Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Photographs, Road Logs, Spanish, The Great Adventure, Travel

My Spanish Immersion in San Miguel de Allende

Last time I weathered a rough night in Villa de Reyes and found greener pastures in historic Dolores Hidalgo. This time I set off with my next rest stop, the popular San Miguel de Allende, in sight.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

Sunday, November 30 (Day 877 of the Great Adventure)—to San Miguel de Allende

For once I had absolutely no reason to hurry. San Miguel was only a short distance away, a few hours’ ride, and I knew I’d enjoy it more if I got all my client work done before I set out. I had breakfast at the V Zone and then camped out in the hotel courtyard to do some writing. The hotel staff allowed me to remain there typing for several hours after my checkout, and by early afternoon my docket was clear.

The ride out of Dolores involved a couple steep cobblestone streets that meant walking the bike. Once underway the road was hilly but gentle and pretty. As I got closer to San Miguel de Allende I saw all the telltale signs of a tourist town that had been colonized first by foreign expats and then by the Mexican upper class. Health spas, fancy restaurants and white-walled condo developments appeared in breaks between the rich green hills.

Shebby Chick antique store near San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

Shebby Chick antique store near San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

I approached San Miguel just before sunset. There was one final mountain and as I came over it I could see the city twinkling before me. There really is no more welcome or inspiring site after a day on the road.

For lodging I had booked an AirBnB that a friend recommended. It was in the city but far from the Centro, in a quiet middle class neighborhood. I turned off the highway on a downhill, cruising at speed toward the artery that would take me to the house. It turned out to be cobbled, and I clung to the Giant like a rodeo rider as he lurched and rattled to a stop. I walked him the last few blocks, coming up a gold-lit cobbled lane just at sunset and knocking on the big metal gate of my host’s home.

The cobbled lane. Photo by André.

The cobbled lane. Photo by André.

Fay is Irish by birth, raised mostly in the US, and a longtime London resident. Nowadays she lives year round in Mexico with her two dogs, one cat, and one long-term lodger who’s rarely home. The remaining bedroom is rented out to travelers like me. The place had come recommended both because Fay herself  is great and because she had set up the room with a good work desk, good wi-fi and everything a location independent freelancer needs.

No sooner had I rolled through the gate than she squeezed me a glass of mandarina juice and put supper on. I hadn’t expected to be invited to dine and enjoyed a very healthy meal of soup and salad with her.

Fay.

The conversation was amazing. Fay is a fellow writer, mostly of poetry but also just about everything else. Her latest book rewrites the 12 steps of alcoholism treatment as a road to eventually recovering and being able to enjoy drinking in moderation. A self-described recovered alcoholic, Fay refocuses the traditional steps on creating healthy change in your life overall. You can find it here: The Steps.

Fay’s book. I’m jealous of the design and production value.

I told Fay I was thinking of going out for tacos. She needed to run to the corner store and offered to give me a mini tour of the neighborhood, including pointing the way to a hidden restaurant. I eagerly tagged along and she showed me a few landmarks plus introduced me to the store clerk. Her Spanish was highly functional, something I would soon come to appreciate made her stand out significantly from all the other retiree expats in town. She knew her neighbors and she could hold real conversations. This is really just the most basic dignity you can express to your neighbors when you move to a foreign country, but it’s one that most expats don’t really bother with.

Faye was done for the night so I went to the hidden restaurant on my own. Hidden indeed. Outside were just a few tables with parasols, the kind of place that could easily be another open air street food booth. But as I pushed open the door I caught my breath. I stepped into one of the most opulent and gorgeous dining spaces I’d ever seen—the first of several, with each room deeper into the home done up in flawless classical style complete with hardwood, marble and tile.

Photo by André

Photo by André

A waiter showed me to a table and turned the menu over with a flourish, to the English side. He spoke flawless English of his own, but that wasn’t what stood out. What stood out was how warm he was, never expressing impatience with my Spanish, not switching to English to show off or to treat me like a child but just to be cordial. I hadn’t realized how rare that was till he walked away with my order.

The place was pricier than my typical road meals but, for such a high end place, not really expensive. The food was excellent, including the free antojitos they brought out to woo me, and everything about the place was delightful except one thing: the company.

The other diners in the house were primarily expats. It was clear that the restaurant was one of those “best kept secrets” of the local foreigner enclave, which trends older and wealthier. Based on the dinner conversation they also trend shittier. A woman at one all-blanco table propounded on why Mexicans don’t make good employees—loudly, in front of the all-Mexican, all-bilingual wait staff. Another table featured two old, lackluster Caucasian men and one young, flamboyant Mexican man, their friendship hinting at the power of money to unzip trousers. The their great credit the wait staff endured all of this with poise and warmth.

Thankfully the place was far from crowded. I was far away from most of my countrymen, and soon a Mexican family arrived for a birthday celebration at the table next to mine. I breathed a sigh of relief as the Feliz Cumpleaños song drowned out the other diners.

24.1 miles

Map.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by  André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

December 1-2 (Day 878-879 of the Great Adventure)—Work Days

I had planned to spend two nights at Fay’s place, giving me a full work day. I quickly extended this to three nights and two work days. At the same time I was looking online at Spanish schools in San Miguel, thinking I might take a few days to sharpen my conversational skills.

The first day went very well, split evenly between writing and exploring the city. San Miguel is kind of an oddity in Mexico, a city taken over by and propped up by expats. Mexico has lots of cities with tourist economies, but these cater mainly to short-term visits. Enclaves of foreign residents are less numerous and, arguably, none are as influential as San Miguel’s.

To hear my Chilango friend tell it, it started with a single wandering American sixty years ago. He happened to find San Miguel de Allende quite charming, even thought it was a dusty and impoverished silver town at the time.

“How much to buy a house?” he asked.

“60 bucks,” came the answer. He bought it and told all his friends how cheap the real estate was. The next house sold for $70, then $80 and so on.

To hear the expats tell it isn’t much different. Fay said that when she first came to San Miguel decades ago there weren’t even phones in the houses. You had to go to a store in the centro and wait your turn to use the line. “If you bought a Coke you had to drink it before leaving the store,” she told me. “They needed the bottle.”

As the place became more popular, all the trappings of expat luxury began to crop up: coffee shops, high end restaurants, boutiques, wifi, even real working telephones. San Miguel is now one of Mexico’s most affluent cities, with an economy propped up by lavish foreign spending habits. (I felt a strange disconnect there, hearing people talk about how “cheap” everything was, when I’d been paying less in every other town.)

There’s no doubt I was quite taken by San Miguel that first Monday evening wandering around. As everyone had promised me, the city center is strikingly beautiful. There’s good food everywhere, with cuisine of all kinds. (There’s even a “New Orleans Style Oyster Bar” which I didn’t dare enter.) Despite the allure, over my time there I would become less enamored. It’s got a lot of convenience, but it’s not my kind of place.

Tuesday morning I arranged to sit in on a class at a local language school, Habla Hispana. The structure was great: four hours a day total, broken into 90 minutes of formal classroom (learning grammar, etc.), followed by a short coffee and snack break, an hour of semi-structured Spanish conversation and then an hour of reading and vocabulary practice. There were three separate classes for Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced. You had the same classroom teacher everyday, but the teachers rotated who was leading each conversation table so you got exposure to different personalities and styles. In other words it’s pretty much perfect.

I decided to enroll in a week of classes. Habla Hispana also offers a homestay program, and I signed up to move into one of the houses after class the next day.

I expected to have the afternoon to write, but the rear derailleur broke on my bicycle. I spent most of the afternoon trying to fix it before finally hauling it down to a bike store and having a new one put on. This was a huge waste of an afternoon but, honestly, I’m grateful that it happened in a city with bike shops instead of somewhere out on the road. The entire cost with parts and labor was $40 pesos or about US $3.00, which didn’t leave me feeling too good about the quality of the part. But I was able to bike back up the hill to Fay’s house and change gears without incident.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by  André.

San Miguel de Allende. Photo by André.

December 3-10 (Day 880-887 of the Great Adventure)—Spanish Immersion

Fay gave me permission to leave my belongings at her place till I’d seen the homestay house. Bleary eyed, I rushed to the school and arrived only a few minutes “late” for class; but this is Mexico and class didn’t actually begin till 15 minutes after the scheduled start time. (This is a really effective system, by the way: all the problems with people being late kind of go away if we just agree to start late in the first place.)

The previous day I had chosen to sit in on the Intermediate class, which I thought might be over-ambitious, but it was a perfect fit. There were times over the week when I would actually think I might be better off in Advanced, but there were also big holes in my Spanish knowledge. At one point the teacher, Enrique, as astounded that I didn’t know the past tense version of the word for to have.

“Isn’t it irregular?” I asked.

His eyes narrowed. “How did you know (some other much more obscure word) in the preterite but you don’t know the preterite of tener?”

I shrugged apologetically. “I dunno.”

But actually, I do know. I’ve had almost no formal Spanish instruction. Most of my progress was fueled by living in Spanish speaking countries, using online tools or reading books. The past tense of to have just isn’t a word I needed in taco stands.

Afterwards my classmate Sky offered to walk me over to the homestay house—we were both staying at the same one. She’d been there several days and spoke highly of the house and the host family. Sky herself is a painter who just closed her gallery in Hawaii in order to be able to travel and live a freer life. She was excited when she found out I’m a writer and even more excited when I described my first novella as a work of magical realism.

“My last gallery show was entitled Magical Realism!” she exclaimed. (You can see Sky’s great work here.)

Maria and Alejandro’s house was indeed quite nice. Located on a privada just a few blocks from the school, it was laid out like a Roman villa with all rooms opening on a central courtyard. The story is that it was build by a family with eight children, and accordingly there are eight extra bedrooms, half upstairs and half down. Some, like Sky’s, have their own bathroom. I was given the one closest to the front, which Maria described as the “warmest” in the cold desert nights (my door opened to the foyer, not directly to the open air courtyard). She chose it for me because it had the strongest wifi signal, and the school had told her I needed wifi to do my work.

Maria and Alejandro’s children are grown, but the day I arrived happened to be Maria’s birthday. Their daughter, son in law and grandson were all there for the occasion, plus Sky and me. For reasons I never understood they had not one but seven separate cakes, of which two featured chocolate. Their grandson, Santiago, took it upon himself to cut and serve the chocolate mousse cake, which at age 5 consisted mostly of him licking the serving utensils.

The other member of the household, Ana, was kept busy through the whole meal. Ana is the hired housekeeper and kitchen assistant, doing a good amount of the cooking and most of the daily chores under Maria. She doesn’t live in the house but arrives early in the morning and sticks around till dinner time every day.

(You can meet Maria, Sky and Ana in the video logs for supporters.)

After the giant meal I biked back up to Fay’s house, got my belongings, and said goodbye. I was excited about learning better Spanish but I also knew I was leaving pretty much the ideal workplace. There’s no roommate in the world who understands the solitude a writer needs better than a fellow writer.

Once installed in the homestay house I had to adjust to a Mexican schedule. I had never really gotten into the rhythm of the huge mid-afternoon meal and tiny dinner. To eat with my host family—and get in all the Spanish conversation I could—I had to be ready for comida starting at 2:00, involving multiple dishes and often lasting till 4. Dinner was at 7 and involved leftovers or something small. A couple times there was no dinner at all. It may seem odd, given that I was now supposed to talk exclusively in a language I barely knew, but the hardest part of the week was probably the meal schedule.

Besides classes, Habla Hispana offers various cultural events that are free for students. I had missed the Monday afternoon tour of San Miguel, but Sky and I walked back to the school Wednesday evening to do a Spanish singalong. It was far more in-depth than we expected, and Enrique gave detailed information on which syllables and vowels are stressed in Spanish and why. This one hour of extra-curricular learning may have done more for my Spanish pronunciation than the past two years of practice.

Afterward, Sky and I swung over to a local dance school for Salsa lessons. This caused us to miss dinner, such as it is, and I headed out for a late night burger on my own.

Thursday and Friday more or less followed this pattern, except that by Friday it was clear I was getting sick. A nasty chest cold was making its way through Mexico, and I managed to catch it somewhere in SMA. (Sky suspects once of our dance partners, who went on to infect her the next day.) I managed to do a second dance lesson—this time Cumbia, which Sky and I found much easier—but after that had to spend a lot more time in my bedroom, coughing so hard it gave me a headache.

On the weekend there were no language classes. I used the time to explore (while coughing), write in cafes (coughing away from the other patrons) or sleep (followed by a coughing fit upon waking). I started to feel better by the time the next week rolled around, but I knew the cough would be a problem: rapid breathing, tough uphill stretches and thin mountain air are a bad combination. I did everything I could to get myself in shape before my departure, prioritizing rest over a number of cultural activities I could’ve done.

Class continued to go well and so did conversation around the house. I couldn’t believe my progress with Spanish. These seven days were probably the biggest period of growth in my Spanish since my first tutor in Mexico City.

During this period I also wrote El Gato Morado y el Pez Dorado.

My last day of class was Tuesday, but I decided to do one more day of homestay on Wednesday. The extra day let me finish all my client work before again hitting the windy road.

0.9 miles.

Map.

Total traveled this leg: 25 miles

Total traveled since Day 1: 3661.1 miles

More road logs are available here.

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