Well, as we struggle along with our crippled Spanish, I am reminded that we are not only having to learn Spanish, but Uruguayan Spanish. It would be comparable to learning English as a second language, then being dumped into the middle of Harlem. You wouldn't really understand much.
UY Spanish has it's own peculiarities. For instance- take this statue on the 1 Mayo Plaza, near the Legislative Palacio. Look at the name. How would you pronounce that? Well, did you guess "Baht Shjay"? Yes, the "ll" sound in Spanish (a rolling "Y") is now a "Shush" sound. So is "Y" in many cases. In fact the "Shush" sound is found in so many words that it sounds (to the untrained ear) as if it dominates the language. Now to be fair, it adds a distinct soft sound to conversation, but not easily understood by a person just learning.
Let's try another one. "Tres Cruces" (a downtown bus terminal in the capital). How would you pronounce that one? Well, if you guessed "Tray Crussay" you would be correct. You notice the "S's" are left out. Yes, most trailing S's and many in the middle are left out entirely- leading to even more confusion.
Add to the mix the fact that as typical anglo-americans we do not stand out from the mostly European stock that makes up 70%-80% of the Uruguayans. That means that on the street, with our mouths closed, we look exactly like any Uruguayan. That is why frequently we are stopped and asked for directions. Of course, the first words out of our mouths identify us as "not from around here".
On the plus side, the Uruguayans are very patient and very sharp. They will find a way to communicate and appreciate any little Spanish you can add. For the most part, we have been able to do what we have needed to do and get what we have needed to get, with our limited language skills. A little trick I learned has helped me. The first thing I ask is if they speak a little English. Most will say no, or "very little". Then, when I use my Tarzan style Spanish ("Me Wally, I want buy guitar")- they are relieved that they will not have to carry the full load of the conversation.
As I completed my bank transactions, today, in preparation to closing our house on Monday, I realized that I have been focusing on my difficulties with the language. I totally forgot to consider their problems in dealing with me. Asking me the simplest question draws a stupid look from me. How disconcerting that must be for them. Then I had a small little idea for a Saturday Night Live routine that involved my trying to rob a bank in Uruguay. You can see the scenario- I shout at the top of my voice "This is a holdup" in my best Spanish. It draws blank stares. The round of explanations begin- gesturing- and finally I leave, because they don't know they were being robbed. Ah well, I digress.
We are working on it though- but it will be a long, long time before we can carry a conversation. However, the Uruguayans are an optimistic people. Even when they know you don't speak Spanish- they just go on as if you do, and I just nod and smile (when I think it is the proper response). When asked a question on the bus the other day, I responded with what I thought was the answer to the question. The lady just looked at me sympathetically and said in Spanish "You don't understand do you?" She had me pegged. So now, when asked for directions, I put my hand on their arm, look at their faces, smile and say "Somos Americanos"- That explains a lot.