Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lo Siento, No Hablo

On the day of the royal wedding, I went to my local laundromat. There are two TVs in the place; the one closest to the desk is sometimes tuned to an Asian language channel (for the owners), but the other is always tuned to a Spanish language station. I was a bit surprised to hear the words "el palacio de Buckingham" as I walked in, but apparently this obsession was more international than I realized. That's cool, I guess. Kate and Wills, they seem like nice kids. I like a big show as much as the next guy, but this one hadn't really captured me for some reason. I didn't get too worked up about it, one way or the other.

Others in the room, however, had much stronger opinions. The older woman seated next to me was watching the coverage intently. Suddenly she piped up, "why is this important?"

I replied without thinking, "Yeah, it does seem a bit silly, doesn't it?"

This would all be fine, if it weren't for the fact that we had this interchange--short simple words, short simple concepts, present tense only--in Spanish.

Yes, I took Spanish in school. Hell, I got straight As in Spanish, in my midwestern schools, studying for six years under fellow midwesterners with names like Hollingsworth, McKnight, Schneider and Terkoski. My last class was in the Winter of 1985, but I've retained some vocabulary. Many folks in my neighborhood here, including the cashiers at my grocery store, don't speak a lot of English, so I've gotten in the habit of exchanging short, practical phrases with them. None of this should be construed as indicating that I speak Spanish, however. Unfortunately I had, of course, just given this nice lady that impression. And having provided the opening she was looking for, she was off on a long, passionate, very fast diatribe of disapproval of this whole event. At least I think she disapproved; her tone and expression did not indicate sentimentality or celebration, but that was all I was going on. Because she spoke so quickly, and with such energy, I felt like the moment when I could have admitted my inadequacies had come and gone before I knew what was happening. So, I tried to ride it out. Because, you know, that seemed like the best solution.

I stared intently at her, trying desperately to catch something, anything of what she was saying, but in addition to my poor language skills we now added an internal monologue that went something like this:

"Okay, I think she just said hambre, she's probably talking about starving people. Are you smiling at her? You are, aren't you. Stop it, that's weird, she'll think you're not taking her seriously. Hey, that phrase, was that 'lots of money'? I think so but damn, it's gone now, let it go, bye-bye, stay with her. Are you smiling again? Quit it. Nodding your head is probably a bad idea too. It gives the impression you understand her. Wow she is especially worked up now, go with a frowny face, furrow your brow, that's probably safe. Trabajos, jobs, pretty sure she's working an economic argument here, I respect that, QUIT NODDING, YOU MORON, was that regina? I think so, for god's sake stop smiling!"

I can only assume expressions came and went on my face like a wheat field on a windy day. By sheer force of will I did NOT tilt my head like a confused dog. I started to relax when I heard her conclusion coming. She came to a rousing finish, and looked at me.

Oh. Right. Damn. Not out of the woods yet.

" Did she just ask a question? It didn't sound like a question. I didn't hear an uplift on any of her sentences, certainly not that last one. Is she expecting a response? Hell."

Of course I could have, should have admitted my ignorance at this point. But my embarrassment was so complete by now, I figured, in for a penny, in for a pound. So I nodded one last time, grimaced sympathetically and shrugged my shoulders in a general gesture of summing up. This seemed to satisfy her. The gods of laundry smiled on me at that point, ringing the bell that told me to move my clothes to the drier. She never tried to engage me in conversation again. Maybe she figured out the problem. Maybe she had nothing more to say.  I haven't a clue.

Her English is probably excellent.

I may have to change laundromats.

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