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True confession from a seasoned but ignorant traveler

Hola from sunny Sayulita Mexico!

ImageI have the most fortunate in-law situation. Not only are my in-laws stellar individuals—they also live most of the year in Mexico. That means our yearly trip to see the grandparents lands us on the beach in Mexico every year. What luck! Quelle chance!

I wish I could say that in Spanish—but the embarrassing truth about me is that despite our yearly trips (this is our 3rd), I know very little Spanish.

The first time I came here I was mortified. Used to living in countries where I could speak the language I felt embarrassed at how American I seemed to myself. I’ve traveled a lot and I can’t count the number of times I’ve been (in Europe especially), mortified by the American tourist who speaks extra loudly to the shop owner in English demanding something she can’t understand. Now, I was one of those people. Well, I am not speaking loudly.

My first year in Mexico, my brother, who has traveled the world with me, was also along. He and I were walking away from a money exchange kiosk when I confessed my shame to him over not even knowing how to say the simplest thing, like, for example, “I’d like to exchange some money.” He looked at me and said, “I was wondering what was wrong with you—you didn’t even try.” I responded, “I know—the truth is I don’t have the slightest idea what the words might be.” Instead the French and Pulaar Futa (totally unhelpful!) phrases swam through my head, Spanish—nada.

P1030400In contrast, my brother, knowing we were meeting in Mexico, had spent the last several months reviewing his Spanish, practicing it and watching Spanish films. Maybe he couldn’t understand a rapid-fire response but at least he could say, “Do you have a bag?” Or, “How much is this? Or, “I’d like a beer, please.” I could count to 10. That year I thought, before I get here next year I’m going to brush up on my Spanish. Does it remind you of that promise you make to yourself every year just before Christmas? “Next year I’m going to do more shopping in advance.” Maybe…. probably not.

I could happily provide you with several excuses for my ignorance—but I won’t. Instead, I’ll just say “Gracias” for understanding. And confess with sincerity, I have become that person I once thought so distasteful. It seems to me a common experience over the course of a lifetime: Judge something, become it later. Finally, understand.

IMG_4879Now, all these years later I can say with honesty, I forgive you middle-aged American tourist standing in a village in France shouting in English at the stooped old woman shop owner. I know you, like me, were just doing the best that you could.

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