You Know You Live in the Tropics When…

You have two seasons: Rainy and non-rainy.

The rainy season has begun here in Mexico City. And because we’re at 7,500 feet, it’s not exactly a warm, tropical rain:

rain in mexico city

And hail – a new experience for me. (Yesterday, my first real earthquake. Today, hail. What’s tomorrow going to bring? Holy hay-sus.)

hail

Remember: Don’t Break the Diphthongs!

On Friday night, after returning from a 7-day full Spanish immersion program in nearby Cuernavaca, I did one thing: sleep like a baby who just finished the longest temper tantrum of her life.

It’s been, oh, a good 8 years since I was in any sort of formal classroom setting on a regular basis, and wow, I didn’t miss it. I’ve occasionally thought about going back to school for a graduate degree, and this pretty much solidified my conviction that no mames, I’m not going back. I like the working world too much, since it’s highly unlikely that on an average Monday, I’m not going to be yelled at by teachers for breaking diphthongs or for forgetting the present progressive tense of the “helping” verb haber. I also don’t ever have homework.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy immersion. I really did. Before we left, I would have put my fluency at about 10%. Now it’s up to 25%. While that means I still have 75% of the language to go, it only took one week of immersion to get me from 10 to 25%, while it took six months of weekly tutoring (two classes at night) to get me from 0 to 10%.

Going back to school at 31 years old had the added dream-like strangeness of my spouse sitting next to me the entire time. We tested in the same level, so we were in every single class together, and because we stayed with a local family, and had no transportation or much spare time or freedom at all, we spent basically every moment of the entire 7 days right next to each other — and I mean shoulder-to-shoulder right next to each other.

Which, most of the time, was a good thing, except when I patted him on the back (forgetting we were sitting in a classroom) or, conversely, scolded him for not knowing common verbs like deber. (“What?!? How could you not know that?” I chided him, followed by laughter from our classmates.)

Of course, now that I’m back to living in Mexico City, and working most of the day editing documents in English, I’ve probably dropped down to 18% (and counting) fluency. Vamos a ver, I guess.

Some highlights of the immersion:

  • Going on a tour with other students to the ruins of Xochicalco and fake smiling when the other students (mostly undergrad college students) mentioned how rare it was for them to hang out with people “our age.”
  • Watching telenovelas with our host family each night. The language was basic enough that we could follow along, and the plotlines were hilarious enough that we kept wanting to watch.
  • Grinning and bearing it as the family’s abuelita referred to us as “los gueros.”
  • Getting in really dumb arguments about when to use por versus para.
  • Listening to funny stories from one of our teachers, Raul, who taught both the Shah of Iran and Leona Helmsley (former Cuernavaca residents.) He said the Shah was rather stupid, and that Leona only wanted to learn the command forms of the verbs, as in “callate.” (Shut up!)
  • Placing imaginary “estrellas de oro” on Brendan’s forehead when he won an argument.
  • Learning to use “no mames” y “guey more naturally.
  • Sweating the entire week, since air conditioning seems to be a foreign concept in Cuernavaca, even though the climate is like Houston on a July day.
  • Attending a music class and belting out “La Paloma Blanca” and “Besame, Besame Mucho

And, as normal in Mexico, we saw pretty things, like the town of Tepoztlan:

Tepoztlan

And we saw weird things, like this tree growing into a building at the Hacienda de Cortes:
And pretty weird things, like this toilet:

For more photos of our week in Cuernavaca, go here.

Hopefully, I’ll Learn Something, If Not A Lot

From Saturday to Saturday of this coming week, Brendan and I will be in Cuernavaca for a week of full Spanish immersion. We’re staying with a local family, and we’ll have 6 hours of formal Spanish instruction/conversation each day.

I have high hopes for immersion — probably way too high. Most native English speakers I know who are  now bilingual went to weeks and weeks (if not months and months or years and years) of immersion before reaching fluency. Sigh. Being a working couple, we can’t really practically do that. Long gone are the days of having more than one week to do anything that doesn’t involve work.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do in my entire life is learn a new language. While incredibly good for me, lordy, I wish I had learned these things as a child. So if you’ve got young’uns, don’t wait until high school: When it comes to learning languages, the earlier, the better. They’ll thank you later, as they set off to explore new countries and new cultures with a second language under their belt. Adult brains just aren’t wired to be as receptive to new patterns of thinking, hearing, reading and speaking.

Mi Suegro Va a Volver Manana (With His Photo Skills, Too)

Tomorrow my father-in-law is coming to visit again! He was here in February for a lovely visit, and now he’s returning to help dog-sit while we are at Spanish immersion school in Cuernavaca.

As always, I look forward to seeing the photos he will take. Here’s one from his last trip. The little lady is eating mango chiladas — one of my new favorite foods. It’s dried mangos dipped in a spicy chili-lime powder. They’re so addictive; I’ve got a bag of ’em on top of my microwave that I can’t stop raiding.

Old little lady eats dried mangos

Here is a portrait shot of her. Notice the two little braids. She is so weathered she’s beautiful:

portrait of a mango eater

My Dog Nearly Eaten by Giant Aloe Plant

Charlie and the aloe tree

In my quest to have one of the world’s most traveled dogs, I took Carlito down to Coyoacan last night to the beautiful home of my friends Jeremy and Nancy. They have an enormous tropical garden, and Charlie had a good time sniffing…and…well, he couldn’t resist christening an aloe plant. Sigh. But, in a fight between the aloe and little Carlito, the aloe would definitely win. This thing must be pretty old. All that Mexican sunshine.

Awkward Yet Fabulous Mexico City Bonus: Having a Maid

Before we lived in Mexico, we never had “help.” Now we have Pati, who cleans the apartment twice a week. She basically came with the apartment — we moved in and she showed up several hours later (she cleans for our landlady). We hired her on the spot. How could we not? Why would we not?

In Mexico, “help” is a pervasive part of the societal layer, many people have maids, drivers, gardeners, nannies and more. It took me awhile, but I’ve gotten used to it. I hope I will never not have a cleaning lady ever again. Besides the absence of filth, I love the little things she does, too. Like finding my belts – typically thrown haphazardly into a drawer – neatly curled up and placed on a shelf in my closet. Ah, there’s such serenity in cleanliness and order.

As much as I love this new part of my life, it’s also the oddest relationship I’ve ever had.

This woman, this tiny, sweet little woman, knows everything about us that can be known without needing to know English. Like what underwear we wore since she last visited (she does all our laundry), if we ate pancakes for breakfast (she does the dishes) and if I bought new shampoo (she scrubs the shower).

Because she’s doing a job I would never want to do, I try to show her as much respect as possible. We pay her when we go on vacation, and I let her have flexible hours since she has a 5-year-old son who has lots of school activities.

I also spend a lot of time thinking about how odd she must find us. We own carpeted steps so our dog can jump up on the bed. In my home office, I spend long hours on conference calls, only speaking every few minutes (think about how odd that would appear if you didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes), and I own three different types of hair conditioner.

And I spend a lot of time worrying I might do something culturally offensive or stupid, and she won’t realize that I’m just ignorant.  There’s plenty of little awkward moments, like the time she said she was hot after she finished ironing, and I thought she was talking about the weather. But, she’s been around since November, and so far, so good. She’s also been great for my Spanish.

Tuesday was a particularly good day. She brought me two Oaxacan scarves/shawls as “un regalito” (a little gift). I was so relieved, not only because I like them (one is pink, the other black, both very cute and wearable) but because it means she likes me. She handed them over with a giant smile.

Whew.

Me Encanta La Ley Que Prohibe Fumar en Cuidad de Mexico

Last night we had dinner at a terrific Italian restaurant, La Trattoria Della Casa Nuova in the south of the city with our friends Jeremy and Nancy.

Not long ago, Mexico City finally got around to banning smoking in restaurants and other certain public places. When I first heard about the ban, I was skeptical. The rich people here are the worst smokers. So f’ing rude. I’ve sat in fancy-schmancy, famed restaurants like The Rojo Bistro (which I can see from my apartment) surrounded by disgusting smokers brazenly blowing wafts of toxins into my face. It sours the taste of my food, and my mood. And I feel so sorry for the poor employees who have to basically smoke several packs of cigarettes every time they work, whether they want to or not.

So I am thrilled to report that at least a few restaurants, so far, are enforcing the ban. Last night I didn’t come home smelling like an ashtray, and my contact lenses didn’t feel like they were about to fall out into my lap, dessicated by smoke.

It really quite dramatically improves the whole experience, and so please, Mexico City, keep the ban and enforce it…it’s good for everyone.

I Heart You, Paloma (The Drink, Not the Bird)

Oh, yums. Muchas gracias a mi amiga Susana for introducing me to a new drink, La Paloma. So delightfully simple, it’s right up my “three ingredients or less” alley. Plus, it’s a pretty white color, hence the name.

Ingredients:

  • Tequila
  • Fresca (use the diet version if you want to spare yourself some calories)
  • Ice

Directions:

In a highball glass filled with ice, add one shot of tequila, and top off with Fresca. Drink.