Colombia has exploded! In some surprise, I turn to face my house ‘dad’—with his wife, the owner of my 2003 Guatemalan billet. Getting some purified water from the in-house water cooler so necessary in this land of unreliable plumbing, I am, as always, completely unprepared for this latest ambush.
Ambush: a long-established military tactic, in which the aggressors (the ambushing force) use concealment to attack a passing enemy, as Wikipedia has it. Ambush: a strongly emotive word that, pre-Guatemala, I would never have connected with the learning of a foreign language. Yet Ambushed! is exactly how I feel, several times each day, during baffling interactions with native speakers of the Spanish I am struggling to learn. Not that any of these charming Guatemalans are aggressors, nor do they use concealment, exactly. Indeed, they surprise and confound merely by opening their mouths.
There is the convenience store clerk who tells me what I owe for a bottle of water: a completely incomprehensible and improbable total. Sorry?
There is the bank teller who says without looking up, Hotel? Cashing travellers’ cheques, I have no idea how we came to be talking about hotels: I must have misheard her. Nope. Unanswered, she says it again: Hotel? At a complete loss, I say brightly, Sorry?
There are the friends of a friend who ask me for lunch and graciously make conversation only slightly less painful for them than for me: How do you find this country? Does that mean what it would mean in English—Whaddya think of the joint so far?—or something else? Or did I mishear one or more words—probable as well as problematic—and was the question, When did you come to this country? Unwilling to answer the wrong question and unable to ask the clarifying question—Did you say This, or That?—I consider my options and fall back on the old standard. Sorry?
So I come to this interaction with my host a little battle scarred, but not really more battle capable. Standing beside the water cooler, resisting the urge to drop and roll for cover, I look and speak my confusion: Sorry?
He says it again: Colombia has exploded! After four weeks of handling the strain of the immersion experience, I’ve noticed that my thinking processes aren’t quite up to par, but surely an entire country—even the incendiary Colombia—can’t just blow up! It must be that something in Colombia has exploded, but why is he so intent on communicating this to me?
He can see he’s not getting through, so he amplifies his exclamation—at least, I assume that’s what he’s doing, but it’s just syllable salad to me. Indeed, it isn’t until later that day that I understand, when I catch the horrifying news on their 54-inch TV screen: the space shuttle has exploded. Columbia, not Colombia—and only now do I hear the pronunciation difference: negligible in English, pretty clear in Spanish when you’re ready to listen for it.
My host’s failure to connect the dots for me was really my failure—of ear and vocabulary. A language teacher, he has at least modeled the correct behaviour when faced with incomprehension: Try Something Else. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then after a month in Immersion Land, I am, if not certifiably insane, then all too often unbelievably inane.
There is the bakery worker with whom I engage in two-part disharmony: we take turns speaking and looking confused. How late do you stay open on Sundays?, I enquire. We open at 7:00 AM, she replies, smiling. Yes, but how late do you stay open on Sundays? Three times we go around before I give up. I am a block away from the bakery before I realize how I have mis-phrased my question. Sorry!
There is the street vendor selling weaving—a photogenic ‘old’ woman, probably about my age—who allows me to take her photo and then asks for payment. I hand over some Guatemalan currency and, smiling, she says something I don’t catch about dollars. Smiling too, I nod and do nothing. Smiling, she says something about dollars. Smiling, I nod. This time I am a continent away before I realize that I have missed her request for American dollars. Sorry!
Yet sometimes it works as it is supposed to. Mentally rehearsing my question, I stop a teenager to get directions to the post office—well, to ask for directions, the ‘asking for’ and the ‘getting’ not being the Same Thing. Where is the post office?, I articulate clearly, rolling my r’s with what I am sure is a reasonable facsimile of the right noise. He looks at me blankly. I say it again, a little slower, a little clearer, a whole lot more self-consciously. Nothing. Nada.
Sorry—so sorry—that I have stopped this kid, I consider my options. I could re-repeat my question. I could escape—Sorry!—and wander the downtown at random. Or, I could take the middle course and Try Something Else. Having failed with the rehearsed I have not much hope for the improvised, but having initiated, I feel obligated to continue. I am looking, I say, for a place that sells stamps. Bingo! Oh, he replies, the post office! Turn left there, go down a block.
Heading back to class with my stamps, I reflect that I have overcome the insanity/inanity barrier this time at least. I should be pumped and I am, sort of. I am also pissed: What the hell was I saying, if not ‘post office’?
My patience-personified Guatemalan teachers—the ones paid to correct my ineptitude, not the ones paying for it in the street—tell me that two things are needed to learn a language: patience and perseverance. They don’t have to tell me which of these two virtues they take more seriously, both culturally and personally. Neither do I have to ask what they would think of my frustration: I have indubitably failed ‘patience with self’ yet again. Sorry!