Sunday, October 22, 2017

ship of tongues

Transatlantic cruses are like riding the Circle Line on the London Underground. You never know what language the people standing next to you are going to speak.

Because the ship departed from Denmark, the guttural tones of Scandinavian and Germanic languages abound. Along with almost every permutation of English. Romance languages, sprinkled here and there, act as the herbs and spices for this linguistic olio.

Each morning I take my 6-mile walk on the promenade deck. Most of my walking habits have been formed in Mexico. When I go into Daniel Suarez mode and overtake slower walkers, I request permission to pass ("con permiso").

On the ship. my request is met with Nordic stares. My subsequent "gracias" does nothing to bridge the gap.

Except one time. I whisked past a smartly-dressed strolling couple with my traditional "con permiso". Instead of an American stare, my request initiated a torrent of Hispanic cordiality.

I slowed down only long enough to establish that we all lived in the same country. I then sped down the deck with my Colombian "con mucho gusto."

Here are are three tongue tales. All at sea. And just for you.

Story number one. I was standing in line at the Guest Services desk to recover my lost reporter's notebook -- the same notebook on which I am now recording this tale. I started flirting with a girl in line. It did not bother me that she was at most two years old and was in a stroller guarded by her father.

I took a gamble from the dad's features that Spanish might be his primary language. I was wrong. He was from Brazil, and my Portuguese is almost non-existent. But he knew enough Spanish that we were able to patch together a decent conversation about the basic things two guys discuss when they chat. Starting with his daughter.

This is not the first time that Spanish has come to my rescue when I encountered a language where I was clueless. I had a similar experience with Portuguese earlier this year on my Australia trip (on the road with duolingo).

My second story involves Spanish. I stopped by one of the many trivia games on the ship knowing full well I was unequipped for the task. The category was television theme songs. I had as much chance of winning as Congress has of enacting tax reform.

And I was correct. Out of twenty questions, I got one correct. Cheers. And I knew that only because my friends Ken and Patti Latsch regularly watched it when I would stay with them during my Air Force reserve assignments.

The game host is also the DJ at the ship's disco, and he is well-suited to the task. Cool. Good-looking. Humorous.

I could tell he was from Latin America. Something about his accent in English. It turns out, it is not just Latin America, but Mexico. Originally a Chilango, he has made his living making certain visitors to Mexico's tourist pots enjoy everything Mexico has to offer.

Prior to joining the ship, his last venue was Cancun. When he leaves the ship, he is thinking of scouring Mexico's west coast for a job where he can bring joy to visitors.

I wanted to speak in Spanish. He wanted to speak in English. So, that is what we did -- with him correcting my Spanish along the way.

His name is Jorge. Who knows? He may even make a guest appearance in a future episode of Mexpatriate. But, he already has, hasn't he?

Story number three does not involve Spanish. Perhaps, it should have.

Most of us in our group have been eating lunches at the buffet. The food is just as good, and the service is certainly faster when you fetch your own vittles.

But, one member is very fond of the dining room. So, all five of us shuffled into one of the ship's many dining rooms at noon.

I did not find anything interesting on the menu. I am not very fond of hamburgers, but there was a hamburger listed with a beef patty topped by pulled pork.

Being a resourceful guy, I asked the waiter if the kitchen could hold the patty and serve the sandwich with just the pulled pork. He said he thought it was possible. I could not imagine what difficulty would arise. After all, it was the same sandwich. Just without the beef patty.

It turns out that even though the Filipino waiter spoke English, my request must have got lost in the translation. What arrived is pictured at the top of this essay. The sandwich -- without any meat whatsoever. No beef. No pork.

My friend Gary runs two restaurants in San Patricio. He tells his waiters they are the last line of defense before food gets to the table. If it does not look right, it should not be put in front of a customer.

In all fairness, my waiter on the ship has undoubtedly faced a number of very odd requests -- according to his palate and eyes. So, he may not have given any thought that the sandwich he served would have made even a vegetarian wince.

There was a time when most Filipinos could speak Spanish -- a remnant of the days when Spain was the colonial master of The Philippines. But, Filipinos tell me that day has passed. The most common second language is English. And that is one reason there are so many Filipinos on cruise ships.

It turns out my waiter speaks no Spanish. Not even my Duolingo-limited version of the language could have helped out with the meal.

But the common thread in all of these stories is that there is always the possibility of communication dividends by learning a second language. Out of necessity, most Europeans know two or more languages in addition to their native tongue.

For me, I will have to be satisfied with learning Spanish bit by bit. All of the other languages I have either dabbled in or once knew (German, Russian, Greek, Italian) have all, in the words of Billy Collins, retired "to the southern hemisphere of the brain,/ to a little fishing village where there is no phone."

Unless, of course. I need to one day discuss Hegel with Vladimir Putin while visiting Mykonos with Sophia Loren.

No comments: