When you learn a foreign language, you can’t help but learn about another culture and its customs. I often remember Vito’s friend Jean-Claude von Bostal who came to visit Vito in Chicago from Belgium. Everything was so different for him. Vito asked me what we could do with Jean-Claude that would be very American. I suggested going to a baseball game. That’s about as American as you can get, if you overlook the fact that most of the players are from Latin America. So we went to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play. It was a warm day, so everyone dressed in summer clothes. A woman seated near us wore a tank top. When one of the Cubs hit a home run, she clapped with her hands over her head, revealing her shaved armpits. We couldn’t help but notice her because she was also whooping it up. Jean-Claude immediately noticed her shaved armpits and said, “That’s stupid!” Vito corrected him, “You mean that’s different.” Well, I know for a fact that women don’t shave their armpits in Europe. So I said, “Vito, I think he really means that it’s stupid.” Jean-Claude nodded and said, “Why do they shave their armpits?” Well, you see, there are always cultural differences even when you don’t think of them. They abound everywhere.
Physical distance between people is a common cultural topic of many Spanish textbooks. When you learn a foreign language, you also learn about the culture. The two are inseparable. When associating with someone from a Spanish-speaking country, they usually get very close to you when they speak. They are more likely to greet you by shaking your hand and/or giving you a hug and a kiss. This is something that you’ll have to learn to accept. This happens if you’re in the U.S. or in Mexico. In the U.S. we’re accustomed to having plenty of distance between us when we speak to someone. And we hardly ever hug someone unless they’re a family member. For me, you have to be a family member on speaking terms. When I was in Mexico, I was hugging and kissing total strangers just because they were close friends to my cousin. I’ll be perfectly honest. With certain persons of the female persuasion, I squeezed them a little harder with the hug and held the kiss a little longer than necessary. This is something I would never do here in America. I generally don’t like people touching me! Period. In Mexico, a hug between two male friends is quite common, but in America I never even think about hugging another man. Once, I hadn’t seen a friend for about five years. When I saw him, he immediately ran to me and gave me this big overly friendly bear hug. I said, “Whoa! I wasn’t ready for that.” I needed some distance between us. Since I grew up on the south side of Chicago, I’m uncomfortable if someone gets too close to me when speaking. I like to have ample distance between my interlocutor and me. I like to be beyond striking distance. At UIC parties, I noticed that the Spaniards used to like to talk to me by putting their face about two inches away from mine and I felt extremely uncomfortable! I usually keep back up until I bump into the wall and have to stop back pedaling. But then I discovered that if I held my plate of food about six inches in front of me, that offered me a buffer zone that kept me well beyond the striking distance of fists and/or food ejected during conversation. Spaniards like to speak to you face to face, but they respect food and will maintain a safe distance from it in order not to knock it over.