Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tortilla Wisdom

One of the benefits of living out of one's comfort zone (not that I'm in Papua New Guinea drinking water off of palm fronds) is that the different texture of daily life gives you more occasions to polish your rough edges and realize your blind spots.
Tortillas... handmade with love.

Yesterday, for example, JC and I were eating lunch in our usual spot, a hole-in-the-wall "cocina economica" (literally, economic kitchen). It's a concrete cavity off a side street, with exactly three small plastic tables (each covered with a plastic tablecloth), three chairs per table, and a long makeshift counter stacked with pots and bowls and good things a-simmering. The mistress of said establishment is Doña Clemens, a grandmotherly woman with a kind face and wrinkled hands accustomed to work. Her 30-something daughter Rosy is often there as well to make the "agua de frutas" and to lend her mother a hand. 

Both Doña Clemens and Rosy are evangelical Christians, and they live off of the occasional and regular customers who come for their daily ration of soup, chicken, rice, and dessert (jello or bananas topped with cream and sugar). JC and I are her faithful regulars, along with an accountant who eats quickly while watching the news on the antique TV set. Some of her occasional customers include a few other couples, some teenagers, and the odd transvestite (there are several in the area) who settle into their plastic chairs with a kind of sad languor. 

Anyway, yesterday it was just me, JC, and Olivia, chatting away with Doña Clemens while she slapped corn tortillas into shape and dished out our chicken with mole sauce (mole is a mixture of chocolate and chili - very delicious). The conversation turned to Olivia, who was sitting in her stroller, grabbing at the plastic tablecloth and examining it with interest. 

"Have you been eating avocados?" asked Doña Clemens from the other side of the long counter. 

"Well... yeah, I guess so. Why?" I answered, puzzled.

"And has your baby had colic?" she asked. 

"No," I answered. 

"Well, when you're breastfeeding and you eat avocados, you give your baby colic," she said. Slap-slap-slap went the tortillas.

Comments like these always trigger a reaction in me.

"Actually," I said with authoritative confidence, "that's just a myth. It's not true at all. I've eaten plenty of avocados and Olivia hasn't had a single problem."

Silence fell in the cocina economica, broken only by the slapping sound of tortillas. JC was suddenly intently focused on his soup.

Oh crap, I thought. I've done it again.


Later that night, as JC and I lay forehead to forehead in bed, we talked about that moment (among others). 

"Did you notice the sepulchral silence that fell when you shot Doña Clemens down?" he asked.

"Yes," I admitted, feeling a twinge of shame. I had been thinking about that vacuum of silence all day long. It had been nagging me like a lesson waiting to be learned. So I started to justify myself.

"Well, it's just that... people tell me all kinds of stuff with absolutely no foundation." And I listed some of the other weird advice I'd been given, all of which was just old wives' tales. "If your belly is round during your pregnancy, you're going to have a boy. If you put a red thread on your baby's forehead, it will stop the hiccups. If you eat even a little bit of chili, your baby will get heartburn. If you... it's just nonsense! I wish people would stop giving me superstitious advice," I said, realizing as the words were coming out of my mouth that my reaction was narrow and unkind.

To which JC responded, "A mi me da una especia de ternura (loosely translated: It touches my heart) when Doña Clemens and the others give us advice. I know it's not scientific, but it comes from a place of kindness, from a genuine desire to help you. And the advice they give is what they received from their mothers, all the way back through the generations. So there is also that generational bond behind it, a continuity from one mother to another. That's something beautiful, that family tie," he said, adding, "Try to see the love they are expressing, because it's real."

At this, my heart felt stabbed with remorse. Such small daily events, and this is the wealth that my husband sees behind them. This is how he perceives other people-- in the goodness of their hearts, in their desire to be helpful, in their willingness to give. I, by contrast, just saw superstitious nonsense and went after it with a baseball bat of Scientific Righteousness. Wham!  Wham!  Wham!  I'll flatten that myth like a tortilla!  Smack! No old wives' wisdom for me! I'm a Modern Woman!

And supposedly, as a Catholic woman I'm a "Humanizer of Humanity," right? Not even close. My husband is the perceptive one who gets the wider picture of hearts and good intentions, and chooses the right time to say the right thing... in just the right way.

Seeing me become pensive and sad, he immediately began smirking and imitating me: "Actually, that's a MYTH!  Actually, I read on Baby Center... Actually..." which made me laugh and feel so much lighter. "Ayy, güerita, güerita," he said. "What am I going to do with my gringa güerita? Te voy a dar tus nalgadas." 


Little lessons out of my comfort zone. I suppose in the States, I'd be just another Obsessive New Mom who wants to get everything right. But in Mexico, I'm something of a freak. I'm like the Obsessive New Mom raised to the fifth power.

Okay. Something to work on, I guess.

In spite of the occasional discomfort of "metiendo la pata" (putting my foot in it), I do feel grateful for these mistakes and lessons because I see the fingerprints of God's modus operandi all over them. Little invitations to deepen my perspective, widen my horizon, see the goodness in others... and when I fail, the correction comes seasoned with humor so that I can laugh at myself and move on. 

So... next time Doña Clemens or any other Mexican grandmother gives me Unscientific Advice, I will just say, "Thank you!" and mean it. Thank you for caring enough to want to help. Thank you for wanting to love my baby. Thank you for giving the difficult gringa another chance.

And pass me the guacamole.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Some Veggies, Milady?

One of the cultural differences between Mexico and, say, the northeastern United States is the degree of “in your face-ness” of… well, everything.
Dime la verdura...

People stand closer to you, talk more loudly, interrupt each other, cut you off in cars or on foot, ring your doorbell asking for money or donations, and offer unsolicited advice. The streets are alive with the sound of music, from the throbbing rhythms of reggaeton to the Lady Gaga techno vibe. From time to time, there is a two-man marching band that comes parading up the street playing the drums and some kind of trumpet… a kind of ambulatory concert. The two musicians are gaunt and old, holding out a hat for donations.

It’s all there, especially in our neighborhood, which is tucked behind a busy street full of shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants with white plastic tables and chairs.

I have no complaints about the music. In fact, I love it. Turn it up!  Louder!  My foot is tapping to the beat while I work. We jammin’!

The other stuff… oh gosh. Not so much. Being a cold northerner, I require more than a 10-inch radius of personal space to be comfortable. I like real conversations and I hate it when people interrupt each other and talk over each other without listening. I feel invaded when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door five times in one month, especially when they try to get me involved in their apostolate. Seriously, people. No means no. Also, it seems to be a kind of Murphy’s Law that as soon as Baby Olivia is sleeping, the doorbell rings.  

Aside from my gripes about the things that drive me crazy, there are little delights that charm me to pieces.

For example, the vegetables truck. And to a lesser degree, the gas truck. And also the guy who does laps around the block, selling “Galletas de Xiiiiiiiiiicoooooooo!”

I was familiar with the expression “vendors hawking their wares” but if you grow up in suburban America, you don’t really have many chances to hear the hawking firsthand. In a middle-class neighborhood in the middle of a Mexican city, you do. Oh baby, you do!

So. First, the vegetables truck. JC and I love it, and we pause reverently when it comes by. It’s a reddish-orange pick-up truck loaded with vegetables and fruits, covered with a kind of tarp canopy. The truck does a few laps in our neighborhood, while the driver intones the Litany of the Vegetables on his bullhorn.

It’s not a recording, mind you. It’s the real deal. Mr. Veggies is reciting a list of about 30 vegetables from memory, in a wonderfully nasal, sing-song voice. He sounds delightfully bored.

“Jitomaaaaate, ceboooollllllla, aguacaaaaaaate, jitomaaaaaaate, calabaciiiiiita, platano maaaacho, platano ratannnn!” he intones.

It’s magical. I don’t know why, but we love it and sometimes, in the middle of lunch or at a quiet moment in bed, one of us will start the litany and the other will continue it with gusto, relishing the rhythm and the nasally intonations.

“Verdura frescaaaaaa, verdura barataaaaaa!”  he adds. Fresh vegetables, cheap vegetables! 

But then, the best part is the little encouragement Mr. Veggies offers over his bullhorn to entice the housewives out of their kitchens. His voice drops a bit and becomes positively sultry (this didn’t come out so well in the video because he was self-conscious with me standing there taping him).

“Algo de verduuura… jefaaaaaaa.”  Some veggies… my laaadyyyy. The “jefaaa” resonates over the whole neighborhood, like the Pied Piper calling all the wives to himself. It sends a little shiver up my spine. I almost want to buy some tomatoes! 

The gas truck is also a delight. In Mexico, you don’t get your gas piped into your house via underground tubes. You have a tank behind your house, and you have to call the gas company to come and bring a refill when your tank gets empty. To make things easier for you, they drive around all day so that you can just run outside and flag them down like a taxi. And, to make sure you know they are there, they have their particular jingle playing nonstop over the loudspeaker.

There are four different gas companies, and each one has trucks with particular jingles. My favorite is Gas Express. The song is so cheerful, like a party on wheels. When I’m on international calls over Skype and the gas truck goes by, the other person inevitably asks, “Are you at the circus?” or “What’s that music?” One woman (a Latin American living in the States) even told me that she finds it very relaxing.

Then there is the garbage pickup bell. The garbage truck comes by almost every day during the week to pick up the neighborhood trash. About 30 minutes before the truck arrives, a very dirty man walks down our street vigorously ringing a cow bell. Dong-a-long-a-long-a-long! 

Five minutes later, the neighbors emerge from their homes, hauling bags of trash which they unceremoniously dump on the corner, much to the interest of the homeless dogs on our street. After a small mountain has accumulated, the trash truck arrives and three men jump down from on top of the truck, where they are riding on top of the garbage. The truck smells terrible, especially in hot weather, and those men have no machine to compress the trash for them. Instead, they open the bags, searching for cardboard boxes or soft drink cans, which they neatly stack or compile in a special area of the truck. Then they toss the rest in the back.

I feel so sorry for those men (and their wives)—there must be a special reward in heaven for them after such a hellish job, especially in the heat when everything becomes rank and putrid. And yet, the times when we have passed by while they are working, I see them smiling and cheerful, shouting at each other, tossing up the bags with energy, working as a team. JC greets them and they give him a cheerful salute.

And of course, they have a great stereo set up in the cab of the truck, so the bass is thumping and the dance groove is on to liven up the job. And it’s not discreet background music. It’s the soundtrack to their job. It’s a soundtrack that the neighborhood shares.

So… life brings these noisy little treats that proclaim a carefree joie de vivre to the four winds. At least, that’s how I experience them. The music, the Litany of the Vegetables, the Gas Jingle, the two-man bands… The neighborhood is messy, but alive.

And if you look a little closer, you notice something else. Behind the colorful banners of sound and song, these are mostly poor people trying to make a living, marching or driving in circles on a hot, sweaty day. I can only imagine how the typical Entitled American (including myself) would react. Most likely, we would project another kind of music, loud and long, to the four winds.

There are some things in Mexico that I will miss when we leave… and this is one of them: music, joie de vivre, and the down-and-dirty humility of people who do the worst kind of work with a smile. Or at least… with a one-of-a-kind twist.

Algo de verdura… jefaaaaaa…