When I was living in Spain one of my sisters came to visit. After twenty-four hours in Madrid with me she leaned against the hardwood bar, and stabbed a chunk of Spanish tortilla with a toothpick. Tortilla in her mouth, she jabbed the toothpick at me and said,
“You know, you have finally found your place: No one sleeps here, they eat standing up, and everyone mumbles.”
The young-speak of Madrid in the 1980s was a hand-gallop over dropped syllables and compressed sounds. Breathless and fun, it was perfect for a young woman looking to find her voice.
The problem was that my slow tongue had trouble snapping out the Spanish syllables. I needed help but was too embarrassed to ask.
One rainy day I stopped a taxi. The taxi driver asked if I was American and then started asking me about the political system. I started in with the two party system, “Republicanos” y “Democatas”. Innocent enough except I could not for love or money get the word, “Demócrata” out of my mouth.
The taxi driver asked what was wrong, why couldn’t I pronounce “Demócrata”?
I tried. He pulled over to the side of Genova Street and stopped the meter.
“Señorita, you are here to learn Spanish. Now, say, ‘Demócrata’.”
I squirmed the way I do when I am trying to get out of doing something that is hard for me.
“No. Demócrata. A ver, repeat, “demó”
“Now put it all together: ‘Demócrata’.”
“That’s it! Now say it three times correctly and I will get you to where you are going.”
“Demócrata. Demócrata. Demócrata.”
The taxi driver started the car, re-started the meter, and off we went – every once in a while he was like Kato from the Pink Panther, stopping mid-sentence to have me say, “Demócrata.”
I would answer. By the time I got the Institute where I studied I had exactly one word that I did not mumble but said solidly and with pride. To this day when I stumble with my mumble, I say “Demócrata” to practice, and then repeat the next word that has barricaded my tongue. Once I get it, I repeat it three times in a row and I thank my patient teacher.