It’s easy to be smart in my own language, but not so easy to be even mildly clever in another. I don’t mind humbling lessons when they come with a wealth of learning, so last night, when I learned this lesson, it was worth the temporary embarrassment.
I arrived back at my hotel after 11 pm and the man at the door, let me in. I stood at the reception desk for several minutes, waiting for someone to return. Finally, I asked the man at the door to help me with my key.
He came over, slowly, asked me my room number, and stared at the key cubbies. He repeated my number to me. He shrugged his shoulders and pointed at the cubby where my key should be. It wasn’t.
I began to worry about what I was doing wrong. Maybe I said the wrong room number, maybe I remembered the wrong room number, maybe I didn’t give my key to the desk person when I left. Suddenly, I thought . . . and in this case ‘suddenly’ is correct because it appeared like firefly amid all those dark weedy worries . . . maybe my roommate arrived, and she is in the room with our key. I am so clever.
I asked the man if my roommate had checked in. He shrugged his shoulders and pointed at the empty cubby, which seemed to mean one of two things: he didn’t understand me or he didn’t know if my roommate had checked in but, still, there was no key. He actually spoke at this point, first time: “Ani lo yodea.” A phrase I know well: I don’t know.
I asked him if he could check to see if my roommate had checked in. “Ani lo yodea.”
I simply didn’t know how to negotiate this puzzle with him.
I said I would go to my room and see if my roommate was there.
She wasn’t. Turns out, I learned this morning, I don’t have a roommate, which is a blessing for all of my sisters attending this conference because I snore like Godzilla with a sinus infection . . . but I digress.
But then another firefly of cleverness glowed in the dark: Maybe the clerk put the key in the wrong cubby.
I went back downstairs and shared my stroke of genius with the man at the door.
“Could you please look?”
He looked at all the cubbies, many of which had keys, put his hand in the cubby for my key, and he shrugged. I pointed at the others. He pointed at mine.
I shrugged. It seemed like the best response.
It worked. He engaged in a complicated dance of keys and signs at the door and checking charts, then walked me to my elevator, smiling kindly, finally.
At the elevator is where I noticed that he carried a pistol at his hip. On the one hand, this was a little scary. It didn’t occurred to me that he was a guard until later; I thought he was a concierge or a bell-hop. On the other hand, this was a little comforting because I had read, recently, that, in Israel, gun control is strict, and most people don’t qualify to carry a gun outside the military. So, I figured he must be sane, reliable, and wasn’t going to execute me for making him open my door.
At my room, he opened the door. I looked around. No key . . . and let me say here . . . of course, because I knew I had turned it in at the desk when I left.
He said ‘no here?’
I shrugged, simple, like I felt.
This morning, the man at the door was still at the door, but the nice man at the reception desk speaks English very well. I explained what happened. He looked at the cubbies next to mine, and he found my key in the one above. I felt relieved and grateful, but I didn’t feel smart. It’s not enough to figure these things out if you can’t communicate them. I wish I could be smart in Hebrew.
I imagine I’ll be shrugging a lot on this trip — learning shoulders-first.