He is Mr. Mexico to me — the personification of a country I’ve grown to love but where I’ll always be una extranjera, a foreigner. Like Mexico, he is strong but gentle, patient and tolerant, hard-working yet fun-loving, proud of his history but open to newness, always sunny, easy-going and big-hearted.
He was the first person to welcome me to Mexico when I arrived to retire here in 2015, greeting me at the airport with an enormous smile and outstretched arms. This is his business – chauffeuring and touring – and he’s a master at it.
“Here, let me help you with that,” he said in perfect English (he’d lived in the States for a number of years), reaching for my baggage after I’d emerged, nervous and dazed, from Customs. Immediately, I felt I was in good hands. I felt I’d arrived.
He became my go-to guy if I needed a ride here or there, my guide to adapting to my new life in Mexico; and we became fast friends. On our drives, I would sit in the front with him and we would talk. I learned that he was building a small house (“una cabaña,” he said), with his own two hands in his free time, on a hilltop with a 360-degree view, in the countryside between Guanajuato and San Miguel.
His “five-year plan,” he told me, was to finish building the house, retire, and move into it with his wife (their children were all grown), and live happily-ever-after. An ideal plan, I thought.
“My five-year plan,” I countered, “is to learn to speak Spanish – if not fluently, then at least passably well.” It took five years for me to be able to speak functional French when I lived in Francophone Africa, so I knew this new plan was, perhaps, possible.
Well, here we are, five-plus years later, and I feel I need to provide a report on our respective five-year plans:
Recently, on a shopping trip to the Home Depot in Celaya to get something for my new apartment, Mr. Mexico and I took a detour so he could show me, at my urging, the progress he’s been making on his house in the country. Alas, I saw it’s still a construction site.
Due to COVID, his tourism-dependent business had ground to a halt, and he didn’t have the dinero for more building materials. The downstairs is close to completion, but the upper floor still needs to be built. That’s where the bedrooms will be. So his dream house is still uninhabitable.
But he’s taking all this in stride. He’ll continue to work on it as soon as he can, he said. It will get done, in time, he assured me with a smile. He’s Mexican after all.
Come to think of it, my Spanish-language skills are still a construction site, too, and I can’t blame COVID. Oh, I can squeak by in Spanish now, making myself pretty much understood by taxi drivers and shop clerks. But conversations that involve remembering how to perform verb-conjugation magic tricks? Not so much.
I tend to make excuses, such as these: When I learned to speak French in Francophone Africa I was twenty-five years younger than I am now; African French is simpler because, I found, most Africans use only the present tense of French verbs (example: Je mange chez toi demain – I’m eating at your place tomorrow); I was the only native English speaker where I was living, so I was forced to teach and to communicate with others solely in French every day.
Here and now in San Miguel one can get away with English almost everywhere, which is in a way a shame. I still take private Spanish lessons each week with my ever-patient-and-tolerant tutor Edith, and I have fun with Duolingo on my phone every day. But my progress remains glacially slow.
So I get discouraged.
At this week’s lesson with Edith I tried to explain (in Spanish) what might be at the root of my difficulties:
“Did you know that brains shrink with age?” I asked her.
“Like a wool sweater washed in hot water?” she said.
To illustrate my point, I drew a picture of a skull with a brain inside and arrows on it pointing inward. She seemed surprised.
“This is a medical fact,” I stressed.
Nevertheless! I stubbornly refuse to give up on Spanish. I intend to continue to inch along, studying verb conjugations (oh, those verbos complicados!) on my walks, hoping some of it will stick to the walls of my aging, shrinking brain. I also refuse to beat myself up over my failure to meet my five-year-plan goal. How important are five-year plans, anyway?
I must be more like my friend Mr. Mexico and take this disappointment in stride. In my daily efforts to learn more Spanish I must also strive to be more easy-going, less stressed. More like Mexico.