Monday, May 24, 2010

All The Small Things

A metro ride can never be taken for granted. On that same line of reasoning, no moment in transit can be wasted as one usually slips in to some unconscious psychosis, hypnotized by monotony. It is in these small transient moments that nuggets of fluency are sifted out of grains of repetition. The example best suited for this topic is how I learned to define "excuse me". This happened to me the first time I went to Argentina but has been reinforced with a current situation. I was riding the subway, bobbing along like a child's toy played with by Big Brother during my commute to a horrific job, when some women said "permiso" behind me. I realized that it was the word for "excuse me" that wasn't excúsame. Then I realized there was disculpa and excúsame and permiso and perdón. So now I have four words to apply to one problem, and in my attempt to assimilate perfectly into the crowd of locals I deemed it imperative to investigate the differences. Without getting into a linguistic tango with my readers about origins and dialects, I arrive at my point. A sound traveler must actively listen to find the true language outside of the books. For those of you wondering, permiso comes at a time when you are trying to politely pass by or through a crowd. Disculpa is used when you are interrupting someone, either their speech or their walk, etc. Perdón is if you physically run into someone, you have to perdón your action. Excúsame is almost rarely used and is more if your fart that you intended to be silent but deadly, ends up sneaking an inappropriate, proverbial "poof". This lesson came back to me when someone asked me for directions. Aside from the fact that I was elated at being mistaken for a local (my daily goal), I learned that here the word for "block" is not the same as in Argentina. Here the word is manzana instead of cuadra. Basically this long paragraph is to inform the casual tourist to listen up, pay attention, and never let a cultural moment pass by.

This is not just a linguistic lesson, but a cultural one as well. I had to go to my job yesterday just to check in and sign some foreigner papers. (I know, it was a horrible hour as the stamp of anti-local came smashing down page after page, reminding me of the fact that I do not congressionally belong). Anyways, I arrived an hour early, to make sure I found the office okay and had enough time to check myself in some reflective edifice before walking in to ensure the best first impression. In that hour, I decided to get a coffee while I waited. I walked into this café and let me set the scene. Upon entering into the café at 9 a.m., there are two men seated at two slot machines, smoking cigarettes and aggressively pulling down the handle of fate, wishing that this next play will bring about some fortunate outcome, fortunate enough to remove them from the drudge of the 9-5. Then, sitting along the counter next to them are men in suits, each with a dark colored suit, a white shirt, and a solid tie, with an espresso, toast and a side of arrogance. I walk in a mosey my way to one of the tables on the side of the café, shying away from the male domination at the counter, fearing that a small mishap will awaken some culturally abominable beast offending each and every man and his family individually.

As I took my seat, I realized something, only women were seated. It was this gender mating dance inside this café. As the male stock frantically drank their espresso and jeered each other about the trial and tribulations of providing for a family and celebrating their role as alpha males, the subservient women took some default role at the tables, allowing the males to prance around in occupation while they sat at ease perhaps gossiping about which male they were trying to attract. Noticing this divide, I immediately ran up to the counter, sat down, ordered a café con pan tostado con mantequilla and sighed. Crisis averted. I drank my espresso as I basked in the society-approved role of dominance and power. I acted busy, constantly looking at the clock, further delving into this charade of sorts. I felt respected, I felt a part. I left the same amount as the guy next to me, without asking for my bill, because locals know prices and are not bothered by the formalities of checks.


  1. additionally, i really enjoyed the social comentary and the play by play of your inner thoughts and anxieties.