Birds in the Water

The confused faces around the table said it all. I tried one more time.

“He fell off the wagon again.”

More confused looks.


I paused, trying to figure out another way of approaching the topic before giving up and counting on the God of Repetition to see it through. “Off the wagon. He started drinking … again.”

Several frustrating minutes later of attempting to explain what I’d hoped to be a pithy anecdote I’d exhausted my lousy Spanish and the patience of all involved. One of my newer friends tried one last time, in Spanish, from his point of view. “You mean he was ON the wagon again, right?”

I digested the carefully articulated question and finally realized that everyone involved understood each other. The problem, for once, wasn’t my Spanish. The problem was that “falling off the wagon” for English-speakers means the exact opposite in the local vernacular, where “montado en la carreta” gets you to the same, drunken spot.

Our meal in the local restaurant thankfully moved on, but I couldn’t squeeze past my own thoughts, which were stuck on the fact that the local expression made a hell of a lot more sense. Drunks are piled atop a cart because they can’t get anywhere on their own. Because they’re drunk. The version of the expression that I’d perpetrated apparently dates back to the 1890’s when men (pasty white, anglo-saxon men) jumped off of water carts where they’d at least temporarily proclaimed that alcohol was a bad thing before eventually sneaking off to a bar and coming to their senses.

My mind then involuntarily plumbed its depths and produced a scene in the movie The Perfect Storm where George Clooney’s character, the Captain, orders the crew to “toss the birds.” The birds he’s referring to are stabilizers designed to keep a boat from tipping over in rough seas. Aged-spoiler-alert: it didn’t work or else there would’ve been no movie and therefore no unshaven Clooney (that sounds dirty but isn’t meant to be so in this application).

I was now tossing internal birds because it’s at moments like this that I fully recognize the fact that roughly a year ago my family and I left everything we knew to move roughly 2,000 miles (ok, 3,218 kilometers) to a land where we knew no one/nothing. A land with a primary language in which we could, potentially, successfully ask for directions to the nearest bathroom.  It is, I think, good to push the envelope. It is also true that, at times, there are waters too deep to swim (a direct quote from #1 this past weekend).

Whatever happens going forward I have a newfound respect for anyone that has immigrated to another land, particularly those who had to do so for the benefit of their families. We had the luxury of choosing to make this move. I cannot even begin to imagine how hard it would be to come to a foreign land with no ability to put food on the table, no knowledge of the local language and culture, and no means of support when the waves get rough.

This experience is, in a word, humbling. The best example of that is the fact that I recently had “the dream.” Anyone attempting to learn another language remembers the first time that they actually dreamed in that foreign tongue. It’s a big moment. You’ve learned enough of this new language that it now wanders freely through your subconscious. In my case, birds-up and in waters too-deep to swim, I did indeed dream fully in Spanish. Unfortunately, my dream involved everyone in it making fun of my Spanish. In Spanish.