Bienvenida a Mexico!
Oaxaca Weeks 1-2.
Reflecting on my own pyschology during my journey through the U.S.A. I realise two things:
- I pride myself on making good decisions, and spending three months in an expensive country I knew I wouldn't like was not one of my better ones.
- I resented the place for the fear, boredom and other negative feelings it invoked, which are rare experiences for me nowadays.
Imagine my relief, then, to find normal, positive service immediately resumed as soon as I entered Mexico.
Since learning Spanish is my urgent priority here in Mexico, flying from Tijuana all the way down to Oaxaca to begin my Spanish language 'immersion' was definitely a great idea. I plan to attend Spanish classes every weekday for the 12 weeks before my guests start to arrive.
I don't think it's too soon to say that I love Mexico. I'm feeling once again the way I felt throughout Europe: engaged, impressed, 'safe'. People seem to treat me like an equal, which is a relief after travelling off-the-beaten-track in southeast Asia. Oaxaca - a city nestled at the confluence of three valleys - is an excellent choice of base; there's more going on culturally than I could possibly keep abreast of. Arts and crafts, performances in all genres, nocturnal bike rides, and so much interesting food. I've started slowly though, spending my first two weekends mostly 'at home' enjoying the privacy and peace.
I've rented for five months a cheap two-bedroom flat in a quiet northern suburb of Oaxaca and am having four hours/day one-to-one Spanish lessons for these first four weeks (13:15-15:15 and 16:00-18:00; I like my slow mornings!). My teachers are both women in, at a guess, their late twenties. Thereafter I plan to attend small group classes for the second month, and I've an open mind about how I'll use the third.
I quickly realised that while I absorbed a fair bit of Spanish vocabulary in Spain and from podcasts/books, I'm not yet able to form meaningful sentences. I hope as I overcome this excrutiating 'pre-production' stage of language-learning I'll feel confident to stay in the city and 'do stuff' some evenings. I'm also planning to attend a yoga class and - if possible - to start a LGTBQ intercambio group.
In the mornings I wake up naturally, open the front door of my enormous apartment, drink coffee, communicate online and do my homework.
At 12:30 I join the traffic heading into the city, but veer off onto a quieter parallel route I've discovered. The colonial centre of Oaxaca is gorgeous and I love the relaxed, hassle-free atmosphere. My first lesson of the day tends to be fairly varied, with listening (to I.), reading, new vocabulary and some grammar. I understand a huge amount of what I. says - almost all of what I read - and she has good strategies for getting me both to comprehend new language and to 'produce' some. (Y., conversely, will ask me what I think about terrorism or alcoholism and then look surprised when I've nothing to say beyond 'uh, es muy complicado'.) I've been reading a bit about the stages of second-language acquisition and nothing about my experience so far seems unusual.
After my two-hour session with I. I buy lunch from a sweet family in the same shady square where we have the lesson. Every day they bring various vats and tupperwares of delicious home-made goodies and you basically have a bit of whatever you fancy for 30 pesos (£1.30). Every day there's rice and tortillas, plus various proteins, veggies, beans and sauces. It's perfectly possibly not to have meat. On my second or third day buying lunch from them, mamá told teenage daughter to tell me the choices more slowly, before repeating them for me herself. She calls me 'amiga'. Today papa - who hands you your tortillas and a drink and takes the money - told me I should eat first and then pay (like everyone else does). There's a trans* - possibly non-binary - person who sells tortillas, often seems to get lunch at the same time as me and who seems to be a friend of an elder daughter. It'll be a great measure of my progress if I can get to know a little about this unassuming family and their many regulars.
Next I walk into the courtyard of one of the more upmarket 'Oaxaca fusion' restaurants to use the loo before buying a coffee opposite gorgeous Templo de Santa Domingo de Guzmán to garner some energy for my lesson with Y., which tends mainly to involve trudging through exercises photocopied from an ancient grammar textbook. (I. also relies somewhat on photocopied exercises but it helps that her textbook is newer, has a wider range of activities and uses local examples.) I have my lessons with Y. in one of three stunning colonial libraries but I'll be honest, it's a relief for me - and doubtless for her too - when six o'clock comes.
I don't know if rote-learning grammar for two hours/day works for some people but I don't think it's working very well for me. The interesting book 'Polyglot' by Kató Lomb says of one-to-one instruction 'It is difficult to sustain one's attention for the 60 minutes of the typical lesson'. I suspect I'll get to grips with tenses and other grammatical features much better by reading (and perhaps hearing) them and deducing their meaning. This is something I can certainly do more of outside of my lessons. I'm even wondering whether to follow the advice in said book and attempt to read a proper grown-up novel in Spanish! One great advantage of a Kindle is you can click to look up words you don't know.
'One learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.' - Toussaint and Langenscheidt
I don't suppose I'm the easiest student. I. didn't bat an eyelid when I told her the textbook's biography of Frida Kahlo had missed out that she was bisexual, non-monogamous and a socialist. The other day I told her I didn't think the verbs for 'to hunt' and 'to gobble without chewing' were priorities for me to learn and, later, when asked to verbally draft an email from 'Enrique' back to his penpal 'Thomas' I randomly worked in these two verbs to prove my point. Notwithstanding, four hours of one-to-one work with native speakers five-days-a-week means I cannot fail to be learning something useful! Poco a poco. Today I was disproportionately thrilled to finally understand that buen*/bueno/buena = good (adjective) whereas bien = well (mostly an adverb). Doh - obvious really.
*the form buen is used before masculine singular nouns
Some evenings I've run one little chore or another after class. For example one evening last week I went to the main market, bought some fake crocs for indoors, asked where I could get keys copied, and obtained without complication a spare set of keys for guests. For one who typically eschews routine, it's striking how much I quite enjoy having one for a while. I've been cooking at home in the evenings and saving my pesos in order to explore some of Oaxaca's famously good restaurants when my people are here. I haven't even tried any of the city's (seven) famous 'mole' sauces yet, as far as I know! (I'm spending £180/month on my two-bedroom flat, and £150/week on my Spanish lessons which, while a total bargain, is considerably more than I usually live on.)
On my second Saturday I made it out of the house by 4pm and rode 300m (elevation) uphill to Monte Albán only to find it closes daily at 5pm, so I rolled back downhill again and enjoyed a delicious - if surprising - Korean 'bibimbap' at a neighbourhood restaurant. The following day I rode back up the hill again and visited the spectacular site, which was inhabited from 500BC to 850BC. What a thing to have 50 minutes from one's doorstep (25 minutes down)!
This week I hosted my first 'Warm Showers' cyclist here. (I figure I may as well make use of my spare room, host some Spanish speakers and bank some WS credits before I get on the road again. As a relative introvert these days, sharing my peaceful space with strangers doesn't come easily but it's surely a good thing to do from time to time.) Alberto from Spain was incredibly patient and endured my truly awful Spanish for two evenings when we could certainly have had much more rewarding conversations in English.
This coming weekend I plan to visit the world's widest tree at Tule, and to enjoy what looks from posters to be a traffic-free Sunday afternoon in the city centre. The following weekend it's the final of 'Oaxaca Tomboy 2017', which promises to be entertaining. There are quite a few other 'tourist attractions' in and around the city, some of which I'll scope out before my guests arrive, and others I'll save to discover with them.
In 1994 I lived briefly in a city called Pekanbaru, Indonesia, in 2006 briefly in Melbourne, Australia. Both of these three-month stints felt twice as long. I've never lived in foreign city for as long as five months! All in all I'm thoroughly delighted with my choice of temporary home and am very much looking forward to hosting some of my peeps. Did I mention I love it here?