The language barrier is always a challenge. It can be isolating to be in a place where you understand about 1/10 of what is being said around you.

But it an odd way it also makes you a public sight. We are gringos. We stick out. There are other gringos so we aren’t alone, but we don’t blend in like those from Venezuela or Costa Rica or another Central American country.

My recent visit to Panama’s version of the DMV made me think of this. I managed to get through the check-in and recognized my name when it was called for information verification. Name recognition is a whole new skill. The pronunciation of my name in Panama is not even close to what my California friends call me because J’s aren’t pronounced the same, every vowel is pronounced, and then throw in that I have two middle names, one of them my maiden name. Feel sorry for Dean who has to answer to “Dee-Anne” at many places.

I made it through the eye test (Row 1, column B) because I’ve been practicing my alphabet. Hearing test was a win (I’ve learned the words for right and left.).

But then it came time to pay, I wait my turn. I’m standing at the counter ready to pay and the clerk asks for something I don’t recognize…

This is where the public spectacle comes in to play. Everyone has been watching me, keeping track of what I’m doing — employees and other visitors. They seem pleased when I manage to use my Spanish. They are pleased when they can use their English skills.

And if I falter, like I did at the cashier window, someone steps in quickly. I needed to show her my national I.D. so she could print a receipt and let me pay. I appreciated the gentleman’s help. I appreciate ALL the help I get throughout my day in Panama.

But occasionally, I just need a minute to figure it out. Like when I asked one clerk to speak REALLY slowly. It gave my English-speaking brain enough time to identify the Spanish word and then translate it into English. I then formulated my answer in English, translated it into Spanish and then I could answer…

It’s weird to have everyone listening in, watching you get your license renewed. Not bad, just weird.

And I remind myself that it was MUCH worse when I lived in Prague. Everyone knew where the American girls lived, what furniture they had, what they bought at the grocery store, when they went out and what they did. No one can keep track of others as well as residents of a former communist country.


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