I’ve always wanted to learn a foreign language. Of course, I haven’t wanted it enough to actually do it, I’ve just coasted through the past 15 years saying,“I want to learn a foreign language,” so that I could forestall the actual task of doing it.
I did take one semester of Spanish in college, but that was primarily because the T.A. was incredibly cute. Consequently I paid attention to entirely the wrong things. One thing I do remember is that without “context or need”, learning progresses slowly.
Fast forward 12 years. I find myself in the unlikely position of flying to and from Chihuahua, Mexico on a weekly basis. And when I say “weekly,” I mean that I’m flying down on Monday, staying the week, and flying home on Friday. Chihuahua has become my home away from home.
As the corporate pilot I have little to do in Chihuahua except wait. The best corporate pilot resume I ever saw listed 12,000 hours of flying experience and 36,000 hours of waiting for passengers. At the end of the day, we’re paid for readiness, not productivity. An airline pilot (like a city bus driver) can take the number of miles multiplied by the number passengers and come up with a value that approximates their contribution for that year. But a corporate pilot is valued more like an ambulance driver or EMT. As far as I know, no city out there judges the worth of their rescue-squad by the number of passenger-miles logged in a given year. We’re paid for readiness. Consequently, I find myself with hours and days to pass in Chihuahua, Mexico.
To many people and all-expense paid week in Mexico sounds like the prize of a lifetime, and in Cabo, San Lucas or Belize it might be. But Chihuahua is not a resort town. Chihuahua is a gritty, industrial city in the high desert of the central highlands of north-eastern Mexico. It’s the Allentown, Pennsylvania of Mexico. Working class and working poor side by side in a utilitarian march to produce cement, auto parts, and grain. That said, Chihuahua is also the state capital, and home to most of the history between the U.S. and Mexico.
But for now, my concern is the Hampton Inn, Chihuahua. This could be any Hampton Inn anywhere in the world until you call the front desk. Given that Chihuahua is not a tourist-town, there’s not impetus for the general population to lean English. In other words, I’ve finally found the “context” within which to learn Spanish. And I’m determined.
Now, before I finish, I need to tell you a quick story about my late Uncle Bill. Once back in 1963, he went to Paris on business. He was as determined to learn and speak French as I am determined to learn and speak Spanish. In those days, most European restaurants did not bring a glass of ice water to the table as is now the custom. Uncle Bill thus found himself with the opportunity to practice his French by ordering “oeuf de la glace,”which he thought was “water with ice.”
Unfortunately for Uncle Bill, he’d missed the subtle but important difference between “eau” (which is water) and “oeuf” (which is egg). After several insistent exchanges, the waiter retreated to the kitchen, and 15 minutes later, my uncle received a bowl full of ice with a boiled egg on top. “Oeuf de la glace” instead of “eau de la glace.” His attempt to become a suave and debonair, cross-cultural attaché’… had instead made him that guy.
Now, if you recall, I’m on day number two of my first week-long stay in Chihuahua. The lady responsible for room service is at the door, and I’m confronted with my first attempt to communicate in Spanish.
“No necesito el servicio de cuarto,” I fumble out. This means “I don’t need room service.”
“Si,’” she replies.
“¿Dos botellas de agua?” I add, hoping to get one bottle to use for brushing my teeth and one to use for coffee.
“Si,” she replies and hands me two bottles of water. Victory!
As she starts to push her trolley down the hall, it occurs to me that they give you microwave popcorn at this hotel – which I like – and that I’ve already eaten my one bag. Maybe she has more!
“Un Momento Senoria…” I blurt out.
“¿Puedo tener un bolso de…” I can’t remember the name for “popcorn,” most likely because I never bothered to look up “popcorn.”Honestly, when have you ever seen “popcorn” on a “most used list” for foreign language training?
I punt, “Papel?” That sounds like popcorn right? Surely she’ll figure it out.
She looks confused.
I start to pantomime the many tiny explosions of popcorn.
She looks more confused.
I add the over-exaggerated grin of a clown, somehow hoping that “overt happiness” will somehow convey “popcorn.” I try again, this time with grin, handgestures, and a few small jumps in the air. I add, “Puedo tener unbolso de papel?” followed by numerous small popping sounds with my mouth. Pop. Pop. Pop
Suddenly, her eyes widen. The moment of comprehension – we’ve communicated! I’m very happy. She turns and runs down the hall. She’s yelling to a co-worker, “Papel del armario… Papel del armario!!”
I can’t imagine why the request for popcorn is so urgent, but I’m pleased that I was able to communicate my desires. A minute later she comes rushing back with… six rolls of toilet paper and a look that says “you poor man”.
I’m now that guy.
Instantly, I realize that I’ve managed to get the words for “popcorn” and “paper” mixed up. All I can see is Uncle Bill’s bowl of ice with an egg on top. As I recall the hand-gestures, the little jumps, and the enormous grin, I am mortified. I don’t dare try to fix it now. All I can do is take the arm-full of toilet paper, and offer “Gracias” with a look of relief. What must she think is going on in that room?
Part of me chooses to believe that Uncle Bill is looking down on me, smiling. Part of me knows the room-service staff is shaking their heads and smiling at me (while they laugh uncontrollably).
And so the family tradition continues, “The crazy American wants what?!” Every trip since then, that one particular room service lady always gives me a look that can only be described as a knowing glance. (eye roll)
Epilogue: Its two months later, my Spanish is better. I’m again trying to sally-forth with confidence. Today we arrived very early, so early that our rooms were not ready yet, so we retreated to the Applebees across the street for breakfast to pass the time. I ordered eggs, beans, and tortillas and my partner ordered French toast.
After the food arrived, I wanted to ask for a bottle of Tabasco. I know that “salsa” means “sauce,” that “caliente” means “hot,” and that in Spanish the modifier precedes the noun- instead or “Red Truck” you have “Truck, Red”. So in my most confident tone possible I asked: “Tiene salsa Caliente?”.
To which the waiter replied: “…que’? “
I repeated my request until he relented.
Several minutes later, I was presented with a bowl of ketchup that had been heated nearly to boiling in the microwave. It turns out that in Spanish, “hot, spicy” and “hot, temperature” have entirely different nouns. (“The crazy American wants what?!” Uncle Bill, where are you!?)
My partner looked up from his French toast; “This is like the popcorn thing, isn’t it?”
I raised the bowl of hot ketchup, “Cheers”.