Before moving across the country in 1970 my family lived in Kensington, Maryland, a few short miles from Washington DC. I grew up in the shadow of the center of the political universe, oblivious to its significance; 11 year olds have no business with inconvenient truths. My mother was able to manage a nice three bedroom place at University Boulevard West Apartments, just south of the Wheaton Plaza. Last I checked this complex was ‘repositioned’ in the market as condos.
Curiously, my last visit to the old haunt in 1996 brought me face to face with how time marches on for people and buildings, our lovely apartment was actually for sale as a condo. Thoughts of purchasing it entered my mind but were dismissed as foolishness; I had no plan to relocate from Seattle to the certain busyness of the nation’s capital. Still, seeing our family’s last abode on the east coast, with all its fond memories, took me back in time.
Meeting kids from far away countries was normal, in fact, a secure high rise called, The Helenwood Apartments, bordered our apartment complex and was home to families whose parent(s) worked at one of the hundreds of embassies in the area. My best friend and soccer mentor, Paul, was from England, another close friend, Victor, was the son of the Ambassador from El Salvador. In the summer of 1969 I met Philippe, he was from Peru. Philippe was ready to embrace all that neighborhood kids had to offer, he learned games we played with baseball cards and dice, Monopoly, court yard games like kick-the-can, and of course pool side flirting, our version of Love American Style!
Paul and Victor were both very different from Philippe. Both were good looking boys and had that foreign mystery about them that always grabbed the attention of the girls. Both were always in competition with each other, somehow I managed to balance friendships with each.
Unlike either Paul or Victor, whenever Philippe would get angry he would speak loudly in his native flavor of Spanish. It all appeared to be random words and phrases, probably relevant to only him, I’m not even sure Victor (from El Salvador) could follow. Most of us would look confused, scratching our heads in disbelief while he vented. Philippe’s outbursts were preceded by simple language miscues, easily smoothed over because at his core he was gentle. Just the same, we all made efforts to figure out his angst and do our best to accommodate.
This was my first lesson in speaking ‘Random Spanish Words’ loudly to get attention and accommodation.
In the largely bilingual city of Phoenix, a place I lived for 16 years, this ritual played out many times. Unlike the innocence of youth, most knew their tirades would produce attention and accommodation.
This past week I was on my own Winter Break, the kind that only middle age couples decide are necessary. My wife arranged for a hasty retreat to Puerto Vallarta for a week of sun, swimming, sleeping, shopping and a few other ‘S’ words. (Don’t make me spell it out, ok!) Our resort of choice was actually seven miles south of Puerto Vallarta in the small town of Mismaloya. We braved the local bus system twice to experience the local color of the bigger port city to the north. It was on the second trip I met up with the same language frustrations that surely plagued Philippe.
You’d think that bargaining for colorful t-shirts would be a simple matter, but on this day the language miscues bested me. It was late afternoon, while we walked amongst hungry street vendors in the river flea market, we came upon a vendor with shirts that finally interested me. Even while showing obvious enthusiasm at the prospect of a deal, their prices changed up and down with out explanation. I couldn’t tell weather business had been good for them or bad, they refused to be pinned to a final price unless ridiculously high. The markets seem to have their own bargaining language which serves everyone well… but not for me on this hot afternoon.
I started to walk away they protested and dropped the price. I was likely more annoyed than angry, at that moment I remembered Philippe and ‘random Spanish words’. I began to yell ‘random Spanish words’ back in their general direction as I lost myself in the crowd.
“Donde esta usted!”
I was quite a distance away when I heard a price yelled to me I liked. I continued…
“Agua por favor!”
“Bien, y tu!”
Turning, I could see that tempers had flared a bit between the two men. I scampered back, and to the delight of one vendor we came to a quick agreement for the t-shirt.
My second lesson in speaking ‘Random Spanish words’ loudly, if you don’t get their attention how will they ever accommodate you, or more to the point, WHY would they ever accommodate you. I’m quite sure the t-shirt would still be in Puerto Vallarta had it not been for my Philippe-like tirade.
I understand better the old saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” If you must leave the proverbial table at a negotiation, do it with flare and drama, try using ‘random Spanish words’ as you exit. You never know, it may get the t-shirt you really want.
Thanks for reading this far.