Monday, October 10, 2011

Confessions of a Linguistic Dufus

I'm pretty good with the English language, unless you want me to spell, then I crash and burn. But I am an ok writer, an engaging conversationalist (so I'm told), and I am quick on my feet such that I have made a living using said language skills to help others. Simply put, I get paid to talk (and listen). But when it comes to other languages I am bewildered, lost, stunted, extremely slow on the uptake.

Five years ago I headed south to Guatemala to study Spanish and was overwhelmed, although I have slowly learned enough to coarsely navigate my way in Mexico and Central America. And with Spanish, things are familiar. I grew up in Southern, Ca, where Spanish and Latino culture are ubiquitous and the letter patterns and the sing-song cadence of the language are familiar. But the languages of northern Europe? They are alien to me in a whole new profoundly disorienting way.

Although I was completely lost with Danish I had my dear friend Astrid as my interpreter and she taught me a couple of words. First was "tak" which is pronounced "talk" without the "l" and it means "thank you." Thank you is something one wants to learn to say wherever they are. I also learned "hej" which is pronounced exactly like "hi" and means, well, hi. But the funnest part was saying goodbye in Danish which is hej hej, or hi hi, which in English sounds ridiculous. But I did engage folks, with a smile, a hi, a tak, and a hi-hi (my English translation) which made me laugh on the inside.

Having spent quite a bit of time around my Dutch friends Ana and Christel (in Guatemala) I thought Dutch might be remotely familiar when I landed in Amsterdam. Yeah, no. I spent a good 30 minutes in the airport staring at the train map trying to figure out where I was and what train I needed to catch. I finally made it to Central Amsterdam and decided, to make things easier, to take a cab to Ana's apartment instead of riding the trolley (my friend Ana would have picked me up but she was on a work concall with Australia).

Ana lives on Bilderijkkade Street and a cabbie with a thick Greek accent dropped me at the wrong address and was gone before I realized it - with a three euro tip, bastard. So it was that just before midnight I found myself alone on the street with no idea where I was. The street was quiet. No cabs. No people. I started wandering, dragging my suitcase behind me, wondering if I was in a "bad" neighborhood, feeling like a giant dork, thinking about whipping out my US cell phone and making a $15 a minute phone call to Ana to confess my lameness (and curse the cabbie). Then I saw some friendly folks walk out of an apartment building, they gave me directions and I was soon ringing Ana's bell. The street names have so many letters that even the cabbies get confused. Thank the cosmos everyone under 50 speaks English.

Our first dinner together in Amsterdam Ana and I went to a Spanish tapas restaurant and I was excited at the prospect of understanding some of the Spanish on the menu. But my heart sank when, after reviewing the fare, Ana explained that in Spain's Spanish a "tortilla" is actually an egg, a frittata kind of thing. What the hell? So Ana had to help me with the ordering of the tapas so I didn't end up ordering a pig head or something. Esta bien. And in my book, a tortilla is still a round, ground corn thingy, not an egg.

I have experienced this before arriving in France, the urge to respond with Spanish whenever anyone speaks to me in a language other than English - even if it's, like, German or something, I'll belt out a "yo no comprendo" (which ain't even proper Spanish). I reckon this is so because the only language I have attempted to study, other than English, is Spanish. In my simple mind any language foreign to me means I speak-a-the-Spanish. This has proved embarrassing for me more than once in my life.

When I landed in Paris, I was inclined to say "gracias" in response to the French folks and on several occasions (ok, many occasions) that impulse was made manifest. Gracias, I, the English speaker, said to the French waiter who just set down a glass of champagne in front of me. Seriously Mer? I mean I know "merci," but for the love of all that's holy I could not get that word all centered in my linguistic response groove until about day three in Paris. And when at last I finally stopped myself from this ridiculousness I would then just stand there, dumbfounded, trying to mine from my brain "merci" which was apparently still buried under a pile of graciases.

If you had been walking down Rue de Rossier a few days ago you might have seen me, walking slowly, eyes down, focused, repeating over and over again - merci, merci, merci, merci - as I tried to create some new linguistic neuronal pathways appropriate for the country I was currently wandering through. It worked. I started smiling and saying merci to everyone. That, and pardon. I also learned to say "excusez-moi, no Fran├žaise" as I did not want to be the ugly American who presumes folks speak English in France. Most of them do not. In response, the French were damn nice to me.

Another interesting language thing I noticed on my travels is the differences in exit signs. In London they simply say "Way Out" with an arrow pointing to, I rightly assumed, the way out. In Denmark, Holland, and France the emergency exit signs are green with a stocky silhouette guy strikes me more as a "get the fuck out is this way" thing - follow the running man! And in Paris I finally deduced that "sortie" means "exit." But to me it had always meant "armed attack" and so at first I thought the signs meant "armed attack this way" and I was inclined to hastily go in the opposite direction.

But I managed. To not offend anyone. Or order a pig head for dinner. Merci.

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