Often, after visitors have been here a short time, I hear them comment on how kind and accepting the Mexicans in the villages along the shores of Lake Chapala are to of the foreigners who have invaded their villages and neighborhoods. For years, I have accepted this is just the way it is in this culture. Over time, when I thought of it at all, I had convinced myself that perhaps this acceptance was due to the financial advantage the Mexicans in this area experience as a result of the increased jobs caused by the foreigners’ need for additional services.
Lately, however, I have come to realize that it has nothing to do with local Zero Unemployment, it has nothing to do with the better standard of living experienced by maids, gardeners, construction workers, mechanics and waiters, it has nothing to do with improvement of so many local homes, or even the ability of so many locals to purchase cars, televisions and computers.
My current theory is that we are so accepted, and even treasured due to the entertainment value we provide to the local people, through our misuse of the language, and our frequent bloopers and adventures. While there are as many stories as there are foreigners in the area, here are but a few I would like to share.
Learning to speak a second language in middle age is a rewarding challenge. The Mexican people are so gracious to foreigners who try, even a little, to adjust to a new language. Their faces show their concentration as they try to understand the fractured phrases and mispronunciations, and strange sentence structure. If the culture was not so steeped in politeness, the shop keepers, waiters, maids and gardeners would laugh us right out of any attempt to speak Spanish. Thank heaven we have chosen to live in Mexico, not France.
Here are a few TRUE language bloopers to which some of my friends and I will admit to. . .
WORDS TO AVOID COMPLETELY—
A younger newcomer and new teacher at a local bi-lingual school was seen walking through the weekly street market followed by a group of giggling young people, leaving in his wake snickering venders. It seems in his earnest attempt to buy a whistle for the P.E. classes he was teaching, he had looked up the Spanish word for WHISTLE, (pito) but was actually asking, at stall after stall for a PENIS (pene). I also never ask for a comb (peine). Better safe than sorry!!
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU ASK FOR—
In Spanish the most often used word for eggs is HUEVOS. Many newcomers are anxious to practice their entry-level Spanish in restaurants and shops, and so they say to the shopkeeper or waiter, “ Tiene usted Huevos” –“Do you have eggs?”
Unfortunately what they DON’T realize is that HUEVOS is also slang for testicles—Imagine the surprise and confusion on the visitors’ faces when the response to their simple request is an overly enthusiastic, “Claro, Que Si, Como No!!!!!” “Of course, Why not, what would you expect!!!”
A less personal way to purchase eggs, or to order breakfast would be to simply ask, “Hay Huevos?” “Are there eggs?”
Then there was the couple out for dinner in a very nice Ajijic restaurant. By the end of the meal, and the dessert, coffee and brandy, the husband was far too drunk to negotiate the steps to the exit. He rolled to the floor, laughing all the while. The now very angry and embarrassed wife, stepped over the man, and stomped out of the building, only to hear him loudly speak to the waiters who were trying to help him to his feet. He obviously thought he was saying, “My wife is embarrassed.” In his slurred beginners’ Spanish, he announced, “Mi espouso es muy embarazada”. “My HUSBAND is very PREGNANT”.
SOUNDS THE SAME TO ME!
During the first few years, learning Spanish was difficult at best. There was a group of words with very different meanings, that all sounded alike to me. I confused them in all kinds of interesting ways.
Admiring a new baby’s eyes, I told the proud new parents, “What beautiful garlics.” Eyes continued to be a problem, as a few months later, I commented on the beauty of a child’s buttonholes. In the hardware store, I looked for a rake for my celerys. When I wanted garlic bread, I ordered bread with holes and once, I asked if there was respect on the pizza. When I wanted the oven cleaned, I asked the maid to clean the hour. When I asked the time, I asked for the fungus!
Here is my list of troublesome words, in Spanish with the English translation.. Remember that in Spanish, “H” is silent, and that “J” sounds like “H”.
- Honra—Respect, honor
THEY HAVE THE SAME PROBLEM
The English words BEER, BIRD, BEARD, BEAR, BAR, BARN and BIRTH create many of the same problems for Mexicans. The phrase “Happy Birthday” frequently sounds like “Hoppy Bird-day”. Another pair of words that create difficulties for them are kitchen and chicken. Think you have problems rolling your Spanish “R’s”? Ask your Mexican friends to say the word “TOOTH”
Soon after I arrived in Ajijic, a Mexican friend asked me why the foreigners walk around with their noses tilted up. I explained that our mothers had trained us to walk with our shoulders back, and to not look at our feet. His very apt and absolutely serious response was, “But you all fall down.” Truer words were never spoken.
Any honest foreigner who has been here any length of time has at least one embarrassing “fall” story to tell. Here are two of my most dramatic. . .
One warm afternoon I noticed that there were leaves and things floating in the lily pond that were not lilies and in that these foreign objects were in the Jacuzzi as well.
I AM my Iowa mother’s daughter, and learned at her knee that “there is no time like the present,” and that “busy hands are happy hands and that cleanliness is next to godliness,” so I grabbed up a pool skimming net and cleaned up the pond, and was making great progress on the Jacuzzi.
Now the Jacuzzi was more of a challenge, since I don’t have a pole on the skimmer net, just the short handle, and I could see the leaves and trash on the bottom. The filtering system had not yet been installed, (This IS Mexico, after all) so hand skimming was the only way to clean the thing.
I quickly discovered that if I used vigorous circular scooping motions with the net, the water in the whole pool would begin to revolve in a clockwise motion, stirring up the stuff off the bottom.
So I was happily skimming and capturing and cleaning, and stirring, gathering leaves and immature guavas and a lime or two, when up from the bottom floated a particularly large leaf.
Determined to get it into the net before it sank again, I reached. . . . .lost my balance, and floundered, and teetered, and windmilled my arms, and worried about hitting my head, and wobbled and screeched, and splashed into the pool, skirt, tee-shirt, slip, underwear, watch, and shoes and all.
Once I was past the shock of the fall and of the cold water, I could take stock and realize that I was unscathed–I also noticed ( and not happily) the vast amount of water on the ground that I had apparently displaced.
I decided as long as I was there, and already as wet as I could possibly be, I might as well finish what I had started, especially since it was so much easier to reach the bottom while standing right there on it.
So, there I was, middle aged, overweight, soaking wet, dripping, a little shakily scooping up stuff off the bottom, my full colorful skirt swirling around my legs and sticking to my backside, when I heard the playful voices of children. I glanced around my very private walled garden–and then looked up to see that the entire large family of children on a neighboring rooftop had quit taking in the laundry to sit down near the edge of their roof to watch–ME.
I always am amazed at how sometimes my good judgment fails me just when I need it most. Thinking to discourage them, to urge them back to their laundry chores, I started making what I thought were frightening faces at them.
When they seemed unaffected, and remained in place watching me stomp around, scooping our leaves, I got into really fierce faces. But, instead of sending them off the roof and into their house, I heard them cry out, “Mama, Poppi. . .come, come”
At that, I beat a hasty retreat to my own house, streaming water, pulling at sticking clothing, and with very little dignity left in tact, but totally unwilling to expose myself to the view and discussion of adult neighbors.
WOULD THIS HAPPEN IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD?
After the Jacuzzi incident, I rested content and secure in the knowledge that having survived with bones, blood and a tiny bit of pride intact, I would be safe from accident for at least a time—“they” say lightening doesn’t strike twice. Well don’t you believe it.
God, does indeed have a strange sense of humor and evidently occasionally needs comedy distraction from the stresses of the world. All too often, I am in a position to provide it.
Soon after I moved to the village of San Juan Cosala, one early evening I decided to walk to the store for bread. It seemed like a honorable and ordinary task on a lovely uneventful early summer evening. In the short one and a half blocks walk to the store, I carefully maneuvered around various piles of excrement left by various and sundry animals—from small dogs to burros and perhaps even horses. I had negotiated up and down curbs tall enough to be the walls of kiddy pools; I had avoided small children and dogs cutting in and out of my path with wagons, bikes, and trikes; I nodded to the old men leaning on the walls of the buildings passing the time of day; exchanged greetings to the young men on the corner with beers in hands, and to the usual assortment of mothers with nursing babies, grandmothers working on their embroidered tortilla towels, and great-grandmothers in their folding lawn chairs.
I did note that the sidewalks were exceptionally full indeed of my new neighbors enjoying the pleasant sunset and breeze and that they were taking more than a little surreptitious interest in the new neighborhood gringa. I remember wondering if they knew where I lived.
Within sight of the store is a driveway into a garage–the slope from the street to the doors is fairly steep and usually I step into the street to avoid it. On this evening, however, feeling fairly sprite, hale and hearty, I chose to walk right across on the slant. I did fail to note the unusual amount of fine loose sand left on the slope by recent rains.
The sand rolled, my feet rolled, I slid, I skidded, and I tried — nearly successfully to maintain my balance, and any remaining shred of dignity, but then charmingly, even gracefully landed in a perfect 3-point landing. As I scrambled to right myself, I assured myself and everyone in earshot, that there was no damage. And hobbled on to the store.
To the extreme credit of these kind townspeople, no one on the street laughed, snickered or even tittered. Although I was trying to avoid making eye contact, it did not appear that anyone was even biting the insides of their cheeks to maintain a proper countenance.
Bright and early the next morning, my gardener who lives clear across town, arrived more than an hour early asking if I was hurt. I was amazed to know that already, less than twelve hours later, he knew about my accident. He told me that the ladies on the street had contacted him, and had told him to come and check with me, to make sure I was OK.. It is for this kindness, this caring about each other, that I don’t mind being the village jester and entertainment.
Before you ask, NO I will NOT do a repeat performance of either event for America’s Funniest Home Videos.