The house I’m staying in here in Mexico has a housekeeper six days a week, which, I have to admit, is weird. I mean, it’s great that I don’t have to wash my own dishes, and that the jug of purified water in the bathroom (for tooth-brushing) is magically refilled each day, but still, I’m not used to having someone clean up after me, and this situation is made all the more strange because Conchita doesn’t speak English and I barely speak Spanish.
Hopefully that will change soon because I just arranged for Spanish lessons while I’m here (my first one is this afternoon). And I’m not completely hopeless. I know how to ask for the check at t restaurant and how to say “I need toilet paper,” along with some other necessities. But half the time, when I’m out in San Miguel, I freeze up when it comes time to speak Spanish. I get flustered — nervous about saying the wrong thing — and half the time German comes out by accident. (The brain tends to store all foreign languages in the same spot — try to access one and you might get the other.)
That’s probably my number one fear and frustration when traveling abroad. I’m not afraid of pick-pockets or getting lost. I’m afraid of not knowing the right words and seeming stupid. I’m afraid of not being able to communicate. It makes me feel awkward and isolated and not quite like myself.
But back to Conchita. My housemate, David, read in the guestbook that she’s an amazing cook. “We should get her to cook for us,” he told me and our other housemate, Marico. We all agreed. But we weren’t sure how it would work — would we buy the ingredients or would she? How much should we pay her? And how, most importantly, would we communicate our request? Day after day went by, and none of us had the guts to ask her.
“I know how to say puedes cochinar para nuestros,” I said, “but what do I do after that?” I worried that she would respond with questions about logistics, and I would stand there gaping at her, saying “que?” and “no comprendo,” which is what I tend to do when people start speaking to me at a level higher than pre-school Spanish.
“I have the same concern,” David said. He was under the impression that my Spanish was better than his, and so I decided that if we were going to get these amazing home-cooked meals, I needed to buck up.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
And so, when Conchita came the next morning, I was lying in wait in the kitchen with a pad of paper and the necessary phrases echoing in my head: Puedes cochinar para nuestros? Cuantro dinero?
“Conchita,” I said, clearing my throat. “Tengo una pregunta.”
What came next was a rough-and-tumble conversation made of mostly Spanish, hand gestures, and confused laughter, in which both of us were only grasping about twenty percent of what the other was saying. But, as far as I could tell, we came to an agreement. I would give her money on Monday, and she would make us enchiladas verdes on Tuesday.
And she did. On Tuesday Marico and I sat down to eat (David, after all his excitement, wasn’t home for dinner) and enjoyed chicken and cheese enchiladas, along with veggie rice and a green salad.
Over dinner Marico and I had a nice getting-to-know-you-better conversation. After a while, our conversation turned to writing.
“For me, writing is about communicating,” I said. “I don’t necessarily want to hold the reader by the hand and explain everything, but it’s important to me that they understand what I’m saying.”
“I mean, sometimes I write poems that are just for me,” I continued, “but I don’t show those to anyone. Otherwise, I’m writing to communicate.”
I know there are many reasons why people write. They write to be clever, to make people think. They write for fun or to explore their own minds. They write to be creative, artistic. They write because they have to get the freaking words out of their brains. Some people even manage to write and make money from it.
But still, the number one reason people write is to communicate something — an emotion, an idea, a story. For me, writing makes me feel more connected to the world. It’s a way of understanding myself and my experiences, and then sharing that with others.
So is this why I feel stressed out in foreign countries? As a writer I spend my days picking out the perfect words and crafting just-so sentences in order to communicate with others. But here in Mexico, I’m working with a very limited number of words. I can’t communicate the way I’d like to. Is that why I feel awkward and isolated?
And yet, I am making myself understood. For one thing, there are an awful lot of English-speakers here in San Miguel. I really need not worry. And besides, did I not manage to put enchiladas on the table for me and my housemates? Perhaps there are times when I should to worry less about the perfect words, about making sure that everything is understandable. Context clues, body language, good old human logic… It’s amazing what a person can understand with only twenty percent.