Becoming fluent in Spanish was an important goal of mine in seventh grade at Santa Barbara Junior High in 1981. Already, I knew that I wanted to travel.
Every Sunday when my dad brought in the Los Angeles Times and placed it on our kitchen table, I rifled through for the travel section, which was huge. I scanned all the ads and articles as well as filled out every form, requesting brochures and tourist materials. Many of the countries to which I wanted to travel were Spanish-speaking nations.
Consequently, to learn Spanish, I dutifully conjugated verbs, poured through my textbook and practiced the book’s basic dialog scenarios at home. Literally translated into English (only in present tense), the riveting stories went something like this:
Carmen: Hello, Juan.
Juan: Hello, Carmen.
Carmen: I go to the shoe store.
Juan: I go to the shoe store, also.
Carmen: Yes, we buy shoes.
At the store
Carmen: Look at the black shoes.
Juan: Do you like them?
Carmen: Yes, I like them very much.
Juan: How much do they cost?
Carmen: I ask the shoe store clerk.
Clerk: They are $20. You buy them?
Carmen: Yes, please.
Juan and Carmen: Thank you.
Clerk: You’re welcome.
To give me a real life dialog opportunity, every Saturday, my mom would ask me to bring lemonade to Michael, the landscaper we hired to take care of our lawn. Michael was from Mexico and my mom deemed this lemonade-offering encounter as a perfect chance to practice my Spanish.
Our conversations translated into English went something like this:
Steph: Do you take lemonade?
Michael: Yes, it looks very good. Thank you very much.
Steph: The weather is hot today.
Michael: Yes, the weather is hot, indeed. (I’m guessing Michael would add “indeed” since clearly he was articulate and used additional words and terms that I would have yet to learn.)
Despite those awkward conversations, Spanish was my favorite subject and Señora Hyp, who was from Argentina, was my favorite teacher. After every question she asked, my hand shot up in the air. I even watched Univision, the Spanish channel on TV, but usually, I just caught basic words like “the,” “sir,” “very good” and a few verbs here and there.
At any rate, when my parents decided to take my sister, Suzie, and me to Ensenada, Mexico on a road trip, I was thrilled. Not only would it be my first excursion to a new country, it was a chance to actually speak Spanish.
Because Ensenada is so close to the US/Mexico border, it shares some of the same qualities of a Southern Californian town. Consequently, when we arrived, some signs were even in English as well Spanish. It didn’t really feel that different from Santa Barbara.
However, the food was different and eating definitely provided a cultural experience. And sadly, at the time, I did not appreciate authentic Mexican food.
The only Mexican food I had eaten came out of an Ortega box or was ordered off the menu of Chi Chi’s, the popular US Mexican franchise (hello, Chimichanga.)
My parents had once taken Suzie and me to an authentic tacqueria in Santa Barbara, but the shredded beef and the slightly softened and oily taco shells (which I love now) horrified us back then. So, unfortunately, with Gringo-ized Mexican food as my only reference, my taste buds rejected the real thing.
Milk also turned into an exotic beverage for us because it was whole and not the thin, bluish skim milk that we drank at home. Taking a big gulp, I was “totally grossed out.” (This was my actual statement, by the way, because it was the early 1980s and we lived in Southern California at the height of the teenaged “Valley Girl” linguistic trend.) “Gag me with a spoon” became “Gag me with whole milk”
With a consistency more like custard, the milk did not go over well for Suz and me. Furthermore, because every foreign traveler is advised not to drink the water, our only other beverage choice, we convinced my parents, was Coca Cola. This was a huge score for us since soda was never a part of our grocery runs.
Essentially, we were eating hamburgers and drinking Coke in Mexico. And I wasn’t speaking much Spanish. We weren’t shopping for black shoes and the opportunity for asking someone about their preference for lemonade did not arise. However, I didn’t realize my chance to be bilingual was about to come in full force.
At our hotel, I had spilled a great deal of shampoo in the bathroom, and to clean up the mess I used toilet paper, which I then disposed of in the toilet. Apparently, it was too much paper and the plumbing was not the most efficient, so when I flushed, the water did not get sucked down.
To my horror, it kept rising with the wad of shampoo-sopped paper with it. The water brimmed the toilet lid and began flowing over like a fountain.
Perhaps it was because none of the foreigners were drinking water that an unbelievable amount kept coming. I just stood in horror and then left to tell my parents.
The floor looked like a kids’ wading pool.
“Well, Steph,” my parents commented. “it looks like your Spanish will come in handy. I think you’re going to need to call the front desk,” my mom shrugged her shoulders. “We need a plunger or a mop at least,” my dad added.
We had not gotten to the cleaning supply vocabulary section of the textbook yet. How would I ask for those products? The pressure was on.
I picked up the phone as my family stood by waiting.
“Diga.” I heard a man’s voice on the other end of the receiver.
“Ahhh….hola, como esta usted?” I asked. It was probably worth throwing in some pleasantries like “how are you?” when you were about to tell someone you’re in the process of flooding an entire floor of his hotel.
“Bien, gracias. Y usted? [Fine, thanks. And you?]
Panic. I wasn’t sure how to answer that at the moment.
“Hola, en que puedo servirle?” He continued.
I guessed that the person was asking what was wrong or what was up.
“Tenemos un problema con el baño.” [We have a problem with the bathroom]
Then came a stream of Spanish that I couldn’t figure out. It reminded me of listening to Univision.
Every once in a while, there would be an inflection at the end of the sentence and then a pause. I realized the man was asking me a question.
“Sí” [Yes] I answered as a reflex even though I had no idea what he was asking me.
Because he kept asking me questions, I kept repeating “sí.”
My family looked on with wide, encouraging eyes. “Tell them we need a mop.” My mom directed me.
I nodded at her and then answered, “sí” again.
Soon it was clear the conversation was over. Since I understood “esta bien, gracias.” [That is fine, thank you]
I hung up the phone.
“So, what did they say?” My family demanded.
“I’m not exactly sure.” I confessed.
“What? You had an entire conversation with the person.” My dad pointed out although I wasn’t really conversing.
“I didn’t understand him.” I continued. “It just seemed like a good idea to say “yes.”
Then everyone looked at me with a sort of pity. I was crushed. I didn’t really understand Spanish and clearly I could barely speak it. The fact that I clogged the toilet in the first place seemed like a minor infraction compared to not being fluent.
We decided to go out to eat and just wait to see what would happen next. In the meantime, no one was very excited about not being able to use the toilet.
After we returned from dinner, the bathroom was spotless — no more standing water, no more soggy toilet paper marooned in the middle of the floor. It was like nothing had ever happened.
“Well, Steph, you must have understood the man because the problem has been taken care of!” my mom gave me a squeeze on the shoulder since she could always tell when I was hard on myself.
“Remember that you did tell the manager we had a problem in the bathroom and obviously he understood you.”
Totally. I guess I had spoken Spanish after all. And I wasn’t asking how much a pair of black shoes cost.