I used to live in Florida. I ever mention that? For a few years consistently, and now off and on. Still have business interests there, so I get down with some regularity. One of the things I learned just about immediately when I moved was that, in Florida even more than in Chicago, it behooves a person to speak Spanish. This is true with the exception of South Beach, where it is more important to speak Russian. But I only visited South Beach. I lived in the Keys. So I tried to learn some Spanish. And there were cuatro reasons why it did not go well:
Reason number one: I am about half deaf, which I did not know at the time but which causes me to struggle with speakers of English, especially those with accents and those who do not enunciate like they are reading Dr. Seuss aloud while their students struggle to follow along. It’s a little easier with hearing aids, but I still hear the world as if through a couple of warm wollen ski hats tugged down over my ears.
Reason number two: I am an adult person of reasonable intelligence, and I figured, when I decided to move, that learning Spanish would be no problemo because I already spoke halfway-decent French. And I was right: That I didn’t speak Spanish when I got there was, in fact, no problemo.
The problemo was I do speak halfway decent French. So what happens is that I would go into the Publix, where they have terrific cafe con leches. And I had my part memorized. I would say, “Dos cafe con leches, no azucar, por favor.” And the coffee-lady says “Hokay.” And I say “Gracias.” And that works great.
But when I go in and say “Dos cafe con leches, no azucar, por favor,” and she says something like, “No cafes; machine no trabajo, Spanish/Spanish/Spanish,” then I get lost, and get them confused, and kinda panic, and start speaking a weird hybrid, like Spanglish, except Spench. It’s a terrible trilingual pidgin, like “Oh, um, then, uh, por favor, deux regular cafes. Au lait. Comprendez-vous ‘regular’? No-no, no Cubano. Reg-you-lar. Con ‘Sweet and Low.’ Beaucoup.”
I’m like Christian Bale this way — a tremendous jerk without memorized lines.
Reason number three: I tend to get caught up in details. Let’s go back to the previous example. If I were working at a coffeeshop in Chicago, and someone came in and ordered “Two coffee with milks also sugars,” I’d probably figure it out. But me, I obsessed for days over whether it was “dos cafe con leches” or “dos cafes con leche.” I tried to ask, but when I said, “Is it dos cafe con leches ou dos cafes con leche?” the woman looked at me sympathetically like I had maybe had a stroke and said “Jes, two coffee. Ju wai’ here two minute.”
Reason number four: In my deepest heart of hearts, I believe that, when speaking Spanish to people who already speak Spanish, I sound like a complete idiot. That when I have walked away from the conversation, the people who have listened to me butcher their native tongue stop stifling their giggles and begin doing unkind impressions of me. Or worse, that they are annoyed by my murderous pronunciations and inadvertent substitutions of French articles, and I will catch them rolling their eyes when next I approach and be embarrassed.
But I’m trying to get over it. So I’ve learned some basic Spanish phrases, useful in Florida, which I will, in the interest of public service, now pass along to you:
“Which way is the bathroom?”
“Donde esta el bano?”
“Margarita, with salt, please.”
“Margarita con sal, por favor.”
“At home it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”
“En mi pais, se congelan las bolas de mi mono.”
“Please feel free to hijack the comments to argue about video poker, as I don’t read comments.”
“Por favor, siéntase libre para secuestrar los comentarios a discutir sobre el póquer de vídeo, ya que no leo los comentarios.”