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.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

gags should have punch lines

"Many speakers and writers across the world are terrified of offending Islamists. A satirical musical called The Book of Mormon is an international hit; no theatre would dare stage a similar treatment of the Koran."

I have made that same point several times -- in almost those words. Why is it that a satirical musical that takes on Mormon theology (and arguably, theism in general) can have a long run on Broadway and travel widely with road shows without theaters going up in smoke and theater-goers being reunited with their God through the intercession of gunmen and bombers?

That first line is from an article, in this week's The Economist, on the decline of free speech throughout the world. In just the last few years, free speech has been eroded or throttled in a series of countries. Bangladesh. France. Egypt. China. Germany.

And we should not leave out my new home -- Mexico. Even though the government is not currently guilty of massive speech repression (something that could not be said of most of its pre-2000 predecessors), journalism has taken a great hit. Mainly by the cartels who have intimidated and murdered journalists who have had the temerity to campaign against the power of the cartels. Even Mexpatriate has received low-grade threats about references to pirated CDs and DVDs.

What I find most worrisome, though, is what has happened to freedom of expression in The States -- both on campuses and politically.

During my undergraduate days at Portland State University studying history and political science, Dr. Smeltzer assigned us a text by Alexander Meiklejohn arguing the First Amendment's protection of speech was absolute -- the founders meant exactly what they said: "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech." "No law" meant "no law."

His argument was that democracy could not survive unless ideas were fully discussed amongst its citizens. Legal tests (such as "clear and present danger," "fighting words," "advocacy of action"), though well-meaning in their purpose, were just excuses for the government to restrict the free flow of ideas -- especially in the cause of national security or "supporting the war effort."

At the time, I considered his ideas too unrealistic.  Too idealistic. I was a Russel Kirk conservative then. Worshiping the adage that without security there could be no freedom.

Over time, I matured and became less fearful of opposing ideas. Without being exposed to new ideas in college (some of which I found abhorrent), I would not have felt secure enough to prefer speaking with people with whom I disagree.

I often think of Meiklejohn while reading stories in the news about students either shouting down their opponents (often invited speakers) simply because they disagree with the speaker's position. There is something vaguely fascist about the behavior. Barking like junkyard dogs out of fear is not an effective persuasion tool.

But, as anyone who has been watching the news knows, that behavior is not restricted to campuses. It is has spilled over into our political process this year. From the Sanders delegates at the Nevada Democrat state convention to the protestors who have turned into rioters outside of Trump rallies. What is so pathetic about their actions is that each riot simply buses additional voters over into the Trump camp.

I recently finished Karl Rove's The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters. I had put off reading the book because I had no expectation that a political guru could tell me anything of interest about the life of  Big Bill.

I was wrong. The book is well-written and filled with valuable information. Rove reminds his readers that American politics has always been a rough and tumble affair. The election of 1896 was no exception. At several state conventions, guns were pulled and opponents were pummeled. And, yet, the nation, and its political system, survived.

There may also be a lesson for this year's election. 1896, just like our current elections, contained a series of surprises. The early leader on the Republican side (McKiney) eventually obtained his party's nomination, in spite of not being the favored candidate of the establishment. He won because of organization and perseverance.

On the Democrat side, a man (William Jennings Bryan), who was not a professional politician, came out of nowhere with his unorthodox views (many of them contrary to prior Democrat policies), and, with his populist appeal, wrested the nomination from well-established candidates.

Rove meticulously describes that election and points out one of the primary reasons McKinley defeated Bryan.  McKinley ran as a unifier, adopting the language of national reconciliation. He emphasized that Americans have a common country with a common destiny and that everyone could succeed only if they were all in it together.

Bryan, on the other hand, consciously (and conscientiously) spoke his mind in pitting class against class and national section against national section. His attacks on anyone who disagreed with him became harsher as the campaign progressed.

Both of the probable nominees this year appear to have spent the year auditioning for the Bryan role. Of course, they merely reflect the mood of the voters who have chosen that pair to fight for their interests.

However, I am not quite certain this is what Meiklejohn intended. He would undoubtedly remind us, as he did: "To be afraid of ideas, any idea, is to be unfit for self government. Any such suppression of ideas about the common good, the First Amendment condemns with its absolute disapproval."

I wonder if he would have sponsored a satirical musical on the Koran?

Thursday, June 02, 2016

it really is a bowl of cherries

What could be better? I am recumbent on my bed studying my Spanish while eating cherries I scored at Sam's Club on Monday.

Oh, and I am writing to you on my laptop. But you probably guessed that already.

This recuperation business is not too bad -- even though I doubt I could take more than a week of it. You would know it was a lie if I told you I have been in bed since I received my resting orders on Monday.

That would be impossible. I live alone. If I want to eat, I need to get up to cook. There is food to buy and laundry to deliver. Not to mention my Spanish classes -- where I take a towel to lie on the floor and prop my foot up with pillows.

Living is the art of compromise. After all, learning Spanish is one of my big two projects for the year.

My general compliance with doctor's orders has paid off. The swelling in my leg has decreased and the redness has almost disappeared. That is undoubtedly due to both my rest and the barrage of antibiotics my system has received.

Speaking of antibiotics, I am not certain if I have mentioned this before or not. The most effective antibiotic is delivered by injection over a period of days (five, in my case). In Mexico, you purchase the antibiotics at the pharmacy along with enough hypodermic needles to inject the medicine. The assumption is that you -- or someone in your household -- will do the injecting.

I will say it again. I live alone. The injections are in my butt. That rules me out as the injector -- even though I am not too certain I could do it if it was in my thigh. And, even though Barco would undoubtedly take great pleasure in attacking my butt, his dew claw is not an adequate thumb.

Our local health clinic steps in to fill the gap. I show up there each morning, and the rather sullen woman on the front desk mixes the two vials of medicine and injects me -- without once breaking a smile. And that is fine for me. I am there to receive medical care, not to buy her a drink.

For now, though, I will finish off the cherries and discover what adventures Laura* (who is 24, lives in Buenos Aires, and has blonde hair and blue eyes) is going to experience.

I'll bet Laura thinks life is a bowl of cherries, as well.

* -- Laura is the main character in Laura no está, a novel in Spanish for intermediate students. I am pushing the learning envelope.