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Advice for Visitors (And We Are All Visitors)
Advice for Visitors (And We Are All Visitors)
photo by Waywuwei

by Dr David, Editor/Publisher

With all the concern up north about being nice to Mexico, I thought I would offer a few pointers about being nicer to Mexicans (and each other) right here in San Miguel de Allende.

Composing this on my roof, behind the church in San Antonio, I am enjoying multiple views (including a shocking pink sunset.) Suddenly the roof dogs at the end of the alley explode, barking in a chorus of anger or frustration or just doing what we trained them to do. You never get used to such cacophony; it's genetic.

My father, whose sarcasm was often exquisite, would respond after someone said “I'll get used to it,” “Yeah, you'll get used to it, like you get used to a wooden leg.” After five and a half years living in San Miguel while I haven't gotten used to the barking roof dogs, I've gotten better about it. (Remember, getting upset because a dog barks in the middle of the night does not help you fall back asleep.) With this as my cultural credential I offer the following advice.

Speaking Spanish with a Texas Accent

Right on. We get a lot of credit in life for making ourselves understood. At least you bothered to learn the language.

I am continually amazed by polite, well-meaning women saying “thank you” instead of “gracias.” I don't know what circles you are moving in, but I assure you that many, in fact, most (practically all?) of these Mexicans don't understand what you are saying, even if they know “Thank you.” The accent, the consonants, the vowels are largely strange to them. If you want to thank a Mexican in San Miguel, even a bilingual Mexican, then say it in Spanish. My girlfriend doesn't speak English. My Spanish, not bad to begin with, has improved dramatically. I move in a Spanish-speaking crowd. On any socio-economic or educational level, in Mexico it's best to say it in Spanish. It's respectful.

On the phone, in Spanish, if you speak slowly, then they know you are a foreigner. Speed is more important than accent. If you can, say it quickly.

Sidewalk Etiquette

-Be careful, but not too.
I met a man with a somewhat recent wound to the side of his forehead, a bruise maybe half the size of your thumb. I asked him how he got it. People had advised him that the sidewalks in San Miguel need constant vigilance. On careful lookout for hazards he had banged his downturned head on a window ledge.

-They are narrow.
Unless you have a big gut or a backpack, the narrowness of the sidewalks can be partially mitigated by turning sideways. Stepping down without slowing down is not a step, but a jump. I've informally diagnosed the knee pain of more than one newcomer to San Miguel, including myself, as due to the repeated practice of this excessively polite, misguided sidewalk etiquette. The locals turn sideways.

-Getting down
If someone needs to step into the street, the priority is infirmity then age.

I was bicycling back from San Miguel Viejo, with a friend following. We were cruising along an extended stretch of sidewalk (down from the libramiento) where there are no houses and almost no pedestrians. Up ahead a way, also on the sidewalk, a young man in athletic wear was running his dog towards us. I kept to the sidewalk. My friend jumped his bike down onto the cobbles. The young man (3-4 decades younger than we are) leapt down onto the cobbles, keeping his stride. We, the runner and I, passed each other. Runner and dog and leash managed to avoid my friend, who continued to ride on the cobbles for a while; bumpity-bump. At the end of our ride I teased my companion and explained, infirmity and age (including babes in arms and toddlers holding their parent's hand.)

If you want to be sexist (in the literal sense of the term,) a man might get down for a woman, but if she is much younger than he is, he's a fool. Actually getting down to let a woman pass is a very Mexican thing to do. Also, traditionally, when a couple is walking, the woman is always on the inside, away from the street. It's more discreet and cleaner.

Say “Hello”

My daughter was the girlfriend of a Zavala, one of the oldest families in town. There is a plaque to the singing group “Los Zavalas” in the Teatro Angela Peralta. One of his cousin's had the name “Zavala Zavala Zavala Zavala”; all four grandparents were Zavalas. Her boyfriend, B. told a her very inside, off-color, family joke, which I should probably not repeat, but... Back when there was a big problem with street dogs in town, there was saying, “If you throw a rock in San Miguel de Allende, you are likely to hit a street dog or a Zavala, and there's not much difference.” (Disculpame.) Walking along Calzada de la Luz I noticed my daughter saying “buenas tardes” to everyone, mostly to people sitting in their stores, but to lots of them. And they all readily responded. I asked her, “You say hello to everybody.” She responded, “B. does.”

I was at a table with a friend and her newly arrived acquaintance. He was complaining about a tension he felt between “the gringo and Mexican communities.” I said that I had it on good authority that in the highest classes there is such a tension. Otherwise I denied it. He said he felt it when he was on the streets. I suggested he try saying hello. “Then they know that you are not another rude, badly-bred gringo.”

San Miguel is an island surrounded by desert, not water. The resident extranjero community (“gringo” is a pejorative) is particularly circumscribed, particularly in low season. I am not good with names, but I know the faces of virtually all resident extranjeros, and many of the regular “snowbirds.” It is an exaggeration to say that we all say hello to each other during low season, but not much of an exaggeration. And if you do say hello, you will certainly get a ready greeting in return. I feel strange when it's high season and extranjero seasonal visitors are walking by without a nod or smile or eye-contact or hello. If you want to get to know San Miguel de Allende, say hello.

Say hello, “hola.” It's good manners. It's respectful to the Mexican tradition of “La Cortesia.” Better yet, say “buenos dias” or “buenas tardes” or “buenas noches” or even just “buenos.” Say it fast and say it first.

The Ethics of the Fathers (4:15), a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships, advises us, “Be first to greet every man.” Biblical authority; you can't do any better than that in Mexico.

Charity

While I'm on the subject, here's another biblical injunction; keep some coins in your pocket when you are going out and give them to the beggars; they need them more than you do.

¡Viva México!

**************

Dr David is about to launch a geographically-specific, cultural network (like Facebook, but searchable, with pages, not profiles and your whole town is your network) in 2000+ cities around the world. See more at www.lokkal.com. After that, he hopes to get back to writing poetry.

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