In reading old posts, I came across this one from last year, and it is refreshing to see that I have made some progress from babbling idiot in a foreign tongue to, well, babbling idiot in a foreign tongue. Learning a language can be an adventure, often saturated with discouragement and humiliation. But it is always best perceived through a bit of humor.
* * *
“Your bag weighs a lot,” Marta said, adjusting her name tag and exhaling a bored breath.
“Ok. How much do I cost?” Xavi asked.
She smiled, looked down and punched a few keys on her computer. She had a blue and white scarf around her neck and her hair was pulled back impossibly tight. Xavi pulled out his wallet and waited for something highly frustrating to happen, as it often does in airports.
“Can I put it inside because it weighs 23 kilos?” he blurted.
She smiled even wider this time and said, “Normally, no. But this time…”
Marta was undoubtedly accustomed to floundering foreigners attempting to charm her out of Spanair’s standard baggage fees, but she was unprepared for someone so blatantly unaware of his own words. She smiled and seemed to appreciate the exchange, but with the same sympathy mixed with pity one feels when seeing a wiener dog stepping in its own crap while chasing its tail. Xavi walked away, proud of himself and the financial tragedy narrowly averted.
The above conversation, of course, is a direct translation of the type of astoundingly inadequate communication in Spanish that continues to occur in Xavi’s life, even one year on. Often he is not able to navigate a spontaneous but simple conversation, much less charm someone in a foreign language. Not yet, anyway. And his monologues are often so full of gaffes and innuendo (sexual, scatological or of unknown origin) that only his obvious ignorance has saved him from a slap, incarceration or a good ass-kicking.
One would think that after a year of living abroad, in a country not known for its English fluency, Xavi would have been forced to improve his second language skills, making mistakes with the subjunctive or having to ask for some political vocabulary. Complicating an order for ice cream, for example, is inexcusable, a simple procedure known by approximately 97% of the world’s population, even if they haven’t ever seen ice cream. But Xavi has a particular problem that spans the entire spectrum of human interaction, and lately, after some reflection, he is approaching a state of melancholy, an unacceptable situation of self-doubt.
Again, a short example with translation for your convenience:
“I’d like a vagina of coca, please. A large.” (In this case, Xavi has said “coño instead of cono, coca (cocaine, coca leaf…etc,,) instead of coco (coconut), and then tied it all together by asking for a big one).
Most often Xavi’s accidental oral attacks are politely tolerated, but sometimes it can come at the expense of his own wallet.
“I’d like one of Crema Catalana and one of chocolate,” Xavi asked the friendly clerk at a homemade ice cream parlor in Mallorca.
“A liter of each?” the man asked.
“Yep,” Xavi said.
As the man walked away, Xavi’s sharp intellect kicked into gear. Hmmm…two liters sounds like a lot of ice cream. Maybe he said something that sounds like ‘litro’, or maybe he said something that ends in ‘itro’ that is a unit of some ice cream cone measurement in Mallorquín. Maybe ‘itro’ means ‘scoop’. Maybe I completely imagined that he said ‘litros.” I really should say something and clarify this.
Xavi did not say anything to clarify this. And when the girl he was with came out of the bathroom, and saw him standing there with two tubs full of ice cream, she looked at him in disbelief and shook her head.
“Where’s your receipt?” she exhaled.
“Don’t worry about it.”
There was once a homeless man in the park, screaming at passing children and throwing rocks and sticks at surrounding apartment windows. A policeman came by and stood in front of Xavi and observed the man for a moment at a distance.
“Is he bothering you?” the policeman asked.
“No, No, you’re not bothering me,” Xavi said.
“Ok, you don’t speak Spanish, then?” he asked.
“Yes, of course.”
The policeman stared at him for a second, and turned away. In (insert major California city here), people have gotten shot, or at least deported, for less. Fortunately, this cop was reasonable, as the homeless man was yelling louder and was threatening to piss on president Zapatero’s head.
The irony of the problem is the simplicity of the solution: Xavi, Spanish public…Spanish public, Xavi…
Overall, Xavi does not adequately test his own arsenal of language in order to improve. So there must be a reckoning, an honest self-evaluation. No more sitting quietly in the corner, intentionally disconnected, as a group of Spanish friends chat. And although he has all the familiar characteristics, he must somehow realize that most people do not consider him a mute mental patient fresh out of a session of electro-shock therapy. What’s required are more mistakes, more gaffes, more foolish diatribes (however short), enduring more discouragement and embarrassment, getting laughed at more and feeling stupid, more. No more using the excuse of “I teach English all day long, when can I study?” In order to see the freedom of second language fluency, he must find himself, repeatedly, in a situation of pure disgust with his environment, of dire discomfort, of questioning his purpose and overall contribution as an expatriate in his host country. He must approach a state of pure contempt for Spanish before he will complete the rite of passage, to reach his own standards of integration and true awareness of culture and environment.
Simply, he must talk more.
Let’s just hope he takes a few more notes all the while, at least for benefit of the sadistic public.
Want more? For some background information, read Xavi’s Linguistic Abyss Part 1.
And to think, only a native, fluent speaker could enjoy things like this: