Thursday, November 22, 2007

Calvin Trillin Runs out of Spanish

Even when I seem to be doing pretty well in speaking Spanish, I can run out of it, the way someone might run out of flour or eggs. A few years after I passed up the chance to stay in Madrid, some friends and I went to Baja California to mark an occasion I can no longer remember, and I became the group's spokesman to the owner of our motel, a Mrs. Gonzales, who spoke no English. Toward the end of a very long evening, as I listened to her complain about some excess of celebration on our part, I suddenly realized that I had run out of Spanish. It wasn't merely that I couldn't think of the Spanish words for what I wanted to say. ("I am mortified, Mrs. Gonzales, to learn that someone in our group might have behaved in a manner so inappropriate, not to say disgusting.") I couldn't think of any Spanish words at all. Desperately rummaging around in the small bin of Spanish in my mind, I could come up with nothing but the title of a Calderón play I had once read, to no lasting effect, in a Spanish-literature course.

"Mrs. Gonzales," I said, "life is but a dream."

She looked impressed and, I must say, surprised. She told me that I had said something really quite profound. I shrugged. It seemed the appropriately modest response; even if it hadn't been, it would have been all I could do until I managed to borrow a cup of Spanish from a neighbor. Eventually, I came to look back on the experience as just about the only time I had been truly impressive in a foreign language.

-from Calvin Trillin's "Abigail y Yo," from The New Yorker, June 26, 1989, pp. 83-84.

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