Our House

I grew up in a tiny little Manitoba town, on a quiet enclosed street where kids could trick or treat without an adult holding their mittened hands. My dad was a school principal and my mom was a teacher turned homemaker, until she returned to college and became a school librarian (she knew about email and the internet before I did).

When I was eight, my parents began planning the house they would eventually have built by a friend of theirs who was one of the only contractors in town. We moved into the brand new four bedroom bilevel when I turned nine. I remember very clearly the excitement of having a beautiful, bright new house with a huge backyard filled with trees that were perfect for hide and seek.

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It made odd, creaky sounds in winter (as most Canadian houses do), and it was pretty hot in the dog days of summer, but it had this great old-fashioned wood stove and a beautiful patio overlooking a huge backyard. I had a friend or two who came over all the time (the laughter driving my older, cooler brother into his bedroom with his Walkman cassette player) because it always felt like a welcoming place to spend some time.

My brother and I moved out of our home when we graduated from high school, since the closest university was six hours away in Winnipeg, Manitoba. But our parents continued living there, carefully maintaining the house and property, until just this year. They are now preparing to move out of our family home and into a condo closer to my brother, who continues to live in Winnipeg.

My mom and dad are busy, packing up the house and moving boxes to the new place, as well as wrapping up the legalities of selling one property and buying another. However, as they continue to share pieces of this brand new journey, I always sense that hint of nostalgia coming through the messages about packing my bedroom. They send me photos of my old high school windbreaker that they found in the attic. They mention a bit of “silly” melancholy when they sold my dad’s favorite armchair (time to downsize).

If you’ve chosen a life far from your family, you’ll maybe understand a bit of what I’m feeling now. I feel like I’m so far from this life-changing event I may as well be on the moon. I feel like I can’t help work them through this major transition. And I feel like I won’t get to say goodbye to the home that held my family for all those years.

Because everyone needs to say goodbye when they leave a dear old friend. Every time we would go to Canada, our house was like an anchor where my Mexican children could set down their Canadian roots. I’d love to watch them climb in the tree house, or help their grandmother pick raspberries, or have a water fight with their cousins. It gave them a little glimpse into my childhood. More importantly, it helped them create memories of a family that lived so far away.

Last summer we already knew that my mom and dad were trying to sell the house, so before we left for the last time, my daughter went around the house and garden taking photos of things that she thought I would find meaningful. I looked through them later, and was touched and amused (mixed emotions quite common for parents) by her close ups of my teddy bears, my dresser and bed, my closet and all their contents. But what brought tears to my eyes was the zoom-in on the sidewalk in the front. There’s an inscription there in the cement that says “1982” and a symbol of the combined initials of my parents and my brother and me.

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Very soon my childhood home will be occupied by strangers. But I’d like to tell them that their new house contains a lifetime of special memories, and I would wish them a lifetime of the same. I’d want them to know that it’s part of who I am. And I would tell them that there’s a little house in Mexico being filled with the same warmth and care, thanks to all the happiness shared within those walls.

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El Eden and the Predator

Somehow I managed to raise a manchild to the ripe old age of thirteen before he became aware of the existence of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I know that this is hard to imagine, and even more difficult in light of the fact that we live in Vallarta, the home of the infamous Predator set. Arnold spent some time in Vallarta in 1986, filming this action movie in the jungle near Mismaloya.

My son was not allowed to see action movies that involved people having their spines forcibly removed, so we didn’t bring up the subject until he began yelling “Get to the choppa!” around the house. We asked him where he heard this Predator line, made famous by Arnold shouting it in his distinctive accent. Of course, he heard the line on the internet (so grateful for all this amazing information available to our children at any hour of the day or night).

After he learned more about Arnold and his action-packed resume, we decided it might be ok to take him and his sister up to the set. He was absolutely on board. So, during Semana Santa, we made our way to El Eden, home of the Predator Set, along with a canopy tour, a restaurant, some natural swimming pools and a few short hiking trails.

After getting off the main highway to Mismaloya, the drive up isn’t what you would call comfortable. If you struggle with carsickness, just understand that you will spend about anywhere from fifteen minutes to half an hour (depending on how much your car’s suspension means to you) feeling like your breakfast might make an abrupt reappearance out the window. However, the surrounding vegetation and the mountain views are worth the rough driving conditions.

We paid 50 pesos per person to enter the set and to gain access to the rest of the grounds. This included one drink of our choice (soda, beer or water).

If we want to dwell on details, The Predator Set could more accurately be called The Battered Helicopter the Studio Didn’t Want to Take Home. There’s not much left from Arnold’s time in the Mexican jungle. But there IS a guy dressed up in a pretty decent Predator costume, which, combined with the helicopter, makes for a decent photo op. If you’re with a teenage boy or if you were a teenage boy in 1986, you really shouldn’t miss it. For 150 pesos for a photo with its own Predator frame, it’s not a bad deal. There are also some posters that describe where some of the scenes took play, and my kid was all over that.

We took the hike instead of the canopy, so I can’t tell you very much about the ziplines, but I can say that the trails were beautiful. I imagine the views from the canopy tour were jaw-dropping. We were able to hike over a long swinging bridge which was terrifying for those of us (me) who are afraid of heights, and caused a tense argument about whether walking in the middle of the boards was safer than on the edges (which we have now decided to stop bringing up over the dinner table).

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So this is a bit inconsistent with my comfort level and heights

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the restaurant and natural pool. The menu items were mostly sea food, but we stuck to snack items like guacamole and quesadillas and a big pitcher of lemonade. The kids and Gil swam in the fresh water, and I waded in to my calves because the water felt like a Canadian lake in May (ie the coldest water I’ve ever experienced in Vallarta). The water was beautifully clear, and we were surrounded by the most beautiful green jungle and a few large posters of a very unattractive, dangerous-looking alien. Overall, it was a very relaxing environment for a family outing.

We had a great time at El Eden. I would recommend going even if your son hasn’t developed a fixation for The Terminator. Our family has always enjoyed a day at the river, but it’s always nice to spice things up, especially once you have teenagers who think most activities that involve parents are excruciating.

If you have your very own teenager, head out to El Eden and give it a try. He’ll get a photo with an ugly-looking alien, you’ll get a lovely day in the jungle by a river. He’ll think you’re cool for being alive when the Predator movie was made, and you’ll get him to talk. Everyone can win.

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PV Family Life

There are many reasons why my husband, Gilberto and I decided to remain in Mexico after we had children. Once you fall in love in Puerto Vallarta, you kind of also fall in love WITH Puerto Vallarta. There’s something about watching sunsets over the ocean with the sand between your toes, mariachi music  floating by. It kind of whispers “stay right where you are” directly in your ear.

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I’m not even a good photographer, that’s how easy it is to take a sunset pic here

But not only were we in love in the most romantic place on earth, but we were experiencing a lifestyle that was almost ideal. I worked at an amazing school that believed in my abilities as a teacher, and allowed me to develop the program the way I knew how. They also believed in their teachers having a personal life and reasonable working hours. Gilberto was busy every night during the high season, it’s true, but spent the days preparing music and cooking food for me. What else could any woman want?

We felt like having children here would allow us to prioritize our family and have an easy, low-cost life next to the beach, which is a natural playground. Little by little it became apparent that we were fairly naïve about the “easy” part. Child-rearing is not easy, anywhere, anytime. Plus, the idea of kids being low-cost is absolutely hilarious.

  1. A) They eat a lot of food.
  2. B) They always want to do things.
  3. C) All things cost money. ALL THE THINGS.

I still want to believe we made the right decision to raise them here, even when I feel like we are living the same busy life we would have in Canada. But today I feel like I woke up from a dream, similar to the one I have where we are racing around in circles, in a clown car (it’s always a clown car), never getting to our destination.

I woke up with the “splat” sound the crepe made when the dog pulled it off the table and started to eat it when he thought I wasn’t looking. I made the crepes in a hurry, because we had to meet friends at the water park in an hour.  I didn’t have time to make any more because the batter was gone, so now we were short one.

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I’m sorry I got caught – Max

I fought off the probably insane urge to dust it off and cut off the tooth marks, and got out the pumpkin bread I made yesterday. I was also in a hurry when I made it, because we had to get to the Farmer’s Market downtown to buy a gift before it closed.

And if we were late to the water park, then… then… what? What exactly would happen if we were late to the beautiful water park where my kids would still certainly play for hours? What would happen if we missed the Farmer’s Market that takes place every week and is surrounded by artisans’ markets which are open every single day?

So I can answer these questions right now. Nothing would happen. I could slow down and throw my dog another pet-shaming stare from his safe space in the guest bedroom. I could take a shower and answer seven questions that my kids and my husband call to me from the other side of the bathroom door. I could eat pumpkin bread, which isn’t bad despite the fact that I didn’t bake it long enough in my hurry yesterday. I could put some black beans in the crock pot and give my husband instructions on how to make sure they don’t burn while I’m gone, which he’ll totally remember when the smoke creeps up the stairs in four hours.

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so glad we made it to the waterpark so I could stand in the hot sun watching my kid do this for over an hour

And I think I have an extra minute to give that man a squeeze. I’ll even throw in a backward glance and a smile as I head out the door, because now I remember why we decided to make our home here in sunny Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in the first place.

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Day of the Dead

One of my favorite holidays in Mexico takes place on November 1rst. Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, found its roots in Mexico about 3,000 years ago. It is celebrated all over the country and especially in the central and southern regions.

Before the Spanish showed up in the sixteenth century, it was celebrated in the beginning of summer. Also, this holiday was a month long festival dedicated to the Lady of the Dead (who eventually became  known as La Calavera Catrina). But, like many festivals that are part of indigenous cultures all over the world, it was changed to fit into Christian holidays such as All Saints Eve.

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Lady Catrina

The main part of this holiday involves families and friends honoring the memory of loved ones who have passed on before them. At midnight on October 31, it is believed that the spirits of the children who died, los angelitos, come down to be reunited with their families for twenty-four hours. On November 2nd, the adults have the same opportunity. Many families go to the cemetery and spend time at their loved ones’ graves.

This sounds sad and solemn on paper and it’s hard to believe that Day of the Dead is one of the most lively, colorful celebrations you’ll see in Mexico. And that’s pretty impressive because, in Mexico, there is always a fiesta to be found.

The cemeteries, for example, are full of music, light, and chatter. Families are playing cards and cleaning up graves, reminiscing about family members. The streets are full of color, with dozens of altars and huge, decorated calaveras lining the streets posed in funny costumes and postures.

In many homes you will find ofrendas, or altars, dedicated to someone who has passed away. Some of the elements you may see on an ofrenda are:

  • Salt, a purifying element
  • Marigolds, (flor de cempasúchil), the scent of which will lead the deceased to the home
  • Photos of the deceased
  • Pan de muertos, a delicious, sugary sweet bread
  • Sugar skulls to decorate the altar and to represent the loved one
  • The favorite food of the deceased to feed them on their long journey
  • Candles to guide them on their way

Our family lost a dear friend to cancer nearly two years ago. She was very proud of her Mexican heritage and loved Dia de los Muertos most of all. She often spoke fondly of growing up in Mexico City and the magic of these special days. When she passed away, I knew our family would honor her memory in our home with an altar, because she would absolutely love that.

But that wasn’t the only reason.  Her sickness and eventual passing had been so shocking and so tragic for our family. We had known her for years, and she was an important person to all of us. After she passed away we would bring up some of the happy times we had with her, but they usually just made us feel badly that she was gone.

As we began to collect items for her altar, we were able to talk about her and feel good. We found the clay cup that she always used for her coffee. We dug up photos of her playing with our kids when they were tiny. We brought out the Spanish children’s books she gave them as gifts.

We thought of her favorite kinds of food (mole for sure). We bought marigolds and talked about her love for all kinds of plants and trees. We found sugar skulls and I told the children about how she laughed at the look on my face when she bought me one during my first year in Mexico.

Once we had all these items, we painted boxes and decorated them with the traditional papel picado (cut paper). We set them up and set out all the items we had gathered. We lit the candles and sat down in front of the ofrenda, silent for a moment. I realized then that we weren’t thinking about her loss so much as her memory.

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Our beloved friend came to us on Dia de los Muertos. She came to us in bright orange flowers, in chocolate, in delicious food, in laughter.

Mexico is a beautiful place with many fascinating secrets. If you listen closely, she will share one of her best: that death is never the end, and that our loved ones are never truly gone.

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My girl’s depiction of the way we remember our friend. Pretty lovely.

One Dad’s Language

Parenting is always a tough job, there’s no doubt about that. I have a lot of respect and admiration for people who do that on their own, because parenting with two people isn’t exactly a piece of cake. This is true especially when the parents speak different languages.

Maybe you wonder how two people who speak different languages actually get together to have children. Here’s where I need to explain that the language of love is an actual thing. Also, when one of the people plays the electric guitar and looks mysterious while playing this guitar, getting together doesn’t seem like an actual decision so much as an inevitable situation.

By the time you have children, most of the mystery is gone and all of the colossal cultural misunderstandings remain, which is probably why bicultural marriages have a slightly higher divorce rate than do mono-cultural ones. These are things you ponder as you wait outside the grocery store with a full cart and a toddler who is determined to run in front of a speeding motorcycle, waiting for your husband to arrive ten minutes ago.

But for all rapid twists and turns that life takes after children, and all the frustration of trying to learn two sets of vocabulary for baby equipment, I really am so appreciative the father of my children. He has absolutely dedicated himself in the raising of these two kids, and he is completely committed to doing this alongside me, the Canadian who insists on a regular bedtime and who is not really flexible about it.

I actually think there are some great benefits to a bicultural parenting approach. We tend to complement one other and provide a balance to the other’s extremes. What I admire in him are usually things that I lack in my own way of child-rearing, such as:

  • The ability to see the bright side to every single situation, and the security in knowing that everything is going to work out just fine. The Boy ate lunch alone at school for a couple of weeks straight back in first grade. My take: he is surely being bullied by his entire class and he will be traumatized forever. Gilberto’s take: he’s developing self-reliance, and he hasn’t met the right friend yet.

 

Guess what.

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  • The skill to drive, eat, speak, sleep, and generally exist in a busy environment of noisy, exuberant children without suddenly snapping and emptying the room in a series of short, barked commands. He is totally unfazed by a car full of chatty tween girls, and actually finds it kind of energizing. I find him smiling to himself amid the chaos and wish for that level of sound tolerance. I still think that a lifetime spent next to a guitar amp has equipped him with enough auditory damage to allow him to block out the highest decibels of giggling.
  • The stomach for any kind of crisis, especially of the medical variety. The kids go to him with any kind of physical complaint, and he responds with calm and a pair of nail clippers. I think he actually enjoys it.
  • The fortitude to let go when things don’t go the way we planned. We have spent every single family trip stuck in the rain somewhere, and he’s always the first one to make a joyful run for it. The rest of us always end up following him, laughing until we genuinely can’t breathe.

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My children’s father is the kindest man I know. He loves without reservation, he listens with limitless compassion, and he forgives freely. He doesn’t hold on to anger or allow it to build walls between him and his kids.

I have learned so much about what unconditional love is all about, just by watching him hold our children and tell them that it’s going to be ok. I have learned about letting go of my schedule when it’s time to play, and to laugh when our plans go completely sideways.

Because love is his native language, and he speaks it to us every day.

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Vallarta Visitors

In early 2000, I attended a job fair in Kingston Ontario specifically for finding a teaching job overseas. I interviewed with several international schools around the world. I received a few job offers with hiring packages that looked pretty good to a young teacher, but none drew me in as much as did the American School of Puerto Vallarta. In relation to other schools around the world, it’s a fairly small school community, but what it offers in way of quality of life was nearly incomparable.

One of the biggest draws to me was the fact that it was easily accessible to family and friends who want to visit. I was concerned about being lonely for my homeland and didn’t want to go anywhere where it would be both too far and too costly for loved ones to come and spend a week or two.

I made a great choice with Vallarta, because it’s been pretty easy to convince people to shell out for the plane ticket to come see me next to a backdrop of palm trees and sandy beaches.

I categorize my visitors into two major groups. The first group would come and see me no matter where I lived. They love me, they miss me, and they would sit in a snow bank on the edge of the Arctic Circle with me, picking out ash from their Earl Grey tea because the water was heated over an open fire.

I spent two years as a teacher on a First Nations reservation in a fly-in only island in Northern Manitoba, and I had a few visitors who braved the slightly sketchy flight and isolating experience in order to see my face. They certainly didn’t come because of the constant activity, unless they were secretly addicted to the bingo at the local community center. It definitely was not the balmy weather, since it would reach -60 with the wind chill some nights. This is a very small, very tough group of people that has earned a permanent place in Casa Leza whenever they need a tropical getaway.

The other group is large, and wonderful, and quite glad I live in Vallarta. This group loves both Vallarta and me. They are so happy I live here, because they enjoy Mexico and think it’s great that I’m now part of the package. I don’t know how you feel about having visitors, but for me, watching people have a great time in your town kind of makes you remember why you chose to live there in the first place.

A great big bunch of my uncles and aunts rented a house two doors down from me this past month. My parents are currently living with us, and a couple of other friends came to visit too. Watching them troop home from the bus after a busy day of whale-watching, hiking near Casa Kimberly, or dancing to my husband’s music at El Rio BBQ, I feel a sense of satisfaction that my visitors have been so well-entertained in my beloved Banderas Bay.

They have converted the front patio of the normally empty house into a lawnchair-littered, friendly party terrace, and their laughter drifts into our windows every evening. It makes me smile, because I remember being a little girl in pink footy pajamas, hearing the same laughter around the campfire at night as I lay tucked into bed in our camper trailer, cousins in a deep sleep beside me, after a long day of getting into as much mischief as could be managed.

Nowadays the mischief isn’t mine, because I’ll be getting up early to get ready for work, and the uncles will still be sleeping until it’s time to wake up for the San Sebastian tour bus. But it’s nice to know that they’ll be here when I get home, laughing the way they did around a campfire in another time and place.

It’s marvelous to have visitors when they are important parts of your life no matter where you live. And it’s wonderful to watch them come to love Vallarta for all the reasons you love it too.

Heart in Her Hand

I think we never realize how our actions as children affect our parents until we have children of our own and we get the first call from the principal. Suddenly all you can visualize is your heart, freshly ripped from your chest, dripping messily all over a plate she’s holding casually (which sounds really weird when I say it out loud). And there, on a toothpick at the center of the aorta is a tiny white flag and two words: “be gentle”.

I’m fortunate that the educators in my children’s lives care deeply for them and want the best for them. So my tender heart has been safe in their hands. But it takes moments like these to understand that some of the happiest moments in my life may have been a little traumatizing for my own parents.

I can illustrate this with a fun story about my Mexican wedding. I look back fondly on Gil’s and my civil ceremony because it reflected my own personality so beautifully: disorganized and a bit of a disaster. We found out a week before our spiritual ceremony on the beach that the civil ceremony in Vallarta just wasn’t happening. It turns out that the Civil Registry here in town requires brand new birth certificates, even from non-Mexicans. I had one about ten years old, which was considered to be a useless sheet of antique paper here in Jalisco. They recommended that we check to see if folks in the state of Nayarit were more romantic and less concerned with the age of official papers.

The nearest Civil Registry in Nayarit is in a little place called Bahia de Banderas. If you know where Mezcales is, you can find Bahia de Banderas if you go through Mezcales onto very small, very confusing, very bumpy roads for about a really long time. The office itself is tiny in size but mighty in enthusiasm to marry people, and thus we held our ceremony right there.

From my point of view, the whole thing was both quirky and romantic, because the Justice of the Peace was an earnest, wonderful lady who was so happy for us in spite of just having met us. Gilberto bought me flowers, and I was surrounded by friends and family.

But let’s take a step back and look at it through my dad’s eyes. This perspective won’t give you a great view of the ceremony, unfortunately, because he was standing in the Justice’s personal bathroom as her miniscule office was overflowing with all six witnesses. He was holding my daughter, whom he loved more than all the tortillas in Mexico, although I imagine he never dreamed of holding his grandchild at his daughter’s wedding. He was in a town he’d never heard of, in a land where he was not a citizen, and he couldn’t for the life of him make out a single word of the ceremony. He was probably just going on the hope that someone would say at some point (and in a most legal fashion), “I pronounce you husband and wife.”

This must have been an out of body experience as a parent. Because what do you do when your child calls you up from a foreign country right before she’s about to come home forever, and tells you in a breathless, excited voice that she’s in LOVE and she’s going to STAY IN MEXICO and probably get married at some point? Do you wonder where you went wrong? Do you wrestle with questions about how your daughter’s life’s work could have taken her so far from you? Do you stay awake nights worrying over your precious child who is now inexplicably in love with someone whose values and culture are not yet known to you?

Let me tell you what my parents did. They came down to Mexico and stood as witness for their daughter. They held their baby grandchildren tightly in their arms so their parents could sign the marriage license. They hugged Gilberto and called him “son”.

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The wedding on the beach was a few days later. My dad held my hand and danced with me on the sand. He asked if I was happy. I said that I was. And then he said what I hope I’ll trust my own child enough to say as my heart dangles from her hand, “Then that’s enough for me.”

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Where I Belong

My favorite part of the day is hearing the keys in the lock of the front door at about midnight. That will sound odd unless you are married to a musician who works a schedule that is precisely opposite to your regular, 9 – 5 kind of day. I look forward to the tumble of latches because, of course, it means that our family is safe at home, and my long-haired foot warmer will soon slide in beside me, and life will be cozy and complete.

And I love my life. It isn’t perfect, but I love it. Do you want to know why? Because I live in Mexico, on the coast, amongst a people who, amid a plethora of bad press and a new angry foreign president, post jokes about preparing for life behind a wall designed to keep especially them outside of it. Certainly there are protests, and there is concern, but there is also laughter. If there’s anything I have learned about living in Mexico, it’s that happiness is something you can create out of very little. If there’s anything else, it’s that laughter is a great alternative to fear and uncertainty.

As a permanent resident in Mexico, I am appalled at the world events that are unfolding hourly. As the mother and wife of Mexican people, I am about as angry as the Mama Jumbo in Disney’s Dumbo when her baby gets bullied. They had to lock her up, by the way, because Mamas of any species are not those with whom you want to mess, never mind the largest Mama Land Mammal in the entire known universe.

I am feeling similarly Mama Jumbo, because walls are not okay when they are designed to keep people I care about on the other side of them. They are not okay when they are designed to create suspicion and fear against my own true loves. And they are not okay when they are meant to shut out a country that brought me in with such wholehearted love and acceptance.

You see, I came in as a guera with no Spanish and no cultural clue. I stumbled around making all sorts of mistakes and spilling loads of tequila, and yet I was met with nothing but grace and good humor. I was given the chance at loving someone who was always late but always willing to meet me where I was linguistically, even though I thought that my initial Spanish word bank of “yo quiero Taco Bell” was a pretty good start.

When I was frustrated and confused in my attempts to assimilate or do my banking, I was met with friendly faces and attempts to communicate in English even though I was not in an English speaking country. No one told me to learn to speak Mexican if I was going to live in Mexico, and not just because they know that the language here is called Spanish.

I was given the gift of two precious Mexican citizens for children who have taught me every great thing I needed to know about myself and my capacity for love, which was so much deeper than I ever knew it could be.

And although this breath-taking country with her big-hearted citizens never had a single obligation to accept a blonde, awkward human being as one of their own, I have never been told I don’t belong.  I have never wondered if I could really make a life here. My life IS here, in the sound of a tumbling lock, in the moment where I know my life is complete, in a country that took me in and told me I was home.

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Expat Explanations

I love winter in Vallarta, mostly because saying the word “winter” while I’m sitting in warm sunshine makes me smile. But also I love watching all the people who fill our streets and beaches. Most of them are blissfully happy because they haven’t worn a mitten since they got off the plane. They don’t have to get up at 1:30am to check if they remembered to plug in the block heater so their car will start in the morning. They don’t even necessarily have to get up at all, because that’s how vacations work.

That’s a pretty nice vibe to live your life around, even though I indeed DO have to get up in the morning (although I don’t have to remember to plug in my block heater and I hope I never will).

Not all who arrive here from other countries are tourists, however. It seems to me that there are a few categories of foreigners who are currently residing in Puerto Vallarta:

  • Tourists that come for a week or two, have a great time, and talk about coming back for the rest of the year (we hope you do!). Some speak Spanish, many don’t, but nearly all do their best to communicate respectfully.
  • Residents who live here during the times when their home country isn’t being climatically agreeable and go back when it decides to cooperate. They get involved in the local community, usually help out in local charities, and in general think a lot about living here full time. They normally speak a bit of Spanish, and work on learning more.
  • Residents who live here all year round. Many rely on local economy, have married locally, and have at least one Mexican citizen in their family. Most have a decent handle on the Spanish language and don’t expect anyone to speak English to them anymore (although it’s never turned down).

I realize that there are more categories, such as those who DON’T have a great time, but I think that must be a very small sampling, and I haven’t actually met very many. To those who don’t, I recommend coming back and trying one more time.

I am in category 3. I live here all year round, I make pesos, and I speak Spanish (in a very broad sense of the term). My entire family has Mexican passports except for me, and they rarely let me forget it, because they feel I should work a lot harder at getting one. I enjoy sharing with them that I would have more time to work on my citizenship if other family members who enjoy that privilege would fold their own laundry.

Sometimes it’s nice when local people recognize permanent residents as locals because we love being part of that community. But we do understand that we physically resemble many of the tourists. We also know that Vallartans do genuinely appreciate their beloved tourists, so we generally don’t make a big deal about it. But in case anyone wants to know how they can distinguish a resident from a tourist, here is a handy list:

  • Many of us are not tanned, and we are almost never sunburned. This is because we know we have to do this long term, and we don’t want to one day be confused with a leather product.
  • We are currently wearing jeans and sweaters in the evenings.
  • In the mornings our hands and feet are freeeeezing.
  • We know where to find Pitillal.
  • We know how to get out of Pitillal.
  • We know where to fix our phone (and it’s in Pitillal).
  • We ride the bus standing, without flying into the laps of the seated passengers (um, most of us, anyway)
  • We use the pineapple habanero salsa at the local taco stand with full knowledge of what we will suffer (but we can’t help ourselves)
  • We continue to watch every single sunset with the same wonder as our first night in Vallarta. Because, just, wow. We get to live here.column-expat-explanation-1

So You’re Shy

I’ve always carried around a big, heavy label called “shy”. It’s a stone-like tag that usually gets hooked around your neck early on in life. And the problem is, once you’ve got it on, it’s nearly impossible to remove. You become “shy” when your parent’s aunt tries to give you a hug and you endure it by pretending you’ve turned into an inanimate object.  You’re “shy” when someone asks how old you are and you reply by turning a shade slightly brighter than the color of the maple leaf on your country’s flag.  You’re “shy” when you’ve never been on Santa’s lap because the last time your poor mother tried, you screamed and ran behind the Maytag appliances in the department store.

It doesn’t get much better, in case you’re wondering. But by the time you are in college, you can cover it up by getting to know about three or four people and being seen with them everywhere so it looks like you have a lot of friends. And then, once you reach adulthood and have children, you can use the little ones as an excuse to avoid large gatherings. I’m pretty sure most people think my kids are sickly. And I’m willing to let that ride.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I like people. I married one, and my parents are some, and my kids are (usually) people too. But, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a classic introvert. This basically means I want to be invited to things so that I won’t feel like an outcast, but then I make excuses about not going because I hate when people say “wow, you are so red right now” when I am embarrassed. And believe me, I am going to be embarrassed at least three times per outing.

Here’s the deal. If you are already an introvert who finds potentially embarrassing social situations to be the Worst Thing Ever, you might then try not to move to a place where these situations are more likely to happen. A place, say, where you do not speak the language or understand many of the cultural norms. A place where you may look different from most of the others. A place where you cannot understand or make yourself understood on the telephone to save your very arm or life.

Certainly Mexico is a wonderful place to live. I met my husband here and we fell in love. The ocean is fantastic, the mountains breathtaking. It’s also the place where I have humiliated myself to the point that I wished for a way to fold myself into a very tiny object that could be placed under a very tiny rock.

Consider the following:

  • Having a very desirable guitar player ask you in Spanish if you are a teacher (in order to make very basic conversation so you might stop the staring) and you just smile knowingly. So he asks you again and you wonder if he wants your phone number and your friend has to tell you what he said. So then you say yes, and then you both sit silently because is there any point in going on.
  • After eight months of Mexican living you finally screw up the courage to order your meal in Spanish after practicing inside your head while your more fluent companions go first. You say what you think is “Sopa de tortilla, por favor”, blushing a bit but proud because your friends approve. The waiter stops writing, begins to back away, then full-out runs to the kitchen to return with the only English-speaking staff member in the restaurant.
  • You have been in Mexico five years and can converse fairly well, but you often don’t need to at work because most of your colleagues speak English. But then you have to speak to a parent in Spanish because he doesn’t speak English and you do just fine. But then your colleague blurts out, “I’ve never heard you speak Spanish before, that was amazing!” and then the two of them kind of clap for you like you just used a spoon with your pureed peas for the first time. And then one of them asks, “Did you get a sunburn just now?”
  • You are trying to explain where you live to a taxi driver and you’re sweating and stumbling around because you forget how to say “around the corner from” in Spanish, and actually you don’t even do directions in English. Then your eight-year-old son chimes in. In exactly five seconds the taxi driver says “ahhh pues claro”, and your son rolls his eyes at you for the very first time in what may now be his short life.
  • You don’t know if people want to do the one cheek kiss, the two cheek kiss, a hug, or just a casual wave. So more than one evening ends with accidentally kissing acquaintances full on the lips, or the shoulder, or even the tops of their possibly hairless heads.

As it turns out, the guitar player and I had a bit more to talk about, like the fact that he has also been accused of being shy. That made the awkward moments pretty much worth it. Sure, being shy and human can be hard. Being shy, human and in a foreign country can be harder. But, if you don’t mind getting out from under the rock, once in awhile it can also be really good for you.

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