Speaking Spantalian

October 2011

I was getting a manicure in the beauty salon next door to our apartment building in Buenos Aires the other day. Two women were chatting and I was half-listening, catching about every third word. Suddenly an “aha” moment almost caused me to upset the table as I slapped my forehead in understanding. These people are not speaking Spanish. These people are speaking Spantalian.

The People Who Speak Spantalian

Mystery solved.  Every day in Argentina I have struggled with the language.  I don’t get them and they SURELY do not understand a damned thing I am saying.  Nice women behind counters peer at me with furrowed brows and sincere concern as I try to express myself.  Cab drivers contort their bodies trying to read my lips as I mutter my destination or comment on the beauty of their city.  Usually gestures and a pleading expression produce results – sometimes they’re not the right results, but at least some interaction occurs.

My Spanglish is pretty bad, but I get along in Mexico.  This is because Mexicans speak Spanish. I am convinced that in Argentina they are just pretending:  their accents, pronunciation, cadence, gestures, choices of expression, menus, driving style and attitudes are all ITALIAN.  The people look Italian, think Italian, drive Italian, eat Italian and behave Italian.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but how could it have taken me a month to figure it out?  I think of myself as a smart, mature, well-educated, well-traveled woman but sometimes I’m really slow!

The learning curve here is monumental because nothing ever turns out to be exactly what we were expecting.  This challenge is actually what we had in mind when we made the choice to give up our predictable lifestyle and go live among people in places where our comfort level would be challenged.   We remind ourselves of this when frustrated fury lurks behind our pleasant expressions and our tone becomes snappish.

The apartment has presented many opportunities to test our flexibility and resolve.  If you have followed this blog you know about the blue button episode.

Mystery keys.

It started with the keys.  A simple thing.  Not so here.  There are three keys on the ring that darling Marina, the manager, gave us when we arrived.  They remind me of fairy castles and old timey jails.  I know for a fact that they are not peculiar to our building.  I see these keys everywhere in Argentina.  They are large, heavy, and very very difficult to master.

The short one works the building’s front door.  It’s pretty direct and simple to use.  The others look alike at first glance (first week, in our case).  The actual apartment  key has a round top and it must be facing up to open the door.  The hole where it goes is enormous and the key rattles around inside while the operator searches desperately for the way to make it find its slot.  I have no idea what the flat-topped key is for.  The light in the hall outside the elevator is on a timer switch, so usually, just about the time the end of the key slips into the slot, the light goes off.  When this happens, the person trying to enter the apartment is blind and of course drops the bags of shopping, purse, umbrella and jacket he or she was toting and in the process, the key falls out of the door. Swearing and fumbling for the light switch, we  must begin the entire procedure again.  We are getting better at it every day.

Barbie sink with strainer.

Another issue is the camper-size sink with no drain strainer.  Our worries about clogging the drain sent us on a hunt for a gizmo to contain the food bits as we wash our dishes in the Barbie sink.  Of course no regulation sink drainer/stopper is small enough. We finally settled on a tiny tea strainer.   It isn’t perfect but we won’t get dinged for a plumber’s visit.

Barbie elevator.

The elevator presents another challenge. My darling husband suffers from claustrophobia and has opined that one reason to stay thin in Argentina is the pint-sized  elevators.  His rides up and down in our child-size conveyance give him yet another reason to practice patience and forbearance, neither one of which is his strong suit.

His experiences on the always-crowded subway and the narrow, bustling sidewalks where people do not give way, are particularly uncomfortable for him.  He bears up admirably but now and then we have to take a break and plaster ourselves against a building to let the people who are pushing their way behind us or jostling us get on with their business.  After several hours of such rude treatment and body contact with Porteños our quiet apartment and tiny balcony are a welcome haven.

A very uncrowded day on the subway.

There are many dichotomies in this culture. Running pedestrians up on the sidewalk even when they have the right of way is a national sport.  Pushing and shoving on sidewalks, in stores, in subway stations and trains is just the way it’s done.   Receiving sharp tongued responses in stores, kiosks and restaurants seems to be part of the every day experience.

On the other hand, every person who greets another does so with a kiss – an actual SMACK on the right cheek, not an air-kiss a la Beverly Hills.  Everyone kisses everyone.  Men kiss men when saying hello and good-bye as readily as they shake hands in other countries.  This practice is not limited to friends:  service people and clerks in stores smooch customers regularly. People coming in to start their shifts at stores and restaurants  greet the other employees with a peck on the cheek.  Seems to us like strange behavior between people who may have just tried to kill each other on the street with a car.  But then, it’s all part of the  learning experience for us.

Enjoying our haven.

Over-all the attitude here is very different from anything we have encountered in our travels elsewhere.   As the days go by we have come to realize that the dour expression and unresponsiveness we encounter much of the time probably has at least two origins.  First, the political turmoil and the dark days of this country’s past would explain people’s careful and guarded ways.  And now, with the recent election outcome bringing the widely anticipated prospect of serious inflation and devaluation of the Argentine peso, any thinking person would be understandably edgy.  Negativity seems pervasive.

Even the natives know this.  Our darling manager Marina favored us with a visit one evening.  As I mentioned before, she is young, beautiful, vibrant, and 100% Argentinian; in other words, she’s Italian.  Her English is adorable and, of course, it is far superior to my Spangtalian.

In the course of the evening as we recounted some of our adventures, Tim said that here everyone’s first response to a question or request seems to be “no”.  She laughed uproariously and said he was absolutely correct.  The reason, she explained, is that if a person says “no” immediately then he doesn’t have to put up the with requests to follow or explain why the answer is negative in the first place.  It’s a mysterious country.

We don’t really know why, but we have discovered that our friendly smiles and attempts at charming the locals usually do not  produce the results we hope for. But if we can make eye contact and get the full attention of a person we are wooing, we can sometimes pierce the shell of indifference and find the charming, warm, interesting human being inside.  We have come to believe that the Argentinian people are truly genuine and warm and that as we spend more time here we will gain a better understanding of how to communicate more effectively.

In the meantime, we spend our days exploring this vast, beautiful city, planning excursions to other places in the country, and honing our itinerary and arrangements for our 2012 adventures.  I work hard every day speaking Spangtalian and, believe it or not, I am beginning to get the hang of it.

Until next time, ciao!

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