Thursday, September 17, 2009

How to Learn Spanish

I hate to beat this to death but I can’t believe I spent almost a quarter century in Alaska freezing every winter: wearing fuzzy boots and earmuffs, fishing through a little hole in the ice and running around in short sleeves when it warmed clear up to -20. I’m still not used to the idea that I can walk around in shorts and a loud flowery shirt here in Baja Sur almost every day of the year. It seems like such a huge change of lifestyle but as I told you in an earlier post, there are a lot of similarities: Both states are tourist destinations that are famous for their fishing, both are remotely located in relation to their parent countries, both were settled early on by missionaries, both were whaling destinations and the list goes on. Both are still “frontier living” no matter how you slice it. Oh, and did I mention the futility of expecting an Alaskan OR a Mexican to arrive anywhere on time?

I guess it’s because of the similarities that I adapted so quickly to life here on the Baja. That plus I already knew all the drills. We used to have the same conversations back in Alaska. “Hey ya wanna go fishing this weekend? The girls are all going to Anchorage to go shopping for ukuleles or something.” Here in los Cabos you simply substitute La Paz for Anchorage.

Another fact of life for us pioneers is the communication systems. Somebody will say something like, “The phone system here sucks.” I smugly reply, “You think this is bad? We had a ten party line in Alaska!” Or I hear, “I really wish we could have regular TV.” Then I start some long boring commentary about the fact that there were no live TV broadcasts in Alaska so they used to send TV to us on tape. The tapes went to Anchorage then to Fairbanks so the “daily” news was actually 2 days late. Football was 2 weeks late, and we got Christmas specials clear into March and …………..
My friends have quit complaining to me.

While the similarities are almost predictable; the differences quickly reveal themselves in the culture and language. The true locals of los Cabos who call themselves “Choyeros” have a polite, indirect and non-confrontational style that we Americans don’t appreciate. We are frequently considered rude because of our direct, get-to-the-point style and we can unknowingly cause our own trouble because of this. For example let’s say the neighbor’s dog eats all your chickens. We (American persons) would immediately confront the neighbor, stomp our feet, call the cops, demand that the dog be destroyed and sue for compensation. A Mexican person whose chickens have been killed might greet the neighbor, inquire about the health of his family and casually comment, “It seems that my chickens have tempted your poor dog beyond his ability to resist killing them. Oh and by the way, I can put fresh feathers in your pillows for a good price.”

I owned a bakery here for several years. My baker, bless his heart, understood how we Americans are. I would walk into the bakery, jump directly into my command mode and tell him that I want this and that and tomorrow he needs to do the other thing. He would listen and nod his head and when I finally wound down he would smile and say, “Fine, and you?”

Is that subtle or what?

So then I did a quick rewind and we would inquire about each others’ families back to about 4 generations, their children, grandchildren and Bessie the cow before continuing with work. It was a beautiful thing.

Language is a whole ‘nother issue. I’ve tried to learn to speak acceptable Spanish but so far haven’t really succeeded. I got desperate enough to tell my Pentecostal friend I wanted to go to church with him so I get the gift of tongues in Spanish. He said, “It doesn’t work that way” and graciously left off the “you idiot” at the end of his sentence. I’ve been here 10 years: watching my Spanish improve is like watching evolution.

On the flip side of this coin, I know Mexicans who have lived in the U.S. for a couple of years and speak great English. They say they learn by watching TV. That’s almost scary. Of course when my Mexican friends bring it to my attention, I insist that the reason they learn English more quickly is because English is much easier to learn! That always starts an argument that I ultimately lose because my Spanish isn’t good enough to argue effectively.

A good friend (Mexican, his Spanish is excellent..) finally came right out and told me to my face that my Spanish was terrible and that I needed to do something. I indignantly told him in my best whiny voice how I had taken two classes and that half of my Mexican customers and all my American customers at the café speak English to me so how could I practice more and that it’s harder for older people to learn and bla,bla,bla….. He held up his hand to stop me from continuing with any more lame excuses and said:
“Listen my friend, all you have to do is find a nice Mexican girlfriend and you will learn Spanish quickly.”

How about that?

The idea weaved around in my brain for bit while my little voice offered a running commentary: each piece of advice contradicting the last. Finally I casually mentioned my friend’s advice to my wife Donna. She got downright offended! She said, “That was a mean thing for him to say to you” and then she said, “I think your Spanish is excellent.”

Isn’t she the best………