An Interview with Mark Saunders, Author of Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak
Why did you decide to write about your experience as a first-time expat living in the middle of Mexico?
My wife and I were the last persons we ever thought would drop out and move to Mexico, especially when we did. We were in our late 50s at the time, did not have much money to back us up, and did not consider ourselves the adventurous types. We were both working in high-tech, for different companies, and coincidently our jobs were going away around the same time. At our age, we felt boxed in—or out. So we sold our condo in downtown Portland, Oregon, with the spectacular view of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens and lived in Mexico off the proceeds of the sale. Put another way, we gave ourselves a self-funded, open-ended sabbatical. Funny things happened to us almost immediately and I thought I should start writing about what was going on, and do so mostly from the point of view of someone who was totally ill-equipped and ill-prepared to be an expat. If there are jokes in the book, I’m the butt of them, as well as the punch line to most setups. As it should be. The San Miguel Author’s Sala, since renamed the Literary Sala, published early drafts of two of the essays included in Nobody Knows.
Had you ever lived in another country before or thought about it?
When I was in the military I was stationed on Puerto Rico for nine months. However, I was stuck on the military most of the time. Whenever I could, I’d take a bus into San Juan and spend a weekend, filling myself up with local food and culture. About ten years ago, Arlene was offered an engineering position in Dresden, Germany. She went back to Dresden to find us a place to live and called to ask me if I wanted to live in Old Town (Altstadt) or New Town (Neustadt). I told her it was Europe and I definitely wanted to live in the older part of town. She laughed and told me that Neustadt dated from something like the 1600s. Ultimately, she didn’t feel right about the job offer and turned them down. From that point on, though, we coveted the thought of living in another country, especially someplace in Europe. San Miguel is not Europe but it’s done a great job preserving a 17th century European look and feel. It’s a beautiful, historic setting and a favorite tourist spot for Mexicans.
Instead of selling everything and moving to Mexico, why didn’t you just take a six-month tourist visa and rent a place for awhile?
We weren’t interested in just another vacation, we wanted an adventure. We had worked our entire adult lives, with only an occasional week or two off, and felt it was time to try something new and we hoped interesting. Portland, Oregon, is a wonderful place to live but we didn’t see ourselves closing out our lives there. As difficult as it was to leave the comfort of familiar surroundings and dear friends, we craved a real change in our lives. Presto chango, we found ourselves in the middle of Mexico in a traditional neighborhood.
I imagine it was difficult leaving friends and family behind but did they ever say or think you were crazy for moving to Mexico when you did?
I’m sure plenty of our loved ones and acquaintances thought so. But they had the good manners to not tell us to our face we had flipped out.
What’s the number one question people ask you about living in Mexico?
It’s a toss-up between “Is it safe?” and “What do you do for medical care?” The drug war is insane, of course. But it’s pretty much limited to the border towns and drug cartels or federales shooting at each other over turf. San Miguel is a ten-hour drive from the Texas border. I felt safer walking in my first Mexican neighborhood at night than my old Portland neighborhood. I feel just as safe in my new San Miguel neighborhood, which is closer to the center of town. Medical care is an interesting question. The first time we lived here we subscribed to a global health insurance policy for catastrophic medical needs. Everything else we paid for out of pocket. A doctor’s visit, for example, was about three hundred pesos or twenty-five dollars at the current exchange rate. In other words, it was close to what we would have spent as a co-pay in the States. Dental work is a lot cheaper here, too, and it’s high quality work. If you’re talking about brain surgery, you probably want to return to the US and get it done there. But if you need lab work or a basic physical or a leg cast or a thorough skin cancer checkup, you can get it done here and for a lot less than in the States. Plus, the doctors make house calls and the pharmacies deliver to your door. How cool is that? When all else fails, there are US-style major hospitals thirty to forty minutes away.
What did you find most surprising about Mexico?
So many aspects of life down here surprised me, pleasantly so, I’m not sure where to start. Of course, when you drive down you first notice the roads and the highway system in Mexico, especially the toll roads, which far exceeded my expectations. The scenery was, at times, spectacular. Watching a rising middle class has been fascinating. We have hi-speed Internet in our house, decent mobile phone coverage, and fresh, delicious produce and eggs every day. There’s even a burgeoning organic food movement in San Miguel. Perhaps the single greatest pleasure, even though I can’t call it a surprise, was how warm, gracious, and friendly our Mexican neighbors were and still are.
What disappointed you most about living in San Miguel?
My greatest disappointment and the bane of my existence down here is the level of noise. San Miguel is a party town and Mexicans love their fiestas. Their philosophy seems to be if it’s worth celebrating, it’s worth a lot of noise. I suppose if I were twenty again I’d feel different about it all but the noise is relentless. Perhaps my second greatest disappointment is that I can’t buy my jeans off-the-rack. I’m short and stocky and thought, finally, at last, a country where I’m closer to a normal size and I wouldn’t have to get my pants altered or wear them hiked up under my chin like some 80-year old guy playing Bocce Ball. I’m afraid I’ll also never figure out the door locks in Mexico. Some things are beyond my comprehension. And don’t get me started about the topes or speed bumps. What we refer to as speed bumps in the States pale by comparison. It’s like that scene in the film Crocodile Dundee when the Australian guy is walking in New York City at night and is accosted by a desperate man waving a knife. The Australian laughs at the guy and says, “That’s not a knife, Mate.” Then he pulls out a huge knife that’s as big as a machete and tells the would-be thief, pointing it at him: “Now that’s a knife.” That’s pretty much how I feel about the difference between speed bumps in the States and in Mexico.
You often refer to old movies or rock lyrics. Was that a deliberate stylistic choice on your part?
Indeed it was. Like a lot of people, I love movies and music and have been influenced heavily by both. Arlene likes to say I can’t remember to pay a bill on time but I can remember a piece of dialogue from a movie I watched twenty years ago. I also think dropping in bits of popular culture is another way of connecting to readers, especially in a humorous memoir targeted at readers around my own age. When I was in college, I knew a woman who would spice up her conversation with song lyrics, as if she were quoting Aristotle. By the way, I don’t quote Aristotle in the book, or Plato, for that matter. I do, however, cite Albert Brooks and Humphrey Bogart.
How did you come up with your book’s title?
I wanted a title that would combine Mexico and humor. One early title was (groan) “Two Years Before the Masa,” which wouldn’t work, I realized, since the Richard Dana book referred to disappeared from bookshelves a long time ago and only serious cooks knew that tortillas come from masa or corn dough. Eventually I settled on Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak for the title because it’s a chapter from the book and because it captures, in six words, my total confusion and incompetence as an expat. Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak is, of course, a play on the old spiritual “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus” and, I think, it’s a title that says this is a light-hearted book about a non-Hispanic living in an Hispanic country. Plus, as bonus points, our car mechanic’s name was Jesus and he knew a lot about the troubles we had with our car.
Did you ever regret dropping out and leaving the States?
Never. I think what we came to regret was leaving Mexico and returning to the States when we did, which was in late 2007, just in time to participate in or at least observe from the sidelines with great horror the tanking of the American economy. Returning to the States meant we were going to have to try and find work and the downturn in the economy, coupled with our ages, made that a Herculean task, to say the least. But we were homesick. What we probably should have done was returned to the States periodically for long stretches, a month or so at a time, and still keep a house in San Miguel. Hindsight doesn’t require reading glasses from Costco.
Has your Spanish improved?
Yes, but not significantly. Sometimes clichés make the best or at least shortest explanations. In my case, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I regret not mastering a foreign language when I was much younger and had more brain cells on my team, with a better shot at winning. Now it’s almost impossible for me to get beyond the basic hello-how-are-you-see-you-later greetings. I try to speak Spanish whenever I can but it’s mostly individual words, broken up like ceramic tile and spackled together, supplemented with some vigorous hand signals and finger pointing. I’m not proud of my lack of proficiency in Spanish. I’d also like to be able to play the piano but I suspect at my age—here comes another cliché—that ship has sailed.
This is your first book. What is your background as a writer?
In business, I was pretty much a word and picture guy. I did a lot of technical writing and then marketing writing over the years. In my spare time, I wrote and drew cartoons, weekly single-panels for newspapers and gag cartoons for magazines. I also did some editorial cartooning in college and after. I wrote gags for the comic strip “Frank & Ernest” as a freelancer and did quite well, since I love silly word play. I even tried stand-up comedy for a bit and didn’t do well at end. In fact, I bombed enormously at it and returned to writing, which was easier and more natural for me. I’ve never had to run into the bathroom just before starting to write and throw up. Stand-up comedy is not easy on a guy with a nervous stomach. Eventually, I started writing short plays, again in my spare time, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. More than twenty of my plays have been either staged or read in theatres across the country, a few have won awards, and a couple have been published. A few years later I took a couple of amazing screenwriting classes and eventually wrote several features, all comedies. They’ve won awards but only one of my full-length scripts has been optioned. Two of my short scripts have been optioned as well and one was actually filmed. Please don’t ask about the film. The tipping point for me as a writer, I guess, came in late 2001 when I applied for and won a fellowship. The award gave me six weeks in a cabin in the Southern Oregon woods to do nothing but write. My employer at the time was very generous and supportive and kept my job open for me while I took time off to write. However, from that point on, it was hard for me to work a regular job when I’d rather be spending my time writing. It was one of those “how ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm” experiences, an epiphany that changed my life.
Do you have plans for a sequel or second book about life in Mexico?
Yes, sort of, maybe, I think so. I’m working on a book about our new Standard Poodle, Duke, a 75-pound apricot-colored male. He’s basically a snow dog who now finds himself living in the middle of a semi-arid climate. The working title is “The Duke of San Miguel.” He literally stops traffic whenever we take him out for his walks. And at least once a week someone asks if they can have their picture taken with him. We’re thinking of putting a sign around his neck and charging for the photos. I’m also working on two full-length plays, as well as adapting one of my screenplays to a novel.