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Staff writer spends a Spanish-only day in Little Havana
There I was, on my first trip abroad, eager to take in all of Italy, yet within minutes of arriving I was overwhelmed. All because I tried to buy a bottle of water.
I didn't know Italian, and I had just exchanged dollars into lire. Clutching my book of handy Italian phrases, I stumbled trying to order.
Meanwhile, two people cut in front of me in line, and who knows how much I paid for the water.
I felt foolish, so I let my friend, whose fluency in Spanish proved similar enough to Italian to get by, do the talking.
Here in South Florida, I've seen non-English speakers in the same situation, relying on others to communicate for them. If they fumble speaking English, often they're met with eye rolls.
Last year, I started studying Spanish. Through Conversational Spanish at Broward Community College, I'm seeing just how much easier it is to criticize someone who doesn't speak your language than to learn a new one.
Upon entering class, the Venezuelan-born teacher asked me in Spanish how I was doing.
I remembered some basics from high school, so I replied in Spanish.
She quickly issued her warning: I'm going make you sweat in this class.
I want to be challenged. But the perspiration hit as she started speaking in super-fast Spanish. That familiar deer-in-the-headlights feeling consumed me. How am I going to do this when people talk so fast?
A few classes later, it was still intimidating.
I get nervous when trying to speak Spanish. I tried practicing with a Cuban co-worker as well as with my best friend, who is Peruvian.
I can express basic ideas very slowly, but they respond so quickly. This is tough.
I ventured to a restaurant where the owners are from Madrid, and tried to practice. I stumbled and got a bit flustered.
"No te preocupes," he said, telling me not to worry, to slow down and try again. As I went along, he corrected my grammar in a friendly way.
How interesting that non-English speakers often get huffs or glares in similar situations rather than a helping hand.
Something strange has started happening when I am near two Peruvian friends. I start speaking Spanglish, a cross between English and Spanish.
"Adónde vas?" I asked a friend who was leaving the office. Where are you going?
I didn't even think in English first.
Something exhilarating happened: a feeling that I can become bilingual.
I had ventured to the mall to interview people for an article. I approached a lady on a bench.
"No, no inglés," she said in Spanish, telling me she didn't speak English.
Normally, I would have said OK and walked away. But confidence emerged and I said in Spanish, "OK, hablo español un poco," meaning I speak a little bit of Spanish.
In the most broken Spanish probably ever spoken, I told her my name, that I was a journalist and that I was writing an article.
She understood me. More incredible: She replied in Spanish very slowly, and I understood her!
Today is the real test. I'm heading to Little Havana in Miami where I will speak only Spanish. To prepare, I'm bringing a purse big enough to conceal my Spanish-English dictionary.
I stop to get gas before my journey and the pump didn't issue me a receipt. It took an employee several minutes to understand my Spanish. Once I got back in the car, I discovered why. I had asked for a recepta (a recipe). Of course, I thought it meant receipt. The word for that is recibo. Who knew?
As I neared Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) in Miami, I started with something easy: ordering a Diet Pepsi. The clerk told me the cost was $1.17. Maybe she was ripping me off, but I didn't care. I was just excited to understand something.
In Spanish, I explained that I was practicing my new language.
"Tranquila," she said. Relax.
Two older gentleman drinking café cubano (Cuban coffee) in an outdoor cafetería let me join them, but not without teasing me first.
Tú eres muy fea, one man said, calling me very ugly.
No es simpático, I said, letting him know I caught on, and what he said wasn't nice.
He laughed, realizing I passed his test.
I continued along Calle Ocho to find a place to buy stamps. Of course, I said the wrong word for stamps.
"You mean for mail?" one man asked in Spanish. I nodded. He told me where to buy them, but he spoke so fast I didn't understand him.
I asked him to repeat it. It was still too fast for me, and I was too embarrassed to ask again.
I ended up across the street at the wrong store. But I spotted the man again and he pointed to the store next door.
I got inside, used the wrong word for stamps again and then the lady didn't even sell stamps. It took me three tries to find a store that did, and I was charged $1 for two.
I asked a passer-by for directions to I-95. The reply was so fast that who knows where I would have ended up.
Finally, a familiar face arrived. Anastasia, a Sun-Sentinel photographer fluent in Spanish and English, joined me at a restaurant.
She told me her order in Spanish, so I could tell the waitress. I'm allergic to milk, so I asked if the plantain soup had it. I was so mentally drained from trying to speak Spanish for so long, I ordered chicken soup instead. The waitress was so patient and encouraging that by the end of the meal, she scribbled a makeshift certificate of completion of Spanish on my place mat.
After lunch, we spotted a crew filming a commercial. I asked in Spanish if they needed more people. I was ignored. I repeated the question. A man gave me an annoyed stare and then asked Anastasia in English: "What did she just say?"
As we walked down the street and passed a high-rise under construction, the workers started whistling. Some communication is universal in any language.
That was true, too, when I went to buy a bottle of water. I was determined to do it without a dictionary, especially considering my frustration in trying to buy one in Italy.
I bought it without a problem. (It was a dollar store, I confess, so the price was a given.)
But the bottle cap was stuck and I couldn't open it. I said to the clerk, "No puedo," (I can't) and made a twist-off motion with my hands. She understood and helped me open it.
So if I return to Rome, at least I know I won't die of thirst.
Jodie Needle can be reached at email@example.com or 954-385-7908.