“It’s My Favorite Thing in Mexico”

“I’d do that every day, all day, if I could!” 10-year-old Laura gushed.

“I didn’t ever want it to end,” 13-year-old Bren added. “It’s my favorite thing in Mexico!”

It’s a good day that ends on the patio, under the stars and full moon, happy chatter braiding itself across the wrought-iron table.

Our day started off normally enough, with the kids and I busy at our studies. The heat kept us in the cool living room, with its 18-foot, beamed ceiling, and then out in the shade by the pool later on.Laura and Brenny Mexico

We had dinner—a delicious stir-fry rice that the daddy whipped up—and then headed out for our 6:30 walk to the 7p.m. Conversaciones Con Amigos, held every Monday at the Merida English Library.

What is Conversaciones Con Amigos, you might wonder? All the ad said was:

“Come practice your Spanish with your neighbors, while they practice their English!” 

So last Monday, we walked for the first time over to Calle 53 and went into a cool little library with shelves and shelves of books in English (a mecca to a book lover like me in a Spanish-speaking town!).

We were directed to the back of the building, which opened up into a tropical outdoor oasis filled with trees and tables. We sat at three different tables—Kevin by himself at one, me and the girls at another, with the boys at a third. Then the people started coming in. In ten minutes, the patio was filled with lively conversations in various accents.

That first night was awesome! We loved the experience of talking with people from Merida so much that we went back again last night. And, just like last week, last night was another great experience. Now, mind you, we didn’t feel like the evenings furthered our Spanish skills an incredible amount. At my table, at least, my companions and I spoke English more than Spanish.

So why is Convercaciones Con Amigos a draw for us? As we walked home under a full moon, with our bright-eyed kids chattering up a storm, shivering from the elation of it all, it dawned on me. The draw was not the acquisition of language skills. It was the people.

And the language learning? Only a tool to get closer to the people. 

At the library, the boys were seated at a table last night with other young people. They were able to ask things they cared about: What’s it like to live here in this city? What are common foods here? Where are the cool places to hang out? What do you like to do for fun? Why do you want to learn English? What do you want to do when you’re done with school?

They also answered questions. What is snow like? What music do you listen to? Why do you travel and homeschool? What do you think of Mexico so far? What do you think of the hot climate? Why do you want to learn Spanish? Why do you like to travel? What are your interests and hobbies? What have you seen in the Yucatan so far?

They also swapped language tips. Questions about grammar and verb tenses. Adjective endings and gender.

Laura didn’t sit with kids, but rather with me. Even so, she had a wonderful conversation on both nights with an older woman who took a shine to her. They talked about cooking. They chatted about where Laura has traveled and what she thought about it. The woman took an interest in her, which made for a special experience for Laura. (I also think the woman, who seemed a little shy, appreciated being able to ask a kid about the English language—maybe it was a little less stressful that way.)

“Come practice your Spanish with your neighbors, while they practice their English!”

Last night I chatted with a chemical engineer, an anthropology student/tour guide, and an English tutor. They suggested we speak in English for the first hour and in Spanish for the second hour. I laughed and explained that my skills would run out before the hour was up. And it was true! Before I’d answered two questions, they realized it would be difficult to keep speaking Spanish with only me for a whole hour.

I’m learning, but more of the conversational stuff. I’m doing okay ordering food in a restaurant or buying vegetables in the market and I can “Buenos Dias!” along with the best of them when I pass someone in the street. I can tell you what I like to do or eat, or tell you where I’m from. I know my colors, numbers, money, foods, clothing, and body parts. I would say I’m at the “intermediate preschool level” of Español.

So the first question Ezekiel asked me last night, in Spanish: “Why do you teach your children at home?”

Egad. How do you answer that with limited vocabulary and a tendency to forget verb endings?

They very were very helpful in answering my questions about their language and their culture. We ended up switching back to English for a good bit of it. But it didn’t matter.

I remembered the ad: “Come practice your Spanish with your neighbors, while they practice their English!”

The key word in this ad, I think, is not the word “practice” but rather the word “neighbors.”

The conversations went a long way toward building bridges of understanding and respect between our two cultures. And tearing down walls of misconception. (I.e., we’re not all like Donald Trump!) They were about learning from each other and breaking stereotypes. And learning more about myself, too, as I viewed my life through the lens of another culture.

Each person at those tables left with a rosy glow, caused not only by the 80-degree evening, but by the thought that we now have more friends in this world. Friends who are not like us in all ways but who are alike in the most essential. It’s not about Them and Us. We’re all one human family… and can get along together if we simply stay curious, welcoming, kind, and inclusive.

Travel is not about seeing the sights. It’s about meeting the people.

The people. Yes, that’s my favorite thing in Mexico, too, Brenny.