Procrastination: An International Language

thumbnailA couple of weeks ago, I received a very panicked, last-minute text from one of my former English students.  This young man needed help with a presentation for his science class.  We made arrangements to meet the following morning to work on the assignment together.  All I knew was that he needed to make a video of a science experiment in English, and we absolutely had to get together “tomorrow”.

I started to get a bit nervous when more than 15 minutes after our agreed upon time, my young friend had not arrived.  I wondered if I had misunderstood the arrangements we made the night before.  That happens sometimes when I am texting in Spanish!  Soon after, however, I saw him walking through the gate and heading my way.

He was a sweaty, tired mess- -having walked nearly four miles to my home from his in a small fishing village outside of town.  “Why didn’t you ask me pick you up?” I asked incredulously.  After gulping down a glass of ice water, he replied that it was no big deal.  Wow!  I was thinking what dedication this kid has to his studies.  Yeah, more about that later.

My friend explained that he needed to video tape a science experiment, detailing the steps in English.  He pulled a few of the necessary items out of his backpack and then asked if I had a wine cork and a book of matches.  (Is a cork a common household item?)  Now it was my turn to go into panic mode.  How were we going to be able to finish his assignment without one of the key parts of the experiment?!  Why did I not ask for more information the night before?!  I googled substitutions for a cork and came up with nothing.  As I  contemplated driving into town to buy a bottle of wine just for the cork, he suggested we ask one of my neighbors.

I do not know very many of my neighbors well.  Most of them are seasonal and keep to themselves when they are here.  Could I really just knock on their doors and ask for a wine cork?  At 9:30 am?  What the heck.  We headed off on our mission.  The first neighbor was not home.  We moved on down the block.  I rehearsed our strange request all the way.

Fortunately, the next neighbor was home.  Unfortunately, this meant I had to ask for the cork.  She jokingly suggested that I knew just where to come for a wine cork.  (I guess I do know some of my neighbors pretty well.)  She then proceeded to open a brand new bottle of wine just so she could give us the cork.  “Hey, no worries.  We’ll just have to drink it this afternoon.” she said.  I awkwardly thanked her, and we left.  We had used about 30 precious minutes of our hour and a half just securing the needed materials.

Rather than get right to work upon our return, the scientist asked for my wi-fi password and then checked his Facebook page.  Apparently, nothing urgent was breaking on his newsfeed, so we were finally able to focus on the task at hand.  First, we reviewed his brochure and made a few vocabulary corrections.  Then, he walked me through the experiment and explained what should happen.  Finally, he practiced in English several times.  We began filming.

I think we were both holding our breath at the climax of the experiment- -and then thumbnail-1simultaneously wondering what in the world had gone so wrong.  We had three matches left by this point, exactly the number we needed.  (Obviously, I am not at all prepared for scientific emergencies.)  I did a quick internet search for the experiment, thinking we could figure out our error that way.  Like the wine gods earlier, the science gods were smiling upon us as well because lo and behold, there it was!  (Interestingly, we could have conducted the experiment without a cork.)

I explained what I had found, requiring some new vocabulary to be added to the pamphlet and a few more rounds of practice- -without lighting the matches, of course.  This time, the results were perfect, and we were both pretty amazed with the science.  We fist bumped, high-fived, and did a happy dance.  Then the mad scientist quickly sent the video to his teacher, as the due date was that afternoon, not the next day.  We hurriedly cleaned up our mess so I could drive him home.  It turned out he had more homework  to finish before heading to school that afternoon.

The Great Santa Rosa Dognapping (Well, Almost)

When our son, Caleb, left Mexico last August to return to school, Steve and I agreed to keep his dog, Honeycomb.  Honeycomb became my constant companion.  We walked the beach and swam together.  We hiked.  We hung out at the pool.  Honeycomb loved car rides, so I often took him with me when I ran short errands into town.  These were adventures in and of themselves.

After a particularly disastrous hair appointment (mine, not his), The Comb and I set out to find anything that could help me get through the next eight weeks.  We pulled into the parking lot of a local market and were immediately approached by a man a little down on his luck.  Using the opportunity to practice my Spanish, I explained that I did not have any change at the moment but would after leaving the store.  I asked if the man would be willing to look after my car for me while I shopped, making sure my dog was okay while I was gone.  I would then, of course, pay him for his time.  (Don’t worry, animal lovers.  I left the car running; the air conditioning was on, and the doors were locked.

Even though my hair was hidden under a hat, I was not wasting any serious time in public.  I was in and out in five minutes, tops.  (This was most certainly a record setter.  Usually, lines move much more slowly, as Mexican people are not nearly as preoccupied with time as Americans.)  As I left the store, I glanced over at my car.  The Comb was watching me.  There was no one watching The Comb, however!  I quickly scanned the parking lot and found my dog sitter across the way.  I decided to pay him anyway.  And am I ever glad I did!

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Honeycomb, skeptical of the tale of his “almost” dognapping.

Apparently, very soon after I walked into the store, a group of robbers came over to the car to try and snatch my dog.  The Comb’s hired guard put himself between the thieves and my car.  They hit him repeatedly with a stick.  At this point in his story, he actually began crying and pointed to his arm.  I opened my car door and gave him a Kleenex.  He was away from the car because the Municipal Police had just driven by.  He flagged them down and explained to them that there were vicious robbers in the area.  They had attacked him and tried to steal my dog!  He said the police just left in hot pursuit.  I actually looked down the street, expecting to see the car chase!

I had recently learned the phrase “cuídate” (take care) and said it over and over while patting this “brave” man on his arm.  I paid him a little extra for all the effort he put into protecting Honeycomb, err, for telling such a great story.  Down on his luck?  This guy could be a screenwriter or an actor!  This was probably the most creative excuse I had ever heard for shirking responsibility while on the job.  I briefly wondered if I might ever have an occasion to use it.  I drove away laughing at the silliness of the tale, and the fact that I understood all of it.  (Those Spanish lessons were paying off.)  The Comb?  He was  tired of the car by now,  ready to go home, and chase some geckos!

Lessons in Language

When my dad was transferred to Medellin, Colombia more than thirty years ago, his company sent him to Cincinnati, Ohio for two intensive weeks of Spanish instruction.  Today, his Spanish is almost better than his English!  The very first thing I asked my husband when he accepted his transfer to Guaymas/San Carlos was whether or not we would be offered Spanish lessons.  The answer, unfortunately, was no.

San Carlos, officially called San Carlos Nuevo Guaymas, is a part of the Guaymas Municipality.  The area as a whole has a population of close to 135,00 people.  San Carlos, developed primarily as a beachfront residential area, has a population of approximately 7,000.  For the most part, its residents are retirees and transplants from the United States and Canada.  As a result, the predominant language in San Carlos is English.  It is possible to conduct all business- -grocery shopping and other errands, dining, recreation and sight seeing- -without speaking a word of Spanish.  This includes my husband’s job as well.  Nearly all professionals in his company are bilingual.

While I arrived with a decent grasp of the Spanish language, I was determined to find a teacher and move from passable to proficient.  I assumed finding a Spanish tutor in a Spanish speaking country would be an easy task.  You know what they say about making assumptions…

My first tutors were students at the Secundaria School in the fishing village of La Manga, where I volunteered teaching English two days a week.  I am certain that I learned much more from them than they did from me.  They loved to hear me try to say “refrigerador” and “ferretería”.  I have since learned that even native Spanish speakers here use “refri” instead of refrigerador.  Oh, just wait until I see those kids again!

It took six months to find a Spanish teacher.  Shortly after we began working together, I had an experience while shopping in Guaymas that truly humbled me.  I asked a shop owner if the store next door to him was open.  I didn’t understand his reply and asked him to repeat it.  In perfect English, he asked me how long I had been living in Guaymas.  I answered him in Spanish.  He continued angrily in English, reminding me that in the United States we are not always very gracious toward people who do not speak our language.  I knew in my heart he was right.  I have read too many Letters to the Editor, op-ed pieces, and comments on social media.  I have listened to too many “talking heads”, acquaintances, and even family members that give credence to his sentiments and remarks.  He was understandably upset.  I happened to represent an unkind attitude that he may have encountered.  Instead of defending myself or making excuses, I told him that I was trying to learn and even had a teacher.  His advice to me was to try harder and get a better teacher.

IMG_4137So I redoubled my efforts.   I meet twice a week with my tutor; once for vocabulary and grammar practice, and a second time for Spanish conversation.  I complete practice exercises in  workbooks and search for lessons on-line.  I initiate exchanges with people on the beach, follow the gardeners from the hotel next door all over the place, and chat up the guards at our front gate.  I am pretty sure I drive them all crazy!  But they are patient, kind, and encouraging. In fact, one of our guards recently tried to fire my tutor, convinced that teaching me Spanish is his job!

The support of so many has made a huge difference in my learning.  I find myself more willing to take risks.  Even if I totally botch it, my mistakes are an opportunity for growth.  I am more appreciative of efforts made by others to speak English to me as well.  We all have the power to be teachers.  Be aware of this potential.  Are the lessons we share compassionate?  Uplifting?  Helpful?  Applaud the effort and celebrate progress, not perfection.

Oh, and if you happen to find yourself in a conversation with a shopkeeper in Guaymas, never use “repita” or “mas despacio” if you do not understand.  In Sonora, Mexico, “mande” gives you a lot more street cred!