Monday, March 31, 2008

Button Bellies and Pound Cakes

My entire life, it seems, people have made fun of my accent.

When I was growing up in Costa Rica, the kids in school made fun of my little gringuita accent. And as a Costa Rican, I can’t roll my r’s to save my life and I am teased mercilessly by other Latin Americans. I lived and worked in France, and the French had plenty to say about my accent there. Then I joined the Peace Corps and lived in a French-speaking African country, which made my French accent so wacky that the French didn’t know what to make of it. So yes, I know what it’s like to have an accent. Even though I’m used to the teasing and am pretty good-humored about it (or try to be), in principle I think that making fun of someone’s accent is not very nice.

But the thing is, my mom’s accent is so frickin’ cute. It matches her personality: She’s a native Spanish speaker, a (maybe) five-foot-tall Latina who talks a million miles a minute, always excitedly, never without using her hands, and she taught me all the swear words I know (at an early age, too). More than the accent, though, the word combinations she has been known to use in English have become part of our family’s lexicon. I blame my dad; even though he was mad as hell whenever someone made fun of his very gringo accent, he found my mom’s quirks so endearing that he never corrected her and in fact, encouraged her.

She was convinced the word for navel was button belly.

She used to ask for her leftovers in a baggie dog.

She was sure my dad suffered from rage road.

She refuses to say the word turtle anymore because it’s hard for her to say and we’ve all given her such a hard time about it (not that the word turtle comes up very often in casual conversation).

Last night, we were using a calling card to call Costa Rica, which involved punching in a long string of numbers and symbols. The call wasn’t going through, my mom had had enough and began yelling, “Pound cake! Pound cake! Are you sure you pressed the pound cake?” When I looked at her and started laughing, her response was, “Well, don’t you think it should be called the pound cake?”

Well, now I do.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Such a sad, sad comment

The U.S. invaded Iraq on my sister-in-law's birthday. I called her that night and we joked about it. Ha, ha, now I'll always remember your birthday!

This year, I did forget all about her birthday. Until I heard about the anti-war protests that will be going on to mark the 5-year anniversary of the war, and then I turned to my mother and said, "Hey, we have to call SIL tomorrow."

It's not so funny anymore.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Week in Movies

Number of times I went to the movies last year: Two. Pan’s Labyrinth and Ratatouille.

Number of times I went to the movies last week: Three. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Juno and The Orphanage.

Miss Pettigrew was frothy and entertaining. I enjoyed Juno more than I thought I would. And The Orphanage freaked me the hell out. I came back to my hotel and wandered down the deserted hallways by myself sliding last-minute paperwork under people’s doors. which did not settle my nerves any.

The next time I go to the movies, I’ll watch something a lot more relaxing than that last one. Though given my track record last year, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Three Days

Yesterday: Last day of meetings. Government officials tagging along. Everyone on best behavior. Thinking about going home. Difficulty concentrating on interpreting. Dinner. Two cosmopolitans. Fighting over check. Live music and lots of laughing.

Today: Final evaluation. Formal speeches. Formal goodbyes. Congratulations, thanks, posing for lots of group photos. Evening. Informal goodbyes in hotel hallways. Set 3:30 wake-up call.

Tomorrow: Insanely early cab to airport. More goodbyes. Nonstop, cross-country flight. Window seat. Travel pillow. Sleep on plane. Finally see my boys.

Don’t leave them again for a long time.

Monday, March 10, 2008

In a city that shall remain nameless

At the checkout counter at a grocery store:

Man behind me: Ugh. I’m going to a really boring meeting. I wish I could take wine. I don’t understand why they won’t let me just take wine. It’ll be a really boring meeting. I think I should be allowed to take wine.

Cashier [to me]: He’s from City Council.

Keen: Oh.

Notes from the road

I often get asked if I speak Mexican. And every time, even though I’m used to it by now, I never quite know what to say. I’m very polite about it and I guess I hem and haw and come up with some kind of answer that doesn’t make the asker feel like an idiot.

Nights like tonight make me feel sorry for the people who ask that question. Tonight, I spent the evening with:

A jovial Nicaraguan, who is the class clown and keeps us all laughing on the long, long bus rides.

A Costa Rican, who is more of a serious guy and is needled mercilessly by the Nicaraguan but takes it all in stride.

A preppy Peruvian, who constantly talks to his wife on his cell phone.

An Argentinean, who has become the group mother and has proudly shown us all pictures of her children, who she obviously loves and misses more than anything.

A Bolivian, who seemed so reserved at first but has loosened up so much that everyone else is joking about the coca leaves he must have stashed in his luggage.

A brassy Honduran woman, who tells us about the tough times she’s going though.

An man who is, in fact, Mexican and proud of it, who plays the sax and has a wonderful singing voice.

A super-classy Ecuadorian, who is a total fashion plate and always has a million-dollar smile for everyone.

A Salvadoran woman, who is shy and sweet and a great dancer.

A Venezuelan, who has beat the odds to get where she is professionally and tells us all stories about what life in her country is like.

There was music, dancing, and singing, lots of talking and joking around. The two songs we all knew the words were “Querida” by Juan Gabriel and “Un Buen Perdedor” by Franco de Vita, and we sang them--loudly--for all we were worth.

They are attorneys, judges and law professors in their countries. Yes, we all speak Spanish. Not Mexican. No, we are not all alike. They have to explain their legal systems to each other and I often have to ask them for clarification when they use terminology from their countries that I don’t understand. I have more in common with the Central Americans and less with the South Americans, but we understand each other and learn from each other. It is a never-ending learning process for me—for all of us—one that started when I first became interested in interpreting. I love learning the vocabulary they use, hearing stories about life in their countries firsthand.

I miss my boys terribly, and I try not to think about it too much and instead focus on the fact that I’ll be home in less than a week. In many ways, traveling and being away from them for so long is such a sacrifice. But in many others, it’s such a privilege.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


I saw a sign at a meeting today that said: Wait here.

Underneath was the Spanish translation: Wait aquĆ­.

Hey, they got it half right.

Bad translations get to me. Bad translations were done either by bad translators or by Babel Fish (which is an endless source of entertainment to actual translators). Either way, I can tell you that the target audience isn’t going to understand the translation and I refuse to translate a translation for them from Spanish into Spanish, because I’d only be guessing. You know what the better option is? Don’t translate it at all. Please. Just have me do a quick sight translation for them. It’s more time consuming, sure, but better for everyone involved.

The sign that makes me cringe every time I see it is in a courthouse where I sometimes work. All of us have said something about it and I feel it’s actually insulting and should be removed. One of the courtrooms has a computer monitor outside that says Small Claims. Or, in Spanish, Little-o Dinero. Hyphen and all. Please. Don’t. That sign says to me, I don’t give a s**t. Here, this looks like it could be Spanish. Why don’t you learn English? Or go back to your country? OK, that may be me reading too much into it, but those are all sentiments I’ve heard about the people I interpret for at one point or another.

Little-o Dinero. Even Babel Fish would do a better job than that.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Bad, bad blogger

One post for the month of February. Kind of embarrassing—even I didn’t think I’d be so bad. But I want to keep going, so here we go. It’s hard to know where to start. I actually did write a couple of posts, one about work and one about the boys’ language development, but I wasn’t happy with either one so I trashed them. Maybe I’ll retool them later.

I’m on a 3-week trip interpreting for a group from Central and South America. They’re here to learn about the U.S. judicial system. Funny, I usually take these jobs to get away from court, so when I found out what this job would be about I was both bummed out and excited. To be fair, this is nothing like court. For one thing, I’m working with extremely intelligent professionals and getting to talk to them informally about their own legal systems and ask them questions about legal terminology is an incredible opportunity. Plus, they’re a riot. Half the time we’re crammed in teeny buses together or traipsing through airports and they crack each other up.

We were in Washington for week one, so I left P and the boys yesterday. So far I haven’t had the time—or the inclination, yet—to miss them. That will change and by the time the two weeks are over I’ll be desperate to get home. But for now it’s just me in a cozy hotel room somewhere in Michigan, which is, well, quiet.

I like quiet.