La Reina del Sur (and learning Spanish)

la reina del sur cover

Crime! Intrigue! International travel! No, that’s not a description of  life in Boquete, not ours anyway!  It’s a description of my latest tool in learning Spanish — La Reina del Sur, a completely addictive Spanish telenovela.

First, let me say that I began this phase of my Spanish education hesitantly. Although common wisdom has it that watching TV is a good way to learn the language, I didn’t think it would be very fun. And, I was  more than a little skeptical that it would really help. The idea that being exposed to a torrent of sounds strung together so fast I sometimes can’t tell if it’s one word or 10 would increase my comprehension — honestly – the jury is still out on that.

But guess what?  Now I don’t care!! Between the  rapidly spoken dialogue, action packed scenes, and Spanish subtitles, I’m probably getting 80-90% of what’s going on, which has me on the edge of my seat the entire 40 minutes.  And with Netflix, it’s really hard not to “binge watch”, one episode after another!

I’ve also learned that I’m not the only one to find it addictive!  During its run on Telemundo in the US, it was one of the most popular shows in ANY language. In fact, according to Wilkipedia, the series finale beat ALL of the  U.S. television networks (English language!) to earn the number one  position in its time slot for the 18-49 adult demographic.  (For the record, I still have another few months of being in that demographic! 🙂 )

One of the reasons for the success of La Reina del Sur has to be that it’s more like a thriller by Baldacci or Berry than the American soap opera that I believed it would be. It starts with a bang, and just keeps on going. And, instead of continuing for decades, the way an American soap opera does, the telenovela genre is more like an extended mini series, written with the end in mind. There are generally 100 or so episodes per series, and much to the relief of all of those who watch during the original runs, there’s usually more than one episode a week.

This particular sub genre (“Narco Novela”) isn’t at all wholesome, but with beautiful people, exotic locales and non-stop action, watching it falls under the category of an exciting and fun guilty pleasure. And if I happen to pick up a little more Spanish in the process — yay!


On a continuous basis, here in Boquete, there seems to be a significant amount of debate among expatriates about the necessity of learning Spanish.  Valerie and I have some disagreement about this but I estimate that about 25% of foreigners here do speak a reasonable level of conversational Spanish. (Valerie estimates the number to be closer to 10%.)

Congratulations, Valerie!

Congratulations, Valerie!

There seems to be little doubt that you can survive in Boquete with minimal Spanish skills but it certainly does limit your ability to become immersed in the culture.  It also severely hampers your ability to negotiate, problem solve and generally appreciate small talk with the locals.

Valerie’s determination has amazed me on several occasions.  Over the last two years I have learned many words and most numbers.  This comes in handy when I do the grocery shopping.  However, when it comes to dealing with the phone and cable companies, landlords, taxi drivers, etc. I am way out of the game.

On the other hand, Valerie uses these opportunities to speak and, even more impressively, listen in order reach a successful conclusion and also improve her skills. It’s not always easy but the satisfaction she achieves, and the appreciation that the locals show, is quite apparent.   I am frequently surprised when Valerie comes home from a trip to town and tells me about conversations she had  in Spanish with a potential landlord,  new gym owner, or the souvenir vendor we pass daily.  While she downplays it, and assures me that her end of the conversation was stilted and rudimentary, I can’t help but be impressed.

Focus,focus, focus!

Focus,focus, focus!

The view from Valerie's Spanish school in Granada.

The view from Valerie’s Spanish school in Granada.

Her progress is further evidenced by the several long-term expats that have asked her to take the lead in Spanish conversations on their behalf.  However, I believe that the greatest joy Valerie receives is on those frequent occasions when we are walking down the street and we are encountered by families taking their young children for a stroll.

The delight seen in the eyes of the children and parents alike when this woman, who looks quite different from them, initiates a conversation in their native language is priceless. We never depart those encounters without broad smiles on everyone’s face!

So, without a doubt Valerie has made, and continues to make, a remarkable amount of progress in her learning of the Spanish language.  Her proficiency will continue to improve as she further immerses herself into Central American culture and enrolls in additional courses.  I am sure that her quest to master Spanish will also hit some significant bumps along the road.

However, I am afraid her biggest challenge will not be related to her own mastering of the language. No, the ultimate challenge will lie in her attempt to teach me to become more proficient in the language that she has quickly come to thoroughly enjoy.  I can’t think of anything more daunting than quizzing me on the conjugating of verbs during a two-mile walk home from the gym.

Luckily for me she appears to be up to the task!  But, am I?

Habla Ya, the Spanish school in downtown Boquete

Habla Ya, the Spanish school in downtown Boquete