The first definition of “expatriate” appeared in a French dictionary in the late 1700s and denotes a person who has been banished from his or her native land.
This elucidation came just in time for Napoleon’s exile to the island of Elba in 1814; he was the world’s first notable expat. By the time Ernest Hemingway was synonymous with the term expatriate, it implied high adventure in a foreign land.
Now, in the 21st century, the term expat is used mostly in conjunction with people retiring to foreign countries, like Canadians in Florida. Where’s the fun in that? Personally, I prefer the characterization of high adventure in a foreign land.
With our short pants, flowered shirts and voracious enthusiasm for Mexican beer, fresh seafood and charity events, the expatriates of Mexico are a diverse group of gringos that have settled throughout the country. Canadians outnumber Americans, but there are also Brits, Europeans and a few Aussies.
We have chosen Mexico for a variety of reasons — warm weather, economical accommodations and friendly people or, for some folks, impending incarceration elsewhere. However, the ethereal thread that binds our lives is eccentricity.
To move lock, stock and barrel to a foreign country, especially one as dangerous as Mexico, is in itself an audacious display of capriciousness. Most people north of the border view this relocation as sheer madness, a positively calamitous failure of acuity.
During my 10 years as an expat I have learned many valuable lessons while attempting to infiltrate a culture that is unique to Mexico. At first, I viewed the challenge as simply melding into Mexico, a culture that looked to me to be so homogeneous: all the cities, towns and villages use the same street names; Juárez, Zaragoza, Cinco de Mayo, and so forth.
Of course, the common bonds of brand names, sports stars and media reach to even the remotest of villages. However, by digging deeper, I have discovered Mexico to be a myriad of micro-cultures that reportedly speak 68 languages besides Spanish. And, to make things even more difficult for the average expat, Mexican Spanish comes in an abundance of accents and idioms that perfectly befit the region of their origins.
The Spanish in Mexico City is very precise and clear to the ear of a gringo, whereas deep into the outback, rural villages have developed their own unique vernacular over several centuries.
A few years ago I made a trek into the Sierra Madre with a Mexican friend who is as native as they come. When we got to our destination and my friend had spent some time conversing with the villagers, he told me he could barely understand their Spanish. This made me feel a bit better, as I could not understand one word.
I live in a beach town with its own sense of informality and slang-riddled Spanish. I discovered early on that the use of the local patois adds levity and breaks the ice with waiters, transito, general tradespeople and all vendors. With the revelation that my bad Spanish, laced with locally colorful phrases, could always produce a smile and sometimes a good laugh, it became habitual.
However, four years ago, while in Mexico City, it became immediately apparent that my provincially idiomatic Spanish did not ingratiate me with anyone, not even the lowly waiters in the neighborhood taquerías. There are so many ways an expat can bumble about in Mexico without any inkling of local protocol.
My first year in country I took several pairs of shorts to a tailor in Centro to have them repaired. When he refused the work, I left his shop a bit dazed and confused (more so than normally).
Some months later I learned the tailor was from Mexico City where dignified and proper men never wear short pants. To him, such a repair would be below his social station and thereby repugnant. Since then I have found several tailors, less driven by their sense of morality, who will gladly repair or even make new shorts.
One should be aware of the many cultural pitfalls for curious expats, but that should never keep any one of us from diving into this cultural quagmire and seeking high adventure in a foreign land.
Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time on the west coast of Mexico with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at email@example.com.