My huzzband and I own at least seven Spanish textbooks and CDs and subscribe to one Spanish podcast. Two were written and published in the U.S. for American college students, the rest were written and published in Mexico for visiting college students. Not surprisingly, the latter are better because they are entirely in Spanish from page one — no instructions in English, ever.
However, when you move to Mexico City with only the most remedial of Spanish speaking skills, like we did, you learn quite quickly that neither type of textbook (U.S. or Mexican made) addresses the needs of expats. They are useful, of course, but only to a point — I didn’t really need to learn all the vocabulary for classrooms and schools, but I know it anyway, thanks to my dumb books, which all focus on that in the first chapter. (I will admit that all our Spanish textbooks are still way superior to my high school German textbook, which wasted an entire chapter on gummy bears. Or, das Gummibärchen!)
Por ejemplo. After living in our apartment for more than two months, I finally got around to hanging our pictures on the walls. I waited this long partly out of sheer laziness and exhaustion — moving to a foreign country, while still working almost full-time, is thoroughly exhausting (I am so tired right now I can’t even think of another word for exhaustion.) Anyhoodles, I hung a few pictures yesterday but soon used up our supply of nails we brought with us.
So, that meant, damn: Time for another self-taught lesson you’ll never find in the textbooks — Going to the Hardware Store.
Lesson One: Own a really big dictionary that has all the oh-so-useful words that “pocket-size” English-Spanish dictionaries don’t have.
Lesson Two: Then create the expected conversation in your head before you leave the apartment (“Hola, buenos tardes, necessito …nails?!”)
Lesson Three: Yep, here’s where you use the dictionary. Nails is clavos en espanol. And, for the record, unlike in English, clavos does not mean both nails for hammering and nails on your fingers. The latter are unas.
Lesson Four: Head into the unknown, in this case, the ferreteria.
Joy: “Hola, buenos tardes, necessito clavos….Como este” (I hold my thumb and forefinger apart about 20 centimeters to indicate needed size.)
Vendedor: “Por concreto o paredes?”
Joy: “Si, paredes.” (I only know paredes means walls because we recently embarked on another adventure the textbooks never cover: house painting. Whew — a potential awkward situation thwarted, and a sign I’m actually learning espanol!).
Vendedor shuffled around, found nails. Handed me one that’s the right size, but pretty stout. Uh-oh….Time to think on my feet.
Joy: “Hmmm…tiene clavos….mas delgado?”
Vendedor: “No.” (And an unsympathetic no at that.)
Joy. “Oh. Esta bien. Cinco, por favor. Cuantos?”
Vendedor: “Cinco pesos.”
Joy: “Gracias, y hasta luego.”
If you’re still awake after reading that, you see what I mean by mundane. Yet important. And nowhere in my 7 Spanish textbooks.