Matamoros, Mexico: Washington, D.C.:

Saturday, June 4, 2011

You Said What?

I'm writing this post from a newly-opened café in Matamoros, which has surprisingly good food, free WiFi, and great atmosphere. I haven't found anything like it since I arrived a little more than three months ago. Can you believe that - it's been three months since I got here. Time flies.

I figured I'd take this slow morning to document some of my favorite (and slightly embarrassing) Spanish flubs thus far. Now, I've been studying Spanish for more than eight years now. I have a bachelor's degree in the language. Yet I'm still not great at it, as evidenced by the following little stories - that I actually find hilarious - about some of my better screw ups. If you speak Spanish, this will be extra funny to you. If you don't, I think you'll still get a kick out of it.

The first truly hilarious one happened a week or so after I arrived. My desk is on the second floor, but it sits very close to the top of the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs sits the consulate's operator, who answers the phone and keeps the whole place running smoothly. Because of where I sit, I can hear everything she says while she's answering phones. She's a super friendly and happy person who grew up living here in Matamoros and attending grade school in the U.S. Obviously, she speaks Spanish and English completely fluently. Anyway, for the whole week I'd been sitting at my desk, I could hear her answer the phone, talk for a few seconds with someone on the other line, and then she would transfer the call. Just before she would transfer the call, I would hear her say "por favor, espere la niña". I was perfectly baffled by this. In English, that phrase means "please, wait on (hold) the girl." I'm sitting at my desk all day long thinking "why the heck is she asking people to wait on the girl?" Is that some Spanish colloquial or idiomatic phrase that I just don't know? I starting trying to rationalize it - maybe she's transferring the calls to other women in the consulate, and calling them girls? Finally, at the end of the week, I just have to know. So I work up the courage to go ask her. "Why are you asking people to wait on the girl when you transfer calls?" She looks at me, totally confused. "Yeah, you know, when you say por favor, espere la niña..." She almost falls out of her chair in laughter. I'm perplexed. Five minutes later, when she regains her composure and I'm starting to realize I must have misunderstood something, she explains. "I'm saying por favor, espere la linea." And that's the moment I felt like an idiot. That means "hold the line," not "wait for the girl." But, I promise - it sounds SO similar. Add on to that that she is saying it super fast because she says it a million times a day, and you get "wait for the girl" instead of "hold the line." And so began my long list of Spanish flubs.

Next up was in a meeting of the Green Team (the consulate's recycling/earth conscious group that does events in the local community.) There were maybe 25 people from local NGOs at the Consulate with us to discuss the upcoming 10k Green Race the consulate was helping to organize. One of the older representatives of an NGO that worked to plant a lot of trees was talking about last year's race and what they had given out as freebies. The man was an elderly Mexican, and he kind of didn't really open his mouth much when he spoke. I could understand him, but sometimes I had to fill in gaps that I had missed. It just so happened that I was sitting next to the aforementioned consulate operator in this meeting. So, old Señor Mumbles is talking about how many "abuelitos" that they handed out last year. Wait.. what? Abuelitos?! That means "little grandparents." I'm alarmed. Why were they handing out grandparents at last year's race? While my mind is racing, trying to figure out what's going on, the man continues talking. He says that last year, they handed out around 1,000 grandparents, and this year they're planning on handing out close to 2,500. WHAT?! What kind of NGO IS THIS? I quickly scribble out a note in Spanish to my friend, the operator, to figure out what's going on. "Why are they giving out little grandparents?" I pass the note to her. She glances down at it, trying to be discrete in this semi-important meeting. She explodes in laughter, attempting to control herself. A few other attendees at the meeting shoot glances over at us, me totally bewildered and the operator quietly gasping for air. As I'm sure you've guessed by now, they were not saying "abuelitos." They were saying "arbolitos," which means little trees. Saplings, if you will. Ooooh. That makes much more sense for a tree-planting NGO, doesn't it? Later that afternoon, I heard the operator telling anyone who would listen about my note.

This next one happened the morning after the grandparents incident. I get to work around 7:40AM. If you know me at all, you know I'm not a morning person. At all. It takes me forever to wake up and be coherent. So I'm walking into the consulate as a half-zombie, and I head for the water jug to get a glass of water before I get on the visa line. Once again, there's the operator. She's making coffee for the consulate, and the coffee maker happens to be right next to the water jug. So there I am, pouring myself a cup of water and half-dreaming. The operator looks at me, and in her always-joyous voice, she asks me in Spanish: "¿Cómo nació?" I stop pouring my glass of water. Something didn't make sense. "Did she really just ask me how was I born?" I thought. Now, before I continue, you should know that we deal with a whole lot of birth fraud here at the U.S./Mexican border. Many Mexicans will give birth in Mexico and then pay thousands of dollars to get some fraudulent birth documents from the U.S., to try to document their child as being born in the U.S. The majority of this happens with midwives in Texas, who will take thousands of dollars from some Mexican family and then give them a Texas birth certificate, as if that midwife delivered their child in Texas. So, when the operator asked me "How was I born?", I was thinking along those lines. Confusedly, I responded "En un hospital...sin partera", which means "In a hospital...not with a midwife." Once again, she erupts in laughter, almost tossing coffee everywhere. Turns out that she didn't ask me how I was born. What she really said was, "¿Cómo amaneció?", which means "How did you wake up?", or, how is your morning? So I had just told her that I woke up in a hospital, without a midwife. Excellent. I am a Spanish king.

I think that's enough for now. Suffice it all to say that I've learned to think twice whenever what I hear doesn't make much sense to me. There's a really good chance that what my mind understood was not what was said.

Until next time...paz.


  1. Okay Andrew, those were seriously funny...especially the last one!

    Paz y ten cuidado!

  2. Thanks for the funny stories! They do indeed sound very close, in your defense!

    I am learning Portuguese now, and yesterday when I talked about the country Ghana, my teacher thought I was talking about sugar canes. Maybe I should start a list too...

    Thanks for keeping us updated on your adventures!

    Yang - 158th

  3. Andrew! I'm dying and waking up the whole house! If it makes you feel any better, I've called Mike my 'owner' instead of boss, left out the squiggly over the 'n' on a church anniversary banner in the village (Happy 15 Anus'!'), and the best... explaining to someone we weren't testiculos de jehova. Hope I never do 'better' than that one...

    Grace and peace!

  4. Hey, I love these stories. I know I have my share of faux pas! Granted, I was in not in Mexico, nor was I trying to speak Spanish. Rather, this was my time in Germany. For example, while I was living over there, my cousin got married in the "Cherry" (not the "Church")... And I kept misplacing my "Spoon" (not "Key"), which meant I was locked out of the building, waiting for someone to come and let me in.

    Hope you are continuing to enjoy your assignment in Mexico

  5. Thanks for keeping us updated on your adventures!

  6. The last one was so funny , Have a nice day andrew.

  7. I say, "mande," a lot when I don't understand what's being said. Often my mind needs two takes at what I hear to make sense of it. LOL... funny stories!