Me and Julio down by the side yard

We had our carpenter, Julio, do some work for us a while back. One day when he was finishing up, we stood in the strip of side yard between my driveway and the neighbor’s yard and talked about being fathers of daughters.

Julio’s from Uruguay originally. He’s been here for 20-some years, so he speaks only passable English. But no more than every fourth word or so was a verbal black hole from which meaning couldn’t escape. Where language failed Julio and me, we segued smoothly into head nodding and eye rolling accompanied by minimal verbalization.

According to the always reliable World Book Encyclopedia, volume U-V, 1975 edition, Uruguay is slightly smaller than Kansas. But outline to outline, Uruguay's lopsided pear beats the Kansas square hands down. This smallest of South American republics exports excellent meat, wool, and carpenters.

“Ahhhh, mmmmm, yesssss, that isss sooo,” Julio would say.

“Uh-huhhh, uh-huhhh,” I’d reply.

Of course being men, we don’t need to say much to say much anyway. And, too, fatherhood is its own universal language.

Yes, my 20-some years comment was a joke at Julio’s expense. But after five years of taking Spanish in high school and college, I recognize a fellow slow language-learner when I meet one. Not that innate inability is my only excuse. I’ve always been pretty talented at not learning a subject that early on I decided to invest minimal time and effort in.

(The perceptive reader will have picked up on my attempt to add a veneer of rationalization to the sorry core of that last sentence. But I guess only Ikea can do that and get a really attractive result. [Did you know that to slice wooden logs [[as opposed to, say, Duraflame® logs]] to the thinness of veneer requires boiling the logs to soften them first? I did not know that until very, very recently. I’m filing it under “Trivia to bore with.”])

Even understanding some English speakers can give me problems. My friend Marina, a naturalized American citizen from Russia, can have me nodding and smiling in bewilderment in a crowded, noisy room. Her Russian-flavored English is fine. It’s my Rolling Stones-concert ears (going back to maybe The Dave Clark Five) that are the problem.

Speaking of speaking a second language, I came across a Rosetta Stone magazine ad the other day and thought, “Maybe I should brush up on my Spanish,” and guffawed. (Kidding. It was a low-key laugh.) Brushing up suggests a solid foundation to build on. At my current vocab level of five or six Spanish words, the backhoe hasn’t disturbed the ground yet.

I read the ad’s tagline: Live life fluently. Was that supposed to mean we one-language speakers weren’t living life fully? That’s the way I took it. My old Latin teacher, Bernice Owen (who long ago joined her beloved language in the hereafter), may have been blunt in her assessments of me (OK, she was) but she stuck to teaching Latin without once trying to be Tony Robbins.

I’m thinking of looking into Berlitz. They eschew telling us uno-linguals how to live.


  1. Aren’t you a very polite person? You had to say from the start of our conversations to speak slooowly and clearly and loudly. After this you would never have to nod enthusiastically and you’ll maybe cry after all.

  2. Assuming you are indeed a certain Marina of my acquaintance, yes, I am unfailingly polite (though there was a time when I … never mind). So, if I ask you to speak slowly, clearly and loudly, I could end up crying, is that it? Huh. I guess it’s time for me to come clean and admit I can hear you perfectly. I’ve been kidding the whole time, really. And now the secret’s out!

  3. Loved reading this. Love your writing. But now I can’t get that song out of my head… “Me and Julio down by the school yard…” Good ol’ Simon & Garfunkel… Thank you, George!

    • You are so kind, Anne, thank you (so long as you’re not enjoying my self-deprecating humor from the viewpoint of a woman looking for further evidence of men’s habitual mistakes, as I can only speak for myself).

      PS – Just don’t get that Kit Kat bar jingle – “Gimme a break, gimme a break, gimme a break of that Kit Kat bar” – in your head because you’ll be hearing it for weeks and weeks.

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