Friday, January 17, 2014


In some of my nightmares, I suddenly find myself in a strange country where I don't know the language or the customs very well, if at all. When I wake up, I remember that this could actually happen.

I am posting this from Santiago, Chile, while some man on the TV sings a commercial, "En Verano" (In the Summer) to the tune of the Village People's old hit, "In the Navy." My Chilean-born spouse and I are in a comfortable apartment (marketed to tourists through the internet) for ten days so that we could attend the Sixth World Summit on the Arts and Culture, which ended yesterday. (You don't want to see the full description in Spanish.) Spouse and I are on the 13th floor, which gives us a breathtaking view of mountains, earthquake-proof skyscrapers (so I've been told), and colonial Spanish architecture, baked in the sun of the Southern Hemisphere.

I can feel the envy from here. What does this post have to do with worry? What do I have to worry about?

Misunderstandings and embarrassment. Two days ago, Spouse sprained her ankle while climbing steep steps, so I had to go alone to the farmacia (pharmacy), then to the nearby mercado (supermarket) for breakfast groceries. I put some fruit in plastic bags and carried them to the checkout, where I was asked (I think) how much they weighed.

"No se" (I don't know), I mumbled.

The checkout girl had obviously had a sweaty, stressful day dealing with hordes of customers, no doubt including many ignorant foreigners staying in the apartments. "Pesarla!" (Weigh it!) she told me.

I sheepishly went back to the produce section, where I noticed a young man weighing bags of fruit and vegetables and putting stickers on them. I stood in line, got my stickers, returned to the checkout, then found the right amount of currency (a ten-thousand peso note), received my change, and brought my groceries back to my temporary home. I felt relieved and accomplished.

I bring a Spanish-English dictionary with me wherever I go, but it doesn't help much in the moment. Dictionary definitions don't explain real-life contexts. Being in a foreign country is like returning to childhood.

Despite all the attractions of this place, I look forward to going home to my familiar life in snowy Canada.


  1. I find a day in a foreign country, planning out every sentence, quite exhausting. Most of us go the route you did, Sacchi, with those little translation books. But it is awkward and time consuming to look up stuff. My first words will always be "Do you speak English?" If they don't, there's often someone around who does. If not, then out comes the book. Or I start pointing and making hand gestures. But be careful when in Italy. Hand gestures DO mean something there, and you could accidentally put someone off. ;>) Here's and old one:

    An American traveling in Italy buys something, and gives the merchant the thumbs-up gesture before leaving. The merchant says:

    "Do you know what that means in Italy?"

    The American says: "No".

    "Don't do that. It's no good."

    American says: "Thanks. I'll remember that," and makes the thumb-to-forefinger sign we use to say 'OK'.

    Merchant says: Maybe in Italy you keep you hands in you pockets."

  2. Since it's been snowing here in Chicagoland all day, with temps due to drop into the negatives again early next week, I think I'd gladly suffer a bit of embarrassment if I could be in a warm, sunny place for a while! And maybe if I HAD to use what little espaƱol that I know, it would become easier for me than repeating phrases and sounds to myself while slogging through the Rosetta Stone program.

  3. Fiona, I don't think there's any better way to learn a language than by being immersed in it. I've been surrounded by Spanish for days now, and a lot of words have come back to me, but I have trouble stringing them together and making them flow gracefully out of my mouth. As all my in-laws point out, tengo que aprenderlo (I have to learn it).

  4. In foreign countries, I tend to speak in one-word sentences.

  5. In Madrid, years ago I asked a waitress for una cerveza and she took me to the restroom. No, no, said I, perplexed and mimed throwing back a fistful. Oh, said she una thervetha! My Mexican Spanish pronunciation didn't work to well in Old Madrid.

  6. Being in a foreign country where you don't speak the language provides a potent reminder that we need to be patient with people who don't understand English.

    My first foreign trip was to Spain, with my closest girlfriend. I had taken one term of Spanish. She was fluent. We'd go to tapas bars and guys would try to chat us up (this was when I was in my early twenties). I found that because of my limited grammatical knowledge, I couldn't really express my ideas. And I had a light bulb realization that I must sound really stupid to the sexy gypsy was talking to, because my linguistic capabilities were so constrained.

    I try to remember that experience when I hear some foreigner murdering English and sounding illiterate.He or she might be astonishingly articulate in the native tongue.

  7. When I was in the retail business I often bought from wholesalers whose English skills were far from perfect, mostly people from Pakistan or India or Korea. If I dealt with them over a period of time I could hear their skills improve. I aways figured they were doing better than I was, since I couldn't speak their languages at all, and wasn't improving. Now that I'm retired, I'm afraid I'm even going downhill, since I find it hard to maintain the same respect for telemarketers calling from far away places and insisting, in terms close to incomprehensible, that they work for Microsoft and need to update my PC, which I do not have. I hate to admit it, but maybe those who say intolerance comes with advancing age are right.

  8. Sacchi, I think you are comparing apples and oranges. I resent telemarketers who try to sell me something in any language, esp. if I suspect there is something fruadulent in their sales pitch. I have much more sympathy for students of mine (in first-year university classes) who are struggling to write in English, even though they didn't grow up speaking it.
    For what it's worth, I sympathize, even though I have to maintain certain standards, so my sympathy doesn't guarantee them a passing grade. I'm sure the same will be true for me if I ever try to pass a university literature course in Spanish. (I wouldn't even consider it yet.)


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