Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A funny thing happened in Paraguay...

Really, a couple of funny things have happened.  I would like to say they all have something to do with cross cultural experience.  In reality, at least half of them are just mistakes on my part.  Here are a few highlights:
1) On our second day in Paraguay, I decided we should take a long walk around the neighborhood to get oriented.  We walked about 10 blocks down Avenida Espana, turned left and managed to end up on Avenida Mariscal Lopez (a major thoroughfare).  I was excited, surely we would see good stuff now.  After all, as we drove down the street the day before on the way out of the airport, the president's house and the plaza Gobierno whizzed by.  After about an hour on the Avenida, we stopped a lady to ask for directions back to where we were staying, Gral Santos.  She gave us a puzzled look (which I thought was due to my poor Spanish) and promptly informed us (in English that was much better than my Spanish...embarrassing) that Gral Santos was way too far away for us to walk and she would have to call her son to come pick us up and take us there.  On the bright side, both she and her son now have a 'silly American' story to laugh over.
2) A few days after arriving, we were picking up the language quickly (though sporadically) and when someone explained that Siempre meant always, I was excited.  Ever on the look out for a mnemonic device, I immediately realized that the my training as an Army brat would come in handy.  Siempre Fidelis is the Marine corps motto, it means 'Always Faithful' so I could remember it easily (you would think).  I got confused looks for about 2 days before I realized my 'mnemonic device' had gotten its wires crossed and I was instinctively saying Fidelis every time I meant to say always....doh!
3) While driving home with the Mareco family one night, Cristobal asked me what sentry means.  I explained it means a guard in the military.  He looked very confused and asked again, and I tried explaining a different way.  After we went back and forth a half dozen times he wrote down what he wanted explained, Centre.  What is the difference between a Center and a Centre?  Ahh, now I know the answer to that, but how would I explain, in my limited Spanish, that during the American Revolution Benjamin Franklin arbitrarily changed the spelling of English words to be different from Great Britain?  Honestly, it was not my most eloquent moment, I probably sounded like my 4 year old trying to explain a story she had been read, but I think he got the gist. 
4) Finally, my most embarrassing faux pas; we were visiting the President of the Disciples of Christ Church in Paraguay (of course something REALLY embarrassing has to happen when you are meeting the president of something).  She was very nice and her husband was talking to me in rapid fire Spanish (he later explained that a cultural difference between the USA and Paraguay is that the US attempts to prevent problems, Paraguay lets the problems roll and learns from them).  The few words I picked out were Paraguay, Guarani, Habla, and etc.
 Now, I my Spanish is currently at a 'barely adequate' level...I can discuss what I need to discuss in my profession, I can carry on a basic conversation, but it's so much easier if people talk to me like I am stupid...and slow, it helps to talk very very slow.  So, with the few words here and there that I picked out of the question, I discerned that I was being asked if I spoke any Guarani (an indigenous language spoken by virtually everyone in Paraguay).  Of course, I replied, 'No, nada'.  It was one of those everyone froze, crickets chirping moments.  They were all staring at me in shock, the President of the church was standing bent over in the process of pouring refreshments, frozen in time.  Finally, Cristobal, a pastor whose church I have been attending and whose family has graciously taken us under their wing, explained...He had asked if I liked Paraguay and the people of Paraguay. 
I couldn't help it...I laughed, really loud.  Leave it to me to say something so outrageous, even accidentally.  So I explained, I thought he had asked if I spoke Guarani and that I like Paraguay and the people of Paraguay and everyone unfroze and we had a very very pleasant visit.
There have been other, whoopsies and uh oh's, but I just wanted to give you a taste.  Entering any new culture is going to have a few hiccups, add in a language barrier and you are likely to have some funny conversations.  That's part of the joy and adventure of life outside of your comfort zone.

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