Sunday, March 02, 2008

The language of third-row seating

**Note: I smacked some of our Costa Rica pics throughout this column, even though they have squat to do with the content. I hope that's cool.**

One of the tour guides on our vacation in Costa Rica two weeks ago explained that she wanted to learn French because, “Spanish is for my friends, English is for business, but French, French is for love.”English is for business? Since when did English become German? “English is for business” makes it sound so utilitarian, like we have to be careful when we talk or a minivan might fall out. Still, I was impressed with how casually she switched back and forth between languages, and how she spoke of picking up a third language like it would take about as much effort as picking up a pizza on the way home.

“How long have you been speaking English?” I asked her.

“Seven months,” she said.

I cringed. After the five years of Spanish classes I’ve taken in my life, I still couldn’t ask for directions to the bathroom without accidentally propositioning someone. To be fair, those classes were over ten years ago. I also can’t balance a chemical equation anymore or tell you the derivative of tangent(x). I’m getting dumber, is my point.

It’s very difficult to remain in the closet when you’re a homolingual traveling around a country that doesn’t generally speak your language. My attempts to speak Spanish reminded me of playing the game Taboo, in which you have to get someone to guess a word by giving them roundabout clues.

“Tonight, we like to eat the food after dinner,” I might say.

“Dessert?” the waiter would guess.

“Yes! We just scored a point!” I’d say.

Some of the natives spoke a language so universal that no pocket dictionary was necessary. On our third night there, at about one in the morning, we became introduced to the car alarm bird, a creature whose call perfectly mimicked a vehicular security device in every way except for our ability to ignore it.

“ooEEEEEoooo!” the bird said, repeatedly.

“I can’t take this,” my wife Kara mumbled. “I’m going to try listening to the iPod to drown it out.”

We were staying near the Arenal Volcano, a geologic feature that is, from what I hear, pretty neat looking. I can’t vouch for whether or not this volcano actually exists, as both of our days there were filled with rain and low-hanging clouds. Still, as much as I’m tempted to, I won’t whine about missing out on the sight of it. Going to the rainforest and complaining about the rain is like going to a NASCAR race and complaining about the mullets. We knew what we were getting into.

After twenty minutes, Kara ripped the headphones out of her ears. “That’s just not working,” she said. “This is how the Norah Jones song goes now: ‘Come away with me, in the ooEEEEEEoooo! Come away with me, and I’ll never stop ooEEEEEEEooooo!’”

“Try putting a pillow over your head,” I suggested.

“How about you go out there and put a pillow over the bird?” she asked.

Realizing the futility of attempting to sleep with the car alarm bird going off outside and Kara tossing and turning inside, I put on my shoes and wandered around in the small meadow behind the hotel, armed with a flashlight in one hand and a few small rocks from the parking lot in the other. Turned out, the sounds we’d attributed to the car alarm bird were actually coming from a jaguar, which I didn’t realize until the beam of my flashlight landed on its eyes. Not really, but that would be a much more exciting climax to the story. The real story ends with me winging a few rocks at a tree in the rainforest in the middle of the night, something sane people generally shy away from doing, though it did seem to have the intended effect.

I came back into the room saying, “I return triumphant! I showed that bird who was…”


You can put a pillow over Mike Todd’s head at


  1. Way cool pictures! I like that cow one.

    If I'm ever lost in Canada, I know I could ask someone... "Do you have a friend in French class?" or "Here is a pencil".... that's all I can remember from my lessons 25 odd years ago.

    The car alarm bird is TOO MUCH! That's pretty funny. There must've been one of those birds at the Cincinatti Zoo when we were there because that's exactly what Gary & I thought it sounded like.

  2. Thanks! Wonder if it was the same bird at the zoo. I bet you can shut those birds off by having Arnold Schwarzenegger lift them by the bumper until they tilt enough to think they're being towed.

    Do you get an award if you're the first person in a decade to make a "Twins" reference?

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