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When was the last time you felt like a 5-year-old? If you live in a foreign language like me, it was probably yesterday.
Maybe it’s because as an adult, my English grammar and pronunciation very rarely need correcting. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and pride myself on how I wield words. Or maybe it’s because the person doing the correcting – consciously or not – establishes an immediate power construct in which I’m the perennial underdog. Reasons aside, having my speech corrected makes me feel like a child (or special needs adult).
So too, does not knowing the word for something – a handicap reserved for foreign language speakers and kids. Struggling for how to say bruise or gutter, ravish or rhetorical is a quick, sure smack down to the ego let me tell you. It doesn’t help that my husband too often gives me a dumfounded look when I ask him how to say things like hydrant or drain. Adding insult to injury: when he does remember a word or is listening closely enough to correct my pronunciation, it is nearly always in the presence of studiously hip (and oddly competitive) Cuban intellectuals. Thanks buddy.
Written Spanish is another issue altogether. Like many, I occasionally write a Cuban word as it sounds, resulting in glaring mistakes (and dogged corrections by readers). Nothing as bad as pescao or toke, but still.
I admit I’m prickly when it comes to this language business. I suppose my command of English – hammered into me by a family of grammar Nazis and Scrabble fanatics – colors my approach to Spanish and feeds the neurosis. Why else would I want five choices for how to say ‘disgruntled’ en español? Some days I’d settle for just being able to find the word for ‘upset.’ Sad, but true.
Yet, even while I’m beating myself up for calling a crutch a woman of mixed race (‘muleta’ is quite different from ‘mulatta’ after all), Cubans often comment about how well I speak, saying my accent is 100% cubano. The aforementioned hipster intellectual class excepted, of course.
Such unsolicited props for my verbal skills provide a temporary ego jack, it’s true. But some words continue to elude me. In fact, I’ve realized after nine years of living here that some Cuban words have no English equivalent whatsoever. Am I wrong? Let me know.
Gaceñiga – I discovered this treat back in my first days here in Havana when an older gentleman with salt and pepper hair would peddle past our microbrigada several times a week yelling ‘gaceñiga! gaceñiga!’ Since no one sold much besides bleach and brooms out that way, I was intrigued. After a cajoling, linguistic tango, my husband equated this long baked confection with a pound cake. It’s unclear whether his comparison stems from his verbally-challenged tendencies or his unfamiliarity with baked goods, but to call a gaceñiga a pound cake is like calling a groupie a music critic. Definitely not a pound cake, it’s not a stöllen either. However, a fresh gaceñiga does resolve breakfast nicely. (This is not to be confused with Sponge Rusk, or as the Cubans say esponrrú, another favorite over this way).
Descampó – This is one of those Spanish words that makes English jealous. How efficient and to the point! Just one word to say ‘it has stopped raining.’ You’d think the nose-to-the-grindstone Anglos would have come up with this one word wonder instead of the expressive, expansive Spaniards.
Guara – Elusive little bugger this one. In a previous post and under pressure, I translated this as ‘moxie’ or ‘pluck.’ But since then I’ve heard a couple of different meanings for guara and now I’m not so sure. Anyone? Anyone?
Mantecado – Given that ice cream is one of my minor addictions, this one has chapped my ass since the early days. Mantecado is an ice cream flavor (and only ice cream as far as I’ve been able to determine) that has been described to me as ‘the absence of flavor. Like cream-flavored ice cream.’ While the ‘manteca’ stem of the word would suggest butter or fat of some kind, if it were truly cream-flavored it wouldn’t taste so blech. I’ll try anything once – especially a new to me ice cream flavor – and once was enough for mantecado (NB: a pox on the waiter who told me vanilla was the flavor of the day when what he really meant was mantecado).
Pena – I’ve saved the best for last. Most people translate pena as embarrassment. But that’s a gross simplification for a very complex concept (among the most complex in the entire Cuban character if you ask me). Pena is something so ingrained in generations of Cubans it’s like a dominant gene. If you know Cubans, you know what I’m talking about.
To start, pena is intrinsic – it’s not caused by outside forces. Whereas falling in a hotel lobby or having your period in a white pair of pants is embarrassing, neither is a cause for pena – not for a Cuban anyway. It’s also a slippery concept, pena, and is more like a state of mind because it’s so individual. At its most base, it’s related to how one’s actions will be perceived and received by others.
‘I don’t want to ask to borrow a cup of rice. Me da pena.’
‘I want to go to her house, pero me da pena.’
‘Will you flag down a car? Me da pena.’
Pena is so powerful it can lead people to inaction, which is a paradox given Cubans’ seemingly innate desire and ability to resolve problems. Some people suffer so acutely, they’re labeled penoso/a. If you’ve been here and had something go mysteriously pear shaped or unaccountably awry, look to pena.