Felices son los estupidos

A measure of humility comes with attempts to speak another language.

By Brett Younger

“Once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don't talk in English and don't even want to.” Mrs. Gibbs’ recommendation in Our Town has stuck with me, so Carol and I are serving for five months in Chile as the interim ministers at Santiago Community Church, a delightful, international, interdenominational, English-speaking congregation in a decidely non-English speaking country.

I prepared before we came to Chile. I read Spanish Made Easy. I played a Spanish Word game on my phone that really wants me to know the verb brotar. (Apparently a lot of sprouting goes on in the Spanish-speaking world.) I listened to 30 podcasts from Johnny Spanish who promised to help me learn Spanish “crazy fast.”

I felt confident, but, in retrospect, I missed some warning signs even before we left Georgia.

I went to the bank teller whose name tag said, Yo hablo espanol. When I had made my deposito, she said, “I suggest that when you get to Chile you go to the teller with the name tag that says, ‘I speak English’.”

I went to a Mexican restaurant and announced, “Buenos dias. Cómo estás? Estoy aquí para el almuerzo.” My waiter replied, “If you really feel a need to practice your Spanish, I’ll get Maria.”

In a blog titled “What Chile is Really Like,” a tourist wrote, “Don’t even think about trying your high school Spanish. They speak way too fast in a language no one teaches. They smile as though you are a first grader who has wandered into Calculus.”

I have been in Chile three weeks and am sure of two things: 1) Any book with “Spanish” and “Easy” in the title was written by someone who has not been to Chile, and 2) Johnny Spanish is a liar.

On our first night a police officer said something that might have been, “It’s really cold. Isn’t it?” so I responded, “Si.” I realized later that if he had asked, “Are you the bank robber we’re looking for?” my answer would have been a poor choice.

I ordered in Spanish at a Starbucks and was given something I didn’t recognize. Aren’t grande and venti Italian? I got it wrong using three languages.

I was surprised at how many streets are named Marcha Lento until I learned this means “Slow down.”

We went to the cinema and tried to ask what movie would be in English. The ticket salesperson two cash registers away delightedly asked, “May I help you?” Those are the only four English words she knows. “750” sounded expensive until I realized that was when the movie started. We saw Jersey Boys with Spanish subtitles. It isn’t a good movie, but we now know several Spanish profanities.

I listened to a six-piece band on a street corner. When they got to the end, everyone sang along. I wrote down Olvidado el relleno and looked it up when I got home. I am still unclear why they were singing, “I forgot the filling.”

We found a place with “iced tea” on the menu (full disclosure — it is an Applebee’s). I tried to order sweet tea and ended up with vanilla tea, which is not what we drink in Atlanta. And I must have said “no ice” without realizing it.

When asking for an item at the grocery store, I was excited to be given directions. Then I realized that they had sent us to the information booth. I couldn’t figure out how to ask for salad dressing. My “salsa para ensalada” — wasn’t recognizable to the information specialist. Then I remembered something Johnny Spanish taught me and tried, “vestida para ensalada.” She didn’t seem to know what a “salad dress” might be. And good luck with attempting to act out contact lens solution.

When Carol and I got in line, I quietly asked the cashier, “What is a good tip for the young man putting our four items into a bag?” She answered “One hundred pesos,” but Carol had already made the bag boy delirious with a tip considerably larger.

Here are the phrases I’m working on now:

Mi español es malo. (My Spanish is bad.)

No entiendo. (I don’t understand.)

Por favor habla despacio. (Please speak slowly.)

Me lo puede repetir? (Could you repeat that?)

Sólo voy a estar hablando en tiempo presente. (I will only be speaking in present tense.)

We went to a worship service at the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago that was entirely in Spanish. The music was wonderful. I didn’t know many of the words, but something holy was happening. Some ways of communicating are beyond words.

When Jesus was blessing the meek, poor, and those who mourn, he may have considered, “Felices son los estúpidos, porque aprenderan la humildad” (Blessed are the stupid, for they will learn humility). Learning to measure myself and others by something more than the words we choose might be worth the trip.

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