When my sons were sixteen I took them back to Paraguay to meet their birth families. I’d adopted them from there, both at the same time when they were seven and eleven months old, respectively. Although my father was raised in Argentina and his family was originally from Spain, my Lebanese mother and he had decided that they’d teach their children no languages other than English. I had no Arabic at all. I studied Spanish in school, but never really learned it (and was roundly criticized for not somehow already knowing it when I’d try to practice it at home). I'd spent a lot of time in the year or so before the trip trying to learn Spanish, and I'd made some progress. When I’d started, I could order coffee, ask for a doctor, name Salvador Dalí and a couple of good red wines. After many months of intensive study, I could speak with the fluency and sophistication of a vaguely distracted teenager who huffed paint.
I thought I was doing pretty well on vocabulary. I had a strange ability to remember possibly less-than-useful nouns and sayings, like “ametralladora” (machine gun) and “la madrugada” (early morning/dawn), and “te voy a dar un chancletazo!” (I'm going to hit you with my sandal! Or more correctly, I'm going to give you a sandaling!), but not so much things like the difference between “asador” (grill or barbecue) and “aseo” (toilet). This had made, in the past, some awkward moments between myself and waiters in Spain when I had to wait for them to stop laughing to tell me where the damn bathrooms were.
Verbs were not my friends. Why there needed to be so many versions of "it happened in the past" is beyond me. It happened, OK? Can we move on?
While I very much enjoy languages, learning about them and trying them out, once you get into the world there are those moments that stick with you and underscore why silence can be golden. Like the look on my cousin-in-law Martin’s face when I asked him, loudly and across the room, to grab the fanny pack I’d left at the restaurant table in Cambridge, England. Noted. Better to call it a c*nt clutch. But I have to use the asterisk because Americans faint at the “c word” while “fannying” right and left without concern. I don’t faint at the c word, but I just started this damned Substack, and I’m not trying to lose readership over someone getting the vapors. I’m totally trademarking c*nt clutch though. There must already be a p*ssy purse.
I also enjoy the mutual classist snobbery of languages, and how everybody’s wrong. My family in Spain is horrified that I call my cousin’s son Ignacio “IgnaSio,” yet if I refer to him as “IgnaTHio” my Latin American friends roll their eyes and mock me for speaking like a snotty, continental highbrow.
Canadian French, like many languages that traveled, remained archaic in some ways and moved and stretched in many others, while Continental French did its changing in a more linear fashion, and a recent Reddit thread on accents included a mention that Quebecois French sounds, to European French speakers, like how the Texan English sounds to British English speakers, “…all yeehaw, howdy, y’all. Tarnations.”
If you try to speak French in France you’re often met with disdain for even trying. If you don’t try to speak French in France, you’re often met with disdain for not even trying.
Some sort of Nobel Prize should be awarded to the three men at the flea market in Johannesburg, South Africa who listened to me trying to say the slightly different variations and pronunciations of the word ubhasikidi (basket) in Xhosa, Zulu, and Tsonga. I bought two extra baskets just to atone.
It reminded me of the time a cab driver in Asuncion, Paraguay, suddenly turned and said, “Please stop!” I’d been looking out the window, lost in thought and talking to myself, practicing the Guaraní word for jacaranda which apparently sounded nothing like the “jacaranda-E-U” I’d been quietly repeating. The man was on the edge.
The important thing is to remember that no matter how you’re speaking, you’re wrong.
While I had no illusions that I'd be able to communicate seamlessly in whatever Spanish I attempted, I was especially worried about regional differences in vocabulary for our reunion trip to Paraguay. I hadn’t always known to be worried about this. In fact I’d been feeling fairly relaxed the day I suggested in my best Spanish to a native-speaking friend from Guatemala that we drive instead of walk to Harvard Square, about 25 minutes from my house, because it had started to rain. I turned to him and said casually,
"¿Por qué no cogemos un coche?"
I believe he bit through his tongue at that point. At least that's what it looked like, and his face turned a deep red. He can be a little bit prissy.
OK, turns out that 'coche' means car in Spain, in the online dictionary, and almost everywhere else in the Spanish-speaking world except in portions of Guatemala, Honduras, and I believe Argentina. But it means 'pig' in those other places.
The verb coger, from which came “cogemos:” to grab, to catch, to take. To fuck.
Commonly used in Spain as a normal, every-day word, as we in the States might use “‘screw” as in “to screw in the lightbulb,” or “Why is there always an extra screw when I’m done assembling something from Ikea?”
Almost never used in Latin America, except for the last.
What I meant to say: Why don’t we take a car?
What I actually said: Why don’t we fuck a pig?
Words I got technically wrong: 0
Percent I was incorrect in my message: 100
Chance I would ever live that down: 0
Confidence that I could now navigate the delicate business of meeting and translating conversations with two different birth families in Paraguay during a time of great emotional upheaval without error: None
Likelihood that confidence could be increased with bourbon: Whatever, bourbon was still a good idea.
My kids and I took our trip, met all the people we needed to meet, and whatever gaffes I made in translation were either politely ignored or unheard amid the commotion. My Latin American friends all speak better English than I do. My Spanish family tolerates my Englañol with the loving kindness one awards a slow puppy retrieving the wrong stick, but still retrieving. I’m calling Spanish done.
I’m going to Portugal in the spring for a writing course. I just downloaded a few apps. How hard can Portuguese be?
While it’s too floral for me for every day drinking, I do love an occasional cup of Earl Grey tea. I also love writing terrible poetry, so this seemed like an excellent opportunity to combine my enjoyment of two things one can absolutely have too much of.
Ode to Bergamot
I’ve never seen an oil as fraught (yet citrusy!)
Origin’lly from Southeast Asia
Turks then brought it to caucasia
But only after laying claim
And giving it a fancy name
As theirs, they named it Begarmudi
“The Prince’s Pear”
(The fruit got snooty)
And once in Europe’s Middle Ages
With its many smells and plag-ues
Bergamot, dilute or pure
Was every Louis’ favorite cure
And by then the Calabrians
And also Cote D’Ivoirians
Begot boatloads of bergamot
Good thing, because they needed lots
For now it seemed the whole world wanted
This essential oil most vaunted
Used in poultices and teas
Marmalades, perfume bouquets
And yet, with all this history
There still remained a mystery
For all its internat’nal fame
How did one pronounce its name?
A famous quote by Socrates
(Loosely cited) goes, “Beats me!
I care not what you call it, Bro
Go get my cup of Bergamo.”
So lest some misplaced assignation,
Xenophobic name mutation
Or some other misconception
Try to sway pronunciation
And so no more’s the name’s debated
Yes, T’s enunciated!
Adapted from my currently underway, upcoming (not very soon) book Room #35. Also, Brazilian Portuguese, or Portugal Portuguese? The apps make you decide, but at least I know I’ll be wrong whichever I choose.
SIXTY YEARS you have been hiding this poésia under a bushel. Gotta say, I'm finding your dotage most rewarding!
In the early days of advocating for the Green Line to Somerville, I used Google translate to go from English to Portuguese, had a Portuguese neighbor vet the the flyer with my name and number on it, and posted it all over Union Square. It turns out the the Portuguese word for bus station translates to whorehouse in Brazilian. Luckily I didn't get any phone calls before I had a chance to fix it.