Search for my tongue

Studying Spanish made me question my very existence on many occasions. At university, I wondered over and over why I’d chosen a subject that actively brought me stress and unhappiness, that pushed me so far out of my comfort zone.

When I moved to Spain after graduating, the doubts didn’t go away. It took me years of hard work and guilt and self-doubt to be comfortable speaking in Spanish, and many more to become truly fluent. Then I moved to Mexico and felt like I’d skipped backwards several years, to a time when I was still second-guessing every word I said. Again, it took a lot of effort to get back to the level I was at, and finally to surpass it. I may have ended up with a weird hybrid accent and a bunch of stubborn mistakes so ingrained that I’ll never fully lose them, but Spanish has become so much a part of me that it’s almost like a second native language.

Would things have been easier for me if I’d stayed in my English-speaking home country? Undoubtedly. Living in another language makes everything just a little harder than it needs to be; as if a switch has been flipped and life has ramped up into “expert mode”. But having learned a language to the level I have, I can say without hesitation that it was worth it. The structures of Spanish have revealed pathways and connections in my brain that I never knew were there, made me think about the world in new ways, made me into a whole other person.

So far so good. But two years ago I left Mexico and moved to the Netherlands for work. I arrived in Amsterdam full of excitement and threw myself into my first few Dutch classes. But my enthusiasm soon waned, and almost two years later, I haven’t learned the language in the way I hoped. In fact, I’ve resisted it. I can’t find room in head or my heart to acquire one language while desperately clinging onto another.

At first I wasn’t worried about forgetting Spanish altogether. Surely I’d lived with it – lived through it – for too long and used it too extensively for that? But it wasn’t long before I noticed a certain hesitancy creeping into my writing, making me double check my words before I shared them, a slight rustiness that made me slower to speak up, lazier in my sentence structures, left me tongue-tied mid-conversation. It doesn’t help that I’ve already seen other languages slip away from me: my nine years of French almost vanished, my once-confident Catalan now muddied and mixed up.

The sweat and tears that went into learning these languages are one reason to fear forgetting, but it’s so much more than that. I have several friends in Spain who I’ve only ever spoken to in Spanish, some of whom don’t speak any English at all. After a year in Mexico, I came back with a whole new accent and vocabulary, and one of those friends told me, “Si me cierro los ojos, ya no eres tú” – “If I close my eyes, it’s not you any more.”

That comment enough was a shock. Spain was the place I’d lived since university, where I’d grown up and got a real job, where I’d blossomed and become an adult, where I’d adapted to a different culture and struggled to fit in. Living in Mexico was a dream come true, but Spain was where I truly felt at home and I didn’t want to lose the roots I’d put down there.

Three years on from that comment, sounding like a stranger to my friends is the least of my worries. Now it’s bigger, deeper, more gut-wrenching. What if I lost my fluency and struggled to speak to those friends at all? In practice I know it’s unlikely – I would never let it get to that stage – but on a theoretical level, it could happen. My Spanish-speaking self exists outside of me, a parallel entity who depends on me keeping up my hard-earned skills. If I never practiced Spanish again, “La Lauren” would slowly fade away, and the person that my friends knew and cared about would cease to exist.

There’s no clever conclusion here, no grand ideas about what it all means or what I should do about it, but voicing these thoughts feels like a first step towards making some kind of decision. Stay and throw myself wholeheartedly into Dutch life  – and the Dutch language  – or go back to the place where my heart already lies? La respuesta la tiene el tiempo.

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Let me die like a Mexican

They say you only truly die when your name is spoken for the last time. Nowhere is this more true than in Mexico, where Día de Muertos – or Day of the Dead – takes remembering lost loved ones to a whole new level.

At first glance, this national holiday may pass for a Mexican version of Halloween, with its spooky skeletons and sweet treats. But while modern Halloween exists largely to peddle pumpkins and face paint, Día de Muertos is a bittersweet reflection on love, loss and life well lived.

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Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacán

 

According to Mexican tradition, 2nd November is the one day when souls can leave the afterlife. To help guide lost loved ones back to earth, families build elaborate altars in homes and graveyards. These offerings are draped with flower garlands and colourful crêpe paper, and hung with corn cobs, fruit and sugar cane. Dozens of flickering candles light the way, while the scent of cempasúchil – Mexican marigolds – hangs in the air.

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Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán

Water, salt and sweet pan de muerto bread are laid out to nourish the dead after their long journey home – and it doesn’t stop there. Children’s graves are festooned with sweets and toys, while tobacco and tequila are left to tempt the spirits of adults. Families even prepare platefuls of their loved one’s favourite meals for their short time back on earth.

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Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán

All this may sound morbid, but Día de Muertos is far from a day of moping and mourning. Families gather to remember those they’ve lost, not with sadness but with songs, stories and laughter. The foods from the offerings are eaten, music played and memories shared.

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Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán

To outsiders, this lack of solemnity may even seem disrespectful. But as a friend explained, “When someone you love dies, it affects you every day, so why would you be sad on the one day they’re back here with you?”

When you look at it like that, it’s hard to argue that the Day of the Dead is anything but beautiful. But how can it possibly comfort those who – like me – don’t believe in heaven, souls or anything else beyond this world?

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Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán

As an atheist, I spent my first year in Mexico looking at Día de Muertos from the outside in; as something only other people believed in. The religious. The spiritual. Those brought up in Mexican culture. Another couple of years on, though, and I was starting to understand that this remembrance is much more than merely symbolic.

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Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán

Believe in what you will, let’s say all those who ever cared about a particular person gather together in one place to remember them by sharing their most vivid and vibrant memories. Surely then, for that one moment at least, that person’s spirit really is there?

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Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán

And so, while I have endless wishes for my life, I now have only one for my death: let me die like a Mexican. When I’m gone – with any luck many years from now – let me be remembered as Mexicans are.

Let bright orange blossoms, the gentle glow of candles and the smell of my favourite foods guide me home. Let me be brought back to life once a year through the love and laughter of those who knew me. Let my memory bring joy to anyone I leave behind.

If that’s not life after death, I don’t know what is.

Posted in Exploring Mexico, Travel, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Food for the soul: oh, Oaxaca!

More than just a holiday, my visit to Oaxaca was an escape from reality. My world came crashing down one sunny Tuesday afternoon in February when I was told I had to leave Mexico before the month was out: by Thursday morning I was headed to Oaxaca. I wasn’t even sure what I’d do for 4 days alone in such a small city, but something drew me inexorably there all the same.

Stepping onto the street the first morning, the first thing I could smell was chocolate. Not the sweet, sickly scent of European confectionery but the deep, rich, bitter aroma of roasted cocoa beans spiced with cinnamon. It smelled like heaven. All along the street from my hotel, chocolaterías were blending the stuff with almonds and sugar to make thick, hot chocolate almendrado or pounding it with chillis into a complex, smokey mole negro sauce.

The smell of Oaxaca: freshy ground spiced chocolate

After a breakfast of a huge tamal (steamed corn dough stuffed with chicken mole and wrapped in banana leaves) and a steaming bowl of Oaxacan chocolate, I headed down the road to the city’s main market. Inside was a riot of life and colour, from people bartering over vibrant embroidered clothes and hand-painted wooden animals to stalls selling mountains of dried chillis, heaps of fried grasshoppers or bite-size balls of quesillo, the salty, stringy and incredibly moreish local cheese.

Spices in Oaxaca's Benito Juárez Market

Spices in Oaxaca’s Benito Juárez Market

But this wasn’t to be my only market experience. The owner of my hotel had told me about a famous local market in Tlacolula, a town about half an hour away. Situated in the Valley of Oaxaca, at weekends it becomes a meeting point for thousands of zapotec people who come down from the surrounding mountains to buy, sell and socialise.

After an eventful shared taxi journey (sandwiched between the driver and a large man in the middle of the two front seats of a small car), I stumbled out into a street so full of sounds, sights and smells that I could barely take it in. Two large turkeys squabbling at my feet, the sharp tang of lime and the sweet heady fragrance of ripe guavas, a frail old lady holding out her wares and crying “Lima! Lima!”, and everywhere, everywhere people speaking in the native zapotec language.

Inside the main market building, I followed the hotelier’s directions to a specific barbecue spot. Squashed onto a bench between a toothless grandma and a chattering family, I was served a bowl of rich spicy broth loaded with the most tender, mouthwatering pit-roasted meat imaginable, accompanied by a stack of warm tortillas. This was rounded off by a unique and delicious icecream made with milk caramel, candied carrot and prickly pear. I eventually left Tlacolula heavier of stomach but much, much lighter of heart, bearing bags of tropical fruit and incredible local pastries as a short-lived reminder of my visit.

Zapotec lady selling fresh tortillas in Tlacolula market

Zapotec lady selling fresh tortillas in Tlacolula market

On my last day in Oaxaca, I took a tour of the surrounding area, visiting the ruins of Mitla and the breathtaking petrified waterfalls of Hierve el Agua. On our way back, we stopped off at a mezcalería to see how this quintessentially Mexican drink is made. Like tequila (its more refined and infinitely more famous cousin), mezcal is made from a succulent plant known as maguey or agave. We sucked on sweet strips of fermented maguey as we toured the tiny rustic distillery, then tasted different varities of mezcal to finish. As they say here: “Para todo mal, mezcal; para todo bien, también.” (To cure all problems, mezcal; to celebrate all good things, the same). Just what the doctor ordered…cheers!

¡El mezal no te pone borracho, te pone mágico!

¡El mezal no te pone borracho, te pone mágico!

In the end, my 4 days weren’t enough, couldn’t possibly be enough, but they were undoubtedly food for the soul.

¡Gracias Oaxaca, te quiero!

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Back to basics

Working in online content, I get paid to write every day. Somehow this had fooled me into thinking that I was a writer.

When I was growing up, I wrote constantly: stories, poems, diaries and endless pages-long letters to penpals all around the world. My mum still reminds me about the little notes I used to leave around the house for her. “Dear mum, Can we go to the park tomorrow? Tick here for yes, tick there for no”.

I even made a bet with a friend, many years ago, that we would both become published authors before our 30th birthdays. Well, his has already passed, while mine is just a week away, and neither of us has managed to produce that daring debut novel we dreamed of. Having said that, we’ve both been published in magazines and both of our jobs involve writing.

The kind of writing I do at work isn’t quite what I dreamed of, being limited by a strict style guide, commercial needs and above all, incredible time pressure. Still, writing like this has a certain puzzle-like appeal, the game being to move the information around like jigsaw pieces until it fits into the required format, usually at breakneck speed.

No, the real issue I have with churning out twenty identikit 100-word texts a day is that it superficially satisfies that deep need to write, so that I come home more inclined to mindlessly watch Youtube or scroll through Reddit than to put pen to paper, when actually I’m not truly writing at all.

A recent copywriting training course about unlocking creativity was an incredible release for me, and reminded me how far I’d drifted from doing what I really love. I spent most of the journey home furiously scribbling down ideas, and this blog which I had created and then left idle for months seems like as good as any a place to share them.

More to come…

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