The last time I spent more than a couple of weeks in a foreign country I was in my early 20s and backpacking around Europe—I didn’t spend too much time in any one country, so only had to pick up enough of each language to ask for a room and to navigate the trains and metro systems. Knowing enough of a language to actually live in a country is another matter entirely—it didn’t take us long to feel like we had no idea what was going on most of the time we were in Mexico.
We picked up a few cultural nuances easily. For example, I learned to say “Buenos dias” in the morning as we encountered local folks, and at some point I noticed that many Mexicans would either greet me or reply to my greeting with a shortened version: “Buen dee-UH (instead of Buen-O dee-AHH-sss).”
So, I started greeting folks with the shortened version. It sounded friendlier, more akin to a “Mornin!” than the more formal, and let’s face it, mouthful, “Good Morning!” And for the most part, I got the same thing back, and no one seemed to care. Until one morning as I was out for a short run, I panted a quick “buen dee-UH” and what came back to me was a very precisely annunciated and less-than-friendly “BUEnos Di-AH-sss.” I felt slightly reprimanded and not a little confused. Had I violated a cultural norm? Was I being inadvertently rude? I just didn’t know.
Somehow, I managed to graduate from high school and college (with three degrees) and still not have a mastery of any language but English (in my defense, I can parse the hell out of any sentence in English). I finished high school with a single quarter of Spanish, taught by an extremely Nordic woman (it was an unaccredited Christian church-affiliated school, so I kind of give them props for even trying). Still. Somehow, I managed to get into and back out of college without nary a drop of further language education. It’s no one’s fault but mine, but it’s not like I skirted any requirements. There weren’t any. And the younger version of me was very committed to coasting as painlessly as possible through my degree.
Even so, as a tourist, I’ve never expected folks from the countries I visit to speak English, and, I try my best to communicate with the rudimentary skills I have, often leading to unintentionally comic results. Like the time I felt fluent enough in the little Spanish I had picked up during one short trip to announce to a roadside seller of coco frio, “Mi papas casa es in Mexico.” He handed me my coconut with the straw poking out from it with a puzzled look.
Only later did I realize I’d told him that my potato’s house was in Mexico. No wonder he looked confused! There’s something about being in the moment while a local is awaiting a response–the pressure builds and even if we’ve studied intensely beforehand, whatever we know leaves. That’s what happened to my pal who came to visit. She faithfully listened to and practiced a Spanish lesson every day for weeks before she came to visit. And still I ended up interpreting for her most of the time. Me!
It’s one thing to navigate the market and menus, ordering and paying, conducting basic transactions, but quite another to understand a response in Spanish to any sort of question I might ask. And forget about understanding why things are happening, like why the brand-new bus station is roped off and the buses all stop at the Pemex station instead or why the cops look like The Militia and often, but not always, take the license plates off the buses.
Why do Mexican drivers pass on blind corners or use their flashers so often? Why don’t any of the restaurants on the beach stay open past dark? Why, exactly, can’t we drink the water? Where in god’s name do I buy a ream of printer paper and how am I going to act out printer paper and do you think anyone will understand if I pantomime typing?
On my first attempt to procure distilled water for a visitor’s CPAP machine, I thought I had used enough accurate hand gestures and replicated what Google Translate gave me sufficiently to indicate to the farmacéutica what I needed, but when I got home I discovered I had ended up with a bottle of sodium chloride. Just the opposite of agua purificada.
Yes, Google Translate helps, but not always. I can ask for a haircut using Google Translate, and I can show the barber a picture of myself with what I would like, but once the barbero puts the cape on me and picks up the clippers, I have to surrender. I got two haircuts in Mexico. More on that later, in H is for Haircut.
I can’t imagine learning another language sufficiently enough to express the nuances of a haircut or well enough to banter with the barber like I would chat with my hair stylist at home. It’s a deeper sort of awkwardness. I’ve become somewhat accustomed to being away from home and the disorientation that often accompanies waking up in different towns, states, campgrounds, and driveways, but say what you will about these United States, it is very good to be back on familiar ground.