Spoiler alert: This "Average Day in the Life" series won't be a trilogy. This part covers just an average hour of Spanish lessons in the late afternoon. Don't worry, though, at this rate it'll only be two more months until my "Average Day" completes! (That's a joke.)
3:00PM - 4:00PM: Spanish Lesson
I started asking around for Spanish tutors my second day in San Pancho. Learning Spanish is one of my primary goals here, if only to get in on the jokes Socorro, Claudia, and Lupe crack themselves up with each day [Don't know who they are? Read my June 24 blog post]. My search narrowed almost immediately, as it turns out there’s only one Spanish tutor in town.
My Maestra (Teacher) July
After an initial meet-and-greet, which turned into an impromptu walking tour of San Pancho, July (pronounced “Julie”) started giving me hour-long Spanish lessons about three times a week. Though born in Argentina, July is like all Mexicans here: extremely kind, welcoming, and hilarious. During the summer months, she lives in a beautiful house whose owners, like most foreigners, only live in San Pancho during the cooler, winter months. So for now, I get to learn Spanish on a gorgeous tiled patio-enclave shared by her rather flatulent dog Lucas, cat Jue, and turtle. She also has two children, one currently in the throes of adolescence (that is, she’s a teenager).
One day, her daughter Esther arrived home from school in the middle of our outdoor lesson. July immediately greeted her with an exaggerated, though genuine, “Ahhhh mi amor! Como estas?” (Ahh my love! How are you?!). Esther paused, turned, sent her mom an icy glare, and continued inside, prompting a synchronized eyebrow-raise and laugh from both July and me. We know that being a teenager, wherever you live, can be tough.
Besides caring for her pets, children, and house, and teaching English to four or five students, July works full time as a director of a local Montessori school, Escuela Del Mundo. She and a couple other mothers founded the school, starting with rotating “lessons” in each of their homes and then moving to larger spaces as the number of students grew.
San Pancho residents have two options for elementary and middle school: the public school, or the private Montessori school. Actually, a third option also exists: no school, as it’s not required in Mexico as it is in America.
Poorer residents sometimes opt not to send their children to school because, while the education itself is free at the public school, necessary materials, uniforms, and transportation are not. Some public schools are so strapped for cash that they charge a weekly fee to attend. After the students finish middle school, their only option for high school lies an hour away in Puerto Vallarta. July has said, in all seriousness, that she wants me to start a high school here. I told her I should probably learn how to crawl before I try to sprint – I need to learn Spanish first!
Payment? Who Cares?
The Spanish lessons themselves are a pleasure for both of us. July loves teaching English almost as much as she loves regaling me with stories about San Pancho. When I brought the subject of payment up after the second class – if I hadn’t, I honestly don’t think July would have broached it – July told me what I had already started to surmise: she doesn’t do this for the money, she genuinely enjoys teaching. I pressed her to name a price. “Whatever you can [pay],” she finally responded. We settled on what her previous student paid: 200 pesos per lesson (about $11).
On days when I forget to pay, July seems surprised when I let her know the following class and pay my balance. Also, if I ever forget to set my alarm for 4pm – when I need to leave our lesson for my volunteering job at the community center – we’ll keep chatting until I realize how late it is. To July, and most people here, money is an afterthought to life itself. As I have quickly learned, so too is formality.
“Tengo dos preguntas para ti, July” (I have two questions for you, July) I began, sitting on the patio petting a sprawled-out Jue. “Claro!” (Sure!) “The other day, a little girl didn’t seem to understand when I said ‘Como se llama’ (What’s your name?)…she just kept responding with ‘mande.’ Que paso? (What happened?)” “Ahhhhh.” July understood instantly, her ever-present, knowing grin taking shape. Time for me to learn two key things about Mexico. First, all Mexicans are extremely polite. That’s where the “mande” comes in. It’s a form of the verb “to command” or “to rule,” so it literally translates to “command me.” Mexicans use it to ask a speaker to repeat what he/she said, or to notify someone that they are at their service. July predicted that if I would use this request, I’d get a somewhat shocked response from Mexicans who wouldn’t expect a foreigner to use such a polite – almost subservient – traditionally Mexican phrase. Of course, she was 100% correct; the surprised looks that immediately follow my “mande’s” around town quickly turn to warm chuckles.
While the omnipresence of “mande” indicates politeness here, the distinct absence of another word serves the same purpose: “no.” That’s not to say any wish will be granted, but the denial won’t include the perceived-to-be rude “no.”
(Unknowingly) Getting Let Down Easy
When a dessert-wielding vendor approached a friend and me on the beach, my Mexican friend Leslie gave her a quick “Gracias!” which all parties except the ignorant americano (me) took as “no thank you!” I asked Leslie if she’d said “no gracias” so fast that I didn’t hear the “no” – not an unlikely scenario, given the percentage of words I miss here. Nope, Leslie told me, echoing July’s lesson, “Mexicans feel it’s rude to say “no,” so you deny a vendor simply by saying ‘gracias!’” “Ohhh, okay” I responded, woefully recalling an earlier conversation I had with a beautiful senorita, which had culminated in me asking, “Cuando vamos a comer tacos juntos” (When are we going to eat tacos together?). (For context, we’d been talking about tacos and possibly going out to eat them, and if we hadn’t, my question would have started with “Would you like to” rather than a presumptive “When.”) “Umm la proxima semana!” the woman replied, and I let myself do a little fist-pump of success in my head. After my encounter with Leslie and the beach vendor, which occurred about three weeks after my taco proposition, I finally realized the beautiful senorita had given me a polite “no.”
“What’s Your Name?”
Anyway, back to my culture lesson with July. The second part covered Mexican formality or, more precisely, the lack of it. Formality exists, admitted July, but only when talking to an unknown elderly person, and even then it’s not necessary. The formality in the romance languages – Spanish, French, . . . umm, I’m sure there are others – comes from the “formal” conjugation of all verbs. When I said “Como se llama?” to the little girl, I was asking “What’s your name?” in the formal tense; I should have said “Como te llamas?” – the exact same question, but informal. The reason for the “mande” response was that the girl, as July explained, most likely had never been asked her name like that before. “We never use the formal tense here” July taught me, “especially not with little kids! That’s what the Spanish textbooks miss; in Mexico, we are an informal, casual people. You can forget everything you learned about the formal tense!” Works for me; I didn’t know that much to begin with!
As for my learning of all the other Spanish tenses, it’s coming along, albeit not without mistakes. Just the other day, I passed by Uno Mas on my way to the beach. [Don't know Uno Mas? Do you read ANY of my posts? Here's where the reference comes from.] Because it was one of the rare days I didn’t eat tacos there, Lupe let me have it, shouting out some quick Spanish I didn’t catch, but immediately eliciting giggles from sidekicks Claudia and Socorro. After seeing my puzzled look, she spelled it out for me: “Por que no tacos hoy? Que paso??” (Why no tacos today? What happened?”) “Ahh,” now I understood. “Ya comiste!” I shouted back with a smile, continuing my stride without missing a beat. Only a couple minutes later did the pride in my newfound bantering ability turn to embarrassment, as I realized I had responded with the question “Did you already eat?” instead of the first-person statement “I already ate.” No wonder I’d received confused looks and giggles from the ladies after what I proudly thought had been a perfectly reasonable explanation.
There’s been countless other mistakes, but I like to think their frequency is slowly decreasing. My Mexican amigos here always lend a helping hand. “Socorro, uno juego de naranja por favor!” (Socorro, one I play of orange please!”) Socorro returns a puzzled look and silence. “No, dices ‘jugo.’ “Juuuuuuuuuu-go.” (No, you say “jugo.” WHOOOOOOO-go.) “Ah si, gracias. Jugo de naranja, por favor!” “Claro!”
Paula also assists in my continual learning. One day I was futilely attempting to download and install on my phone the messaging application WhatsApp, which everyone uses here, while sitting outside with Paula. After repeated failures, I resignedly said “No hay Internet aqui ahora, voy a …um….try again manana” (There’s no Internet here now, I’m going to try again tomorrow) and started walking to the beach. “Ven aca!” (Come here!) came a yell behind me, and I obediently stopped and turned around with a “Si?” “Voy a intentar otra vez manana. Repitelo.” (Correcting my Spanish, Paula demanded I “Repeat it.”) I complied, and after a couple attempts, passed the test and received permission to go to the beach.
As it turns out, July isn’t my only Spanish tutor here, nor do my lessons necessarily end at four p.m.