Barry Smith: Irrelativity
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
GOIANA, Brazil – I somehow made it through two years of Spanish in high school, kicking and screaming, yet never learning the Spanish words for “kicking” or “screaming.”
My introduction to Spanish was freshman year. It did not go well. In retrospect, I didn’t really apply myself. I’d just moved from Mississippi, and I couldn’t figure out why on Earth I would need to know how to speak Spanish since I now lived in California.
You needed two years of a foreign language in order to graduate (“Mississippi” didn’t count as a foreign language, my guidance counselor constantly reminded me), and my first year of Espanol was so painful that I avoided taking Year Two until I was a senior – three whole years later! El yikes!
Whatever I might have learned was long since forgotten, and the class was made up of bright, eager sophomores, all of whom had taken the same teacher – a very good teacher – the year before, and they were habla-ing like nobody’s business. In second-year Spanish, the teacher speaks only Spanish while in class. She speaks slowly and deliberately, but given my complete and utter lack of knowledge of the language, slow and deliberate didn’t really help much. She might as well have just been speaking louder.
Typical day: She’d begin class with a cheerful “Buenos dias” (huh?) and then start to rattle on for the next 10 minutes. When she was done the students would take out their textbooks and begin working on the assignment she’d just described. What? I thought she was telling us about her weekend. So. Very. Lost. And I never really caught up. My papers would come back slathered in red ink, D’s and F’s written on top. It was as if my ego were being used for a pinata. She passed me with a very generous D-minus, probably because she didn’t want to keep me from graduating. Que malo!
Now, here I am, 30 years later, in Brazil, a place where being able to speak a foreign language would actually come in handy, and I’m realizing three important things:
A) They don’t actually speak Spanish in Brazil, so my Spanish background isn’t going to be much help.
B) To say that I have a “Spanish background” is a bit of a stretch, anyway.
C) This is currently the only word I know in Portuguese: “C.” It means “yes,” just like in Spanish. Though I think they might not spell it “C.” Except maybe when texting.
So it’s second-year Spanish class all over again, surrounded by people speaking a language to me that I don’t understand, only this time there’s no slow or deliberate talking. And no recess. And class lasts much longer than 50 minutes. And …
So I do what anyone lacking language does. I break out the hand gestures. This wasn’t an option back in Spanish class, as the teacher wouldn’t let me get away with not speaking. I’d attempt to ask her if I could go to my locker, using skillful and precise gesticulation that would put Marcel Marceau to shame, and she’d just stare at me and say, “Como?” I assumed this was Spanish for “summer school.”
I’m only in Brazil for a week, and the gesturing plan is going pretty well, except that I’ve yet to break the cycle of foreign language anxiety that started so long ago. For example, in Brazil, the hand gesture for “OK,” the one where your thumb and index finger form a circle, is basically the equivalent of a raised middle finger. I had this explained to me before I arrived, but that hasn’t helped quell the awkward situations. I don’t use the “OK” gesture very much back home, but here I can’t stop using it. Probably because I’m constantly telling myself not to use it. Each time I accidentally flash the offensive sign at someone I quickly try to cover it, pretending I’m actually trying to catch a large insect in midair. Nobody seems to believe this, which is weird, because they have huge bugs in Brazil.
But nothing compares to how the Brazilians say “no.” They accompany it with a wagging of the finger, a full on “no you di’int” wag. When I see this wag I immediately feel like I’m being scolded, even if I’m just asking for ice in a restaurant and being told that they have none.
It’s a wag that fills me with shame and remorse for a lifetime spent avoiding learning other languages, made worse only by my attempt to gesture back that ‘Hey, it’s perfectly OK that you don’t have any ice.
‘Really, it’s OK, it’s OK.’
Read more at barrysmith.com.
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My first step onto the natural lake ice is tentative as I launch off on a thin, stainless-steel blade. Will the ice support me? Will I go plummeting through into a hypothermic bath?