The Simple Things in Life: The Language of Communication

20 05 2010

The Simple Things in Life: The Language of Communication

 By Liam Mayo

 The invitation, as conveyed to me, was a casual yet poignant one. I had met Gustavo a week earlier, volunteering to speak with his students – prospective English teachers, at a local institute in Mosconi. Gustavo himself spoke very little English, only a fraction less than my rigid and nervous Spanish; though we had managed to share an illuminating conversation regarding our mutual studies in the field of philosophy. Despite my hesitance in accepting Gustavo’s invitation, having spent the prior evening ravenously consuming alcohol til late in the morning, experience dictated that a good traveller always clutch at each opportunity as presented to them. I had also recently learnt that Argentinean hospitality was amongst the worlds finest and as such – cleansed my hung over brow with a handful of cold water, pulled on a fresh shirt and went to greet Gustavo.

 Riding tandem aback his novel, if not unorthodox motor vehicle – a quad bike, Gustavo explained to my dust caked face that his friend was hosting an asado and that he believed I would enjoy meeting with them. Still plagued with headache and reluctant to attempt any Spanish precariously perched, straddled, behind Gustavo, I nodded my head with feigned enthusiasm. I imagined a group of young men, too much hair gel, crowded around a thick smoking barbeque, skolling Fernet and Coke, gloating about previous sexual conquests as reggaeton thumped menacingly from a large stereo system balancing atop a windowsill behind them. I swallow awkwardly, my dry throat now full of dust.

 It is with pleasant revelation that Gustavo leads me to a small quaint concrete house, off white beige, surrounded by a petite well kept rose garden. Out back, six men, all much older than both Gustavo and I, are seated around a charming table, bottles of red wine before them, each appearing rosy cheeked with contentment. All at once they stand to greet me, shaking my hand with sincerity, their eyes illustrating earnestness. A sense of cachet washes through me; not of own account, but of the company I am about to keep.

 A large plate is thrust before me, dark meat engulfing a long white bone, the deep complex aroma of well cooked meat greeting my nostrils. I salivate. The meat falls tenderly to my fork, my mouth welcoming it with innate enthusiasm. I remind myself to observe the graciousness my mother taught me. As I savour the flavour, a fine cavernous glass of the red wine appears before me; the men watch me keen and zest. Pedro, our host, asks me if I like the meat. His Spanish, rapid and eloquent overwhelms me and I immediately feel out of my depth. Again I rely on a stiff nod – attempting to project my approval encouragingly; I mutter through a mouthful of beef, “Sí, sí.” At this, the large man with a grey moustache seated at the end of the table babbles something to the group with a wide smile. His comment is met with a loud chorus of laughter. I follow suit and join in with the laughter, measuring my level of enthusiasm on the reaction of the others. It is obviously a joke at my expense, but I want to be sure to transmit my own good humour. Noting my laughter, the man with the grey moustache slaps me on the shoulder and winks at me, explaining to me, slowly and with greater articulation that they are very pleased to have me visiting and I should enjoy as much meat as I wish.

I quickly discover that I am indeed dining with some of the more prestigious members of the community. The jokester and the gentleman sitting immediately to my right work in the only bank in town, whilst the other men are all professors at the college. Primarily, I explain that I speak very little Spanish, that at times it is slow and rigid, but that I understand Spanish very well. Though the former is truth, the former, admittedly is some what of a fabrication. However, I have learnt that if I at least appear to understand everything being said, people relax and become more patient when attempting to converse with me in Spanish. The men are united in their want to encourage me that my level of Spanish would suffice and continued to urge me to eat more meat; for the province of Salta, they explained, has the best beef in the world.

As I eat, I listen to the men talk, attempting with crude and unfilled knowledge of Spanish to decipher the topic of conversation. Politics and the economy. I try to follow, picking out words, reforming the sentences to English in my head, aligning the differing views of each person at the table. I understand the subject, I understand the debate, but I know my knowledge of Spanish is unsuitable to engage at this level. I begin to form a sentence in my head. I take the idea I want to convey, simplify it to match my limited vocabulary, then form it so as to leave the sentence closed ended; so as to not promote further questioning or lines discussion that may require me to delve deeper for words my brain does not yet contain. As I finish my meal and wash it down with a mouthful of wine, I wait for a pause in the discussion – again, rehearsing what I want to say in my head. When the pause comes, I take my cue and begin to speak, sounding far more confident than in actuality. The men are polite, they listen, looking to me and nodding courteously. When I finish, there is a long silence. I take another sip of wine longing for the glass to carry on infinitely – I dread having to remove my lips and speak again. Pedro is the first to laugh. He roars loudly, slapping himself on the knee, tears welling in his eyes. The others quickly join him, the table beginning to shake as the laughter takes of them all. Someone knocks over a glass of wine. My confusion is written across my face, red cheeked with embarrassment. Gustavo leans across and tells me in rigid broken English; “You told them you didn’t speak Spanish.” My realisation came as a wave of relief; they aren’t laughing at me. I began to laugh too – more out of reprieve. “Mas vino!” Pedro announces, topping up all our glasses before the moustached jokester offers a toast and we all tap our glasses and relax into the sunny heat of the afternoon.

The conversation was thick, as the wine continued to pour. As we ate cake, I spoke about my home and of my travels and hopes for the future. Over coffee, the men were eager to hear my opinion of Argentinean woman. And as the second wave of wine surged we spoke of music and sport and I listened as they spoke if Argentina and Salta and the people. I was drunk. Drunk on red wine. Drunk on meat. We where all drunk.

At some stage during the afternoon it occurred to me that I had misinterpreted everything. That my attempts to interpret the speedy and increasingly colloquial Spanish where all in vein – that I had completely misunderstood all that had been said and all I was achieving was the appearance of a dim witted foreigner, uncomfortably  grinning simulated responses as I sat drinking expensive affluent wine that didn’t belong to me. As I pondered this notion, engaged in my own internal toil, Pedro sidles up alongside me handing me a rose from his garden. “The simple things in life,” he says in slow, reserved, obviously rehearsed English. The rest of the men seem to understood, softly nodding their heads in silent agreement, pensive and solemn. Pedro explains that he is forty four years old; he has a daughter, a job and a house. Besides his once a week visitations with his daughter, it is afternoons like this one he lives for; good food, fine wine, cigarettes, coffee, cake and conversation with friends. Money, he explained, didn’t bring contentment; rather it was life’s rich experience that bought true happiness. Sharing an afternoon with friends, conversing, laughing – the pursuit for such experiences had become a philosophy by which Pedro lived by.

That night, my skin still swelling with beef, I contemplated my afternoon. As we parted ways, we exchanged email addresses, and made loose plans to see each other again before I left. My earlier paranoia, of course, had been unwarranted. Indeed, where my Spanish lacked, the determined patience of my companions made up. And indeed, the exchange assisted me in furthering my vocabulary. However, I understood then, as I do now, that communication is not limited to language alone. Body language, the affliction in ones voice, eye contact and gut instinct are all cues human beings unconsciously read when locked in conversation. That afternoon, at times unable to communicate verbally to my desired level, it became necessary for me to rely on these more intrinsic forms of communiqué, as I attempted to interpret, relate and understand my new friends. Moreover, it is my belief, that mutual language can often hinder our relations with one another. That all too often we use language to speak without thinking, using words laden with cultural, religious or political overtones; words that become weapons and shields as we exchange with our fellow human beings. That sometimes, with language, we loose sight of the person behind the words and make the mistake of engaging with the language instead of the soul. And as I felt myself slip into an easy satisfied sleep I promised myself to maintain my passion for language, syntax and semiotics, but not to allow the act of conversing to cloud my empathy, compassion and love for relating with my fellow human beings.



2 responses

24 05 2010
Sue Anderson

An inspirational piece of writing! This entertaining yet insightful view encapsualtes fear, thought and the importance of ‘fitting in’ and being accepted. The western world has evolved so much that these fundamental basics of community and happiness has become exstinct in some sectors of the world.

27 05 2010

Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

Thumbs up, and keep it going!


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