This morning I finished my second exam of the week. I can now relax a little and enjoy a five-day weekend, courtesy of the celebrations for Mexican independence. I am very much looking forward to this break. Taking tests in university is always stressful; taking them in a foreign language is another matter altogether and to complicate things, the tests were on Philosophy and Economics, subjects I haven’t taken before.
I was stressing out a little bit for them. Taking inspiration from the multitude of communist, anarcho-syndicalist and Zapatista propaganda around my faculty, I toyed with the idea of writing ‘Viva la Revolución’ in the economics paper and leaving it there, but instead I put in some effort and did my best to write something vaguely coherent in Spanish and am glad to say I have completed my first exams here.
I had heard that American universities felt like going back to school and I suppose the UNAM feels that way too. There are no lectures, just seminars, which last longer and take place in small classrooms. Each professor has their own, unique way of teaching, ranging from explaining economic theories through the consumption of a taco al pastor to the professor explaining why having a Freudian psychoanalyst girlfriend is not fun in ‘History of Thought’.
The classes have a bit of Mexican style anarchy to them, in one of my first classes a pigeon got stuck in the classroom and in another a beggar came into the class to ask each of the thirty or so students for change – a different type of class interaction.
I take six classes and a course in German, which is quite a lot for the international students (I think other universities understand the Mexican attitude more than mine). My days are therefore very busy, three days a week classes start at 8am and are not finished until 6pm. As a result of these long days, I have developed the unfortunate habit of buying street food from the myriad stalls around the university.
Food stalls are everywhere. The food is all hand made in front of you, which would be a great marketing technique for an artisan food shop in Britain, but here it means every Taco, Gordita, Quesadilla and whatever else is made, filled and cooked with the same pair of hands all day long. There is no Food Standards Agency 5 star hygiene rating system. Needless to say, they are a health risk, but the prices make them very hard to resist. All I can do is pray nightly that I do not succumb to ‘La Venganca de Moctezuma’.
Although fearful of Moctezuma, the culture of food has pacified other fears I have had. I mentioned in my first blog the amount of security around Mexico City; it still takes me back to see the number of intimidating, highly equipped police officers with firearms that are surely too big for purpose. There is a police-training academy at the end of my road so this has been something I have seen often.
But it is said that food breaks down boundaries. There are also taco stands outside the academy; to see the police officers munching down their tacos, happy as anything, serves as a reminder that whatever the uniform, people are always people underneath.
For me, the Mexican food is very agreeable, but after being here for a while it does begin to taste a bit samey. I suggested this opinion to a Mexican friend and he castigated me for criticising a lack of diversity in a national cuisine – he would not accept this judgement from an Englishman. I attempted to stand my corner, citing the English breakfast, the Sunday roast and Fish and Chips as classic examples of simple but appetizing English dishes. I explained a little what the dishes entailed and thought I had convinced him. After a moment of thought he castigated the dishes further for lack of imagination, describing them as simple ingredients and a lot of oil; fried English breakfast, roasted Sunday lunch and deep-fried fish and chips. Perfect food for a hangover, he said, but not really an excuse for a national cuisine. Unless, of course, the whole point of English food is to temper the effects of alcohol. Thinking about it, he might have a point. But is that such a bad thing? It might not be inspirational, but at least it’s honest.
The other main facet of Mexican food is the ‘Dulces’. Breaks in the middle of classes consist of students and professors alike rushing to the sweet stands in the corridors to get their fill of sugary treats.
On a night out in my local town Coyoacan (once home to Frida Kahlo, Diego River and Leon Trotsky) I thought I had discovered the place to be in Mexico City. There were queues stretching up and down the streets for places I couldn’t see. Were the bars they were waiting for that chic and underground to not have labelled exteriors? Had I found the Shoreditch of Mexico City? Unfortunately not, the queues were not for hip bars, but instead for street stalls selling ‘Churros’- long fried donut type pastries drenched in sugar. I attempted to immerse myself into the culture by eating one, but I was defeated by the sugar content and had to bin part of it- to the disgust of on looking Mexicans.
Of course, trying all the full range of food has required an intimate knowledge of the different ingredients. I have had to endure some bewildered looks for asking if the food has nuts in it (for my nut allergy) – the people say I don’t need to ask as Mexican food simply doesn’t use nuts, which is all fair and well until a vendor, at the point of giving the food, to me says, ‘oh no there’s only a few peanuts in there’.
So far, I have been very pleased at how my Spanish is holding up. I have always been jealous of multilinguists and a little ashamed when I meet people around the world who speak five languages near fluently, but apologise for their accents. In Britain foreign languages are not generally encouraged. This is a shame. Although English speakers do not need to learn other languages as English is the international language of business there is a lot lost in sticking to one language.
I have started learning German from scratch. It has reminded me of the almost childlike pleasure of finding out the words for simple things and the joy of starting to be able to express thoughts, opinions and feelings in a different language. It creates new, distinct feelings for those thoughts in itself.
Perfecting my Spanish brings a completely different feeling. You get to understand sentiments that can only be perfectly expressed in one language and go on finding new and deeper meanings for other words and expressions. For example, who knew that to Colombians ‘Gonorrhoea’ is one of their strongest insults? Furthermore, beginning to think and dream in Spanish is a dislocating feeling, but has a wonderful sense of achievement with it. However, switching between these languages, particularly in the German classes can be very confusing and a little embarrassing when I briefly forget words in English.
I have not yet perfected my Spanish and some of the classes I take are very taxing. The discussion of Nietzsche’s ‘God Is Dead’ postulation in a historic context left me a little too speechless. But I have started to be able to contribute, even just small things, to the classes. It will be a challenge to improve my Spanish enough to contribute articulately and confidently, but I came here for a challenge and relish the opportunity. For now, the challenge of ordering food here has given me enough satisfaction in the form of many, many tacos al pastor.