Conversationally Challenged

Anita Cussler | 13.03.19

On the outskirts of Coyhaique is a little restaurant called Café Peregrino.  Small tables are set with Chilean necessities: napkins and sugar.  Behind the glass case at the counter are the kind of pastries that couldn’t possibly taste as good as they look, but let me tell you, they are incredible.  The menu isn’t typical of a Chilean restaurant or café and includes treats like sticky buns, cupcakes, Danishes, and scones.

As a non-fluent Spanish speaker and teaching fellow, being alone in a restaurant where people only speak in Spanish is a bit out of my comfort zone, but I’m up for the challenge.  I walk up to the counter and, in very broken Spanish, attempt to ask about the “café frío” I see on the menu.  I know that iced coffee is a favorite in the United States, so I’m surprised to see it on the menu here.  Before I ordered, I wanted to make sure there was no milk in the iced coffee, so I asked for it “sin leche”.  The girl responds in rapid Spanish and I manage to pick out that they can’t make it without milk, but they have almond milk or soy milk they can use instead.  There is some misunderstanding between us, but when I finally think I will, in fact, be getting an iced coffee with almond milk I turn around to find a table.  As I am walking away I hear the waitress stick her head into the kitchen and say in clear English, “One iced coffee with almond milk.”  I was completely confused.  I had just spent several minutes talking to this girl and trying to stumble my way through ordering in Spanish.

Students converse with a Chilean local.

I thought it was strange and a little frustrating that she wouldn’t just speak to me in English when I was clearly struggling to communicate, but as I continued to think about it, I realized that she had actually done me a favor.  In other countries I have visited, people immediately start speaking English when they realize that I’m not a native speaker.  In college, I studied abroad in France and found most locals almost always tried to speak to me in English even though my French was far better than their English attempts.  It was frustrating and it takes a lot of the fun out of visiting a new culture when you can walk up to anyone and speak in English.  Café Peregrino is owned by Americans, and after several visits, I’ve noticed that the American employees would not interact with me. They always let the Chileans working there serve me and they only spoke Spanish.  The more I think about it, the more grateful I am that the girl behind the counter let me struggle.  Looking back on the incident, I think its kind of funny and I’m totally ok with the idea of her finding amusement at my small expense.  I am grateful that she let me have the chance to struggle and practice my Spanish. I’m even more glad that there is a café owned by Americans who don’t step in and speak English to me.

In an increasingly globalized world, I’m so thankful that Chilean culture and people are holding firm to their language and identity.  It’s through these types of experiences, that both students and staff learn the most.