“Moy Español è mucho male.”
As you are probably aware, the above sentence is not Spanish, nor any known Earth language. It’s more of a linguistic hazard light, a feeble bleat meant to communicate regretful incompetence. And it is effective. Once my interlocutor gets a load of this drivel, everything becomes clear. Understanding dawns on his/her face and we either resort to fluent English or mime.
It occurs to me that a more dignified approach might to be say in English, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.” The reason I don’t say that is that is seems like gross arrogance to come to a country where you don’t understand a word of the local language and then to suggest, in fluent and sophisticated English, that a stranger should speak yours. It seems friendlier somehow to gargle in such a way they know you’re an idiot but also that you mean well.
Ideally, we would all have the linguistic facility, reptilian eyes and devastating charisma of Viggo Mortensen. Alas, we don’t. However, a prudent traveler can take the sensible step of learning key phrases and vocabulary before even setting foot in a foreign clime. A seat-of-pants approach would be to carry a phone with a translation app or a bilingual dictionary. But if you really want to live dangerously, just do what I do—launch yourself on the public trusting in the essential kindness and profit-driven motives of local merchants and service providers, a small percentage of whom speak English.
A clever technique is writing down what you are going to say beforehand on a piece of paper. This was the tack I attempted this morning, before going to the hairdresser’s.
For the past week or so, shop owners have been addressing me curtly, narrowing their eyes, and having their security guards trail me, obviously suspecting me of pocketing their wares. I realized this was a sign that my appearance had finally gone from raffish to mangy and it was time to visit the salon.
So I went into the salon on Pueyrredón with my trusty piece of paper. There were two women behind the counter, both with very stylish, sharp haircuts. They gazed at me wonderingly with cat eyes. With a sinking feeling, I recited the spell:
“Um, Me gustaría un corte de pelo en el mismo estilo por favor.”
They continued gazing at me, waiting.
“…y color?” I added lamely, hoping that would spark some response.
One of the women nodded brusquely and stalked to the back of the salon.
A minute later, a kindly man came along and poked his face near mine. It is a given, and I am generally reconciled to it, that there is no such thing as personal space in a hair salon. Strangers have to touch your head and you have to let them; it’s a fact of life, a mutual agreement such as the one between cleaner wrasse and tang. I thought he might be near-sighted and wanting to look at my hair, so I put my head down, accidentally head-butting him. Not to be deterred, in he came again.
“Salute!” he explained.
“Ah!” I replied. The kissing business.
In Italy, you greet your friends with a double kiss, first on the right, then the left. It takes some getting used to, but it’s a nice way to meet people you know. I didn’t know this hairdresser, but when in Argentina do as the Argentines do, so I went for his right cheek.
Bop! Another blow to his nose.
It turns out that in Argentina, people (even strangers) kiss, on one cheek only. As I’d gone to the right, he’d gone left and a collision had ensued.
After this piece of horrible slapstick, I was led to a chair and the procedure commenced. During the lull, I thumbed through the magazines, ¡Hola! , the Argentine edition of Hello!, which was bursting with stale news about luxury dream homes, European royals, local polo stars and Scarlett Johansson, who visited Buenos Aires with her boyfriend carrying a bottle of water just like a local. This much I gathered from the photos.
Then over to the sink, where a girl with surprisingly strong hands washed my hair as I gazed up at a poster of a woman with golden hair flying in some indoor gale. Then back to the chair, where the excess hair came off, courtesy of the kissy man.
The last few minutes of a haircut are always a bit of a trial, as I know I will be expected to actually look in the mirror and make some kind of pleased, effusive gesture. It’s unpleasant looking in mirrors—I already know more or less what I’m going to see and it is not something to make whoopee about. Nevertheless, the dread hour grew near and had to be faced.
“You like?” I heard, with a hint of hurt feelings that I wasn’t already hopping up and down in my seat.
Glance. Smile. Nod.
“Oh yes! Perfetto! Mucho great! Prekrasyny!”
Another kiss, this time without incident, pay, and leave. Misión cumplida.