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.