“Trying Out My Basic Spanish in Uruguay”

I came from the US to Uruguay in 2006. After living in the beach community of Punta del Este for a year, I decided to explore Uruguay’s interior. In Punta del Este and Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, it is common to run into bilingual Uruguayans who speak English. However, in the country’s rural interior there are few English speakers. My beginning level Spanish would be put to the test.

One of my favorite trip discoveries was Mercedes, a town on the Rio de Negro (Black River). Mercedes is clean, tranquil and famous for its riverfront plazas. Shortly after arriving, I grabbed a table at a barbecue restaurant close to the main plaza and after looking at the menu, the waiter came to take my order.

Quisiera pedir un entrecot,” I said. The waiter seemed to understand that I wanted a New York steak, and wrote it on his order pad.

He asked how I wanted it.

Medio,” I said. He jotted it on the pad.

I went on to order sparkling water and grilled provolone cheese, a popular appetizer. He wrote that down, too. Things were going well. He understood my Spanish perfectly.

Next, I ordered a salad with lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and onions. But this time, instead of scribbling it down, he lowered his pad and pencil and told me gravely that the restaurant did not serve onions.

Si!” I said, assuring him that they did. I pointed to a nearby table with a full spread of food. “Ellos tienen,” (they have them) I said.

From the look on the waiter’s face, I knew something was wrong.

Why doesn’t he understand? I wondered. Then, my mistake suddenly hit me. Onions are called “cebollas” in Spanish. I was saying “caballos“—which means “horses”. I had just asked the waiter in this barbecue restaurant to put horse in my salad. No wonder he was giving me the odd look.

I explained slowly, using the simple words that comprised my Spanish vocabulary, that I was sorry, and that I wanted onions in my salad, not horses.

The waiter cracked a brief smile before resuming his professional stance. “Muy bien,” he said. He finished writing my order and went back to the kitchen.

After a couple of moments I heard everyone in the kitchen break into laughter. The waiter had evidentially shared my word confusion with his coworkers.

After the laughter quieted, the waiter came back to my table with water, warm bread, and chimichurry sauce (a popular sauce made with parsley, garlic, oregano, and olive oil).

After that, everything went smoothly. My steak was close to perfect. After dinner, I had a double espresso and a Chajá, a frozen Uruguayan desert made with peaches, cream, cake, and meringue.

The salad was good, too. With just enough horse to give it flavor, without being overwhelming.

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