Monday, October 17, 2011


 Aron and his wife Donna are some of the most hospitable people I (Chris) have ever met.  Aron manages the courthouse in the hottest place in the world, Blythe, CA.  He is better at scrabble than any of us could ever hope to be and knows where to get good Mexican food.  Enjoy!  This is his first post in the Fire Bowl...welcome Aron!

It’s been many years since I’ve been outside the United States, but I am pleased to have had some international experiences in my younger days.  We bring our American baggage to our travels and soon learn that our frames of reference are not necessarily shared by our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, or even by our close neighbors in Canada.

I have visited the Caribbean, Europe (England and France) and Canada (twice, once on each coast).  I got a huge kick out of speaking French in Québec and in Paris, standing in the rain to watch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace and having to catch my breath when I turned a corner stepping out of the Métro to find the magnificent Eiffel Tower staring me in the face.

I learned a lesson about attitudes toward Americans when I climbed into a taxi in Paris one night and directed the driver to take me to a particular restaurant for a late dinner.  I felt around the seats for a safety belt, but none were in evidence.  Out of (American) habit, I pressed down the door lock at the edge of the window.  Incensed, the driver turned around and yanked the little black button back up.  “Ce n’est pas Chicago!” he yelled.  In other words, how dare I insult him, and by extension all Parisians and the French people as a whole, by insinuating that I had to protect myself from crime in the way that we are accustomed to do over here on the other side of the Atlantic.  I found it interesting that he chose to invoke the name of Chicago, rather than my native New York.  Perhaps he had been read a book about Al Capone.  I bit my tongue to stifle my desire to vindicate myself by explaining that my father was a driver ed teacher and that locking the car door had more to do with wanting to remain inside the vehicle rather than staving off crime.  (Remember the bloody driver ed movies with names featuring the words Tragedy and Agony?  My father brought them home for us to see, and he could recite the soundtracks verbatim.)  But then I suppose the driver would have felt that I was casting aspersions on his driving prowess, which would inevitably have led to me be thrown out of the cab in an unfamiliar arrondissement at midnight.

My visit to St. Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles was a different type of experience entirely.  Rather than wandering about with the aid of a guidebook, I mostly stayed in the cocoon of a large resort, where I could have been anyplace at all in the tropics.  As this was in the days before the euro, I dearly wished to change some money so that I could bring home a few exotic guilders.  Every time I tried the local bank, however, it was the wrong day or the wrong time and it was closed.  It turns out that the local businesses desired American dollars and had no interest at all in gringos changing money.  I suppose the slot machines that took American quarters should have been a tip-off.

So I was glad to head just slightly off the tourist path by taxiing over to the French side of the island, St.-Martin.  It’s not that there were any sights I hoped to see over there, but that was where the ferry launched for a day trip to Anguilla.  I was unprepared to see women sitting cross-legged on the ground, fruit spread out on blankets before them, hoping to sell a plantain or an orange to the rich touristes.  Then again, back in Phillipsburg on the Dutch side, I walked the streets and found little black children running about in their birthday suits as if this were some type of National Geographic special on TV.  As a privileged American who paid a lot of money to stay at a resort, it was too easy to forget that this was a Third World country I was visiting and that there real people experiencing real suffering right at my elbow.  People whose experience did not include eating at Le Lagon Bleu or playing roulette in the casinos.  In fact, I later heard that gambling is illegal for citizens there.  No need to make social problems worse than they already are by permitting the locals to throw their guilders down the hungry gullets of the slot machines.  Let foolish foreign tourists leave their dollars here for us, thank you very much.

I would never have guessed that my few international forays would not provide anywhere near the cross-cultural experience that I would eventually gain right here in the United States.

It all started when I moved across the country to California after 35 years in New York and New England.  My years of high school and college French served me well in Québec and Paris, but I landed hard in the Central Valley to quickly learn that I should have studied español.  The signs on the mercados, bodegas, carnicerias and panaderias in Madera, and later in Modesto, flummoxed me to say the least.  Who was it that said that if you know one Romance language you can easily figure out the others?  It took me some time to learn that many of the delicacies advertised were actually (gasp!) organ meats.  Okay, so I kind of expected this when I spent a few days visiting a friend in Laredo, Texas, directly across the Rio Grande bridge from Mexico.  I did learn a few handy phrases there, including soy perdido (which I thought sounded an awful lot like tofu) and lo ciento (which I had to use a lot).

But here in the golden land of California?  It was pretty ignorant of me to expect English to be as much the lingua franca in Fresno as it is in the 13 Colonies.  I had never eaten Mexican food before, and I did not even know what a tortilla is.  Bagels and lox and kugel, yes; tortillas and salsa, no.  It took several years before I gained an understanding that there were certain types of chiles I could eat without burning my insides out.  One of my favorite Modesto memories is asking the proprietor of a small taqueria what type of pescado they were serving.  The poor man understood my question but did not know what the word for it was in English.  He settled for running back to the kitchen and reappearing a moment later holding the whole fish up for my inspection.  (My other favorite is the time my wife and I were in a drive-thru on McHenry trying to order me a fish burrito, a request that the hapless clerk at the other end of the speaker could not seem to comprehend.  “Pescado!  Pescado!” my wife and I yelled and the same time, erupting in giggles when we realized that we had finally made ourselves understood.)

I quickly caught on to words such as iglesia, cuidado and baños, but I was clueless when it came to quinceañera, viaje and (now one of my favorites) zanahorias and I had no hope whatever of productively eavesdropping on a conversation, say, in the produce aisle in Winco.  (Which reminds me of the time my wife and I combed haplessly through jars of jalapeños and nopales in an attempt to fulfill our young niece’s request for something called pepinos).  There are still times when I feel a stranger in my own land, but at some level I know it’s my own fault for not taking the time to study Spanish.  Now that I live on the very border of Arizona, home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and ground zero for the immigration debate, I realize that there is more than one viewpoint on the language issue.  My wife, for example, believes that those who live in this country should learn English.  This, of course, is what my Eastern European forebears did after being processed through Castle Garden and Ellis Island and settling in the Bronx and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  They attended night school, passed their citizenship exam, stood in line to raise their right hands and swear their loyalty.  Much as I admire this, I realize that there is more than one way to skin un gato.  I  believe that if native Spanish speakers should learn English, then the rest of us need to learn Spanish.  I believe that this is a cultural divide we can cross if English and Spanish are named dual national languages in the same manner that English and French are in Canada, not to mention the multilingual standards of Europe.  I am encouraged in that I am beginning to see two-way bilingual immersion programs starting in kindergarten.

To me, “embrace diversity” is more than a catch phrase.  It is the approach this New York boy takes to living in California.  And even if I don’t always comprende what my neighbors are saying, I am no longer cowed at the prospect of admitting that I don’t know what a particular word means and asking for help.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m headed out for some chile rellenos and frijoles.

Hasta luego, amigos.

1 comment: