Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thinking En Español At Midnight

It's been awhile since we've gone now, but for several years in a row, our church took a group of people on missions trips to Reynosa, Mexico at Easter time. My wife and I (she was my fiancee the first year) went on five such trips with the church, each year from 2003 to 2007. While visiting the various churches in Reynosa (and one year in Monterrey), we were able to make lots of friends among the Mexican believers. Among them was the pastor of one of the local churches, Victor Cruz.

We became very close to Victor, his wife Mary (pronounced MAH-ree), and their five kids over the years that we went to Reynosa. My wife Mary helped his wife Mary and some of the other ladies at the seminary where we stayed in preparing the meals for the seminary students and the people in our group. Mary learned how to make tamales (though she couldn't really reproduce them at home -- cooking is such a process there) and mole chicken and other great foods native to Mexico. I was part of a group of guys, led by Victor, who worked on various construction projects both at the seminary and at Victor's church across town. Not being a particularly handy guy, I can't say that I actually learned very much about construction, or that I even helped all that much. My biggest contribution was probably an intangible one.

Having taken four years of high school Spanish and placing into the fourth (and highest) level of Spanish I needed to take in college to fulfill my foreign-language requirements, I was fairly fluent in Spanish at the time. Of course, knowing how to conjugate common verbs and speak conversationally doesn't help you a whole lot if you don't know any construction terms in Spanish. But still, I was probably more fluent than most of the people in our group, especially among the guys. So I basically became our de facto translator. Victor didn't speak a whole lot of English -- most of the people we met there didn't. But he could speak a few words here and there to get his point across. What he couldn't say in English he would say in Spanish and I would do my best to translate it for the other guys.

It's now been more than five years since the last time we were in Mexico. Outside of some scattered communication in Spanish with our contractor guy over the past few weeks (he speaks very good English, so we don't have to revert to Spanish too much), we haven't had many occasions to speak Spanish with any regularity. Mary (my wife, not Victor's) was pretty good at Spanish, too, and did her share of translating when she was working with the Mexican ladies in the kitchen. But again, it's been five years, and we haven't practiced, so our Spanish skills have declined greatly, to say the least.

I say all that to say this: Last night, I had a good long chat with Victor on Facebook -- we have sporadically kept in contact through the social networking site, but hadn't chatted in a while. The good thing about reading Spanish as opposed to speaking it is that if you get stuck, you can just pull up Google Translate and either translate what you don't understand that the other person has said, or translate into Spanish what you want to say to them.

So, when at the end of our chat, Victor asked for my phone number so we could talk on the phone, we were both elated and a bit scared. Would we be able to carry on a conversation primarily in a language we hadn't spoken regularly in several years? Would Victor feel pressured to speak only in English, with which he is not all that comfortable, either? We honestly didn't know how it would go. But I messaged Victor with our home telephone number anyway, figuring that he'd call in a few days and we'd have time to brush up on our Spanish in the interim. I signed off the Internet and we were about to head up to bed. After all, it was 11:30 at night. Then the phone rang. Of course, it was Victor.

We ended up speaking with him for over an hour, and I think it went pretty well, considering. Between the two of us, Mary and I both succeeded (somewhat) in communicating what we wanted to say in Spanish, and understood (for the most part) everything Victor had to say (mostly in Spanish also). We caught up on each others' lives over the past five years. He asked how certain people from our church group were doing. We inquired how his family and the other families we befriended in Mexico were doing. Victor told us that he and his wife Mary plan to visit the United States early next year, and if at all possible, they may try to head this way and visit us here in Greenville. (Awesome!) It was great hearing his voice again, and catching up and reminiscing about old times. There may have been some miscommunication to him on our part, or to us on his part from time to time. But ultimately, it didn't matter as much as I'd thought before he called. Thinking in Spanish and English simultaneously and trying to translate both at midnight after a long day of work and years of non-practice is quite difficult, and both our brains (and probably Victor's too, trying to work some English into his part of the conversation) were fairly taxed afterwards, but it was worth every minute of it. We are looking forward to the next time we get to speak to him on the phone again. Even more so, we look forward to possibly seeing Victor and Mary again in person next year.

Until then, we better start brushing up on our Spanish-speaking skills...

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