Hale Kai Restaurant, Fairmont Orchid, Big Island, Hawaii
I regularly start stories with the same first line: “A funny thing happened at Home Depot the other day.” For those of you who don’t know, I learn Spanish (and teach English) in the Home Depot parking lot one day a week throughout the semester.
Thus, a funny thing happened at Home Depot the other day. It was nearly 2:30PM, and we were about to wrap up our hour-long language exchange. We were shaking hands around the circle and offering, “Mucho gusto” and “Nice to know you” in our most practiced accents.
Typically, after this cordial ritual, if I do not have a meeting or another class, I send my college students off and linger a little to chat about gardening (how Lalo’s avocado tree is so much taller, how I plan to plant before the next rains) or when my plans are for traveling to Mexico next (mid-June, I promise).
Then, I regularly say, “Necesito correr” (I need to run) and often posture slo-mo running as I head off to my car. It is my way of sharing an English expression that seems silly in Spanish. (It’s pretty much as close as I get to being able to tell jokes in Spanish.)
The guys who regularly participate in our exchange know this is just my way of essentially saying “the end,” and I follow it with: “See you next week; hasta la proxima.”
However, Alejandro, a man unknown to me before Monday, offered graciously to meet me in a park ay 6PM to run laps and help me get in a mile (five laps) as he understood me clearly state that I need to run.
I tried to explain that it is an idiomatic expression, that I didn’t really need to run, that I knew what I was saying, but I was playing with the words, and that I was grateful for his offer, but that last bit made him think I wanted to meet him at 6PM. And, he offered additional advice for a pleasant, evening run.
By this time, the other guys were beyond giggling; one even held on to a tree as he was guffawing. I felt bad; Alejandro was being friendly and generous. The least I could do was explain what an idiom is. But I had to run.
This experience made me think of a piece I read on the Poetry Foundation’s website:
Language Lesson 1976
by Heather McHugh
When Americans say a man
takes liberties, they mean
he’s gone too far. In Philadelphia today I saw
a kid on a leash look mom-ward
and announce his fondest wish: one
bicentennial burger, hold
the relish. Hold is forget,
On the courts of Philadelphia
the rich prepare
to serve, to fault. The language is a game as well,
in which love can mean nothing,
doubletalk mean lie. I’m saying
doubletalk with me. I’m saying
go so far the customs are untold.
Make nothing without words,
and let me be
the one you never hold.
*Write about a misunderstanding due to language or cultural barrier. If you don’t have one off the top of your head, thefreedictionary.com (http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/) has an idiom of the day.
** Talk to random people in parking lots to see what misunderstandings unfold.