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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Languages of Word and Hand, or, How to Avoid (or not) Embarrassing Yourself


Wow, over a week since my last blog. As we get settled in here, I begin to hand out my hours like so many cards in a deck:  two for a painting class, two for Pilates, one hour a day plus two evening classes for studying Spanish, one morning to work in a soup kitchen,  and so forth.  If only I had 52 hours instead of 24! And then small things take more time when the environment and language are new. I needed to make an appointment to get orthodics for Iris and me. I tried to make it over the phone, but the receptionist and I could not make sense out of each other, so I made my way over to the office by metro, just to make the appointment.

Phone conversations are a challenge, but my Spanish is coming along, and I feel that I must publicly respond to those well meaning individuals who have read my blog and offered their condolences for my TOTAL failure to learn Spanish. This is NOT the case. True I did bomb that one test to pass beyond my Spanish School’s Book One. Clearly, I cannot keep up with a class of students who all ready know Portuguese or Italian, or who are from Holland (it is common knowledge that the Dutch have electronic translators implanted in their children's brains at birth). But NO, I have not given up.

Indeed, I have been delighted to make the acquaintance of other parents from the American School, who have been here for 1 to 3 years and don’t even speak as well as I do. Or, perhaps they are just less willing to go ahead and speak badly. But it is certainly possible to live in the suburbs and almost entirely avoid the need to speak Spanish indefinitely if necessary. And, while that is not my plan, I quite understand how it can come about. In the very international community of the American School, it is not uncommon for someone to have already learned their native language and English, and then have married someone from another country, so they learn that language. Then they have all ready moved several times and learned at least a working knowledge of one or two more languages. If now you move to Spain and Spanish is not part of your repertoire… Well, I personally would be throwing Book One in the fireplace.

But no, I am living in the city and I have but my own mother tongue and some very rusty French that I am trying hard to forget.  Being willing to speak badly in order to get better is definitely key. Last week I went to an area of the city called the “Rastro” which is famous for its second hand stores and bargains in general.

Here is the store I went to where I found a dining room table that I thought we could use when our rented one turns into a pumpkin and rolls away. I wanted to ask the proprietress if she could deliver it to my apartment, but judging by her shock and then merriment, I suspect that my not so trusty dictionary led me intoasking her if she would kindly give birth to the table in my apartment.

However, I had a small success today. The security at The American School is much more rigorous than we are used to. The designation of American does not endear a school to absolutely everyone, and the presence of children from embassies further increases its value as a target. Hence,  there is a security gate and a guard house, and you are supposed to make an appointment before going to the school. The guard, who only speaks Spanish, will then check your passport and make sure you have an appointment before allowing you to go in. So, today I talked my way past the guard, without an appointment! And using full sentences! Wrong verb tenses I am sure, but it worked.

On the more awkward side, I have this drawing that I made early in September as a cathartic exercise after an especially embarrassing meal. I was walking through this chic mall and I had become very hungry. It was still early by Spanish standards for lunch and no one was sitting in the dining room but several people were at the tapas bar having espressos. The dining room looked too elaborate with its linen and many glasses and the waiters standing about in their uniforms. At the bar I figured I could ask for some of the food that was displayed right there in these glass cases on the counter, as is traditional at a tapas bar.

So, I perched myself on one of the seats that turned out to be very slippery and uncomfortable, and I found that I couldn’t think of how to even ask for one of the small sandwiches in front of me. I motioned to one and made noises that seemed indicative of – I am starving could I please have that—but the bar maid just said something unintelligible and made no move to towards the food. I thought that with a menu I could read something out loud and ask for it that way, and –fabulous- I actually knew that the word for menu is carta—so I managed to say that. The barmaid looked surprised at this but dutifully handed me a menu. The only thing I was certain about was the Ensalada Cesar, so I asked for that.

Now she looked really surprised. She went over and spoke to one of the waiters. He took up all the many pieces of a table setting and carried them over and laid them on the bit of counter space between me and the tapas case. It did not fit and I was mortified to think that I had ordered a real meal that was meant to be eaten in the dining room.

I wanted to get up and offer to sit at a table, but not knowing how to explain myself I was afraid they would think that I meant to leave. So I stayed put, trying to balance on the slippery seat while consuming the salad and not knocking any of the place setting onto the floor which seemed about a mile below me. How is it that when you are embarrassed, you can feel so small and yet feel that absolutely everyone is noticing you. But that, mercifully was relatively long ago and many meals in restaurants have been consumed since.

Hand Signs (warning, some words and gestures are not approved for all audiences)

On the lighter side of learning a language, here are some important pointers, picked up from ex-pats at a dinner party, for anyone who would like to avoid, when in a forgeign country, making a fool of his/herself with what might seem like a harmless hand gesture.
Here we are at the party:

Though all the guests had children at the American School, Matt and I were the only US citizens. Others were from Spain, Mexico, Japan, Holland, Switzerland, and I have probably forgotten a few places. And everyone had lived in many different countries, so I guess they were qualified to counsel us on avoiding gaffs internationally. 

This gesture seems to have a lot of meanings. It is the symbol for the U of Texas Football team. Hence, George Bush got himself in trouble with it a few times. Rap stars have used it with some vague suggestions of Satan, but more definite suggestions of – Hey, its cool, I’m cool, the Music is cool, and kids from the States seem to like to make that sign in Facebook pics  to denote that they are having a super cool time, or some such thing.

But careful using it in Greece or Spain or a few other countries as  it means “cuckhold”, or your wife is cheating on you. Apparently it is a popular gesture by fans who disagree with the refs.

For layers of meaning, my favorite is this one: 

Winston Churchill first popularized the victory sign during the 2nd World War. But he had it wrong at first:

And was chastised by his staff --- Something like, “Er, Sir. You just told the entire population of London to F*ck Off.” He quickly turned the hand around and the gesture continues as the Peace Sign.

But it remains dangerously close to the two fingered salute, also sometimes referred to as the Longbowman’s Salute as (and this is according to several sources) it dates back to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Apparently the French had said that when they won the battle, they would cut from every bowman the two fingers they used to fire their arrows. When the English, against all odds won the battle, the bowman mocked their enemy with their two, very intact fingers.

Our modern day warriors, the sports stars, still use the sign to mock their enemies.

Mark Cavendish as he winning a stage for the Tour of Romandie. For the benefit of his critics who had doubted him. He was disqualified and had to apologize to the children.

Ashley Cole got in trouble for this one, as he leaves the field after Chelsea's defeat.

 So, go safely off on your world tour, knowing that you will both avoid faux pas, and have the necessary insult at the ready.

I welcome your comments, here or in an email: . Let me know if you think I got something wrong, or left something out. Or, just send me a note for the heck of it, cause I would (probably) love to hear from you.



  1. Margot,
    while I miss you terribly, I so enjoy the belly laughs your blog posts bring on! I will keep my hands discretely at my side when traveling in the future.
    So eager to see you!!
    (and, by the way, send me an email and let me know what I might send Iris to match the mirror I've patched up for Adele, please!)

  2. Hi Marlowe,
    Thanks for commenting. I know that lots of people are reading this, but somehow it must seem like a lot of trouble to leave a comment. I thought I sent you an email on the present. maybe I did not hit the reply button. She would love a pillow. Anything in orange, green or purple. Thanks!

  3. Hi Margot! Since you specifically say "Let me know if you think I got something wrong..." I feel I should gently let you know that the UT hand gesture ("hook 'em horns") looks different: the index and pinky fingers are extended, thumb depressing ring and middle:

    Some folks also associate this gesture with Metallica, but it seems to be more general than that:

    Loving your blog!

  4. Hey Richard,

    Thanks for the comment. So, did I get the fingers wrong for all the meanings, or just the Hook-em-horns? Cause I don't want to be in the mosh pit telling the rock star that his girlfriend is cheating on him!


  5. Hey Margot, I an American (who lived in England) who now lives in southern Spain. Help with the gestures is great! (they also use an odd gesture for "I'm broke" that I can never remember!

    Rock on. Ann