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SPOTLIGHT
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Strangers in a remarkable land

Published on -7/14/2014, 9:11 AM

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This column was originally a lead-in to a June 30 column about a trip to Mexico. To read that column, visit http://hdnews.net/opinion/columns/hauxwell063014.

We returned tired and impressed after a safe, pleasant trip to Mexico City. Si, es verdad.

We'd heard the warnings about drug-prohibition-related violence, narcotraficantes killing police and kidnapping innocents for ransom. We figured since we didn't look like police, and since my lack of personal hygiene would discourage any would-be kidnappers, we'd be OK. And so we were. We didn't visit any border towns, and we don't frequent bars and nightclubs. There wasn't any H1N1 flu around, either.

A most sensible preparation for foreign travel is developing some acquaintance with a foreign language. Mexicans speak a language resembling Spanish, much like we norteamericanos speak something resembling English. (We share with Mexico, as all school children know from the question they generally miss on their achievement tests, the North American continent; Canadians get what's left.)

I figured I could handle speaking Spanish, since I had a whole year of Spanish as a high school freshman 50 years ago, but I still bought a pocket Spanish phrase book to go with my English/Spanish-Spanish/English pocket dictionary. I even underlined potentially useful words and phrases, intending to type them all on note cards which we could use to practice in the evenings before we left. It's one thing to know how to write and pronounce a word, but quite another to convert this knowledge into the muscular lip and tongue movements involved in speaking out loud.

But shucks, we got busy and never quite got around to the actual practicing part. Consequently, Belva had to leave the Spanish conversations and interpretations largely to Yours Truly. Predictably, this had its downside.

Belva's brother, Rupert (not his real name), lives in Albuquerque, and although he employs some people who speak mostly or exclusively Spanish -- legally employs them, I hasten to add without winking -- he has made no effort to learn the language himself. "Just take an English word and add 'o' at the end" is his rule. Guess he doesn't attend the rodeoo or play videoo games.

Belva's cousin, Joe, and his wife, another Rupert (also not her real name), who accompanied us part of the time in Mexico, has studied Spanish enough to be familiar with incidentals such as grammar and vocabulary. (Not pronunciation, though; even I could tell her Spanish incorporated a heavy Texas accent.) But much of the time Joe and Rupert were doing their own things, and we were left to our own devices. Caramba.

Written Spanish is fairly user-friendly. Punctuation marks sometimes precede a sentence as well as conclude it. This means you don't have to wait until the end of a sentence before deciding whether, for example, it is a question or an expletive. One need not take offense when someone writes "you toad-brained son of a cactus" if you know from the start it is an honest inquiry, rather than an accusation.

Unfortunately, the punctuation marks beginning a sentence are printed upside down. I have to turn the page itself upside down to figure out which inference is intended, and then when I turn it right side up again, I tend to lose my place.

Spanish is linguistically economical. When the taxi driver responds to my query with "(upside-down question mark) mande (right-side up question mark)," he might just mean "huh?" Or he could mean, "I'm not exactly sure what you're getting at, and though I realize that you are an Americano, and thus a member of that benighted people who loosed Jorge Bush Segundo upon the world (in Spanish, "segundo" means "sloppy seconds"), I'm reasonably sure you didn't mean to ask about locating a seagull who sells seashells by the seashore."

Any foreign languages we learn following an exclusively-English childhood are usually sequestered in one part of the brain together; we have the English part, and the all-the-others part. So when I try to think and speak in Spanish, it opens up my Russian language archives. (Forty years ago I was able to get a degree in Russian language, mostly by mumbling.)

If I may digress here -- language retrieval from the brain is a fascinating phenomenon. In college I spent many all-nighters cramming for Russian tests. Decades later, when I was seriously sleep-deprived and harried during long bouts of ER coverage on the Rez, I sometimes barked orders in Russian. Fortunately, this did not result in any patient deaths, and in fact it could've intimidated angry relatives who would've tried to beat me up were they not worried I was either a KGB agent, or possessed by the Holy Spirit.

Hola! Digression done. Most of the time my tendency to conflate Russian and Spanish didn't matter, as I had time to sort the two. On one occasion, though, a hurried woman collided with me as she chased a bus. The Russian word for "excuse me" is "izvenitye," and I reflexively spoke the first syllable before realizing it wasn't Spanish. I immediately morphed it into the first Spanish word that came to mind which also started with "iz" -- "izquierda."

Unfortunately, the Spanish apology is "disculpe," and "izquierda" means "left." So as she caromed away from me, I had hollered -- "left!" Fortunately, the bus was actually coming from her left, so she wasn't hit and killed. Good thing I didn't yell "right!"

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family

physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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