In my on-going quest of learning Spanish, I had been ruminating over the word "chida," a word I'd discovered in an on-line review of a song.
The word was obviously a compliment, given the context of the review, but I still had my doubts. I had tried using the new word once in a restaurant and received a bemused but not negative response, appreciative yet not entirely endorsing either.
Now as I strode toward the beach to meet my expat friends waiting under the palapas, I was mentally searching for something fresh to replace the word “guapa” (pretty girl) in my greeting.
A stocky lifeguard sat astride his motorcycle on the gravel parking lot facing the beach, his mirrored sunglasses scanning the day's silvery aquatic horizon, I called out to him, "Oye!" (the word made famous in America by Santana's song "Oye, Como Va,"). “Tell me something….. can I describe a girlfriend as “chida?”
Thus began a ten-minute conversation. Mexicans, regardless of class or profession, whether lawyer, cab driver, or day laborer, love their language.
The lifeguard smiled and warmed to the subject, explaining the nuances of the word and how it was best used.
If you need a prop, for ice-breakers nothing beats always carrying around with you a well-known book in Spanish, something every educated native has read.
Most recently, I've been carrying a copy of "El Llano en Llamas," which is on the level of our The Catcher in the Rye to study while I'm waiting in line for things. Educated people see the book, that you're interested in their great works, and already have a more positive impression of you before you've even started your exchange.
While over my head completely, carrying this famous book of short stories always gets me appreciative glances. Even students in Spain are required to read it. It's proto-typically Mexican, full of pain, poverty, death and Mexican attachment to the earth beneath their feet.
Something easier to read and wonderful is "Cuentos Para Pensar", 26 super-short philosophical stories (a page or two each) which the author Jorge Bucay has narrated on YouTube.
Sure, you won't understand ever word, but as a Romance language as rooted in Latin as your mother tongue, Spanish is delightfully accessible. Spanish and English share 15,000 cognates (words that sound the same in both languages).
When you're first learning the language, you get by largely by moving from cognate to cognate, seeking them out like gold doubloons in a sea of words.
I talk to people from all walks of life here, the very educated and the not so much. Mexican Spanish is renowned among Spanish-speaking countries for its heavy use of slang.
If you're in Mexico and having a problem with the accent, don't feel bad. I have Spanish friends who have admitted they can barely understand a Mexican movie between the accent and the slang.
I once talked to a Mexican from Mexico City who said even he couldn't understand the Spanish in Mazatlán for a his first few months.
My fear is of incorporating a "bad" word by mistake. Words are highly regional too as illustrated in the amusing YouTube video, "Oh, How Hard it is to speak Spanish!"
The word "coger," for example in Spain is a common word for "to take. In Mexico it means to fornicate which made telling someone I needed to take a taxi awkward for a while, I was so hard-wired to use "coger" from my Spain days.
The flip side of the periodic discomfort is discovering a Spanish word that can’t be exactly translated into English. Once you have assimilated the word, it’s a little like knowing a secret handshake, a tiny little aperture into someone else’s culture. I lord over these words like each one was a piece of Halloween candy.
As Charlemagne is widely quoted, "to speak two languages is to possess two souls." It's not easy becoming Charlemagne, even a little, but when you learn a phrase that you can't quite translate to your mother-tongue, you have taken one more step toward that second soul.
"13 Phrases Only Mexicans Understand" - Matador Network
"The Mexican Email; Expect to be Seduced" - Ventanas Mexico
Next up: Mexico likes to celebrate culture, sometimes even yours.
Most recent: Technology can make you feel like it's another night in Toledo (Ohio) if you want.
Kerry Baker is a partner with Ventanas Mexico which helps people explore the full or part-time expat life in Mexico.
She also wrote "The Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online." A guide to the best free language tools on the web and "If Only I Had a Place," on renting in Mexico luxuriously for less.