Small gestures

18 May 2009

Small gesture

Photograph cut out of the El País Sunday magazine supplement.

Maybe it’s the big, structural differences in society that are its warp & weft; but how does someone arriving to a culture for the first time describe them without flat generalization and casual error? Not only is it easier to stick to the ants’-eye view (and what have I been doing here if not that?) – it hews closer to replicating the experience of someone who’s just arrived. The things that disorient and impress you are the little changes, the small gestures.

In Jaén, when a person wants you to come over (I’ve mentioned this, but didn’t do a good job of explaining what it looked like), they tell you with the palm down, facing the floor, & wave the back of their hand back & forth (try it at home), & it looks exactly like they’re shooing you away frantically.

The Andalucíans don’t have an entire vocabulary of gestures & hand movements like the Italians do, but one more comes to mind – sticking your first & pinkie finger out and clenching the rest of your fingers into a fist, (the fingers should be on top of the gesture, so that it looks like a bull’s head); this is calling someone a cuckold (giving them horns), and is a really easy way to start a fight.

There are a collection of small sibilant sounds made with your tongue at the front of your teeth that I hear in Andalucían speech quite a bit. One kind, a short tsk, is used as initial punctuation – you signal you’re about to speak,when you’re talking with a group of people, or you use the noise internally, in the pause between a phrase. There is the louder, longer hiss you make to get somebody’s attention across a room or for emphasis (and it is a sound that is unspeakably rude in the States; I used it once accidentally with my mother in Granada and she told me to stop it).

The open eh sound while you’re thinking of something instead the uh of an English speaker. (A lot of getting an accent right is making the correct noises between the words, pausing in the right places instead of importing English pauses & rhythm.) The noncommittal sound eh-ah (spelling gummed up for English phonetics), which you can make in response to just about anything, somewhere between mm-hm and yeah.

You can think you are starting to read Spanish pretty well and then get completely thrown by text & internet writing, which replaces certain sounds with one-letter equivalents – quiero becomes kiero, guapo is wapo, chico is xico. Laughter is spelled jajaja. The animals all make different noises.

And things as well as language: In Spain the clocks can strike thirteen, just as in Orwell’s 1984 (digital clocks & bus timetables are given in 24 hrs instead of 12). Paper is a different size – the height/width ratio of European paper is the square root of two, and if you put it into an American 8½x11 notebook a little piece sticks out & gets bent & creased. The water faucet marked “C” is for caliente, not cold. The stopsigns, impossibly, still say STOP in white capital letters.

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