Archive for the ‘on the go’ Category

The funniest mistakes I made in English

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011


Regardless of where you stand on the Spanglish debate, for those of us who live in both languages there comes a time when you will inevitably put your foot in your mouth. Case in point: I was trying pants at a cute little store in Buenos Aires. I came out of the fitting room, checked myself in the mirror and said, “Estos pantalones no hacen nada por mi,” literally, “These pants don’t do anything for me.” Only in Spanish, that sounds absolutely ridiculous, which is exactly why the confused sales woman asked, “What were you expecting them to do?”

In terms of language, that was a pretty bad trip. Later that same week, as I was riding in a taxi, the driver took the service road instead of the main highway. Concerned, I asked the driver, “¿Por qué toma la ruta de servicio?” To which he replied with what I might have taken as an insult to my Argentinian pride, “Are you from Uruguay or something?” The word I should’ve used was “colectora,” rather than the literal translation of “service road.”

These mistakes don’t just happen when I’m back visiting family in my native country. They also happen at much less appropriate times, such as when I’m presenting in front of a large audience. Usually, Murphy’s Law is in full swing during these occasions, and the more important the audience the deeper my foot goes into my throat. A good example is the time when I was sharing the importance of networking with great speakers at conferences. I said, “They usually have a very large rooster of contacts.” The good thing is that I usually catch myself just as the words are leaving my mouth. “Or is it roster?”

As bad as that sounds, that wasn’t half as bad as when talking about leveraging the Latino advantage in the workplace I said that, “Latinos create strong bondage with other people.” Not two seconds had gone by and I added, “I mean bonds, bondage is something else, right?” But of course it was already too late and the audience was laughing hysterically, while I hoped nobody was recording the presentation for a quick YouTube upload.

Spanish language learners suffer through these mishaps all the time as well. How many times have you heard people say about a situation, “Estoy embarazada” (I’m pregnant) when what they really want to say is, “Estoy avergonzada”? Or, “Estoy constipada” (I’m constipated) instead of ,“Estoy resfriada” (I have a cold)? , “No me realicé” (I didn’t make myself) instead of , “No me dí cuenta” (I didn’t realize). Or, “Te voy a introducir a Pedro” (I’m going to insert you into Pedro) instead of, “Te voy a presentar a Pedro” (I’m going to introduce you to Pedro).

Although these false cognates, literal translations, and similarly sounding words that mean entirely different things in Spanish and English are usually a source of confusion, they can also be a great way to poke fun at yourself. Which is the best way to deal with the situation even for public speakers like myself. Just as I publicly acknowledge I’m prepositionally challenged, most of the time when I make a mistake I self-correct, or I candidly ask for help from the audience when I forget a word or I can only think about it in Spanish. The trouble is what do you do when the audience doesn’t speak Spanish?

My friend Brian is fond of reminding me of the time when I was sharing a story about trying to get his girlfriend to come for a walk with me. I had run into her early in the morning as she was walking her dog. “But she was wearing… what do you call those shoes you wear in the house?” And he looked at me in disbelief and asked, “Slippers” And I just went on, “Right, she was wearing slippers so I knew she would say no to my invitation.” From that day on, every time he sees me he says, “What do you call the… slippers???” I tell him that until he learns to speak a second language, he won’t earn the right to tease me.

The truth is that if you only speak one language you save yourself all of this trouble. But then again, you don’t get all the benefits of being multilingual and multicultural.

So here’s my recommendation for those fortunate enough to be suffering from embarrassing (or shall I say “pregnant”?) moments such as the ones I just shared: lie back, relax and enjoy the ride!

An earlier version of this column appeared on Fox News Latino and Huffington Post

The power of a bilingual brain

Friday, September 16th, 2011


I’ve been an English language learner since I was 6 years old, first in my native Argentina and then as a young adult in the United States. I studied the language in an academic environment, thus my almost perfect fluency. “Almost” being the operative word here.

A few years ago when I began my career as a writer and public speaker, I decided to publicly acknowledge that I am prepositionally challenged. That’s right. On and in – two apparently innocuous monosyllables—have been at the forefront of my ongoing tango with English.

My friend and personal editor, Susan Landon (by now, my not-so-secret weapon), has had the biggest belly laughs and hair pulling episodes while editing my blogs, columns, books and anything else I throw her way. And, as I believe in the literary adage “show, don’t tell,” here is one of our latest exchanges to help you fully appreciate my grammatical handicap.

I had sent Susan a new Op-Ed, which I had originally entitled: “Black Woman on the Golf Course.” (Admittedly, I had previously checked via phone with her that it was “on the golf course.”) My subject line, however, read: “Black woman in the golf course.”

Susan – It’s ON the golf course!!!!
Me – Sorry, wrong subject line but the title is correct. Did you notice I used your favorite word “eschew”?
Susan – Yes, I noticed “eschew” and I wondered where on (not IN) earth that came from!! You are really stretching your wings. :-)
Me – You are such a great influence in me!
Susan – It’s: influence ON me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I can’t catch a break.

In my defense (and the defense of many second language learners!) there’s little rhyme or reason for the grammatical rules of these two little devils. You wait in line at the store but you’re online on the Internet. Someone is on your side but in your mind. They are on your team but in your heart. Something is on TV, on the radio and on a website, but it’s in a book. It’s on a continent but in a country; in Manhattan but on Long Island. Come on! (Or should I go with “Come in, take a seat. Experience life as a second language learner!”)

Over the years, I have repeatedly studied the many rules that regulate prepositions trying to discover the patterns that elude me to no avail. So, I decided to settle for the second best thing besides speaking prepositionally perfect English: Knowing that being a frequent user of both Spanish and English delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, makes me better at multitasking, and allows me to be keenly aware of what’s important and what’s not at every moment.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist who has spent 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind, says that, according to her research, 5- and 6- year-olds who are bilingual “manifest a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.” How does that work? Dr. Bialystok explains: “There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what’s relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them. If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.”

After reading this interview a few months ago, I felt a little bit better about my failures and began to plot a strategy. I was thinking of just mumbling something that sounds in-between on/in something like… “en” (which is the preposition we use in Spanish for both “in and on”) so nobody can tell which preposition I’m using. I was getting ready to start using my new solution when Susan called me out on doing something similar with two other pairs of words.

Susan – “Do you know the difference between ‘run’ and ‘ran’ and between ‘hang out’ and ‘hung out’? Because you always seem to mumble them and I always wonder which one you meant. I’m starting to think that you just don’t know which one is which.”

Me – “I just go with the same pronunciation for both because I can’t hear the difference between the present and the past tense and I can’t be bothered.”

Susan – “Well, that’s like me saying ‘ella fui a su casa’ instead of ‘ella fue a su casa’ and telling you I can’t be bothered,” she said using as an example the wrong conjugation of the verb “to go” in Spanish. Now that got my attention.

So, I’ve decided to practice my pronunciation of present and past tense for these two verbs because I believe the tense of the verb is often critical to understanding the meaning of what you’re saying.

But when it comes to on/in, I’ll let that slide in support of Dr. Bialystok’s research. It’s now obvious to me that my bilingual brain doesn’t identify those two as relevant information.

This column has appeared on Fox News Latino and on the Huffington Post.

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Slowing down time

Monday, November 29th, 2010


Lately it seems as if all that matters is speed: the speed at which you respond to text messages; the speed and extreme at which you multitask; the speed at which your devices connect to the Internet, and the speed at which news, economic crises and pandemics spread. Not to mention the trends for speed dating for anything from romantic partners to corporate consultants.

This speed that has swept us off our feet –literally and figuratively—is responsible not only for more than a few mistakes (sending off the wrong file before you checked the attachment, or misdirecting a text message) but also for our increased perception that time flies. That the day slips through your fingers and you’re hopeless; there’s nothing you can do to make your day last longer. If only we could have that 25th hour… Guess what? We’d obliterate it as carelessly as we manage to do with the other 24.

The only thing that can expand time is to stop doing and start being. If instead of running from one item on your list to the next, you focus on the task at hand (and I mean, really, really focus) you’d feel that time slows down. That’s what happens when you fish, for example. You sit there, in the outdoors, in the middle of a quiet lake, waiting. Waiting. Waiting. The silence and the lack of activity makes it feel like time expands and the day is very long. Afterwards you remember what the day felt like. You return home refreshed and calm. It works very much as a meditation.

Now think about what your regular day feels like in the evening or how you feel at the end of the week. I know that for me, most of the time I don’t even remember what I did that week; few things stand out. My days feel like an undifferentiated mass of emails, meetings, phone calls, Facebook updates… and what is worse, soon enough things begin to lose meaning. I start wondering, what am I doing all this for? How is all this hectic, crazy activity bringing me closer to my center, to my dreams, to my purpose in life?

So I’ve decided to go against the times; to go against what’s fashionable right now and focus on one thing at a time. To keep only one screen open on my computer and one file open in my mind. To be present when I’m engaged in an activity so that I can enjoy it as much as possible. To walk idly around Manhattan on a Sunday morning and breathe-in the fall air. To write a blog without checking my incoming mail. To prepare a presentation without running downstairs for a cup of tea before I finish. To talk on the phone without trying to read an article someone sent me.

And you know what? It immediately makes the 24 hours seem a lot more like 25! Try it and let me know how it goes!

You may want to check Ivana Castellanos blog on Studying and Relieving Stress

What they don’t teach in college

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010


I just finished writing a short essay for an Anthology of Latinas in Higher Education. It was an interesting piece to write as it made me focus on my college years and the fact that often times I feel as if I had forgotten lots of what I learned. I relive this feeling every weekend when I participate in a Spanish book club in Manhattan and I realize that my peers freely quote from all sorts of novels and poems and even though I have read most of them, I can’t.

I used to think that I suffered from some kind of memory loss. It was worrying and also a bit embarrassing to be one of a small handful of writers in the group and to keep quiet at critical parts of the discussion.

Writing the essay forced me to think about what I learned in college during those six years while I worked on my Masters in Philosophy and Literature. (In Argentina, you enter college and graduate with a Masters degree.) Yes, I read more novels than I can count, and I took four years of Latin and ancient Greek; yes I took Linguistics, Semiotics, History of Philosophy, and all those interesting courses you’re supposed to take when you work on a Liberal Arts degree. But if you ask me to sit down and explain the basics of Parmenides theory, I’d be hard press to come up with the answer.

And yet I know that it was during those formative years that I learned how to structure my own thinking and writing and to create layers of meaning. It was thanks to the hundreds of books that I read and the hours spent interpreting them that I developed the ability to translate complex thoughts and topics into simple ideas for large audiences. These are things you don’t go to college for, when in reality they are the main reason why you do. They are almost a side effect of doing all the hard work in school. The Vitamin D you get from being in the sun when the only thing you were after was a good sun tan.

The experience of spending those years exploring my interests was not only critical to shaping my thinking and worldview, my inner voice and reasoning skills; but in addition, it was instrumental in building my confidence. Those years shaped me, they gave legitimacy to my talents, and they opened up a world of opportunities only available to those who are able to express their ideas clearly.

Would I sound smarter during our book club discussions if I remembered my literary periods better? Probably. Would that make me more effective in my chosen career? Very unlikely.

So I made my peace with the fact that, even though on the surface it seems as though I should be good at something I’ve gone to college for (such as literary analysis, for instance), different people learn very different lessons from the same teachers.

The fact that I have some strong memory loss when it comes to remembering the characteristics of a particular literary movement doesn’t mean that I’ve wasted my education. It means that I selectively remember skills I learned which were not even in the syllabus and that to me are far more aligned with my goals and passion.

Travel to Buenos Aires with poems and pictures

Sunday, July 11th, 2010


I just want to share with you that my new book Mi Buenos Aires Poético just came out on Blurb.

It is part of a series of traveling books that I’m creating as I travel to new and exciting cities or to my old country of Argentina. The other two titles are Poetry in Turkey/Poesía en Turquía and Poetry in Barcelona/Poesía en Barcelona.

I’ve been a writer of poetry and short stories for much longer than I’ve been a writer of non-fiction. Actually, I wrote my first novel when I was nine years old! It was a series of books that followed the same characters, which I wrote on the orange sheets of paper that doctors used to separate X-Rays from each other. Yup. My dad brought those home for me to cut them up to size and use them to write my novels. I bound them and illustrated them as well.

And although I want to believe that the quality of my writing has improved since then, I fight every day to keep that ingenuity alive. Making something valuable out of “nothing” is a trait we can all use right now.

I hope you enjoy them!

Contrasts in Turkey

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

I just came back from two weeks in Turkey. What a fabulous trip! A friend and I rented a car and traveled from Istanbul to Assos, Troy, Effesos, Siringe, Selcuk, Pamukkale, Aphrodisias, Fethiye, Antalya and Cappadocia. One speeding ticket and over 1,000 miles later we came back to Istanbul for two more days.

Turkey is a country where very old habits coexist with today’s modern world. We saw women, who were completely covered head to toe, arm in arm with their boyfriends; extremely poor farmers who lived in very precarious conditions using cell phones; very humble houses with solar panels to heat water; ATM machines in the middle of God forsaken places.

These contrasts are present everywhere: the chaotic city of Istanbul has one of the best subway systems I’ve seen; the Grand Bazaar, host of millions of people every day, has one of the cleanest bathrooms we found and there’s Internet service even in the middle of the volcanic formations of Cappadocia!

Back in Westchester, New York, I’m feeling a little lost in all the order around me. It will take me a few days to feel that I fit right here at home.

Positive stories wanted

Monday, March 9th, 2009

“It’s my birthday and I cry if I want to, cry if I want to…” But I didn’t want to! Friday, March 6th was my birthday (no, I’m not telling how old!) and I had an awesome party at home with many of my good friends.

We had a great time, ate empanadas, drank wine and shared stories into the wee hours. It was the best antidote to weeks of hearing bad news. And here’s my point: doing things you enjoy, even if they are small, is a great way to increase your energy. With a good level of energy you can be creative and think of ways in which you can take advantage of the bad economy. You can spend more time with your family and friends, you can think of a new business that makes sense right now, you can figure out how your skills can be used in a different industry.

None of these things are possible if you’re glued to the TV or the Internet reading all the reports about layoffs and the market collapse. Few positive thoughts will come out of hearing depressive story after depressing story. Most likely, it will make you feel depressed and paralyzed.

Let’s all rebel against this gloom and doom environment and start sharing our stories of positive contributions to our families, our friends, our communities. Things we are doing that we didn’t use to do and that makes us happy. Creative ways in which you are surviving this downturn and helping others along the way. Successful business launches.

It will take a lot of positive stories to start changing the downward spiraling path we are in, so we should start really quickly. Celebrating my birthday with a nice party despite the bad economic times, is one way to stay positive. Launching my initiative is certainly a bet on the future.

Leonardo Da Vinci, an old, new genius

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

If you live in California, you have to make it to San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation to see the “Leonardo, 500 Years into the Future exhibit” which is, in reality, two exhibitions put together for the first time: the Mind of Leonardo and the Renaissance Engineers.

If you thought you new that Leonardo Da Vinci was a genious, you are in for a surprise. He was an INCREDIBLE genious! An artist, scientist, engineer and inventor who was interested in anatomy, in the hability of men to fly, in inventing all sorts of machines, in water, in art…

The 200 artifacts that are part of this exhibit spread over 30,000 square feet. You’ll see Leonardo’s drawings on the wall next to the wooden models built from those sketches. From the first model of what a flying human would look like, to the majestic Sforza horse that welcomes you at the entrance of the museum, you’ll be in awe of the variety and ingenuity of these creations.

Leonardo lived in the late 1400s and early 1500s and he was the quintaescencial Renaissance Man. A time of great inventions and progress that followed the darkness of the Middle Ages. Very likely, this spurr of creativity was also in part a response of the Bubonic plague that had killed half of the population in Europe and made the other half think that maybe it was time to live for the present life and not only for the after life.

I walked away from the museum wondering if we are now at a crossroads similar to the one faced by people like Leonardo during the Renaissance period. Will this financial and environmental crisis help us show the best part of ourselves? Will it force us to come up with new priorities and ways in which we can get back on our feet and save our ailing planet?

My guess, and hope is that there will be an explosion of creativity as people try to redifine themselves and their priorities. As we all realize that we can solve our problems by thinking outside the box rather than by keep on doing what we’ve been doing.

Funny, as I posted the picture above, I realized that the museum is on South Market street… so the connection with the exhibition and the current market situation, was apparently out there, not just in my head…

Winning or Loosing

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

If you’ve been following the Olympics I’m sure you’ve noticed that winning silver (or worse yet, bronze!) sounds like the worse thing that can happen to you. And yet, if you get a silver medal, you are the second best athlete at whatever your expertise is. In some disciplines being second might mean you are only an eight of a second slower than the first guy. Not bad, don’t you think?

But by the way the media and the coaches handle the situation it would have all of us believe that winning a silver medal at the Olympic games is worthless. Excuse me? If you make it to the Olympics I’d take my hat off to you! Granted, we all wished we could be the best at what we do and aiming for number one is a fabulous goal. But number two in the world is not that terrible either.

When I shared my concerns with a close friend of mine, she said: “In America, we don’t focus on winning silver, just in loosing gold”. But this emphasis in not “loosing gold” leaves a lot of hard working athletes out in the cold. It leaves them with a complete lack of recognition for their efforts, their enormous concentration, the lengthy preparation they endure, and the loss of a big chunk of their childhood during the pursuit of gold.

I believe both in sports and in life in general we should recognize the winners and also the people who put a big effort into what they do but who don’t finish first. Because it is about the gold, but it’s also about the competition and what you learn about yourself and others in your journey there.

Be interesting

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008


I always tell people that one of the best ways to attract people to their network is to be interesting. Nobody wants to hang out with boring people! The question, obviously, is what do you do to be interesting?

Taking classes outside of your field or industry; traveling to unusual places; reading books, magazines, and e-zines; attending conferences, concerts, art exhibits; visiting museums and hanging out with people who are different are all great ways to step out of your comfort zone. And this is probably one of the key traits that interesting people share. They are not afraid to explore, to have an adventurous life.

I was in Europe last week and I visited three beautiful cities: Prague, Vienna and Budapest. I can’t begin to tell you how many interesting things I saw. One of them was a woman who was selling the canes you see in this picture. She was next to all the other souvenir vendors, set up in the highest spot in Buda, overlooking the best view of Pest. While nobody was interested in the other vendors, she had a large crowd shopping at her booth. She had put together this pile of canes with a twist: the came equipped with an old bicycle bell, a first aid kit, cigarettes, matches, a flask and… a little box of Viagra just in case you happened to have a close encounter while you were hiking up the mountain!!!

So now I have this anecdote to tell. This picture to share during my workshops and to help me make them more interesting. One more thing, though. You need to learn to tell a story! How interesting can you be if you put everyone to sleep when you tell your stories?