I knew, when I retired to Mexico in 2015, my Spanish was limited. While I did know many words and could form simple sentences, I was, by no means conversant. But worse than my speaking skills was my ability to comprehend. No where was this more apparent than when I rode the bus and tried to eavesdrop on the conversations around me.
So, as any respectable language-challenged snoopy-nose would do, I brought a mini-recorder with me on bus trips. That way, I figured, after attempting to translate nearby conversations, I could have my interpretations verified later by playing the recording for a fluent Spanish speaker.
My first experience with this system proved quite enlightening. I overheard a fortyish, female passenger say her mother was away visiting a woman named Vera. Her mother had never seen Vera before, the passenger said, and was excited to go to her museums, shops, and restaurants. That Vera woman, I thought, must be very rich to own so many businesses. But the passenger said one thing that puzzled me. Why, I questioned, would Vera live in a state made of legs? So, I brought my recorder to a neighbor, a gringa who has lived here for twenty-plus years. She listened to the conversation and laughed.
“OK,” she said, “first, the woman’s mother didn’t visit someone named Vera. She went to the city and state of Vera Cruz and saw many museums, shops, restaurants, and statues. And the statues were made of stone. Not the state was made of legs. Piedra is stone; pierna is leg. Couldn’t you hear the difference?” my neighbor asked.
“It’s not my fault. They talk too fast,” I said defensively.
On a subsequent ride, I listened to two high school students discussing the Beatles. I knew that because one said Ringo was his favorite. How nice, I thought, that a new generation, and one from a different culture, had discovered the Fab Four. When I played back that recording for my neighbor, she informed me that the youth had said nothing about The Beatles or Ringo. What he had said was, “That old gringo is listening to us.”
On that same ride, a small child sitting across the aisle from me was making sucking noises and asked her mother for some walnut games. What the hell are walnut games? I thought. Later, I learned she had asked her mother for her new juice box. I also learned that I can’t tell the difference between nues juegos and nuevo jugo.
More recently, I sat in front of two college-age boys. One was telling the other about a teacher who was a witch, a bruja. I laughed. Some teachers just aren’t liked by their students, I thought. I turned to the young men and said, “Soy maestro y comprendo” or “I’m a teacher and I understand.” They looked at me strangely. “Well, no wonder,” my neighbor said when I shared that recording. “The guy,” she said, “told his friend that a waiter spilled water on his arm the night before.” I was surprised. I know all the words involved. I know how to use them and how to read them. But, apparently, I can’t differentiate between “maestro” and “messera” or “bruja” and “brazo” when listening.
On yesterday’s trip home from Margaritas R Us, I overheard two men sitting near me. Their conversation grabbed my attention when they began laughing. “Si. Si. Si,” one said between chuckles, “Trump is a pendulum.” Why, I thought, is he a pendulum?
“Because,” my interpreter told me, “you don’t know the difference between a pendulum and a pinche pendejo. And I am too much of a lady to translate pinche pendejo for you.” And then she called me a pinche pendejo, took my mini-recorder, and threw it on the floor shattering it into hundreds of tiny little plazas.