Leaving work this evening, I encountered a dapper Latino man at the corner of 16th and M. I could see he was a bit lost. He kept looking down toward the White House, three blocks away, and then would look at an envelope in his hands. Just as I was about to cross the street, he spoke to me in heavily accented English: "Excuse me, where is Madison Hotel?"
He showed me the envelope that was marked MADISON HOTEL - 15th and M Streets, NW.
"Oh," I said cheerfully, "That's just a block down this way." He smiled and said, "No English." Then he pointed down to the White House. He pointed at his chest. "From Mexico. My presidente, Felipe Calderón, at White House. I..." He struggled for a moment, "Official photographer for my presidente." Cool.
I said, "C'mon on, I'll show you to the hotel." It was just half a block past my parking garage. He smiled and said again, "No English." Crap. As someone who does speak a second language, I find it utterly frustrating to meet someone in need with whom I cannot communicate. I didn't think my photographer friend would be amused or interested to know that the only Spanish I know is: 1)about dangerous Peruvian llamas; 2)a request for cold water; or 3)pretty obscene. Surely frustrated, the Mexican gentleman rattled off an extremely speedy set of sentences en español, and I was clueless.
I patted him on the wrist and gestured for him to come with me. Foreign cities can be pretty freaky, no matter what. And when it's dark and rainy and you don't speak the language, that increases the scary factor exponentially. I'm always happy to help someone out in unfamiliar surroundings.
15th Street - and the Madison Hotel - spotted, the presidente's photographer gave me a big "¡Gracias!" and headed for his temporary home. As we parted ways, a linguist with whom I'd been working all day caught up to me on the street. He and I have a common second tongue, Russian, and I told him about my encounter and how troubling it was to not be able to adequately help a visitor because I didn't speak his language.
And then, I remembered that damn dream from a few nights ago.
I could see my mother again, chiding me, "See? I told you, you should have taken Spanish."
I could only laugh. She was right. :-)