Monique had immigrated to Canada from Egypt, a place so polluted that the white dress she began her day in was gray by dinner. Although her English was very good, she lacked many colloquialisms and customs peculiar to her new North American homeland. Like what type of winter coat does one wear in the Edmonton winter?
So when she received an invitation to a shower from a wealthy Egyptian woman who had lived in Canada for many more years, Monique was flattered. But also puzzled, did this woman think she was dirty? Monique often took two showers a day!
Then again, maybe it's like going to a Turkish bath? Social and drinking tea with the ladies. Days passed as Monique debated with herself whether or not to accept the invitation, until one day she announced to her husband, "I am going, but I'm not going to take my own towels!"
The day of the shower, Monique dressed in her fashionable finest and went to the address she'd been given. On entering the room, she was a bit taken aback to find so many women had been invited to the shower. Even more surprising was that each woman had a gift wrapped present sitting on their lap. Ha! she thought to herself. No one else had brought a towel too!
The penny dropped when a soon-to-be-married young woman came in and the gifts were showered upon her. It was then Monique realized her mistake. To cover it up, she smiled and told the bride-to-be that her present would be delivered by the store where it had been purchased.
And it was, after Monique went to the store to buy it that afternoon.
Get Thee to the Cinema
How to find an English-speaker living in a foreign land? Go to a movie. Most movies are not dubbed, but left in their original language with subtitles. The English speakers scattered about the cinema will unintentionally self-identify themselves as they laugh at jokes before the subtitle flashes up, or chortle at the cultural jokes that simply cannot be translated.
It's almost like Christmas in Westport, Connecticut, when all the Jews in town hit the cinema for "The Hottest New Film" to see, followed by dinner at the Chinese place. Tradition.
And speaking of subtitles, they actually can help you learn a foreign language. While listening to an English-language film in Mexico, I would try to read the subtitles despite this being rather distracting. Maybe the film wasn't holding my interest, but it was exciting to realize I was following along in the written Spanish.
The usage of the subjunctive verb tense suddenly became clear. Often noted as being for monolingual English-speakers the most difficult verb tense in Spanish. The best of my less than a handful of Spanish tutors did recommend I watch telenovelas, or soap operas to improve my understanding. Given the repetitive nature of the story lines, she said it was one way to get both the words and the music of the language. For single women she recommended an only Spanish-speaking boyfriend. Nothing like it to force one to learn the language she said grinning ear to ear like the Cheshire cat.
The grin might cover others things that might be learned in international fraternization.
Mexico City 1990s
Words matter. When last I was called gringa by a Mexican face, I overlooked the previous meaning of the word as an ethnic slur. For there before me was a lovely smiling local, with no harm meant and no harm taken.
And reading that in the Cuban Little Havana enclave in South Florida a non-Hispanic woman was elected known locally by the nickname La Gringa, I'm not the only one.
Art, the Universal Language
As a volunteer on the front lines of the public information stations at The Art Institute of Chicago, I sometimes ran into linguistic conundrums when I couldn't communicate with the speaker before me.
Such was the day that three exquisitely dressed, Japanese-speaking men appear before me to say, "No English." With a guidebook in hand they rambled on in Japanese. We were getting nowhere. My usually helpful charades and languages, all for nothing.
Then one man pointed to a photo in his guidebook book.
"Monet?" I asked tentatively.
"MONET," they cried out in unison.
The language barrier had been broken by surnames of the artists they wished to see, Monet, Renoir and Degas. With a few more hand signals I sent them off to the museum's renowned Impressionist art galleries. After all, isn't art an international language?