Sunday, July 8, 2012

Subway español

Spanish was the only foreign language taught in my small-town high school in Nebraska. At the time, studying Spanish meant no more to me then the unexpected benefit of understanding the grammar and parts of speech of my own first language, English. Little did I know that I’d someday be living in a bilingual world, where many people’s first language would be Spanish. So fifty-odd years later, my memory of high school Spanish gets regular exercise.

To be honest, unless I’m in another country, I’m not all that tolerant of hearing other languages being spoken in public places. Shopping at Costco in West Los Angeles when I lived there was like a stridently noisy trip to the United Nations. Then again, Costco tends to bring the worst out of people anyway.

But Spanish is a loving tongue. In LA, you hear it on the bus and in the streets. It’s on a big share of the radio stations, where there’s all kinds of spirited or soulful Mexican music for the listening. You read it on billboards and on the headlines of the city's Spanish-language newspaper, La Opinión. It goes naturally with the palm trees and the sunshine.

Yeah, OK, it’s not all sunshine. There are not-so-loving gangs with guns and tattoos, who converse in Spanish, too.  But this is not about them.

For me, living and working in LA, Spanish got to be associated with food. With the amused and patient help of the bilingual employees at the local Subway, I learned to carry out an entire transaction for the purchase of a sandwich en español—or more properly, “Spanglish.”

Para llevar (to go) I’d learned a long time ago, and con mucho gusto, a pleasantry whose unexpectedness usually generates a smile. But at Subway, where each sandwich is made to order, the transaction involves a whole lexicon of idioms.

A foot-long, I learned, is a pan grande. If you don’t want your pan grande toasted, you say, frío. And then there are the words for all the rest of the makings, some of which I wasn’t even sure how to spell, like trigo (wheat) and pavo (turkey). Lechuga (lettuce), I’ve long loved the way that word rolls off the tongue. After numerous tries, I finally mastered sal y pimienta (salt and pepper). But for some reason I could never remember the word for pickles.

I know my numbers, but paying with a debit card meant there wasn’t that long pause while I mentally translated them into numerals. While it was probably not encouraged, I’d sometimes get a “discount” by the cashier for my entertaining use of the language. Occasionally even a cookie. Then out the door with muchas gracias, hasta luego, buen día and whatever other phrases came to mind.

Armando's on Jefferson Blvd, Los Angeles
From the crew in the Mexican food truck that parked on the street outside the building where I worked, I learned a few finer points. Burrito, of course, I knew. Everybody does. Learning to ask for un burrito de desayuno (breakfast burrito) made my day one morning. So was learning to ask for picante (hot sauce), despite my obviously Anglo features and non-picante accent.

None of this helped at all, by the way, when I spent several weeks in Madrid a couple summers ago. Madrileños seemed to understand my Mexican-inflected Spanish, but I couldn’t understand a word of that rapid-fire, lisping Castilian they’ve got going there.

Now that my days of retirement have removed me from daily patronage of fast foods and food trucks, I’m finding that my Spanglish is slipping. This week, on a trip into the city, we made a stop in Riverside at a Subway and discovered I’d begun forgetting some of the words already.

Gonna have to do something about that. It’s like losing a friend.

Any second-language stories, Spanish or otherwise, are welcome.

Coming up: John D. Nesbitt, One Foot in the Stirrup


  1. I took German in college, because of my ancestry, but hardly remember any of it now. I learned quite a bit of Spanish working with the Cuban refugees and can still recall a fair amount if I'm in a Spanish context.

  2. I was stationed in Madrid for two years in the 1950's and learned enough espanol to get along. Most of it has disappeared over the years, but here in the Phoenix area is similar to LA with a lot of Spanish-Mexican spoken. I worked later with Cuban refugees, but in a mostly English setting.

  3. Interesting post, Ron. Personally, I have never liked Subway, not here at least. Your mention of "Spanglish" reminds me of "Hinglish," a spattering of Hindi and English spoken widely across India. French continues to be the dominant foreign language taught in schools though colleges and universities offer other foreign languages like Chinese, Spanish, German, Russian, and Japanese. I didn't take French because my school didn't have a foreign language.

    India has 22 official languages that include Hindi and English, recognised by the government as "the" two official languages. There are, however, some 400-odd languages out of which a dozen or so are reportedly extinct. Besides, there are hundreds of dialects or spoken languages, each one distinctive of race, caste, and region. It's a linguistic rollercoaster.

  4. If I had any kind of Indian food available, I'd probably never step into a Subway.

    As for Hinglish, I recall sitting next to a couple of young men in a tea shop somewhere in England, listening to them converse in what I assumed to be Hindi. When the subject turned to automobiles, they switched to English.

  5. I started studying Spanish once, but only got about as far as the phrase un perro debajo una mesa (a dog under a table), which probably only sticks in my memory because I had a live example nearby. That's aside from the few phrases I've picked up reading Westerns and other historical fiction. I probably ought to try that course again sometime; it might be useful.

    I think there's something to be said for landing in the middle of a foreign-speaking culture and learning out of necessity. A few years ago I was interested for a while in foreign productions and cast albums of Broadway musicals, and I picked up quite a bit of Dutch on my own.

  6. Polish is the foreign language that seems dominant in Scotland these days, with a big influx of young Poles to the country. My fluent (but getting rusty) language is French, which is what I did my PhD in. I also have bits of German, Italian, Norwegian and Swedish. That's my ambition for when both our children are away at university from September - brushing up my languages. Not sure what to start with. Perhaps Italian, since I really want to go back to Italy.