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Jack Smith

The Spanish Language Is Greek to Him

November 24, 1987|Jack Smith

One thing travel teaches us is how isolated we are in our own language.

In Spain and Portugal, I found myself incapable of comprehending the daily newspaper, menus, television and ordinary conversation.

We comfort ourselves that English is the universal language, but it is no more the universal language than Esperanto is.

It may serve that function in the higher councils of international diplomacy, but in the street it might as well be ancient Greek.

We were lucky to find even a concierge who spoke fluent English.

To ask directions of a man in the street was to invite a torrent of rapid-fire Spanish that was utterly incomprehensible.

It made me more understanding of non-English-speaking immigrants in Los Angeles. I have often been approached by someone on Figueroa Street, in Highland Park, who wanted to know how to get to, say, Hollywood and Vine. I would start to tell him, only to see that he couldn't understand a word I said. Simple as the route is, there was no way to explain it through a language barrier.

About the only solution would be what a young man did for my wife in LaCoruna. He leaned inside her car window and drew her a map on the back of a tour brochure. He was a handsome fellow, like Cesar Romero. And his map worked.

For at least a week after I learned that tortilla means omelet in Spain, I ate almost nothing else. Fortunately I did know the word jambon (ham) so I was able to specify ham omelets, which gave me some variety, but didn't do my cholesterol any good.

I was starved for the printed word in English. I bought a London Observer at a newsstand and kept it for days, until I had devoured every word. I read and reread every news story, every book review, every theatrical notice; I even read those little stories at the bottom of the financial page, about changes in management personnel.

On our Moroccan tour a man in the seat opposite mine on the bus was reading an International Herald Tribune. I watched him like a dog waiting for a man to throw him a bone. I willed him to hand me just a piece of it.

Only once did we get any news from television. We stopped at a small roadside bar-cafe and were in the dining room, sharing it with two young Spaniards who were at a table directly under the television set, devouring lunch and a bottle of wine.

I was watching the TV idly when a familiar figure rose at some public function. It was George Bush. In that prep school manner he said, "I am pleased to announce my candidacy for the nomination as President of the United States." A telecaster then took over in Spanish and that was the end of it. Once or twice, in this city or that, we saw George Shultz on TV, upstaging his colleagues at some diplomatic conference; but the words that came out of his mouth were Spanish.

I never read a word about the football strike until it was over.

There were nine English-speaking people on our tour bus in Morocco. The others mostly spoke Spanish. Inevitably we nine English-speakers clung together. We ate meals together, we sat in lounges together, having cocktails and bathing in our common language; we kept together when the group was trudging through the casbahs. Once, in Marrakech, I think it was, our tour guide called our English-speaking group together to explain something. His name was Diego Martin (not San Diego, he assured us), and he was obliged to explain everything both in English and in Spanish.

He was speaking to us in English when he noticed that one of the Spanish-speaking tourists had attached himself to our group and was listening without comprehension.

"No," he told him, pointing to the other group. In Spanish he said (I think), "Your group is over there."

San Diego, for that is of course what we called him, turned back to us and began to speak to us in Spanish.

We laughed. He realized what he had done. He switched gears and began to speak in English. It was easy enough for him. But to us who were trapped in our single language, it was magic. He had stepped through an impenetrable door.

How much easier it would be to find our way in this world if we only understood one another.

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