is that it's like having a little radio receiver activated in your head that can pick up signals that had always registered as white noise before. You forget it's on, and sometimes it's quiet because there's nothing to pick up, but then you pick up a signal and you realize that you're tuned into a whole new world.
For example, right now I'm watching Strictly Ballroom while blogging, wrapping Christmas presents and unloading the dishwasher. In other words, I'm not really watching; more listening to the story (a melodramatic comedy about Australian ballroom dancers) in the background. At one point during the story, our hero goes to his dance partner's house, where everyone speaks some other language and dances fancy steps. When I first saw this movie, I relied on the subtitles to follow the conversation. But tonight, all of a sudden, I realized we were in the middle of that part -- and I'd been following it all along, without even realizing it, because it's all in Spanish.
It's the same feeling I had when I first got back from Guatemala in 2008. I'd walk through the grocery store, or pass a construction site, or ride the metro and discover that a whole world of background noise had become intelligible and real to me in a way it hadn't been before.
With French, I gained access to a new cultural universe -- but in the U.S., where no one speaks French, radio moments like this don't happen; my French universe is one of literature and film and art, not real life. Spanish, on the other hand, gives me access to a more visceral, real-life culture that surrounds me every day. It's a different sort of richness but no less wonderful.