An Expat’s Worst Spanish Mistake—It Was All Part of the Process

John Brenner, a Minnesotan in his late 50s, was traveling in South America looking for a new place to live. The next leg of his trip was from Bogotá, Colombia to Lima, Peru. He was joined by three others, also Lima bound, whom he had met in the Bogotá hostel where he stayed. After an all-night bus ride they reached Ecuador’s border, where they crossed on foot. Once in Ecuador the four had a stroke of luck.

While John spoke a little Spanish, his three traveling companions, a man from South Africa and a couple from Hong Kong, spoke no Spanish at all.

So once in Ecuador, John set out to learn where they could find a terminal with buses going toward Lima. However, it was still early with few people on the street.

Then they got lucky.

“A charter bus stopped to let passengers out for a break,” John explains. “We met three women from the bus group. One of the women explained their charter bus was stopping in Lima before going on to Chile, and that there were several empty seats.

“She took us to meet the driver and conductor. After quizzing us to make sure we wouldn’t make trouble, the driver asked for $50 each for a seat to Lima. The couple from Hong Kong had to pay €50 each because they didn’t have dollars and couldn’t explain to the driver that a euro was worth more than a dollar,” says John.

Over the next day, John made an effort to interact with other bus passengers in Spanish. The woman who had tipped John that the charter bus was going to Lima and had available seats was sitting across the aisle from him.

While John was drinking an Inca Kola, a popular soft drink in Peru made from a local plant called lemon verbena that tastes a little like bubblegum, his and the woman’s eyes met. So, John asked her in Spanish if she wanted a drink.

“She didn’t respond like I expected. She started talking with her girlfriends and they all looked at me with odd smiles.

“She asked if I was serious about my proposal. I didn’t understand why she was making such a big deal about it. But yes, I was serious about her having a drink of my soda.”

The situation got more confusing from there.

“She traded seats to sit next to me, but didn’t take a drink. It was then I knew for sure there had been a misunderstanding.

“But I didn’t know what it was until a bilingual man in front of me explained that I had confused “bebé” (baby) with “bebe” (drink). So, instead of asking her to share my drink, I had essentially proposed marriage by asking her to share my baby,” says John.

The woman, it turned out, had a good idea that John had misspoken…but she had decided to have fun with John’s mistake and play it out for a diversion on the long bus ride.

The diversion worked and the incident of John’s accidental proposal spread through the bus. It generated a lot of friendly teasing, with passengers calling them the newlyweds.

It’s been a few years, now, since the memorable Spanish lesson on the bus to Lima.

And, after exploring six Latin American countries, John found a new place to live that ticked all the boxes on his “Ideal Place” checklist, and felt right, too. It is a rural beach town in Uruguay called Punta del Diablo. “I am home,” says John.

While knowing some basic Spanish is necessary to get by in a Spanish-speaking country, John confesses, “I want to keep improving my Spanish. But with all the interesting situations and people I have met during the learning process, I’m not in a big hurry to speak Spanish perfectly…”

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