Not being able to understand anything anyone is saying is both humbling and liberating. On the one hand, I can’t order my own coffee, and someone has to read the menu to me like I’m a preschooler, then help me figure out how much it will cost when the waiter asks for payment. But listening to a conversation in a language you don’t understand, you are free to be an anonymous spectator, to watch the face, the eyes, the hands, the set of the chin, the forehead, the turn of a lip. Eyebrows alone tell a story in the language of the body that is too often overpowered by the noise of the words. The tone of the voice, the upward or downward inflection at the end of a sentence. It all sounds somehow familiar, like listening to a toddler speaking – that if you could listen just a little closer, you would understand the words – but there is no real comprehension.
Two men, over coffee, looking sad, speaking quietly in short bursts, avoiding each other’s eyes. They examine their fingers, a fork, their untouched food, anything but the other’s eyes. They finally eat, silently, and then one leaves. The other stays, stirring a second coffee, looking out the window at nothing.
Two academics with bulging leather book bags and heavy beards, have a spirited and loud conversation. Passionate, gesturing with animated hands, almost angry, but laughing as well. Their joy in the debate so clear.
I’m sitting around a table with a group of people. Rapid conversation, short bursts of laughter. Quick sideways glances at me, then eyes sliding away. I’m being discussed, and perhaps not kindly. I think it is good that an American feel self-conscious, on edge, and out-of-place. We so often assume ownership and welcome without earning it. The little dog on my lap licks my chin. She only knows the language of my fingers slowly massaging her tight shoulder muscles, and she’s happy with me.
Argentine spanish is lyrical, musical, singsongy and soft, with buzzing j’s and ssh sounds, the r’s rolling out of the mouth like bubbles of water. When asking a question of someone, the language sounds always, to me, apologetic. I’m so sorry but could I ask…? No, I’m so sorry, but it cannot happen…., with shoulder shrugs met with entreaties to reconsider, have you thought of this? What about this? Then finally, the No, I’m so very sorry but we are out of that flavor of helado. Ah well, alright. We’ll choose from the other 30 flavors today. World weight and ceremony given to ice cream, to grilling meat, and to wine. A country that understands priorities.
When I have travelled abroad, someone with whom I’m spending time apologizes to me for their English, their second and sometimes third language, and I feel deficient and ignorant. I know no Spanish. I know so little French anymore I couldn’t communicate if I needed to, although I comfort myself by knowing I could still read a street sign. And so tonight we go to visit new friends who have apologized ahead of time for their English. Our friend translates freely, happily, tirelessly for me and my husband, and these men are gracious and make the effort to speak English to us so we feel a part of the evening. The food, tender baby goat roasted with potatoes in cream and almond sauce will be new and deliciously mysterious, the bottles of deep red bonarda will grease the wheels, and I know we’ll have a nice time. They will be able to communicate so much better in English than I will in Spanish, yet at some point, everyone will relax, Spanish will rightfully take over the evening, and I will again watch the conversation like a recital. I don’t mind. I love the music of the language. The build to the laughter, the fall to the quiet pronouncement. The calm of agreement and consensus, and the clatter of discord. Hands and eyes and mouths communicating more than the words themselves. Real friends. Affection pouring around the table with the wine, and two Americans folded into the circle. A privilege.