Isn’t Language Amazing!

Perhaps the best aspect of travel is to experience life from a completely new perspective. It really helps if you try to learn the language and culture, even if it is a major struggle.

Learning a foreign language in a foreign land presents all sorts of new insights into your own tongue and culture. Here are a few recent favorites from Buenos Aires:

un cortado.

If you look up the Spanish word cortado, you will find that it means “cut” (e.g. paper with scissors or your finger with a knife). If you go to any cafe or restaurant in Argentina and ask for “un cortado”, you get a wonderful expresso cut with a small amount of milk! I’ve eaten lunch several times now at the same greasy spoon diner across from campus, and the waitress has learned to know that I don’t have a clue about Spanish or the food. I wish I had a camera to take her picture when I ordered “un cortado”! (For full disclosure, I actually messed it up the first time and ordered “una cortada”, forgetting that it was masculine. She looked surprised that I knew what it was but quickly realized that I was still an idiot, but she smiled…!)

Un cortado comes with mostly coffee and a very small amount of milk. If you want mostly milk and a bit of coffee, you need a lágrimas, tears. It is a small drip of coffee (a tear) in warm milk.

In Argentina, a railroad tie is a durmiente, which if you translate into English is a sleeper. These are the pieces of wood that sleep under the tracks!

My best conversation so far has been with my friend’s 6 year old daughter. She corrected me several times, but I understood about half of her words, más o menos.

My scariest conversation was in a small bookstore trying to buy a Spanish copy of a Gabriel García Márquez book. He is one of my favorite authors from any land and in any language, although I have only read him in English translations. One of the items on my bucket list (¿cubo lista?–I doubt it!) is to be able to read Márquez in Spanish. Emboldened by my Spanish teacher telling me that I should start with a very short and easy Márquez book (she suggested La hojarasca), I entered the bookstore to try to find a copy to buy. I suddenly realized how absurd it would sound if I could not even ask the clerks if they had any Gabriel García Márquez, so I looked around quietly for a while, without any luck. Then I practiced “¿tenés Gabriel García Marquez?” several times before I delivered it (very quietly). It worked, and one of the clerks brought me to all of his books. I quickly found the right one, and brought it to the counter. After I clearly could not understand how much it cost and asked him to repeat it, the other clerk asked me if it was a gift (by pointing at wrapping paper after I clearly had no clue what she just said). At that point, I was caught in a really dumb position, and I managed to say “Quiero Gabriel García Marquez en inglés y estudio español”. Both clerks smiled broadly and said “¡muy bien!”

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