Most parents when faced with an idea of this magnitude might wait until it was a done deal, until the research was completed and the budgets were prepared, to tell their children. Eric and I lasted three days. We are not good at secrets. I’m not sure our Lonely Planet Central America had even arrived yet — via Amazon Prime, by the way, which takes 36 hours — when we broached the topic with the kids.
At dinner, we started. “Daddy and I were thinking it would be interesting if we moved to Central America for a year. You know, maybe. If it seems like a good idea. But we could all learn to speak Spanish (this was marketing to Jack), and learn to scuba dive and surf (that was for Retta). What do you guys think of that idea?”
First, Jack: “Speak Spanish? Awesome!” And he was in. Of course, when he found out later that Central Americans are big on soccer, he decided this was the best idea ever. I’m pretty sure he still has no idea where Central America is.
Retta was a little more difficult. She was intrigued by the idea of diving and surfing. Her eyes lit up at the news that she would miss a year of school, and that we figured in two hours a day, she could keep up with what she spends seven hours a day doing now. But she had concerns.
“But I can’t speak Mexican.” [Parenthetically, this has *killed* me for years. No matter how many times I correct her and explain that it’s “Spanish” and calling it “Mexican” is offensive to pretty much everyone in our entire county, particularly coming out of her little uber-gringa mouth living fifteen miles from the Mexican border, she insists on sounding like a little uneducated racist. Which she sort of is, with her stable of friends who all have blonde or light brown hair, a disproportionate number with freckles, who do not represent the diversity of her school. Maybe I’ll add “cure Retta of unconscious racism” to my list of goals for this trip.]
“I know you don’t speak [emphasized] *Spanish* yet. None of us do. But we’ll study before we go and spend our first month in language school and living with a family who only speaks Spanish.” This statement led to a look of horror and two follow-on concerns.
- “We’ll spend a whole *year* living in someone elses’ house?!” No, my sweet little introvert, only a month.
- “But what if Jack’s outside kicking a soccer ball and Daddy’s at his new job [ed. note: he’s the one you assume has a job?!?] and you’re at the store and I need something? What would I do?!?”
I completely understand this fear about being unable to communicate. It’s an incredibly helpless feeling when you need or want something and have no idea how to express it. On our earlier journeys, Eric and I always learned a few words before crossing the border into a country. But “hello,” “please,” thank you” and the numbers from one to five can only get you so far. The rest of Arabic, or Hungarian, or Vietnamese, becomes a test of your ability to play that greatest of all party games: charades.
Nothing about the process is dignified. My favorite humiliating moment of charades was on Naxos, on our first big, year-long digression, when I was working my way through The Joy of Cooking. I went to my favorite butcher, who had gigantic photos of different animals on the wall — cows posing in green pastures, proud roosters strutting among fawning chickens. There, I could just point and use my one-to-five vocabulary to say how much I wanted. But when I arrived at the shop, there was an ancient VW bus parked outside with the door slid open, and a half-skinned lamb on the bus floor, blood slowly pooling in the gutter. Squeamishly, I kept walking.
Luckily, for a small island, Naxos boasts butchers on every block so a short walk (and a few dry heaves) landed me at another butcher. This shop, alas, had no easy photos on the wall, and, counting on the photos when I left home, I had no dictionary with me. I stood in line — to the extent there is ever anything resembling a “line” in Greece — while a few matrons in shapeless dresses carrying net bags ordered beef freshly ground. Then, my turn. Gigantic, slender, blonde, I couldn’t look more out of place. Until I panicked, blanked on the word for chicken and was reduced to an improvised chicken dance, complete with flapping arm wings and clucking. (One of the funnier components of the story is that Greek chickens don’t say, “bwuck, bwuck” but instead “ko ko ko,” but my point was made).
Once the butcher stopped crying with laughter, I got my chicken, so I like to think of this as a victory. And I went home and memorized the word for chicken, which, to this day, I recall: kotopoulo.
But charades can get you quite far. In Syria, I figured out how to take a bus from Damascus to Palmyra on the Iraqi border (no simple task), all through charades. And that was done with a crowd of boys and men ostensibly talking to Eric, and only looking at me, demurely holding Eric’s elbow half a step behind him, out of the corners of their eyes. And I easily informed everyone in Egypt that *of course* Eric and I were married (not yet, but survival instinct is strong) through the international sign of grabbing the left ring finger, but unfortunately had not yet been blessed with babies (the birth control in my backpack well-concealed), through the questioning look while cradling a pretend infant.
So I answered Retta’s questions with an explanation of How To Communicate Without Vocabulary. I broke out my pidgin Spanish to show her how she could fully understand my sentence with charades. “Yo,” pointing to myself. “Va,” fingers walking across table. “Mercado,” miming handing money to someone. “Para comida,” pretending to eat. She got it relatively easily, so I assured her that between her acting skills and charades experience, she would do fine until she actually learned to speak Spanish. And that showing that you are trying is 90% of the battle. Oh, and a healthy sense of the ridiculous which I already know will be her Achilles heel, since twelve-year-olds are not well-know for that capacity.