Mexican life continues for us transplanted Americans as we pass our five month mark of living here. School, work, Spanish lessons, exercise, eat, rinse and repeat. We are excited for our first Christmas in our new home, although it is strange to prepare for the upcoming holidays without the bitter cold and snow, which we are accustomed to back in the Chicagoland area. We certainly don’t miss shoveling that white stuff, driving in it, or dodging snowballs thrown by our kids who usually can’t aim to save their lives but somehow always accurately slings ice – but the snow is beautiful to look at, especially after it immediately falls – so we miss those views. No Christmas lights will go up on the outside of our current house – another holiday tradition I miss (along with the actual house) – but that’s okay. We’ve enjoyed decorating the inside of the house, although also new here is the constant battle we are waging against out two kittens who, in typical feline tradition around the world, seem absolutely positive that all the holiday decorations are solely their new toys. With one hand I’m snapping photos because they’re cute (kittens peeking out of Christmas trees! awwwwww…!) and with the other hand I’m grabbing and shooing them away. My kitten raising skills probably aren’t all that much better than my parenting skills.
The job, school, volunteer work and my yoga practice are all going well – thanks for asking. Speaking of yoga, I recently went out to breakfast with the other ladies in my yoga class. Our instructor owns a quaint new coffee-shop that offers a fresh and organic menu, and she and her students were kind enough to invite me along. I was a little hesitant to go. They are all very friendly and about half of them speak some English – but it’s hard to make new friends – and I’m just as shy as the next person to put myself out there to try and meet people, compounded by the language barrier. But, I can’t sit at home by myself day-after-day guarding the Christmas tree from kitty invaders – so I went.
Getting there was an adventure in-and-of-itself. You are probably getting tired of me complaining about the driving conditions here – I know my hubby is – and I’ll be honest that probably 95% of my blogs will contain some sort of mention of these deplorable conditions. I just can’t help it – they’re just that bad, so you and my hubby will just have to continue to have to listen to it. But as if that wasn’t bad enough (the conditions themselves, not my constant complaining about them), it turns out there are rarely any street signs around here. Why bother naming a street if you aren’t going to actually label it so? So while dodging taxis, buses and red-light violators, I’m driving and counting streets and trying to follow along on my cell’s map without adding any more dents to our rental car (which are adding up but I am not taking responsibility for a single one). By committing a few driving violations of my own, I arrived about 20 minutes late – which, according to Mexican time means I arrived a little early.
I’ve said it before (and just like the deplorable driving conditions, I’ll continue saying it while we are in this country): people here are really nice. Warm and welcoming and they invite the foreign speaking new-person to their morning coffee-clutch (I’m not exactly sure what a “coffee-clutch” is – it’s something a friend of mine back home [Terri – a fitness instructor] used to say when her class [us] was talking too much and not doing enough back-kicks). For the most part the entire conversation took place in Spanish. Several times the ladies would stop their conversation to translate a little of what they were talking about (their kids, school gossip, recipes, typical mommy-conversation) and engage me in a conversation about where we were from and what brought us to their city. I practiced my horrible Spanish skills – and you know what? Communication wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.
Here’s a few things I learned at this coffee-clutch: when trying to speak another language, you don’t have to be perfecto. Your grammar doesn’t have to be exacto (which is inmenso comforting because there’s about a billion ways to conjugate verbs in Spanish…and BOY do I wish speaking Spanish was as easy as simply adding an “o” to the end of every word). I worried that stumbling and bumbling my way through a Spanish conversation was going to be a disaster and offensive to my audience – but it honestly wasn’t. They were very patient with me, complimentary and gently correcting anything too glaringly wrong (which was so much nicer than what I get here at home with my pedantic husband and daughter). I had my “cheat” book which is a small notebook I keep on me with common words and phrases that I use a lot – and at first I hid my book under the table so I could secretly refer to it. But after awhile I no longer felt the need to hide my notes. My Spanish audience seemed to appreciate how much stumbling effort I was putting into trying to participate in their discussion. In turn their broken-English didn’t bother me in the slightest – with their incorrect grammar, thick accents and mispronunciations we were still able to communicate – and I will admit it was wonderful to hear English and refreshing to experience someone else’s struggles to speak – not just mine.
Although, another thing I noticed was that even though I was in a laughing and smiling group of very lovely people, you can still feel isolated and lonely. Between feelings of appreciation at being included and the chummy socialization were still the feelings of being the outsider, the foreigner, the newcomer. Those feelings are normal when anyone moves to a new place – not just necessarily to a new culture. But adding to that by sitting and listening and trying to participate in a conversation you don’t understand and struggle to participate in – it’s a tad isolating, too. This morning made me appreciate (and worry a bit more) about my hubby and kids – who deal with this exact situation ever day here in work and in school – both of which are necessary, not just voluntarily like my morning coffee was.
I thought I was doing pretty well in reading and understanding written Spanish until I reviewed the menu and placed my order – which I thought was an omelet, but couldn’t help notice the strange looks I was receiving when I asked to have espinacas added. Why is that weird? Lots of people like to add spinach to their omelet – it’s healthy and delicious. Come to find out I had ordered “napoles asados con queso” – which is “prickly pear”… otherwise known as cactus. But they grilled my cactus and squeezed in a few spinach leaves along with the queso – just like I had ordered, and it was pretty good, too.
It goes without saying (although ironically I say it a lot) that we miss our family and friends, but hope to continue to try and make new friends here, amidst the added language and cultural challenges. I feel that struggling with those challenges is our responsibility which we accepted by deciding to live here for a few years. It’s refreshing to continue to meet kind people who are willing to accept the difficulties of having a conversation with us, but it’s our job as foreigners to continue to work and make those difficulties easier for them, and ourselves. It’s funny to think how we used to take something as simple as having a conversation for granted. Exchanging pleasantries, asking questions, sharing information – back home we could do this without even thinking – and as someone who has experience with “putting their foot in their mouth” like me, would do exactly that. It’s also interesting that when you loose that simple pleasure in life, simple things like exchanging a “good morning” with a stranger becomes so satisfying. Having a conversation with someone in our new home – in a different language – isn’t just a simple means to exchange information. Those words shared are soothing to the soul and it doesn’t matter what we are talking about.
So I’m hoping to be invited to more coffee-clutchs and will work on being able to understand and communicate more at each event. I hope to continue to try and meet new people, have new conversations and try new foods. I hope to try and be supportive to my hubby and kids as they deal with their own stumbling communication and friend-making skills here. In the meantime for the rest of you, I recommend the grilled catcus with a nice espinacas garnish.