Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Since I told you about the time, several weeks ago, that Hopper, one of our volunteer divers here at the Aquarium of the Pacific, wowed some non-English-speaking guests by chatting with them in their native German, I’ve had my own opportunities to practice some foreign-language speaking.
Just last Tuesday, when I went to our lorikeet habitat to give Ed a revised copy of the volunteer schedule (that’s another story!), he introduced me to a woman from Canada. We got to talking and I noticed her French accent, so I said, in French, “Oh, you’re from the French-speaking part of Canada, I see.”
You must know that while I studied five years of French in high school and college, more than 30 years have gone by since I took those classes, and I rarely have occasion to use the language. Further, it seems that when I have had an opportunity to say a few words here or there, I’ve regularly accidentally tossed in some words of Spanish, which I speak at the intermediate level; I’ve been learning it on my own for more than 20 years, helped along often, when I first started, by Spanish-speaking co-workers from Mexico and other Latin countries. (My fluency in Italian has been a big help here!)
We spoke French for a few minutes, and I found for the first time since I started speaking Spanish that instead of blurting out words in that language, I “heard” them before they came out of my mouth and I managed to grasp them in French instead.
This surprised me a bit, as it did Ed, who later commented that the woman’s expression also told of her surprise as well as pleasure at being able to speak in her own language. I don’t know about that, but I do know that I had a lot of fun!
A few weeks before this experience, I ran across three women who turned out to be flight attendants for Swiss Airlines. Two of them were from the German-speaking part of Switzerland, but one was from Lugano in the Italian-speaking portion of the country.
When the one who speaks Italian realized that I, too, speak the language, she was so excited that she kept speaking to me in Italian even though she spoke English extremely well. It was funny because, even though I kept trying to revert to English so that her co-workers could understand our conversation, she stuck to Italian, and then translated what we said into German for them.
The three showed a great interest in the sharks living in our large habitat that is located behind the touch pools, and asked about each of these cartilaginous creatures, wanting to learn their names and any interesting facts I could share.
Speaking of this experience reminds me of another time about a year ago, when my Italian also came in handy. I was staffing the round ray exhibit located in our Catch a Wave exhibit (at the time it was our Dazzling and Dangerous Gallery), when I met up with honeymooners from Como, Italy, located in the northern lake region of the country. They couldn’t speak much English, and were all smiles when they realized that they could speak to me—and pick my brain–in their native tongue.
They were surprised first when I started speaking Italian, but were further amazed when, after learning where they lived, I told them that my brother was born in Torno, which is a small town on Lake Como, located just up the east side of the lake from the city. That I knew of this town that is little-known outside of Italy seemed to blow them away.
After reading about the Aquarium in a guide they found in their Los Angeles hotel room, they had taken a Blue Line Metrolink train to get to Long Beach, they told me.
As we talked, the man pulled out a Southern California guide book and pointed to the Palos Verdes Peninsula on a map of the area, asking me if they could walk there from the Aquarium (Italians do a lot of walking). I told them that it would be quite a trek, even if the closest bridge allowed pedestrian traffic, which it does not. Instead I suggested that they head in the other direction, south of our location, to walk along the beach and enjoy the scenery found in that direction.
They thanked me, and left, returning a few minutes later, as an afterthought, to ask me if they could take my picture. Of course I said yes, so they now have a photo of me standing behind the round ray exhibit and flashing a welcoming Southern California smile. I’m sure that when they show off their honeymoon photos, their friends will wonder why they took a picture of this stranger at the Aquarium. It makes me feel good to know that our meeting meant so much to them.
And at that, all I have to say is arrivederci for now!
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