Archive | April, 2016

The Goddess of Admonishment, La Reyna de las Regañonas

24 Apr

We received a visit this week from the mother of all finger-waggers. She is bound for some kind of title in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most scoldings dished out per minute, a record carefully maintained daily throughout an entire lifetime. She could win an award for most creative admonishments, since she can even find a way to put innocent babies to shame. Here in Mexico, we call this kind of person regañona, a scolder. But this is an understatement; she is the Goddess of all Scolders.


The best part about this situation is that while this person is related to me through marriage, she is not my mother-in-law. Every time I see her I spend the entire next day saying Hail Marys to the Patron Saint of In-Laws, to thank her for blessing me with a mother-in-law who is not Tia Meya. Also due to her being an Aunt-in-law, I can actually enjoy her company and love her. Behind all the rebukes is a shining star of auntly adoration. You just have to look hard behind the reprimands and critiques.


This lady’s toughness has  nothing on Tia Meya. But my aunt-in-law is much more attractive, always formally dressed, plus she’s got a big, big heart.

And perhaps, after all this time with my in-laws, I’m starting to see how scolding is another way to show affection. I should have known that Tia Meya liked me from that first time she laughed at me. I was just visiting Mexico, trying to wash my clothes by hand in the concrete washboard. She came up and all but snatched the clothes out of my hand, telling me something like, “You’re totally clueless about this, huh? Go, go.” She shooed me off as I tried to babble about my lazy style of washing by hand in Paraguay, that yeah, I’d done it before. “Go make yourself useful with something else. You’re gonna have to extend your visit by a few more weeks at the rate you wash clothes.” And she did it all for me. 


She’s a character, and a good one at that. So usually I can take her barbs and critiques with a grain of salt, but this time around it had been too long between visits and I forgot to not take it personally for a minute. The baby had a cold and she was telling me to put Vick’s Vapor Rub on his feet. “I’m out of Vick’s,” I told her. “Julia,” she told me sincerely, “you should always have Vick’s Vapor Rub around. Why don’t you have Vick’s? It’s really useful. You should just keep it stocked in the house.”


“Yes,” I told her calmly, “I agree. It is very useful. That’s why I normally have it. But since I also use it regularly, it runs out. So I don’t have it now.”


“I know but you should keep it in the house all the time. You need to stock it.”


“Yes but I’m not a pharmacy. I have to go out and buy it when I run out.” We could’ve gone for several more rounds like that but Conan distracted us with something, since he’s more expert at this situation than I am.


She’s very old school in her ways, and one constant point of contention is how we dress or otherwise take care of the kids. This time, like every time, she blamed our underuse of socks for the baby’s cold. “Julia, don’t let his little feet go around on this cold floor! No wonder he’s all snotty! Put some socks on that child, please! It’s hurting me just to watch him!” Never mind that it’s 80 degrees and that Khalil won’t even keep socks on his feet when it is actually cold. If you say something like that, though, she just shakes her head sadly, telling you it’s still you’re fault- if you’d have gotten him used to socks from day one, you wouldn’t have this problem. Sigh.


Our pet cat was the other major problem this visit. Tia Meya has decided that the cat is the obvious culprit in Lucia’s asthma. Furthermore, nobody should even have a cat for a pet because it’s just gross and wrong. According to her, cats eat all your food and leave their hair on your kitchen table, among other complaints. “But don’t listen to me! Go ahead and get more cats and see how your kids breathe then. Don’t come to me when the kids are in the hospital from all this cat hair!” And when you try to explain what the doctor said, or give some other kind of reasoning, she cuts you right off, with “Déjalo, vaya,” which is the regional equivalent of her saying, “Nevermind! Do whatever! You wait and see!” Oh, dear, Tia Meya.


Often there’s not even time to argue, though, because she zips around like a bee pollinating flowers. Instead of making honey, however, she’s busy questioning you and everything you’ve done or haven’t done (possibly while she’s also doing some random chore that she sees you’ve left undone.) She comes in to your house, gives you a hard time, and runs out the door, off to scold someone else. “Ya me voy,” is her theme song- Im leaving– she announces as soon as she’s inside. If she walks in on you with a sink full of dishes, she’s guaranteed to say something like, “Look at all these dirty dishes! So many dishes! How can you stand it?! How’d you even make all these dishes dirty!” As she’s scolding you, though, she’s washing them for you. And then she’s gone. If she walks in on you doing chores, she’ll tell you how you’re doing it wrong. You’re using the wrong kind of cleaner, or you shouldn’t be washing dishes with cold water like that- it’ll be the death of you. “And I’m not going to stand around and watch you killing yourself like that,” she’ll shake her head at you and off she goes. “The good thing is,” she told us the other day, “I’m sure I won’t be here the day that Khalil brings the whole table down on top of himself with this seat you all put him in!” Even though the seat was designed and safety tested for use with babies, with the sole purpose of attaching the seat to the table, you will never convince her that it’s okay once she’s decided to criticize something.


She doesn’t even always mean what she says; she just has some compulsion to give everyone she cares about a hard time. Even babies are not exempt from her wrath/affection.  When Lucia was just a couple of months old, Tia Meya would come in and scold her about nursing. “Ay, ay, qué cosa comes?! Deja esa chichi, vas a acabar a tu pobre mama!” (My goodness, what are you eating?! Leave that breast alone, you’re gonna finish off your poor mother!) Mind you, she’s 100% in favor of breastfeeding. But if she hasn’t told you what you’re doing wrong today then it’s like she hasn’t even seen you, no matter what age you are.


Scolding is not optional for her; you can’t escape it no matter what you do. If you’re cooking something she’ll say, “You’re just now cooking lunch! My goodness, I’ve had lunch ready for two hours already! You guys like to suffer around here.” If you’re not cooking then she’s wondering aloud what in the world are you doing with yourself? It’s a miracle you’re even still alive, the way you may or may not get around to cooking lunch. If she arrives and you’ve already had lunch then she’ll surely criticize you for eating too early. There’s no pleasing her.


It’s not really about criticizing you, although I have no doubt that she truly believes her way / the traditional way is the only correct way to do things. Conan comes from a large family of women who believe that scolding equals love. Not all of his mother’s 7 siblings are women, but the majority are, and boy are they a majority to be reckoned with. They are the type of women who are constantly working, constantly pushing themselves to get it all done. They don’t take time to have fun or relax until all their work is complete. And they believe that everyone else should be like them, too, although they’ll go way out of their way to take care of everyone around them. So Tia Meya washes the dishes while she smilingly chastises you, because really she knows you’re busy and she wants to help. Or she brings you something she’s cooked, under the pretense that it’s so you’ll have something decent to eat, or you’ll be able to eat at a reasonable hour, according to her standards. She could never just do something nice and admit that it’s because she’s a nice person. No, there must be finger-wagging involved or it wouldn’t be Tia Meya taking care of you.


So I try to just remember, scolding is love in this family. The more of it they dish out, the more they care about you. So look out for Tia Meya in the world records. Say a prayer of thanks on my behalf, that I lucked into the most diplomatic scolding sister of the family to have as a mother-in-law. And if you’re ever down here in southern Oaxaca and you find yourself being attacked by too many regaños from critical old aunts (or your mother-in-law, God forbid), just tell them “Déjelo, vaya!” Because at least then they’ll laugh at you, probably tell you that you said it wrong, and you’ll know that they like you. What more could you ask for?


What Not To Do When You Move to Small Town Southern Mexico

9 Apr

My dad always said that opinions are like assholes; everybody’s got one. So true, and yet we all still think that ours is truly valid, that we can really help someone out with our hard-earned wisdom. So I’m here today, ladies and gentlemen, to share my opinions, my own stellar advice for all of you pondering a moving to the marvelous state of Oaxaca. For those of you already in Oaxaca, this is still superb advice, but you might already know it. You guys can go ahead and laugh with me, please and thank you.

This is advice that I would have appreciated, theoretically. I mean, okay, sometimes I love to jump headfirst into things, blindfolded and grinning. But often I would prefer to research things to make the most informed decision possible. Usually that means I seek as much advice and information as possible and then jump briskly off cliff number one anyway. Sigh.

So here you go- I present you the fruits of my experience, aka some advice that you can read, reject and ignore. (I’m practicing for the kids’ adolescence.)

The first tidbit of guidance I have for you is second-hand, but it is first-rate advice nonetheless.

Don’t change your country of residence immediately after having your first child.

“Don’t plan any major life changes for a while. Transitioning to parenthood is hard enough.” Our lovely doula, the birth assistant we hired for Lucia’s birth, tried to warn us. Truer words were never spoken. But, alas, the U.S. government did not appreciate this wisdom. And you know, there’s gotta be some benefit to starting your kid off really, really early with the globe-trotting.

But it’s not a great plan for adjusting to parenthood sanely. Abandoning your entire support system and general way of life while learning how to parent is a special kind of madness. I mean, leave the country, yes! I am so glad that we live here- now. If we could have waited a year, though, it would have saved us lots and lots of heartache. So while I don’t recommend jet-setting first thing postpartum, if you find yourself doing it, you’re a special kind of badass, and I want to be your friend.

Don’t buy an automatic car that needs work.

Contrary to popular belief down here in the land of stick shifts, automatics are not bad cars. In the U.S. I owned several over the years, and a couple of them were fabulous cars. They go up hills just fine, thank you very much, when they work. The problem here is, unless your automatic is more or less new (or at least in such condition that it never needs to be worked on by a mechanic), you are screwed, because nobody knows how to fix it properly.

This advice is spawned by my current frustration- the impetus for this blog post- which is a recurring soap opera. Every time our car breaks down (which is about bimonthly) it either takes a week (or longer) to fix it, or in the process of fixing it they cause some other problem. This month both things happened.

At first I thought this phenomenon was due to having bought a lemon of a car. Then I thought it was because the mechanic we often took it to (the cheapest option, a friend of a friend) was just a slow and inexperienced mechanic. But at one point we had a problem that required about ten different mechanics. Ten! They didn’t know if it was mechanical or electrical, so we took it to all the types of mechanics. They didn’t have a clue. They took apart our car, broke other things. It was absurd. And it just keeps happening!

It was nice to use an automatic to transition into learning to drive on these bumpy dirt roads with lots of drivers who don’t follow any rules. But now I have my teacher lined up to teach me how to drive a manual car, and I’ll hook you up, too. Just say no to automatics that might need mechanics. Buy yourself a nice little Tsuru, just like the taxis and half of the rest of the population own. That’s what we’ll be doing next, if I manage to follow my own advice. (Don’t hold your breath.)
Don’t build a house to live in when there is not yet electricity in the neighborhood.

“It’s just an overgrown lot right now, there’s no electricity or water,” my in-laws warned me when we came to visit the plot of land in Puerto that Conan owned. “Right, but we can get that stuff installed, right?” I asked, thinking it was just a matter of getting things hooked up, signing a contract, paying the bill. Little did I know….

We got water hooked up just fine during the building process, thanks to some help from a family member. But with electricity, there was no “hooking up” because there was nothing to hook up to on our block. The electric company won’t set it up someplace new unless they’re paid to by the folks living in the neighborhood and/or government (and we’re talking thousands of dollars). So it was a lot of waiting and fighting and hoping and hopelessness. Perhaps someone tried to tell me beforehand, but I was too blinded by my desperation to get out of Juquila to really let it sink in. And really, if I had it to do over again? I suppose I would think about us renting a place while we waited for electricity. But would I stay in Juquila till the lights came on here? Hell, no. Hell, no. (Seriously. Double or triple hell, no.)

We got lucky that we only spent a year and a half (two years for Conan) living without electricity. I know people who spent years and years living “off the grid” by accident. So you just don’t know when you’ll get it. Don’t plan to live there unless you’re one of those amish-style hippy types who wants to go charge your iphone at someone else’s house and live without fans because your body odor just isn’t at its best in the A/C. And if that’s the case, bless your little heart, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

Don’t start a business that you know nothing about.

When we lived in Juquila, we couldn’t find decent jobs. Everyone and their mother wanted me to teach their kid English, but nobody actually wanted to commit to regular classes, or pay more than 20 pesos an hour (less than 2 US dollars). Conan’s construction skills were not in demand, either, since everything they construct here is very different. He got a job at one point, but he was working about 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for next to nothing.

So we decided to sell cell phones, accessories, and recargas (prepaid minutes) out of his mom’s storefront in the front of the house. That’s right- we sold cell phones. Imagine me selling cell phones. Me- who refused to have a cell phone until I lived in Chile in 2007. Me- who then held on to the same flip phone for like 6 years. Me- who still had cassettes until I moved down here, just to give you an idea of how resistant I am to new technology. It was totally my dream job to sell cell phones- Not! (Haha, look how backwards I am! Still using kid quotes from the early 90s- that’s me.)

In fairness, Conan knew much more about cell phones and accessories than I did (and do; I’m still clueless). But neither of us had any idea what the people of Juquila would buy, really. It was a pretty uninformed business venture, which seems to be kind of the M.O. in Juquila. There are no corporations; it’s all small business. You don’t take any classes or write up a business plan. You either have experience because your family owns something or you just scrape together some money for a small investment and get started with your tiny business that you hope will do well so you can expand. It’s a respectable way to do things in the circumstances, but it did not make us a living. Now if we had invested in statues of saints instead….

It wasn’t a total waste of money. We sold most of it over time. We used some of the phones and accessories ourselves. We earned some money, slowly. It was certainly an interesting experience. And I certainly admire the tenacity of the neighborly small business owners who just open up the front room of their house and stock some snacks and sodas along with the most common of vegetables. I mean, why not? Who says you have to have a stupid business plan? Granted, bigger small businesses down here do still have a plan, I’m sure. And maybe a small business could still work for us someday. But not in Juquila. And not cell phones. This lesson was learned, for now.

Don’t let your small child sleep in the same bed with you “just for the transition.”

Don’t do this unless you want to sleep with them forever. There is no “just for the transition.” Once they worm their way in, you will never get him or her out of your bed again. The transition just keeps on keeping on. Just say no to bed-sharing, for the health of your grown-up relationship and the sake of your ribs, which will remain bruised throughout the duration from all that kicking and thrashing these mini-monsters do. ‘Nuff said.


this is our near future…

The Moral of this story is…..

Well, nothing, really. As you can see, I don’t have any real advice. I don’t have a clue what you should do, but I have a wealth of savvy on what not to do. Not that you should listen to me. Counsel such as this probably would have saved me lots of heartache, but that doesn’t mean I would have taken it. My dad was always futilely trying to save me from making the same mistakes that he made, but heartache is ours to find, one way or another.

Furthermore, if I had known then what I know now, would I have done things differently? In general, probably not. For one, I love rollercoasters, and I am constantly learning to appreciate this roller coaster that is my life, no matter what. Also, I’m working on not judging myself harshly, and both Conan and I have done the best we could with what we were working with, and that just has to be good enough. Not to mention that I always figure these brilliant “mistakes” are good for my character. And I’m pretty damn cool on a good day. So if you find yourself by happenstance moving to small town Oaxaca, look me up and I’ll impart more thrilling opinions. Worthwhile? Well, that and a few cents will get you a stick of gum, as my dad would say. So on second thought, come on down and I’ll give you a cup of coffee instead.

My Stupid / Stupendous Stay-cation

4 Apr

Staying home for vacation is one of those win / lose situations. At the end of it, I felt like I had been some exaggerated caricature of a manic depressive person. One second I was overjoyed, skipping around, singing about how happy I am and knowing it, with a smile plastered on, and it wasn’t even that semi-hysterical, will-this-get-the-baby-to-calm-the-hell-down smile and singing that I often do. The next second I was stretched out in bed, still in my pajamas at noon, refusing to concern myself about the baby scavenging those Cheerios he threw on the floor earlier, telling the 3 year old that sure, she could watch a 700th video in one day. I was ecstatic, energetic, blues-out, relaxed, stressed, busy, lazy, content, overwhelmed- sometimes all in the same day. It was my first-ever stay-home vacation.


Here’s a little breakdown of my ups and downs in this premier stay-vacation.


Good News: I get a paid vacation five whole weeks a year! Plus other federal holidays give me frequent three-day weekends. FIVE WEEKS! I’d never had any paid vacation before this year. This is astounding! Revolutionary! I’m the luckiest person alive!


Bad News: My vacation time is precisely the same time as the vacation time for every single other person in the entire country of Mexico.


This is part of the reason we’re on stay-cation in the first place. I had planned an exciting trip to Oaxaca City, to see a friend, go to museums, relax, and get the kids’ Mexican passports renewed. Y’all know how I love to combine work and pleasure like that. But of course, since it was holy week, nobody in any bureaucracy works either, so I couldn’t get an appointment for their passports. I fared better than a friend of mine, though, who had an appointment to get her son’s U.S. passport renewed and the consulate cancelled on the day of her appointment– after 7 hours of travel. Oh, Semana Santa, how bitter-sweet.


Bad News: The ubiquitous retén (police roadblock)

We also had plans to take a day trip or two to nearby places, to have adventures we never seem to have time for on the weekend. But with the influx of both national and international tourists, police are busy keeping people safe and getting bonus bribes by putting up road blocks all over the place. We are not up to date on our car’s registration, and Conan’s license is expired. Now, in the U.S. I never would have let this happen. But here it’s very common to not have your registration paid, because it’s too expensive and it’s totally meaningless. Just like licenses are meaningless. There’s not even a driving test for licenses, as witnessed by the driving that goes on around here! The only requirement is to have money and an electric bill as proof of residence. The electric bill doesn’t even have to be your own! The lady at the license office told me could bring a friend’s when I told her we didn’t have electricity. But I digress. We didn’t have money for fines or bribes, so we stayed close to home instead.


Bad News: Car being held together by a coat hanger

We were going to at least go to Juquila for a couple days, but our car did not get fixed in time. There’s some part that’s currently rigged together with some spare wire or something, and Conan didn’t want to risk it falling apart on a road trip to the mountains. We tried to get it fixed, but it was too late in the week- by Thursday we couldn’t get the right part sent down from Oaxaca City because everyone was already on vacation.


Good News: No trips means more relaxing! Not spending time in a vehicle with a baby-turned-toddler who doesn’t understand the purpose of sitting down. Not having to spend an entire day packing a bag, planning all the necessities for three people. (Conan packs his own stuff: he puts a pair of underwear in my bag and then wonders aloud why I’m not finished packing yet.)


“This will be awesome!” I told Conan. “I’m going to spend time with you guys and catch up on housework!” I envisioned us sitting down together playing games in a fabulously organized and relatively clean house.


Bad News: Getting caught up on housework is a cruel impossibility if you are currently living in said house.

I now suspect that people really go on vacation just so they can clean the house, go somewhere else, and have that fleeting joy of coming home to a totally clean house- because no one has been there in a week. (Gosh, I think I used to think differently about travel, once upon a time. Perhaps I will again someday?)


I called my mom about day 5 of my vacation. “I need a pep talk,” I whined into the phone. “I’ve been home for 5 days and I still don’t have the clean clothes put away. I haven’t seen an empty sink the whole time! How is it possible that I can be off work and my house be the same as if I were working?”


“Well,” started my wise and witty mama, “Are there still people in your household wearing clothes while on vacation?” She asked. “Are people eating and dirtying up dishes? Is somebody cooking?” Yes, yes, yes. But…. “And is half of your household unable to do their own laundry and wash their own dishes?” Oh. Right. Yeah. That.


It’s easy to blame it on the small creatures, and I’m sure the housework situation will improve once we can enslave them in household tasks as well. But regardless, this stuff really is a bottomless pit of essentially unfulfilling activities.


Good News: I invented a new song to keep myself from freaking out about housework.

You guys remember “The Song That Never Ends”? My adaptation goes: “This is the job that never ends. Yes it goes on and on, my friends. Some people started doing it not knowing what it was. But they’ll continue doing it forever just because this is the job that doesn’t end!”  You can do it with any household job. “These are the dishes that never end! Yes they get dirty and dirtier my friend! Some people started washing them not know how it was, and they’ll continue washing them forever just because these are the dishes that never end!” Pretty great, right? Don’t worry, I have no copy write issues; you guys go ahead and sing it in your own houses. You know you want to.








Good News: We really did make time to do some things that we don’t normally have time for.

We went to the library together. We ate most of our meals together. I tried to say yes every time Lucia asked me to read her a book, instead of telling her we could read it that night at bedtime. I sat down and played with Khalil, who’s suddenly not a baby anymore. (Geez, did I just now have time to notice?) Lucia was thrilled to wake up from her nap to find me there and not at work. I soaked up every minute of watching these two sweet siblings interact, giggling hysterically, chasing each other around the house, stealing each other’s toys.

Lucia and I had an outing, just the two of us. I carried her part of the way to the bus stop (I never get to carry her anymore, thanks to her little brother). We rode the bus, which pleases her half to death for whatever reason. We sang “The Wheels on the Bus” song while on the bus. We went to the playground and I let her play for more than 15 minutes. We went to “the big store,” the only department store in town, where she loves to check out and play with the toys, and she shocked the hell out of me by not asking to buy a single thing. (Thanks to a conversation with her Papi, apparently. Plus it helps that they don’t have a space ship, the only toy her heart desperately desires currently.)

I took time for myself, too. I did a little personal writing not just for my blog. I finished a book in the middle of the day. I watched a movie with Conan. We had a date night. Lots of wondrous things.


Stinker #1 and #2, playing beautifully together. It’s not all the time so it’s nice to have a chance to enjoy it while it’s happening!

Good News: No alarm clock!

Okay, that Monday I still got up at 5, because I forgot to turn off my alarm. But most of the other days I slept till like SEVEN AM! I even lowered my coffee consumption because I wasn’t living on a sleep deficit!


Bad News: Vacation means getting out of my healthy routine.

I got lots more sleep. But not getting up till the baby gets up meant I was on-the-job immediately, struggling to drink my coffee before changing the first poopy diaper. There’s no time to exercise when you have to be constantly vigilant, getting food in little bellies, preventing consumption of toilet paper, etc.


I also ate more than normal, because I was home more and had time to prepare food and snacks. Which leads us to….


Good News: Being home means time to cook slightly more than normal.

We made popsicles. I made elaborate casseroles. I made enough to freeze a couple things, although it wasn’t as much as I’d hoped, because goodness, four people eat a lot of food. Plus I remembered what it was like when I was a stay-at-home mom in Juquila. It’s all too easy to spend all your waking hours just keeping people fed and clothed and clean. So I didn’t even cook all of our meals because it was too overwhelming. But we did have french toast, and oatmeal (haha, yes this is a beloved food for Lucia), and other exciting meals that are only for weekends.


Bad News: Everyone being off in the same week means that going to the beach is impossible because 2 out of 3 residents of Mexico City are also on vacation on our beaches on the same day. Going out to eat involves a wait. A wait! Here in tiny little Puerto, population 45,000.


Good News: We live here, so we know about places to eat that tourists don’t know about. One of our best meals was from a tiny three-table restaurant that ended up being cheap and delicious, with no wait.



Conclusion: Staycation is a lot like regular life if you’re a stay-at-home parent. (If you’re not a parent of small children, I no longer have any idea what life is like for you. My memories of such things have been wiped clean during all the butt-wiping.) If you’re not a stay-at-home parent, count your blessings that you have a job to escape back to so you can appreciate your family and your messy house again.


If you are a stay-at-home parent, count your blessings that you’re your own boss, and you get to spend all this time with your awesome family. It won’t last forever. From my experience / memory, it’s great as long as you can keep in mind that there is a whole universe outside your door, and that you must get out into it! Abandon the dishes! Let them eat cheese and crackers today! Finish that chapter of your book! My stay-catation was  still just like when I’m working, in terms of trying to balance it all- some basic necessity things, some pleasure things for the kids, a little time for me. It’s a balancing act whether you have an outside job or not. It’s full of ups and downs no matter what.


Conclusion, take two: Count your blessings, period. You only get this day, once, on vacation or not. Might as well attempt to enjoy it for the good, the bad, and the dishes, too. When you’re too bummed by last week’s laundry to enjoy it, call me up and I’ll give us both a pep talk. Or we can cry into the dishes together.