March 19, 2010 | Korean
Early Spring, with Foreign-Language Encounters
In which I encounter people walking around in the sunshine speaking different languages.
Yesterday and today were around 70 degrees. Tomorrow will be more of the same. A beautiful and premature spring.
This morning I wanted to go for a run, but for some reason found myself strangely indecisive about audio accompaniment: would it be Pimsleur today, or music? I spent too much time analyzing the decision, with the strands of the analysis as follows: Music makes me run faster. With Pimsleur I run more slowly. But I actually learn something from Pimsleur. Also, I need to go slowly, since I am running the NYC Half-Marathon this Sunday and don’t want to be too tired.
Finally I settled on music, mostly because I had been listening to Pimsleur in the wee hours of the morning while trying to sleep, and the thought of more struggles with Korean right at that moment made me feel nauseated. But I couldn’t find my Shuffle, which is where my music resides. It is so tiny that once I misplace the thing, it can disappear for weeks. So I took Brandt’s iPod instead, but I am not used to it and practically exploded my eardrums, several times. Then, shortly after I hit the park, it went dead. No matter. So did my legs. I was too tired to run.
Fortunately, I had a backup plan: I had also brought our camera, so I wandered around taking pictures of flowers and other signs of spring. Every time I saw a flower, I took a picture. Other people’s flower pictures are boring, so I have tried to be selective here.
Anyway, flowers are not the point. The point is, it is tourist time again in Central Park! Because it was so nice, many people were out walking around. I asked one of them to take a picture of me. I noticed he did not seem too comfortable with a camera, or with English.
“Sind Sie Deutsch?” I asked. (Are you German?) He looked surprised and said yes, and I addressed him briefly in German. Nothing significant, just things like “thank you” and “Have a good time.” But he seemed happy to be able to communicate.
Then I headed north up Circle Drive West. A few minutes later, I came to the West Side bridge leading to the Ramble; I don’t know the bridge’s name, but it has been under renovation for a long time. Two women there, who turned out to be mother and daughter, asked me to take their picture. I said yes, and would they take mine as well? This exchange of services was readily agreed upon.
It turned out they were from Buenos Aires, so we began chatting in Spanish. It went really well, in my opinion! Now that I am not speaking Italian very often (really, not at all), the Italian seems to have stopped encroaching on my Spanish. And, because of the similarities between the languages, my Spanish seems to have gotten a bit of a boost.
The two women were visiting New York for the first time, and were loving it (I told them they didn’t have to say that, but they assured me they meant it), and wanted the rest of their family to come next time. I told them I would be studying Spanish intensively next month. The mother said my Spanish was great already, but I said I wanted it to be better, and she said she understood, that her daughter had just done the same thing preparing her English for their trip.
The mother observed that in New York they had been encountering people who were obviously native Spanish speakers but who didn’t want to talk in Spanish with them. I replied that I had experienced the same thing. (Though truly, I find it happens more with other languages.)
Later in the day I had a meeting in midtown. On the subway there, I was concentrating so hard on trying to figure out whether the two young women standing in front of me were speaking Korean (I couldn’t hear them all that well above the subway car grumblings) that I missed my stop.
I never did figure it out.
The foreign-language experiences continued post-meeting. On my way back to the subway, I was walking west along 49th towards the subway station when a tiny woman, maybe 65 years old, stopped me. She seemed overwhelmed, standing frozen with people swirling past her at high velocities. She held out a piece of paper. For a moment I wondered whether this was one of those things where the person tells you she’s deaf and mute and can you give her some money. But it wasn’t.
On the paper were written the words “Red Cross,” along with a two-digit West 49th address. She told me, slowly and enunciating carefully, “Cruz Roja.” (Which means Red Cross in Spanish.) She appeared to speak not a word of English.
I asked, “Habla español?”
With an expression of great relief, she gasped, “Sí,” and clasped her hands together and looked heavenwards. I don’t know that I have ever gotten that reaction before. Based on the street number, I told her, “Creo que está entre aquí y la Avenida Cinco. Pero no estoy segura.” I believe “Avenida Cinco” should have been “Quinta Avenida,” but the gist of what I said was, “I think it is between here [we were standing at the corner of Sixth] and Fifth Avenue. But I’m not sure.”
I really emphasized the lack of sureness. I hate when New Yorkers dispense wrong directions with fantastic confidence; it’s a frequent and unfortunate phenomenon here.
We spoke for a minute, and she thanked me and told me in Spanish, congratulations on your Spanish. She had seemed so worried and lost, and she seemed so happy to have been able to understand me. After we parted ways, I regretted that I hadn’t offered to go with her to help her find the Red Cross. I should have. I hope she got there all right.
Okay, now I realize I really should have gone with her. After I typed that last paragraph, I went to the web and searched on “Red Cross” and “49th Street.” The address she had was just plain wrong. The Red Cross is at 520 West 49th Street. A three-digit street number, therefore, not the two-digit one she showed me, so way west of 10th Avenue—a healthy walk in the direction exactly opposite the one I sent her off in.