Cat Talk, Cursing, and Other Benefits of Speaking Spanish

My Panamanian neighbor, Gabriela Pitti, and I share a love of cats. We discovered this when an adorable and affectionate stray appeared one day, a petite calico female.

She explored our yards and, finding a welcoming environment, decided to stay. Gabriela and I speculated about where she might have come from, gushed about our love of animals in general and cats especially.

Gabriela adopted the kitty, named her Mini, and together we took her to the animal clinic to have her spayed. Since then Gabriela and I have shared many cat-related and other experiences and it’s a great comfort to have her for my neighbor.

But Gabriela doesn’t speak a word of English. It’s my ability to talk to her in Spanish that has enabled us to form a bond as neighbors, friends, and cat lovers.

Shortly after I moved to the town of David in Panama, I organized an informal Spanish conversation group. I wanted to meet more expats in the area, improve my own vocabulary, and practice speaking while helping others. We met weekly at a small cultural center in David, Casa La Guaricha, founded by a local named Antonio Singh.

Antonio was our “go-to guy” when we had a question about Panamanian Spanish, and he was always ready to help, and there are often unexpected benefits to this kind of effort.

Through Antonio, I spent a few weeks tutoring some local students in English. I met with about a dozen college kids…and in turn greatly improved my Spanish.

Now, I had never really learned useful Spanish insults. It’s not something you’ll find in most textbooks, but on rare occasions you really need to be able to express anger or frustration.

I asked my students about slang expressions I could use when I needed to respond appropriately or tell someone off. I learned the mild exclamation chuleta (like “damn”) the more insulting eres un idiota (you’re an idiot”), and other expressions too offensive to print!

I may never use my new vocabulary, but the lesson was certainly fun and enhanced my knowledge of the local culture.

A little Spanish helps us to be a part of the community we live in…and makes for experiences that would otherwise be closed to us.

Hellmut and Linda Pedersen, expats from the U.S., run a monthly flea market in Chiriqui Province and own a business, Chiriqui Storage. “Neither one of us speaks perfect Spanish,” says Linda, “but between the two of us we’re able to communicate.”

In Boquete, Deborah Gershon has recently opened a shop to produce and sell her hand-made artisan chocolate, called Chox. “I’m having the time of my life. My helper, Madelin, teaches me Spanish and I teach her English as we work together every day. It’s a fun way to learn,” says Deborah.

As for me, I love being able to speak Spanish. I just can’t imagine living here without it.

Going to the grocery store, the pharmacy, and the produce market, for instance, I always chat with the clerks and often other customers. Just having a simple conversation makes me feel welcome and included.

All it takes is “good morning…how are you?…where do you live?…isn’t it hot today!” to share a moment.

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