Saturday, April 30, 2011

Simpler life

I've come to the conclusion that while I may have been fairly fluent in Spanish as a child, I was too quick to get rid of my low-level Spanish books. The intermediate books I've got now are great for practicing reading, but there are so many holes in my memory of basic grammar -- irregular past participles, idiomatic constructions, day-to-day vocabulary -- that I need to get on the internet and do some backpedaling.

In the meantime, I'm still listening to Spanish pop songs every day. Today's song -- Vida Mas Simple -- is by a young Cuban-American singer named Nil Lara. As soon as I finish my final projects for my classes this week, I'll start getting down to reading and preparing for the Oaxaca trip.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Me dedique a perderte

"Maybe memory is overrated. Maybe forgetting is better. (Show me the Proust of forgetting, and I'll read him tomorrow.) Sometimes it's like juggling a thousand crystal balls in the air all at once, trying to keep all these memories going. Every time one falls to the floor and shatters into dust, another crevice cracks open inside me, through which another chunk of who we were disappears forever."
Francisco Goldman Say Her Name

This morning I was channel surfing for the Speed Network so that I could watch the replay of the Shanghai Grand Prix -- my favorite driver, Mark Webber, came in 3rd -- when I ended up in the 1000's and found that FIOS includes hundreds of radio stations with a great variety of music. As luck would have it, I was on the station that plays Mexican romantic ballads, most muy triste. This fit my mood perfectly as I finished Say Her Name this morning, and the weather out here is chilly and foggy, and I have a doctor's appointment this afternoon which promises to be somewhat nerve-wracking, and I'm still feeling the post-trip nostalgia for New Orleans.

So I'm finding Luis Miguel, Marisela, Emmanuel and Alejandro Fernandez very soothing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sports and Politics

I often travel overseas alone. This predilection started when I was in college and my Dad worked for Pan Am. I used to schedule all of my classes on Tues/Thurs so that I could take long weekend trips on our family's employee pass. Since this was just before airline deregulation in 1978, very few people flew anywhere as prices were high, so I almost always traveled alone.

I became very spoiled in the sense that I now prefer to travel alone and do what I want to do when I want to do it. Not many of my friends ever wanted to follow me to Yorkshire to visit the Bronte shrine in Haworth or out to Sussex to see Charleston Farmhouse, not to mention spend time in Venice visiting the Fortuny house. I am very lucky now to be married to someone who is happy to go wherever I want to go, so I still get the joy of planning and navigating all to myself with the pleasure of an amenable travel companion!

But the first trips were difficult for me. I used to be pathologically shy around strangers and only overwhelming curiosity (and hunger) got me interacting on my first trips to France and Italy. But I discovered early on that there are two things that almost everyone is interested in no matter where you travel: sports and politics. By learning a little bit about both, I found an easy entree into conversations with classmates, hotel maids, waiters, bus drivers, and the man on the street.

Outside the United States, soccer (futbol)is the sport that almost everyone has an opinion about whether they hate it or love it. Unlike the US -- where intellectuals often consider sports fanatacism beneath them -- undying love of the local soccer team crosses social, educational and economic boundaries in other countries. I can't think of a country I've visited that isn't crazy about soccer.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, beisbol is the second most popular sport, and in some countries -- Puerto Rico, Cuba and DR, for example -- it's more popular than soccer. Mexico in particular has Triple AAA affiliated teams sponsored by Major League Baseball (MLB) here in the US.

In Oaxaca, the AAA team is the Guerreros. In the early '90's, the Venezualan player Oscar Azocar played in Oaxaca before being called up by the Yankees and the Padres. Sadly, if you check the standings, Oaxaca is almost dead last in their division this year after being in first place in 2008. That could be a good thing if you want tickets, though, and their schedule shows them playing many home games in Eduardo Vasconcelos Stadium in July. I'm hoping that some of my NEH colleagues will be interested in attending a couple of these games!

For their Spanish language site, check out the Guerreros home page.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Te quiero aun mas hoy que ayer

image via

I never made it to any of the films that were being sponsored by the Mexican Cultural Institute. This was due partly to the fact that I've been writing on weekdays when I don't have class, and if I know that I'll be leaving the house to go somewhere, I talk myself out of sitting down at my desk and "just doing it" because I'm distracted by my imminent departure or I won't have enough time anyway or I need to check the train schedule again and again or ascertain what time the film is starting or figure out where to have tea and cake or Indian food or hamburgers (Shake Shack?) or BBQ or . . . . Well, you get the idea. When I'm writing, Neurotic Crazed DBG takes over from calm, cool and collected DBG, and I have to fight the urge to use any excuse to run screaming from the keyboard. Add to this the general malaise the last two weeks' bad weather has instilled, and I'm lucky to get out of my pj's by 4pm when The Husband returns home from school.

But the main reason I didn't leave the house unless I absolutely had to last week was that I picked up Francisco Goldman's new novel Say Her Name after I saw it reviewed in last week's NYT, and I haven't been able to put it down.

Although it's billed as fiction, much of it reads as a memoir of his marriage. I have friends who knew his wife, a young woman from Mexico City, as a student in Columbia's Spanish program as well as a student in Hunter's MFA program (she was doing both simultaneously), and they were all very grieved when she died tragically in a surfing accident off the beaches of Oaxaca in 2007. I'm guessing he called his story fiction so that her mother and uncle don't sue him. Goldman's story is overshadowed by the mother's hovering omnipresence, not exactly malevolent, but suffocating. She wanted to have him arrested and prosecuted after her daughter's accident, so he's definitely getting his own back, and she comes off as truly god-awful.

But the focus of the book isn't vengeance but Goldman's struggle to clarify and sharpen his memories of Aura even as they inevitably recede. The writing is soul-stirring and inspiring, much of it so painful that I can't read more than 20 or 30 pages at a time. But memoir or novel, it's the most compelling book I've read in years, and I'll be sorry to come to the end of it.

I'm off to New Orleans by Amtrak Monday and won't be posting again until I return after Easter, but I'll be listening to my Spanish tapes and whipping through my flashcards. Buena Pascua/Passover!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Why, yes, I do know what ch*&#ado means in Spanish

image via

I began my quest to become more fluent in Spanish as spoken in Mexico by surfing the Net using the phrase "Mexican Spanish." I found a funny blog entry from which I learned that it's impolite to say, "Que?" if you don't understand something and better to say, "Mande?". I'm sure I'll be needing that one a lot.

Next I found a site that gives Nahuatl Borrowings in Mexican Spanish Vocabulary, so I promptly printed it out and made notecards to study while I'm on the train to New Orleans next week.

But I think the most useful site will be The Alternative Spanish Dictionary. Because even if you don't use language like that yourself, it's always fun to know what everyone around you is saying! ;-)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Empire of the Sun-We Are the People

A highly stylized, surreal video with some beautiful shots of the desert near Monterrey, Mexico. A friend of mine finds the use Mexico's cultural icons in the service of fashion and entertainment distasteful, but I didn't see it that way. For an interesting take on the video and lyrics -- that just happens to be in agreement with my perceptions :-) -- read Who's Got the Power?.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Albondigas -- no te dije?

Photo via Flickr

In the 1950's, ALM -- the Audio Lingual Method -- was a popular theory of language instruction. Despite the fact that it was "discredited" by linguists like Noam Chomsky as early as 1959, it was still the method of choice at Slidell High School when I was a student there in the 1970's. My quest to learn Spanish began in 9th grade by memorizing a dialog I still remember today:

Hola, Isabel, como estas?
Estoy bien, gracias, y tu?
Bien gracias. Oye, quien es ese chico?
Es un amigo mio.
Como se llama?
Se llama Juan. Ven y te lo presento.

This was accomplished by Mrs. S presenting bits of phrases for us to repeat over and over the first week of class. We were not given a book nor allowed to see any of this in writing. The second week, we threaded the phrases into still-unintelligible sentences. The third week we repeated these sentences in unison with an LP that played through our antiquated headphones. If all this wasn't funny enough, the headphones were not synchronized, and some were off by as much as five seconds, resulting in mayhem dressed up in very bad Spanish accents.

One of the dialogs we memorized those first weeks took place in a school cafeteria and had one student declare to another, "Albondigas! No te dije?" Even then, we all knew that there would never come a time when we would have occasion to say, "Meatballs! Didn't I tell you?" It soon became a secret shorthand outside of class. Whenever an adult did something we thought silly or asinine, one of us would shake our heads sadly and sigh, "Albondigas! No te dije?" and the rest of us would laugh our heads off. This continued until a new student from Puerto Rico smirkingly informed us that we were screaming out a word that was slang for "testicles" in Spanish!

Before ALM, I'd always liked hearing foreign languages and often listened to Spanish and French language radio shows or broadcasts of Saturday evening mass in Latin. I even thought I wanted to major in languages in college and become a language professor, so you can imagine my dismay with the Spanish language. I couldn't understand why I hated it so much. If this was what majoring in a foreign language would be like, I wasn't having any of it. I decided I'd major in English Lit and become a writer instead. It wasn't until I became obsessed with Italy and all things Italian a few years later that I overcame my language phobia and changed my major to Comp Lit, but since then, my reading skills have always far surpassed my speaking skills whenever I've studied a language.

Last summer, people told me not to bother learning Spanish before I went to Mexico because if I spoke Italian, everyone would understand me. So I stumbled along and, thanks to the good will of the people I encountered, I was able to function on a very basic level. This summer, I'd like to do better, so I'm listening to CD's, watching Spanish-language tv, and taping notecards labeling everyday objects all over my house. But because I watch the news in Italian every night and follow several telenovellas, I'm now thoroughly confused with vocabulary. And to make matters worse, the few words I remember from high school are Castilian Spanish. I had a conversation with a Spanish-speaking friend today, and my end of it was an odd gibberish of half Spanish, half Italian. I said pee-shee-na but corrected myself to pee-see-na only to be told that in Mexico, a swimming pool is "alberca" anyway.

Albondigas, dammit!

If you want to worry about me . . .

A friend called me from London this morning.

Friend: Oh, my god, I heard on the BBC that there's a serial killer in Oak Beach! How far is that from your house?

Me: Uhm, about five miles.

F: Damn, and I was worried about you going to Mexico!

Me: Yes, you see, I'd be safer in Mexico!

F: Hmmm. Well, you don't really fit the killer's demographic.

Me: Because I'm not advertising on Craigslist?

F: Nah, because you're too old!

Three More Sets of Remains adds to LI Mystery.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Peso watch

20 Mexican Pesos = $1.69

1.00 USD = 11.8186 MXN

Mexican films in NYC

The Mexican Cultural Institute of NY is sponsoring six films that are being shown as part of the Havana Film Festival this year. I hope to catch Viaje Redondo and Heart of Time. The descriptions below are from their website:

"The HFFNY enters its 12th year with a program of award-winning films, panel discussions, and Q&A sessions with distinguished international directors, actors, and producers. The Mexican Cultural Institute is proud to support the six Mexican films presented this year:

Araceli Santana. Mexico. 2010.
Documentary. 70 min. U.S. Premiere

Since childhood, Jorge’s homosexuality had created a conflict that ended when he moved away from the precepts of his religion. But the counsel of a priest reconciles him with his faith and leads him to head a church that brings gays closer to a God who promotes responsibility and awareness of their freedom.

QUAD CINEMA, Saturday April 9, 5:30 pm - N.Y. Premiere - Q&A with Director
QUAD CINEMA, Tuesday April 12, 1:00 pm

Alberto Cortés. 2009.
Mexico/Spain. Fiction. 90 min. N.Y. Premiere.

In the middle of the Zapatista struggle in Chiapas, Sonia has been betrothed. But her passion for the rebel fighter Julio puts the security of her community and the rebels in jeopardy and Sonia will have to take on the struggles of love in the heart of time.

QUAD CINEMA, Friday April 8, 4:45 pm - N.Y. Premiere
QUAD CINEMA, Thursday April 14, 4:45 pm

Fabián Hofman. 2010.
Mexico/Argentina. Fiction. 96 min. N.Y. Premiere.

Miss You explores adolescence and the birth of individual identity following Javier, a 15-year-old Argentinean boy who leaves his home for Mexico City burdened with the tragedy of his missing brother, a premature separation from his family and the weight of collective guilt.

QUAD CINEMA, Saturday April 9, 8:50 pm - N.Y. Premiere - Q&A with Director
QUAD CINEMA, Monday April 11, 3:00 pm

Gerardo Tort. 2009. Mexico.
Fiction. 102 min. N.Y. Premiere.

Two women who casually meet at the same bus stop are forced by circumstance to spend two nights together in an environment completely unknown to them. Despite their differences, they create bonds of sympathy, tenderness and friendship.

QUAD CINEMA, Sunday April 10, 7:10 pm - N.Y. Premiere - Q&A with Director
QUAD CINEMA, Tuesday April 12, 3:00 pm - N.Y. Premiere

Chloe Campero. 2008.
Mexico. Documentary. 11 min.

An intimate portrait about a flying woman dancer from Veracruz who dreams of continuing “flying,” and a look at the communities of the Veracruz sierra and their mysticism, their festivities, their rituals and illusions.

King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, Wednesday April 13, 6:00 pm
U.S. Premiere
FREE & Open to the Public

Lucio Olmos. 2008.
Mexico. Fiction. 8 min.

The film shows the damage people have done to the environment by its consumptive lifestyle and how the Totonac people respect their environment and the natural resources, which are so sacred to them.

King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, Wednesday April 13, 6:00 pm
U.S. Premiere
FREE & Open to the Public

For more info and tickets visit"

Monday, April 4, 2011

Damn good coffee

Reading: Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks
Oaxaca al Gusto by Diana Kennedy

My friends know I'm extremely picky about coffee, so much so that I have mine shipped up from New Orleans every three months. But I loved the coffee we had in Oaxaca. One of my favorite places was La Antigua on the Reforma. We went in the evenings to play chess while drinking coffee and eating chocolate cake with chili sauce.

The Oaxaca Wiki has other suggestions of where to get a great cup of coffee or chocolate oaxaqueno, and I'm planning to hit them all, and more, this summer!

Gustavo Perez

One of the exhibits that drew me to the Centro de las Artes de San Agustin last summer was of ceramist Gustavo Perez. His pieces are both traditional and experimental, utilitarian -- but not. He is represented in the United States by the Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica. My particular favorite is the wall hanging sculpture, but I loved the smushed pieces as well.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

An argument for travel

"“Don’t go there,” the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger says of many a distant place. I have heard it my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice." Paul Theroux

In 1978, I took my first trip overseas alone when I studied in London for a summer semester. Worried friends begged me not to go, and I know my mother lost some sleep over the trip although she never voiced her worries to me. If their concern surprises you younger folk, remember that in 1973, the Provos had begun regularly targeting London landmarks, including bombing the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament, shopping areas and hotel lobbies. I remember going to Sainsbury's to get my groceries and having to open my bag to a young British Army soldier who rooted through it with one hand while cradling a very large weapon with the other.

I like to think of myself as adventurous, not reckless. I may have left college and gotten on an airplane to New York with only one suitcase and $200, but I did have a return ticket to New Orleans tucked away in the lining. Just in case, you know.

The opening quote comes from an article in this weekend's New York Times on Why We Travel. For all my beautiful, not know-it-all but concerned, friends and family who are lovingly urging me not to go to Mexico this summer, please don't worry and enjoy the article! :-)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Please, can I have some more?

Image via

Okay, so I was quite pleased last summer that I ate chapulines (grasshoppers) twice and salsa with smoked gusanos (worms). But then I read Diana Kennedy's Oaxaca al Gusto and discovered a recipe for Mole with Black Iguana. And I realized that in the realms of adventurous eaters, I'm probably not a candidate for the next Survivor tv series.

NEH 2011

I was planning to spend the month of July in Oaxaca taking Spanish classes and learning how to dance salsa. But I heard today that I was accepted for the NEH institute, so I'll be working with other teachers and scholars to write new curriculum. This is a good thing because I tend to be more productive in a structured environment than I do when I'm footloose and fancy-free. So I'm totally excited!