Archive for Sunday, March 18, 2007

Vacationing gringa means no harm

March 18, 2007


Estoy tratando aprender español.
(Translation: I am trying to learn Spanish.)

Soon, I will be vacationing in the sunny climes of Mexico, and I want to be able to communicate with ease. We are headed to a small fishing village on the Pacific, and I intend to buy food, shop for trinkets, order dinner, count change and find my way around without acting the fool.

I hold no false hope of blending in with the locals - not with my blue eyes, white hair and blue-white skin. And I don't mind being called a gringa. But please, don't call me a "gringa estðpida."

Desafortunadamente, soy muy lenta para aprender.
(Unfortunately, I am a slow learner.)

Why, oh, why didn't I pay more attention to Sister Sylvia in high school Spanish class? Why couldn't I manage to stay awake while listening to those clunky reel-to-reel tapes in the Language Lab? After all, the dialogue was so compelling:

Narrator: Este es Paco.
Paco: SÃ-, yo soy Paco.

Narrator: Paco es estudiante.
Paco: SÃ-, yo soy estudiante.

Paco fue muy aburrido.
(Paco was very boring.)

Sister Sylvia, who did double-duty as our typing teacher, tried her best to pique my interest in español. She taught us native dances and songs. She'd even play the Mexican Hat Dance on the record player in an effort to make us type faster during time tests. (I kid you not. To this day, whenever I'm typing furiously on my keyboard, totally in the zone, a frenzied rendition of the Hat Dance pops into my head and completely destroys my rhythm.)

Still, I could never do better than a C in Spanish (or typing, come to think of it.) My pronunciation was fine. It was the 600 verb tenses that did me in.

In fact, after barely passing Spanish 1 and 2, and with one more credit required for graduation, I opted to enroll in Spanish Culture my senior year, a class in which command of the language was not a prerequisite.

Casi no sobrevivÃ-.
(I almost didn't survive.)

It was the day of the big exam on Mexican geography. My friend Deb and I had studied diligently. We desperately needed to bring our grades up for the semester. Midway through the test, Deb, who was sitting in the desk in front of me, turned around in a wild-eyed panic and whispered, "Where the hell is Chi-hoo-ah-HOO-ah?"

"Chi-hoo-ah-HOO-ah?!" I murmured back, suddenly feeling panicky myself. "I have no idea! Show me."

Discreetly, she leaned out of the way and pointed to the word on her test paper. It read: Chihuahua.

Boomer girl

Fortunately, I knew that Chihuahua was the name of a state in northern Mexico, as well as its capital city.

Unfortunately, I also knew that the name was pronounced "chee-WA-wa," like the tiny dog, not "Chi-hoo-ah-HOO-ah" as Deb had so hilariously butchered it.

Entonces, comence a reirme.
(Then, I started to laugh.)

At first, my hysterics were of the silent, shoulder-shaking variety. But soon, I was gasping for breath, followed by loud, seal-like guffaws. (Think Phyllis Diller on nitrous oxide.) I was out of control. The entire class turned to see me doubled over at my desk, tears flowing from my eyes, face red as a chili pepper.

La hermana Silvia no se divirtió.
(Sister Sylvia was not amused.)

I was asked to leave the classroom, thus failing the test.

Honestly, I don't remember what happened next. I can only assume I said a boatload of Ave Marias in order to graduate that spring.

Thirty-four years later, the incident sticks in my mind as a testament to the dangerous effects of bad foreign language pronunciation. And so :

Aprendere español.
(I WILL learn Spanish.)

I refuse to be the one who walks into a restaurant and orders something that makes the entire wait staff fall to the floor laughing. I will NOT be the "gringa estðpida," the laughingstock of my fishing village.

That's why I have memorized a few essential phrases guaranteed to make my trip a success or, at least, get a woman like me out of a tight spot.

Por favor y gracias.
(Please and thank you.)

¿Dónde está el cuarto de baño?
(Where is the bathroom?)

Necesito un doctor.
(I need a doctor.)

Mas tequila, por favor.
(More tequila, please.)

And the line I'm most likely to use several times a day ...

¡Perdon! Yo soy gringa estðpida.
(Sorry. I am a stupid gringa.)

- Cathy Hamilton is editor of and a 51-year-old empty-nester. Events recounted here may be embellished, exaggerated or completely made up because she can't remember squat anymore.


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