One evening while living in a condo in the old Pato Blanco Hotel, I spied a group of friends and acquaintances through the back of the foyer having an impromptu cook-out by the pool. I approached to say hello and they invited me to join them.
In the flurry of preparation before diving into the cheeseburgers and spread, I asked the person whom I knew best if there was anything I could do to help. He replied mischievously, “Don’t be boring.”
"Don't be boring." So easy to say yet so hard to do. When you are living in another country and navigating a second language, the steps you typically take to “not be boring” are more difficult to access. A joke or off-beat idea may require third-tier vocabulary. Amusing nuance is harder to convey.
For the previous few months, I had been memorizing the fairy tale Cinderella in Spanish while I waited for the water taxi to the gym. In the Spanish version, Cinderella asks the birds to come pick out the peas that the evil step mother has thrown in the ashes in exchange for her permission to go the ball. Cinderella goes directs the birds with the words:
“Las buenas, en el pucherito”
“Las malas, en el buchecito”
I had no idea what those lines meant.
It sounds like a toast though, doesn’t it?
I thought so too. So one night with my girlfriends, when we uncorked our first bottle of wine, instead of the normal (boring) toast of “salud," I broke it out.
“Las buenas, en el pucherito”
“Las malas, en el buchecito*”
You should have heard the gratifying peels of laughter. I explained where I got the lines and that became our official toast for several weeks.
I have used it several times with others and invoked the same hilarity each time. Out of context, it might even sound vaguely dirty, but it’s Cinderella so what can they do to you?
When you memorize a story to the point where you can act it out in mime, even complicated phrases will work themselves into your daily conversation.
You might suddenly blurt out a sentence from a story using irregular future subjunctive tense. You feel like a language savant for that split second while you hear yourself saying it. People who were hearing you struggle with simple past tense two seconds before find you once again a rather surprising companion.
Rote memorization can be a little grueling as a study plan but at least it requires no advance preparation or imagination, great for times when you're sick of the computer or want to "study" while waiting in line.
Only a few weeks later, the same friends and I were passing under a flowering cherry tree well after midnight coming out of a dance place on the beach. The sidewalk lamp light shining through its soft pink translucent flowers created a sparkling and magical effect as we walked under it’s branches, inspiring still more from the fairy tale,
I dramatically announced to my friends, waving my arms at the tree above:
“Arbolito, secude tus ramitas frondosas”
“Échame oro y plata y mas cosas!”
(This quote from when Cinderella pleads to an abundant tree to throw her down a fancy dress for the ball)
They were appreciative. Maybe even struck by my fervor.
The point is that when you live in another country, never be afraid to make fun of yourself or be a little dramatic when making friends. Memorizing a passage or making a funny toast in a second language takes effort. People know and appreciate that.
As you read interesting quotes in English, do your best translate them to Spanish. For example, from reading Oscar Wilde, I developed another toast they liked. "To men with futures and women with pasts."
Another time I roughly translated a Colorado quote, "There is no such thing as bad weather...only bad clothing choices" that they still repeat. Even shop-worn quotes you have heard a million times are new to your Mexican listeners and make you more interesting to be around. Quotes fill in conversational gaps.
Being a little silly is the most accessible form of humor when you are learning another language. If you can make them laugh from time to time, they will never turn you away.
*The good ones in the dish
The bad ones you may eat if you wish"
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Kerry Baker is a writer and partner for Ventanas Mexico, a service which explores living full or part-time in Mexico. She is the author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online."
The Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online was written especially for adults learning Spanish is preparation for expat life.
Her second book, If Only I Had a Place is a guide for aspiring expats on how to rent luxuriously for less.