Sunday, January 25, 2015

Practicing Spanish on the Street

"¿Cual es la fecha hoy? (What's the date today?)" I asked a man on the bus in Spanish.  "I don't speak English." he responded. 

"¿La fecha? ¿en español?  (The date? In Spanish?)" I pressed, feeling a little insecure that my Spanish was SO BAD that he thought I was speaking English.  "Oh!  La fecha es..." he said, and I was relieved to be understood.

My friend Alanna and I have been laughing about this Mark Twain quote from Innocents Abroad:  "In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French!  We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language." 

Normally I'm able to have a fairly decent conversation with my journalism professor friend Juan from the bus, but this week when he kept talking about "pulling students" (jalar estudiantes) in regard to the bus schedule, I kept getting confused.  When he reverted to asking me "Do you like rice? Do you like beans?", I realized that he was kindly trying to avoid humiliating me and to restore my confidence in myself. 

And Costa Ricans are very kind.  Their kindness is obvious when it's time to get on the bus, as they each offer to let others go first...it's the exact opposite of riding the subway in Hong Kong or London.  This week one of my teachers said that the lack of striving or ambition among the easy going Costa Ricans can be a bit of a problem here...she said the only reason they did so well in the most recent World Cup is because they had a tough coach from Colombia who pushed the players to their potential.  But later, the coach was fired because the players complained that they didn't want to work that hard.

Costa Rica is similar to the U.S. in that they receive a large influx of immigrants from Nicaragua and Colombia who do all the hard, dirty work that the Ticos don't want to do themselves.  Some of the immigrants invent jobs, like the guy I saw juggling machetes in front of cars at the stoplight.  Marino, the Nicaraguan neighborhood guard I greet on the corner of my street every day, also invented his job.  He keeps an eye on our neighborhood from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, and then goes door-to-door asking the neighbors to pay for his services.  Some pay well, some pay a little, and some pay nothing.  He's been doing it for 10 years.  I like talking with him...he's from the countryside and has a very different accent than the Ticos.  But I realized that I needed to be careful when he thanked me profusely for paying attention to him and told me that if we were to marry he would treat me very respectfully.  And I remembered the Peace Corps telling me that I had to give up the idea of being friends with people of the opposite gender, because that type of friendship just doesn't exist in many cultures; instead, people interpret the friendship as romantic interest.  Hopefully over time I'll get better at striking the right balance; like when my most recent taxi driver asked me if I had a Tican boyfriend already, I said "Yeah!  Lots of them!" and that seemed to work.

Anyway, little by little I'm getting more confident as I talk to people in the street.  I couldn't understand the very animated conversation my host mom had with her friend about her grandson's allergies and what they should do about it (it was very clear Vilma felt very strongly about it!), but I was able to buy cookies and oranges from street vendors to take to the last day of class with my Florida classmates. 

And when some family friends came over, I was able to chat for about 20 minutes with the husband who is currently attending medical school.  And I was able to chat with the husband of the lady who cooks at the school, who told me about the time his construction business lost $100,000 after the Americans he'd built a large commercial building for sold it without paying him.  He told me the salaries of people in different professions here, saying that people are doing pretty well if they make $3000 a month, and that maids usually make about $300 a month.  I've found the prices here to generally be comparable with the prices in the U.S.

On Saturday night, my host mom invited me to watch TV with her, and also to chat.  Friday was the 1-year-anniversary of the death of her younger sister who went into the hospital for a minor surgery and then died of an infection received there about three weeks later.  Once a month, on the anniversary of her death day, Maru's family gathered to remember her.  And one the 1-year anniversary Friday they had a big gathering where they held a little program and decorated a shrine in her memory.  It was a tough day for Maru, and she showed me photos and we talked about it a little on Saturday, before watching the news about the Miss Universe pageant, where Ms. Costa Rica is doing well this year.  We're all excited to tune in tonight to see if she wins.

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