Saturday, March 10, 2012

International Women's Day: Fesitval of Green Jokes

Being a fan of both feminism and feel-good tokenism, I have always enjoyed, in a mild way, the celebrations of International Women's Day that crop up around this time of year. When I was working at Parliament, one of the perks of office (ha!) was a yearly invitation to the UNIFEM International Women's Day Breakfast, which featured a range of high-profile women - your Gail Kellys, your Pru Gowards, your Therese Reins - and, usually, a guest speaker from the developing world, whose stories of enduring against the odds had a way of reminding the well-heeled audience how bad we don't have it. These celebrations always had the effect of ratcheting up my feminism, in a you go, sister kind of way. Also, there were mini danishes.


So, naturally, I was all ears when I heard that the women at my school were going for a lunch to celebrate International Women's Day. This being Spain, though, they did things a little differently, and without the politics: why would you let that ruin a perfectly good occasion? Also, I cannot imagine getting any of these women to a breakfast. What could possibly warrant getting up so early in the morning? And who eats breakfast anyway? 


No, we did this the Spanish way: tell people lunch is at 2.30, show up around 3pm, and have a small beer before the menu del dia, the fine Spanish tradition of a cheap set menu, one drink included, no tricky tips or taxes. (The one catch: you have to keep the same cutlery between entree and main.) And then - hang the politics - after lunch, as we were waiting for our coffees, the women took turns standing on their seats to tell chistes verdes, dirty ("green") jokes.  


By now, I have a fairly decent command of Spanish, even Spanish as spoken in Extremadura, which is not really the same thing. Even so, these jokes left me completely bewildered. This is unsurprising; to "get" a verbal joke, you really need two things. Firstly, you need a high level of vocabulary: joke tellers nearly always use insider slang, and many jokes, especially dirty jokes, turn on double entendre. My Spanish comprehension is pretty good, but it mostly only encompasses a word's denotation, as it might be found in the dictionary, or as I have heard it used on news broadcasts. Subtleties of connotation are frequently lost on me, as is much extreme├▒o slang, although I adore learning the odd word.


And besides, to understand a joke, you also need to be aware of all sorts of cultural context. Consider a (non-dirty) joke I was told yesterday:
Q: What electronics brand do Gypsies prefer?
A: Gitaneer.


This is an extremely simple two-line joke, in fact a pun, but to understand it, you need to know that:
1) The Spanish Roma refer to non-Roma as "payo", pronounced "pie-oh" . 
2) Pioneer is an expensive electronics brand. 
3) In Spain, Roma people are called gitanos, Gypsies. 
4) In Spain, you totally tell jokes about how Gypsies are poorer than average and thus like to buy fake-branded products.


Incidentally, this is a joke told by gitanos themselves. Even so, and even after you know all that, the joke is not particularly funny. But who said learning a language was supposed to make you laugh?


Incidentally, the joke above also demonstrates how untranslatable many jokes are. Some of the women were begging the English teachers to translate the jokes for me. "It's impossible!" they said. This might be correct, or they might just be embarrassed to tell the jokes in English. Alas, I will never know.