Patent Leather and Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez was not the first writer I read in Spanish. That was Rosario Castellanos and her novel, Balún Canán, that I read over long bus journeys in Chiapas and Guatemala. But Gabo was the first who I read deeply and widely. At some point towards the end of university, perturbed by the far-off glint that Hispanists had in their eye, I got a copy of Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) and spent the summer months sniffing around it, measuring myself up to it. There was an English translation of No One Writes to the Colonel in the house, that had been sitting unread on one of my parents’ bookshelves for at least a decade. El coronel no tiene quien le escriba was hidden at the back of one of mine. I started in English. At the second or third repetition of “patent leather”, I went and dug out the Spanish to see why. The word is charol (cuero is real leather). The rhythm was different. I took a dictionary.

As a reader, that was my completist phase. I had worked through most of Kafka’s complete works for my dissertation and the habit took me years to shake. Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Orhan Pamuk were some of the writers I tried to exhaust during that time. From that moment, Gabo joined them. My hand gripped a dictionary. The books gripped me. Soon enough, I was onto Cien años de soledad and much of the rest.

Now, a decade on and Gabo is gone.

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Weird Words and How to Learn Them

This is a repost of my blog on La Vida Idealist. Check out the site for more stories and resources from Idealists in Latin America.

By Rob Packer

It almost goes without saying that language is one of the main reasons that people volunteer in Latin America. It could be that they may want to learn or improve their Spanish or Portuguese language skills, and if you speak the local language, you automatically have a connection with people you’re working with that you wouldn’t get through indirect communication.

It was a combination of these reasons, and the fact that I felt I’d be more effective in a place I could speak to everyone, that brought me to Colombia and I’m a big fan of my position here. I enjoy riding around on public transport going out to meet Kiva microfinance borrowers and hearing them tell their own stories. And although costeño, the dialect on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is known for being golpeado (certain letters are not pronounced, especially S and D), it’s not as hard as I feared—the accent of people from the Paisa region around Medellín is everything that I feared, however. It’s more of the costeño habit of mamando gallo (joking around) that makes things harder though as I get a lot from the context and miss the joke. The other thing I am noticing is that I’m learning some really, really weird words.

When you’re a Kiva Fellow, most of the borrowers you meet will have different types of businesses, although some regions have gluts of Avon ladies or dairy farmers. In one morning, we visited a man with a stall selling industrial hooks and high-tension belts, a woman working in confecciones (dress-making rather than confectionary as I first thought), and another woman running an internet café who was also doing up her house. On another day, you could visit a hairdresser, an electrician and a woman who runs a business changing motorcycle oil. Each one involves its own special vocabulary and paying a lot of attention when the conversation turns to different types of garras (hooks). However, my word of the moment is fileteadora: it’s a special type of sewing machine—but is not a máquina de coser—that I have no idea how to start to describe in English and according to Google is called an “overlock sewing machine.” As I’d have a lot more trouble to have my clothes mended or altered in Spanish, it strikes me as really weird that I’m a relative expert in describing the machines used. Although it’s a very strange word, it seems every woman who works in confecciones wants one.

A lot of these weird words take me back to when I studied languages at university and a moment of desperation a friend studying Italian shared with me. She had no idea how she’d ever get to be fluent in the language because there are so many words you just pick up along the way; her point was she’d never end up playing field hockey in Italian. While this is true, I think you just bump into words and learn that way, and volunteering in Latin America is a great way to learn random words in Spanish. When it comes down to it, is it even that important to know how to describe field hockey in Italian? Just sit back and enjoy, and try not to think about it too much.

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