#lostintranslation is a feature in which PTL asks people who have moved abroad, temporarily or for the long haul, to comment on their experiences in their newfound homes. To tell us about why they moved, what they’ve learnt and all the awkward situations they’ve encountered along the way.
When you think of Mexico your first thoughts may well turn to the hordes of hedonistic American and more recently British students who swarm to Cancun’s idyllic white sand beaches for Spring Break. You might think of up and coming Mexico City or maybe to the faded glamour of Acapulco thanks to The Four Tops seminal classic Loco in Acapulco. I sincerely doubt, however, that you have heard of Monterrey prior to reading this.
Even if you have been to Mexico I will take a bet that you didn’t make the trip up to Mexico’s most Americanised, urbanised, concrete metropolis and essentially least Mexican city. I too never would have thought that I would become so well acquainted with this cultural anomaly. I naively had presumed that I was headed for the bright lights and dizzy heights of Mexico City.
It was only two weeks before boarding the plane that I was handed my boarding pass. Final Destination: Monterrey.
So naturally my first port of call was a spot of light research. A regrettable move as Google provided me with a thousand and one reasons why Westerners should perhaps steer clear of Monterrey.
Whilst I was vaguely aware of Mexico’s complex and fierce network of drug cartels; its strained relationship with the US and its ingrained government corruption, it is another thing when these distant headlines suddenly take the form of your local news bulletin. *cue hypochondriac outbursts, heart palpations and long chats with anxious parents*.
Whilst Monterrey is far from safe; I am relieved to say that it has emerged from a difficult few years plighted by drug warfare and civilian casualties and now is far more stable. It is also, from the outskirts, rather beautiful.
Why Mexico though and why Monterrey? Mexico was a mutual decision made with my school friend, Ally, after we were cruelly separated by the high jinks that go on in UCAS HQ. I headed for Edinburgh whilst she journeyed south to Bristol. We had always felt slightly aggrieved at not taking a gap year and therefore decided that the integral year abroad component of a language degree would provide us with the opportunity to learn Spanish a la Latin America.
Instead of studying, we decided to pursue the employment option of a year abroad and, after a series of unfortunate events we finally landed ourselves a job with FEMSA (the world’s largest Coca-Cola bottler) – in, you guessed it, Monterrey.
Although our job is slightly less glamorous than the Coca-Cola endorsement might suggest, we work in the Social Responsibility department of FEMSA Comercio headquarters and have both been assigned different projects with the aim of trying to improve their policy on social inclusion and promoting community actions. All of which is conducted in Spanish. *yikes*
We got off to a bad start when our flight was cancelled twice and thus arrived in Monterrey three days later than originally planned. Lost and confused we checked into a hotel in the centre which, again, perhaps we shouldn’t have. We might as well have been walking around naked with the amount of gawps, stares and bemused expressions that we were getting. If you find yourself at the end of an unwanted gaze, try staring right back. It has a very unsettling and rather amusing effect.
The truth is that Mexicans are thoroughly perplexed by mine and my friend, Ally’s, presence here. Mexico is one thing but Monterrey?! However, whilst Monterrey may be lacking in cultural treasures, open green spaces and true Mexican authenticity it somehow is charming: rather you just have to look pretty hard to find that charm.
As for the Spanish (the actual point why I am here); whilst real progress has been made there is still a long way to go. I find myself in no man’s land – a bewildering and disorientating state of flux somewhere between advanced proficiency in a language and Dora the Explorer banality. It is a frustrating place to be and no amount of wild gesticulating; aggressive finger jabbing or spontaneous outbursts of imaginative charades is going to diminish it.
Learning a language is a simultaneous process of learning and un-learning. Whilst I am progressing in Spanish, I am regressing in English. The simplest English phrases now prove incredibly difficult and thus I refer back to the aforementioned linguistic territory of no man’s land.
I find myself descending into jibberish at times- an alienating and meaningless concoction of English, Spanish, French and gobbledygook. También is not and never has been an English word, neither has ‘in serious’ but when said with appropriate gusto, corresponding hand gestures and facial expressions it has a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ which sometimes passes for cultural proficiency.
The major problem is the sheer quantity of Mexican slang and colloquialism: both endearing and incredibly frustrating. You can forget your ‘una cerveza por favor’ because Mexico has about seven bloody words for beer.
However, how could you not fail to love a country where ‘¿Qué pedo?’ (What fart) is a common greeting amongst friends and where ‘padre’ means cool. No – don’t worry your Spanish GCSE has not failed you – ‘padre’ does indeed mean dad and here it also means cool. Example. ‘Wow this is place is so dad. I really like the atmosphere. It’s really dad.’ On the other end of the spectrum, the ‘madres’ have been vilified and the word comes with a host of negative connotations and ingenious uses.
My first was forgetting the accent of ‘año’ (the Spanish word for ‘year’) which then becomes anus. So when I thought I was innocently referring to my summer plans for the following year; I was in fact referring to what I was going to be doing the following anus…
Then perhaps my personal favourite was when Ally was attempting to talk about the culinary delicacies of Peru and how she had heard that they eat guinea pig there. Guinea pig being ‘cuye’ but Ally regrettably substituted this for ‘cuño’ which has an entirely different meaning. To rub salt into the wound she also asked our respectable neighbour how her ‘cuño’ was – thinking she was referring to her brother-in-law (‘cuñado’). I’ll let you look that one up and then I am sure you will be able to imagine the fits of giggles which ensued from both scenarios.
Hence at times I feel that Ally and I are the living incarnation of #lostintranslation.
Other highlights up until this point have to include the time when we tried our hand at cycling in the city’s only park and I took out a small and helpless nine year old Mexican child at considerable speed. Picture it now – poor helpless boy – bike – bike – white flailing English girl. At somewhere close to 5ft 10 I tower above the average 5ft 2 Mexican and the poor boy looked like he had been plonked on Mars and ran a mile at the first available opportunity.
Other memorable moments include some perilously close encounters with Monterrey’s motor borne community. Crossing the road in Monterrey is nothing short of suicidal. People actively attempt to run you over in some sort of twisted thrill seeking game of chicken. Ally and I stand desperately on the side of the road, torrents of vehicles whip past whilst Mexicans deftly manoeuvre a perilous stretch of almost certain death. Maybe it’s the flailing limbs, my innate clumsiness or maybe it’s because they think I am American but I have had some close scrapes.
Then finally there is the food. This has proved rather difficult at times because whilst my University and School education taught me the essential pros and cons of wind farms, the risks of cosmetic surgery and a comprehensive understanding of the importance of recycling it did not teach me the basic food types.
Thus I have eaten some rather odd dishes and erroneously heaped chili onto my food mistaking it for its milder salsa counterpart. Mexicans love chili. No LOVE it. To me it screams masochism as they pour chili onto their fruit, their dried candy sweets, their ice cream, their popcorn, their smoothies…(please, feel free to insert whichever type of food that you wish here).
However, the people of Monterrey are wonderful. They are unbelievably patient as I attempt to master Spanish and are eager to find out more about life in England and its cultural differences. Although for the umpteenth time, no I do not know any of the members of One Direction or the Queen.
Mexico is a myriad of colours, cultures and history and the Mexican love of life and friendliness means that I am starting to feel truly at home here.
I leave you with a spot of cultural enlightenment:
Enrique Iglesias – Bailando
J. Balvin – Seis de la mañana (feat. Farruko)
Hasta luego x
Ellie Smith is 21 years old and she studies French and Spanish at the University of Edinburgh. She is, as this piece might suggest, currently trying to adapt to Mexican life. Ellie has a sense of humour similar to that of an immature ten year old boy and sites Blades of Glory as one of the best films ever made. She is obsessed with Russia, Mini Eggs and Ryan Gosling. The Holy Trinity in her eyes.
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