Moving Forward, Progress and Happiness in Oaxaca
Progress lies not in improving what is, but in advancing toward what will be. ~ Khalil Gibran
So I’ve been in Oaxaca almost six weeks. The first two weeks were all about being a tourist and I walked the town, took in the sites and got my bearings. In week three I started language school at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca. I have four weeks of classes in which I’m working to improve my Spanish language skills.
I have some skills but they are far from complete, they allow me to navigate around in Spanish-speaking countries, I spent a month in Spain earlier this year. I call it survival Spanish, I can order food, get my laundry done, figure out what train I’m supposed to be on etc… Generally, I have the ability to make people understand what I’m saying, what I need. However, understanding the answer is the trick, especially if I say something particularly well, because then people assume I have skills and speak normally – which you can read as fast and not clearly. So my time in Oaxaca has been especially focused on improving my ear, in other words having as many conversations, with as many Spanish speakers as possible.
This is a really good point for a little tangent, call it a public service announcement. No matter what country you live in, you see tourists from time to time trying to speak your native language, their second or even sometimes third of fourth language. On behalf of all travelers around the world struggling with a new language let me ask a favor of you friends. When you encounter these people please do a couple of things, first speak slowly, not like you have brain damage but slowly, simply and clearly enunciate words. You don’t have to go overboard but just slow and clear. Also, after you’ve said something to someone, wait, be patient, you see the person you are talking to has to do a few things. First, they have to figure out how many of the words you just said they knew. Second, they then have to translate those words, then, because word structure is different in each language they have to reorder what you said into their native language. So sometimes you say something and they look confused and you start to re-explain which just mucks up the process. Give them a few extra beats and after if they still look confused, ask if they understand.
Let me give you a simple example. I meet someone in Oaxaca and in Spanish I ask where the laundromat is located? They reply La lavendaria is dos cuadras norte allado de la casa rojo. So first, I have to think what does cuadras and allado de mean. Ok, that’s right, city block and next to, great. So two blocks north next to house red. So the final step is to reorder in English, two blocks north next to the red house. Those extra little steps take a few extra heart beats to get organized and recognized in your brain. So slow, clear, simple words, patience and no slang or idioms, please. You have no idea how much this will be appreciated.
So I’ve spent five weeks in Oaxaca including three weeks in school and it sort of feels like I’m making progress. However, you can be fooled in the protected environment of the classroom or in this case even the larger social sphere of the institute. So today I was in the mood for enchiladas and I headed for Del Jardin in the Zocalo, a place I’d had enchiladas my second day in Oaxaca.
I sat down at the table and the waitress arrived and asked me what I wanted to drink. She returned a couple of minutes later with my drink, took my order and left. On the Zocalo, especially someone who doesn’t look the least bit Mexican will find themselves quickly and frequently being visited by a number of street vendors. My lunch arrived, the enchiladas rojos pictured above, and it was fabulous. You can’t beat five enchiladas, a drink, a basket of bread and butter, peanuts and a twenty percent tip, all for six dollars. Not to mention the food quality here is amazing.
What hit me during my meal was how easy and relaxed it all was. I had accidentally done a wonderful experiment. My first time at Del Jardin, I’d struggled a tiny bit with the menu. I was nervous and forgot to ask for a drink without ice, I forgot to order the dish without onions. The waitress had asked some of the same small questions just as she did today. However, the first time, I had to go through that thought process I described above, had to ask her to repeat things and although everything went fine, it was a choppy and uncomfortable conversation. When the vendors approached I just shook my head no and looked down, if they said anything I just ignored them. Today, it was a quick no thank you and with a stubborn older woman, I understood she was trying to guilt me into buying something for my mother by telling me how sad she would be if her son didn’t buy her something. We had a nice little back and forth where I explained I would be in Oaxaca for a time and would buy something for my mother later. I even cracked a little joke that made her laugh before she moved on.
What my lunch experience taught me today was that I am in fact making progress. My ear is definitely better, my vocabulary has expanded and most of all, I’m far more comfortable in these interactions than I was five weeks ago. This really made today a happy day and I hope you’re having one as well my friend. – Rev Kane