Friday, July 23, 2010

through a lens darkly

She was from Canada.

A photographer on her first trip to Mexico.

I met her on the flight to Melaque.  We chatted.  Or she did.  I listened.

She was looking for The Shot that would sum up Mexico.  In truth, what she was looking for was A New Life.

Recently divorced, she was taking her first tentative steps in a new world.  Starting with Mexico.  A week of freedom. She was giddy with the prospect of seeing the Magic of Mexico. You could almost hear italics and the extraneous capitalization of nouns.

I saw her several times in the village -- usually from a distance -- stalking her prey in her own private Serengeti.

When we talked, she seemed to be trying too hard to have a good time. Everything was Perfect. The People were the Friendliest she had ever met. Mexico had touched The Center of Her Soul.

The last time I saw her was on a street corner where Villa Obregon fades into Melaque. She looked tired. As if she had spent the full week pulling on the green chain.

And she looked disappointed. She was about to return to British Columbia without her defining Mexican Moment.

The conversation settled into the general hum of small talk -- until she froze staring into the middle distance over my right shoulder. Jungle cats have that stare. Something was moving her way.

I glanced over my shoulder to see one of the local grandmothers decked out in widow black carrying a plastic bag brimming with vegetables. Topped off by an umbrella for shade.

I have seen hunters suffer from buck fever. Trembling. Grabbing at equipment. But the photographer topped them all.

"Where IS it? Where IS it?" She muttered as she searched through her beach bag.

She found her camera and raised it to her face just as the grandmother was about to walk past us.

But that did not deter her.

In plummy English, she asked: "Excuse me. Could you go back and walk toward us? I would like a Photograph." The last word had the same intonation a priest would have in saying: "Shroud of Turin."

The Woman With The Umbrella (as the photograph would have been known) would never enter the world of art. The grandmother looked bewildered, and continued on her way.

The photographer looked at me in exasperation: "These people are so friendly, but frustrating." 

I am not certain a few words of Spanish would have salvaged this vignette of cultural clash. But they would not have hurt.

Learning Spanish is essential for enjoying life in Mexico. Language is not merely a way to communicate. It is the foundation of culture. How people perceive life.

We all know people who claim to do just fine in Mexico without speaking Spanish. They often live in English-speaking enclaves and deal with English-speaking Mexicans. They may as well live in Scottsdale. Living in Mexico in spite of its culture, not for it.

Of course, the advocates of Spanish can overreach, as well. I heard a teacher extol the virtues of Spanish by arguing that learning the language would let you speak with over 450 million people. 

Well, not exactly. 450 million people may speak "Spanish," but they do not all speak the same language. Put residents of Mexico City, Madrid, and Buenos Aires in the same room, and just wait for the anecdotes -- while they wait for the translator.

But that is not the type of Spanish you need in Mexico. The best place to learn is from your neighbors. After all, those are the people with whom you want to converse.

Before I moved south, I studied several Spanish courses on my computer. They helped me get started. But I soon realized the people in my village do not speak classroom Spanish -- any more than my neighbors in Salem speak classroom English.

Unlike my experience in Greece, I discovered most of my Mexican neighbors, with a couple of rare exceptions, were willing to teach me -- if I would just make the effort. They were pleased to see I wanted to talk with them. 

I learned more Spanish from my first maid than I ever learned from a DVD. I also took a brief Spanish class in Villa Obregon to fill out my vocabulary.
The last four months in Salem have been deadly for my Spanish. Several words a day drop out of the memory bank. My Spanish has atrophied almost as much as my right thigh.

If I had it to do over, before I moved south, I would have spent more time on sentence structure and vocabulary -- and ignored some of the grammar. And, once I arrived in Mexico, I would have daily pushed beyond my comfort zone -- talking with as many people as I could.

Most adults have a fear of looking foolish. Language mistakes are near the top of the list for painting on our clown faces. 

I long ago stopped taking myself seriously. I make enough mistakes in English to stop worrying about making them in Spanish. The great thing about making mistakes in Spanish is that I get to have a good laugh with my neighbors -- at my own expense. But I learn more about me while I am learning about Mexico.

In three more months, I will be heading south. I hope I have retained enough Spanish to act as a translator for the next photographer who needs to give modeling direction to our local cast of charming extras. 

Or not --


Jonna said...

You hit it dead on about most adults being afraid of sounding stupid or foolish. You do have to get over that and dive in to ever get anywhere. I think that is why many people recommend drinking as a language learning tool, it removes your inhibitions and you just start talking. Which is really all it is about anyway. You can do the same thing by putting yourself in situations where you have to speak, and doing that repeatedly.

Anonymous said...

it's just like riding a bike steve. no matter how long it's been, it will come right back to you. you learned a big lesson when you were willing to try to speak without fear of being embarrassed and just having a good laugh when you made errors. people in most countries are happy when outsiders try to speak their language, no matter how well or poorly, they do.

got back on tuesday from visiting my guys back east. i will e-mail you soon.

have a great weekend!

jennifer rose said...

Did you consider that it might be fortunate that the stupid Canadian woman didn't comprehend Spanish? She might've understood what the old Mexican lady muttered....and then the Mexican people wouldn't be all friendly and filled with smiles. Or did you tell her what *pendeja* meant?

- Mexican Trailrunner said...

"Living in Mexico in spite of its culture, not for it." Oh, I love this line. I'm going to use it when appropriate, promise to give you credit.

If people only knew how much more fun life is here when you can speak the language.

The Canadian woman you wrote about would love living in a gated community in Ajijic, don't refer her tho, we have enough people like her.

Leah Flinn said...

"You could almost hear italics and the extraneous capitalization of nouns." Great line. I try to pull such people back down to earth when they start floating up in to the Mexican atmosphere.

Gilly Bates said...

Like I always say "usted puede enseñar a un caballo para los peces, pero no puedes hacer que él hace trucos nuevos..."

Irene said...

Only someone from Oregon would use "pulling the green chain" to describe how tired someone looked. That was a job I contemplated when I was a student in Eugene.

Living in Mexico is a far-off dream but I having been studying Spanish for a while now. Sentence structure and verb conjugations are starting to sink in and I understand the Spanish language news station more and more. I find myself eavesdropping on conversations on public transportation trying to figure out what is being said. Next time I visit Mexico I hope my communication skills will be much improved.

Tom said...

It's amazing to me how much I still remember nearly a half century after high school Spanish. The last couple of years, there's an online language learning site called Livemocha on which I've been fitfully progressing. Your post is my encouragement to spend some more time there today. Thanks.

Steve Cotton said...

Jonna -- When I get back to Mexico, I am going to make myself as foolish as possible.

Terersa -- You know me. I have no sense of fear -- or propriety.

Jennifer -- I am making a list of muttered words. Just like Patrick Dennis. Unfortunately, I no longer have an "Auntie Mame."

Mexican Trailrunner -- Thank you for the very kind compliment. I actually welcome tourists like The Photographer. They make great copy.

Leah -- People who speak in punctuation marks always fascinate me.

Gilly -- You gave me a great laugh this morning. Maybe we can turn it into a classic Mexican folk saying. With accompanying photographs.

Irene -- I was hoping someone would catch the phrase. Good eye. I spent one summer on the dry veneer belt. That was enough for me.

Tom -- And you have encouraged me to get back to my CDs.

Jonna said...

OK, I need an Oregon English lesson. What does 'pulling the green chain' mean? I saw it the first time but went on past as I often do in Spanish if I don't get a word or phrase. Guess I forgot that I'm supposed to understand everything in English.

Paul B'Onion said...

Something to do with working in a lumber mill...?

Anonymous said...

When I taught school in Siskiyou County, CA in the 70s, the fathers of my students pulled green chain, were swampers, choker setters, and piss fir willies....and eventually I understood what that all meant.

Anonymous said...

Upon arriving late for a formal comida, I told my intended's father, (my future father-in-law) that we were "embarazados" (for being tardy)!

Babs said...

Thanksfully that Canadian woman couldn't speak Spanish. How embarassing that she would ask the Mexican woman to go back and start walking again. Aye caramba........

"Warren Hardy" - "Warren Hardy" - Warren Hardy - remember that name. A language school here in SMA for people over 40 - very intense for first three weeks, but amazingly effective. He starts with verbs.
Plan on it! He has a website.

Steve Cotton said...

Jonna -- The green chain is a conveyor belt where freshly-cut lumber is delivered to a line of workers, who sort the lumber into its various grades. It is arduous work. For one summer, I worked on the dry veneer chain. Where dried veneer is sorted. It helped me to make up my mind that law school was a good investment.

Paul B'Onion -- Exactly.

Anonymous -- The woods are filled with interesting job titles -- or, were, before the industry was shut down.

Anonymous (II?) -- A classic.

Babs -- We can truly be thankful for small (and ignorant) blessings.