What did they just say?: Language Lessons

One of the hardest things about learning a new language is figuring out how to understand other people. Sure you may know the vocabulary and know how to conjugate verbs, but what do you do when someone asks you a question?

Inevitably they will speak very quickly, have an accent, and be mumbling all at the same time. What do you do? Do you:

A) Panic

B) Nod like you know what they are talking about

C) Say “sí” which is the only word that you can remember in the heat of the moment

D) Calmly and quickly answer their question

When we first arrived in Montevideo answers A, B, and C all described our efforts at communication. In preparation for all of our outings we would review the adventure-specific vocabulary we were likely to hear, but inevitably something would come up that we didn’t know.

The following are a few of our language experiences…

– The first week we were in Montevideo the lady at the check-out counter in the grocery store would say something when we arrived in front of her. Our confused faces and “No se, lo siento” (I don’t know, I’m sorry) would quiet her. We eventually deciphered her words as “tarjeta más?” and we eventually figured out that she was referring to their rewards card. We had never seen anyone using one of these cards which made it especially difficult to figure out.

– There is an ATM at the market that is enclosed in a little room. There is a card swipe on the wall that lets people in. I tried it on the way into the market one day and the door failed to open. So when I got to the check-out counter I tried to ask the lady if the ATM required a card to get into, but of course I momentarily forgot the word for “door” and, based on the incredulous look on her face, most probably ended up asking her if I needed a card to get money out of the ATM. Doh!

– When we stayed at a hotel in Buenos Aires, we were able to check-in completely in Spanish. On check-out, we were ready to do the same, but got derailed when the man asked us if we had consumed anything from the mini-bar. Neither Asa or I had ever heard the word for minibar (“frigobar” which really isn’t all that different) and got really confused. The bilingual man quickly realized we had no idea what he said and continued the entire check-out process in English.

– Our first week in Montevideo took us to the local panaderia (bakery). We went in with the desire for bread. We told them that we were learning spanish and that we wanted one of those, and pointed to what we wanted. Then we asked them what the word for it was… “baguette”. Go figure!

– When we first arrived in Montevideo we started frequenting a local chivitos restaurant. What made this place problematic for us is that they don’t have a menu. The first time we went there, we were accompanied by some spanish speaking friends who ordered for us. The second time we went on our own was fairly comical. We ordered chivitos how we wanted them (we remembered that part) and then we ordered “dos papas fritas”. The waitress looked at us like we each had three heads. Then she smiled and asked, “dos porciones de papas fritas?”.

– Tiqui Taca is the local chivitos place near our new Pocitos apartment. They have a special: buy three chivitos and get one order of french fries for free. So we went in and ordered our sandwiches and two portions of french fries. Obviously the man knew we were not from around here and said, “uno es un regalo… 1 FREE!”, practically yelling the english part. Hilarious!

– When Asa and I had to get yellow fever shots I had a fairly humorous and frustrating phone call that ended in the necessity of speaking to someone in english. Check out a recounting of that adventure here.

There have been many more awkward and embarrassing language moments, but for the most part people are very nice. Telling people that you are learning a new language is usually really helpful. Most people, upon learning that, will speak more slowly and try and help with words you may be trying (but failing) to say. They are usually interested in where you are from and how you like Montevideo.

If you really get into a bind, there is usually someone around that speaks English. All the schools in Montevideo now teach English as part of the curriculum. So when in doubt, seek out a young person. Most of the older generation doesn’t know any english.

Just like in many countries, locals seem to appreciate us trying to speak in their native language no matter how much we botch it!

Vaccinations

Sorry we’ve been MIA for a while. Nothing bad has happened, but we’ve neglected the blog a bit in favor of interacting face to face with people. This has resulted in a bunch of posts that will be forthcoming, so stay tuned. We’ll start with today’s adventures and work backwards in the coming days until we’ve caught up!

“Vaccinations” might be an odd title for this post considering that we’re not little babies any more and we’re not traveling to any crazy places. Uruguay is not a third world country and does not have any crazy disease carrying monster insects. Well, turns out that we will be traveling to a crazy place with crazy disease carrying monster insects while my parents are here visiting in a couple weeks.

We are traveling to Iguazu Falls which is in the northern-most part of Argentina and borders Paraguay and Brazil. It’s the jungle and the mosquitos in that jungle sometimes carry yellow fever. It is recommended for people traveling to this area to get vaccinated for yellow fever, but it is not required. See these sources about yellow fever and where vaccinations are required: National Institutes of Health and Vaccination Info. Since yellow fever is a very serious disease and at the request of my parents, we got vaccinated for it.

Montevideo has a dedicated office at the port for travelers who want to be vaccinated against yellow fever. I imagine this is because there is a very real risk of yellow fever in many northern parts of South America and many countries require travelers to be vaccinated against it before being granted entry into the country. This is definitely the case for travelers to Brazil.

So what does one do to actually get vaccinated for yellow fever? Well it’s a four step process. The first step is a phone call. This was a very interesting step considering my tenuous understanding of the spanish language and the lack of facial expressions and hand gestures for contextual support. After figuring out how to actually make a phone call on my cell phone (dial 0 and 2 before the number in case you’re wondering), I fairly easily stated what I was calling about, told the nice lady where we were traveling, and set up an appointment for 9 am Friday morning.

Then she said she had some questions to ask me. I understood that, but could not for the life of me comprehend the actual questions she asked me. This became apparent fairly quickly and she handed the phone to a man who’s english was just as bad as my spanish. After some exchanges in “spanglish” I managed to answer the questions to his satisfaction and he wished me happy travels and hung up.

The second step in getting vaccinated against yellow fever is to figure out where the heck the office is. The office of “Sanidad de Fronteras” is at the port of Montevideo, which is a fairly large place. There is a cruise line terminal, the buquebus (boat to Argentina) terminal, and a variety of large and imposing brick buildings. On google maps it was very clear where we were suppose to go. Unfortunately reality sometimes doesn’t look like google maps.

What did we do? We asked someone who said to go until reaching the big brick building and the office was at the end. He also pointed in the direction we should be going. At the end of this brick building there was a pair of glass doors that looked like it could be a doctor’s office. We went in and asked again and were told it was around the corner. As we were walking out one of the dock crew smiled and pointed around the corner. Guess we’re just that apparent.

Looking toward the end of the very large brick buildings. The Sanidad de Fronteras is at the very end!

Well we got to the unlabeled door around the corner and went in. Signs were plastered everywhere saying that the yellow fever office was on the first floor, so we went up.

The unmarked doorway to the vaccination clinic.

Signs posted up in the office.

Stairway up to the vaccination office.

The third step in getting vaccinated against yellow fever is waiting to get the shot. On going upstairs, we found ourselves in a dark foyer with several closed office doors (looking deserted), a locked bathroom, and one door in the corner that said “Fiebre Amarilla” (i.e. yellow fever). There were 5 people already standing in the foyer. They had all made appointments for 9 AM and were upset about having to wait in line and apparently it doesn’t matter if you make an appointment because they just call the next person in line.

While we were waiting the man behind us saw our passports and asked incredulously if we needed them, at which time we told him that we were from the United States and that we were told to bring them. Our answer quelled his fears and he asked us where we were traveling.

The fourth step in getting vaccinated against yellow fever is actually getting the shot. We were called into the office which consisted of one room containing three people: a woman acting as receptionist, a man answering phones, and a nurse. The room had a couple desks which the first two people were sitting at and a corner with a curtain where the shots were actually administered. The nurse was wonderful and put us at ease right away while the receptionist took our information and drew up our international vaccination cards. We paid $352 pesos each (about $17US) for each shot, and that was only because we didn’t have international vaccination cards already. I think the shot is free for Uruguayan citizens.

Before we actually got the shots we had to answer a bunch of questions, many of the same ones that I had already answered on the phone: allergic to eggs? allergic to antibiotics? pregnant? and other vaccinations in the last 30 days? The she gave us some mandates and advice… Don’t get pregnant in the next 3 months (check!), keep eating and exercising regularly, and if we got a fever to just use an over-the-counter remedy. All this in spanish. She spoke slowly and deliberately, but we both understood every word she had to say which also put us both at ease.

The shot itself may have been the least painful shot I have received in my adult life. Here’s to hoping that there aren’t any side effects! We thanked them heartily and made our way home.