Living in Mexico AMA: stress levels and daily life

How’s the day-to-day? Is the pace of life less, is there less stress, less pressure? What’s the one biggest difference?

What makes those questions difficult to answer is the fact that several major things changed about my life at the same time, and ‘moving to Mexico’ was only one of them. So although I can compare my stress levels today with those of a year ago (short answer: much lower!), it’s much trickier to assess what percentage of those changes have to do with the culture and/or economics of Mexico per se, and what percentage results from other concurrent transformations — most notably the end of the Stepmother / Living With Children Era and the abandonment of the Corporate Graphic Design Career.

I think it’s safe to say that people are more relaxed here, and generally in less of a hurry, and adopting that kind of attitude is pretty much a survival trait. With American-style expectations, you’d be frustrated on a regular basis (and I occasionally catch glimpses of gringos who are, though most do adapt). I feel like I’m doing pretty well — not perfectly, but well — at ‘going with the flow’ and retaining my equanimity when things don’t go according to plan. Sometimes this means having backup plans in place, and sometimes it means adjusting on the fly. But I knew about this aspect of the culture well in advance, and was prepared for it; if I’d been surprised and confused it would have been a much rougher transition.

On the other hand, from the moment we set foot (or tires) in the country, I started to become aware of the vast number of things that I know about How America Works, that I’d never really thought about before. Almost all of the trivia of daily life is different — not so much that I can’t adjust, but enough that most of my prior experience is entirely irrelevant. We’ve had to start over from scratch at learning the most basic, quotidian things.

The need to negotiate most interactions in a foreign language (which I have not been actively studying enough), does add another layer of stress. In the most common, repetitive areas I am reasonably comfortable, but anything unexpected still throws me for a loop. And if my brain is tired, I can become embarrassingly inarticulate in Spanish, even on subjects in which I am theoretically conversant.

All of that, however, is temporary and constantly improving. When we first arrived, I would commonly have three or four conundrums (problems I had no idea how to solve, needs I had no idea how to fulfill, etc.) per day; now at the ten-month mark, I’m down to perhaps two or three a week.

To put things in perspective: previously, by far the most stressful move I’d ever made was to New York City. The first few months living here were approximately comparable, stresswise, but it’s gotten easier a lot faster here than it did there, despite the language barrier. (I lived in NYC for just under three years, and it never got easy.) Overall, people are much nicer and more helpful here, which makes a big difference.

What’s the one thing that has been the most unexpected part of life in Mexico? What do you enjoy the most about living there? What do you miss the most from the states?

The last question is the easiest: The thing I miss most is access to a good public library (in English). I read quickly and voraciously — mostly nonfiction in a variety of fields — and although the web is awesome, there are still many things I need to know (as both a writer and a human being) that are only available in book form. I need books almost as much as I need food.

Given unlimited access, I can read probably 200 books a year. Buying them all is out of the question; I save my pennies for the really dense ones, after I’ve already read them once and am sure that I can continue to learn from them for years to come. I cheated for a while, and kept using ebooks from the Seattle Public Library — a vastly reduced selection compared to the physical books, but still better than nothing. But last month they somehow figured out that Jak and I are no longer Seattle residents, and canceled our access. I am now limping along with a Scribd account and making puppydog eyes at some of my urban, library-connected American friends.

Runner-up: pine shavings cat litter. This clay clumping crap is so suboptimal.

It’s also next to impossible to get decent bedsheets in Mexico (and I know it’s not just me; I’ve seen literally dozens of expats make the same complaint). I suddenly feel like I understand the old trousseau and hope chest customs — my collection of cotton bed linens is now one of my most valuable possessions.

Nothing yet has been wildly unexpected — either I’m pretty good at research and setting expectations in advance, or else I quickly forget what expectations I previously had that were unfulfilled. :) The only thing that comes to mind is that I am having slightly less success at making good, close friends among other expats than I predicted. (My expectations around making close friends among Mexican nationals were and remain very low, at the very least until I become proficient in Spanish.)

What I enjoy most has to be … simple moments of beauty, followed by delight at experiences that are so different from everything that has come before.

I don’t know if this place is objectively more beautiful, or if I am just better able to recognize the beauty because it’s unfamiliar. But I have little carbonated bubbles of happiness sometimes, just walking through the busy street market, or listening to a thunderstorm, or seeing a spray of bright flowers climbing over a wall.

Experiences, because although I’ve lived all over the United States — South, Midwest, East Coast, West Coast — I’ve barely ever set foot outside my home country, and the last fifteen years I lived in just one city, Seattle. Which I did love, once, but I think my heart left some years ago, and I only stayed as long as I did because of duty and commitments. I knew it was past time to make a change, but not until I had done so did I fully recognize how constrained I had been, or how important new experiences are to my happiness.



I know, I went AWOL again on the blog. But this time I have a really good excuse: I was writing a short story instead.

This is a milestone: my first piece of fiction since the mid-90s. It’s with a few readers now, and assuming that no major fixes are necessary (I’ve already done one revision pass based on Jak’s feedback), I’ll be submitting it to an editor in a couple of weeks. So yeah, this ‘move to Mexico and write’ thing is actually starting to happen …

In the meantime we’ve also jumped through a number of logistical hoops, including finding a new house to rent (our lease is up at the end of March) and buying a (used) Mexican-plated car. The car was not part of the original plan — we intended to keep our existing car for a few more years — but became necessary when we were unable to get Jak’s residential visa in January. Bureaucracy for the lose …

The new house is gorgeous, and huge. Also expensive. Still much cheaper than living in Seattle, but our monthly costs are going to spike hard (and our savings percentage drop commensurately).

But Jak really, really wanted the place, and he’s the one who’s slaving away at the day job, so we agreed to increase our budget. Not that I am the tiniest bit sorry to have a good chef’s kitchen, finally, after years of ‘making do’. (One of the biggest problems with our current house is the nearly-nonexistent kitchen — I am pretty sure that this house was originally a three-room servants’ casita, later expanded and semi-converted. The kitchen was definitely crammed into a corner as an afterthought. I cook too much for this to not be painful.)

I’m also going to try to offset the housing cost increase by setting up our extra rooms on AirBnB. That will be a whole new side business for me, at least for the next year. So I’ve spent some time researching what that entails, setting up spreadsheets, etc. (Anyone ever used AirBnB, either traveling or hosting?)

So that’s the major news. I haven’t forgotten the AMA, but I might not get to it until April. Jak’s daughter Michaela is visiting this week, and then of course we’re moving, and I have a number of medical appointments queued up. But I haven’t forgotten, I promise!


Living in Mexico AMA: learning Spanish, crime

How’s the comfort level with Spanish for each of you? Can you converse enough to be social? What have you found most effective for learning?

Comfort level is improving, but still a long way to go. Neither one of us had any prior Spanish-language background (beyond the fifteen or twenty words one naturally assimilates while growing up in Texas), so we’re really starting from scratch here. Concerted study comes in fits and starts, as the mood strikes and time permits.

For formal programs of study, Jak uses mostly Pimsleur audio. He likes that he can multitask with it (I like that he does dishes while he listens). I use Pimsleur some also, but as a visual learner, I prefer Duolingo (which I recently found out is the brainchild of the re-Captcha inventor — see his amusing TED video). When I’ve finished Duolingo, I have a bunch of college class materials borrowed from my brother-in-law. Once I get to a solid intermediate level, I’ll probably hire a private tutor.

Informal study, on the other hand, goes on constantly. Jak is playing on an all-Mexican soccer team, where only one other member speaks fluent English, so he’s learning a lot of Mexican slang. He reports understanding orders of magnitude more than he did a couple months ago — but that’s still only a fraction of what’s being said around him. He reads the team’s Facebook page — which is full of Spanish texting lingo — and then uses Google translate and global web searches to decipher the abbreviations and deliberate misspellings.

I do all the market shopping, so I have accumulated an extensive vocabulary of food-related words. We’ve made several short trips back up to Texas to schlep the rest of our stuff down, so we’ve deciphered almost all of the road signs. I also learn a surprising amount of random things from billboard ads around Guadalajara. (Such as, the word for ‘pregnant’ in Spanish is ’embarazada’.) I look up words as I realize I need them, like to communicate with our housekeeper or gardener, neither of whom speak English. Take me out of a familiar milieu, however, and I struggle mightily. A few weeks ago we needed to communicate a problem to a Telmex worker, and I realized I had basically zero nouns in my repertoire relating to telecommunication.

And I sometimes make stupid mistakes with things I theoretically already know — like at the tianguis (weekly street market) last Monday when I asked for ochenta huevos when I actually meant diez y ocho. The butcher stared at me like I was loco until I figured out my error, after which I was extremely pregnant.

Do you have concerns about the stability of the Mexican government, or local crime?

Mostly not. I am, in the abstract, concerned about the cartel situation, but it doesn’t touch our daily lives in any way that I can discern — any more than I felt affected by the Mafia while living in the U.S. The Mexican government certainly has its share of corruption and other problems, but frankly, at the moment I think they’re doing better than the American government.

I am slightly cautious about local crime, only because many of the long-term expats we meet seem to have been burglarized at least once. My primary approach to this is: don’t have much worth stealing. Many gringos here live relatively ‘high on the hog’, to use the vernacular of my childhood, and (my theory is) make themselves targets thereby. We have a couple of nice computers, because necessary, but otherwise not much of interest to thieves. We’ll see how that works out …

Have another question? Feel free to ask it below …