Friday, September 28, 2007

Argentine Dispatch #1

09/26/07 - On the flight from Dallas, Texas to Santiago, Chile.

She looks like so many of the grandmothers I met in Argentina - she´s got the same pallor, the hair dyed dirty-blond but imperfectly hiding its grey roots. She´s a bit round in the torso - too busy for too many years making and eating food with her family. She wears a blouse with a broach at the center of the neckline. It´s less schoolmarmy than it sounds but it is by no mean "hip." Her thick stockings and sensible shoes complete the picture. She comes around the corner of the ATM I´m hiding behind and asks if I speak Spanish (calling it "castellano" as they do in South America).

The flower of shame and fear blooms beneath my skin, as it always does at the question. I don´t blush; I just feal my chest tightening up a little, my brain clumsily revving up to prepare itself for the onslaught of strange words and continuous verb conjugation.

There aren´t many people around, so I say that yes, I do speak castellano, and I offer to help when she asks me if I know how to use the pay phones on the other side of the ATM machine. I don´t, of course, because like the rest of the USA it seems, I use my cell phone instead. I can read the instructions, such as they are, It might be enough.

She´s obviously flustered so she starts putting her bags down anywhere, and one of them falls over. I pick it up and (correctly) announce that I´m placing it near the phone. She says, "you speak castellano well." I´m embarrassed again - this time that I undersold myself and she might think that I didn´t want to help at all. Sometimes my inner life is so distruptive that I can´t believe I keep it up so obsessively.

She has no change so she gives me a dollar and we talk while I dig out quarters from my luggage. She´s calling her daughter who lives in LA. She´s on her way home to Chile from a visit with her. Where am I going? Córdoba, I announce and by now she´s caught my accented (if broken) Spanish, and she asks if I´m Argentine. I tell her about behing born there (the verb conjugation tripping me up again so that I must have said she was born there before I corrected myself and made it my birth under discussion). The quarters go into the phone. I dial as she rattles off the number, a bad idea I discover since I tend to confuse my 15's and 500's. We dial a couple more times and only once make a connection, but though it turns out to be wrong, we lose our dollar anyway.

I lose patience and pull out my cell phone. We make the call and she leaves her daughter a message, unsure that it'll work but happy to have made an attempt. I wonder how long ago I used a public phone. I´m glad I have my cell so I can help this woman who keeps sweetly asking my about my life. After we lament her daughter being out, she says she was so glad to meet me twice at least. She thanks me profusely. It takes the edge of my communication anxiety. Even if we had to resort to body language at this pount, we would have understood each other. Bebe (a nickname, her given name is Elisa, she tells me) gives me her address and says I´m welcome at her home, should I ever find myself in Chile. Maybe butchering the language every time I open my mouth isn´t such a crime. Kindness has fewer language barriers than I previously thought.

She bids my goodbye and I misunderstand something about the flight so I think that´s it for us. I end up sitting one row behind her and one seat to the right. I don´t notice until I come back from a bathroom visit in the middle of the night. She smiles and takes my hand as we greet each other, old friends now.

4 comments:

GAO said...

Ooo! I'm so happy for you! Continue to have a marvelous time.

Mair said...

great story, E!

Sarah said...

Lovely, Rica. Lovely.

podslave said...

As always, your words are awesome. You almost brought me to tears. I've experienced the same communication struggles and as stressful as they can be, somehow it always works out in the end. Beautiful story! Can't wait to hear more.

Bee