The Joy of Learning a Foreign Language

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The Joy of Learning a Foreign Language

Gamesa Cookie Factory

At about 10 am each morning, when my sugar level begins to dip and my spirits flag, the scent of vanilla from the adjoining cookie factory wafts through the office space and everything is once again OK.  I thank the good Lord each and every day my international company had the foresight to build their plant next to the Gamesa cookie factory—one of the largest cookie factories in all of Mexico.  When I feel overwhelmed by work and stressed out by my bosses’ draconian deadlines, I will often fantasize I am in charge of International Investigations at the cookie factory, pursuing those who would pilfer cookies from the assembly floor, who would collude in product substitution—shorting the vanilla levels and disappointing all the kids and grownups like me who are born with a sweet tooth.  Happiness is indeed the unadulterated whiff of vanilla.

There is nothing pretty about where I work…I am smack square in the middle of Industrial Vallejo (Mexico City).  Think of any Industrial Zone in the United States; then think ten times worse and that´s where I work.  My office has been strategically placed away from the company’s Main Complex—to ensure privacy and anonymity I have been told.  But I’m pretty sure I scare people…one of the Mexican guys in the Communications Department announced to everyone (it seemed like everyone at the time) in the employee lunchroom, “Here comes the police!”  That got a good laugh from everyone…except me.  And one of my German colleagues jokingly called me a spy in front of a group of fellow Compliance officers.  I may have muttered ‘Gestapo’ under my breath.

I’m not overly concerned about my reputation because where I work, I have ‘rock star’ status.  That’s right, I am extremely popular with the cleaners, the guards, the maintenance people, and just about everyone in the warehouse.   Maybe because I have doled out dozens of packets of Gamesa cookies to the staff and am on a first name basis with all of them. I even get a kiss on the cheek every day from one of the cleaning ladies (don´t worry honey, she looks like one of the Gamesa oatmeal cookies).   The adulation can be overwhelming and, at times, I seem to float across the courtyard, under the towering cranes and the heavy machinery, the sparks flying at me from all angles…although I have yet to be injured.  Past the metal shop, transformers, the repair facility for wind turbines and soon I am stepping over the railroad tracks curving away to nowhere within the industrial zone and into the Main Complex.  Overalls and prison-like jump suits give way to suit jackets, ties and skirts.  I wave farewell to the Mexican security guard who points his finger at me in a friendly firearms gesture.  

I am reluctant to leave my ‘bubble’ and venture forth to the other side of the tracks—to those we call middle management and executives.  Yet it can be exciting to say hello in several languages—there´s that nice French manager Patrice—“Bon Jour!” I say and then pass Martin, that handsome young German man with the blue eyes, “Guten Tag…vie gadees eneen?”  Martin smiles and answers me in fluent English.  Then right back into Español with Efrain, “Buenos Dias”….I’m on a roll!  Oh, I almost forgot–there is that fun Brazilian guy, “Buon ghia Robson!”  I never knew speaking a foreign language or two could be so much fun and I plan to include that as feedback in my Job Performance evaluation.  Nobody does it better than me—saying good morning in several languages!

I have always believed you´re not really learning a foreign language until you have your car repaired in a foreign country or have endured a thorough physical check up on foreign soil.   And that is exactly how I spent this past Friday in Mexico City’s Medica Sur Hospital—as a manager I am entitled to an annual physical.  Although this amazing health facility was three bus connections from my neighborhood, it was not hard to see it is one of the top two premiere medical institutions in the country.  It is modern, clean and employs a dedicated and professional staff.

Sometimes it´s difficult enough enduring a battery of medical exams in one´s own country, in one´s own language.  However, imagine spending an hour filling out forms in a foreign tongue, being escorted ten different times to this office and that and having to explain to each of the doctors in a foreign language your family history, your general health and the aches and pains you feel or imagine.  I had a good laugh with one of the doctors, pointing to my heart and saying that it hurt here—I think I was trying to say I was home sick.  But seriously, it was like taking a crash course in medical terminology and although I was initially reluctant to listen to and use strange, new words, my prickly attitude soon dissolved and I began having fun.  I spent a good half hour with the nutritionist as she dumped a bucket of plastic foods on the table and together we began placing the ersatz food items into groups while planning my new diet.  I repeated the names of the plastic foods, some of which looked extremely unappetizing and more closely resembled Halloween props.  But I did recognize and correctly say the word “tortilla.”

I learned Spanish terms related to ophthalmology, hematology, dentistry, audiotology (is there such a word?), internal medicine (some of these terms I would rather forget).   Halfway through the ordeal, they served a delicious meal and I got to meet managers from other companies throughout the Mexican megacity.  Some had just finished with their enemas and seemed reluctant to talk with me.  Not everything was that great…one of the female ‘doctoras’…an older woman with a poker face was in charge of my skeletal evaluation.  I have never seen a person look more frustrated when she evaluated my skeleton (and flexibility).  I mustered up enough courage to ask just how flexible I was.  

“You are not flexible at all,” was her curt reply.  “I recommend yoga and pay attention to the palms of your hands…they are extremely hard…right now it is not significant but later it could lead to health problems.”   “OK,” I said, not understanding what hard palms have to do with anything. 

And then there was the stress test, where they attached all those cables and electrodes (from a machine made by my employer) to my middle age body and had me run near vertical on a treadmill.   Sweating bullets, I used the expression for the first time in Spanish—“Me rindo” (I give up)—but the stone faced doctor said no…a few more minutes.  ¡Caramba!

So remember dear friends, you don´t have it so bad…not as bad as me as I found myself arguing with a stubborn receptionist who informed me I have two last names–my first last name is Richard and my second last name is Strange.  

“No señorita, Richard is my middle name and my only surname is Strange.”

 After five minutes of back and forth, I use that term in Spanish– “Me rindo”—a second time and acquiesce to her using Richard on the form as my first last name….well, you get the rest.   

Hasta pronto!


Mexico City, Distrito Federal 2010

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