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« Duty Free Observations | Main | Adios Amigos »
Saturday
Jan112014

Viva El Lenguaje

My entire relationship to the German language was based on my upbringing as a child. We weren't German, but my mother was a high school German teacher; having learned the language while spending time abroad in Germany after college. I learned German from her, continued on with it in college, and used those language skills to live in Europe for more than a year during the early millennium. I lived in Germany, spoke German at a high level, but used it mostly to speak with other internationals who lived in the dorm housing with me. German was the language that united us. I learned how to cook Thai food that year from the seven Thai giris living on my floor. I hung out with Japanese girls after class was over and watched Kurosawa films. I met Spanish guys who I would go drinking with and watch soccer matches. I have always been a talker, which has helped me pick up languages quickly simply because I have no fear in using them – mistakes be damned. If you can't speak English I will do everything in my power to find a way to talk to you.

To increase my amount of potential interlocutors, I've been learning Spanish over the last ten years, off and on, when I have time to take a class. It has been the best investment of time, money, and resources I have ever made. I've gone from no relationship with my mother-in-law (based on an inability to communicate) to a budding and enjoyable friendship. I'm on a first-name basis with every taqueria worker within ten miles of where I live. I try to use Spanish whenever I can, make friends with people who speak Spanish, and use it to further my appreciation of Mexican food and booze. I eat a lot of Mexican food and I drink a lot of Mexican spirits. If you like to eat and drink these things as well, then you need to find a week to spend at the Mayan Riviera on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. If you can even remotely speak Spanish, then you can by-pass many of the tourist traps and American hang-outs and ask the locals for help navigating the backroads. My Spanish lingual skills (along with my wife's first-language fluency, of course) turned what could have been a typical vacation in a tourist resort into one of the best weeks I've had in recent memory.

If I hadn't been able to speak Spanish, I wouldn't have been able to ask Marco the bartender about his favorite spot in town to eat panuchos (which I found as you can see in the above photo). I wouldn't have been able to ask the girls working there if I could go back into the kitchen and photograph them making the fresh masa for the empanadas. See...

I love Mexican street food. Getting to swim in the Caribbean all day is amazing. It's something that everyone should do at least once. However, for someone like me who loves to stuff his face and bloat his liver, these moments like the one pictured above are the most memorable for me. Just making a small effort to speak to people in their own language, with a respect for their own culture, can help create a lifetime of wonderful experiences. That's why my mom wanted to be a language teacher and that's why I was on the path for sometime.

However, the absolute, hands-down, number-one, best reason for learning another language is that it allows you to enjoy the beautiful aspects of foreign culture without having to deal with other American tourists. I don't hate America, or other Americans, whatsoever. I don't think I'm better than them, or that they're stupid and I'm smart. I just find that they're often full of useless, incorrect information when travelling abroad and cannot help babbling about it when you're in earshot:

- "Hey man, you should listen to this guy. He helped us rent a scooter and he knows what he's talking about. It's a really good deal. You should hear what he has to say."

This was said to me after exiting the ferry to Cozumel by another American. I had just told a local guy that we weren't interested in renting a car or scooter, and this American guy felt the need to chime in. We knew where we were going already and how to get there, so we didn't need help (you get hassled big time for tours and taxis in these locations). To be honest, I don't know who he was trying to convince: me or himself. About ten seconds after he said that the sky opened up and began pouring down rain. "A scooter, huh?" I thought to myself, "Great idea. Thanks for trying to entrap me along with you." 

- "You know you don't have to pay, right? It's all-inclusive. All this stuff is free!"

This was said to me at the hotel bar when I gave the bartender a few bucks for making us our second round of piña coladas. "Yeah, I know," I replied. "I'm just giving him a tip." 

"You don't have to tip either, man!"

Thanks for that advise, fellow American. I'm sure they love you around here.

I think the ultimate moment came when we were at the bar watching the 49ers/Packers game. My wife and I were sitting next to a guy from Wisconsin (who was a real sport and a nice guy), translating the play-by-play for him and his friend (the announcing was in Spanish). His friend said, "Wow, you guys really understand all this, huh?" 

"Yes," I said.

"I don't know." came a voice at the other end. "I speak Spanish too and I can only pick up about every fifth word." 

This guy had been spouting nonsense since the moment we came in. My wife turned and said to me, "What?! So because your Spanish isn't good enough and you feel self-conscious, you think we're faking all of this? WTF?" We ignored him. 

There were numerous embarrassing, American tourist moments at the resort that week, but you can avoid all of this typical American tourist bullshit by leaving them to sort through their insecurities and speaking directly to the friendly locals. The area around Playa del Carmen is full of some of the most wonderful people, delicious food, and beautiful scenery. It's a veritable paradise.

What was the best thing we ate? Here it is. This was a new one for me:

Ladies and gentlemen: the pambaso. A normal French roll, soaked in red chili, then fried until it's crispy. That roll is then topped with fried potatoes, spicy chorizo, and chopped cabbage. You can choose to add habanero salsa as well (which I did). Pure and absolute bliss. We found it only by talking to one of the waiters at the hotel about Mexico City street food. He drew us a map through town where we could find this local stand:

When people ask me how I got into the liquor business, I usually tell them I began by learning languages and becoming a teacher. "Oh, what a waste," people sometimes say. "You don't ever get to use all that German anymore." Except that I do use it. There are five Redwood City customers from Austria and we talk every week about grüner veltliner and riesling. I've learned about their lives, their families, their interests, and their personal stories. It's one of my favorite things about working the floor. Or maybe you've seen me run to the back to find the Presidente Brandy I hide in the rear warehouse for the local gardeners who stop by every Saturday. They don't speak one word of English, but we're now fast friends. Our relationship began one day when I started talking to them in Spanish and they asked for Presidente. "No lo tengo, pero vuelve en una semana," I said (we don't, but come back in a week). Everyone in the store knows them at this point.

I have always been an advocate for language learning and, despite the fact I'm no longer a teacher, I still advocate. Language is more than just nouns, verbs, and adjectives. It's a doorway to new relationships and experiences. Learn how to talk. Learn how to write. You may not know this, but David OG's first language was French. Without his communication skills we wouldn't be working out deals for new Cognac and Armagnac like we are now. Heck, look at this blog! We're getting more than 10,000 people a day reading this thing because of our use of language! 

It's never too late, either. Don't think you're too old. I start my next Advanced Spanish class at Cañada Community College next Tuesday night. I'm still learning, too.

In any case, I'm back from Mexico. I'm refreshed and ready. Let's get back to it.

-David Driscoll