Trying to Say Just What I Mean

“That is not what I meant at all./That is not it, at all.””

It is impossible to say just what I mean!”

– T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

I’m looking for Q-tips in the grocery store in Buenos Aires, but I’m not finding them. What in the world do they call Q-tips here? How do you say “cotton swab”? If I say “cotton swab” will they know what I’m talking about? I know that if I really want to find the Q-tips, its time to play my least favorite game—the riddle game. It works much like the old 100,000 Pyramid show and goes like this: I describe the item in as much detail as possible without actually saying the name of the thing. The person at the store/restaurant/other service facility guesses what it is that I’m describing. Admittedly this game is difficult because most of the time I don’t know when the person has guessed correctly. I win the game if I succeed in actually obtaining the item and I lose if the person just gives up and says that they don’t carry such a thing.

“Do you have, how do you say, Q-tips?” I ask in Spanish.

The woman stares at me blankly.

“Um, they are white and cotton and they are for the ears,” I say.

More blank stare coupled with what I perceive as a faint grimace of pity.

“To clean the ears,” I elaborate as the word for “clean” pops into my head.

She clearly does not want to play the game. She shakes her head and tells me that they do not have anything like that. Two days later I notice a small display of Q-tips on an end cap. I can’t blame her—I would have done the same thing. (For the record, they are called “hisopos”).

Some people are more than willing to play the game and even make it their personal mission to see that I win.

“I need a notebook with horizontal and vertical lines.” How the hell do you say graph paper?

“Bigger. No, smaller. I would like, how do you say “cover,” to be how do you say, “plain”–only black or only white.”

All this time the man in the stationary store works furiously to find what I want, ripping open boxes and running back and forth from the stockroom. We finally find something that works and I must have the same relieved look on my face as he does.

“It is white cream and it is good on baked potatoes. Sour. Sour cream.”

There are several different ways to express sour cream in each country in Central and South America. I have not yet hit on the correct one in Argentina. In fact I’m kind of stumped by all the different types of cream. Which one is whipping cream? Cream cheese? I’m half tempted to just buy one of everything in the market and see how things shake out.

In the past I would be content with going without the things that I wanted if I couldn’t find them rather than risk a conversation like one of the above. But I’m trying to force myself to ask for the things that I want even though I feel like one of those signing gorillas. Of course there are days when I feel terrified to even leave the apartment fearing that someone might talk to me.

All this has got me thinking about what I want to do when I get back and have to actually get a job. I’m thinking about the brief time that I spent teaching ELD (has the term changed in the 6 months that I’ve been away?) when I was a student teacher and how brave those kids are. Adam and I are here by choice, choosing to stay here to try to learn to speak a language that we already have some knowledge of. If it gets to be too much, we can leave. If we don’t become as fluent as we would like in this amount of time, it doesn’t matter—we always have more time. Those kids are decidedly not there by choice. Many don’t have any knowledge of English and sometimes are illiterate in their native language as well. They can’t leave and they don’t have the luxury of time. They have to graduate high school. They have to learn to translate for their parents. I think about how isolated I feel and I can’t fathom how these kids must feel, especially when the added burden of adolescence is thrown in.

I believe that I would be in a good position to help those kids. Teaching Shakespeare is great and I would never want to completely stop doing it, but I will begrudgingly admit that when it comes to getting a decent job, having a vast working knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays is not as essential as speaking English.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll do something totally different. Is 100,000 Pyramid still on the air?

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