My first night in Athens I spend mostly indoors, getting to know my hostel roommate, who is from Argentina. Early January, and Athens is a little chilly. We’ve got the heat cranked in this cute three-bed studio apartment, with a tiny bathroom, our own kitchenette, and a small table and chairs.
The Argentinian Woman speaks no English. As an American, this strikes me as strange—isn’t English the World Language? Shouldn’t we all speak this perfect and easy language by now? Um, no. I speak a little bit of Spanish, but the more I communicate with my roommate, the more I learn that I actually know: I know how to say “bathroom” and “food” and “chicken” and “cold.” We can’t have deep conversations with sporadic words like these, but it’s a start.
This is an unusual situation for me—a white girl having grown up in a predominantly Hispanic-city—to meet someone who speaks less of my language than I do of theirs. She seems not to know how to say “hello,” or “please,” or “goodbye.” We have entire conversations using Google Translate on our phones, and I know when she gives me a funny look that the translation is wrong. I hear her voice as the Google voice: a British woman speaking stunted English with occasional missing articles. I know that she must hear my voice this way too, because it’s too much work to concentrate on the sound of each other’s actual voices while also focusing on the meaning of the words.
When I say, “Yo soy caliente,” trying to avoid the translator as much as possible, she laughs, and translates for me, “You don’t mean that. It doesn’t mean what you think. That means you are hot like for sex.”
We both crack up as I turn down the heat. She tells me the correct way to say it, “Yo tengo caliente,” which I take to mean, “I have heat,” or “I feel hot,” instead of “I am hot,” (although honestly, sometimes I get into these weird delusions where I think I am).
She shares with me her leftover chicken and bread for a sandwich since I haven’t had a chance to get groceries yet (this is one of many things to do when I arrive somewhere new: get groceries, exchange for local money, find a map). We talk late into the night. “I might go for a walk,” I say.
“I wouldn’t,” she says, “It’s dangerous out there, in a foreign country at night.”
I’m not really afraid, but she has a point. It’s dark outside and I don’t know the area yet; if nothing else, I might get lost. She shares with me some cinnamon tea, which I’m pretty sure is just cinnamon in a teabag. It’s delicious! She tells me about her “novio,” and I explain that I want to break up with mine, which comes out like, “I want to break with my boyfriend,” according to Google Translate.
“Do you like him?” She asks, simply, probably translated from, “te gusta el?” in her fast-moving melodic voice (this is the Google Translate sentence).
“No lo creo,” is probably the translation when I say, “I don’t think so.” The direct translation though, of this Spanish sentence is something like, “I don’t believe so.” Believing is different than thinking, isn’t it? “No lo se” would be “I don’t know.” Why didn’t it translate to something like that? I guess knowing is definitely different from thinking. We think because we don’t know; or sometimes because we do. We believe to avoid the inevitable?
Every conversation with the Argentinian Who Speaks No English is though Google Voice, which is work, but I enjoy this experience. It’s fun to learn what I know and don’t know about a language, and to get to know someone who doesn’t know mine at all. Although our conversations are fairly surface-level, it’s clear how complicated language really is, and when both parties mean well, it doesn’t need to be a barrier for understanding.