Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Adventures in Spanish

Around the time Mr. Kate and I were preparing to leave for Togo, my beautiful, newly-engaged sister was preparing her trip to drive her VW Bus from the US down through South America with her fiance. Along the way, she decided, she would stop and get married in Costa Rica, and we would all meet her there. The whole family was thrilled! For several weeks before the trip Mr. Kate asked me if I would like to borrow a Spanish grammar book, or even go over the basics with him. "No, no, I've got it," I reassured him.

This is how my sister rolls.
I grew up in Arizona, learning occasional Spanish words in school. My first job was in a restaurant, where the cooks spoke limited English, so we communicated through gestures, the few words I had learned in high school and the vulgar words they had taught me. As a teenager, I was able to fine tune my Spanish abilities by listening to my stepmothers' conversations with her family--which were inevitably in Spanish-- and about us kids. Nothing promotes learning quite as well as piqued interest... And during college I took 2 semesters of Spanish, thankful for the easy A when faced with a heavy course-load of molecular biology courses. With all that experience I  assured myself I would be fine-- of course I knew enough Spanish!

My self delusion was quickly extinguished after my first interactions in Spanish.

At the airport, upon realizing my seat was a middle seat, I approached the gate desk to ask about alternatives.
"¿Habla usted espanol?" The gate attendant asked me.
"Oui," I responded.
He looked at me.
"OH! Oh oh! Si! I mean Si!" I quickly recovered.
"¿A donde vas?" 
"Je vais au.... er.... Yo... can we just do this in English?" I pleaded. 
I realized, in that moment, that any Spanish that had ever been in my head had been fully replaced by French. And that, maybe, in this one instance, Mr. Kate had been a little right to suggest a Spanish review. 

As I prepared to board the plane I gave myself a pep talk. "It's okay, we just need to think before we talk," I consoled myself, while also referring to myself in the the plural. It's fancier that way. 

My next task would not be so easy. 

On the plane a small girl sat behind me. Halfway through the flight (which was, by the way, my 6th flight), the small girl started kicking the back of my seat. At first I ignored it. Then, as the kicking continued, I turned around and tried to make eye contact with her mother, hoping to avoid the awkwardness of dealing with this myself. Her mother was asleep. "Okay," I prepped myself, "what Spanish do we know to deal with this situation?"

This is what flashed through my mind:

After gathering my thoughts and preparing my statement. I rose up in my seat, turned around and looked down at the child sitting behind me. She slumped down in her seat and stared up at in me in horror. "Alto con zapatos aqui!" I said, pointing at the back of my seat. "No bueno!" I added for good measure.  

I've since learned that what I said was a bunch of gibberish and there is no way the kid understood what I was saying, but the kicking stopped. Possibly due to the scary, crazy, haggard look in my eyes, but either way, I accomplished my goal. 
And this is how it went. The first few days in Costa Rica I communicated with people through simple words and gestures. I used Google translate a lot to find my way around. This involved driving for hours in the (semi) correct direction, finding an internet cafe (o soda), Google translating, and screaming the translation at every passerby until someone stopped to help. Totally works.

  My crowning moment of communication achievement came 3 days into my trip. 

I stopped a taxi, stated my destination and exchanged a few numbers until we came to an agreed-upon price. I took my place in the passenger seat and the taxi driver asked how I was. Good, I responded, and testing the outermost boundaries of my Spanish, I returned the question. Muy bien!, he said, followed by a whole bunch of words I didn't understand. "Oh no," I said, "English?" I asked, hopefully. Nope, no English. "Francais?" I figured it wouldn't hurt to ask, although I already knew the answer. No, no Francais. We tried several more minutes to use simple words to communicate salutations and niceties and then fell silent. Then he yelled a few words which I understood to be angry about the traffic, given my propensity to remember swear words in other languages (a skill which gets more useful with every passing year). After that, the silence was awkward, we were obviously both born chatterers. 

Suddenly, he turned the radio up. We both got excited. It was MICHAEL! We started dancing. We jammed. We got to the chorus: "I'm starting with the man in the mirror," we both sang simultaneously. We looked at each other and grinned. "I'm asking him to chaaaange his waaaays!" Oh my god! Communication! We were BOTH starting with the man in the mirror!! We were both asking him to chaaaange his waaaaays! Then both hung our heads and jammed in silence for the next verse because it was incomprehensible and neither of us knew the words, which made us laugh even harder. 

For the grande finale, we both looked up, out the windshield and then back at each other: " and no matter blab bla bla bla bla bla bla blah," we lip-synced, building up confidence, "if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at your self and make a.... CHAAAAAANGE!!

We erupted in laughter! We hooted, high-fived each other and yelled song lyrics out the window the rest of the way to my destination. As I exited the car I poked my head back in and invited him and his wife to come visit me in America sometime and he invited me to dinner the next night (or at least that's what I understood).

It was then that I realized, as I was walking away: it doesn't matter what language you speak-- as long as you are fluent in Michael Jackson.  


1 comment:

  1. lol, great post. i default to spanish every time i try to speak russian. needless to say, it doesn't work.