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When you live in a country not your own, and by the same token, carry on your day-to-day business in a language you were not born into, the world is a minefield, waiting for your blunder. If you speak Spanish you know about the typical snafus, confusing the word for pregnant (embarazada) with embarrassed, and a million more, each of them unique little jabs that say “hey you! you’re not from here!”

And most of the time they’re just small embarrassments, and it’s not a big deal and nobody gets hurt, though there was this one time that I had to explain at length to a fluent (but not native) English speaker that there was a difference between “alot of mistakes” and “too many mistakes.” We have this tendency to conflate “demasiado” (too much/many) with “mucho” (alot, many) here in Chile, or maybe in the whole Spanish speaking world, I couldn’t say for sure. What is true is that you will embarrass (but hopefully not impregnate) yourself on many, many occasions. I think about language all the time, so I think of all the special ways in which I can make someone (or myself) very uncomfortable, and try mightily to minimize them. You probably do, too.

Rewind about 4.5 years and I was working at the famous Institute to which I occasionally refer. I felt alot like the character in Alias who works for a bank that is really a sub branch of the CIA. But only when I said “the institute.” The rest of the time I just felt like an overworked, overharried, over baby-talking, inky-handed, up-too-late and again-too-early English teacher. But that’s not the point of the story.

I’d been in Chile not long, and spoke fine Spanish. It wouldn’t have won any awards, and not long before the event in question when told I had a check waiting for me at an office, I accidentally asked, “to do what with” (para que) instead of “why?” (por que) and everyone laughed (including the too many/alot woman, shame on her) and said, “for to spend it.” (in English). Because it’s hilarious to make fun of people.

So there I am, walking down an echoey linoleumed (ooh, two possibly invented words in a row!) hallway, and I see a bicycling acquaintance of mine. Nearly all the bike people I knew at that time have nicknames, curious things like chickenlegs and bear, skinny, fatty, big head, the old one. But this guy had a nice sweet nickname, that was easy to remember, as it rhymed with the word for violin (vee-o-LEEN). And I was happy to see someone I knew at my spy job, or a familliar face at all in Chile, since I hadn’t been here that long.

And so I shouted out his nickname, and it pingponged back and forth and up and down off the walls and the floor like a million ball bearings and everyone stopped to turn around and stare.

I had just shouted out “TWEETY!” (Piolín… pee-o-LEEN).

Turns out that no matter how well you speak a language, there are still going to be cultural references and childhood monkeys (monitos, that’s what they call cartoons here) that you didn’t know the names for.

After this event (and apologizing profusely), I set to learning the names of the important dibujos animados (official name for cartoons), and I can happily report that

Los Pitufos=The Smurfs
Los Supersónicos=The Jetsons
Los Picapiedra=The Flintstones

And Doraemon, who you may or may not know, is “El Gato Cósmico.”

How any of this may one day help me here in Chile, I have no idea. But it’s fun to surprise people by talking about their cultural referrents.

Like when I say that the when the Entel Tower is lit up it looks like the Supersónicos are having a party.

Los picapiedra viven por el otro lado

Wish they’d invite me, looks like they have a heck of a view.

entel tower X2

Wonder if they ever have Sylvester and Tweety over?