Friday, July 01, 2016

recovering the tune

I am off to celebrate Canada Day with some friends -- from Canada, of course. I am their American pet.

In 1986, my friends, Ken and Patti Latsch, and I attended the Expo in Vancouver together. My strongest memory of the whole event was the Canadian Pavilion with its Goose and Beaver Show. (I kid you not. Who says Canadians do not have a naughty sense of humor -- or is that humour? I forget.)

One of the productions (one that worked, that is; most of the films simply broke down faster than a Soviet watch) was a movie celebrating Canada's people and scenery. I was entranced with the music. In fact, I left the theater humming the tune -- and it came back to me periodically over the years.

Well, this is the day (back in 1867) when the province of Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia joined together to form the Dominion of Canada -- part of the British Empire. Even though its constitution remained under the authority of the Queen, the day is often celebrated as Canada's birthday. Compared to the American birth, it was a quiet affair.

Thirty years after attending Expo, I have found the missing song. On YouTube, of course. I wish I hadn't. It is as trite and mundane as a Disney production. But that may just be the compliment nostalgia pays to reality.

I will let you write your own review.

By the way, happy birthday, Canadians.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

proof of the pudding

Once upon a time, an American (or any other nationality, as far as I know) living in Mexico could become a Mexican citizen by submitting two cereal box tops and a shiny quarter -- or something like that.

Two of my favorite writers in Michoacán took advantage of the offer and now enjoy all of the benefits of calling themselves "Mexican." But that was then, and this is now. Becoming a member of the club is a bit more difficult.

Yesterday, I learned a lot more about the process. I drove my friends Ed (the artist whose paintings adorn my anonymous house) and Roxane to Colima to witness Ed finish another step in his naturalization process. For a couple of years, he has been gathering up the necessary documentation that must accompany his application -- only to have time-limited documents expire because something new was added to the list.

We were in Colima to check off one of those new requirements: number 8 on the list -- "Evidence that the applicant can speak Spanish." In the past that has meant the naturalization clerk had a conversation with the applicant, and would then subjectively determine whether the applicant was adequately conversant in Spanish to show that he was "integrated into the national culture."

The requirement makes perfect sense. If you want to be part of a nation, you should, at a minimum, be able to converse with your fellow citizens.

In the last year or so, the meaning of the requirement has changed. The naturalization clerk does not make the call. Instead, the applicant must submit a certification indicating the level of the speaker's proficiency in Spanish.

The test here is administered by the University of Colima foreign language school. After a bit of sleuthing, Ed called the school and set an appointment.

Because this is Mexico, nothing is quite as simple as that last sentence. No one in the office knew the school's address. Someone was eventually able to provide him with a street and number. The campus with that address appears at the top of this essay. But it is not where we needed to be.

A very helpful security guard was directed us to the correct campus -- a 15-minute drive away. If you are going to take the language test for naturalization around here, this is the sign you are looking for.

I have heard so many tales about this test that I wanted to see it in action -- in the hope of verifying that the people who have reassuringly told me "it is no big deal" are correct. Well, I have my answer.

The test administrator allowed Roxane and me to sit in the examination room for Ed's test. The first portion of the test is oral -- an impromptu extended conversation designed to elicit answers showing a grasp of different verb tenses, appropriate vocabulary, and abstract themes.

The second part of the test is on the computer. I did not see any of the questions, but Ed described it it as quite difficult. There were the usual tricky choices between the preterite and the past imperfect -- along with subtle variations of the subjunctive. That test took about an hour.

I should add that the computerized test continues as long as the person taking it continues to answer question correctly. After all, it is designed to evaluate expertise.

While Ed took the test, the woman administering it talked with Roxane to determine her level of expertise. Roxane did so well in the conversation, she was not required to take the computer test.

Roxane, in white, converses with the test administrator while Ed taps away in the background on a keyboard.
For the payment of $150 (Mx) -- $8.11 (US) -- each, both of them were certified as having a rather high knowledge of Spanish. But we all knew that before they took the test. It was simply another item to check off of the naturalization list.

We then drove to the naturalization office -- in the expectation that Ed would be able to submit his application. It was not to be. The first hurdle was discovering the office had moved from the central plaza to a building about 20 minutes north in the suburbs.

That was not a problem. Off we went to the new office. (Mind you, Ed had talked with the clerk several times recently. Not once did she mention the office had moved.)

I will tell you more about Ed's adventure with the clerk in a later essay. It should help explain how 10 checklist steps with clear instructions can turn into a Kafkaesque slog. Suffice it to say, Ed still has a couple of tasks to accomplish -- and the walls of bureaucracy remain unbreached.

But I did get to meet the clerk who, in a mere twenty months, will be processing my application for naturalization. That must be worth something.

After seeing the Spanish test evaluation, I have decided to take a break from my language classes. I want to start spending a bit more time in the local community listening and talking. There is no doubt I will need to hit the books before my Spanish abilities are evaluated by the University of Colima.

For now, though, I want to start putting to use what I do know.

Monday, June 20, 2016

i have come unstuck in time

And I feel exactly as Billy Pilgrim did in Slaughterhouse-Five. At least, when it comes to learning Spanish.

For the past week, it is almost as if I had been transported back to 2007 -- before I cracked open any of my Spanish programs. At least, it feels that way. The last nine years of my erratic studies have apparently disappeared down Winston Smith's memory hole. Because they certainly are not showing up in my Spanish class.

One example. I find Duolingo to be entertaining. But it is far too simple to be very educational. That is why I was astounded this morning to discover that it took me two hours to complete lessons I can normally complete in twenty minutes. Maybe I should welcome myself to the New Normal.

My two-hour Spanish class today was what could be charitably described as a disaster. It was so bad I could not recall the verbs for "sleep" and "read" -- two of the first Spanish words I learned.

Coincidentally, a shipment arrived this afternoon from Amazon -- containing six Spanish study books. The same books my current instructor reads from in class.

Rather than sit and listen to someone else read material I can read for myself, I decided to put my group lessons on hold until I can get a better grasp on what is happening with my ever-eroding vocabulary. Maybe a change of pattern will do me good.

I would be remiss not to add an unpaid plug for Amazon. I orderd the books last Monday from Amazon in The States. Considering the weight involved, I did not anticipate seeing the books for a few weeks. Amazon, quite candidly, stated the package could arrive as late as early July.

But, as I already told you, it arrived at my postal box today -- just one week after I hit the "pay now" button. And, best of all, the shipping was free.

I am not certain how Amazon does it, but it has customer service perfected, even better than Nordstrom.

So, we will see if I can restore what I have lost -- and learn more. Studying on my own has the marked disadvantage of not working with other students. But I can always re-join the group in the future. If I choose to do that.

As for being unstuck in time. That may be an entirely different problem.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

moving to mexico -- staying in touch

If you move to Mexico, you should cut your ties with your former home country.

You will hear that piece of advice -- or a variant -- from some people who have moved here. But you will not hear it from Mexpatriate.

I have spent my life building ties -- at least, of the personal type. And I do not readily relinquish them.

My traveling days began when I joined the Air Force. Before then, I had traveled within the borders of The States -- with a couple of forays across the border to British Columbia (Victoria, to be more precise). A jet setter I was not.

The Air Force changed all of that by introducing me to three additional continents -- and giving me my first taste of Mexico in the early 1970s. I made a life of staying places briefly and then moving on. But I always met new people.

In the Air Force, I started a tradition I maintain to this day. I send birthday and anniversary greetings to people I consider friends -- and whose addresses I have managed to keep updated. (In this digital era, street addresses are quickly becoming quaint.)

The list has accreted in layers: family; friends from grade school, high school, and university; people I met while in the Air Force, law school, law practice, various churches, politics, cruises, and travel stops.

Well, you get the picture. Once you are in the Steve web, you are there -- unless you join the unknown street address crowd.

Or die. And that list has grown far too long recently.

You have heard me extol the ability to find almost anything you need here in Mexico. Doing without is seldom a required option.

Except for greeting cards. When I send cards, I like them to have a personal feel. As if I had just plucked each card from the hand of an oracular artisan.

My mother recommended a shortcut. She buys greeting cards from a company called (I think) Paper Magic. The cards have met my mailing needs for years.

Our mail service here has inexplicably slowed down recently. Three years ago, mail would make its way from Melaque to Oregon in about 10 days to two weeks. That has changed. It now takes two months on the average.

I thought all of that was irrelevant, however, when I reached into my greeting card box and found it as empty as Mrs. Clinton's email server. No cards. No greetings. Game over.

There simply is no place around here to buy the type of cards I like. Or so I thought until my friend Roxane reminded me our mutual friend Louise makes hand-made cards. Right here in Barra de Navidad.

I stopped by her studio and purchased 30 of her best pieces of work. They are perfect. Individual. Artsy. Personal. With the feel of a well-crafted scrapbook. Just the type of work to keep my network oiled with good feelings.

Maybe some people relish the idea of cutting their ties when moving to Mexico. I am not one of them. I have spent nearly seven decades building this personal support network, and the simple act of moving to Mexico is not going to cause me to drop it as if it were a Woolworth purchase.

Especially, now that I have a great source to keep the good times rolling.

Monday, June 13, 2016

going commando with the japanese

I am Peck's Bad Boy.

Well, at least, I have a good measure of that in me. And it may be why God is giving me payback by putting Barco in my life.

I have been been noted to say (and write) things not necessarily for their accuracy, but for their intended effect. Let's take a recent example. In moving to mexico -- cost of living I mentioned that I did not move to this part of Mexico for the food.

But that was not good enough for Mexpatriate. I had to add: "the food is -- well, not to put a fine point on it -- boring."

And I got the reactions I expected. A handful agreed with me, but most responded with variations on what the mother of a friend would say when he complained of being bored: "Only boring people are bored."

Because food was not the topic of that essay, I did not narrow my attack with the subtlety it deserved. So, here we are, back on food in my local area.

A close Mexican friend delights in chiding my dislike of "folding food." By that, he means the tendency for our regional food to be wrapped in a tortilla -- whether a taco, an enchilada, a burrito, or the like. He likes "folding food" because it all tastes the same. He revels in its simplicity and consistency.

My Spanish teacher confessed today that she finds the local food to be rather boring with its reliance on beans and tortillas for each meal.

Before I move on, we need to deal with the elephant in the room. Even though a large portion of my Mexican neighbors are middle class, much of their food tastes were developed when their families were poorer.

Beans and tortillas fill the stomach for a minimal cost. And those food habits die hard even when the revenue stream increases to enjoy other material goods.

As I said earlier, I did not move here for the cuisine. My palate was developed under different circumstances where mixing cuisines kept me interested in food. Maybe too interested, considering my ever-growing girth.

And that is where Japan comes in. Actually, Japan is just a symbol of the non-traditional food offered in our local area.

In our small communities, we have two Japanese restaurants and, at least, two sushi joints. I have not tried the sushi places -- well, you know, there is that fish issue. But I have eaten at both Japanese restaurants. Each is on my usual rotation of restaurants to avoid food boredom.

And then there is German food at Marlena's (in the northern tourist season), Canadian breakfasts at Rooster's (where I can put my wild blueberry syrup to use), lamb at Papa Gallo's, pastas at Figaro's, grilled chicken at one of several roadside stands, the best pizza in the area at La Braza, French-Mexican fusion at Tinto del Mar, and chicken soup with huge chunks of chicken at Lety's.

Of course, that leaves out the best place to eat in the area: my kitchen. I am not an outstanding cook, but I do know what I like, and I am noted for being experimental simply to avoid getting into a rut in my own cooking. I read somewhere that the average American family subsists on no more than 20 different recipes at mealtime. 

I could have driven over to La Manzanilla tonight to enjoy chicken tangine or meatballs with lemons and olives at Magnolia's. And I may do that tomorrow. It is another restaurant on my normal circuit that offers an ever-changing menu.

Last night we had our first rain of the season. Not much, but it was rain. As a result, today was notably more humid than normal. It was not a day for a lot of cooking.

So, I made a salad with ingredients only from Mexico: arugula, watermelon, and a premium soft goat cheese sprinkled with fresh lime juice. It was absolutely refreshing. (And I made far too much. It was a perfect size for company, but it was just Barco and me for lunch.)

The heat must have then driven me mad because I cooked up a couple bowls of home-made chili con carne (and a lot of vegetables). The chili was not light and cooking it heated up the kitchen. But it was good -- and I have a bowl available for breakfast in the morning.

Even though I did not move here for the local food, there is plenty of variety around to fend off food boredom. And, after eating my fusion specialties long enough, I may even get back to "folding foods."

Pssst. If you will not tell anyone, I enjoy a plate of huevos rancheros at Lety's every Friday morning.

There are always exceptions to every exaggeration.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

that proverbial fork

I have a decision to make.

Whenever I write a sentence like that, I know there will always be a two-word answer: Yogi Berra. The Great Philosopher of the Diamond had sage advice for all of life's vexations.

What could be better advice about social obligations than -- "Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't come to yours." Or this gem that both presidential candidates this year may want to heed (though neither will): "You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there."

But you already know the quotation all of this is leading up to. "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

I am at one of those forks right now with my Spanish language project. Last October, I started at home with a Pimsleur-based computer program -- a program I had started seven years ago. I faithfully followed the lesson plan daily until I headed north in November.

Duolingo, an Android-based application, came to my rescue on that trip. I set up the program for maximum daily lessons -- and I have kept up with it until now. It is not very instructive, but it helped me to develop a daily study habit.

But there is only so much that can be learned from these programs. I needed human contact -- and expert advice on grammar and vocabulary. In March, I found that at Cornerstone, a local language school, owned by a member of our church.

My teacher was Amy. She has spoken Spanish all her life -- in southern California, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. And she now teaches high school Spanish in Maine. While on a year sabbatical from teaching, she decided to use her talents with students who are -- how to put this delicately, a lot older. That would be my colleagues and me.

For the past three months, I have attended two one-hour sessions four days each week. Because it is a "drop in when you can" school, the courses are a bit more informal than my German, Greek, Russian, and Italian classes.

I found that a bit frustrating. And, because I let my obsession convince me I was not learning anything (and could not), I pulled the plug on the class twice -- only to return the next day.

I am glad I stayed. My Spanish conversation is still atrocious, but I have honed my written translation skills. It is a start.

Unfortunately, for Amy, it is the end. She is returning to Maine. Last Thursday was our last session with her. (That is her -- second from the right. The other three are fellow students.)

Now, I have a decision to make. There is another instructor at the school who is also a native Spanish speaker, and will be taking over Amy's classes. But she is not a trained teacher.

When it comes to classes, I am a tough act to please. If my interest is not constantly stimulated, about 20 minutes of anything leaves me bored. Bored enough that I just shut down.

The question will be whether the new instructor can keep me motivated enough to expand my class knowledge. There is only one way to truly find out: I will audition for a week.

There is also a point where I need to get out of the classroom and into the community. I have been conversing more with neighbors and local business owners. Plus I have had several successful conversations on the telephone. For me, that is a great accomplishment. I absolutely hate talking on the telephone. Whether in English or Spanish.

So, there is my fork. I will continue my classes (at least, temporarily), and I will conscientiously get out into the community more to hone those skills.

Now that I have the fork, it is time to take it.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

edward everett horton, call your agent

When I was four, I wrote my first two stories in English. They were filled with murder, mayhem, and mystery. If I had written the same stories as a four-year-old in contemporary neurotic America, I would undoubtedly been sent to the proverbial workhouse churning out shoes for Nike while completing word-association tests.

This past week, sixty-three years later, I wrote my first story in Spanish. There are no dead Dr. Bunnies or cake rabbits brought to life and attacked by rats.

But there is a princess, two princes, and a scheming Bulgarian princess posing as a cook. All of that gets squeezed through an Hispanic sieve and seasoned with what some of you might remember as Fractured Fairy Tales.

The story started out as a group project for my Spanish class. Somewhere along the way, I tale-jacked it.

I apologize to those of you who do not read Spanish -- and that would have been me a mere few moths ago. But, it would not make much sense for me to translate what was an accomplishment in Spanish.


Rosa Maria de las Torres, princesa de la España

Había una vez una princesa quien se llamaba Rosa Maria de las Torres. Rosita vivía en un castillo en Italia. Pero ella no era italiana; ella era española.

El castillo estaba situado en el fondo de un bosque. Ella vivía con su esposo quien era el príncipe Santiago de Italia. Rosa no estaba feliz con Santiago porque él nunca le hacía caso. Él solo daba atención a la cocinera, Olga.

Rosita vivía una vida dolorosa. 

Un día el príncipe Juan Carlos de Granada vino a visitar su primo Santiago por un mes cuando Rosita teniá 25 años. (Rosita se casó con Santiago a los 13 años.)

Al ver a Juan Carlos, Rosita se puso superfeliz porque él era muy guapo. Juan Carlos, al contrario, estuvo indiferente al conocer a Rosita. Pero a Rosita no le importaba eso porque ella tenía un plan. Ella tenía que hacer algo.

Rosita fue a la cocina y puso veneno en la comida de Santiago y la de Olga. (Se me olvidó de decirte: Olga era realmente una princesa de Búlgara, que trabajaba como cocinera.) Pero, Olga vio lo que había hecho Rosita.Durante la cena, Rosita miraba Santiago y Olga mientras comían – hasta que se cayó muerta. (Olga había cambiado la comida.)

Al ver Rosita morir, Juan Carlos decidió que Santiago y Olga eran una pareja divertida.

Asi que, los tres volaron a la Habana en el Concorde y rentaron una casa juntos. Los tres vivieron felices para siempre – hasta que fueron asesinados en un rebelión de esclavos.

Nadie nunca más habló de Rosa Maria de las Torres, princesa de España.