Thursday, October 31, 2013

Through a Screen Darkly

I was pretty sure the Red Sox won the World Series last night, but I was watching the game in Spanish and couldn't be absolutely positive until I read it in the paper.

I'm exaggerating, but it's the truth that I didn't understand why the Sox lost Game 3 on that strange base path obstruction call until the Times spelled it out for me the next morning.

People in the grandstand manage to watch baseball without benefit of color commentary and technical exegesis, so I figured I could do the same this post season, the first for which we were already in Mexico and dependent on the local cable lineup.

We've got a few English language news and movie channels on the far end of the dial, but no sports or at least no baseball.

Not that I'm complaining. It actually seemed like an act of generosity on the part of Fox Sports to run out their video on Mexican channels, siphoning off Joe Buck and Tim McCarver and replacing them with some guys whose names I never did catch.

There were hardly any ads at all, other than a short and endlessly repeating string of promos for Fox coverage of NASCAR, the NFL and an assortment of "futbol" events staged by FIFA, UEFA, the League of Champions and the South American Cup. Lots of guys scoring goals while doing back flips and then ripping off their shirts. I now will never forget that Club Leon fans paint themselves an attractive shade of green for big matches. And I have memorized all of Fox's lurid blow-molded station break graphics.

Fox also mercilessly flogged its late night sports talk show "La Ultima Palabra," the "Last Word," an obvious falsehood since the program seems to have four hyperventilating hosts, none of whom ever stops talking.

I had hoped that there might be some good Spanish lessons in the Series for me, because I assumed that basically understanding what was going on just by watching would be the functional equivalent of subtitles.

But no, it didn't work that way. Actual game action turns out to be a small part of what you see on the screen. Fox panned the crowd for the benefit of its U.S. audience for celebrities whose names I couldn't remember and who my Spanish commentators ignored.

The intra-game dugout interviews with the managers got the same treatment. Instead, my guys talked about other stuff, which might or might not have been baseball related, so I was treated to the rare experience of missing two trains of thought at the same time.

When the ball was actually in play, my guys talked so fast I was lucky to catch one word in a dozen.

I plucked a few morsels from the stream. An inning is an "entrada," which is also the word you see for entrances to parking lots and grocery stores. A strikeout is a "ponche", which is also the word used around here for a flat tire. I learned that the hard way of course. Top of the first inning is "primera alta," and you substitute "baja" for the bottom and "mitad" (half) for middle.

Before this, I only knew the ordinal numbers up to "tercera" or third. Now I have them all the way to novena or ninth, but since the Sox and Cards never went into extra innings that's all I've got.

I had mastered this much baseball vocabulary by the middle of the ACLS. So when Pam asked me during the Series if I minded hitting the mute button, I didn't mind at all.

Oh, snap! It has just occurred to me that I could have streamed English audio for free online from ENPS, MLB or somebody. I used to do that in New York, where I preferred the Yankee radio commentators. But the audio arrives first, and the brain has to deal with the disorientation of an ear that's ahead of the eye.

It's clear from all of the above and especially the preceding paragraph, that my brain is already playing catch-up on many fronts, and losing. So it's probably just as well that I didn't try it. I might have hurt myself.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Horns of An Old Dilemma

Once again for us, the fall season in our putative Mexican paradise has opened with a gaudy episode of criminal violence that again has us recalibrating our risk tolerance.

Shortly after midnight Thursday, a couple of lawyers from suburban Guadalajara who came to town in that harmless looking white VW beetle above were cornered and slain in a manner that had all the hallmarks of a cartel assassination.

A third guy was with them, a neighbor and colleague who sounded as if he might have been a paralegal of some sort. He was still alive but badly wounded. They all worked for a notario in Guadalajara, according to Spanish language news accounts.

A notario in Mexico is much more than a notary public in the U.S., a person or firm with authority to provide essential help in completing real estate transactions, preparing, certifying and recording formal documents, and providing other quasi-legal services.

When police arrived at the grisly scene, they found briefcases containing documents indicating that the lawyers planned to serve an eviction notice and take possession of a hotel. They reportedly had tried to do it earlier Thursday but nobody answered their knock. If I understand correctly, they planned to return with a state police escort on Friday.

Along with the blood-spattered eviction papers there was Mexican currency totaling about $80,000, and more documents related to ownership changes on several other smaller properties. The money was said to be intended for making deposits on those transfers.

Either reporters or police, I couldn't decipher which, interviewed witnesses who said the VW was boxed in by two pickup trucks. Men in the truck beds armed with automatic rifles then pumped more than 40 rounds into the lawyers' car before fleeing.

Our property manager has an office and apartment not far from the carnage and heard the shooting. No dummy, he knew immediately what it was and stayed inside away from his windows.

We heard nothing, no surprise since we're a half mile from where it happened. And anyway, the nights down here still swelter so we sleep under noisy air conditioning. Earlier in the week there was a small earthquake in the area, and we missed that too.

But of course, as I've said before, lack of situational awareness is a crucial part of the expat lifestyle down here, aided where necessary by willful ignorance. The only English language news published locally concerns charity galas, restaurant openings and the doings of the widely admired gay mens chorus. Nobody complains.

When something as disturbing as a mob hose-down penetrates the collective gringo consciousness, denial antibodies are quickly deployed. In the current case, we soon saw Canadian bloggers dilating about a similar incident near Calgary. Coulda happened anywhere, eh?

The all-purpose incantation: (1) Bad people do bad things everywhere, and even if they didn't (2) the narcos only go after their business rivals or the cops, so (3) if you mind your own business, you are as safe in Mexico as you'd be back home, wherever that may be.

There. Just writing it makes me feel better.

What stake, if any, the local cartel might have had in a seedy hotel and some rundown housing remains a mystery. I plan to continue scrutinizing and decoding the follow-up coverage.

In the meantime, I've acquired some new Spanish slang, "Cuernos de Chivo." The phrase translates literally as "goat horns," but in this context it's the street name for the weapons that did this dirty work, the ever-popular and ever-available AK-47.

As I like to respond in my light-hearted way whenever a helpful national corrects my grammar, "Cada dia, una leccion de español."

Every day a Spanish lesson.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hecho en Mexico

Back in the late 60s I spent a summer in Bologna, Italy, where my university had a satellite campus.

It was part of my international studies masters program. But it was such a low voltage academic experience that my fellow students and I pegged it as a boondoggle aimed at giving a couple of our professors a short paid sabbatical in the sun.

Education comes in many forms though, and the trip furnished some of us with our first glimpse of the weird ways of global merchandising. We were able to buy our beloved Marlboros at a fraction of the U.S. price. The fine print on the trademark red and white flip-top boxes said they were made in Mexico.

We noticed the first time we lit up that the cigarettes inside weren't actually Marlboros. They tasted odd, and the "tobacco" had a yellowish color. It appeared to include a far higher proportion of dried stems and floor sweepings than we were used to.

We didn't care. The smokes still served our purpose as fashion accessories. They tasted no worse and probably were no more lethal than actual Marlboros. We surmised that Phillip Morris had found it more profitable to license its name and package design to some sketchy plutocrat south of the border than trying to do it themselves.

So I should have been well prepared to become the owner of a kitchen full of not-quite-the-real-thing appliances here on the Bahia de Banderas.

Every morning I find the refrigerator has wet the floor in the wee hours like an incontinent tooth fairy. The dish washer leaves us puzzling daily over whether we forgot to turn it on; the state of the dishes inside is not much help.

The oven delivers heat that varies with each use, regardless of the selected temperature, and not in a consistent way that would let poor Pam adjust for the error. The microwave works okay but growls like a walrus.

The trade dress of these disappointing machines proclaims them to be products of Maytag and Whirlpool. I'm sure on some level they are, but unfortunately not on the level that determines quality and reliability.

It's not as if corners might have been cut with the aim of hitting price points more acceptable in a less prosperous market. Our appliances cost at least as much as their American cousins.

It's all a mystery to us. We console ourselves with the thought that at least our malfunctions provide regular employment to a squad of "technicos" who answer our calls for help.

As an added benefit, they allow us to model proper expatriate behavior for Elizabeth, who is paying close attention.

This morning I came upon her on the balcony outside our bedroom, the remote control to our iPod speakers pressed to her ear like a cell phone.

"Hello, could you come to our house," she was saying. "Our dishwasher is not washing our dishes. Thank you."

Friday, October 11, 2013

Strangers in Paradise

When you're retired in a foreign country relying on meager language skills and fading powers of concentration, life is full of small humiliations.

One of mine came several years ago during happy hour in a fancy boutique hotel just up the hill from us, actually the place where we were staying when we bought our home.

The owner was having a margarita with us, special attention bestowed because I wrote a travel piece on her business the previous year that brought her a cataract of customers.

A small mariachi group was providing background music as they did every evening in those pre-recession days. They paused at the end of a set and invited requests. Nobody spoke up.

I was well into my second drink and forgot, again, that not every silence needs to be filled by me.

"'Las Mañanitas'," I said brightly. Not a tune I really wanted to hear, but it was the only Mexican song title I knew, dredged up from my primary school days in south Texas. More recently I had heard children singing it frequently in the school on our street.

"Oh, is it your birthday?" the head mariachi asked. That's when I realized the song was the Mexican "Happy Birthday." Instead of just saying "yes," I glazed over and mumbled, but they chuckled and played it anyway.

How I envy Elizabeth, the top of whose head can be seen here at lower left as the assembled student body of La Casa Azul sings "Las Mañanitas" for Gabriella, the school's director.

There's a cake on the table whenever Elizabeth sings that song, so she'll always know exactly what it's for. And being culturally and linguistically clueless is normal experience for a toddler, so adjusting to Spanish for her is easier, or so I presume.

Besides, her classroom amigo Riley, whose father is Australian, sometimes translates for her. Que caballero!

I think that might loosely translate to something like "What a gentleman." But I guess I should run it by Google Translate before I try it on him out loud.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Elizabeth is back at La Casa Azul, where several of her former amigos have also returned this year and were thrilled to see her again. They gathered around and gave her hugs. One had even made her mother come up with a little welcome gift.

But yesterday afternoon when I picked E up after her second day, Gabriella the school’s director had one of those assignments for me that I’ve learned to dread. That’s it in the picture.

Last year’s test of will and stamina was E’s costume for the Christmas pageant. We were told she needed green hair ribbons, elastic bracelets with jingle bells on them, and a plain green T-shirt with no designs or text.

It took us days, especially the shirt. You can’t buy a plain T-shirt here. They’ve all got iguanas or palm trees on them, or jokes about being drunk or horny. But we did finally locate one in a high-end department store with nothing on it but a small brand logo, also green.

We were so pleased, until the night of the pageant when nobody else had come nearly as close to spec as we had, and we felt as if we’d tried too hard. 

This year’s ordeal was about school supplies.

The note above says: Elizabeth. Please bring for tomorrow 2 notebooks, professional size, with white pages (i.e. no lines or graph paper), Thanks!

It sounded simple enough, but it turned out to be another treasure hunt seemingly designed to torment gringos. 

On the one hand, we’re driven by our natures as anxious overachievers, and by our desire as foreigners to fit in, to follow instructions to the letter. On the other hand, we are crippled by our lack of local knowledge and our mediocre language skills.

I read the little paper carefully and repeatedly. It said I must find two notebooks. They must be professional size, which is a term of art in the office supply business. Their pages must be white. I must bring them tomorrow, which is now today.

Oh, there was another specification, which Gabriella explained to me when she handed me the note. The notebooks must NOT be spiral bound. They must have glued binding like a book.

Yesterday afternoon I went down the hill to a little stationery store but found it was closed for siesta. I decided we could pick up the books on the way to school this morning.

Silly me. E and I stopped at the Mega supermarket, which has a vast school supply section. There were hundreds of notebooks, but the few with white pages were spiral bound and too small.

Luckily there was an Office Max right next door. And they had the right notebook. But there was only one left, and the shelf stocker couldn’t find any more in the back. By that time, we were in danger of being late to school, so I dropped E off with the one notebook and then headed for Office Depot.

They had a notebook that looked right, but on closer examination it was not “professional” size but a “kid’s” size slightly smaller. My helper said the store carries only one brand, and they don’t make a professional notebook with unlined pages. In despair, I asked him where I might find what I was looking for.

As I’ve said before, asking for this kind of help in Mexico is hazardous, because people are naturally helpful and will give you information regardless of whether they actually know anything. But I was out of options.

The young man told me he thought there was a store that would have my notebook near Freddy’s Tucan, a popular downtown breakfast spot. So I drove there not expecting much, and sure enough I saw no likely looking store when I arrived.

Wearily, I asked inside the restaurant and was given a zigzag path to follow for about three blocks to a place called Papeleria Limon. It looked from the dusty storefront like a place that sold nothing but cheap knicknacks and faded gift wrap.

But there in the back was a little office supply section, presided over by a smiling girl who instantly produced my article with a flourish, almost as if she had been waiting just for me.

I love this country.