Friday, November 24, 2017

a piece of my tongue

I knew something was amiss.

The tall northerner was standing at the check stand in one of our small groceries in Barra de Navidad. The look on his face was not one of ease.

I had followed a former Mexican neighbor into the store. He once ran a small refreshment stand just around the corner from my house, but he had closed that operation months ago. I was interested in discovering what he had been doing.

So, we chatted. He in his halting English. Me in my sporadic Spanish. But it worked. I now know why he closed and where he is living in town.

As I was leaving I saw the guy at the checkout stand. As far as I know, we had never met. That did not stop him from asking me for help.

This was his first visit to our part of Mexico, and he was concerned because he did not know how much money the owner wanted. I asked the owner who then showed the amount on the calculator that had been in full sight during the exchange.

The first-time tourist then told me something I found quite surprising. “My friends told me that everyone speaks English here.”

”Well, you have been misinformed. Some people here do speak English, but not very many.”

I told this story to a Canadian friend who runs a service-oriented business locally. In my re-telling of the tale, I opined that I was surprised that the tourist was not able to speak enough Spanish to buy a bag of oranges.

My friend disagreed. “If a country invites foreigners to their country, the country should see to it that they can communicate with their guests. Guests should be made to feel comfortable.”

I disagreed. But for a very specific reason -- the underlying assumption of the statement. I do not travel to find comfort. I travel to learn. And if the learning makes me uncomfortable, all the better. After all, I did not move to Mexico to be comfortable.

And, in that, I am a first-class hypocrite.

My Spanish has improved markedly since I moved down here. But it is a circumstantial improvement. I will stumble through Spanish as long as there are no northerners in ear-shot. I do not know why that condition is so controlling. But I have some theories.

I do know, though, that my Spanish has hit a plateau. Last week I decided to start another class. For intermediate speakers. And with only one other class member. It sounded like a perfect mix.

So, I showed up last Thursday ready to learn. My fellow class member was going to be late. That would give the teacher and me an opportunity to evaluate where I was.

She had written ten sentences in English on butcher paper. I do not remember what the sentence was, but it was one of those intermediate speaker sentences in the preterite.

She asked me to translate it into Spanish. The full answer flashed into my head. And disappeared just as fast. Not only could I not translate the sentence, I was uncertain what the English word “onion” meant.

The day did not improve. For an hour and a half I proved that Casey at Bat could be more than just one bad swing.

So, I called the mission. No more classes. Not for now. Not until I can figure out why I freeze up in class. Or in the presence of northerners when speaking Spanish.

Instead, I will take what I know and try try to learn from my Mexican neighbors and friends through conversation. And to improve my vocabulary using DuoLingo.

At least I can buy my own huevos.

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