Thursday, 24 February 2011

Post from the vault: Mexico City (D.F.)

I may not have been posting, but I have been keeping notes. Here's a post from about 7 months ago about life living and working in D.F. .........

I begin the day with a freshly squeezed orange and guava juice (Mexico has a much firmer grasp of the concept of ‘freshly squeezed’ than we do) from the little stall universally at the bottom of the road. They get through 50 kilos of oranges per day. Then I carry on to the tube – sorry, metro – station where I descend three escalators down to the earth’s core and wait for the train. What I can't do on London's tube is walk down to the women only section where everyone can do their makeup without being groped. At first, I pooh-poohed the idea. I’m an Independent Woman; I don’t need to be segregated. Now, when I'm with Alex, I’m gutted I can’t go down there. And I’m learning: who needs an eyelash curler when you have a spoon?

At first, I was cruising along the metro thinking, ‘wow, this is much better; fast, smooth, loads of trains, the ticket barrier takes my ticket immediately so I can’t lose it, the train vendors always have chewing gum, stationery sets, sewing kits and handcrafted wooden models of cartoon characters like Buttercup from the Powerpuff girls just when I need them’. But, inevitably, when I’m running late, or stuck in the tunnel waiting for someone to turn the train off, wait for 10 seconds, then turn it on again, the romance of it all wears off and I begin to make different observations. Which system is jerkier? El Metro, definitely. It seems a question of dubious skill in London and one of sadistic fun in D.F.. Alex told me that he was on a train once that braked so suddenly that a passenger slid the whole length of the row of empty seats lining the carriage. I’m glad I wasn’t there, I’d have been no help at all. I’d have been in hysterics. Then there’s the mysterious smell of burning on the platforms and such highly polished floors that if you turn a corner too quickly, you can travel much quicker, further and closer to the ground than you intended. But overall, I love those big, square, orange trains, all the tempting donut, taco and hair-accessory stalls and the echoes of different amounts of pesos bouncing around all over the place from all the various vendors.

It’s taken me 6 weeks to generate a full-time working week from both schools and private students. Some students are preparing for English exams, others for jobs, and others just like to chat. I have grown very fond of them all. It’s lucky that the private students always remember to pay me because if they didn’t, I’d have a hard time asking for it - students inevitably become friends. It can be difficult to explain the difference between ‘I have been living’ and ‘I have lived’, or to find a ‘rule’ that explains the pronunciation of ‘heard’, ‘heart’, and ‘beard’, so I have been spending almost all my free time creating materials for the IATHIA course in English (I’m A Teacher Honest I Am), either by searching the internet and lovingly crafting pretty PDFs, or straight from my own head: lists of irregular verbs, verbs with prepositions, a dictionary of English idioms which I found on the web and rewrote entirely and an explanation of tenses that my best friend not only doesn’t understand but doesn’t even believe I understand.

Most of my students are of an intermediate standard, whose requirements go beyond the nomenclatural. To help them with the meaning, sense and lyricism of the language, I devised this lesson plan: The student and I take turns reading aloud the poem The Spider And The Fly by Mary Howitt. I read with my best Jackanory voice to give them a sense of expression and a little ... drama. Then I play the student Lullaby by The Cure while they read the lyrics. Then I give them interpretations that have been made of the song (that it’s about nightmares, depression, sexual abuse, that it’s based on Mary Howitt’s poem) and ask them to work out how these interpretations have been made and whether they agree with them or not. To do this, they must understand more than the literal translations of the words. It’s also an opportunity to listen to The Cure.

Learning works both ways and I’ve learnt at least as much as I’ve taught. Struggling to find the right word during one of our classes, one student explained that his brain was like a room full of documents stacked right up to the ceiling with an old man slowly leafing through them trying to find the right one, and just when he thinks he’s found it, an extractor fan turns on and scatters everything everywhere. Another student knows more English grammar than I do and we spend most of our time trying to get her to use it. When I gave her an exercise on pronunciation, she took one look at it, rolled her eyes at me and said, “Is a joke”, and I have to agree that English pronunciation really is. She is currently planning my parents’ itinerary for when they come to visit in August. Another student’s story about discovering he had a long lost cousin serving a life sentence in prison in Miami and going all the way out there to visit him for the first time was so absorbing that I almost forgot to correct his grammar.

During the day, I never have to worry about finding food and not spending much on it. My favourite is the rosticeria near Sevilla station. The site of all those golden brown chickens slowly turning and dripping their delicious juices onto the chunky slices of fresh cabbage and onions, served with either arroz or papas (rice or crisps) and a batch of hot tortillas every time I walk past it, which is almost every day, is a temptation I fail to resist about three times a week. And tortas. Tortas are the mother of all sandwiches. They shame other sandwiches. With tortas, no one even bothers to ask for avocados (of course there are avocados, are you mad?). Or chilli. I like to end up with one bursting with still sizzling chorizo and melted cheese with tomato, onion and general sauce goo. And avocados. And then there is pozole (po-zo-le); a tasty soup that you load with fresh onion, lettuce and radish. And avocado and chilli, of course.

At home, I spend an hour or two arranging my schedule for the next day, a harder task than any of the actual lessons. But thanks to the understanding I have with my private students, Carol didn’t mind putting her class back 2 hours so long as Ricardo was happy to take the lesson on Thursday instead of Wednesday (which he was), which meant I could fit in Arturo’s class after all, which was earlier than Ricardo’s, so then I was clear for Sergio right after Arturo and, thanks to Carol, I was also clear in the morning to take the short notice class the school had given me at 11am. With all that sorted out, I can sort out my lesson plans before I get up between 6 and 8 for my first lesson of the day.

When we tell people how long we’ve been in Mexico, they immediately say “Wow, so we’re have you been then?” and are stunned when we tell them we’ve only been outside the city once. But we’ve been busy!

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