalan/Spanish bilingual kids have been telling time accurately since age six, but it was clearly too much for me.
And here is another thing that took me a long time to master: the alphabet. The aunt who taught me to read when I was three taught me the letter sounds, but thought the alphabet irrelevant. As a result, I didn’t figure out alphabetical order until graduate school, when I got tired of wandering through the library stacks with no idea whether books by Colette came before or after those by Proust.
As for the present, what overdue miracle am I looking forward to? After years of meditation, I’m hoping that enlightenment will soon burst in upon me with the brilliance of the alveolar trill, and all will be well at last.