Thursday, January 18, 2007

Lost in Spanish

I’m leaving Chile this weekend, and I don’t know when I’ll be back. But I do know what I’m going to miss the most. A year ago I spoke very formal Spanish. I addressed people using “usted” (to show respect) and didn’t know how to use too many curse words. My boss quickly put an end to that.

“You’re Spanish is decent, and you’re improving a lot, but you still sound really stiff,” Claudia, my boss, told me one day. I had been in Chile about a month and a half and was slowly getting used to my new life in a foreign land. “Many times, instead of naming the object we’re referring to, we just call it a “hueá,” she told me. Claudia was the coolest boss I had ever had. She was in her early thirties and always had a story ready, and by the way she carried herself you could tell she had seen her fair share in life. She was fast becoming my mentor on all things Chilean and my first lesson was how to speak “normally.”

“Write this down and study it,” she said. “Huevón and machucao both mean friend,” ‘Use the bathroom’ is ‘echar la pulenta’.” Then, as she got up from her desk to throw away her coffee cup, she stubbed her toe. “¡Concha-su-madre!” she exclaimed.

That night, eating another bland dinner with my then-Chilean family, I decided to try out what I had recently learned. I asked my 35 year old host brother- who was a dick- to pass the salt. “hey machucao, could you pass me that hueá?” Everybody dropped their forks and stared at me, speechless. Ackward. “Who taught you that?” one of them finally asked after regaining composure. “My boss,” I said, still with no idea what was wrong. “Well, those words aren’t appropriate for the dinner table,” they told me. What I had just said roughly translated to, “hey motherfucker, pass me that shit.”

Fast forward six months and a string of bad words later. Claudia and I had already become friends and were catching up after mid year break. She asked me how I had been fairing with the Chilean ladies. "You know, some hits, some misses. . . nothing special." She started grilling me. “You mean you still don’t have a girlfriend here? I’ll tell you why you don’t, you know what I’ve noticed about you lately? You curse too much in Spanish. If you want to find a girlfriend you can’t use words like that!”

“Yeah? Well I wonder where I learned those words Claudia!”

“Hey, I taught you them, but I didn’t teach you to use them so much. So don’t blame me, huevón!”

. . . Fast forward to September and I'm walking down a twisting street close to my house. It's a beautiful spring day and the birds are chirping. I'm looking for a place to sit down, have a coffee, and plan my lessons for the week. As I stroll by one café the store front sign catches my eye:

--café con leche and muffin, 800 pesos--

That’s interesting, I think to myself. American breakfast food is hard to come by here, so I hadn´t had a muffin in months. I pass through the propped open door, take a seat, and the waitress approaches. “Un café con leche y muffin, por favor.” English words are often mispronounced here so I intentionally hispanized muffin, “moo-feen,” I said.

“Excuse me? What’s a moo-feen?” the waitress asks.

“You know, from the offer in the window.”

“Ooh, okay, but that’s pronounced ‘muffin.’ It’s an American breakfast food.” Chile 1, Me: 0.

Hardly anyone speaks English here and I’m almost positive the waitress knows less than 30 English words, but you never can tell which words they’re gonna get right and which ones they’re gonna butcher. Go to a liquor store and ask for Johnny Walker and the attendant will blankly stare at you. Instead you have to ask for a Joanie Wall-care. Hip hop, fairly popular in Chile, is pronounced ‘hip hope.’

But at the same time I’m certain I massacre Spanish words. To make matters worse, most Chileans aren’t actively trying to learn English whereas one of my reasons for coming here was to become fluent in Spanish. After close to a year here I’ve come a long way (on my resume I now say I’m ‘conversationally fluent’), yet I’m not quite where I want to be.

My Spanish skills go through ups and downs. Presently my Spanish is on the upswing, in September expressing myself was a gargantuan task, the last two weeks in October my Spanish was flying. I’m always trying to practice, learn new words, and improve.

Everyday I make the hour and a half journey from my place in downtown Santiago to San Carlos de Apoquindo, one of Santiago’s rich suburban neighborhoods in the foothills of the Andes. If it weren’t for the Andes- On a clear winter day the snow covered mountain tops glisten just a few hundred yards away- or the barbed wired fences- Chileans are extremely paranoid about crime- it would look like upper class American suburbia.

But an hour and a half is a hell of a commute. On the bus I listen to loads of music. I’ve now extended my Spanish language musical interests way beyond the typical Caribbean fare available back home. I especially like ‘los Fabulosos Cadillacs,’ a now defunct legendary Argentine rock group from the ‘90’s. I also read. Cafés supply newspapers here free of charge, so every morning I read El Mercurio, Chile’s largest- and slightly right wing- newspaper, over a cup of coffee. I’ve also read a lot of books in Spanish over the last few months. Gabriel García Márquez, Miguel de Unamuno, Eduardo Galeano, and Julio Cortázar are some of my favorite authors.

But the best way to improve is by, obviously, speaking. But speaking is easier said than done (there’s a pun in there, but I’m too tired to sort it out). Most of my friends here are fellow English teachers. We came down here at the same time not really knowing anyone, and began working together; so it was only natural that we would become friends. Chileans, in contrast to other Latin Americans, although very nice, are at first a little closed and standoffish. Moreover think about it, back home, when we meet foreigners our reaction isn´t, “hey! Great to meet you, let me be your friend!” It’s hard to form new friendships anywhere, much less in a foreign culture and in a language you still haven’t quite mastered.

In fact, the most I’ve connected with anyone here was a girl I randomly met in Argentina. This is the back story: Some friends and I were at a Santiago bar last June watching Argentina devastate Serbia 6-0 in a first round World Cup game. Convinced that Argentina would win the cup we bought bus tickets to Mendoza, an Argentine city just the other side of the Andes, for the weekend of the final. As luck would have it, Argentina was knocked out in the quarterfinals, but we didn’t care. We were going and that was that. The bus ride is normally seven hours, but in the dark Andean winter it took close to twelve. It was snowing heavily over the mountain pass and the international crossing, Chile’s most trafficked road with its largest neighbor, was temporarily closed. But we finally made it and were ready to party a lo argentino.

We had a great time, we went clubbing, had too much to drink, watched Italy win the World Cup and Zidane headbutt his defender (in the chest, damn), and met loads of people. Then Monday morning rolled around and we had to return to Santiago, it was the last week of the semester and we had lots of tests to grade and forms to process.

But there was one problem. An avalanche had fallen over the mountain pass. There was no way we could get back. “This happens every year,” the guy working the hostel front desk told me. He was sympathetic to our plight but couldn’t help but smile.

“Really? Well when do you think the pass’ll re-open? Tonight? Tomorrow morning?” I asked hopefully.

He laughed in my face. “Start dreaming on Friday.”

“¡Concha-su-madre!” I said. “We´re fucked.”

But it wasn’t so bad. I spoke to Claudia and she told me not to worry, I wouldn’t be fired. We made it back to Santiago Thursday afternoon, but in the meanby we were stuck at the hostel.

The last day there my friends and I met some Argentine girls around our age who were also staying in the hostel. Now I’m not generalizing to all Chilean females, but the vast majority of girls I have met here have been boring and/or dumb. Admittedly I am no Einstein or Picasso either, but when girls start telling you about their favorite colors. . . or that Chile is unique in the fact that different regions of the country have different accents. . . I mean come on.

But these girls on the other hand were really bright and interesting. They were in college studying International Relations, were much friendlier than their Chilean counterparts, and. . . actually had opinions.

But of the three the one who I connected with most was Cecilia. She was smart, easy to talk to, and "re-buena onda" - super cool. We talked about tons of stuff. But as the night wore on my Spanish started to slip. I had been up since dawn trying to figure out how to get back to Santiago, and now I had a few glasses of cheap wine in me. I was disappointed that I couldn’t say some of the things I wanted to, but this was the most I had bonded with anyone since I had come down here. If she had lived in Santiago I would’ve asked here for her number, but she didn’t so I asked for her e-mail address instead. She smiled and gave it to me. But, pointing her finger, she said, “improve your Spanish!”

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