When learning a new language, and practicing it outside of your small, chilly classroom with your thoughtfully slow-speaking teachers, success comes down to expectations. I expect certain statements, certain phrases and questions, during specific interactions. For instance, at the grocery store, I expect a few pleasantries when I reach the register. I expect to be asked if I need a bag. I expect commentary about the amount and/or quality of the wine and cookies I am purchasing. I expect to hear a series of numbers I will not be able to decipher, and I expect to hand over the largest bill in my wallet and pray it’s enough. It’s a routine, and one I can anticipate. I prepare for these exchanges and, generally speaking, handle them all right.
The problem comes when I am asked unexpected questions. This afternoon was rainy and cold, and so I decided to walk to a nearby movie theater and see “Up” in 3D. After explaining what movie I wanted to see and at which time, the clerk made a short statement with a sympathetic look on her face and I deduced—aha!—it was sold out. I was so pleased with myself that I didn’t mind. Fair enough, I thought, and when she suggested another showing a bit later on (and, it turns out, not in 3D), I agreed.
What came next sounded like the recitation of a speech by Castro, and it was about as meaningful to me. This girl just talked and talked and talked, her crazy, sparkly eyeshadow moving like waves with her oddly changing facial expressions, and then she’d pause, and I could tell by her inflection that I had been asked a question, and so I gave my standard, “Si, oh yes, si. Gracias. Gracias!” despite the fact that I had no idea what I was being asked. (Note: I have no idea why I do this. I know it’s completely idiotic, but it’s like a knee-jerk reaction. I’m trying to curb it.) After a few more minutes, it became clear that this was not a “yes or no” situation. Eventually, after practically climbing over the counter to figure out what it was she kept referring to, I realized that it was a seating chart of the theater. Apparently in Argentina, you not only purchase a ticket, you also purchase an individual seat. H5, to be exact. See, I didn’t expect that. The seats are labeled and everything. It’s quite a system.
Everything else was the same—except, you know, in Spanish.