Tag Archives: spanish

Backtracking on Spanish

8 Aug

It was bound to happen sooner or later, and was maybe secretly one of my biggest fears about returning home. After reaching such a high level of Spanish fluency, and nearly four weeks at home in the United States, I can see that I’m starting to lose some of my second language ability. I haven’t totally lost the edge, but going so long without consistent practice has caused me to start making some mistakes and to blank on some obscure vocabulary I wound up learning over time.

It’s hard to notice the setbacks immediately, but after talking with a few friends back in Buenos Aires, they joked about how my Spanish has gotten worse. Even just a short time away from a Spanish-speaking environment can affect how well you formulate the words and your response time. In a rush to overcompensate for possibly sounding off, I might speed up how I talk, ultimately causing me to make more errors. It’s nothing monumental for now, but I’m afraid of just how far it can go.

I was aware of this for a long time and after putting so much work and effort into becoming a Spanish speaker, I feel like the ability is my baby, and I don’t want to lose it. I plan on doing as much as I can to stay sharp on Spanish, which means not only staying in touch with my friends in Latin America, but making new Latino friends in Washington. Language is a constant back and forth, and the old saying holds true: if you don’t practice it you lose it. Feeling it slip away is a helpless struggle, and it makes me want to go back to Argentina today.


The Beaches of Rainsoaked Rio

7 Jul

The beach at Leblon

I woke up on the second day in Rio to find that there was some confusion between Ludmilla and I. She had woken up early and went back to sleep when she couldn’t get in touch with me, so when I woke up and couldn’t find her, I sat around until past noon when she was ready to move again. I wasn’t happy about wasting precious time on such a short trip, but it was nasty and raining again, so visiting Christ the Redeemer wasn’t a possibility anyway. There wouldn’t be any visibility from up there and it would just be a waste of money to look at a cloud.

We took the bus from Botafogo to Leblon, one of the well known beaches to the south. Leblon is an upper class neighborhood with trendy restaurants and cafes, but also very residential, and kind of reminded me of a tropical Recoleta. Traveling in Rio is interesting because the morros, or giant rocks, just jump out randomly and the roads need to abide by the space limitations. Therefore, it can often take you much longer to go a short distance because you have to bypass the rocks. However, this traffic tie up it made less painful with the beautiful scenery that abounds. And in any case, I found the traffic in Rio to be much better than in Buenos Aires, even at rush hour. I found in my short time there that there were no pickets, road blocks, or any other man-made headaches.

Clouds can ruin Rio

Rio for me was a very Latin American city, in that it seemed like a typical image many might hold of South America. Tropical with palm trees everywhere, slightly faded buildings in the grey rain, and a strong sense of pride and happiness throughout. Even on a cold day, it wasn’t terribly frigid. We grabbed lunch and then walked along the beaches of Leblon and Ipanema. Ludmilla pointed out the only house left on the beach in Leblon, and apparently the owner refuses to sell even when they offer him millions of dollars. Almost no one was on the beach, and though we moved on quickly, it was impressive to watch the hard waves crash onto shore. Rio has a pretty rough surf, and it’s actually not recommended to go swimming there. There are many rocks and the seafloor quickly drops off.

Down in Ipanema I treated myself to a fresh coconut for 3 reales and took a few pictures, though it was far from the typical Rio postcard shot. If anything, it seemed like it might be a cloud forest. In Copacabana we walked the strip and got another churro, passing the famous Copacabana Palace Hotel and hoped that the weather was turning. The rain had stopped and it heated up a bit, but the sky was still uncooperative. At 4:30 pm I directed us to Sugarloaf, the iconic rock where a cable car takes you to the top for a view of the city. Ludmilla wasn’t too crazy about going because of the cloud cover, but I insisted. It was one of the icons of the city and one of the things that I wanted to do most, so I didn’t care what the outcome was.

We took a taxi there and paid the 53 reales to get in, and Ludmilla told me it used to be 16 reales. Brazil has essentially had inflation for years, but with a fixed system, they plan on how to lower it little by little every year. We got to the first section for a slight view of the city just before more clouds came in, though taking pictures was difficult. As we got to the top of Sugarloaf it was dark and cloud cover totally obscured the city below. Still, it made for a unique effect on the landmark, and we walked around a bit before heading back down.

I parted ways with Ludmilla and spent the night with Sergio and his roommates, going to bed fairly early, but not before eating another feijoada dish and feeling like I would explode from over-eating. In the morning I walked around until finding one last churro and then headed to the domestic airport via taxi, where I then got a bus to the international airport. This is actually a much cheaper option than taking a taxi all the way to the international airport, and the bus leaves every 30 minutes. So the short trip in Rio ended, and it leaves me wanting more. I’ll have to go back some day to see more of the city and take advantage of the beaches, plus the other sights I couldn’t get to. And of course, there are so many other places to visit in Brazil.


The Brazilians I met were incredibly friendly, and even though I spoke mostly in Spanish while they spoke back in Portuguese or a little Spanish, we were able to understand each other. Many speak English and are eager to practice it. While I have a long way to go before I can say I fully understand Portuguese, it’s amazing how my Spanish skills allowed me to figure things out more easily. Yet every time I reminded myself to say “obrigado” (thank you), “gracias” slipped out. My brain is wired for Spanish. I’ll have to practice more for the next time.

My Top 5 Favorite Phrases/Words in Lunfardo

29 Jun

Last week I wrote a post on my 5 least favorite phrases in Spanish, and since I like to give a fair look at both sides, I’m now going to list 5 of my favorite words or phrases in lunfardo, which is the slang used in Buenos Aires. Be aware—the majority of these are dirty words, so excuse me if this offends you. Maybe you shouldn’t read on. Like with the last post, these are in no particular order.

1. “Un boludo importante”. Translation: literally, an important asshole; a real asshole; a fucking idiot.

  • I only recently started to hear this more and more but from the first time I noticed it I loved it. It’s like saying that the guy in question in the king of the idiots.

2. “La puta que te/lo parió”. Translation: literally, the bitch that gave birth to you; fuck your mother.

  • I’ve discovered that certain phrases and words just sound better in other languages, or really hit what you’re trying to say in ways that English doesn’t, and this is a perfect example. For some reason this is very offensive, which is odd because it’s really just a sentence fragment. We never hear what the big deal is about the bitch that gave birth to you. Maybe she makes good cookies. Who knows? On the other hand, in Spain a similar greeting is given to women when walking by a construction site. “¡Viva la madre que te parió!” though not exactly a compliment, it’s like saying, “Long live the mother who gave birth to you!”

*A similar insult could be “La concha de tu madre” or “La concha tuya.” Translation: your mom’s pussy, or your pussy, respectively. These are fightin’ words, so be careful how you use them.

3. “Estar al pedo/en pedo.” Translation: literally, to be at farts/to be in farts; to be wasting your time, doing nothing/to be drunk.

  • These are used every other minute. If you’re sitting around not doing work, waiting in line, or ultimately doing a task which will go unnoticed, you are al pedo. If you’ve had a few too many drinks then you are now en pedo. And there are many other variations of pedo as well.

4. “Quilombo.” Translation: a mess; a fucking mess.

  • Where would I be without my little quilombo? Most often used as “¡Qué quilombo!” or “Es un quilombo”. Used to describe any and everything in Buenos Aires. No matter what time of day or season of the year, you can count on there being a quilombo in some part of Buenos Aires. It’s just a fucking mess. Nothing works right, the Subte’s on strike, they’ve set up a road block, you still haven’t gotten paid. Un quilombo.

5. “En la loma del orto.” Translation: literally, in the back of the ass; far away.

  • Pretty gross, right? Used to describe when something is very far away and probably a pain in the ass to get to. Where’s the party tonight? In the back of the ass, it’s so far away. You need to take two buses and then walk 10 blocks.

These are just five examples of some of the things I’ve grown to enjoy saying here. Of course, there are so many others like boludo, pelotudo, etc. Don’t judge me if you think I only use bad words, but hey, monkey see monkey do.

My 5 Least Favorite Spanish Phrases

22 Jun

I’m perfectly guilty of using these phrases as well, but when on the receiving end I almost always cringe upon hearing them. Here are 5 sentences that I hate hearing in Spanish:

1. “Lo que pasa es…” Translation: The thing is…; What had happened is…

  •  This takes me back to my days as an English teacher in Ecuador when the students would always have a reason for showing up late or not doing the homework. This is an extremely common thing to hear, always kicking off an excuse or a reason why you’re not going to get a satisfactory result.

2. “Es así/Así es” Translation: That’s how it is; That’s the way it is.

  • Anytime a conversation has reached the point where nothing else can be argued on or you one party realizes that their system is flawed but they have no solution, you will hear this uttered. Example (translated):

Person 1: Argentina’s really nice, but there’s a lot of corruption.

Person 2: That’s the way it is.

3. “El tema es…” Translation: The thing is; The problem is.

  • Another set up for being denied something. Usually brought in with a point-counterpoint argument. On the one hand, but the other thing is…etc. Your good idea is about to be torn apart.

4. “Puede ser.” Translation: Could be; Maybe; Possibly.

  • This is such a non-committal phrase and to me it just shows a lack of interest in really doing something. You ask a friend if they want to go grab dinner later and they say this, almost as if they’re really just holding out for something better and if nothing pops up, you’ll be a last ditch effort. On the other hand, it can be used in a way that’s like saying yes, but without coming right out and saying it, which is just confusing.

5. “Es lo que hay.” Translation: It is what it is.

  • You know the phrase in English, and it’s the same in Spanish. Another phrase similar to “That’s the way it is,” covering up for a lousy situation that could or rather, should be fixed, yet isn’t. This is our system and there’s nothing we can do about it. Example (translated):

Person 1: They don’t pay us enough to live comfortably here.

Person 2: It is what it is.

Keep an eye out for these phrases when coming to Latin America and I guarantee you that you’ll hear them soon enough.

The Thing About Americans Is…

12 Apr

It happens from time to time—a common situation could find me in a cab. The driver strikes up a conversation and soon asks me where I’m from, and though I’ve trained myself to answer with the politically correct “estadounidense” or United Statesean, the word “americano” slips out, and before I finish I already regret it. “I’m American too,” he’ll tell me with a chip on his shoulder. And from there the conversation becomes awkward and tense.

This is such a normal issue that I’ve had a debate with friends and co-workers too many times to count. On the one hand, they’re right, and they are Americans. On the other hand, I and my fellow United Stateseans are right, in that the adjective in the English language to describe us is American, and thus it’s only logical for a second-language speaker to translate that in the most direct way. But why is it such an inflammatory remark for certain people to hear?

I’ve been here in Latin America long enough to listen to good arguments for and against why citizens of countries in South America should refer to themselves as Americans. As the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca encouraged, we should listen to our friends and not try to figure out why they think a certain way, but how they got to thinking that way. So let me work through it a bit while playing Devil’s Advocate.

In the English language we have only one adjective to describe us: American. So of course we’re going to make the easy connection and say “americano” without trying to be arrogant or elitist. Yet a good point is made in that we should be referring to the continent. We are North Americans, while Argentinians are South Americans and Costa Ricans are Central Americans. Together, we are all Americans. However, most of the time we don’t bother with the giant geographical distinctions from this side of the globe, instead going for regional borders and national identities. Why do we do that?

We refer to things as European, Asian or African, don’t we? European design hints at something avant-garde and unique. Asian culture (while incredibly diverse and variant according to each individual culture) carries a stereotype of food with rice and chop sticks. (In reality the Asian continent extends so far as to include parts of Russia and the Middle East, where these ideas couldn’t be further from the truth). Africa might conjure up images of exotic sceneries and animals roaming around a plain, despite the fact that a number of geographies are included on the continent and large cities abound. So for America, what do we refer to?

The majority of people who live in the Americas are the descendents of the daring and brave bunch who had no land rights in the old country or sought freedoms for their radical beliefs (apart from indigenous groups or those who were forcefully brought here as slaves). We are a breed of adventurers and survivors not by coincidence, and maybe that’s what sets us apart. Yet one contradiction that puzzles me still is how Argentinians take such pride in saying how European they are. And it’s true that the country is greatly influenced by their European roots (as are the U.S. and Canada, by the way). While we’re on the topic, the last time I checked, Spain is and has always been part of the European continent. Since most of Latin America was founded by the Spanish conquistadors, wouldn’t that make them European as well? Why do we break it down into a Hispanic category, as if the Hispanic edge isn’t the same as Anglo-Saxon?

Despite the claim that Buenos Aires is the “Paris of South America,” it’s more of a watered down American version, and to me, it gives this sort of inferiority complex to many porteños. Yet even with the European pride, they insist that they are Americans as well.

Not only that, but a great number of people here simply stated do not like the United States nor its policies. For better or worse, the term American is widely understood throughout the world to refer to the United States. So why do they want to associate themselves with what they know will just cause confusion? On the other hand, those of us from the United States should be more sensitive to their desire to be included in the continental picture. I can see how it comes off as arrogant to say that we are Americans and everyone else is just from their own country. I think if we all understood the linguistic reasons for stating ourselves as such, it would be less of a conversation stopper.

In any case, Argentinians don’t usually say estadounidense either, citing it as being too long of a word. Instead they use one I find offensive: yanqui. But that’s another argument which I’ve already had too many times. Just remember that when you travel to Latin America (even to Spain for that matter), if you’re unsure when you first meet someone, describe yourself as estadounidense, and then take it from there.

2.5 Years In and Down

23 Feb

Now that I’ve passed the year and a half mark in Argentina, and two and a half years in Latin America, I’m on a most definite downward slide. I’m finding this new .5 year marker to be a bit difficult. Last night I was looking over old pictures from college and when I first started out in Ecuador, and I almost didn’t recognize myself. Not only because I’ve lost so much weight, but because my face seems to have aged, not necessarily badly, but in a way that I wouldn’t have expected, maybe because I never thought about it before.

Today my buddy Goldberg told me to just come home already and the day was shot after that. Homesickness sank in and all I could think about was getting on the next flight to Boston. A quick check showed me that round trip was roughly $1,300, so another search for Buenos Aires to Salta, Argentina, was about $900 ARS. So I booked my vacation to Salta and Bolivia, finally, for the end of April and early May. But that’s another post.

I told Goldberg that my work wasn’t done yet, but I had to think about what I still had left to do. Realistically, I’ve accomplished all of the goals I set for myself. I arrived to Argentina essentially with nothing, got a job at a respected agency and built up a network of friends, though it often changes and is sometimes difficult to see how close those friendships are because, unlike what I was used to in the United States, we simply can’t all meet up all the time. I’m not perfect in Spanish and never will be, yet I’ve mastered it from a foreigners aspect so much so that I’m told I speak just like a porteño, and sometimes people are unaware that I’m a foreigner until I say so, either intentionally or by saying something odd.

Just recently I was invited to a close friend’s birthday party and realized that only a few of his closest friends were invited. And so it dawned on me that while it’s incredibly hard to break into a circle of friends as a foreigner here, at least in one I have been invited in. No way can you ever tell me that I failed at my experience in Buenos Aires. I’m in tune with cultural references from the 80s and put the correct emphasis on the harshest swear words (¡qué la chupe!, conchuda, por ejemplo).

But two and a half years away from home is a really, really, really long time. It’s been over a year and a half since I stepped on U.S. soil. Many long term expats go home periodically, and I think that helps make the difference in being content with your new home. I’m certain that if I went home tomorrow for a couple of weeks I would come back refreshed and ready to go. But I don’t have a month of vacation time, nor the extra few thousand bucks lying around to pick up whenever I feel like. So this little anniversary of sorts is not one that I relish, nor one which I care to think of as a memorable milestone. It’s simply a reminder of how far I’ve gone since I was once a young and naive college grad who loved to travel and speak Spanish.

Yanqui This, and Yanqui That

12 Jan

Yankees, Get out of Latin America

I think I’ve written about this, but the topic came up again today at work, and I’m still a bit bugged by it. The word “yanqui” or Yankee is commonly used here to describe Americans, or North Americans anyway. Some foreigners come to accept and embrace this term, including Yanqui Mike, who I met during a taping of BA Cast, and the Buenos Aires Shankees baseball team of U.S. expats. I, however, have never liked the term and continue to find it insulting. The reasons I have for finding the word offensive range from simple to complex. A simple explanation is that I’m from Boston, not New York, and thus hate the Yankees. I liken it to calling me River Plate if I were a Boca fan. People here understand that most of all.

A more complex explanation dates back to the Civil War era, and even into today. Southern Americans call us Northern Americans Yankees, but to me the word carries a much deeper meaning than a regional distinction. It’s just a feeling, because of course it finds itself in conversation without ill intention just as often. But basically, I have never heard anyone here use the world yanqui in an endearing or non-offensive manner. To me, the word is always vitriolic and meant to point out an enormous difference in style, class and culture. “Those people are clearly yanquis…That’s very yanqui…That fucking yanqui…etc.”

I’ve often had people ask me if the word “gringo” offends me, and sometimes friends have apologized when saying it in front of me. But the truth is that gringo is a much less offensive word to me than yanqui. Maybe because it can be used endearingly, like “Aww, he’s a gringito!” Or maybe it’s that the word is more Spanish-sounding that simply using an English word against us. No one says gringo here, however, and they stick to yanqui. No one will ever say “yanquito!” I find that when people are talking on a normal basis they’ll use “americano,” or failing that “estadounidense.” Yet when the porteños get angry and are venting, they immediately throw out yanqui. I don’t know, does that mean my mind should conjure up an image of Uncle Sam and that tacky American stereotype.

My friends tell me not to take offense, that 1. they’re not referring to me (which doesn’t make it any better) and that 2. it’s just a common word that everyone uses as part of custom, and it’s not offensive. I believe that the person who says the word is never in a position to say whether or not it’s offensive, and only the person affected by it can say whether or not it is. Unless of course the speaker is hoping to hurt someone’s feelings. Yet just because everyone else is saying it and they grew up saying it does not mean that I’m overreacting. I would never try to compare yanqui to other racially insensitive words which you’re obviously aware of, but think about this. Those words were too at one point normal and in common speech until someone finally stood up and said enough is enough, that’s unacceptable.

Who knows? Maybe I’m just being too sensitive about it and should just accept it as another one of those words which I’ll never understand the true root of. But if you look at the top picture here, you’ll see how I come to the conclusion that the word is a source of contempt and disdain. And if you’re an Argentine and use the word, I urge you to think about it next time and look at the context in which you say it.

“Dale. Boludo. Asado.”

1 Jan

New Years’ Day. 2011. The day started around 1 pm when a haunting Spanish song from some long past decade wafted into my room from the roof or a nearby building. Tired, but no hangover, that’s what not drinking much will do. So far the day was off to a good start, but how to kill the time. Breakfast, shower, and why not mosey over to Parque 3 de Febrero (aka the Palermo park with the lake) to read a book. Along the way I stumbled into what must have been the start of the Dakar Race which starts and ends in Buenos Aires. They’ve been setting up for this even for a few weeks now, and the continual buzz of the helicopter overhead with the lines of people told me it must have gotten underway.

I saw a couple motorcycles and cars go by but couldn’t see why people stood around for hours watching. In the park, cross-legged by the banks of the lake I opened the book but looked elsewhere. Across the lake I saw palm trees, a plane taking off from the domestic airport, and my past year. I saw specific occasions when I’d sat in this very area, and the people I was with, or the people I saw if I was alone. I’m still here, but they’re somewhere else. Bothered by the memories of good times past I decided to take off my shirt and lay down to soak up some sun. Being in an office five days a week takes away most of my chance to get a nice tan, and since I’m so fair skinned to begin with, a burn is the most likely result when I do get outside for an extended period of time.

Laying back I closed my eyes so my eyelids could get their share as well. All around me conversations seemed to melt into one as the wind blew dust and bits from the ground towards us. A thing happens when you’ve lived overseas and work hard enough at a language, that after a while you no longer have to think about what you’re hearing. You simply understand it, and don’t even need to process it. It’s such a level of fluency that it’s as if you’re speaking your native language. It neither affects you nor interests you, it’s simply a series of words which if don’t include threats based at you, don’t deserve your notice. Sometimes I forget I’m listening to or speaking in Spanish because it’s simply the language that I’m involved it.

But while laying back with my eyes closed, I couldn’t help but notice that after a while I kept hearing the exact same things over and over again, but from different voices. Now interested, I trained my ears to listen for certain words from the people walking by, and what I found just drilled home how funny and predictable Argentina can be sometimes. The most common words that I heard, in no particular order, were “Dale!” “Boludo,” and “Asado.” “Okay!” “Asshole” (among other translations), and “Barbecue.” To someone who’s never been to Argentina, you might not understand the context, but if you’ve spent enough time here you’ll know that these are three essential words to life in this country. The three magic words of Argentina.