Saturday, June 2, 2007

They have a different word for everything!

I believe the full quote "Spanish is hard - it's like they have a different word for everything!" is attributable to Steve Martin. Anyway, I'll be the first to confess to a certain cultural arrogance upon my first arrival in Spain. The smug notion that, while we English-speakers have an enormously rich array of words to choose from, to express even the simplest idea, those who speak other languages must limp by with a paltry hundred or so. Needless to say, this myth was dispelled pretty quickly. These days, pretty much every day is a humiliating reminder of just how many Spanish words there are, and just how few of them I actually master.


Tonight was a case in point. I slipped out at around 11pm or so to get some toothpaste at the VIPS store. Swear to God, that was my only intended destination. Yet somehow I found myself, around 11:15 pm, sitting in a restaurant named after this character:

with a plate of what would have been referred to in a previous workplace of mine as "Chicken Merck Nuggets". Yes, gentle readers, I had succumbed to the irresistible lure of "El pollo campero".

Before you leap to judgement, let me suggest that you walk in my shoes for a while first. Not every day in Spain can be filled with museum visits, tapas bars, and banter with the charming natives. Some days it's Burger King, Scrubs reruns and the fervent hope you will get an e-mail from someone on a topic other than the size of one's member, potential fun with underage barnyard animals, or the alleged availability of X$ana$X without a prescription in C$ana$a

Anyway, no sooner had I sat down with those delicious pieces of pollo than I realized that I was living my worst nightmare. As this was a completely unplanned visit, I had brought nothing to read! Waves of panic washed over me. The situation was dire. I could not possibly get through the meal with nothing to read. I looked around in desperation. At Burger King sometimes they have sudoku puzzles on the placemats. Or discussions of the fake nutritional value of their products. At El Pollo Campero, nothing. Not even a phoneme of text.

Then I remembered. The toothpaste box! Praise the Lord. A veritable War and Peace of advertising text, both in Spanish and in Portuguese. If it weren't so late, I'd call that Colgate toll-free number right now just to thank them. Anyway, I chewed and I read, until - just as I was mopping up the last of the barbecue sauce with the final greasy piece of chicken, I reached the following text: Children under 6 should brush under supervision, "utilizando una cantidad de dentifrico del tamaño de un guisante".

This confused me thoroughly. Why? Because my knowledge of Spanish is so shaky that I mixed up the word "guisante" (a pea) with the word "gusano" (a worm). So that the whole four blocks home from the restaurant was spent arguing with myself "that's very non-specific advice - worms come in all shapes and sizes; besides which, even an average sized worm would be an awful lot of toothpaste for a child of six". It was only when I was safely back in my room, with access to my dictionary, that I was able to figure out my mistake.

Damned Spaniards. They have a different word for everything.

1 comment:

O'Donovan said...

> even an average sized worm would be an awful lot of toothpaste for a child of six

I am so strongly tempted to tag this.