I’ve been absent from my blog, and I’m guessing you’ve noticed. Between my full-time job doing justice, my husband’s Pac Rim trips, fourth grade math homework, trying to write a memoir (not for sissies), and my volunteer “work” trying to convince bar associations that military spouses shouldn’t have to take bar exams in every new duty station, well, I’ve been a little busy.
So I had to leave the country.
We haven’t been on a real family vacation since early 2010, and we were long overdue for an escape. With the help of the air miles we’ve accumulated in our individual travels over the last three years we booked a trip for four to the beach in Mexico. We were with each other, and I was without electronic reception of any kind. It was a little terrifying at first.
We still suck a little bit at talking to each other. Our communication styles changed during the last deployment and we haven’t quite hit our stride yet. So without the internet, Facebook, Twitter, or the blog, I found myself talking with the locals I had access to: taxi drivers, wait staff, bartenders, hotel maids, and beach vendors. My husband spent a portion of his childhood in Germany, following his mother through the opera houses of Europe in the early part of her opera career. He managed to ingest the language so fully that at age 8 the school children there couldn’t even tell he was an American. So I’ve always been jealous of his language experience. Until Mexico. He doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish, and I secretly love it. In contrast to his erudite Euro-enlightenment, I misspent a good portion of my late childhood following the high school skippers from sixth period right across the border into Tijuana, where I managed to ingest many things other than the language. But I somehow learned some Spanish along the way, too. And so in Mexico, I do the talking.
About three days into the trip, I started to remember vocabulary and conjugation. I started trying out phrases and asking if they were correct, re-learning snippets I’d long forgotten. I became a self-appointed linguistic genius. As proof I decided to use Spanish on the very next person I saw. I strolled along the pathway, winding my way through birds of paradise and sauntering past the koi ponds on my way to the beachside yoga class. I noticed an elderly Mexican woman in a gauzy cream-colored top and pants walking rather slowly in my direction. As I passed her I smiled, unleashing the full extent of my Spanish greeting prowess upon her: “Buenos dias. Que tenga un buen dia.” My tan must’ve been much better than I realized, because this woman I didn’t know was suddenly explaining, in what appeared to be relatively graphic detail, the terrible or wonderful story of the injury or illness or surgery or table-dancing incident or debilitating disease she suffered from, which afflicted her knee or hip or bellybutton or right temple when she was in her youth or recent days or two years ago, which caused her to move slowly or dance less or stub her toe this morning. I smiled inappropriately in response. I heard the inflection in her voice shift to that flick you can sense at the very first part of a sentence, the telltale sign that a raise in the voice is coming, signalling a question. Yes. She was asking me a question, and it was not on the approved list of phrases.
“I don’t actually speak Spanish,” I finally said in English. She smiled inappropriately back in response.
And there we stood, this stranger and I, starting off believing we were going to communicate, and actually wanting to do so, but ending up in a complete impasse. Instead we stood, smiling stupidly at each other, not knowing what to do next. We needed a translator, but it didn’t feel like it was worth it. It was easier to just nod and walk toward yoga in silence. It was easier to just wonder what she said. To make it up based on what I thought I heard, and believe I understood.
I laid on my back at the end of class with my eyes closed, listening to the waves and feeling the heat push into my skin as the day warmed up. I’ve written before how that deep percussive pounding of the ocean is the glue that sticks my Navy childhood together. There’s just something about the way it vibrates that feels like the sound comes from inside of me. It swells deep and introspective. I could hear the voice of the Yogi floating around from student to student, admonishing us to clear our minds and think of nothing. I was very near a dream-like state as I breathed in deeply, and I conjured my husband and I standing on the path facing each other where I’d been facing the woman earlier. I was looking up at him, hopefully, and we were smiling stupidly at each other. “I don’t actually speak Spanish,” he said, his lips forming the words but my own voice coming out.
I exhaled, and with it tears ran from the outer creases of my closed eyes to my ears and down into my hair, splayed out on the towel. Because here we were, this stranger and I, starting off believing we were going to communicate, and actually wanting to do so, but ending up in a complete impasse. Instead we stood, smiling stupidly at each other, not knowing what to do next. We needed a translator, but it didn’t feel like it was worth it. It was easier to just nod and walk onward in silence. It was easier to just wonder what was said. To make it up based on what I thought I heard, and believe I understood. As a wave crashed inside my chest, I knew I was wrong about that. And I cried some more before it was time to open our eyes again.
My husband and I managed to muddle through the rest of our vacation without a translator, even though we stood staring stupidly at each other a few more times when we couldn’t muster anything else. But as time went on, we started to ingest phrases from each other’s language, relearning what we thought was correct. I suspect what will eventually emerge at the end of reintegration is some kind of marriage pig latin: a colloquy that is not quite any language at all and sounds ridiculous to outsiders, but is understood clearly by its creators. I suspect also that it will end up being astoundingly, annoyingly simple.
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