Since spending a year in Argentina I have come to realize how difficult it is for me to do something without being in the context in which I am supposed to do that thing. On the flip side I have also realized how quickly I am able to “adapt” to new settings, unfortunately this quick adaption didn’t kick in while in Argentina. When I arrived in Argentina the amount of Spanish I knew amounted to basic vocabulary like immediate family members, simple locations, basic verbs and a lot of mispronunciation.
In my first few months in Argentina I occasionally worked up the courage, after rehearsing it a hundred times over in my head, to say something loud enough that everyone could understand it. Many times this worked fine and sometimes people even seemed mildly impressed that I had formed a coherent sentence. Other times, what I said either made absolutely no sense or I would result in me butchering pronunciation or improperly conjugating a verb. I much preferred to screw up a conjugation than to not know the correct word.
Before arriving in Argentina I envisioned meeting up with other exchange students in my program and all of us bonding over our inability to communicate or bond with anyone else. I realized quite early on, to my great dismay, that we did not even have that much in common. The other students in my group were all already fluent in 3+ languages which allowed them to pick up Spanish, for the most part, much quicker than I. I had hoped to find some comfort in being in a group full of bumbling idiots for at least the first few months but my own cohort provided little shelter from my own ineptitude.
Why is all of this necessary? Well, it isn’t really but it does have something to do with the title of this little series, “El Año del Caballo,” which for those who do not read Spanish means “The Year of the Horse.” The Chine calendar uses zodiac signs to mark each year. Each sign, all of them animal mark a different year and they rotate in a cycle. I spent most of 2007, the year of the pig, in Argentina. Why year of the horse? Well, it had to do with a little vocab mishap that turned into a nickname I couldn’t shake.
We were out to dinner, the exchange student cohort, and a few adventurous Argentinians who decided to befriend us. It was Lena’s birthday and we had decided to head to el centro. There were about 15 or so of us and we finally found a place that could handle us all and was willing to put up with our “special needs” as non-native speakers. I was glad to be out because it was nice to have company and so that on Monday when the kids at school asked what I did I could say Salî con unos amigos or I went out with friends. I was sick of telling them I stayed in or went bowling or hung out with my host brother, this would surely count as going out and prove I was taking advantage of my time in Argentina. I followed the others in and as the wait staff scrambled to pull four tables together and the accompanying chairs we began to stake out our seats at the massive table.
Once the table and chairs were assembled people began to sit down I found myself next to Lena. As a joke I pulled her chair out for her and pushed it back in as she giggled and sat down. Feeling the good vibes from her giggling at my fake chivalry I wanted to to complete the joke, and hopefully get a few laughs, so I followed it up by attempting to say, “Aren’t I such a gentleman?” This was the first time that I had come up with something spontaneous and just blurted it out. Lena grinned, looked across the table at a few others and they all burst out laughing. For a split second I thought I had totally nailed the joke but that thought was yanked from my mind by Felda who grabbed me and said between loud giggles, “you know you just said you were a horse! Caballero means gentleman but you said caballo which means horse!”
I cringed, because Felda had told me in English, and because I felt like a complete idiot. I laughed with them and sat down next to Lena who continued to make caballo jokes. Jokes that lived on and ended up becoming my nickname, caballo.