Category Archives: The Petri Dish

Me gusta acostarme con mis estudiantes – I Like to Couch My Students

You didn´t think I was going to leave that last post at that did you?  Really?  How long have you been reading my Blogs?  Oh, nooooo, now it´s ‘balance the books’ time.

So I am with Luis in front of a rather large gathering of prospective students that we have just served a couple of glasses of wine.  We used to have “Free Sample Classes con Piqueo” to attract potential students … but when one class brought in a guy with a gun in his boot who was considering classes so that he could “get” the Surenos (Latino Gang) that had killed his son in a gang related dispute and we had a hard time getting him out of our house cause he was crying so hard, and another guy straight from Moldova (honest to goodness, this is a country, check your map of the Soviet Union) looking like the folks wardrobed for Shindlers List who when he moved through our house changed everything from color to black and white and who stopped half way down our spiral staircase and broke out in Italian Opera, and about 15 other groups who came with their friends for an afternoon of free food and wine sort of like the way people go to those posh weekends for the cost of listening to the Time Share pitch but have absolutely NO intention of taking classes…..we quite having them…..the Free Sample Classes with Piqueo I mean.

So anyway, we have the formal Sample class behind us, we are into the Piqueo (Peruvian term for appetisers or small bites) and are on our second bottle of wine.  Things are getting more relaxed and we can tell these people feel comfortable, maybe even like us.  We are just chatting informally and then one of them asks Luis to sum up in a nut shell, his teaching philosophy.  He looks up, thinks.  Looks to the side, thinks some more.  Looks down and I am getting irritated…..okay, ‘we get that you are reflecting…..what already?  Give us the d… philosophy in a whatever kinda shell!’

The moment finally seems right and he says;  “I Like to couch my students just like my parents couched me.”

If  it’s possible to feel such a thing …. I felt my face go white.  There is this distinct sensation of a color drain beginning with the follicles of my crown and continuing in even levels down to my freshly painted toe nails. 

Well, you can imagine, the half drunk potential students looked to ME for clarification and reassurance and the truth is, I was not in a position to give it to them.  I was as stunned as they were. 

When Luis gets talking, it takes a while for him to take a breath and so he was paddling on while we were all battling the images that were invading our alcohol tenderized brains …. until one of our guests, who had caught enough of his exhaustive explanation to be able to deduce what he had meant to say…..  if I remember right, she was a Minneapolis Police Officer.

“Oh, you mean COACH your students,  you COACH them.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said, couch.”

Well, needless to say, we didn’t get any new students that time either.                        Aquí estamos,  Joan

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¿Tienes tu pene? – Do You Have Your Penis?

No, No!  This is not an X rated Blog!  This is an honest Blog about the rough and rocky road that one must take in order to learn another´s language.

When I asked Luis this question he whirled around and looked at me with a combination of horror and true confusion.  I could see his mouth in mid-answer ….. “ye….s”  but he didn´t quite give it to me, his face was not, shall we say…it was not in concordance.  This of course had me confused and I insisted….”Siempre te olivdas tu pene y cuando llegamos al carro tu me preguntas si yo lo tengo.”  (You are always forgetting your penis and when we get to the car you ask me if I have it.) 

By now the horror on his face is complete, the confusion has just left altogether.

Let me allow you into the deep labyrinths of my psych for just a moment.  Don’t worry, it’s just for a quick second, just to help you understand what was happening with me as I demanded a serious answer to my question.  You see, it´s exhausting being married to my Spanish teacher.  He lets nothing pass, I always (it seems)  have one little thing wrong, be it an ‘a’ instead of an ‘o’, or a ‘this tense’ over a ‘that tense’ or my pronunciation is messed up and I have to repeat until I sound more “native” at which point I can’t even remember what I was trying to say….. and to be honest I think this one is about not wanting to hear what I was trying to say……and THIS is what had the death hold on me when I was challenging him in so many words with, “it’s 8 PM do you know where your penis is?”

I had decided that I was going to insist this time.  I was not going to let him get me off track with all of his infuriating corrections. I was saying everything right, doggone it and I was going to insist that he understand me.  Now where I ever came up with the idea that this technique would work as well with a language as it did when I successfully returned that pair of pants I bought too small the day before they went on sale and could no longer be returned….is somewhere deep in that psych you guys are now privileged to.

Anyway, he breaks away from Spanish….I hate when he does that with me …. it’s just another way to castigate me (careful, careful) for my Spanish.  He says;  “You have to tell me what you just said again, but please honey, you look so beautiful tonight, I love your eyes…blah, blah, blah….tell me in English.” 

Yeah I know, the sweet talk gets me every time.  Geese, give me a break, at 50 whatever, my days are numbered for these types of adorations….I buckle.  I say;  “I saaaiiiidddddd……DO……YOU……..HAVE……..YOUR……..COOOOMMB?

He loses it.  He starts laughing and can not get control.  I have already lost mine as well and so this is not a pretty moment for us.  I hear the neighborhood go suddenly silent….I know that without a doubt that Mrs. Hill down the street is completely motionless, just straining so as not to miss a single sylable that’s to follow.

“Honey, amor, bebé es PEINE, no PENE.  Peine es comb, pene es penis.

Grrrrr  %&$#”                                                                                  Aquí estamos,   Joan


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¿Lo dices en serio? – Are You Serious?


Joan at her computer, readying the next group of articles.  Luis and René (friend and video editor of Viajando en Español)  at her back talking as though she weren’t there.

Luis:  ¿Como está Paola?  ¿Como va su embarazo?  (How is Paola? (René´s wife) How is the pregnancy going?)

René:  Bien, normal …  (good, as would be expected)

Joan:  body turned toward computer as though in deep concentration, however if you were listening carefully you would have heard the hydraulic of her internal satellite dish reorienting to fix itself directly over these two guys that seem to heading toward thin ice.

René: (continuing with a tone of exasperated authority as though covering well trod territory):  “….quejandose acerca del dolor en su cadera …. pero pasa así … el bebé crece más rapido en el primer trimestre que en los otros y las caderas necesitan expandirse para acomodar la creatura.” (…..complaining about the pain in her hips, but that´s the way it is, the baby grows faster and bigger in the first trimester than in any other and the hips need to expand in order to accommodate the baby.)

Luis (Bio: neither father, gynecologist nor obstetrician): “¿Está con nausea y mal humor?  Siempre es así con todos los cambios en el cuerpo y por las hormonas.”  (Is she nauseous and crabby?  With all the changes in her body because of the hormones, it´s always like that.)

René:  “No con nausea pero con dolor de la cabeza y siempre está pensando, con cada sensacion en el cuerpo, que algo malo está pasando pero yo le dije que todo lo que está sentiendo es normal.”  (No, she doesn’t have nausea, but she does have headaches and with every little thing she feels she thinks that something is wrong but I told her that she is feeling what all pregnant women feel.)

Luis:  “Sí es así.  Ellas necesitan mucho consuelo, como niñas”  (Yah, that’s the way it is.  They need a lot of reassurance, like little girls.)

Joan:  (rrrrrrrrr, sound of satellite returning to it’s original position)


Now one might conclude that what was said was not nearly as bad as what my first husband said to me. (In fact it was a series of these that lead him to receiving the number before his title)  When #1 heard me recounting to a friend how utterly painful labor was he said in all honest to god seriousness;  “You weren’t in pain!  Giving birth is like having the biggest orgasm possible.”  (What?  Hello?  You weren’t in that room with me?  Oh ya that’s right, you kept trying to sneak out to get something to eat!  You were the one experiencing discomfort and pain.  You must have missed my screaming and crying out and begging for a cesarean! )  To this ridiculous myth deserving sure and immediate death I retorted;  “Yeah, “big” in the same way pooping out an 8 lb watermelon is.”

So it wasn’t that bad what Luis and René had to say.  Still, there was an irritating attitude of  ‘all-knowing’ as these guys discussed what it was like to be pregnant.  I am THERE, in the room with them, natural birth mother of two, listening in …  and not even a ceremonial consultation for accuracy.  Man ….   But do you know what was the first thing that came to my mind?   It was NOT that all men every where act as if they had been female in a previous life,  because this is a truly perplexing and horrifying universal phenomenon across cultures.  NO!  Instead, the first thing I thought was; “Oh my gosh.  They are speaking in Spanish about this because they don’t want me to know what they are saying.  They know that they are fools and they know that I would totally bust them if I heard what they were saying so all boys-clubby like.  They don’t think that I can understand them!”  

Yes, it was insecurity over my Spanish!  Can you believe that!  My “I am woman, hear me roar”, took a back seat to what I perceived as their critique of my Spanish!  Rather than being amused (I’m too old to be outraged at this kinda stuff anymore) by the universal folly men seem to demonstrate about all things female, I was instead completly crushed about what I thought, they thought about my Spanish.

Holy cow, I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it a thousand times more …. three steps forward, one step back.  (But psst…lean in a little…..would you think me petty and childish if I were to tell you that I felt a little better this morning when Luis asked me;  “What does it mean to ‘jump sheep’?”   Biting the inside of my mouth I said with all the respect I could muster; “That’s ‘jump ship’ honey, ‘jump ship’.     Seguimos adelante,  Joan


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….Trouble in Paradise, Part 2

I said that I would continue my post about the issues that Luis and I find ourselves in, often.  And so here I go.  I am not a exhibitionist nor do I have ‘relative’ boundaries, quite the contrary actually.  I prefer Capri’s to shorts and I am of German heritage.  (ooo, interesting, I have written that and erased it a couple of times.  I have my view of what being German means, but now that I have native German readers, I am shy about making any sweeping generalities….and we tend to do that about our heritage here in the States)  Anyway, my point here is that it is not my custom to say a lot about anything and I have struggled for some time with even the idea of writing posts on this subject.

But I have decided to do it because I think if we are to have any hope of harmony in this world, we need to be willing to talk with one another about that with which we don’t understand or agree.  In this case, what is happening in a marriage.  It is my tendency to extrapolate from seemingly minor dynamics the seed of something grand, so we’ll see how this ‘big bite’ works.  I have found that leaps of abstraction can  work well in the context of motivational speeches, the jury is still out on how functional they are when trying to wade through the minutia of who said what, and what was really meant by it.  Ooo,  already deep and mucky, I hope you all are still with me here.

To the dynamic between Luis and I.  We have what every married or ‘co-habbing’ couple have  together first of all.  In the largest sense it is the challenge to fine tune our individual rhythm of living with that of the other.  The coordination of our sleep/wake cycles, general level of energy, expressing and coordinating our personal interests and passions, our idea of work/leisure, where and how and when money is spent, our sense of personal order in our environment, the role extended family play in our lives together, you get the idea…..the rythm is made up of everything that each of us hold as values or habits or comforts that make us who we are.  These complete packages have to find their way to coexist.  In fact even the concept of ‘coexisting’ becomes a topic for discussion or worse the undefined or unconscious place from where each of us come to do battle with the other.  You know what I mean, too often we are not even aware of why we are fighting or what we are fighting for.  We learn about our own values and non-negociables over time and around discussions in the context of trying to blend our life with another.  We have all seen friendships come and go for this reason, our relationships with employers end, our association with clubs or groups terminate and for some of us, marriages dissolve.

Thankfully Luis and I talked about what our ideas of coexisting were in the beginning. So we had a place more or less defined from where we would find our common ground with one another, most importantly during the tumultuous times.  Every couple need their ‘green zone’.  A place they can go to together that is safe. 

In the case of Luis and I, we both believed in and wanted to be contaminated by the other.  We dared ourselves to expand with the influence of the other.  The idea of blending cultures with a successful outcome had the lure of adventure and challenge and daring that appealed to each of us.  As we began to compare our histories we could see that this attraction to the unknown was not an uncommon way we approached our lives prior to meeting one another.

Now there is culture and there is culture.  One could argue that family cultures within the same nationality or race can be different enough to be fertile ground for all kinds of misunderstandings etc.  And they would be right.  So the level of culture coordination that has to be done between two people of different nationalities or races, well, where does one start to even identify or define it?  Luis and I match up pretty well, relatively speaking and factoring in the equivalences between our lives within our own cultures.  We both grew up middle class, our father’s were self-employed, church life was important, education was valued, our families lived on close budgets, etc.

How these elements played themselves out in our lives however were more defined by the values, traditions, histories, current political/social events of our respective countries and how they were expressed in our respective language.

Words in one language do not always equal words in another.  We might use the word our dictionary says is the definition or the synonym of the word we want to use, but our respective culture can reek havoc on what is communicated by using that word.  Luis was fond of saying for instance, “I am so happy with her.”  , when he talked about me with his family.  I had a lot of trouble with this statement because it felt like an valuation of me.  “I am happy with my car.”  “I am happy with my job.” etc.  It took me a long time to realize that what he meant to say, he needed a verb to communicate.  “I am so happy being with her.”

In this small seemingly insignificant example lies a universe filled with land mines.  We had to learn quickly and we have to remind ourselves regularly that we need to take the time it takes to sort out and through what the other intends to say through the words they choose.  Most times we will discover that there is a subtlety in the language that could easily bring down the unsuspecting passer-by.  Sometimes we will discover that our life experiences were so different that we just can’t imagine what the other is talking about.  But what we always do when these things come to threaten us is go back to our original pact with one another, we retreat to our “green zone”.   From there we begin to find comfort in the strange and expanded new selves we are growing to be.  With each pang of individual growth we fortify our relationship. When we recognize that this has occurred we get all gooey about how what we are doing between one another can maybe be done between waring factions within nations and maybe can even be extrapolated and applied to nations and their neighbors. 

Altruism, romanticism, naivety aside we want the thrill of First Love to live on in our relationship and we have recognized that whether it is ‘us’ we want to preserve, or our passion for the others culture or language, we need to be alert to the first signs of disillusionment and misunderstanding.  Then we need to retreat to the sweet luring inspirational roots of our First Love.  With this foundation in place, and as our guiding template, we take the next step into the unknown together.  There might be trouble in paradise every now and then, but I would have no other paradise!   Que les encuentren en paradiso también.   –  Joan

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Uh-oh, There is Trouble in Paradise!

You all knew it was going to happen sooner or later and I suspect that is why some of you tune in.  You are looking for that little crack in the shiny exterior and I can’t blame you.  Curiosity is a mighty master.  How can two people so different be as happy as they say they are?  Yup, it eats at you until finally curiosity will have it no other way and you blurt out, “So, how did you guys meet?” 

Seems an inocent enough question at first utter but think about it.  When are you truly interested in how someone met?  Isn’t it most often when something around the relationship seems, well, unlikely?   Like there being a big age difference or a noteworthy discrepancy on the Lichert Scale regarding attractiveness or if the relationship is bi-cultural/racial?  And I suspect our interrogators have a hard time deciding upon which of these obvious elements relevant to us, they will finally make their inquiry.  I am clearly older than Luis, he is far more exotic and interesting looking than I and it’s very clear we do not hail from the same cultures!

A mere glance in our direction can provoke questions such as;  “Can such a relationship work?  For how long?  On what level?  What would one need to sacrifice?”  But folks tend to conceal these burning curiosities cleverly and cagily, they ask rather, “So, (like a two letter qualifier can disguise the wolf that follows) how did the two of you meet?”

Good questions!  Important questions!  And ones we hope to explore further with other multicultural couples through Luis’ blog that will begin in the next few weeks……but regarding us…..I have to admit, there is trouble in paradise.

We are arguing a lot lately.  Like 2 out of 3 conversations are likely to end up in some kind of resignation or resistance from one to the other.  It’s getting irritating to both of us.  And perhaps because of our style of approaching our lives and our background as psychologists, we aren’t SO lost in the dynamic that we can’t talk about it.  Me:  “You are driving me crazy, what the …… is going on with you anyway?”  (lovely gentle application of the active listening concept, huh?)  He:  “You always, you never, you won’t, you have to, you must……etc.”  (finish it how you will and you would be right, the range of items that follows each declarative covers the gamut)

Well after these musical preludes which tend to happen at high volume, we usually start to laugh because we recognize that we sound like the typical stereotype we all have of the tortured married couple.

Oh man, this post is getting too long…..I will finish this tomorrow!  I can hear Luis voice in the backgruond……”You always make your blog entries so long!”  Have a great 4th everyone here in the States!  This is Luis’ first as a US citizen and given the state of our relationship these days, I imagine we will be seeing plenty of fireworks!   Hasta mañana,   Joan

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The Petri Dish

You know, I had to look up the spelling of “Petri”.  I don’t think I have even said that word since Advanced Biology class in High School where I decided I did NOT want to be a doctor!  Anyway, like a bolt of lightening, as I was writing yesterday’s blog entry, it occurred to me that Luis and I together are like “One”.  Yup, like ONE GIANT INTER-CULTURAL PETRI DISH!

We love sharing with our students the insights we have about the other’s culture that occur to us in the process of being together.   After all, this is gold to them right?  We can share things that we know first hand that will give them a really valuable jump on the nuances between the cultures which will in all likelihood help them learn the language faster and have more fun on their next trip to their Spanish speaking destination.  (you get the folly here, right?) And while those things that we are able to share with them are interesting, they are probably far less interesting than the things that we despite ourselves and awareness,  inadvertently show them in all their glory and technicolor detail.  EWWWWW.  Kinda embarrassing really. 

Here we are, totally crazy for one another, doing what we love to do and excitedly passing on our ‘expertise’ to our students but the joke is on us.  We are standing there “naked” so to speak and the students can clearly see that what we talk about is not nearly to the point as how we are with one another.

As a result of this no doubt partial insight, I have created the category “The Petri Dish” where Luis and I will talk about the dynamics between us.  That is when we are able to get perspective on them.   To recognize them.  This is different you understand than our commentary about things external to us.  We may talk about our conversations or opinions or our particular epistemologies and how they are similar or different, but “The Petri Dish” is more about the invisibly obvious.  How those opinions and epistemologies play out in their delightfully self-referential ways, more often than not, while we are completely and utterly oblivious to them.   It’s our ability to have access to these dynamic after all that make or break everything from parental-child relationships, to marriages, to for heavens sake, foreign policy! 

In fact you all can help us with this.  It will be easier for those who know us personally at first, but over time, you all will have a good idea through these blogs and through our on-line video program who Luis and Joan really are.  We would be interested in your observations (gently of course) about what you see as our success or challenges in blending our  respective cultural history’s and identities together.  I think this has potential for all of us to hone a sharper ability to break the codes between us that are simultaneously expressed by and created/reinforced through, our native languages.

Ooooo, this sounds both fun and scary.   Hmmmm, welcome to my life!

Ciao por ahora…….   -Joan

!!!!!!Hey, and don’t forget to check out our videos and podcasts!!!!!!!

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I love Lucy, ah I mean Joannie….

What a day it was yesterday!  As no doubt you have heard, (since there is a thin veil between our life and yours, but more on ‘How much is too much information’, later), that, Luis and I will be launching our new on-line video project soon, like we hope tomorrow but maybe not until Thursday or Friday…..we’ll see.  There are a couple of key but routine pieces in the hands of others at this moment so it depends on how things go for them.  Anyway, to a certain degree it is always a pressure cooker at our house (more on that later too), but recently, like in the last few weeks and even more, in the last few days or better said, in the last few hours, it has been worse.  Nothing grave, just looming deadlines having to do with classes starting again next week and the on-line video project about to launch.   The majority of these deadlines are self imposed and the remaining few have to do with just the rhythm and ironies of life (more on that later as well).   But how we find ourselves in these stews is not the subject of this day’s entry, rather how we respond once we are there, is.

We turn into, no lie, Lucy and Ricky from “I Love Lucy” (did they have a last name in the show?).  Only it’s a bit more complicated than that, because Luis and I both speak the other’s language.  Remember, Lucy did not speak Spanish. 

Here’s what happens.  We are moving along just fine until we hit the ‘hot button’ which honestly never has to do with the two of us…..rather is has to do with something we are feeling passionate about and for which we feel the passionate need to get our point across passionately to the other person.   So you get the picture that the room is nearly suffocating with surging hormones. And what adds complication is that we can never really identify in the moment after, if we had just been speaking English or Spanish.  We go back and forth between the two all day long and haven’t really figured out what might trigger us to switch……but anyway, there we are. 

One of us begins to explain our position in the language of the moment and the other says “what? or ¿Como, como?”  (where I frankly believe the one “como” would have been sufficient) and we are off.  Suddenly and inexplicably we have hit the DNA part of the cell where a particular language has taken up residence.  Luis, (or I, to be fair), will begin to express our strongly felt position in one language or the other.  Now even though Luis may be telling me in English or I may be telling him in Spanish, the fact that we are feeling something strongly seems to mess up the circuits.  His English is as good as my Spanish but suddenly his English is not making any sense to me so I switch to Spanish to get a better understanding and once I have the meaning and I am feeling all urgent about the my response to him and try to continue in Spanish, I can tell by the look on his amazingly exotic mug that suddenly I am making no sense to him!  So then he switches to English but by this time his English is sounding like a lost dialect from another planet and my Spanish is sounding like a different dialect from another lost planet so we both go back to our native languages.  He speaks to me in Spanish which I understand completely and I speak English to him which he understands clear as a bell.   Only, hilariously we find ourselves doing what many people do when up against someone who doesn’t speak their language but want to be understood.  We speak louder, more slowly and enunciate meticulously.  Though I don’t think that the little added drama is necessary, the point is that we are finally making a connection.  In fact we were having one of  ‘these’ while this guy was in our house laying ceramic tile and he just burst out laughing.  “That’s hilarious!” he said; “You’re speaking English and he is speaking Spanish and the two of you understand one another perfectly.  I think I get what you are talking about, but I am not completely sure.”   To be perfectly honest, we were hoping he didn’t understand, but this goes to the ‘thin veil’ I mentioned earlier and I promise, more on that later.

So in the end, just like Ricky, when he finds himself filled to the brim with emotion, the ‘learned language’ just can’t handle the stress and he is forced to fall back on reliable infrastructure which is that, that was so carefully and specifically nurtured from our pre-verbal days.

Luis is fond of telling his students that they need to take the language inside themselves and “feel it”.  Next term they will be hearing, “feel it pre-verbally”.

(I just read this entry to him and he laughed in recognition of our dynamic and then he said;  “Hey, aren’t I supposed to be writing these things (read Blogs) too?”  uh-oh)

Hasta luego…..  -Joan

!!!!!!Hey, and don’t forget to check out our videos and podcasts!!!!!!!

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