The Little Green Vegetable That Looks Like a Tree

* Post with actual facts about San Luis still pending – the public library where I’m doing most of my research doesn’t have a set schedule so I’m having a little trouble coordinating their available hours with mine. Soon though!

When I was in high school my favorite teacher made a habit of asking our class, “Does anyone have any scathingly brilliant questions? . . . Moderately intelligent questions? . . . Terminally stupid questions?” I would bet money that I’m not the only member of my class or from her classes past, who to this day categorizes questions/knowledge in those terms. In normal circumstances I like to think I average a solid “moderately intelligent.” I have my fair share of brain farts (putting my keys in the freezer) mixed in with the occasional insight (maybe I put my keys in the freezer!), and this allows me a respectable level of confidence in social situations. After two weeks of operating closer to “terminally stupid” both in terms of language and cultural savvy, I can safely say that I miss the social agility that comes with linguistic and cultural fluency more than any other comfort from home.

Here, everything I say is saturated with an endless chorus of, “cómo se dice (how do you say)” and “cómo se llama (what do you call).” I am lucky to have found such a lovely family (hereafter known as TFM – stands for The family M) to rent from because they are equal parts patient and understanding. They actually seem to want to talk with me and we’re getting used to each other’s speech patterns. The act of conversing is becoming easier allowing the content to become more complex, but it’s impossible not to be aware of how the power dynamics in a conversation change when one party is fluent and the other talks like a racist caricature of herself. For me, speaking Castellano is like driving through a city with a detour sign at every other corner. When I can’t think of the word I need at the exact moment that I need it I have to think of another way to say what I want to say which more often than not brings me to another detour sign. The resulting sentences aren’t pretty. I’m fairly certain that at some point yesterday I came up with this gem: “Where can I find a business that has the machines that make the clothes go in a circle so that they get clean and the other machines that make them not wet anymore?” In case anyone is worried I found the nearest lavandería (a word I knew, just like I knew limpiar (to clean) and secar (to dry), but of course couldn’t come up with any of them in the moment) and I now have clean clothes. But man, I felt like such a child. I wanted to smooth over the situation with a laugh by doing the “I’m a monster!!!!” thing Buster from Arrested Development does. Then I remembered that I’m as culturally ignorant here as I am linguistically limited and that awkwardly imitating American sitcom characters is more likely to hurt my cause than to help it. I might do well to remember this upon my return stateside as well . . .

Anyway, TFM don’t seem too fazed. Nor do BPE1 or BPE2. I told them I felt a little at sea earlier in the week and so they’ve started teaching me all about San Luis slang and how to properly make and serve mate. Tomorrow I will purchase my very first mate gourd. Nóm (The ó makes it a castellano “nom.” Just go with it.). Today Anabella and Mama M were teaching me bad words and we were all giggling at how strange they sound coming from me. It’s funny what an innocent I seem to them when I’m speaking Castellano. It’s not like this is my first time swearing, but it all seems so much more scandalous when I have the words but lack the contextual knowledge of when, where and how to use them. That agility with language I was talking about earlier comes so much more slowly than the discrete vocabulary words.

Whatever. It’s only been two weeks. And besides, these limitations have their perks as well. In group settings I stay pretty quiet because I’m working to follow along and I know that to join in would mean interrupting the rhythm of the conversation. I’m finding that it’s kind of wonderful just to sit back, listen and observe. To not be always thinking about what I want to contribute and instead to really concentrate on what everyone else is saying. And then, when I do actually manage to contribute something moderately intelligent to the conversation, it’s so unexpected to these people who are used to hearing me say things like, “Last night I cooked pasta with the green vegetable that looks like a tree,” that what I’ve said seems SCATHINGLY BRILLIANT by comparison. Even if it’s just that I’ve successfully remembered the Castellano word for broccoli . . . which is actually brócoli.

So I’m working my way through a Spanish grammar book to review and build up my confidence a little. I think that if I strengthen my understanding of the structure of the language the linguistic (and thereafter social) flexibility I miss so much will come with time. In the meantime my goal is to laugh instead of getting angry when my brain fails me so that these first few months are funnier than they are frustrating. Luckily, Argentina makes both fun and relaxation a priority. Last Friday I went for drinks, dinner and dessert with BPE1, BPE2 and some other professors from the school I’m assisting at. I learned several new swear words and tried fernet, a really popular alcoholic drink here. It’s made from herbs and in Argentina they drink it with coke. It tastes like a mixed drink one of the iron chefs would make if the secret ingredient was cough syrup. That doesn’t sound appetizing but it’s actually really good. On Saturday I went to see The Hunger Games (review posted) and when I got back to my apartment at about 10 PM, TFM were all outside star gazing and talking. We stayed out there until about 1 in the morning just chatting, drinking sparkling grapefruit juice and NOT BEING ANXIOUS. It was absolutely wonderful. Sunday I went with them to “El Campo” about 30 km out from the city center. I saw the house Mama M was raised in, walked around some gorgeous sierras, saw a baby horse, drank mate and ate croissants until dark (pictures below). I love the night sky from the Southern Hemisphere!

So despite all the whining about my frustrations speaking the language here, life in San Luis is the good. Today I discovered that I live 2 blocks from a store that makes and sells all kinds of fresh pastas, so for dinner tonight I had tagliatelle verde with the little green vegetable that looks like a tree brócoli. Nóm.

The view from the spot where we took our mate/croissant break. Mama M says she feels like she can truly breathe out here.

We saw this little guy on the way to Mama M's childhood home.

I love the streetlights along the dirt roads here. It's like The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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6 thoughts on “The Little Green Vegetable That Looks Like a Tree

  1. “After two weeks of operating closer to “terminally stupid” both in terms of language and cultural savvy, I can safely say that I miss the social agility that comes with linguistic and cultural fluency more than any other comfort from home.” That’s EXACTLY it; you go from being a sparkling conversationalist to being a mentally challenged toddler in one quick plane trip. Laughing is the only response; and, you know, humility. Supposedly good for the character, right?

    How good that you are loving the slower pace and gentler approach to time! We in the States could learn a lot from San Luis – and maybe cut down on the Xanax!

    • Ms. Nancy, at this point I have so many questions for you about your trip to Egypt! Talk about culture shock.

      About the different approaches to time, I feel like if we just adopted a one to two hour siesta/tea time break into our workdays all would be well. I think I’m going to try and do that upon my return stateside . . . in an effort to fend off the call of the Xanax

  2. I loved reading your post! I have definitely felt the same way about language and cultural fluency! Especially when it feels as if i know a ton of vocabulary, except the words needed at just that moment! Lucky for us, I have found the people here extremely welcoming and patient as well. Hope to see you before we reunite in June, Mendoza is only about 3 hours away 🙂

  3. Kate, me encanto leer tu post tambien! Entiendo perfectamente como te sientes y lo unico que te puedo asegurar es que con el tiempo, todo va a mejorar y que mientras mas hables en “Castellano” como dicen los Argentinos, mas rapido mejorara y te sentiras mas a gusto hablando Castellano.
    Me parecio chistoso lo del vegetal que parece un arbol, ja ja ja, nunca habia pensado que el brocoli parece un arbol pero es verdad 🙂
    Disfruta de la vida mas tranquila en Argentina, extrano mucho eso de Latino America.
    P.s. Disculpa las tildes pero tengo un teclado Norte Americano.
    Cuidate, abrazos,
    Edith

  4. Hola Kate – Your experience asking about the laundromat in a roundabout way sure reminds me of what sometimes happens when I speak French to fluent speakers. Thanks for sharing some of your experiences in yet another thoroughly enjoyable post. Beautiful photos, too!

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