Monday, September 19, 2016

Escape from Gringo Gulch

While a friend of ours and I had a French Dip sandwich at a new restaurant Friday, and Stew and another friend enjoyed a cheeseburger and steakburger, all with sides of crispy French Fries, a question popped in my head: Are we in Mexico? Neither the sandwiches nor the fries had anything to do with France, and the hamburgers were definitely all-American.

Actually the question had germinated the weekend before when a friend invited Stew and me to an all-Mexican lunch at his ranch prepared by a Mexican woman friend of his. On the menu was a beef broth with chunks of sweet potatoes, zucchini, carrots and what-not. Terrific as any soup I've ever tasted, to rival some of Stew's inspired creations. It came with rice with an assortment of vegetables mixed in and decorated with sprigs of cilantro. The main course was small chunks of slow-cooked pork. You put the pork on warm tortillas, accompanied by any or all of a selection of condiments—jalapeños, a red (or green?) sauce, cucumbers, grated cheese, chopped onions and cilantro and others I can't remember.

Caldo de res mexicano: Hmm, hmm good. 
 All-Mexican and all delicious. Why don't we eat Mexican food more often?
Despite vehement protests to the contrary, one of the dirty little secrets of why so many Americans love San Miguel is that it allows them to live in a comfortable gringo bubble. Thanks to an influx of tourists and expats mostly from the U.S. but also Canada and Australia and even a few from New Zealand and Britain, San Miguel has gradually become Mexican-ish or Mexican-light, and less genuinely Mexican. Perhaps that's the inevitable price of living off the tourists.  

You can live here with no more Spanish than "Buenos días" and "Gracias." I've witnessed Americans become miffed with waiters or other service personnel who don't speak English to their satisfaction. Others complain that a recent "invasion" of San Miguel by "chilangos"—weekend visitors from Mexico City—might be ruining our little San Miguel. As pretentious and annoying as young chilangos can be, we momentarily forget that this is, after all, their country.

Indeed, English speakers attach themselves to English-speaking venues like barnacles on a pier. We socialize in English-speaking bridge clubs, churches and volunteer associations. For entertainment we have English-speaking theaters and movies. A small grocery store regularly imports American indispensables like canned Texas chili and even grits.

The self-segregation by Americans is most noticeable in restaurants. Hecho en México is probably the busiest in town and on many days it's packed with nothing but Americans attracted by such delicacies as reuben sandwiches (my favorite) and fish and chips (Stew's). On Mondays you can get meatloaf at the American-owned La Frontera restaurant, on the way in or out of the all-American bridge club venue next door. Variations of Italian restaurants abound, offering the all familiar pastas and sauces but nothing Mexican except the waiters.

Reuben, we're going to miss you. 
Before getting too preachy, let's admit that, even after almost eleven years here, Stew and I are very much trapped in that gringo bubble. For one thing, we don't have any Mexican friends that would invite us to dinner or vice-versa. Stew has surprised me recently with his growing command of Spanish, but it manifests usually when he has no choice but to string some words to get what he wants—or when I decline to play translator.

Our very predictable choice of restaurants recently has been Hecho, Firenze (a quite good continental restaurant), a place called The Restaurant, Cafe Monet, and Fat Boy, a new motorcycle bar with an incidental restaurant attached to it. There are some exceptions, such as El Vergel, outside of town, that offers some good and original Mexican dishes. But in general, Mexican cuisine enters our gullets only accidentally, such as during the wonderful and unexpected Mexican lunch we had at our friend's ranch.
It's only natural to try to soften the inevitable alienation of moving to a foreign country by hanging out at familiar places frequented by people like yourself. But it also negates the excitement of learning new ways of living and celebrating life in a foreign country. Isn't that why we came to Mexico?

Most noticeable to me is our insulation from local celebrations or fiestas, which come and go often without us knowing even what's being celebrated. Just this weekend, on the main road past the ranch, we saw groups of people on horseback going and coming back from San Miguel, probably something to do with the Independence Day celebrations all this month. On other occasions I've seen religious processions of some sort passing by, with people carrying banners and statues of saints while singing or praying. Who or what were they honoring?

On one memorable occasion, I spotted a young couple decked out in full Mexican attire riding a horse, also decked out with a fancy saddle. The guy was as handsome as the girl was gorgeous. Were they on the way to get married or going on their honeymoon? I should have stopped and asked—and congratulated them.

I mentioned to Stew this morning we should accelerate our halting efforts at cultural acculturation. First, we should try restaurants that are not expat hangouts, including taco carts and smaller venues in town preferably those favored by the locals. I'll miss Hecho's reuben sandwiches, but we'll survive.

Second, I'm going to try to keep track of local celebrations, including fiestas in the nearby localities and find out what they're about. Are they marking some religious holiday or secular celebration? We've attended a couple of fiestas near the ranch but mostly looked around and left after an hour or so. We should stay long enough to talk to a few people (but before some of them begin to fall face-down drunk, sadly a common occurrence).  

Finally I'll try to encourage Stew to shift his efforts to learn Spanish from first to second gear. That may prove to be the most difficult step in this program. But there's hope: This morning he was checking a Spanish-language cookbook and found a recipe for a beef broth soup just like our friend served at his ranch. I can't wait.

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10 comments:

  1. I'm guessing that you also maintain the Gringo eating schedule. Lunch around noon, and the big meal at night. Tell me I'm wrong.

    As for assimilating, it will never happen. The gap between the two worlds is too vast. Lamentable but true.

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    1. OK Felipe, you're wrong about the eating schedules. We've gradually moved the main meal of the day to early afternoon, with only some crackers and cheese at night. But that's come about because we were eating too much! One big meal a day ought to do it.

      You're right though that assimilation is never going to happen, particularly for folks our age. That's particularly true in our area where we have villages with very poor people. The gaps not only in culture but education and money are too great. All we can expect is to be friendly and cordial to one another. I should scale down my expectations to acculturation; assimilation will never happen.

      alfredo

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    2. Good to hear that you've made the dining swap change. A gold star on your permanent record. I know a couple here in Patzcuaro who've lived in Mexico over 20 years, and they still eat on the Gringo schedule. Incredible.

      I married into a Mexican family almost 15 years ago. My wife and I speak Spanish exclusively. The gap between me and my Mexican relatives is like the Pacific Ocean. They are Martians to me and vice versa. That will never change. It's even true to an extent with my wife, but less so.

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  2. I think Gringo Gulches are inevitable. They are the equivalent of China towns and other ethnic enclaves the world over. Nothing wrong with craving the foods of your culture or longing to hear your native tongue.

    However, you do live a richer and more varied life when you participate in the culture and language of the country you live in.

    Most of my friends are expats, simply because they are more open to new relationships. I have Mexican friends, but often they are involved with their families, churches, and other long time associations and aren't as flexible in their availabilities. As an adult, I moved around a bit and I found that just as true for Americans as Mexicans, unless you joined their church (not a church goer) or had children who went to school, it was hard to get to know people outside of work. You really had to make an effort to find new friends.

    The people who truly assimilate are married to Mexicans and raise their children here. Of course, it helps if the language of their relationship is Spanish. Relationships tend to have a predominate language, for example , my husband and mine was English, but my parent's is Spanish.

    regards,
    Theresa

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    1. You're absolutely right about ethnic enclaves, which is what we have here in San Miguel. I've visited Cuban enclaves in Miami, most notably Hialeah, where non-English exiles are clustered because that's where they can find grocery stores with familiar foods and pharmacists who speak Spanish. As they have children and those children intermarry or move away, those ghettoes tend to disappear, though in Miami they might last a long time given that there are new exiles coming in every day.

      BTW, Stew and I are going to be in Merida in mid November. If you give me your email or phone number we could get in touch and go out for lunch.

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  3. The Caldo de Res looks great. The Reuben Sandwich, much less so.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

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    1. C'mon. Reubens are good too. That was just a lousy picture!

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  4. Good article. True in a great many ways.
    I consider myself about half way there. I eat mostly in Mexican restaurants, partly because I love it so, and partly because I am so cheap. I do not go into Hank's or Hecho. But admit that my love of Italian food draws me to Francesco's and Vivaldi's.

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    1. Stew was just saying that we need a couple of mid-price, really good Mexican restaurants in San Miguel, not lah-dee-dah high cuisine but just good family restaurants. I'm sure there are some out there. Let's keep looking.

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  5. Many, many good Mexican family restaurants in San Miguel. Several on Salida de Queretaro and other neighborhoods.
    Interesting post. If you go to Hecho after 2PM, you'll be surrounded by local Mexicans and the gringos will be quite a few less. I too have my
    main meal mid day. I find it so much healthier.
    On the subject of assimilation, I find my son, with two children in school in SMA is totally assimilated in the Mexican culture. He and the children are invited to Mexican homes and they come to his. I think it is wonderful. Do you buy the local newspapers or the Atencion? You can always find out about the festivals and activities that way, or sit in the jardin any day. There IS ALWAYS something going on.........If you like pozole, there is a great little tiny place on Salida de Celaya. Have fun hunting. Life is much richer in the Mexican community, IMHO.

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