I learned a great deal in my high school Spanish classes, not the least of which was a handy amount of conversational Spanish. One of the best lessons I learned, though, was a two-parter: 1. Embarrassing language mistakes happen, no matter how hard you work to avoid them; and 2. Embarrassing language mistakes are often hilarious, and it’s far better to laugh at yourself than to be embarrassed. This is a story about that.
Spanish, like all languages, has its own colloquialisms. One word can mean any number of different things. The word in question today is caliente. At its most basic, it translates to “hot.” However (and this is another thing I learned in high school Spanish), among native speakers, it’s more commonly used to mean “hot and bothered”/”excited”/”all worked up” — in an adult sense, if you get my drift (and I think you do) — than it is to describe the temperature of something. This is an important fact to remember if you wish to avoid making an embarrassing language mistake. It is also a very easy fact to forget when you’re in a hotel lobby in Barcelona, having a conversation with the front desk clerk, trying to scrape up whatever vocabulary you can from high school and college Spanish classes after it’s sat dormant in the corner of your brain for the better part of six years.
Which brings us to October 2010, in a hotel lobby in Barcelona, where Tim and I, exhausted after a full day wherein I had tried to show Tim all my favorite things about the city I’d spent six weeks in six years earlier, tried to determine whether the hotel had a hot tub in which we could soak our tired muscles.
In retrospect, I don’t know why we didn’t just go to the pool area and see for ourselves rather than trying to ask the nice woman at the front desk. I’m glad we didn’t, though, because if we had, then I wouldn’t have this embarrassing story for us all to laugh at now.
So. Back to the lobby. I’m trying to inquire at the front desk whether the hotel has a hot tub, but it’s been a long time since I’ve really used my Spanish, and I can’t remember the word for “hot tub.” Honestly, I’m not sure I ever knew the word to begin with. So I go for the next best thing and attempt to describe the term that’s missing from my vocabulary — like a one-sided game of Catch Phrase in which the person who knows she’s playing doesn’t speak the language, and the other player is very confused but trying very patiently to help the crazy rambling American. It went a little bit like this:
Me: In this hotel, do you have a “hot tub”? [In which the entire sentence was in Spanish, except the term “hot tub,” which I said in English.]
Front Desk Clerk: [Blank stare to indicate she has no idea what a hot tub is.]
Me: [Again with the Spanish] It’s like a swimming pool, only more…hot.
Front Desk Clerk: [Gives me an odd look and assures me that the hotel does not have any such amenity.]
We returned to our room and swim-suited up, thinking that even a non-hot swimming pool would feel pretty good on our muscles. When we arrived at the pool and discovered that there was, indeed, a hot tub, I reflected on our lobby conversation and realized my mistake.
See, when I asked for a hot swimming pool, I didn’t really say “hot,” not in the correct sense, anyway. What I said was “caliente,” which you’ll remember from a few paragraphs above has an entirely different meaning than the one I intended.
Basically, I asked for a horny swimming pool.
No wonder the woman at the front desk was so confused.