Frightened Tribe

January 6, 2022

I rarely write here about expats, the principal minority tribe in my community. Since many of these are friends or acquaintances, I’m cautious gossiping about them in a public blog. They might not like me afterwards, after all.

There are a few Canadians here – about as many as I have fingers, maybe less. There are also people from various parts of Europe. However, five-sixths of expats, roughly, are Americans. For years, since most of them are people who will quote books they’ve read, I assumed they all fit the generic liberal profile: soft left in politics, supporting gay rights, reduced racism, and kindness to animals. They all seemed to like each other’s Facebook posts.

When Donald Trump was elected, I tried to understand what was happening in the US, and began spending time on conservative websites. I also discovered that while they were mostly less vocal than the liberals, there were a number of Republicans here. This seemed superficially hypocritical, since the last US administration was trying to keep Mexicans and Latinos generally out of its borders, yet its supporters felt okay about moving south. But they point out that their presence here is legal: they didn’t come over the border in the night.

B and I have spoken a lot in the past few months. Mostly, he speaks, and I listen. His partner died not long ago, he’s lonely and sad, and some of his anger at the US left possibly stems from that. He needs to vent. Unlike with a right-wing website though, I can make replies and ask him questions. He has worked in the US political system, and has interesting insights.

Mostly what I hear about, though, is the sheer panic happening across the US right now. M believes in ‘the steal,’ but is also lucid in describing popular anger in his home country. Other American friends tell me of their own fear and anger at what M’s side want, even if he draws back from advocating violence to settle the issue. But the endless talk of civil war has an audience. Or rather, two mutually suspicious audiences.

We’ve all read endless punditry on these topics, and it would be tedious to rehash all that here. But I do have a quirky lens here in Tepoztlan on what is currently tearing the US apart, and it’s sad and darkly fascinating. 

Like any Canadian (or Brit), I’ve always been wary of America’s power and its lack of interest in what other countries think of it. I’ve also had many happy experiences visiting the country, and like many people from there. However, I do find the old line that no American ever leaves their own country, wherever they live physically, is true in very many cases, and I have great difficulty persuading some Americans not to fear either social democrats or single-payer medical systems, having been around both all my life. Last month I spent several futile minutes trying to convince one less-educated man that I don’t get my opinions from either the New York Times or the Washington Post. That my views might have been informed and nourished outside the US, over many years, was too unsettling or bizarre a notion for him to handle. He ‘knew’ only corrupt Democrats had opinions like mine.

I try to stay level-headed as these things erupt. Americans have to solve their own problems, though some I encounter here are deeply distressed that their country is no longer a paragon among the democracies. I sometimes become the therapist, the outsider listening to people’s anxieties, but of course I have no prescriptions to offer. I hear about stupid family arguments, and I hear quotes from media columnists who provide excellent analysis but no plans of action. Mexico is a place of sanctuary from all this for these expats, but not an impregnable one. The strife travels across borders at the speed of an email.

And hardly nobody in the US seems able to imagine, or even necessarily to want, an effective bridge-builder between the sides. As B keeps reminding me, the anger is strong. He just can’t tell me where things will end up if and when it bursts out in full strength. After coffee and talk, we head off to do our day’s shopping or to meet friends, and the mild winter sunshine makes it seem to me like the problem is less likely to affect me than I know it eventually will. After all, it will take a lot of hurt and struggle to drain the resentments that are simmering just a single frontier away.

Battling Irregular Verbs on Tuesdays

September 20, 2019

Two or three of us get together on Tuesdays to practice our Spanish dialogue. We have what people here call Survival Spanish (“A kilo of beans, please; doctor, I think I’ve broken my finger; where can I catch a bus home?”) but deeper non-English conversation is a rarity for us. We end up hanging out a lot with other expats, and feel a touch guilty for doing so. But otherwise, we’d hardly have a real conversation with anyone. By and large, expatriates here are educated people, and we’re used to nuanced discussions and well-phrased arguments. Unless our Spanish is top-rate, we always feel frustrated and disappointed in how a talk goes.

A few people I know have been around long enough that they’ve mastered Mexican Spanish to the point that they can converse for minutes on end, or more. A lot of us, though, choke on the irregular verb endings, and even the regular ones. And don’t get me started on the “por” and “para” business; two words, both of which can mean “for,” that seem almost interchangeable but have clearly different connotations to native Spanish speakers.


Then, there are the vowel sounds. English abbreviates its vowels, and a lot of words have the nondescript short er sound, as in “the,” or the second vowel sound in “forward” as it’s commonly pronounced. Spanish, by contrast, extends its vowels, giving the lips a workout. I imagine lip-reading Spanish is far easier than doing it with English-speakers.

You have to train your lips and mouth away from whatever regional English or North American accent you have to express yourself comprehensibly. Midwestern accents, in particular, subject Spanish vowels to horrible abuse, because (I think) of the need to switch to using the lips and tongue, not the throat, to make sounds. For English people, the need is to bring sound production out of the nasal cavity.



Tenses in Spanish were, I realised long ago, designed in an unrecorded sub-circle of Dante’s Inferno:  a sort of Area 51 of the Underworld, except it chose to release its grammatical aliens, not keep them a secret. For example, a present-tense English verb like ‘make’ is identical in all parts except the third-person singular: I make, you make, she makes, we make… It changes to ‘made’ in the perfect (past) tense, but then every individual takes the same ending: I made, he made, we made, etc. There’s no “mades” in the third-person. Our spelling, admittedly, was probably put together in a linguistic assembly hall situated next to the infernal Spanish tense-designers, but we’re talking speech here, not reading and writing.

Then there are extra tenses in Spanish, such as the conditional, that we don’t have in English. People also drop the person, so one doesn’t say “Yo soy,” (“I am”) but merely “Soy,” the “I’ being implied by the verb ending. This is deeply disconcerting at first. And later on, as well.

Often, it becomes easier to cheat and default to present-tense verbs. People will understand essentially what we’re trying to communicate, and we won’t accidentally change our intended meaning from one verb to another because we wrongly guessed an ending or perhaps misused a stem-change, where the middle part of the verb becomes something different.

Then, not everyone who lives in a Mexican village produces grammatically perfect speech. Some people never learned good grammar from their parents or friends. And there are local abbreviations: “hasta luego,” or “see you later,” sometimes becomes “hasta logo.” Or “por favor” (“please”) becomes porfa. Grasping such details is a separate learning process on its own.

We end up smiling and nodding a lot, and wishing we could do better, but we can’t. When I first settled here in 2010, a friend of mine chastised me for not just plunging in and picking it up like a thirty-year-old acquaintance of hers had done. But memory doesn’t work as well after your forties, and won’t absorb complex new information easily. I’ve learned some constructs a half-dozen times, yet they’ve not stuck in my brain. And if you don’t use an expression, then you don’t really learn it, so you become stuck on a hamster-wheel, going round and around again, but not making any progress.

It frustrates me that while my French wasn’t great in school, I still have more of it today than I do Spanish. One time I had to interview a businessman from Paris who wasn’t able to speak much English. But his Sorbonne-educated French was grammatically perfect, and I understood almost all he said to me in a forty-minute conversation, as he understood my own halting constructs. In Paris a few months ago, I found I was still at least as fluent in French as I was in Spanish. Not that says much, but it was still noticeable.

There is no alternative to trying, though. You can’t move to a foreign country and expect the locals to speak English. There are 440-million native Spanish speakers in the world, compared to an estimated 360-million native English speakers, so there’s no assumption that “I know my language is obscure,” as Danes or Dutch people have said to me. Sure, more people have English as a second language, while there are under 100-million who know some Spanish, but after Mandarin Chinese, Spanish is regularly used by more people in everyday life than any other language.

So, we’ll get together on Tuesday with our dictionaries and my tattered old book of irregular Spanish verbs, and muddle our way through for an hour or so. Sometimes, one of us knows a word or phrase that the other does not, and we can share that. Sometimes, we can clarify a point of grammar that was previously obscure. And sometimes we just stall, because of what we don’t know, then work around the problem with simpler or clumsier phrasing.

We’re stubborn, though, and we’ll stay here. We like bright colours, savoury foods and the collective acceptance that a person can be twenty minutes late without society collapsing. We like not freezing our butts off in the northern U.S. or Canada, we like being able to eat out regularly even though we might have under thousand dollars a month, and we appreciate that this place has mountains, green trees all year round, and a graciousness that isn’t always available elsewhere.

But oh, those irregular verbs… those irregular @#$&ing verbs ….






Why Are We All Here?

“Perhaps,” wrote James Baldwin, “home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” When I came across that, in an excellent piece by Ayelet Tsabari, it struck a chord.

I left England for good in 1972 and next week I go back for the first time in a decade. Whenever I visit there, I never know how I’ll react to it. My first trip, in 1979, confirmed for me that I belonged in Canada, where I was raising a family.  I’ve rarely returned for more than just a few days ever since. I have no idea how the upheaval about Brexit will affect my reactions this time. But while the actual England of today might not attract me – as a place, it certainly isn’t my home – the England in which I grew up obviously shaped me for life.  My own ‘irrevocable condition’ always somehow relates to that lost place and time.

Mexico is a more extreme choice to live in than Canada ever was. When I settled in Toronto forty-seven years ago, I needed to adjust my accent and vocabulary slightly, but had no difficulty understanding the structure of the government, or basic cultural norms. There was a more conservative social attitude in general than I’d known from southern England in the 1960s and ’70s, which often made me recoil, but the Toronto that was emerging at that time was increasingly confident and cosmopolitan. I needed some years to settle in, but by the late 1970s, settled I was … as much as I’ve ever settled anywhere.

Choosing Mexico as a retirement destination was financially strategic (meaning: I didn’t have a fat pension), but since I ended up in a rural village, far from the resort towns of the coasts, something else was at work as well. That sense so many boomers have felt in the 21st Century, that the irrevocable condition of home is no longer attainable, almost demands an extreme counter-reaction. What we look for varies, when we come to somewhere off the beaten track, but the expat community here is more unusual than many probably are.

Tepoztlan has had a reputation as a centre for mysticism for a long time, partly because of its proximity to Amatlan, the reputed birthplace of Quetzalcoatl. There are people still around here who in 1982 came to found Huehuecoyotl, a yoga-based community (scroll down for the English version), and there’s never a shortage of esoteric opinions to be had in local conversations, on everything from the world economy to occasional eruptions of the volcano. On weekends, a dozen places in and around town offer temazcal (sweat lodge sessions), others will read your aura with Kirlian photography, or offer you alternative therapies, and you can always buy many kinds of incense and crystal jewellery. If Spanish is the second language for most of us (the majority of local expats, though far from the entirety, are Americans), around here Esoteric is the third.

House view N-1 copy.jpg

Mountainous cliffs and the trees that grow on them.

The physical beauty of this place, with its mountainous cliffs at least partly clad in green year-round, along with more distant vistas, draws many people. And what I can only call the general vibe of the area attracts and anchors others. It’s definitely a special place; it’s officially one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos, and would still be one without that official designation. There isn’t a huge number of expats here (let’s say under three hundred out of 41,000 people in the municipality) so we have our own community – communities, really – without forming an obtrusive minority.

‘Defining’ the expats here would be impossible. Diversity of national origins is obviously one factor, but another lies in there being forever something a little edgy about many (not all) of us who voluntarily live far from their starting points. Baldwin’s irrevocable condition is an ideal, an aspiration to something better, that even the loveliest geography and most benign climate cannot always salve. Many of us are after perfection, and faintly aware at the same time that it hasn’t arrived yet.

We sometimes display guilt about choosing each other’s company, as if we’re rejecting the native people around us, even as we struggle to master their version of Spanish, and create connections with our Mexican neighbours. There’s also – there are many personal versions of this – a sense that being away from where we began sharpens our sense of who we truly are.

The popular idea is that ‘finding oneself’ is an activity for the young, and should be well finished by our forties. This false perspective overlooks, and is sometimes wielded to crudely override, the fact that as we become older the life-answers we found for ourselves when we were active parents, or building careers, remain incomplete. I’ve long believed part of what is sometimes termed senility (as opposed to actual dementia) is in fact a realisation that we can’t any longer make old answers work, and the more tenuous ones that present themselves become harder to articulate, even to ourselves. Conventional religions can offer some people what they need, but they don’t serve everyone.

There is a space that we cannot fill ourselves, but which opens to us anyway, and both fascinates and perplexes us.

Expat life, then, is a continuing exploration of personal potential, even dwindling potential, in a different environment, where we always see contrasts with our long-held opinions and perspectives. It does keep many of us more mentally alert than would be the case if we stayed where we started out, and it sharpens our sense of curiosity. And, almost incidentally, it blunts latent racist attitudes. At one and the same time, we are more than ever dependent on our innate knowledge of how to be and live, and dependent equally on local dentists, barbers, mechanics and plumbers. Cultural distinctions abound for us, but the conventional prejudices around race genuinely seem shallow things to be overcome and discarded.

Are we self-indulgent, living far from people who might care about us, and having no legal right of intervention in political issues where we now are? Perhaps. We’re here for selfish reasons as well as noble ones. We sometimes fear what’s happening back in our home countries, and like the fact that Mexico has a constitutional ban against sending its troops overseas. And we do like the fact that the cost of living here is low, there are endless new places to explore, hundreds of historic ruins to visit, and a national history that’s tragic yet inspiring.

And that despite sometimes horrible poverty, meanness and casual violence, there’s also a graciousness and patience here that is so often absent in the lands we’ve come from. If we can’t realise our irrevocable condition in its fullness, then there’s almost always a good imitation of it here that we can find, or create, or share.