Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ajedrez Abroad

Yesterday around 10am Luis, my landlord/new Mexican friend, shows up at my door. (Chris is in San Juan again – she thinks she’ll commute there about three days a week now.) I was half-expecting him, but a little bit later in the morning. As it was, when he came in I was halfway through my bowl of yogurt-and-granola (never ate this before I came to Mexico, now I eat it every day) and had just started an episode of The Wire (which gets crazy-better in the second season) on my laptop.

But Luis comes in, and I drop what I’m doing. I’m starting to get used to that here. I’ll be in the coffee shop downtown, and Luis will walk by, and within a few seconds I’ll realize that I might as well give up on whatever I planned on doing that afternoon. I’m not complaining, really; it’s just not at all how I had envisioned this leg of our journey. I suppose I thought I’d have some kind of solitary, monk-like existence in this relatively isolated place while Chris did her work in a nearby town. The fact that it is not quite turning out that way, well… To paraphrase the introduction to this Mariano Azuela book I just started, I am neither annoyed nor elated, but simply surprised by a world I haven’t quite got a handle on yet.

Under his arm Luis carries a little wooden box. It takes a moment for me to register what it is. The day before, Luis had asked me if I played ajedrez. It took a few tries to figure out exactly what he was talking about, but eventually we both learned a new vocab word: ajedrez = chess. No, I said. No?! he repeats, as if shocked by my answer.

Luis was similarly shocked – and shocked is the best word here – that I was more interested in talking about Mexican soccer than American football (or futbol americano, as it’s known here). I am full of surprises for Luis. One thing that seems to continue to mystify Luis is the fact that I don’t seem to have any kind of observable work to do, while – wonder of wonders – my wife is out working all day instead of cooking and cleaning. I try to explain about what I’ll do when we get back to the States, but trying to explain the candidacy process in Spanish doesn’t exactly make it any simpler. For that matter, trying to explain Lutheranism in a context where you are either Catholic or Jehovah’s Witness is not very easy either. So we are extranjeros muy extraño.

Anyway, when Luis learns that I have never played chess, he promises to teach me. I nod happily, more to be nice than because I really want to learn about chess. I then promptly forget about my upcoming lesson. Luis, however, does not, and shows up with this chess board under his arm. Before I know it he has taken a seat and set up the pieces. I finish my breakfast and join him.

Speaking entirely in rapid-fire Spanish he explains how the pieces move around on the board. I try to pay close attention, understanding more from how he moves the pieces around on the board than from what he is actually saying.

(I vaguely remember some of the moves from a computer game we used to have when I was a kid called Battle Chess. You didn’t really need to know how to play chess, because the game would tell you exactly what your options were for moving this or that pawn. But the coolest thing about the game was that the pieces would graphically fight each other, like a precursor to the wizard’s chess match at the end of the first Harry Potter book. Anyway, you can see where my mind was wandering as Luis was trying to teach me.)

I keep thinking we are going to have a trial game, but instead Luis proceeds to explain about all kinds of different specialty moves you can make, about all these complex setups he reads of in books about chess, even a little about the history of chess. This is what always intimidates me about chess, why I never really wanted to learn it in the first place; it seems like you’d have to spend decades just trying to learn all the little secrets the obsessives already know about. Can’t we just stick with Scrabble?

Nope. Luis says he’ll leave the chessboard with me, so I can practice until we play for real. Sigh. But there’s no time to argue, because Luis looks at his watch and exclaims that we are going to be late. I throw on some shoes and we’re out the door.

We are on our way to an English conversation group at the local branch of the University of Guadalajara. These are held on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Monday Chris and I were working at the café when Luis showed up out of the blue and asked us to come along to the evening conversation group so we could meet his classmates. We agreed, which meant that we were taken not only to the conversation group but also to meet another of Luis’s friends, a craftsman who makes beaded jewelry, braids dreadlocks, and does temporary Henna tattoos. Luis calls him one of “los hippies.”

Monday’s conversation group was presided over by a large man who looked to be in his late 30s. He had lived in Chicago for awhile (nearly everyone in Lagos, it seems, has lived either in Chicago, Los Angeles, or Texas), and he kept talking to us about the Chi and urging the younger and shyer students to ask us questions about our hometown. I thought it was kind of fun, even if it did make me a little homesick to remember that next week they’ll be dyeing the river green for St. Patrick’s Day. But when we got home, Chris said, “Well, that was quite a masculine atmosphere, wasn’t it?” And, of course, she was right – both of the women in the class hardly spoke at all, and Chris, understanding what the younger students were saying when they cracked jokes to each other, explained that the boys were making cracks at the girls’ expense.

So Luis and I show up to Wednesday morning’s session to find that it was led by a young woman probably in her 20s. Again, there were more male students than female students, and the two young women were really quiet. But, in contrast to Monday’s freestyle, joke-filled session, this time the group leader went around the circle systematically, making sure everyone shared something about their plans for Spring Break, their activities during the last break in December, that sort of thing. I enjoyed this little circle immensely, because it meant that I was not the center of attention. I was happy to attend these conversations if Luis wanted me to, but I didn’t want to take them over every time like we did on Monday. Today I was just one other student sharing my plans and past activities.

Until, that is, it was Luis’s turn to speak. He immediately critiqued the group leader for something I didn’t quite understand, explained that he needed more listening practice than speaking practice, and then, to my utter horror, declared that he wanted to hear the extranjero speak because they could all learn more from listening to me. If I could have sunk into the couch at that point, I would have. Fortunately, the group leader was having none of it, and calmly explained to Luis that that was not the group dynamic, that everyone needed to do both speaking and listening, and that everyone needed to be able to share. Thank goodness.

When it was my turn to speak, I tried to be self-deprecating, and deflected Luis’s call to speak on and on at length. Someone asked me how I liked Mexico, and I listed some things I had enjoyed learning about, including Mexican soccer.

“You play soccer?” someone asked.
“No, no, no – just watch.”
“You don’t play?”
“Well the thing is, I’m not very good at it, is all.”
“I’m not very good either. Maybe we should play sometime!”

If I learn how to play soccer from a Mexican college student, well…there are just no words for how cool that would be.

After class, Luis told me he liked Monday’s session a lot better than today's. He thought this one was just too rigid. I disagreed. It was true, Monday’s was more fun, but today everyone got a chance to speak, and that was good, too. So I liked both days, I told him. He smiled and nodded at me, then excused himself to go get a soda. I hadn’t taken much of strong stance, but then, I didn’t want to get into an argument with Luis, either. And I’m not entirely sure what my next move should be – I liked the class, but if Luis is going to use me to disrupt things, it might be best to avoid Wednesday conversation.

When I got home the chessboard was still sitting there on the table. For all of the Spanish-language explanations I received this morning, I’m still a bit apprehensive about it. It’s so much easier to feign ignorance and play something I’m better at. But there that chessboard sits, just waiting for Luis’s next visit. There’s nothing for it – I’m just going to have to learn how to play.


Erica said...

You expressed my concerns about learning chess wonderfully! So, will you be my teacher when we're both in reach of the same chess board?
Maybe I should be putting this in a private e-mail rather than in a blog response, but I continue to think you're amazing, and feel proud that we "are family" every day when I ready your blog entry.
Love you,

Erica said...

Oooops, Erica Just returned my computer to me yesterday - and obviously my computer hasn't caught on yet that these fingers are not hers!
So, this love is from Annegret / Mom

From Michigan with Love said...

I love you too and these are my own fingers...hehe...:-)

In my world, I found chess to be like eucher (sp!?) undiagnosed ADD will not alow me to stay put that long! Some of your longer entries are similarly challenging! :-)

See you soon!