Miguel's Tasks; or fluency doesn't equate understanding

Linguistic fluency doesn't mean you will communicate clearly, it only means that you ought to. For although my husband and I are both native English speakers, from time to time even we miscommunicate with a remarkable ease.

So in Ecuador in 1986 it wasn't uncommon for fluent Spanish speakers to hit vocabulary speed bumps. Take the commonly used Spanish word for the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag, in most of Latin America it was called a bolsa. In Ecuador a bolsa was a rude word for part of a man's genitals, the proper word for a plastic shopping bag was funda. As Henry Higgins might say, language defines us.

Miguel's Tasks 1987

From Puerto Rico, Alejandro though fluent in both English and Spanish, was most comfortable in Spanish.  So when he and his Spanish-speaking family were transferred to Guayaquil, Ecuador, it was muy bien with them. He certainly never expected any problem communicating in Spanish.

With household help salaries kept low by the government, the word was that even the Communists wanted cheap household help, Alejandro decided to hire a chauffeur. Cheaper than buying a second car, the chauffeur could do errands, including shepherding Alejandro's two sons to and from school, and playdates.

So that was how roly-poly Miguel was hired, a man whose temperament was as mellow as the Guayaquil weather. It was a rather sweet job he told his family. Most of the time it involved washing and rewashing the single family vehicle, with an occasional errand to do or someone to chauffeur somewhere and including lunch if not other meals.

When Miguel was hired, he'd boasted of being a skilled mechanic. So naturally, when the family vehicle's brakes needed repair, Alejandro had Miguel do the job. Unilaterally Miguel decided to also install a back-up warning "beep-beep-beep" alarm, for safety. The only problem was that every time anyone braked the vehicle, an irritating "beep-beep-beep" alarm sounded too. Miguel stopped bragging about his mechanical skills.

Carousel Chicken

One steamy weekend, Alejandro told Miguel to go to the chicken restaurant where there were rows upon rows of Ferris-wheel carousels roasting chickens over red-hot coals. "Miguel, buy three chickens for the family," which of course included everyone in the household.

"Sí Señor", Miguel replied.

"Oh yeah," Alejandro added, remembering his two sons, "And pick up some French fries with--you know--whatever you have left over after paying for the chickens."

"Sí Señor," Miguel nodded as he went to get the car.

Less than an hour later Miguel returned, with three deliciously, still warm in the packaging, chickens. In the other hand he had seven large bags, or about ten pounds of French fries. Alejandro looked at the steaming fries and then at Miguel. "Why so many fries?"

"But Señor, you told me to buy as many French fries as the left over money would pay for."

Alejandro had to admit, that was what he'd asked. How many fries could his two sons, wife and he; plus the maid and Miguel eat? What does one do with leftover French fries?

 

On another lazy, humid Sunday, and yes, weather in Guayaquil was usually humid, thus lazy inducing, Alejandro invited a dozen or so friends over for a friendly game of volleyball. Planning to offer them a late lunch, he wanted to be sure there were enough well-chilled beers for the parched and hungry crowd, so asked Miguel to do an errand. "Miguel, here's some money to buy beer and ice at the store down the road. Since I want the beer cold by 3:00 PM, put a layer of ice and then a layer of beer, and a layer of ice and then beer...to the top. Okay?"

Miguel smiled and nodded, but had one question. Where would El Señor like him to put the cooler when it was filled? That sorted, Miguel drove to the store to fulfill his task. As he told the shop owner, he was supposed to put a layer of beer, then a layer of ice, etc. Could the shop owner help him?

When the guests arrived, they went to play for an hour or so as the temperatures and humidity rose. Taking a break, everyone agreed that a beer from the cooler sitting so temptingly in the shade would be just the right thing. As the cooler's lid opened, silence fell. There they saw a plastic cooler full of ice to the very top with liquid sloshing about. Miguel had followed the instructions exactly. He'd put down a layer of ice, then opened beer and poured a layer of beer; then done the deed again.

No had one said to layer the beer bottles on the ice, just the beer.

 

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    Candace Drimmer

    I was an accidental expatriate; love and marriage led me to it. One day I was a bandy-legged kid sitting atop my dogwood tree looking out of my small backyard world in 1950s New Jersey, wanting to move somewhere--anywhere, different. Next thing I knew my father had accepted a job in Houston TX. I was ecstatic, it was a foreign land in 1961 America. After high school graduation, my parents’ gave me a matched set of fawn-colored hardsided American Tourister luggage. Taking the hint, I went to college; well four colleges in five years--it was the 60s after all. Meeting a young hirsute anti-war, soon-to-be-Peace Corps volunteer, I fell in love. After finishing up college coursework for my degree, but before I even walking a graduation stage, I grabbed the paper airline ticket my boyfriend had sent me, my brand-new passport, and was off to the airport and Lima, Peru.

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