06 June 2009

Total Immersion

Just a bit more about this crash program to learn Spanish, and then I will set the subject aside other than the occasional mention of progress or lack thereof now and again. I had a Spanish-English dictionary and a text left over from an aborted course of instruction I undertook—or more properly failed to undertake—at Kirkwood Community College some years ago. I had paid $60.00 for a basic Spanish course lasting one semester. I attended the first class. After attending that one class, it felt so good to go to the bar instead and skip class that it was worth the entire $60.00 to me for the opportunity to skip classes again in my middle age. I never went back.

I had also purchased another couple of texts before leaving Iowa, one dealing only with verbs and another devoted to common pitfalls for the beginning Spanish speaker. Lastly, the day before crossing the bridge, I had purchased an audio course consisting of nine compact disks suitable for listening to in the truck. Inspired as I was by the events of day one, I did listen to them in the truck. I listened and listened and listened until I could not stand the sound of that woman's voice anymore. It is amazing, is it not, how couples can stay married to each other for 50 or 60 years when you can get utterly sick of the sound of another particular person's voice so quickly.

All of that French study does help, but not precisely in the way one would expect. There are no French words and Spanish words meaning the same thing that look like each other. No help there. However, since both are romance languages, the similarity in structure and word order is helpful. For example, the concept that adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in number and gender is not foreign to me.

Other little things are helpful, too. The French have an all purpose verb in the form of the word “faire,” meaning to make, to do, to be necessary, and a plethora of other things. The Spanish have a similar verb in the form of “hacer.” A ton of idiomatic phrases make use of these verbs in both languages. In French “il fait beau” means the weather is good. In Spanish “hace buen tiempo” means the weather is good. In both instances the literal translation would be something like “it makes good weather.” It is that sort of thing that makes the background in French useful in grasping what the Spanish speakers are up to, not any simple similarity in words.

So every morning I try to decide what I will face that day, such as purchasing a coffee, going to the market, buying gasoline, and I work on imaginary conversations that will be necessary to accomplish whatever task is at hand. Then I go try it. Sometimes it works well. Unfortunately, there are many other times when these damned Mexicans stray off the conversational trail I have laid out, in which case we are both soon floundering. In many instances it is uncomfortable for the Mexicans, too. But they will just have to deal with it. Goddamnit, I need to learn Spanish.

It is the older ladies at the sales counters who amuse me greatly. They are used to dealing with Americans with fractured Spanish here. If you reach an impasse of some sort--say you have made a mistake and not offered enough money because you misunderstood the amount she said--she will not pick up your money or take your money. She does not try to correct you. She simply stands there silently waiting and looking at you. A sales lady standing there silently looking at you when you are trying to pay is a sure sign that something has gone awry in that Spanish conversation. Unfortunately, this has happened to me more than once. I have a God-given talent for spending money though, and I am getting the handle on Mexican coinage very quickly.

It is a humiliating and embarrassing thing, this business of learning Spanish in a Spanish speaking country. I am glad I will never again have to see some of these poor folks on whom I have tried out my Spanish. But I would never learn Spanish otherwise. I need to eat and drink. I need to find my way around. I need to wash my clothes. I need to buy supplies like gasoline. Soon, I will have to find an appropriate store and purchase a new tank of propane for my camper. I dread that, but I will study up on Spanish words related to tanks of propane just like I studied up on Spanish words related to bags of ice and go get it done. And once you are through the humiliation of a Spanish conversation gone haywire, it is always hilarious to think about it later.

One has to look on the bright side. At least I am not trying to learn English as a foreign language. That would be truly daunting. I feel so sorry for those who must try.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

My God, this city is beautiful! Have I mentioned that to you before? This is the shaded seating area in one of the two primary plazas. A lot of loafing goes on here in the morning.

Friday morning there were a bevy of young Mexican girls assembling outside this cathedral for their first communion, all in their white dresses. They were so beautiful and so innocent looking that I got a catch in my throat.

Hugo and Ruthie, here is the maître d' at your place, Harry's New Orleans Café & Oyster Bar, looking over the action outside in calle Hidalgo. I finally found the place yesterday and had a coke there in the afternoon. I have not been eating in restaurants for budgetary reasons, but one of these days I am going to find a way to walk into Harry's with an ass pocket full of pesos for a feast.

Today I am going to spend less time gawking and concentrate on taking some pictures that will really give you a feel for the place if that is possible at all through photographs.

Still, San Miguel de Allende is a tourist attraction for the very reason that it is so beautiful and the weather is so perfect. In addition to American tourists poking about, there are obviously a good number of Americans living here. It is therefore a nice halfway point for me but still not the real México that I am looking for.


spike said...

Steve...we have a little gal named Iris that works at Xavier's, she's a Coe grad and originally from Mexico. You call if you have a Spanish question...she'll know the answer. And don't forget we have a whole kitchen full of Mexicans.

Señor Steve said...

I forgot about that kitchen, Spike. I have lots of help there.

Barb said...

Reynosa sounds like my impressions of Tijuana. The children begging in the streets depressed me so much that I've never gone farther into Mexico. That's a big mistake on my part, I've been told repeatedly.
My end of the year crunch is finally ending so I'm back to traveling vicariously with you. Great photos and stories.

Señor Steve said...

Wonderful to have you along for the summer, Barb. My son teaches English in middle school, and he is winding up the academic year, too.

I must repeat what others have said to you, Barb. That border is a different world. Fly over it.

John said...

I have to weigh in on this. The Germans have the verb "machen," which is a lot better than the French or Spanish or Italian ("fare") competition because it at least looks a little bit like "make." But to complicate things, they also have stuff like separable verbs. For example, to say "it doesn't matter to me" would be, "es macht mir nichts aus." Literally, "it makes me nothing out." Crazy Germans!