Thursday, January 05, 2006

A Common Language

Hablo espanol. Not fluently, but well enough to carry on a conversation with almost anyone. It's one of my proudest accomplishments. Sometimes, it helps me make a connection that would otherwise be impossible, an I-Thou moment between myself and another human being. I experienced such a moment the other day.

I had stopped at a supermarket in a wealthy suburb, a market I'd never been to before. At the checkout, I was told the bagger would accompany me to my car and load the groceries into my trunk. I always feel awkward about this type of arrangement and that day was no exception. I walked through an icy rain toward my car, feeling like an entitled matron with a servant in tow. He was a youngish man, painfully thin. I had heard him speak Spanish while in the store. I was tempted to say something, but I thought that might be presumptuous, so I walked rapidly toward the car.

When I lifted the lid of the trunk, I noticed that my ice scraper, which I would need to clean the windshield, had slid all the way to the back of the trunk. I thought I might strain an already inflamed shoulder if I reached for it myself, but this was just an excuse. Really, I wanted to say something to the bagger, to show him my good will.

"Me puede hacer un favor?" (Can you do me a favor?) I asked. "Puede alcanzar esta cosa que se usa para hielo?" (Can you reach the thing that is used for ice?) Not a perfect Spanish sentence, to be sure, but adequate, I hoped.

His reaction was all out of proportion to my hope. He bestowed on me an absolutely radiant smile.

"Habla espanol!" he exclaimed and praised my use of the word "alcanzar". He seemed amazed and delighted. I smiled back. I imagined that I might have been the first customer ever to address him in his own language.

We chatted a bit longer. I commented that it must be difficult not to be able to "platicar" (chat) with customers. He agreed. He wanted to know where I had learned Spanish. He seemed reluctant to leave,
utterly oblivious to the rain and cold. We stood for a moment, suspended, having transcended the formidable barrier of language. For one beautiful instant, we were real to one another, linked souls. Finally, I thanked him for his help.

"Feliz ano nuevo!" (Happy New Year!) he said, waving as he headed back toward the foodstore's bright lights. "A usted tambien," (To you, too) I called out, filled with good will toward men, or at least toward this one unexpectedly kind and friendly man.


Anonymous said...

Barbara, This blog should be on every school childs must list for why we learn languages.

I just returned from South America and what I wouldn't give to be able to speak Spanish. How much richer my experience would have been.

A very touching and beautifully written story. I am a fan! Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Saludos. Recuerde todo que aprendiste de Sr. Fonseca, aunque no me diste tus tareas. Sigue escribiendo. Hasta ahora me gusta leer todo. Miguel

Anonymous said...

Another beauty from a most accomplished writer! These tidbits make my day. And Reggie is absolutely right about teaching languages better.

Anonymous said...

Felicitaciones, good spanish or Castellano .

Anonymous said...

I loved that story, and it reminded me of a similar experience at JFK where noone would help me find my way until I spoke Spanish to a cleaning lady who dropped everything to help !
Many people do not realize that making an effort in someone else's language means reaching out to them.
You did put it in a very moving way, I'm hooked now.