Wednesday, September 3, 2008


When I bought my house in Mexico, I didn't speak any Spanish beyond the formalities - "Hola", "Adios", "Gracias", "Por Favor". The tradesmen doing work at my house didn't speak any English. I bought dictionaries and other handbooks to try to learn. I bought Rosetta Stone's cd. I tried reading the Spanish journals and listening to Spanish tv. I often confused French with Spanish. I learned to communicate with a lot of gestures and pointing at words in the dictionary. Somehow the workers mostly understood me.

One of the most important communication skills I learned was finding substitute words for words I did not know. "Hermientas" (tools) became my generic word for just about everything related to work around the house. "I'm going to the store to buy 'hermientas'" (maybe a rake, maybe a hammer, maybe a hose). "Tienas 'hermientas'?" (do you have tools?).

We have an old carpenter who works here now and then; he's retired but works just because he loves his work. One day we took him to lunch at a small diner down the road - one we'd never visited before. There was no menu, just a short list of what they had to offer written up on the wall. It boiled down to whether one wanted chicken or fish. Miguel and the carpenter chose fish, I chose chicken.

We were the only ones there. I think they were about to close for the afternoon - they were washing the floor and pushing tables aside. But we sat and waited for our meal, because nobody told us to leave. There was a bit of noise coming from the direction of the 'kitchen' (word used lightly to describe a small space used to prepare food). Once in a while a head appeared over the edge of the counter and smiled at us, so that gave us encouragement to wait.

Finally the food arrived. A bowl of pasta, a bowl of liquid frijoles (beans), and two plates loaded with a whole fish, served with rice. My plate had 3 or 4 pieces of chicken, nicely cooked on the grill. We were ready to dig in, but there was no silverware, and it didn't look like anyone was about to give us any. The guys dug in anyway, using the tortillas to tear at the fish. I sat and waited for someone to notice that we needed attention. I don't know the word for silverware, and I get confused on the correct words for knife, fork, and spoon. So when someone finally came out from behind the counter, I politely asked for 'hermientas' - tools.

After the blank look, (Que?), the woman went behind the counter and rustled up a tablespoon and a fork. As she handed me the hermientas, she apologized to the guys for not having any to offer them. They shrugged it off and assured her they would manage. But I think the woman felt embarrassed as she then went back behind the counter and returned with a couple more spoons (which enabled the guys to eat the pasta and beans).

After we left, the carpenter, being too polite to criticize, thanked us for the meal. Miguel was a little more vocal - what kind of restaurant doesn't have knives and forks for its customers? The carpenter then agreed that it was very odd. But the food was good, so we decided that it was more a take-out place than a sit down eating place - maybe the tables and chairs were just for sitting and waiting for take-out orders?

The carpenter continued to work at the house after I left Mexico. During one of Miguel's calls, I asked what he'd eaten that day, and he informed me that he and the carpenter had gone to the restaurant that didn't have 'hermientas'. They did take-out.


carl/debbie said...

haha. I'm not surprised you passed on the fish:-))

kinda reminds me of the time i brought an old high school buddy to isla. We stopped for breakfast in the colonia's one morning. After 20 minutes, we still werent waited on. I explained to my friend about the mexican minute. 15 more minutes go by, and now i think we are sitting in someones front yard, and it's a private get-together!! aaarg..
Then a new customer finally shows up, and walks up and places his order, and has a seat!! ahhhh, now i get it!! place your own order!!

Anonymous said...

I was told once by a local Isleno that Mexicans are the only people who eat their eating utensils – tortillas.

Sue said...

Carl - I've made that mistake at a restaurant before too. In Canada!! ('poor service', we were muttering beneath our breath - until we noticed everyone else putting in their order at the counter).

Jackie - that is true, and they are very adept at it!

Theresa in Mèrida said...

Sue, I am impressed that you remember hermientas and that the person understood you. I think we have done the same thing at a "take out" place. The people don't want to tell you it's just take out.

Sue said...

Theresa - you're right, the Mexicans will usually let us do anything rather than tell us something negative. Sort of sweet.