You have to relax to speak Spanish. Words are lazy. The sharp V sound of todavia is todabia, drawn out and unhurried, even when the speech itself is so fast you can’t believe it'snotjustonelongword.
Still, Spanish flows from my lips easily and people understand me, even if my grammar is horrible, my prononciation off or even if I have the wrong word. Just yesterday, I bought a necklace from Diego, a Colombian man now living in Bocas selling jewelry. We spoke of la gobierna, la vida en Colombia y mi hija. From him, I learned the word desarolla. And for a while, i didn't even realize the entire conversation was in Spanish.
"I usually don't understand Spanish so well," I told him.
"It's not about the words," he replied. "But the sense, the logic. It comes from right here." And he tapped his forehead, right between his eyes.
People look in your eyes, treat you like this is your language as much as theirs and are always patient to stop, repeat a word, perhaps even slow down for a bit, but always returning to the quick beat especially when talking politics, home country, and love.
Words of love are something else. They come with a tone of their own. I can’t quite get my head around what that tone is, but it’s palpable. Even when I don’t understand the words, I know what is being said because of the sudden swaying movement of the language.
French is different. Precise. Clean. Rather unforgiving. Accents don’t vary much from Paris to Provence, although the people down south are more forgiving and speak more slowly and clearly. They’re happy to help you, but there’s always that unspoken patience of a teacher with with a student who seems unable to pick up the lesson. Repeat. Try again. Non. Un autre temp. Repetez après moi s’il vous plait. It is so lovely that you attempt to speak our language. No cynicism there. It’s just a fact.
Spanish: I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told I speak very well. I know it’s not true. I assume those who lavish this praise upon me know as well. That alone, makes it infinitely easier to learn the language. It can be spoken simply if so desired, and you will be equally understood, but there are such subtle undertones to the language -- things of which I have only begun to become aware -- that lend levels of meaning that can't ever be adequately translated into English.
I taught Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold. It’s a wonderful book to teach because it is so simple. The story line is straightforward. The language easy. Not a single big word to look up. I thought it would be a good choice to start my Latin American reading in Spanish. But the verbs, ones that I understand, but tend to use only present tense for first and second person, those verbs threw me with their complexity wrapped in such an easy looking package.
In three months of learning Spanish, pretty much beginning with only the most rudimentary understanding of anything, a couple signs I saw on the subway in NY (No se apoye contra la puerta. Piso Mojado.), I find I'm speaking almost as well as French. My French background? Three years in high school. Three in college, where I both read literature, wrote entire papers in that language and then three months speaking almost exclusively in French with people all over the countryside.
Spanish is accessible, open and friendly. French is like ordering a hamburger with ketchup in Paris. You’ll eventually get what you want, but you will receive it with disdain. You need to fit in to the culture, the language, the sense of life that is, without doubt, a wonderfully sensuous, luxurious way of life, and I can understand why the French would not want that marred with American cheese and Ritz crackers.
Even the supermarkets reflect the same. In France, the cheapest, lowest grade chocolate found on grocery aisles excels the best Hershey has to offer. We found five bars of exquisite dark chocolate, fit for gifts, for less than a euro wrapped in rather nondescript packaging. The markets in Panama, reflect the tastes of those who want to buy. M&Ms, saltines and Budweiser. In fact, many assume that as an American, I prefer the American products to that which the average Panamian would buy.
In truth, I prefer Balboa to Bud. I’d rather seek out a fish from the ocean (if you can find someone to get one for you, or procure a boat to fish for yourself) than the frozen shrimp at the Super Gourmet at the very end of main street in Bocas.
Yes, the super gourmet. With its baked beans, bags of pasta, Jif peanut butter (reduced fat variety) ketchup and even, I swear, White Rose chick peas. Do you know White Rose? It’s the bargain brand found while shopping in the US.
I shudder to think of even mentioning these things in the Intermarche, where you’ll find in addition to the prepackaged cheese in cold case near the milk products, a deli with hundreds of gourmet fromage. Ten kinds of goat cheese.
"Vous etes Americains? N'est ce pas?" said the woman behind the counter. "Oui." So she picked a goat cheese she felt would fit my American tongue. It tasted like water. Nothing like excellent strong goat cheese we found in Saint-Remy-en Provence, the kind that tastes like goat and makes your tongue curl. The kind infused with rosemary or lavender and comes from goats that live not too far away from where you buy.
There were six kinds of brie. Camembert. Morbier. Raclete. And so on and so forth. Don’t tell the Cheese Lady, but I made a roux of our leftover cheeses to make, perish the thought, Mac & Cheese for Lila’s dinner.
Fruits and vegetables are also political there. Each one marked with a label telling you from which country the produce originated. We bought French, or in a pinch Italian.
Here, I wonder why star fruit, guayabana, and pineapple are not more plentiful. Isla Carenero, where we live, used to be part of the Bocas Fruit Company banana fields. The road from Almirante to Changuinola is lined with banana plantations, each of the huge bunches wrapped in blue plastic to protect them from weather, insects and banana pilferers. Whatever falls off these bunches in transport is sent straight to the shelves of the chinos in Bocas.
I love it here. I love it there.
I miss tooling through the French countryside soaking in the well-kept manicured beauty. Everywhere you go, no matter how remote – the ruins of an abbey half an hour away from a small town -- you’ll find a place to dine on food unequal to none accented with nothing but the finest wine and coffee.
When we leave here, I will miss the freedom. To say what I want. Walk or swim where I want. Weather sets the only guideline. If it's sunny in the morning, go kayaking then because waiting for the afternoon may well mean kayaking under drizzle or downpour. To quote Marcel, the father of one of Lila's friends from school, "You sit and relax. When you're hungry, pick a banana from the tree. Dinner time, a fish swims by. What's there to worry yourself about."
The only thing that’s not tolerated, complaints. Here, we Americans live a far more luxurious life to many of the locals. We have air conditioning, water tanks, how dare we complain about our living conditions because what does that say about our opinion of theirs?