The person behind me in line shifts their weight from one foot to the other. Impatiently? Uneasily? I can’t tell. I could understand either reaction: impatience because of how long my purchase is taking, unease because of that high-pitched whine that makes it hard to think. Or maybe that noise is just in my head. It certainly feels as if it’s about to explode, and I can’t quite get my breath.
It is January of 2003 and I am at the cash register in a tiny convenience store in Guatemala, buying a bottle of water. For the second time the clerk has told me how much I owe her, and I still can’t make sense of what I’m hearing.
On my first day in Antigua I have already learned that the Spanish that worked pretty well in my Canadian classroom isn’t so hot on the Guatemalan street. If I could switch to English now, I would; without even a first thought I would cheerfully abandon my commitment to the immersion experience. But it wouldn’t help: their English is worse than my Spanish.
Standing at the head of what is becoming a long line, I am near to panic, maybe right in the middle of it, and afraid to look back at what might be gaining on me. There is no way out except ahead, so I ask again in Spanish, How much? I hear ‘something 50′ again, and am stumped. It can’t be 150 quetzales, the local currency: that’s ridiculously too much — roughly 30 American dollars. Even 50 quetzales would be absurd, but the one thing I’m sure of hearing is ’50’ — that and her impatience.
Even in English, impatience is the cat that gets my tongue. In my mother tongue I usually communicate appropriately, sometimes elegantly. In stores, the standard pleasantries come effortlessly; in meetings, the standard quips. Passing colleagues in the hallway, I am fast enough on my feet to compliment their attire or new haircut before they are entirely out of sight. Yet when I sense impatience I become functionally deaf and dumb: my ears fail me and my throat constricts, slowly strangling speech.
In our turbocharged age where speed is both the aim and the enemy, patience is the inevitable casualty, with communication too often in the role of collateral damage. Soldiers in this war, the too-busy-to-be-patient all-volunteer regiment, are everywhere.
There is the optometrist who wants to know — and right now — which view is better: This? Or this? When I pause, unable to distinguish with confidence between degrees of blurriness, he snaps, Clearer, blacker — as if I hadn’t understood the question, and flicks the options past my straining eyes again.
There is the help desk staffer who asks closed questions in such a technical mumble-jumble that I have no idea what he means, much less what to answer. As I think frantically about how to explain what I’m seeing on my computer screen, he times out and asks another question, deftly troweling another opaque layer of befuddlement on my mental screen.
There is the boss who takes an audible breath and speaks louder when I ask for clarification of an instruction; the colleague who jumps in to help me finish any question or answer, usually incorrectly; the subordinate who somehow knows what I meant to ask them to do, without taking the time to listen.
Day after day, the winds of impatience swirl around me, sucking the words from my mouth — and that’s in English, where I know what I’m doing. With my Spanish stuck at the painful-conversation stage, I need a patient partner even more than in English. With me stuck in the convenience store, I need a miracle.
I look at this frustrated young woman, whose competent customers are piling up behind me, and spread my hands hopelessly, apologetically. I’m sorry, tell me again. Suddenly, inspiration lights up the other clerk, saving us all. Show her, she says — I get that all right — and they swivel the cash register so I can see the read-out. Ah, now I see the unspoken decimal. Two quetzales, fifty centavos: ‘two fifty‘, just as we would say for two dollars and fifty cents, at home. As I pay and get out with what’s left of my dignity, I hear the first clerk saying to her colleague, But it’s so easy. Two fifty. Indeed. Yet, somehow, totally impossible.
After a few weeks, I head home. Back to not planning every interaction, back to not thinking about how to respond. A store clerk speaks and I answer, just like that. Post-Guatemala, I no longer take this little bit of heaven for granted.
In an age before antibiotics, cleanliness was deemed next to Godliness; in our age of multitasking and harried schedules, speed has supplanted cleanliness. How odd, then, that in this revved-up world, those who wait for a response — cheerfully, patiently, silently — are a little bit of heaven themselves.