Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

A glass made of milk?

A glass made of milk ... really?
A glass made of milk ... really?
John Rabe

When travelling abroad in the Continental style,
It's my belief one must attempt to be discreet
And subsequently bear in mind your transient position
Allows you a perspective that's unique.
Though you'll find your itinerary's a blessing and a curse,
Your wanderlust won't let you settle down...

                                   (Tom Waits, "Foreign Affair")

Americans are many things in their dealings with foreigners ... we're not discreet, for one thing. But one thing in our favor, at least in my experience, is that we don't correct their English*. If a tourist from Germany misplaces the accent on "photograph," we don't pretend we've never heard of the word. If someone assigns a gender to a car or building, we don't tell them, "We don't do that in English."

Not so for the French and the Germans. And as for Spanish speakers ... I won't even mention the snooty Spaniards at Topkapi and their disdain when I pointed out an "abeja." And don't go into a mercado here in Los Angeles and ask for a "bag of ice" in Spanish ... 

Me: "Por favor, una bolsa de hielo?**"

Clerk: "A bag ... made of ice?" (Falls over laughing.)

No, they say, it's "bolsa con hielo." A bag with ice. It's the same, they say, for a glass with water or a glass with milk.


Which leads me to my photo of a billboard near the Cypress Park Home Depot?

My (Mexican-American) husband Julian was taught "con" in Spanish classes at UCLA. The assistant at my vet had noticed the sign, too. "It doesn't make sense," she said. "It's un vaso con leche."

But there's a strong "de" contingent.

My colleague, the reporter and poet Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, originally from Mexico City and fluent in Spanish, says they always said "vaso de..." in his family. Same verdict from LA Times columnist and writer Hector Tobar, cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, and "Ask a Mexican" columnist Gustavo Arellano. The nominal Anglo in the group I consulted, Steve Lopez, was taught "de."


However, Gustavo would ask for a bag with ice, because otherwise it would sound like he's asking for an icepack. And Lalo adds, "I can see how some Castillian/grammar snob might say you are saying the glass is made of milk, but that's (BS). So blog on, with your bag made of ice!"

On the other hand, Hector, who took time to write in the midst of promoting his book The Barbarian Nurseries, says "bolsa con hielo" sounds more like an icepack to him. "Una bolsa con hielo is okay; but that sounds like what you would say if you had a kid who had an accident."

He e-mailed some helpful example sentences:

Traigame una bolsa con hielo: Bring me a bag with ice.

Traigame una bolsa de hielo. Bring me a bag of ice.


Traigame una bolsa de plástico: Bring me a plastic bag.

Here's the milk maestro YouTube video, connected to The California Milk Processor Board's PR campaign for the Master of the Glass Half Full, described in a news release as "a fictional character garbed in a white robe who one day experiences an epiphany and is enlightened about milk's powers of positivity."

Meantime, speaking of languages, tune in to Off-Ramp this weekend for a special piece from Ilsa Setziol, who recalls her interview with Cahuilla Indian elder Katherine Siva Saubel, who died November 1, and who spent much of the last century preserving her Cahuilla culture. She was one of the last native speakers of the Cahuilla language, spoken by some tribes in and around the Mojave desert.

* This may well be because we don't know how to speak it properly ourselves.

** I'm still working on verbs.