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