So, pene means penis in Spanish. Hold that in mind.
I was volunteering for English conversation groups at a local university. The two young female students I was talking to asked me if I cooked. I said yes, I like to cook. They asked my favorite dishes to prepare. I said something like “pescado encocado and penne alla vodka.” Their eyes got big and they froze. In nearby groups, heads turned. I had said I liked penises in vodka. I had to explain that it is the name of a popular dish in Italian and English and that penne is pasta.
Of course, most of us expats mess up every day with pronunciation, verb tense, gender, number, and vocabulary, but some blunders are funnier and/or more embarrassing than others. Here are a few of the latter that I have made personally or heard about.
One friend was at a service station trying to put air in her motor scooter tires. She was afraid she would put in too much and the tire would burst, so she asked an attendant, “¿Puede ayudarme? Tengo mierda.” She meant to say tengo miedo, I’m afraid, but instead she said “I have shit.”
In a Mexican restaurant, an American who was just learning Spanish and wanted to order a dish of grilled vegetables – verduras a la plancha – instead asked for “vergas a la plancha.” She had substituted the vulgar word for penis in place of the one for vegetables (I wonder where she learned that word). The waitress laughed and asked whether she wanted the cook or the dishwasher. Watch out for polla also; chicken is pollo.
In the US, shortly before moving to Ecuador, I took my Peruvian Spanish teacher out to dinner in a Spanish restaurant. I had paella, and the shrimps had the tails on, requiring me to stick my hands in my food to remove them. I said to her, “No entiendo porque dejan los culos en los camarones.” I had used the word for ass instead of tail; the latter is cola – you must admit they sound similar. She laughed and corrected me. And in case you are wondering, I got that word from my college roommate from El Salvador, many years ago, along with a lot of other choice words.
Some may remember from an earlier article of mine the friend who, preparing to go horseback riding, said to a Cuencano man she met on the street, “Voy a montar un caballero.” She said she was going to mount a gentleman instead of a horse. The flip side of that was the woman who told a man, “Eres un verdadero caballo.” You are a true horse.
Another friend went to the pharmacy to order eye drops without preservatives. He asked for “gotas de ojo, sin preservativos.” He had asked for eye drops without condoms. The word he wanted was preservadores or conservantes.
I was told about someone who was allergic to onions so he asked the waiter if the meal contained caballo. The waiter was insulted until he realized the expat meant cebolla.
An American woman with some experience riding horses was taking riding lessons from a man in Mexico. He, being cautious, kept her horse on a rope the first day. At the end of the day she said, “Mañana, quiero montar sin ropa.” I doubt if this needs translation. No word on his reaction.
A friend here in Cuenca told the man moving a large gas tank for her, “Es pescado.” Pescado is fish; pesado is heavy. In a similar vein, in a restaurant someone ordered pecado (sin) instead of pescado.
An American priest trying to say a mass in Spanish said, “Me encanta los calzones bonitos.” Calzones are underpants. I won’t go there. He had meant to say canciones bonitas, beautiful songs.
Recently I was on a bike ride where a friend took a spill on loose gravel and appeared to have broken a rib – costilla – or two. I recounted the story to another Cuencano friend, saying, “Él rompió unas costeñas,” meaning he broke a couple of women from the coast. It was more poignant for the fact that we were on the coast, having ridden bikes there.
What I have learned from my mistakes in Spanish is that everyone wants us to succeed in their language and they are very forgiving of mistakes. You might get a spontaneous smile when you screw up, but almost nobody has made fun of me for my errors. I think the best approach to learning to speak the language is to keep plugging away at it and not worry about our mistakes.
Jeff Van Pelt earned his masters degree in psychology from New York University and his doctorate in counseling from the College of William and Mary. He has worked as a psychotherapist, wellness program consultant, and health and psychology writer. Jeff and his wife are retired and have lived in Cuenca for more than three years.