“Ya está.” (“That’s it.”)
Who would’ve thought that those two little words would set my early twenty-something’s love life on a trajectory of para siempre.
I’m going to tell you a story, one of miscommunication, misinterpretation, and ultimately language learning and amor. It’s how my husband of 11 years, D., and I began nuestra relación.
(Characters: Audrey, a junior in college, and just three months shy of returning to the United States. D.: a dark and handsome engineering student with his own coche.)
(Setting: The front seat of D.’s red Peugeot as it sits idling in front of Audrey’s apartment building in the Madrileño neighborhood of Argüelles.)
(Time: A Saturday sometime in April. The year is 2001. It’s a little after 4 a.m. (Yes, A.M.) Our characters have returned from a night of marcha, copas, conciertos y baile, all G-rated, of course.)
Audrey: Éste es mi edificio. Me puedes dejar aquí enfrente. Gracias por las copas. Me lo he pasado bien. (“This is my building. You can drop me off here in front. Thanks for the drinks. I had a nice time.”)
D.: Vale, muy bien. (clearing his throat). Pues, nada, me lo he pasado super bien esta noche. Gracias por venir al concierto. (“Well, okay. So, I had a really great time tonight. Thanks for coming to the concert.”)
(According to Audrey’s version of the story, there is a clear edge of nervousness to D.’s words. D., on the other hand, denies such claims. An awkward silence falls over the inside of the coche.)
A: (Beginning to gather up her purse and jacket; to herself) Oh, no. This is awkward. Is he waiting for me to turn to kiss him? I better wrap this up and get out of the car. (Now, out loud.) Vale, pues, ya está. (“Well, so, that’s it.”)
(As she searches for her car keys, D. straightens up, turns to face her.)
D.: (Shrugging his shoulders.) ¿Te puedo dar un abrazo? (“Well, can I give you a hug?”)
(They hug. Audrey pulls away quickly, turning to unlock her side of the car.)
Audrey: Okay…vale…pues…ya está. (Her words are slow, long, drawn out.)
(D., furrowing his brow, wringing his hands, looking for the right words.)
D.: No sé. ¿Te puedo dar otro abrazo? (“I don’t know. Can I give you another hug?”)
(Audrey consents, but pulls away again. This time she tenses up.)
Audrey: (Clipped and demanding, she asks) Vamos a ver. ¿Cuáles son tus intenciones exactamente? (“Alright, wait a second! What exactly are your intentions?”)
(Flustered, D.’s mouth falls open. He is clearly caught off guard by the question. A two-hour long conversación ensues in which our characters admit 1) they like each other 2) they want to keep the fun times going (i.e., date); and, 3) it’s now 6 a.m. Time to go to bed.)
So at this point, you might be thinking any number of things like, How in the world did D. and I stay up so late? or, Seriously, who gives hugs anymore? or, Good grief, Audrey, you’re kind of intense with the whole “what-exactly-are-your-intentions-anyway?.”
To answer those questions, let’s fast forward one month.
(Setting: a warm May evening, D. and Audrey stroll hand in hand past el Palacio Real in Madrid. They are reminiscing about that April night in the red Peugeot.)
Audrey: ¿Y eso de los abrazos? Un poquito raro, ¿no crees? (“That whole hug thing was kind of weird, don’t you think?”)
D.: (surprised) ¿Pero, qué dices? Fuiste tú la que dijiste ya está. Un poco atrevida tú. Yo no quería besarte y sólo se me ocurrió abrazarte. (“What in the world are you talking about?! You were the one who said ‘¿ya está?’ That’s it?? I didn’t want to kiss you, so the only thing I could think of was to hug you.”)
Audrey: (laughing) ¿Pero qué dices? ¿Atrevida? Dije ‘ya está’ en plan me tengo que ir. (“Forward?! I said ya está (that’s it’) you know like I need to leave.”)
(Twenty minutes of arguing continue, each character with a different version of the story.)
Well, as it turns out, some fourteen years later, our relationship began over a miscommunication of tone, perhaps even a misuse of a common Spanish phrase on my part. While I continue to insist my tone was nothing more than innocent, implying a desire to get the heck out of the car, D. continues to correct me, insisting he had never before met such a forward and intense americana.
That early morning car conversation taught me – and continues to remind me today – that language errors are not only hilarious, but necessary, for language learning. Yes, they serve as great dinner party stories years after the fact, but they also remind us that it isn’t a grammatically perfect sentence spoken at just the right moment that matters in speaking another language. No, it’s the effort. Language learning, like any other life skill, be it cooking or riding a bike, involves trips and falls.
It is carrying around a pocket spiral notebook to bars and clubs with my study abroad friends writing down Castilian swear words.
It is incorrectly ordering queso de teta (literally “tit cheese”) instead of queso de tetilla in front of a table full of Spaniards.
It is your father-in-law loudly and publicly correcting your misuse of conductor instead of maquinista as the news story covers a train accident on TV.
And, it is misusing one of the most common Spanish expressions, ya está (yes, D., your version of the story is the right one!).
That conversation in 2001 also reminds me that language errors help build cross-cultural relationships. Because when you make a mistake, like I clearly did that April night, you reveal a vulnerability and a willingness to open up to another person on their turf, in their language. I’m not saying that if it hadn’t been for my incorrect use of ‘ya está’ we would have never dated and married. Who knows? But, I am saying that honest efforts made and the ability to move forward despite mishaps and mistakes are some of the core building blocks of fostering relationships with others who are different from us.
And, as an added bonus, those mistakes make for some great dinner party stories!
¡Feliz Día de San Valentín, amig@s!
In what ways have language mishaps and miscommunication served to build relationships with others in your life? I’d love to hear from you!