Linguistic encounters over breakfast


What language did they really speak?

It wasn’t Hebrew or Greek

     I wouldn’t leave them alone-a

    They were from Barcelona

My Spanish unpracticed was weak.

This morning we heard a couple at a gas station not speaking English.  Both were dark in complexion; the woman had curly hair and a Mediterranean nose; the man was tall and slim, clean-shaven with very short hair. 

I tried not to be obvious.  While I was under the hood, checking the oil, I leaned over to Bethany and said quietly, “Are they speaking Hebrew?” 

She listened and shook her head and said, “Slavic, I think.”

We saw them again at breakfast.  We kept trying to catch enough of their conversation to get a fix on the language.  I didn’t hear the gutturals of a Semitic language or the nasalized vowels of a Slavic language.  It certainly wasn’t Italian or Greek.

They spoke quietly, clearly having a good time and cracking jokes. 

Every time one of them spoke loudly enough and clearly enough, background noise spoiled the reception. 

After the meal I leaned over and said, “Going to Fairbanks?”

Now Alaska Highway 3 only has two destinations for rental cars: Anchorage or Fairbanks; my question was a fairly obvious bet.  Yes, they were going to Fairbanks.

I’ve just been in Barrow for eight weeks, I said.  They asked, Barrow?

I pointed out the village at the top of their map.  They were impressed.  I explained that the only way to get there is airplane or barge.  Then I got to ask the critical question: Where are you from?

A lot of visibly ethnic people in this country object to that question, as many Americans will assume that Asians aren’t really from (for example) South Dakota.  Tourists aren’t so sensitive.

They were from Spain.  I immediately opened up with my Spanish.

The story of my acquisition of Spanish fluency runs long; the short version is that I learned in ninth grade and the only time I quit practicing was the time I spent in Navajoland.  For the better part of twenty years, half my working day was in Spanish.  When I left Sioux City I spoke much better Spanish than when I was just fluent.

This morning, after ten weeks in Alaska, my tongue felt clumsy, and I didn’t change my accent to match theirs.

Then the couple revealed that they’d been speaking not Spanish but Catalan, a Romance language as closely related to Spanish as Portuguese; Spanish was their second language. 

She works in a non-governmental, nonprofit organization; he does information tech for a hospital.  They flew from Frankfort nonstop to Anchorage.

We drove on to Fairbanks, and our GPS unit, evidently confused by something, kept telling us to take a sharp left into the boreal forest.  We turned her off.

En route to Fairbanks we stopped at an overlook and saw fires burning along the Tanana river. In Fairbanks proper, Bill, a Native we met, guided us to the visitors’ center, a well-built facility near downtown.  We got city maps, directions to our bed and breakfast, and toured the exhibits.  I bought a zipper pull made of walrus ivory from a Native artisan.

At the moose antler arch, Fairbanks Visitors Center

 

The prosaic part of the journey came at the Laundromat, followed by a movie.

We haven’t been to the movies in three months.  We enjoyed the comedy and being together.

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