Yo Hablo . . . Kinda
2003-08-28 - 9:00 a.m.
So, in the first of what will no doubt be many dark, shameful, tearful confessions on this website, I would like to admit the following: I'm nowhere near as fluent in Spanish as I pretend to be.
Excuse me, I need a moment . . . okay.
I wish my Spanish were perfect. It's so, so not. My grammar is shoddy (I view the subjunctive with the same terrified awe that I reserve for mountain climbing) and my vocabulary has holes in it. My biggest problem is definitely the gender of nouns. Now, I'm bad enough with gender as is. After two years of intense study of gender theory in college I no longer know which sex is up. Granted, I like it that way. I like not assigning gender to things. I like letting people tell me what gender they prefer to be called, if any, and I love questioning people about what their gender means to them. It makes things interesting. Is it so wrong?
The problem is that in Spanish, as in French, Italian, and other romance languages, you don't just assign gender to people. You assign gender to everything. Hands are female. Eyes are male. Day is male. Night is female. Baseballs are female. Basketballs are male. Some people think this is pretty. I think it's damn annoying. It is by far the most annoying thing about the Spanish language. Imagine doing this in english. "The cup, she is blue. The sun, he is bright. Your dick, she is a lot smaller than I was hoping."
You'd sound like you were walking through Mr. Rogers' neighborhood or something. Well, except for that last part.
My Spanish should be perfect. I'm a Mexican, for God's sake! Both my parents speak Spanish. All my grandparents spoke Spanish. The vast majority of my relatives speak Spanish. I should be able to go grab my autographed copy of Doce Cuentos Peregrinos by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and be able to enjoy his gorgeous prose in its original form. Instead, I practice my Spanish with Harry Potter y La Piedra Filosofal. And in case you didn't notice, the stone, she is the philosopher's.
I bring this all up because I had the occassion to use my Spanish this week not once, but twice, in the honorable, one-way ticket to heaven earning task of helping the elderly. The first time was on my way to Philadelphia, when I was standing in line at Au Bon Pain in the Dallas airport to have me a mozzarella, tomato, and pesto sandwich. In front of me was an old man, whom I had guessed to be Cuban. He was apparently having some problems with his order of coffee. He didn't speak a word of English. The women at the counter didn't know any Spanish. Now, I could understand this in the case of the woman who evidently came from South Asia, and from the woman who had a beautiful, mellifluous accent that suggested she was from the Carribean, but I was surprised that the manager, with her big blonde hair and deep Texas accent, hadn't at least picked up a little Spanish. Almost everyone in Texas learnes the basics, and "cafe" and "grande" are words anyone who's ever been within fifteen feet of a Starbucks knows. So I decided to step in for a second and help this guy out.
In a perfect world, he would have said the following, translated from the Spanish: "I ordered a small coffee, but the coffee they've given me is too big. I only want half as much coffee, and for that matter, I only want to pay for half that much coffee. Is there a smaller size, or will I have to pay for this one?" I like to think I would have gotten all that. However, by the time Translator Boy had arrived on the scene, the conversation on both sides had deteriorated to that one word exchange commonly found in Beckett plays and nursery schools:
Blonde Woman: What?
South Asian Woman: Smaller?
Him: La mitad!
Carribean Woman: Espresso?!
Okay, he didn't say chinga. I just wish he had.
So even I was having a hard time understanding, because when "I would like a smaller size, this is bigger than what I want" has been reduced to "I want smaller. Bigger!" it's hard for anyone to understand. Add to that the Carribean woman's instance that what this man REALLY wanted was an espresso--even though it was the one word that automatically translated (being an Italian word whether you speak English or Spanish) and the man kept shaking his head whenever she mentioned it--and I was relieved when they finally brought out their cook, fluent in Spanish and English, to relieve me.
This got me thinking that airports should make more of an effort to employ bilingual staff, and even to have numerous translators on duty at all hours of operation. This was proven all too true to me on the way back from Philadelphia, when I wound up next to a woman from El Salvador as I was getting my ticket. Again, it was an instance of her not speaking any English and the desk attendent not speaking any Spanish. Tranlator Boy to the rescue, once again. This time, the case was more serious. The woman had apparently changed her departure date in order to attend a funeral. It was my duty as Translator Boy to communicate to the desk attendent on behalf of the passenger that her son had already sorted everything out for her, and to communicate to the passenger that the fee had neither been paid nor waived, and that in order to waive the fee it had to be an immediate family member. I decided not to bother explaining to the desk attendant that if you're Latino, all family is immediate. Or heading towards you at breakneck speeds. Anyway, this time I actually managed to work it out. The death in question had been the woman's daughter in law's brother, which didn't count for bereavement waiver for international flights. The woman was okay with this, and both she and the desk attendant was very grateful.
Not grateful enough to, I don't know, upgrade me to first class, though. Dammit.
At least I got to go through the airport knowing I had enough Spanish to do my good deed for the day, and do it decently this time. And I finally get to write an entry that isn't about something that annoys me! Woo-hoo! The heart, he is content.0 comments so far The End - 2005-02-11
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