In the grand tradition of awkward teenage ingenuousness, I put forth for your diversion (or more likely derision) one of the most embarrassing episodes of my adolescence. From around 1980-1983, my family lived in Montevideo, Uruguay. This was primarily a happy time for me, although like any teenager, I had my issues. Even so, my friends were many and my cares were few, and I think back upon those days with much fondness in my heart. Despite the fact that I had many friends, with whom I spent most of my free time and weekends, I always looked forward to the occasional family outing as well. My parents used to hang out with some of the other married couples from my father’s job at the American Embassy, and all of these families would get together and go off on weekend jaunts and camping trips. I was friendly with some of the kids, so it wasn’t such a drag for me, and I always loved to travel, as I still do to this day.
On one such an occasion, we went to a little riverside town, off of the Rio de la Plata, which featured a lighthouse. Now, by the time of our visit, the lighthouse had been converted into a souvenir shop, with all sorts of maritime knick-knacks and bric-a-brac, most of which I didn’t have much interest in, but something in the window caught my eye. Hanging amidst the usual fishing nets and nautical gewgaws was a shiny metal medallion commemorating the feast of St. James. Hanging from a rectangular bar with an inscription that almost 25 years on my addled brain cannot recall, was a silvery-plated medallion in the shape of a downwards facing clam shell, which bore, emblazoned thereon, a red cross. The top three points of this cross ended in little triangular shapes, unlike the bottom point, which was elongated; the whole effect suggesting a blade of some sort. At the time, I did not know what it stood for, but I thought it looked cool, so I decided to go inside and inquire as to its price, thus beginning one of the most awkward and baffling experiences of my pubescent life; the gist of which went something like this:
Walking up to the register, I was greeted by an attractive young girl, maybe a couple of years older than me, although seemingly more so from my adolescent point of view, and I informed her politely, and in my best Spanish, that I would like to purchase the concha in the window, concha being the Spanish word for shell. This simple request was greeted with the wide-eyed response of, “You want to buy what?”
Wondering whether the young lady hadn’t heard me correctly, I replied, “The concha.”
“Which concha?” she asked, obviously taken aback.
“The metal one.” I said.
“The metal one?” she repeated, incredulously.
“Yes, the metal one,” I reiterated, adding “with the red cross on it,” slightly perturbed, but too shy to show it.
“The metal one, with the red cross on it?” she vociferated, her disbelief changing to amusement.
Then, smiling, she put up her hands, and told me, “Wait here!” as she darted into the backroom. A couple of minutes passed before she returned, giggling, with two of her girlfriends in tow, each one as lovely as she, if not more so. I was overwhelmed by so much beauty, and mortified at the thought of having to go through this whole ordeal again in front of this specious trio. Obviously, there was something going on that I was not aware of, and I resented being made to look so foolish in front of these girls, but I wanted the medallion pretty badly, so I plucked up the courage to see this through, and played along when she said, “Okay now, ask me again.”
“I’d like to buy the concha.”
“The metal one.”
“Which metal one?”
“The one with the red cross on it.”
“The one with the red cross on it; where?”
“In the window!”
“In the window? Show me!”
So, I went outside and pointed out the aforementioned medallion to her and her friends, who all went “Ah,” in acknowledgment, and laughed, before taking it down for me. The whole interaction left me perplexed for weeks as I tried to figure out what the joke was. Finally, a friend, who was a native speaker, informed me that in Uruguay, the word concha is a colloquialism for a woman’s pudendum, thus ending my first lesson in dialects; that, even though people from different lands may sometimes speak the same basic language, there’s no accounting for the myriad transmogrifications it may take once filtered through aboriginal tongues and regional slang. This is the sort of thing that turns prophylactics into galoshes and one man’s conch into another man’s cooch.