Thursday, February 26, 2009

Surprize Treats

Yesterday I walked into school heavy-laden with dreads of an enormous presentation only to be met with the best possible of surprises in the main hallway of the university: a used book fair. Obviously I dropped everything to browse through the tables and quickly identified the most promising vender as his table was filled with the oldest and most attractive books- not to mention that it was the only one not predominantly occupied with text books. He was a personable younger man who appeared genuinely interested in everyone who came close enough to ask questions and quickly had me talking about my studies here. I explained to him that I’ve been trying to read as much as possible to practice my Spanish and how much I’ve loved learning it here and he immediately began searching through some boxes under the table for authors he would recommend because so many of the books I’d been thumbing through- while well bound and titled- had been written by Americans or Europeans and translated into Spanish. The first book he fished out for me was a collection of short stories by Augusto Monterroso who he assured me “es el maestro de los cuentos cortos y centroamericano tambien” (the master of short stories and a native central American as well). The book (which I bought on the spot for 1500 colones) is called “Animales y Hombres” and I can’t even believe how much I’m enjoying it so far. Most of them are extremely short. As a matter of fact, the first one I read I chose because it looked to be only one paragraph which interested me but it turned out to be only one very long sentence and here’s how it goes:
(but it isn't supposed to be all spaced out like this... don't know how that happenned...)

El Apóstata Arrepentido
Se dice que había una vez un católico, según unos, o
un protestante, según otros, que en tiempos muy lejanos y asultado por las dudas
comenzó a pensar seriamente en volverse cristiano; pero el temor de que sus
vecinos imaginaran que lo hacía para pasar por gracioso, o por llamar attención,
lo hizo renunciar a su extravagante debilidad y propósito.

This is my personal translation:

The Repentant Apostate
They say that once upon a time there was a catholic,
according to some, or a protestant, according to others, who in times distant
and assaulted with doubts began to think seriously about becoming Christian; but
the fear that his neighbors would imagine that he’d done it to pass for amusing,
or to call attention (to himself), caused him to resign (himself) to his
extravagant weakness and purpose.

Do you love him?
Because I do.
This isn’t the perfect example of his style. I chose it because it’s easy to fit- though I’m as much enthralled with this as any of them. Perhaps it’s only because reading in romance languages for the first time is so romancing, but if there’s anything I’d rather be taking home I haven’t heard of it.

Having the doors to a whole new sphere of literature so suddenly be opened to me is superbly overwhelming. Last semester in my World Cultural Literature class I realized for the first time in my life that I’ve only ever been exposed to North American and European literature. What we call “the western world” is such an unbelievably small fraction of what exists and it has been a recent ambition of mine to start expanding my knowledge of the written world to other countries. I had intended to start with some of my favorite authors from that class who both happened to be from South Africa, but I’ve had to do some rescheduling as this, to me, is clearly preferable for obvious reasons.

The other book I bought by my new friend’s suggestion is also by a Central American named Julio Cortazar. It’s called “Todos los Fuegos el Fuego” and I’m unsure whether it’s a novel or another book of short stories as I haven’t looked at it much yet. I sincerely hope that it’s equally as brilliant, though I’ve every confidence that the table-side-book-vendor steered me the right direction. He had very good glasses. He’s reliable.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Surprize Job Offer

Last Wednesday I paid a visit to the university’s marketing office in response to at least a week of corresponding via email with one “Pablo Mastroeni” who apparently works in that department. What made me open the message from a random stranger rather than assuming it to have somehow evaded my spam filter and erasing it without a second thought is as much a mystery to me now as the message itself was when I opened it then- which is why it resulted in so many confused and curious messages to follow. He was never clear about exactly why he wanted to see me, but for some unknown reason we had an appointment to see if I could “help with something”.

That “something” turned out to be editing the official student guide book they distribute to internationals when they come to orientation.

Why me?

I still have no idea. But needless to say, I couldn’t have been more willing to lend a hand!
Apparently when he asked Marcella, who works in the internationals office and spent a good two weeks prior to my arrival faithfully writing back and forth with me sorting out all of the details, who she thought would be up for the job I was the first person she recommended. Presumably because of her having seen so much of my writing?... I honestly have no real guess as to what happened, but I was too shocked and thrilled to ask very many questions.

The guide book while conveying all of the necessary information was quite obviously written by a Spanish-speaker who had learned English well enough to communicate but not enough to read smoothly. I had thought so from the very beginning when we were given copies of them with our class information for oral examinations, but would never have expected a chance to clean it up myself. Most of the changes that needed to be made were simple- such as replacing “water to drink” with “drinking water” or “throughout our territory” with “the majority of the country” and the like- but others were so badly phrased I just rewrote them completely.

The bottom line, however, is that I have my very first, albeit unofficial, writing job! They may be paying me with a school sweatshirt, but considering I would have been more than happy to do it for paperclips I don’t feel robbed in the least. Pablo said he understands that I’m in classes and to feel free to take my time- weeks even if I need to- but I’ve been so thrilled about it I already fished my final revisions last night and dropped it off to him this afternoon. He was surprised to see me back after only a week, but also appeared pleased to have it taken care of so quickly and asked me to come back on Friday to pick up a letter of recommendation the head of the marketing department will generate for me to do with as I please!

All other causes for celebration aside, it was so interesting to look at how such subtle differences in word order or usage could give away that it hadn’t been written by a native English speaker- not to mention trying to understand why they made the mistakes they did based upon what I now understand of Spanish grammar. Translation is such an incredibly intriguing thing to me… that language is so perpetually bound to culture... You aren’t simply exchanging words for their equivalents. You’re trying to re-create the same idea with the same implications in an entirely different cultural system. It’s nearly unfathomable that we can do it at all! Because words themselves are only symbols without any correspondence to the objects or ideas to which they refer outside of the minds of those speaking and listening- assuming they are a part of the same cultural system and interpret the symbols the same way. That we can communicate even the simplest thoughts effectively at all is unbelievable!
But we do.
It’s exquisite.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Insult of the day

Having triumphantly concluded my very first novel en Espanol I could not have been more pleased with my progress and therefore today, exultant, I made my way to the Libreria in the center of downtown San Jose to buy the next in the series (thanks to the parents ;). More confident than ever in my competency, I greeted the man at the counter with my next story to conquer who answered me in a slurred lisp of a mumble that I could never possibly have made out even if he had been speaking English. “I’m sorry?” I asked in perfectly clear Spanish and after taking in my obvious blonde-blue-eyed-and-still-unrelentingly-pale-even-after-nearly-two-months-in-a-tropical-environment self turned to the other employee and said “Me ayudes, por favor. Esta muchacha no me entiende y habla muy poco.” Which I could have translated as “Help me, please. This girl doesn’t understand me and can barely talk” well before being immersed here. The other worker came and talked to me in broken English and I was so frustrated that my Spanish responses with which I intended to defend myself were jumbled at best despite their perfect grammatical order in my head and I was forced to leave despondent and insulted by the patronizing looks with which they watched me leave. The Tico sitting next to me on the bus home was almost re-assuring when he said I speak very clearly, but then he also insisted- with sunglasses half-way down his nose and undulating eyebrows which somehow called to memory a picture of someone smoothing their mustache in a half-buttoned floral, silk shirt- that the best possible path to fluency was a Latin boyfriend which somewhat diluted his reliability in my mind. Gracias por nada, Gilberto.

There were several other encounters of this type this afternoon (of being spoken to as if I know nothing because I’m clearly American regardless of what I say- not of being eyed by people who belong drooped over a bar with pinky-rings, though I wouldn’t have been surprised) but, in short, I was frustrated until I sat down for dinner with my Mama Tica and, to my profound relief, realized I was able to relate the whole afternoon of frustrations (not in the kind of detail with which I prefer to explain frustrations, but enough for her to understand generally what happened and how I felt about it) to her with very few hiccups. She was nearly as affronted as I had been which was very sweet and insisted that I tell them I’m listening next time. I promised I would.

All frustrations aside, there is something so interesting about the mental blocks we have with people. For example, the Chinese family that runs the grocery story three houses down speaks fluent Spanish but I have a terrible time understanding them, not only because of their accents, but also because no matter how many times I tell myself “She speaks Spanish!” in my head I’m still looking at a small Chinese woman and nearly all I hear are Chinese vowel sounds that make no sense. I KNOW better. But, regardless, it’s a thought process that’s nearly impossible to break. To me, this is the truest form of self fulfilling prophecy: I know every word she is using but because I believe I can’t understand her, I don’t. And the same was true with the salesman at the bookstore. Because I couldn’t hear his useless mutterings, obviously I’m an idiot American who has no clue what I’m saying even if I’m speaking perfectly well. (Yes, I’m still insulted. You didn’t see the way that flimsy, lisping desk clerk rolled his eyes at me.) These are habits that seem near impossible to break, but there are so many things that I believe to be made possible or impossible based on what we think is true.

And there’s also something to be said about the dynamic of not being understood. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten too comfortable with my speech and accidentally confused something like “quedar” (which is to keep) and “quemar” (which is to scorch) leaving me the only one laughing at the end of a story because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was saying. There are so many cases in which I feel no need whatever to defend myself because if I know I’m not an idiot or out of line then it doesn’t concern me if someone else has so little to do they wish to linger on my apparent incapacities. But this is something I want. Not just to have but to be a part of me. I feel that my intent upon the learning of languages is the means rather than the end- that perhaps my initial anxiety wasn’t about not being able to speak them but not being able to speak to those who can. Or rather, that the thought of so great a percentage of the world being forever barred from my knowledge purely because of this difference in speech is somehow intolerable. Which, in those terms, is a fruitless endeavor as I’ll never be capable of knowing all the companions of my native tongue in the first place much less have the chance to feel the need to know more, but let’s just call it youthful caprice instead of unrealistic goal-setting. We all want things we can’t have, after all. I know I’ve got lots of them- I just don’t commit time to writing about swapping various body parts, features or talents with people without their permission or having a pet cloud.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

More catching up directly from my diary.

January 19th 2009:

My personal goal for today was to learn how to use the public bus system well enough to make my second haunt at Q Café. When the same waiter as my first visit served me politely with few words despite obviously recognizing me, I could not help feeling satisfied with myself that things were right on schedule:

-Step one: polite strangers
-Step two: strangers who recognize/remember each other but don’t address it
-Step three: occasional brief but friendly conversations about casual things such as what I’m reading,
what song is playing, how’s the weather…
-Step four: mocking other customers and similar forms of more interesting conversations that eventually lead to our actual selves
-Step five: friends who no longer secretly look forward to seeing each other on the given day
-Step six: seeing each other outside of the given day

Unfortunately, part of my homework today was to ask a handful of locals who they think the most important historical figure of Costa Rica is and when I was paying the very sweet hostess I thought I might as well ask her and my waiter who was lingering by the desk. By accident, this started an actual conversation which was over rather casual things but also touched on how long I’m here, what I’m studying and that they’d like to see me there again to help me practice my language ability. Now I’m a bit disoriented as to where that falls between steps 3 and 5 and my entire experiment has been overthrown by a factor I forgot to account for in the initial plan: the irreversible warmness of Latin Culture. I’m back to the drawing boards trying to decide whether I can count this as a sort of catalyst that sped up the reaction time and resulted in success or simply an unexpected addition which altered the results entirely. However, being ahead in schedule, while lacking in the romantic development I’d counted on, has the advantage of the possibility we may actually be close friends by the time I leave- or at the very least, I now have consistent conversation partners not to mention the assurance that I’m capable of holding up conversations with strangers in Spanish which is one of the best feelings in the world.

Speaking of the development of my language skills, yesterday I purchased “Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal” at a book store in town and have been positively shocked at how much I understand. Naturally, it helps that I’ve already read the story in English but that was the beginning of high school and I never actually read the first good 30 pages but I can read it without a dictionary and, to my surprise, not only understand but actually enjoy myself! I have decided to use a dictionary anyway so I can learn new words but I can’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me sooner that the one and only reason I ever passed English classes what with my horrific spelling and grasp of grammatical rules in elementary school is that I suddenly began to read like crazy in junior high- and I did exactly what I’m doing now: read a book just slightly above my vocabulary level with a dictionary and notebook at the ready to learn new words and then intentionally practice using them at least once that day. I already feel myself being able to speak more fluidly and understand more quickly. The most perfect thing about it is that this series increases by book in length and complexity of both plot and language as more things happen and the characters get older and speak more intelligently. Therefore, my most recent personal goal is to finish the series in Spanish so that my understanding can progress along with the books. Depending on whether I have things too well memorized for it to be useful by the end of this round, I’ll do the same when I take up French at UGA (which is the next language I recently decided on for certain after reading medicine instructions in French and understanding the vast majority of it).

I don’t think I could love anything more than learning as I am now. I feel positively romanced by knowledge… perhaps that’s the reason relationships fail to make my priorities. I’m not too headstrong or idealistic; I feel lacking in nothing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An exerpt from my diary

January 17th 2009:

I’ve decided to practice constructing new lives while I’m in town for such a brief stay. Heaven knows I’ve had more than my fill of “starting over”s in the last few years (moving to Georgia, moving to South Carolina, and the constant movements back-and-forth between two only partially constructed worlds which are too unstable to go without serious maintenance upon returns during summers etc.) throughout the course of which I have had a running theory about what is the best way to go about such a change- especially now as I face yet another relocation to UGA upon my return to the states. Upon entering a new life the factor of the utmost importance is not to appear as if you need to belong because neediness is the strongest possible repellant of new friends second only to hideousness. And bad humor. While not impossible, it is incredibly strenuous to put forth the effort of getting to know anyone while maintaining the appearance of indifference as to whether or not they reciprocate interest in knowing you. For this reason, I have long theorized that there must be some way to make other people want to know you first without them knowing it wasn’t their idea originally. I have come up with various possibilities which wile practically fool-proof- such as constantly appearing wealthy and influential, never ever failing to win at anything, or mailing yourself a series of mysterious packages to be delivered by hand in public and refusing to open them where you can be seen- are not realistically plausible for the every-day new student/employee/what have you. But I had a slightly more realistic thought recently which is the basis by which I have fashioned my current experiment.

People feel close to each other when they are familiar enough to predict their actions- what they will wear, where they will be at a certain time, what they will be doing… all this, of course, takes place after having gotten to know the person themselves. But suppose you were able to make such predictions about a person before knowing anything about them personally or having spoken to them at all? Would this not, in some strange sense, make you feel connected to the stranger who frequents your days? Which would cause things to operate in reverse: you now are curious to know them personally. Based on this prediction, I have been scouting out a suitable place to eat lunch at the same time on the same day completely alone with a book (looking my best, of course) in order to become a familiar regular/mysterious foreigner (or “miss lonely-heart” if you will) which is an element that I don’t normally have on my side. The book is an important factor because it implies intelligence where as sitting alone doing nothing at all simply looks like desperation for human contact strong enough to make one go out alone which would cancel out the air of disconcern about making friends completely- which is the ingredient upon which this entire idea is most dependent for its success. Today I went to select the said book at El Biblioteca Nacional and stumbled upon the perfect place to haunt on a corner of el avenida central called “Q Café”. The workers are young and generally attractive, the food is delicious, the walls are covered in black-and-white photos of every-day people… experiment commence. Stand by for details.

As it turns out the library was its own adventure entirely. I didn’t know before getting there that you aren’t allowed to take the books outside of the building. You search for what you want in their old-fashioned computer system and then fill out the information on little slips which are taken to the desk on the opposite end of the library so the attendant can send it up the dumb-waiter. Meanwhile you wait in chairs for the unseen librarians upstairs to send your books down the dumb-waiter for them to call your name. you then take the books to an empty desk to read them before returning them to the dumb-waiter attendant. It was all very inconvenient at the time, but still fascinating as Soraya reminds me that this is how the library is in Breakfast at Tiffany’s- and, needless to say, anything which reminds one of or makes one feel like Audrey Hepburn is well worth any inconvenience. At any rate, I now have the perfect excuse to purchase my very first book in Spanish so, in all, it was a day well spent.