My dear Spanish teacher, Edith, about whom I’ve written a lot over the years I’ve lived here in San Miguel de Allende, during which she’s patiently, good-heartedly put up with my inability to learn this language, told me this week that I am improving. If only this were true.
I try. I do. I’m not giving up. I’m just setting boundaries (by eschewing too-difficult-for-me verb conjugations) and lowering my expectations (no longer striving to be the smartest girl in the class). Edith and I have a lesson every week – conversations, mostly, about Mexican culture and history, world news, the weather, the usual – and when I can’t follow her, she writes down the words that have stumped me so I might later review them. In between I do fun little Duolingo lessons on my smartphone every day.
I can get by, make myself understood (sort-of) by the good-natured Mexican people here. I smile at their smiling faces and use a lot of hand gestures (stand-ins for the missing verbs), and somehow we communicate. Invariably, I come away from these cross-cultural encounters a richer person. I may not be improving appreciably, as Edith claims, but I’m still learning. And this ongoing process alone makes me happy.
Before I made my final decision to retire to Mexico, I read a number of books on the subject. This was about eight years ago, when books were still respected as a solid source of information, before social media became the go-to venue for easy advice. One of the urgent questions I sought an answer for from these books was, Would I need to speak fluent Spanish before making this life-changing move?
I had studied French in school and learned to speak it passably well in Francophone Africa in the Peace Corps. But my Spanish vocabulary was solely culinary — consisting of my favorite Mexican foods: chili con carne, guacamole, and enchiladas. I knew I had a lot to learn and wondered whether I could learn it at the age of seventy.
Of the five books I ordered from Amazon and read hungrily before emigrating here, my favorite was Carol M. Merchasin’s This is Mexico: Tales of Culture and Other Complications, because it’s not only informative, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. I used to read passages from it to my Creative Nonfiction writing students in Taos, New Mexico, as excellent examples of how to write humor.
One of my favorite chapters in Carol’s book, which helped me to overcome my worries about learning this new-to-me language, is “Ser, Estar, and the Charms of Living in Spanish,” about her and her husband Robert’s efforts to learn Spanish in San Miguel. In it she writes:
“Señor Roberto [her term of endearment for her husband throughout the book] once told our lawyer (our abogado) he was grateful to have him as our avocado. If I had been the listener, I would have been rolling on the floor laughing. Instead, our lawyer smiled as though he appreciated being held in the same general esteem as guacamole.
“This scenario repeats itself in ways too many to mention as I travel the long, unpaved road to living in Spanish,” Carol writes. “Since the route is filled with potholes, I often ask myself, Why bother? Plenty of people live in Mexico without speaking Spanish. I don’t have time to do this, I tell myself. I am too old, I whine. I will never, ever be fluent. That at least rings true.
“But I have kept on, propelled mostly by guilt. What I lack in aptitude, I try to overcome with persistence. That endears me to Mexicans, who are not like the French, who are said to be contemptuous of anything less than an expert attempt to communicate. No, Mexicans will smile like delighted grandparents, clapping, cooing, and astonished at the progress you have made in butchering their language.”
Carol’s frustrations in learning Spanish mirror my own. I agree with her that sometimes it’s just too challenging. She writes, “Whose idea was it to make the word for straight ahead (derecho) almost the same as the one for going to the right (derecha)? Do we even know the number of gringos who are permanently lost as a result of this word warp?”
Jokes aside, she and I agree that there’s a lot to love about the Spanish language. “I am another person in Spanish,” Carol writes, “someone with no name but a title, La Señora, saying less because I can’t say more, forced into a simpler existence because I am always on the frontier of what I can understand.”
Not long after I came to live happily-ever-after in San Miguel almost seven years ago, I interviewed Carol for my WOW blog (do read the full interview at: www.bonnieleeblack.com/blog/carol-merchasin’s-mexico/ ), and we became friends. We are close in age, and our birthdays in May are two days apart, so we’ve found we have much in common – not the least of which is our stubborn (Taurus) determination to keep on learning Spanish.
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* To read summaries of the five books I consulted before deciding to retire to Mexico, go to: www.bonnieleeblack.com/blog/book-guides/ .