The whole idea of language has fascinated me for years. I’m not very good at learning them. I joke that I took four years of French in high school: two years of first-year French and two years of second-year French. It didn’t do me much good when I got a job that landed me on the French Riviera back in February 1989. I could count to 100 in the language and tell people that my aunt’s pen was on my uncle’s desk (la plume de ma tante est sur la bureau de mon oncle) but I found that doesn’t come up often in everyday conversation.
What happens when you land in a situation like that, where you’re thrust into a situation where the language surrounding you isn’t yours? Essentially you become a functional illiterate. For instance: At the supermarket you see a can and the label has a picture of a tomato. There’s a good chance you’ll find tomatoes inside when you open it. You buy laundry detergent because the box or bottle look similar to those you used to buy where you came from. But while you can pretty much figure out the detergent you don’t have a clue that “javel” is French for “bleach.”
I love hamburger stroganoff. It requires sour cream. But I couldn’t find any at the supermarket. There was something called “creme fraise” but that work “fraise” seemed a lot like “fresh” to me so I never bought it and let my tastebuds yearn for the stroganoff until I learned, after a year, that “creme fraise” IS sour cream. DOH!
There were several “Of COURSE” moments in which certain words were revealed. Take vinegar, for example. Most of us know that the French word for wine is “Vin.” After a few visits to local Chinese restaurants in Antibes, I learned that the French word for “sour” is “aigre” pronounced āgra. Put French words for “wine” and “sour” together and you get, Of COURSE, “vinagre,” and wine that ages past it’s drinking life turns sour and becomes vinegar!
This one is more involved and took a couple of years to figure out. Antibes, located between Cannes and Nice on the French Riviera, is a big tourist destination. At the height of the tourist season large buses would crowd the narrow streets of the old town. On the sides of most of them was the cryptic message “K7.” I had no idea what that meant. As I began to learn more of the French language I came to know that the letter “K” is pronounced “Kah” or “Cah.”
The boat I was running was put on the hard in the town of Golfe Juan just west of Antibes, and when put back in the water we remained there. Daily my girlfriend Florence and I drove from Golfe Juan to Antibes in the afternoons for “sundowners” with our friends at Le Bar du Port. To get there we drove down Route National 7 or, phonetically, “Ere En Set.” Then one day as I was walking past a music store I noticed a sign in the window “K7” and like a thunderclap I realized it meant “CASSETTE.” Of COURSE!
Spanish was a much kinder, gentler language to cope with. For ME at least. Now, everyone who moved from the states to Panama did so with the intentions of learning to speak Spanish. Too many, though, never did. I’d hear them enter a store of business and the first words out of their mouths were the cringe-inducing “Does anybody here speak English?” I just wanted to effin’ slap them! So these people, many of the 3,500 or so expats living in and around Boquete above David (dahVEED) clique together and babble away at each other in English and then embarrass themselves when they have to deal with the natives.
When I’d meet a gringo in David I’d almost always asked them, “How’s your Spanish?” Mainly they shrugged it off saying they were “Too old to learn,” it was “Too hard.” All male bovine excrement!
My main rant to people like those was, “At our age we’re never going to become FLUENT in Spanish. Not going to happen. But you need to become PROFICIENT in Spanish. You need to be able to go, say, to Cable Onda and set up an account without dragging along translator. You need to be able to go to IDAAN, the water company and change your address without needing a translator. It’s NOT THAT DIFFICULT!!! At the VERY LEAST learn to say, ‘Lo siento, yo no hablo español.’ It will change how you are treated. If I was a Panamanian with a PhD in English translation and the first words out of your mouth were ‘Do you speak, English’ ASKED in English I’d look you square in the eye and say, ‘NO!'”