Por que no ahora?

The first time I interact with Colombians, I am always rude. I am rude: why? I am terrified that Spanish will not only embarrass, but fail me. Because fear jostles up alongside me, demanding an invitation to every new exchange, I scramble through the inaugural encounter. In cahoots with this anxiety, most of my hard-won grammar and vocabulary find a reason to wander off – look, a scooter! – and I am left mumbling, “Er, tiene agua, si?”

 

I say this to the free-standing kiosk owner, or at least the guy who seems to be in charge. A huddle of break-takers encircle the makeshift shop setup on the sidewalk off a busy street, and my approach quiets completely their friendly banter. I hate that: knowing you’ve just demonstrably irritated a whole group of humans by your sheer, unwelcome presence. Suddenly silent, the boss and I make eye contact for exactly one second before I look down, and then he asks some questions, which I answer with grunts and tortured facial contortions, and a girl retrieves two bottles from somewhere beyond sight, and while she does, this guy keeps saying things, and tells me how much I need to pay, but because this damn fear friend of mine abides, nothing registers. I’m looking down, through my purse, trying to listen and also wondering if there’s going to be change involved and subconsciously praying I have smaller bills not currently stepping forward (cowards!), so we may all avoid the withering prospect of prolonged discussion. And then the waters are in hand and the boss is waiting, and I have to ask: Cuanta cuesta?

 

It’s 4 mil, that would be four thousand pesos, or roughly two American dollars. I pay, panting in relief at a discovered few one-mil peso notes, and I think I remembered to say gracias. But I don’t know. What I can say unequivocally is that I did not smile, I did not engage in etiquette-appropriate discourse. I can say with certainty that I did not make anyone’s heart fill and bubble over with admiration for Americans. Excuse me. Estadounidenses.

 

And this is the way it usually goes when there’s a new Spanish conversation to be had. I’m afraid of doing it, and I’m afraid of not doing it well. What’s incredible, I realized later on my walk to TRX with Jorge and friends, is that though the latter is always fulfilled to the utmost of my expectations (incompetent, incoherent, rude), yet I’m always thrilled – exhilarated, really – that I dragged myself through the whole ordeal. Wow, I did it! Look at me, taking care of business en espanol. It’s almost like punching the fear friend right in his crooked, flaring nostrils. It’s fantastic really, much like the stand’s convincing umbrella request: Por que no ahora? Why not now?