The lingua franca might be español, but it differs just as much country to country as the currency, whether Argentinian Peso, Chilean Peso, Peruvian Sole. Longtime residents in both Texas and Colorado, our ears are, admittedly, attuned to español mexicana, its cadence slower, more deliberate, words pronounced fully and wholly.
Heads loaded with high school Spanish, Spanish-on-tape, Spanish learned from the line cooks at fill-in-the-blank restaurant, and, of course, the naughty bit Spanish, we plunge into Sud America ready to tackle the lingo like novices, mistakes, mispronunciations, misunderstanding rampant and sure to lead to laughs and frustrations.
Graham spearheads the conversations, ripe and overflowing with the perfect travel phrases meant to spark contact, and once launched, I pick up the flow because if responses deviate from the approved answer, Graham is lost in translation, whereas I, however, fail miserably with formal sentence constructions, but let loose to chit chat and draw on my français, I get my point across.
In the present tense.
But, it’s not just working on our second and third languages, respectively, that throw us for a happy loop, it’s also deciphering regional peculiarities that sharpen our ears and tongues.
Like, for instance, in Argentina, the double “l” sounds like a “ch,” not like a “y,” and like a slow poke, it takes me days not to realize that everyone I encounter doesn’t suffer from allergies: Pollo sounds like pocho, and no, we don’t go to Rio Gallegos but to Rio Gachegos.
Our Argentinian host, Fede, tells us about the use of “vos” instead of “tu,” I think, a vestige of continental Spanish, European presence super evident in linguistic and physical features, a curiosity I experience across the continent when strangers guess my nationality first as Argentinean, then Nordic.
It is in Argentina that we finally wrap our heads around llegar versus llevar and that we take-away, not arrive-away, our sandwiches and coffees when ordering.
Chile is a whole other ball game, dialect fast and quick, words half-eaten, enunciation essentially MIA after the second syllable. Bouncing back and again over the Chilean and Argentinian borders while in Patagonia, we are in the Twilight Zone for the first half of every day back to a new land, gibberish the sound our ears hear, for the linguistic switch might at well be Chinese when bouncing between Chilean and Argentinian.
Mas despacio, por favor.
Locals repeat their phrases, eyes locked, and our ears stretch, lobes wrapped around their words in hopes of hearing every intonation, every vowel, every consonant, for comprehension is critical to us knowing if this habitacione comes with baño privado or not.
Interestingly, sometimes the “s” gets dropped like it’s hot, sometimes not, and gracias becomes gracia, hola transitions to holas. Buen dia, we learn, is more popular than buenos dias, and so, now, we greet passer-bys in the singular.
I stumble upon the cutest word ever–tentaciones–which, how appropriate, is the term for little deserts, temptations, indeed.
By the time we make it to Peru, our comprehension sky rockets, and we greet our fellow chicos and chicas without skipping a beat, able to negotiate with taxi men and hostel staff like no one’s business. But, as always happens, just when we get the hang of it, it’s hasta la vista, baby, and we bid adios, español de Sud America, for we return to the land of monoglots and Anglophones.