The Galavanting Gringo is in Mexico
¡No Habla Español! At the end of my last blog post I joked about my lack of Spanish. I thought I’d write an update on living in a country where you don’t speak the language… January 2017 Mexico City, Mexico I arrived at Benito Juarez International on an unusually sunny January 1st (it’s winter in Mexico too!). After an 11 hour flight, all passengers arriving from Europe were shepherded into an extra long queue by a guy who could easily have made a fantastic George Best impersonator in another life.
“Shur gowan into this line for the craic boi, nathin’ like a nice long flight topped off with a nice long standing around session.” At least that’s what I inferred he said to me, judging from the context. “Si” I said. When I eventually made it through the queue I presented my passport, vaccination booklet and immigration card to the border officer. As she opened the passport to do the usual visual comparison with the photo, the vaccine booklet slipped out.
“¿Que es esto?” she asked with a blank expression. I knew she was asking “what is this?”, but my extremely limited Spanish meant I couldn’t really respond – it was a weird sensation.
“El libro… vaccinación?” I attempted.
Officer-bot 3000 shifted from autopilot to mildly amused. “Ah. Bueno,” she replied, stifling a laugh. That was the first time I had the opportunity to use my new catchphrase: “Per dón, no habla Español!” It’s an extremely useful linguistic silver-bullet, appropriate for use in almost any situation! “Are you paying by cash or card?” – “Per dón, no habla Español!”
“Do you want to leave a 50% tip?” – “Per dón, no habla Español!”
“Gringo, give me all your money and your insurance policy number.” – “Per dón, no habla Español!”
“Do you have a permit for that?” – “Per dón, no habla Español!”
“Sir you cant stand there, the train is coming!” – “Per dón, no habla Español!” Having travelled around Europe previously, I had it in the back of my mind that most people in Mexico will probably have a few words of English. How wrong I was.
Almost no one here speaks English, and that really surprised me given that Mexico shares a border with one of the biggest English speaking influences in the world. From ordering food, to making light conversation with the Uber driver the language barrier has been a struggle (funnily enough, right?). With that, I’ve had plenty of awkward interactions and linguistic indiscretions. Here are some of my finest faux-pas so far: January 4th 2017, ~12:50pm Hipódromo, CDMX I had just visited the local Starbucks. I don’t go that often, and when I do I wish I hadn’t, but there’s something comforting about having the same average-to-disappointing prepackaged experience wherever you are. So I thought I’d help ease my settling into the chaos of Mexico City with a slightly vinegary but familiar Americano sin leche. Coffee in hand, I began making my way to the workspace when I was stopped by someone petitioning for something or other. A truly familiar experience.
We had a pleasant chat for a couple of minutes, it was fine. Then it happened – faux pas number one.
“Your English is really excellent” I couldn’t help but point out to my new acquaintance, who we’ll call Catherine.
“It’s OK”, Catherine replied, “I’m still learning.”
“Well, your English is much better than my Spanish” I said.
Her eyes lit up – “say something in Spanish!” With it being the new year, the phrase for “Happy New Year” was fresh in my head.
“¡Feliz ano nuevo!” I foolishly uttered. Foolishly. Thinking about it now, weeks later makes my skin crawl. Catherine burst into laughter. “Did I not say it right?” I asked her. And thus I learned first hand that those little tilde accents are very, very important. Año means year, with the little squiggly line. Ano does not mean year. Pronunciation is important, I’ll never forget that. January 12th 2017, some time after lunch Roma Norte, CDMX Also important when immersing yourself in a new language: consciously internalising a word as you come across it.
For example, I learned the words manzana (apple) & mañana (morning) on the same day but I didn’t make an effort to consciously internalise the translations of the words. As a result, I bid the doorman a jovial “until apple!”.
He gave me a concerned smile. If I could go back to December 2016 and give myself one piece of advice it would be “try not to make assumptions about the language”. I was surprised to learn that the Spanish phrase for “red wine” is not “vino rojo”, but rather vino tinto. Similarly reading beer menus too quickly can be problematic and lead to ordering a “Michaela”. Careful now. Mexico is a grand aul spot. It’s an awful lot like Trabologan with a little bit more sunburn, 54% more public displays of affection (I’m looking at you, creepy ear guy) and 100% less feral children running around in Thomas the Tank Engine pyjamas marking their territory with vomit. Here are some photos!
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