It’s often hard to know how much progress you’re making with a language, since the incremental daily changes are near-impossible to measure as they happen. We don’t walk around going, “hey, my vowels sound just a little better today than they did on Tuesday!” Language development is a long-term process, something that happens over months rather than hours. Still, there are times when I manage to do something or make some point in a conversation that I know would have been absolutely impossible for me a year or even three months ago. These are the moments when I realize that I am still progressing, that my Spanish hasn’t stagnated at good-enough-to-buy-bus-tickets-but-not-good-enough-to-win-an-argument-about-homophobia (which, for the record, is right about where it is right now. But onwards! And upwards!). It’s important to acknowledge these little victories, if only for the fact that it keeps me motivated and hopeful that I can keep improving, every day.
A few of the things I can now accomplish in Spanish:
- Get something notarized without ruining any important paperwork (I am most self-impressed by this one. It’s a very confusing process, even in English!)
- Translate answers to questions as someone is speaking — again, without ruining anything important.
- Get from Bogotá to Manizales using three taxis, a plane and a bus without getting lost or ripped off.
- FedEx a document (to be fair, at this point I could probably fill out a shipping label in my sleep. Or in Mandarin).
- Get a haircut and actually have it turn out pretty much exactly as I want it.
- Explain why I’m a vegetarian and have people actually understand it. Insofar as most Colombians understand the concept of vegetarianism (anything more than “So you don’t like meat?” is progress).
- Give directions that are at least intended to be helpful and accurate.
- Take a yoga class without looking like a confused fool.
A few things I still can’t do:
- Make good jokes.
- Win the aforementioned argument about homophobia.
- Correctly write dates without double-checking the order of the days and months.
- Convince my attractive co-worker that I am obviously the perfect woman. Then again, I couldn’t do this in English, either.
- Explain American football.
Cultural differences are one of those things you can’t really be aware of until they cause problems for you. That is, we take our own cultural norms for granted, and often only notice changes when they confuse or challenge us. I’m talking here about minor things, of course — not the differences that are immediately apparent, physically or otherwise. No, these are little things, like the fact that people here don’t eat much for dinner, or that 90% of the time, you’re better off saying “señora” instead of “señorita.” These are the things nobody explains to you — the trial-and-error differences you’re left to discover on your own.
There are tons of these little peculiarities hidden all over here like malicious Easter eggs, just waiting for me to discover them by screwing something up or misunderstanding someone. One of my favorite Colombianisms (and by “favorite,” I mean “kind of makes me twitch violently every time someone says it”) is their method of counting — or miscounting — days.
Let’s say it’s Friday, and you’re making plans with a friend to go out dancing next weekend. Those of us who pledge allegiance to English as our first language would usually say something like, “Let’s go next Friday,” or “in a week” (I don’t know what you folks across the various ponds say, but I’m going to assume it’s something similar for the sake of having backup, okay? Okay). These are logical, relatively clear ways to denote time — and, most importantly, they don’t involve counting.
No such luck here. Your average Colombian, when attempting to make plans in the same time frame (although let’s be honest, your average Colombian wouldn’t be planning something a week ahead of time. But give me some willful suspension of disbelief), would say, “Nos vemos en ocho días (See you in eight days).”
WHAT. What, even.
Let’s talk my least favorite subject for a moment: math. If today is Friday, there are six full days between now and next Friday. FULL DAYS. Therefore, next Friday is the seventh day, yes? We’re all still together here? One of my Colombian friends tried to defend this mathematical nonsense by explaining that the full saying is “Hoy en ocho días” (“Today, in eight days”). Disregarding the grammatical issues, I’ve never encountered any other place that counts whatever fraction of the current day is left as a full day when planning things.
And it gets better. As part of my counterargument, tentatively entitled “Where The Hell Do You Get That Extra Day?!” I tried to clarify this nonsense. If you’re doing something tomorrow, I asked, do you say “in two days?” Of course not, answered my friend. Two days isn’t the same as tomorrow.
I KNOW THIS. All I want to know is, at what point in the week, then, does that extra day show up? Because as far as I can tell, there are only seven scheduled days in Colombian weeks, just the same as at home. Apparently this illogical counting only applies in increments of weeks. And don’t even get me started on how two weeks apparently contain 15 days. I just….can’t. And I won’t. I’m going to keep counting in full weeks, thanks, because at least that’s a concept that seems to translate across borders.
I can only assume that this chronological miseducation is actually why Colombians are late so often. How can they be expected to arrive on time when they don’t even know what day it is?
About 12 years ago, my mother began refusing to take me with her to bookstores except on very specific occasions, because I have this unfortunate habit wherein I attempt to read and/or buy almost the entire contents of the store (obviously disregarding any Dan Brown or Twilight books), and taking roughly three hours to do so. I have yet to grow out of this — and honestly have no intention of doing so anytime soon. It’s part of my eccentric charm, dammit! — so you can imagine how I felt about a week ago, when the Feria Internacional del Libro (International Book Fair, or Filbo, if you’re on a first-name basis) came to town.
I’m going to preface this whole post by clarifying that my idea of heaven is a room filled with books. Okay, and a freezer for ice cream. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt to read said books to me. But for the moment, let’s stick with the books. I could (and have) happily spend basically all day in a library or bookstore, trying to absorb as much as possible before I’m forced to leave. However, the Filbo, which was held at Corferias — a lovely outdoor conference complex with various pavilions, fountains and people selling all manner of tasty snacks — was more than a room filled with books. It was about the equivalent of 500 rooms filled with books, and that’s not even getting into the exhibits, artists’ booths, auditoriums for speakers and the fake Iron Throne (why aren’t you watching Game of Thrones right now??), strategically placed for photos ops right outside one of the publishing house display rooms. [Sadly, I do not have a photo of myself there, since it was dark/there was a long line, but once I conquer Westeros for myself, I’ll have no shortage of opportunities to document it.]
Needless to say, I went three times — with rather diminishing returns, if we’re being honest, but it’s not like a complex filled with words could be anything less than glorious. I’ve been to a few book fairs in my life, both at home in Boston and one glorious time in Buenos Aires, when I got to chat with the fantastic, totally charming Junot Díaz (but that’s a different story), and I have to say the Bogotá one does a pretty good job of holding its own, give or take. Obviously, I only saw a small slice of it, as there was just an overwhelming amount of things to absorb there, but I think it did the city pretty proud. Brazil, not so much, but we’ll get to that.
The fair had already been here for over a week by the time I finally made it down, and I was already feeling like a terrible, guilty person for ignoring it for so long. Unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way of gallivanting around unfamiliar neighborhoods of Bogotá in search of literary inspiration. But Jonathan Safran Foer was speaking on Saturday afternoon, and the prospect of getting to hear a real, live author talk about writing! in English! was simply too much to resist. I made it there, covered in rain (further proof why I should never leave the house without my umbrella) and about 15 minutes late, and stumbled into a gorgeous auditorium about 3/4 full of people, all intently listening, many through headphones playing the Spanish translation.
Being one of the few people who can understand a non-translated presentation, whether it’s a speaker or a movie, is always kind of an amusing experience, what with the delayed reaction times. Whenever Safran Foer said something funny, I would be one of the few people laughing immediately — then, a few seconds later, when the translation caught up, the rest of the room would chuckle. I probably sounded like a crazy weirdo, but that’s nothing new for me.
I don’t have much to say about the talk — it was nice just to hear someone talking about writing, but to be perfectly honest, he came off as kind of a dick, which wasn’t unexpected, but it would’ve been nice for one of the few Americans there to make a slightly less pretentious impression. Then again, American fiction writers named Jonathan haven’t exactly been known for being modest or particularly charming lately, so I suppose it’s nothing new.
I had better luck the next day, when I headed back (in sunlight this time!) to meet up with a few other volunteers. I’ve always treated book time as alone time, or Alone With Characters time, so it was definitely a bit of a challenge not being able to wander the shelves on my own schedule. Honestly, it was a challenge just trying not to lose anyone in the huge Sunday crowds, particularly in the packed, overheated pavilion containing artists, anime booths, comic vendors, caricaturists and other design products. Apparently the people of Bogotá are big fans of cartoons. Really the only part of the pavilion worth mentioning was a certain booth called Ollivander’s — selling all kinds of Harry Potter and even Hunger Games memorabilia, natch. I might have considered buying something, if I’d been able to get within five feet of it.
For my third day (in a row, might I mention), I managed to finagle an invitation to go along with my school’s Spanish/literature teachers and about 90 students on Monday morning. There was no real reason for me to go, honestly, other than that I thought it would be fun and it was a chance to hang out with my awesome kids outside of school. Again, this field trip just reminded me the difference between Colombian and American teenagers — the kids could not have been more polite, well-behaved, orderly and (almost all) on time. The morning was a bit of a whirlwind, racing from an exhibit to the aforementioned art pavilion (rather less crowded this time, although the kids obviously still made a beeline right for the Harry Potter and Hunger Games stuff. Because they’re smart) to a somewhat underwhelming author’s talk, where the kids did their best not to fall asleep or look at all their purchases.
One of the other teachers and I also stopped by the Invited Country of Honor pavilion — each year, another country is specially invited to showcase its literature, art and culture, with its own pavilion and various events. This year, the country was Brazil, and honestly, it was pretty disappointing, especially considering the amazing range of cultures and artists in Brazil. I’m not sure whether it was the fault of the organizers or the vendors, but where the other book pavilions were brightly-lit, jam-packed mosh pits of literature, the Brazil pavilion was open, dark and had a surprisingly small number of books. The design of the space was gorgeous, with all these three-foot-tall letters made of wood and beautiful photographs hanging from the ceiling, but it looked more like a museum exhibit than a celebration of literature. All I’m saying is, when I am promised books, I expect books, dammit.
In the end, though, there were more than enough of those to go around. Now I just have to figure out how I’m going to fit them into my suitcase, come December.
In the meantime, the final tally, for those of you who are math people:
Visits to book fair: 3
Books purchased: 4, plus one notebook. This demonstrates highly impressive willpower on my part, since I usually find all notebooks utterly irresistible. I think I like the idea that someday I will fill up all those pages. Even though I won’t.
Cups of mango with lime, salt and pepper consumed: 2
Discussions held in Spanish about the works of David Foster Wallace: 1
Books accidentally knocked over: 2. Also maybe a new record low for me.
Umbrellas forgotten: 1
Plus a few more photos, each worth 1000 words:
On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up this absolutely awesome book at an author’s event last week (which, incidentally, was held at the most insanely nice private school here in Bogotá — the library looked like Colombian Hogwarts or something). It’s called Bogotálogo: Usos, Desusos y Abusos del Español Hablado en Bogotá (Uses, Disuses and Abuses of the Spanish Spoken in Bogotá), and it is HILARIOUS. It’s a really comprehensive, beautifully designed guide to all kinds of Bogotá slang, from the traditional to the very dirty, filled with vintage photos of people and places in Bogotá from the early 20th century. The author, Andrés Ospina, has worked for a while in radio here in Bogotá, and he’s incredibly witty, which clearly shows through the often-sarcastic definitions he provides for words and phrases (in the front of my book, he wrote “A little piece of my humble hometown. I’m sure it will help to worsen or ruin your Spanish.” What a guy!).
Personally, despite his insistence, I’m pretty sure it’s going to help my Colombian Spanish a hell of a lot. It’s already been a huge hit with the other teachers at school — the other day, we locked the students out of the teachers’ room and spent an hour reading the definitions to each other, and they’ve been quick to add words or phrases they insist are missing (this is how I learned how to say “spooning” in Spanish! Which will be endlessly useful, I’m sure). In any case, it’s worth a look, especially for anyone else in Colombia, or anyone with some interest in Spanish linguistics.
Here’s the link to the site, which lists most of the definitions (in Spanish, of course. Sorry, monolingual friends!). Enjoy!