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Panama's Lingual Duel

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Written by Matt   
Friday, 01 May 2009 18:22
There's a certain milestone you approach after some time as a foreigner in Panama; in language books they refer to it as fluency or the ability to successfully communicate with the Spanish speakers around you, rx but I like to think of it more the notion of pain, case the unpleasant physical discomfort experienced by someone who is seriously out of their element. "Abortion. What's your take on it?" was the question that sparked it all.

To begin, my level of Spanish is by no means spectacular. That is to say, I often get mistaken for a retard or someone from France. However, it is good enough to understand just about everything that's said and respond with something that vaguely resembles a cogent thought. As if my answer to his abortion question impressed him, the taxi driver I was discussing the topic with rewarded me the way you might after a new puppy performs a simple trick such as sitting down. "You talk with skill," he said.

In Panama, people talk very fast: a good or bad place to learn the language depending on your perspective on things. And once engaged in a conversation, if there's something that doesn't make sense, I like to use a phrase called "estoy de accuerdo" or I'm in agreement. An argument in my mind is the worst possible scenario, as there's no feasible way to sound authoritative or domineering when you suck at Spanish, so I like to use estoy de accuerdo interchangeably with several others such as "verdad" which means right, and "tienes razon" which more or less says you got the right stuff baby.

There's a very big difference between speaking Spanish sufficiently and being able to seamlessly put together sophisticated sentences without sounding like a tool. The tipping point almost always arises a few minutes into a conversation when the native Spanish speaker, comfortable with your level of Spanish to this point, says something that requires a small paragraph response: in exam terms, a jump from the multiple choice questions to short essays. Explain to us your take on democracy, for example, or the all-too-common, how did you find yourself in Panama?

Now, the easy out would be to use the few words you know, and use them well. "How did I decide on Panama? On a whim." I might say, or "Panama? A twist of fate." These are cultural phrases I've picked up from friends, which I pull out as backup ammo should the opportunity present itself, a last straw sort of thing. They also come in handy should I lose concentration and not realize what's being asked.

"Where does fasfopkss ernksdf xcet around here?"

"Beats me!" I like to say. "I haven't a freaking clue."

The other, more adventurous response involves digging your feet in and trying to explain your point of view: an act akin to juggling grenades. It's become a habit of mine, in accepting this challenge, to carefully craft my thoughts into simple expressions and then unload them in list form, like the summary of a news article that you read so not to waste time with excess details...which is what brings me back to the abortion question.

"What do I think about abortion?" I restated, then sat for several seconds fingering the locks of my beard in an effort to appear pensive. I took a deep breath and simultaneously adopted a blank stare out the front of the windshield into the dark Panamanian night: "Abortion: a unique topic. Personally, I am a fan. For the rest of the world, I say choose wisely." In looking back on it, my response was gay and haiku-ish, but it got across the point without running on and on. The taxi driver looked at me, then looked similarly out at the road contemplating the simpleton sitting beside him. "Profundo," he said. That was deep.


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I live here
written by Stew , May 02, 2009
I live in Panama and that's well put. I just stick with the basics - feigning deafness if questioned further.
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the next level
written by La Mer , May 02, 2009
One thing I am truly, slowly and painfully learning from you is "how to talk to the plumber" (or the driver, in this case). That's like saying "the next level": how to relate to virtually anybody. Keeping it short and simple, "haiku-ish", as you said.
smilies/cry.gif
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...
written by mary espinosa , May 02, 2009
ugh. you get mistaken for a retard? what's that supposed to mean? do you think that all retards look alike? do all hispanics? Asians? shame on you, for using the word retard and for demeaning a group of people with special needs. They're just doing the best they can. Wish I could say the same thing about you.
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Mary
written by La Mer , May 03, 2009
I guess we are all mentally/intellectually challenged individuals sometimes and in certain domains. In this article's case, you seem to lack a sense of humor, Matt believed he lacked the linguistic skills in Spansh and I feel like I am incapable of expressing complex matters in simple, concise ways. But we all compensate for these "disabilities" in various, often brilliant ways (see Matt's "tour de force", a propos of the connection between retards and French)...and that is called intelligence. smilies/wink.gif
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crazy for Panama
written by Meredith Taylor , May 03, 2009
Dear Matt,

I have been reading your blog for some time but only now have had the chance to communicate with you. I look forward to reading your stories as they brighten up my miserable American existence.

For the last few years, I have been trying to figure out a way to leave the U.S and relocate to Panama on a permanent basis.

Compared to my life of hell in the U.S and that is to put it mildly, I think Panama will be an incredible place for me.

What is the best way to relocate? I own a business but I am also a part-time student, so I was thinking about a student visa as an option.

I have tried to deal with America, but it is just getting harder by the second, and I can't bear it anymore.

Please advise.


Regards,


Meredith Taylor
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Had to laugh
written by Flash Gordon , May 18, 2009
Of course you get mistaken for a retard. I thought it was stamped in all American passports?

Best part of the journey from the Good Ole US of A? Mid-Carribean. Why? Neither in USA or Panama and there is always the prospect of the plane developing a fault and landing in a real country. Hmmm, second thought....I would take a backwater with at least a tourism industry.
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Last Updated on Friday, 01 May 2009 18:25
 
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