The Universal Language

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Several years ago, when I first moved to Atlanta, I had to find an apartment, one that would take not only me but the dog I then had, a 90-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback that was the very definition of a big dog. Most apartments had rules that dogs could not exceed 15 pounds, roughly the size of my dog’s left rear leg, so I had to look outside the cool neighborhoods and wound up in heavily immigrant area off Buford Highway, living in an apartment complex that was about 90% Mexican.

At the time, my Spanish was a few degrees less horrible than it is now, but wasn’t anything you would call “conversational” unless your idea of conversation involved a lot of grunting and gesturing, so I didn’t talk to my neighbors much, but I followed along with the activities of the complex, which was an almost perfect slice of Mexico carved out and dropped 500 miles north, right down to the shy woman who came door-to-door every Thursday selling homemade tamales (they were fantastic), the guy who ran a Mexican lottery out of his apartment, and the paleta man who came along selling ice creams on steamy summer afternoons. I was involved with everyone – broken spanish, grunting, gesturing – and if things went wrong and I wound up with a mango paleta instead of a strawberry one, well, at least I still had ice cream.

I had one interaction when I was there that has always stuck with me – I can picture it in my head to this day.  It’s a bit weird to call it an interaction, since it was just a conversation I observed while sitting on the balcony, but I became just as invested in it as the speaker –

Two men were standing out by their van, and one of them began telling the other a long, involved story. The second listened with interest, and then more interest, and started egging the first speaker on. To me, it sounded like this:

Man 1: “spanish spanish spanish spanish, si?”

Man 2: “si, si.”

Man 1: “spanish spanish spanish…. spanish spanish”

Man 2 : (amused) “heh, heh… si, claro… vaya…” (heh, I get it, go on…”)

And I suddenly realized – based on nothing but body language and the tone of their voices – hey… wait a minute...he’s telling a joke!

And I watched, fascinated, as Man 1 continued the setup, with Man 2 getting more and more amused, and right when you would expect it, Man 1 burst out with, “spanish spanish spanish…MUCHACHOS!!!!” and both of them absolutely lost it, laughing so hard they were pounding on the side of the van and there were tears streaming down their faces. And I burst out giggling as well – not because I understood the joke; to this day I have no idea what they talked about – but just from their infectious merriment and my pleasure in having followed along. I felt like I’d tapped into some deep universal commonality, but instead of some mystical, serious revelation I found…giggles.

Two friends making each other laugh.

The best type of language there is.

 

*photo above of backlit Cosmos flowers in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which has nothing at all to do with today’s story. Sorry about that. I’ll eat a tamale later, though.

 

 

 

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