¿Cómo trabajo el @%&# control remoto? Or, Lost in translation

I will be the first to admit that foreign languages are, well, foreign to me. Our recent trip to Oaxaca drove that point home.

SS Kroonland

The SS Kroogland, which carried my French-speaking father from Belgium to the U.S. in 1920.

I really have no excuse for being language-challenged. My father, who immigrated from Belgium, spoke fluent French and even could hold his own in Spanish.  Plus, I grew up in Chino, California, surrounded by Spanish-speaking neighbors and school buddies. However, pretty much all that I retained from my pre-adolescent years were swear words learned through osmosis from my peers. Truth be known, I secretly take pride in my fluent Spanish profanity.

It should be no surprise that such a limited, albeit colorful, vocabulary has proven to be of little practical value when we travel to Mexico.  In fact, it can be a serious barrier to gaining rapport with the locals .   So I generally keep my mouth shut and communicate with lots of pointing and gesturing.

Air conditioner remote

The source of my linguistic conundrum. Note the on/off button.

It turns out that sometimes pointing is not enough. Like the night in Oaxaca when neither Ann nor I could figure out how to shut off the air conditioner in our room using the remote. Frustrated, I took the remote to the front desk to get some help from the very friendly non-English-speaking man on duty. Although struggling to understand what he was telling me I was sure he had asked if we had two (dos) “control remotos” in our room and by nodding vigorously I tried to assure him that “yes indeed there was uno in each of the dos bedrooms.”  After quite a bit of incomprehensible back and forth on how to get the remoto to “trabaja” (work) he produced another remote, handed it to me, and said something again about dos remotos. It was not until I took the remote back to the room and tried numerous times to get it to work that Ann figured out that all we had to do was to push the off button twice – bingo, the air conditioner stopped.  Of course! The poor guy at the desk was telling me that I had to press the button two times; he was not asking if we had two remotes. Duh!

Restaruant server Mex

Not an actual photo of our server.  This one is smiling.

Then there was the time we were in a restaurant in Bucerias and we ordered a meal to share.  When the server brought our order, I asked for an additional plate (at least I thought I did). “Un otro plato, por favor” sounded pretty straight forward to me as I mimed to our unamused server that we planned to share the meal .  After what seemed to be an eternity the “otro plato” appeared — it turned out to be another full order of what we already had. I didn’t have the heart (or to be more honest, the ability) to tell the server we didn’t want the second order.

If nothing else, my ineptitude at grasping even a rudimentary level of communicating in another language makes me marvel at the ability of our Latino friends in the U.S. who have learned to navigate an English speaking world (and who probably never have inadvertently ordered the same meal twice).

Mex bike stamped envelope copy

Self-addressed plain brown envelope.

I almost forgot to mention – those interested in obtaining a list of my Spanish swear words can send me a self-addressed stamped plain brown envelope.  Allow two weeks for processing.  And if anyone asks where you got this list, just say “&$#@ off” (which you will then be able to do in Spanish).



  1. Helen Weaver says:

    Andy, that is so funny I’m still laughing. If you don’t remember, or maybe he just told me, he didn’t teach us to speak French as he thought we would use cuss words & mom wouldn’t know what we were saying. Did he say that to you too?


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