31 July 2009

Learning Spanish by Singing - 002

On July 16th, I posted an item called "Learning Spanish by Singing" and I listed a number of songs that everyone should learn so that they won't feel left out at singalongs. The first song lyrics that I wrote out with an English translation were for a song called "Si Nos Dejan" by José Alfredo Jiménez which is one of my favorites. There is another José Alfredo song that is not only one of my favorites but also a favorite of people all over Mexico and especially those who live in the state of Guanajuato. It is called "Caminos de Guanajuato".

"Caminos de Guanajuato" by José Alfredo Jiménez

No vale nada la vida
Life is worth nothing
La vida no vale nada
Life is worth nothing
Comienza siempre llorando
It always begins with crying
Y así llorando se acaba
And with crying is how it ends
Por eso es que en este mundo
Because of that in this world
La vida no vale nada
Life is worth nothing

Bonito León Guanajuato
Pretty León, Guanajuato
Su feria con su jugada
Her fair with her game
Ahí se apuesta la vida
There life is bet on
Y se respeta al que gana
And the winner is respected
Allá en mi León Guanajuato
There in my León Guanajuato
La vida no vale nada
Life is worth nothing

Camino de Guanajuato
Road of Guanajuato
Que pasas por tanto pueblos
That passes by so many towns
No pasas por Salamanca
Don't pass by Salamanca
Que ahí me hiere el recuerdo
For there the memory hurts me
Vete rodeando veredas
Take the pathways around
No pases por que me muero
Don't go there because I will die

El Cristo de tu montaña
The Christ of your mountain
Del cerro del Cubilete
Of Mount Tumbler
Consuelo de los que sufren
Solace of those who suffer
Adoración de la gente
Worship of the people
El Cristo de tu montaña
The Christ of your mountain
Del cerro del Cubilete
Of Mount Tumbler

Camino de Santa Rosa
Road of Santa Rosa
La Sierra de Guanajuato
The Mountain Peak of Guanajuato
Ahí nomás tras lomita
There just over the ridge
Se ve Dolores Hidalgo
Dolores Hidalgo is seen
Ahí me quedo paisano
There I remain a country person
Ahí es mi pueblo adorado
There is my beloved town


No pasas por Salamanca - José Alfredo's brother died in Salamanca

El Cristo de tu montaña - There is a famous statue of Jesus Christ with arms outstretched on Mt. Cubilete that can be seen for miles around. It is also the geographical center of Mexico. The word "cubilete" means "tumbler" as in the little cup that one uses to shake the dice.

La Sierra de Guanajuato - The word "sierra" means "saw" as in "sawtooth" and it is also used to refer to mountains that have peaks.

The translation that I made here is not a literal translation. Just like Jose Alfredo used a little "poetic license" with the Spanish words I did the same for the English words in the interest of making them sound natural.

Oh, yes, and for all you 19th parallel folks who live in Morelia and Pátzcuaro there is also a song called "Caminos de Michoacán" so don't have a cow.

21 July 2009

Learning Spanish - "Destinos" Video Program

When I was a lad growing up in Chicago in the 1950's I attended a Catholic grammar school named "Our Lady of Grace School". We learned English grammar and writing from a series of books called "Voyages in English" published by the Lepanto Press. I am pleased to report that Our Lady of Grace is still going strong and Voyages in English is still being published by the people at Loyola Press. Hooray for our side...there are still some nice things that haven't gone away.

I really enjoyed my voyages in English and now I am enjoying my voyage in Spanish. I was joined by a new crew member today. Bliss of the blog "1st Mate" has joined me on this voyage and apropos of her blog title she will be 1st mate on this ship also. We are on a mission to encourage others to study Spanish if they are English speakers and to study English if they are Spanish speakers. The more that we learn to communicate with each other the more understanding there will be, at least in our little corners of the world. Not wanting to be a "Captain Go-and Do" instead of a "Captain Come-on-Let's" I pledge to lead by example and strive to do better and better, every day and in every way. I know that sounds like a mix of "Romper Room" and the positive affirmations of Émile Coué (Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux) but that's the was it is. It is going to be a fun trip and the destination is success...even if it takes a lifetime.

Bliss said to me "There are so many techniques we can use to improve our Spanish, it doesn't have to get boring. Everything from flashcards to newspapers to novelas to getting acquainted with neighbors, vendors at the mercado, the mechanic who works on your car…etc." She is absolutely right. Learning doesn't have to be boring even though learning a language requires a long period of consistent study and practice. It can actually be fun if you mix it up a little and use various sources for input. One of the things she said struck a chord with me. She mentioned "novelas". I remember that back in the last three months of 1998 when I was preparing to move to Mexico there was a program called "Destinos" on public television. I took advantage of that program as much as I could and I remember that not only was it entertaining and enjoyable but it also gave my beginning efforts in Spanish a little boost.

There are fifty two (each) one half hour segments in the program which was created by Bill VanPatten, who was a Professor of Spanish and Second Language Acquisition at the University of Illinois. The program uses a "soap opera" format to immerse students in everyday situations with native speakers and introduces the cultures, accents, and dialects of Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and Puerto Rico. It is divided into two parts, Part I programs 1-26, and Part II programs 27-52. You can buy the program on DVD or video cassette. Now, here is the good part...you can also access the program for free on the Destinos website by clicking on this link. All that you need is a good broadband Internet connection. You won't be able to download it but you can watch all of the episodes on streaming video. Just click on the little icons that say "VOD" (video on demand) next to each lesson. The lessons go over vocabulary and pronunciation and there are simple verbal quizzes for review. Believe me, if you have the time, you can't go wrong with this. You will still have to study using your regular methods but this series is like an "apapacho", a nice hug and a squeeze. Speaking of a hug and a squeeze, I even developed quite a fondness for the main character, Raquel, played by Liliana Abud but shhhhhh, please don't tell Gina :)

Oh, and one other thing. We are looking for more members to fill out the crew on our Voyage in Spanish. The only requirements are persistence and determination and a spirit of good will. It brings to my mind the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson from his poem Ulysses:

“Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.”


20 July 2009

Learning Spanish - Helpful Books

On July 11th I posted "Learning Spanish - The Cornflakes Method" to my blog and in it I mentioned two books that were essential for me. One was "Larousse Standard English/Spanish Dictionary", Mexican Edition, ISBN 970-607-993-9 and the other was "501 Spanish Verbs" by Christopher Kendris, ISBN 0-8120-9282-1. I would like to add a few more books that I found extremely helpful when I started learning Spanish.

The first book is:

"Spanish-English Housekeeping"
by Ruth M. Dietz
Eakin Press (February 1983)
ISBN-10: 0890153795
ISBN-13: 978-0890153796

This book is still in print and available for around ten dollars on Amazon.com. It contains vocabulary, pictures, and simple dialogs about how to manage things around the house and how to explain to domestic workers what you need and instruct them properly. Believe me. You need this book.

The second book is:

First Spanish Reader: A Beginner's Dual-Language Book
by Angel Flores
# Dover Publications (December 1, 1988)
# ISBN-10: 0486258106
# ISBN-13: 978-0486258102

This inexpensive book contains a number of stories with Spanish on one page and English on the facing page. The stories start out using very simple vocabulary and simple verb tenses and they get progressively harder. I really enjoyed this book. It helped me quite a bit and I am sure that it will help you too.

The next book is an "oldie but goodie" but it is a real gem. It is called "A México Por Automóvil: A Spanish Reader for Beginners" by Raymond L. And Olmsted and Richard H. Grismer (MacMillan). It was written in 1938. It uses a very basic but broad vocabulary and it covers a trip taken the length of México on the old National Highway Number One. You can still find used copies of this book on Amazon for about ten dollars and also occasionally on eBay. I highly recommend it, especially if you have troubles with verbs. There is nothing that will put vocabulary and sentence patterns in your head better than reading.

By the way, I received some very nice comments on my "Cornflakes Method" post and I really appreciate them. You see, I am on a mission. It is a mission to promote better understanding between people of different cultures. I try to help some people learn English and I try to help other people learn Spanish. In the face of everything that is going on in this chaotic world it is the only way that I can think of to help make things better in my own little way. Please keep the comments coming. I am open to criticism and suggestions...always. Oh, and one more thing. Will the people who comment as "anonymous" please remember to give me at least a first name so that I can tell one anonymous from another? Thanks :)

19 July 2009

La Boda de Oro

Yesterday I attended the third 50th wedding anniversary in my lifetime. The first was that of my grandparents, Stanley & Anastasia (Nettie) Mrotek. The second was that my own parents, George & Armella Mrotek. The anniversary that we celebrated yesterday was that of my wife Gina's parents, Antonio Vargas Razo & Maria del Carmen Hernández Baltazar. Every wedding anniversary is a cause for celebration but a fiftieth is very special. It is both a milestone and a triumph. Yesterday was a real blessing for yours truly because I received so many "apapachos" (caresses, kisses on the cheek, and hugs). Needless to say Gina's parents are getting to be "advanced" in years and her father is already in his eighties. Most of their contemporary friends and first order of relatives are also elderly so in a bittersweet way you might say that it was one of the last round- ups. All of the "ancianos" as we call them..."the old ones" were especially cordial to me and gave me big hugs along with their blessings. To say the least it made me feel pretty good.

The celebrations started as such things usually do here in Mexico with an 11:am Catholic mass. It took place in the Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad which is the "parroquia" or main church in the city of Irapuato after the Cathedral where the Bishop presides. The priest was a nice old guy named Padre Hipolito who reminded me of Pope John Paul the Second in speech and mannerisms. After the mass everyone went to the home of Gina's sister Araceli or "Aro" as we call her. She and her husband Luis have a house with a big open ground floor area that the family uses for large gatherings. We had a five piece band named "Son 5" who played "oldies but goodies" that we could sing to and also some popular dance music for the younger crowd. The party went on all afternoon and into the evening until about 8:pm. I fear that some of those who attended I may never see again so goodbyes were long and heartfelt. I was especially gladdened to see how much fun the young people and the little kids had. Just like I remember from the first two 50th wedding anniversaries that I attended, a good time was had by all, and for that I give thanks.

(Click on images to enlarge)

17 July 2009

Reach for the sky!

Back in February of 2008 I wrote an item in this blog called "The Making of a Saint" about a legendary figure named Jesús Malverde who is becoming quite popular among drug traffickers and has been adopted by them as their patron saint. Today I was reading a blog written by Greg Kandra called "The Deacon's Bench" which is more or less and insider's view of the Catholic Church since Greg is a Deacon in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. He wrote about a society called the "St. Gabriel Possenti Society" that promotes the public recognition of St. Gabriel Possenti as the Patron Saint of Handgunners including a petition for formal Vatican approval. That's just what we need right now... something to justify violence. It must be very difficult to be a radically conservative Catholic card carrying member of the NRA and balance that against Our Lord's admonition to turn the other cheek and forgive those who trespass against us at least seventy times seven and also His reminder that the Meek shall inherit the Earth. To their way of thinking it would be a heck of a lot easier if the Pope would just see things their way and utter a papal decree making it theologically legitimate, acceptable, and even advisable for them to carry a firearm. Hey, after all, if you have a saint then you can have a saint's day (February 27th) and statues and processions and so on and so forth. What fun, eh? Maybe we could even bring back the Inquisition and ask Dick Cheney to lead it.

So who was this Gabriel Possenti anyway? His given name was Francesco Possenti and he was born on March 1, 1838, the eleventh of thirteen children. At the time, his family resided in the town of Assisi where Francesco Possenti was baptized on the day of his birth in the same font in which Saint Francis of Assisi had been baptized. For quite a few years afterward that was about as close as he got to saintliness. Francesco Possenti had been the fanciest dresser in town as well as the best dancer. He was a superb horseman and an excellent marksman. He was even engaged to two girls at the same time and he was well known as a great party goer. No doubt because of his extra curricular activities he had become very sick during his school years and had promised that if he got better, he would dedicate his life to God. He got got better and like many people are wont to do he forgot about the promise. He got sick again and made the same promise, but again he got well and forgot his promise. Once, during a church procession in which a great banner of Our Lady, Help of Christians, was being carried, the eyes of Our Lady looked straight at him and he heard the words: "Keep your promise." This really shook him up. He suddenly remembered his promise, changed his life completely, entered the Passionist Order in 1856, and was given the name "Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows". He died at Gran Sasso, in the Kingdom of Italy on February 27, 1862 at the age of 24 from tuberculosis. He was beatified by Pope Pius X on May 31st, 1908 and canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XV on May 13th 1920. Note that our present Pope Benedict the XVI is the next "Benedict" in succession. Is this an omen?

Okay, so now I already hear you saying, "Yeah but what the heck does that have to do with "packing a rod", or "packing heat" as they say in the trade?". Well there is an unsubstantiated legend in Italy that one day some rowdies who were mercenaries in Giuseppe Garibaldi's army came to town and were roughing up the home folks. Francesco Possenti (a.k.a. Gabriel) intervened and wrestled a pistol away from one of the evil doers. Another bad guy confronted him and Possenti noticed a lizard scurrying in between them and shot the lizard in the head with one quick shot. This gave his opponent pause and he subsequently surrendered his pistol also and the gang bangers decided to leave town. If you look at the present logo of the St. Gabriel Possenti Society below you will notice the figure of Francesco Possenti flanked by a lizard and a pistol. For a split second when I saw this I thought perhaps that fortune had smiled upon me and that I might ride out my golden years on a pile of gold that I would make selling St. Gabriel Possenti statues in Mexico. Imagine that, a saint who carries a "pistola". Wouldn't that make a nice companion for "Saint" Jesús Malverde and come to think of it, Santa Muerte" as well. Alas, I couldn't do it. As in "The Last Temptation of Christ" by Nikos Kazantzakis I felt the Holy Spirit sinking His talons into my cranium with a message that I should forget about it. Oh well, too bad. I think the story of Saint Gabriel Possenti would make a great Italian Spaghetti Western in the manner of the Clint Eastwood movies but I better just leave that one alone. Besides, I don't want to fan the flames and move the radical conservatives any further to the right.

16 July 2009

Learning Spanish by Singing

My amiga Suzanne at "Living in San Miguel" made the comment the other day that perhaps it would be a good idea to learn some very traditional songs so that one could sing along with the crowd at fiestas and gatherings of any kind wherever music is played. I think that is a great idea. Not only does that help boost ones vocabulary but it can really make one feel like they are part of the crowd. It's a lot better than sitting there with a forced smile nodding your head and faking a hum when everyone else is singing. I thought I would do a series of posts and introduce some of the songs that I have learned that have generally come in handy when they pass me that karaoke mike. Here is a partial list to begin with:

"Si Nos Dejan"
"Cielito Lindo"
"La Vibora de la Mar"
"Las Mañanitas"
"Allá en el Rancho Grande"
"El Rey"
"Caminos de Guanajuato"
"México Lindo y Querido"
"Bésame Mucho"

This is a very basic list. It includes songs like "Las Mañanitas" that you will hear at every birthday party and "La Vibora de la Mar" that you will hear at almost every traditional wedding feast.

I'd like to start out with my all time favorite go-to song whenever I get near a microphone and the band doesn't mind. This is a song that you can really belt out and pretend that you are somebody else. It doesn't matter if you can't sing very well because a lot of other people will join in who can't sing very well either. The result generally ends up fairly good because there is camaraderie in cacophony and besides that by the time the singing starts everyone has had a nip or two of tequila. This song was written by Jose Alfredo Jimenez from the town of Dolores Hidalgo. Here in the state of Guanajuato he is a favorite son and a local hero but the song is famous and very popular all over Mexico. The song is called "Si nos Dejan"..."If They Let Us".

Si nos dejan,
If the let us,
Nos vamos a querer toda la vida
We are going to be in love all of our lives

Si nos dejan,
If they let us,
Nos vamos a vivir a un mundo nuevo
We are going to live in a new world

Yo creo podemos ver, el nuevo amanecer de un nuevo día
I think we can see a new dawn of a new day
Yo pienso que tu y yo, podemos ser felices todavía
I think that you and I can still be happy

Si nos dejan
If they let us
Buscamos un rincón cerca del cielo
We'll look for a corner nook close to heaven

Si nos dejan
If they let us
Hacemos con las nubes terciopelo
We'll make it with the velvet clouds

Y ahí juntitos los dos cerquita de dios sera lo que soñamos
And there, the both of us together, close to God will be like we are dreaming
Si nos dejan, te llevo de la mano corazón y ahí nos vamos
If they let us, I will take you by the hand dear heart and there we will go

Si nos dejan
If they let us
Hacemos con las nubes terciopelo
We'll make it with the velvet clouds

Y ahí juntitos los dos cerquita de dios sera lo que soñamos
And there, the both of us together, close to God will be like we are dreaming
Si nos dejan, te llevo de la mano corazón y ahí nos vamos
If they let us, I will take you by the hand dear heart and there we will go

Si nos dejan, de todo lo demás nos olvidamos
If they let us, we will forget all of the rest
¡Si nos dejan!
If they let us!

14 July 2009

Las Fresas de Irapuato

When I first came to Irapuato in October of 1998 for a visit before I moved here a few months later there was a sign over the highway at the entrance to the town that said, "Bienvenido a Irapuato, La Capital Mundial de las Fresas"..."Welcome to Irapuato, the Strawberry Capital of the World". The sign isn't there anymore and I didn't even notice when they took it down. Actually it was a bit outdated even then. However, at one time and for over one hundred years Irapuato was definitely the Strawberry Capital of Mexico even if it wasn't quite the World Capital. If you search on the Internet you will find that there are dozens of towns in North America that claim to be the World Strawberry Capital but in reality if those towns aren't Salinas or Watsonville, California then they have no legitimate claim to fame. The Central Coast of California is the best place in the world to grow strawberries and nearly 40% of the U.S. strawberries are grown in the Salinas - Watsonville area. In 2007 (latest figures available) The United States as a whole produced well over a million tons of strawberries in California, Florida, Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, Michigan, New York, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio and is considered the number one country in strawberry production. Russia is the number two strawberry producing country with only about one third of U.S. production followed by Spain, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Poland, Mexico, Egypt, Morocco, United Kingdom, Ukraine, Italy, France. Hey! We forgot something! What about China? Well, the Chinese fairly recently discovered that they love strawberries just as much as everyone else and with their new affluence there is a big market. In fact, nobody knows for sure how many strawberries they grow and there is speculation that by now or very soon it may equal or even exceed U.S. production.

It really doesn't matter how many strawberries are actually produced in Irapuato. In Mexico, the City of Irapuato will forever be associated with strawberries and the people who live here will be called "Freseros" or "Strawberry Heads" just as the people in our international "Sister City", Green Bay, Wisconsin, are called "Cheese Heads". So how did Irapuato become associated with strawberries in the first place? Well, I'll tell you, but first I have to backpedal a little bit. Let's get in our "wayback" machine and go "way back" to the year 1700. In that year, with the death of Charles II of Spain and the ascension of Phillip V, the grandson of King Louis XIV of France, the line of succession of Spanish royalty passed from the House of Hapsburg to the House of Bourbon. How this actually happened is too complicated to get into here and really not worth mentioning anyway except for the fact that this was a very unsettled time in Europe and there were spies everywhere. Being a very shrewd operator, King Louis took advantage of the fact that his grandson was now King of Spain and he sent out spies to learn all that he could about Spanish interests. King Louis sent a young spy named Amédée François Frézier to Chile to check things out in that part of New Spain. Along with Frézier's observations on fortresses, armies, guns and supply routes, governors and Indians, he included a description and drawing of the very large Chilean strawberry. A collector as well as an observer, in 1714 he managed to bring back to France five of these Chilean strawberry plants (Fragaria chiloensis L.) by painstakingly caring for them on the six month return trip. They were distributed among several gardens and propagated by their "runners" and then...nothing happened for a long, long, time. Unwittingly our hero had brought back five female plats and to make fruit there needed to be male plants as well. There is another ironic twist to this story. Amédée François Frézier's family name was derived from the French word for the strawberry -- fraise. The name was bestowed upon one of his ancestors by the French King Charles in the year 914 in return for the gift of a bowl of wild strawberries. The Spanish name for the strawberry, "la fresa" was derived from the French "fraise" but in Chile the strawberry is still called "la frutilla" or "little fruit" which is what the Spaniards called them originally.

Up until now strawberries certainly were known throughout Europe and North America but they were not cultivated. The three most common wild species that people were familiar with were Fragaria vesca and Fragaria moschata in Europe and Fragaria virginiana in America. Around 1760, in France some Fragaria virginiana from America were planted near some Fragaria chiloensis L. from Chile by a man named Antoine Nicolas Duchesne and the result was a wonderful new hybrid named Fragaria ananassa (Garden Strawberry) which became the basis for the strawberries that are cultivated today. The spread of the new strawberry was slow, however, and it didn't make its way to America until about 1800 to the New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore areas. In 1836 a man named Charles Mason Hovey developed the Hovey strawberry which is considered as the starting point of American strawberry production. It was the standard cultivar for many years but at first there was a problem. People still did not realize that there was a male and a female plant. They kept tearing out the plants that did not bear fruit not realizing that they were male plants and essential for fertilization. Eventually this got worked out and plants were developed with both male and female flowers on the same plant.

According to the best source available the strawberry arrived in Mexico from France in 1849 but there is nothing said about where it was first planted. The first plants were selections of F. chiloensis, called Negrita and Poderosa. In 1852 a man named Nicolás Tejeda who was a local political figure brought some plants to Irapuato where they were planted in the area now known as Colonia Santa Julia which you can see in the map below. It wasn't until about 1858 that people figured out how to propagate them and a small commercial operation began at a hacienda called San Juan de Retana in the area where the Rio Silao and the Rio Guanajuato enter Irapuato from the north fairly close together. In time a German horticulturist named Oscar Droege came to Irapuato and taught the local people the best ways to cultivate strawberries. Around 1880 the railroad came to Irapuato and a prominent businessman named Joaquín Chico González began using the railroad to ship strawberries to restaurants and markets in Mexico City. Many travelers who passed through Irapuato in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries noted in their journals that they bought a basket of strawberries that were offered to them by track side vendors at the Irapuato station. Commercial strawberry production in quantity really didn't begin in Irapuato until 1948, with the opening of the first freezer plant. Beginning about 1953, the industry expanded to the region around Zamora, east of Guadalajara, in the State of Michoacan, about two hundred miles from Irapuato. By 1954 there were about 2,400 acres planted to strawberries in Mexico and ten years later there were 14,000 acres, about 9,000 acres in Guanajuato around Irapuato, and about 5,000 acres in Michoacan around Zamora.

Today, the city of Irapuato ceases to be the Strawberry Capital of the world because it lacks the type of soil and water along with the technological processes that would enable it to develop an improvement in the quality of the local fruit. For many years the strawberry and its cultivation, trade, and industrialization were a basic pillar of the local economy, with prolific fields of strawberries, as well as industrial plants where the strawberries were processed and packaged to be shipped to foreign markets, all which resulted in a substantial revenue for the city and its citizens. Sadly, Irapuato eventually lost its leadership position to other places more suited to the task. However, strawberries are still famous in this region and for many years have been the delight of those who, driven by the whim, stopped their burro or horse or car on the side of the road to enjoy a dish of strawberries with cream, a tradition that is not lost and will probably never be...and that my friends is the story of the strawberry in Irapuato. The only thing that I can add is the admonition to eat your strawberries. One serving (about eight strawberries) contains essential vitamins, fiber, potassium, and antioxidants and delivers more Vitamin C than an orange. As a matter of fact, I am going to eat some right now.

¡Vivan las Fresas! ¡Vivan los Freseros! ¡Viva Irapuato! ¡Viva México!

11 July 2009

Learning Spanish - The Corn Flakes Method

I have been meaning to write this post for quite some time in order to put into perspective what I think it takes to really acquire a foreign language and in this case Spanish. So, I am about to give you my two cents worth and hope that I am not putting my foot in my mouth at the same time. There are some things that we need to take into consideration. In order to learn a foreign language well, one must invest a lot of energy using good study methods and good study materials in a consistent manner over a long period of time. In order to do this, one must take personal responsibility for their success and control the learning process. Studying a language with a teacher is a passive mode, where one expects the teacher to control the process and somehow impart the language to you. The same thing applies to structured courses that are offered in various modes from on-line Internet "podcast" programs to commercial learning products sold in sets of CD's or DVD's. A good teacher or program may inspire you or provide you with external structure and discipline, but if you are a sufficiently serious and a mature student, you are better off teaching yourself a language than enrolling in a course. In this day and age, good study materials and habits are much better resources than living teachers for obtaining a foundation in foreign languages. After all, you are not looking for a "grade" on this effort nor a "gold star" nor a "certificate of achievement". You are looking to learn a foreign language to a comfortable and useful degree and to do this you "really gotta wanna".

Like many things in life learning a language boils down to a "numbers game" so let's look at some of the numbers. Based upon experience I can tell you that to learn a foreign language to a comfortable and useful degree you need to acquire a working vocabulary in the range of around 12,000 to 15, 000 vocabulary words. Just for the sake of discussion let's choose the lower end of the range at 12,000. How much time do you think it will take you to learn 12,000 words really well? Let's go one step further for the sake of easy arithmetic and say that you intend to take Sundays and holidays off and study only 300 days per year. Well, if you only learn one new word per day it would take you 40 years. Okay, then let's move it up to learning ten new words per day. Ten words per day times three hundred days is three thousand words per year. At that rate it would only take you four years. That is a realistic goal but it is also a difficult one. Remember, you have to learn ten new words every day...day in and day out except Sundays and holidays, and learn them really well. During that same time period you will also need to learn how to conjugate the verbs, learn sentence structure and grammar, learn idiomatic expressions, and various regional and slang variations, etcetera. Suddenly that four year time frame that looked reasonable in terms of picking up the vocabulary is starting to look a little ambitious in terms of learning the language. Let me break it to you gently. To learn a language to the extent that you can wear it like an old comfortable sweater can take eight to ten years or more. However, this shouldn't discourage you if you have a real desire but rather it should give you a better perspective and a realistic idea about how much effort that you will need to invest to reap rewards on a timely basis. The upside is that as you progress you will gain the benefit of greater confidence and ease in social settings and feel more and more like an "insider".

Now it is time for a disclaimer. I am not an "expert" in Spanish nor am I qualified as a language teacher. I consider myself a perpetual student but having said that I have definitely achieved a certain comfort and confidence level in Spanish and I would like to give some advice to others who are attempting to do the same. I started studying Spanish in earnest at the age of 52 about three months before I moved permanently to Mexico. Ten years have passed and I now feel bold enough to be writing this. I started out by making 1000 flash cards using a Spanish word frequency list such as the type you can find on "Wiktionary". Click on this link to find the most frequent 1000 words in Spanish. For the average person it takes from 15 to 17 repeat exposures to a new word in order to put it in long term memory and I have found that the most efficient way to do this is with flash cards. I can already here someone saying "Oh no, flashcards are not for me". Well, that's okay but then I suggest that you stop reading here and if you have a better way then use it. I am writing this for people who have an open mind and really want to learn Spanish.

In order to begin the flash card method of acquiring basic vocabulary I needed a system to make and handle the flashcards. As a result I developed the corn flakes method. First you buy a box of corn flakes and eat the flakes. Then you make a tray about 1-1/2" to 2" deep out of the bottom of the box as shown in the picture below. From the rest of the corn flakes box you fashion a cover for your tray. To make the flash cards you will need at least three packets of 3" x 5" plain index cards with no lines. Cut the index cards into thirds and you will have nine hundred flash cards. These will fit in the corn flakes box tray nice and loose. Later on you might want to pack them in more tightly to get a thousand cards in each tray. You will also need a cheap spiral notebook. You start by noting each word in the notebook and looking it up in a Spanish/English dictionary and writing down a simple definition. Some words have multiple meanings but for now you just need to plug the word into your memory. More details can be added later. When you have a notebook page filled, transfer the words to the flash cards. In the act of writing the words down in the notebook, looking them up, and writing them again on the flash cards you have already taken a big step in committing them to memory. I suggest that you put the English word in black on one side of the flashcard and the one or two word definition in another color such as green on the other side. Also write on the flash cards so that you can flip them over easily without having to turn them end for end in order to read the word or definition. As you begin to study them you can look at the flash cards one at a time and flip them over to see if you got the word right. If you guessed wrong put the flash card at the back and if you guessed right leave it in the front. You can make a different colored divider card to separate the words that you know from the ones that you don't. As you advance in the tray you can go back from time to time to review and repeat the process.

I stopped needing the corn flakes trays when I filled up nine trays with about a thousand flash cards in each tray. This took me about two years. After that I found that vocabulary was much easier to acquire because I was well into using the language and repetitions of the new words became part of my daily speech. I also found that I was no longer limited to a Spanish/English dictionary and could understand definitions in a regular Spanish dictionary. Speaking of dictionaries, be careful that you buy a good Spanish/English dictionary that is oriented towards Mexican Spanish and not the Spanish used in Spain or other Spanish speaking countries. Many Spanish/English dictionaries are published in England for English tourists who take their vacations in Spain. Believe me, this type of dictionary will hurt you more than it will help. I like the Larousse Standard English/Spanish Dictionary, Mexican edition, ISBN 970-607-993-9. You can see a picture of my battered copy below.

At the same time that I started studying my flash cards I started learning how to conjugate verbs. There is a book that helped me very much. It is called "501 Spanish Verbs by Christopher Kendris, ISBN 0-8120-9282-1. I also made flash cards to study the verbs but these flash cards were a little different. One thing about the verbs. You need to learn them well but don't be surprised if it takes you many years to have the correct verb conjugation come out of your mouth effortlessly. The verbs are complicated but not overly so unless you make them that way. There are 14 tenses, seven of which are "simple" and seven of which are "compound". You don't need to learn all of the tenses, at least right away. Some of them are hardly ever used anyway except by high school Spanish teachers who use them to try to impress each other. To begin with, learn the present indicative, perfect indicative, imperfect indicative, preterit, future, and simple potential and for the time being just "wing it" with the rest of them. I still struggle with some of them like the "pluscuamperfecto de subjnctivo". My advice...forget about that one unless you intend to teach Spanish.

Well, there you have it, a good beginning. I have a lot more to say about the subject and I will do so in future posts. In the meantime start eating those corn flakes and start studying.

10 July 2009

Did you ever wonder?

Baby, if you've ever wondered,
Wondered whatever became of me,
I'm living on the air in Cincinnati,
Cincinnati, WKRP

WKRP in Cincinnati (1978–1982) was one of my favorite TV shows. I loved watching the antics of Andy Travis (Gary Sandy), Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner), Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), and Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson). What red blooded American male could ever forget Loni Anderson? Hmmm, it just occurred to me that even though I remember the show as if it just ended yesterday, some of the people who read this blog may have been in diapers when it ended over a quarter of a century ago. Of course there were reruns and an attempt to bring the show back to life in 1991 but it was never the same. Just like all nice things that have a good run they burst onto the scene and capture our fancy for awhile and then they fade into memory. So, I am taking the liberty of changing the WKRP song a little bit to fit my own situation:

Baby, if you've ever wondered,
Wondered whatever became of me,
I'm living on calabacitas in Mexico,
'Cause thin is what I really want to be.

I have rediscovered zuchini in the form of calabacita. Actually, except for some minor varietal differences, they are one and the same. The Italian word "zucca" means pumpkin or squash and a "zuccchine" or "zucchini" is a little squash just like the Spanish word "calabaza" means pumpkin or squash and "calabacita" means little squash. Actually zucchini is native to Mexico. The species is "Cucurbita pepo" and includes various varieties such as spaghetti squash, yellow crookneck squash and yellow summer squash. These are all referred to as "summer squashes" and are a subset of squashes that are harvested when immature and the rind is still tender and edible. That is one of the marvelous things about calabacita. You don't have to cook it and if you do cook it there are many ways to do so. For people like me who are on a perpetual diet it literally is a Godsend. The calabacita is ninety-five percent water and yet it contains contains useful amounts of potassium, folate, vitamin "A", and manganese. Almost all of the nutrients, however, are contained in the skin so that's why you should always leave the skin on.

Calabacitas can be steamed, fried, roasted, deep fried in batter, chopped into salads, and even made into cookies and bread. I'll bet my Ma knew a hundred ways to cook zucchini. She would always plant too many zucchini plants and then try to figure out a way to use all the zucchini without throwing any away. She gave away away all that she could until people would see my Ma coming with an armful of zucchini and duck back into their houses and hide behind the curtains. At one point in my youth I was actually afraid that I might turn green from eating so much zucchini. I wish my Ma were still alive though. I would eat all the zucchini or calabacita that she could grow. I have even come to enjoy another part of the calabacita plant that I don't think my Ma ever used. The flowers are edible and they are wonderful in things like soup (Sopa de Flor de Calabaza) and quesadillas (Quesadillas de Flor de Calabaza). When I first encountered this I thought it was very wasteful to just use the flower and not wait for the calabacita to mature but then I learned what a dummy I was.

The plant has two types of flowers, male and female. The female flower is a golden blossom on the end of each emergent zucchini. The male flower grows directly on the stem of the zucchini plant on a long stalk where the leaf petiole meets stem and is slightly smaller than the female. There are about four male flowers to every female flower. How about those odds ladies? Right after the female flower is fertilized (with the help of bees) the base of the flower begins to swell and becomes the calabacita and the flower fades. The male flowers stay open longer and so you can easily tell which are the male flowers. These you can pick without hurting the calabacitas which have begun to form. You can use the male flowers (after removing the stamens) in your soups and quesadillas while you are waiting for the little baby squash to grow. My advice is to pick the calabacitas while they are still small because that is when they taste the best. You can eat all you want because one cup of calabacita contains only about thirty calories...and you won't turn green either. I never did and "Ya está la calabaza" (That's the end of that!).

08 July 2009

Mi Amigo Pancho

When I was a young lad growing up in Chicago in the 1950's it was the dawn of television but the television in those days didn't get up at dawn. If you turned it on at dawn most likely all that you would see is a test pattern because the folks at the TV station didn't really get into gear until about eight o'clock. In those days quite a few people still listened to the radio when they got up and while they ate breakfast and got ready to go to work. In our house we were usually tuned in to WGN, Radio 720, and the morning farm report and then and the Eddie Hubbard Show which began in 1956. In 1958 "Flying Officer Leonard Baldy" joined the program and gave us the first traffic reports by helicopter. Later on Wally Phillips replaced Eddie Hubbard and "Eye in the Sky" Officer Irv Hayden replaced Leonard Baldy who died in a fiery helicopter crash. Sadly, Irv Hayden was to suffer the same fate years later. The station was very popular with farmers and there were a couple of farm reporters named Orion Samuelson and Max Armstrong who were everyone's favorites.

Ahhh, those really were the good old days, but that was then and this is now and I live in Mexico. Even the fifty thousand watts of WGN's clear channel radio can't reach me here. However, one of the best things about Mexico is that it is still a little bit old fashioned and there is still some old-timey radio. In Irapuato we have station XEWE which the people call "Doble-U-E" (DOH-bleh-OO-EH) or which simply stands for the letters "W" and "E". It's nickname is "La Estación Familiar" or "The Family Station" and it can be found at 1420 on your AM radio dial (if you are lucky like me). They broadcast a variety of programs to suit everything and everybody at 10,000 watts. They begin each day with a very early morning show called "My Amigo Pancho" and as the day progresses they cover everything including news, political forums, radio plays, and music. My wife Gina has it on all the time when she is working in the kitchen, or ironing clothes, or just relaxing with the day's newspaper. It is our "go to" station. We have a choice of many other stations but for us XEWE is home.

I wake up to the program "My Amigo Pancho" every morning. It reminds me so much of the WGN Wally Phillips Show that it is uncanny. It is like the spirit of Wally Phillips learned to speak Spanish, followed me down to Irapuato, and lives in a little plastic box on the nightstand beside my bed. The program "My Amigo Pancho" was started many years ago by a man named Francisco Sanchez even before Wally Phillips began his career. At that time Irapuato was a small agricultural center surrounded by many ex-haciendas, ejidos, farms, and ranchitos. Far flung people would communicate through Mi Amigo Pancho. They would call in and say "Pancho, this is María del Carmen Pérez in Rancho Grande. My daughter Fátima just had her first child and it is a boy. I want my family in Lo de Juárez to know about it". Then Pancho would say congratulations and something else appropriate and take another call. The next person might ask him to play a special song in honor of their father's saint's day, etcetera. Some people would just call in to say hello and others might have a question that perhaps someone else could call in and answer. Francisco Sanchez did this show day in and day out from five to seven in the morning until he died. His place was taken in 1989 by a friend of his named Alejandro Blancarte who is every bit as good and the program is still going strong. I imagine that someday this too will pass away but while it still exists I enjoy it immensely. It is a reminder that deep down people are the same everywhere and that basically we all have the same need to belong.

One of my favorite songs of all time is about radio. As a matter of fact the title is "Turn your Radio On". It was originally written by a man named Albert Edward Brumley but there are several versions of it. My favorite version is by Ray Stevens:

Well come and listen into a radio station
Where the mighty hosts of heaven sing
Turn your radio on
Turn your radio on
If you wanna feel those good vibrations
Coming from the joy that His love can bring
Turn your radio on
Turn your radio on

Turn your radio on
And listen to the music in the air
Turn your radio on
And glory share
Turn your lights down low
And listen to the master's radio
Get in touch with God
Turn your radio on

A don't you know that everybody is a radio receiver
All you gotta do is listen for the call
Turn your radio on
Turn your radio on
If you listen in you will be a believer
Leanin' on the truth that will never fall
Get in touch with God
Turn your radio on

07 July 2009

At Home on the 20th Parallel

I have been reading quite a bit about the Mexican state of Yucatan and in particular about the city of Mérida. The people who live in Mérida seem to be very fond of the place and I was wondering about the differences and similarities between Mérida and Irapuato. Perhaps I should just go visit Mérida and find out but the trouble is that Mérida is one of those out of the way places that you just about can't get to from here. I took a look at a map of Mexico to see what Mérida and Irapuato might have in common and lo and behold something jumped right out at me. I had always thought of Mérida as being south of us but the truth is that because Mexico curves back on itself down at the bottom the city of Mérida is due east of Irapuato on the 20th Parallel. As a matter of fact I discovered that most of the cities in Mexico with a concentration of Americans and Canadians are strung out along the 20th Parallel. It's like a club...the "20th Parallel Club".

Puerto Vallarta 20° 37" 0'
Guadalajara 20° 40" 0'
Lake Chapala 20° 13" 33'
Irapuato 20° 41" 1'
San Miguel de Allende 20° 56" 24'
Querétaro 20° 36" 0'
Mérida 20° 58" 0'

For those people who live in:

Veracruz 19° 12" 0
Puebla 19° 3" 0'
Mexico City 19° 26" 3'
Morelia 19° 42" 0'
Pátzcuaro 19° 31" 0'
Melaque 19° 12" 0'

Sorry folks, 20 is where we draw the line. "Youse guys" are part of the 19th Parallel crowd.

Hey Veracruz and Melaque. You are both at exactly 19° 12" 0' latitude on opposite coasts. You people could form a club of your own...the "Ends of the Line Club".

For a great fun map of Mexico check this out:


04 July 2009

Happy 4th of July!

This is one of my favorite poems from childhood and it remains so today. It was one of my mother's favorite poems also. We used to recite together on the 4th of July even if we had to do it by telephone. In my heart I am reciting it with her today, connected not by telephone, but by the Holy Spirit. Have a happy 4th, Ma!

Hats off!
Along the street there comes
A blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums,
A flash of color beneath the sky:
Hats off!
The flag is passing by!

Blue and crimson and white it shines,
Over the steel-tipped, ordered lines.
Hats off!
The colors before us fly;
But more than the flag is passing by.

Sea-fights and land-fights, grim and great,
Fought to make and to save the State;
Weary marches and sinking ships;
Cheers of victory on dying lips;

Days of plenty and years of peace,
March of a strong land's swift increase:
Equal justice, right and law,
Stately honor and reverent awe;

Sign of a nation, great and strong,
To ward her people from foreign wrong;
Pride and glory and honor, all
Live in the colors to stand or fall.

Hats off!
Along the street there comes
A blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums,
And loyal hearts are beating high:
Hats off!
The flag is passing by!

(Henry Holcomb Bennett)

03 July 2009

My First Trip to Mexico

In 1996 I made my first trip to Mexico. It was a business trip and because I had recently been in the hospital and since my doctor advised me not to fly I took an Amtrak train called the "Eagle" from Chicago to San Antonio, Texas, and then a Greyhound bus to McAllen. In McAllen, a Mexican friend of mine named Federico met me in McAllen and drove me down to Monterrey. The following is a little report that I made on my trip. I am including it here on this blog because I just came across it in an old computer file and I am afraid that I will lose it again if I don't entrust it to Google.

The trip began well enough. A friend drove me to Chicago's Union Station on Friday, October 11th and we arrived there in plenty of time. My train was scheduled to leave at 6:30pm from Gate "D", Track 21 on the south concourse. It actually got away at 6:37 which isn't bad at all. Prior to departure, however, we were all huddled in a rather close and shabby waiting room and before the train was even called there was a semi-stampede to line up at the gate. A security man came by to warn everyone about pick-pockets and to keep a close eye on their belongings. He said that not all the people in line were there to take the train and some had other things in mind. This gave me an uneasy feeling to say the least and I quickly moved my wallet to an inside pocket. I began to wonder that if they knew about this problem and it was serious then why didn't they do something more positive about it like catch all the crooks and throw them in jail.

Since I had made reservations for "Deluxe" accommodations I waited for the herd to clear the gate and made my way to car number 2130, a bi-level sleeper. I climbed the narrow twisting stairwell to compartment "B" which was to be my home for the next 30 hours or so. It was at this point that I became somewhat disenchanted. It wasn't long after I got settled in that I experienced a mental flashback to my early youth. It was the time that I had put my pet frog in a shoe box and carted his sorry butt around all day in the back of a coaster wagon. I guess I finally understand the old saying, "what goes around, comes around".

We pulled out of the station and through the south Chicago Loop over the remnants of the old "River of Steel", past the ghosts of Dearborn Station, and over the various and sundry criss-cross of rails on our way to Joliet. The car attendant made what sounded like a humorous speech over the PA system but I couldn't understand most of it on account the sound quality was so bad. I looked around my cubbyhole to take stock and see what the $914 dollar round trip fare had bought. Well, to name a few things, it bought me an empty paper cup dispenser, an empty toilet paper roll, and a full trash bin. I guess that's to be expected these days no matter where you go or how you get there. As we headed roughly south by west I just sat there through the bump and grind, bump and grind, rock and roll, clickety-clack, boom-boom, ka-chunk, thump-thump, bang-bang, etcetera and wondered to myself, "What have I done?".

It took me awhile to get over my initial disappointment. At first I felt like a marble in an empty tin can and I thought to myself that if this was "Deluxe" accommodations then the least that they could do would be to use a lower case "d" in Deluxe. I tried to imagine what the design engineer of my compartment might have been like. I imagined a cheerful guy with a flat top haircut, horn rim glasses, pipe, short sleeve white shirt with skinny black tie, plastic pocket protector full of pens and pencils, slide rule by his side, black pants, white socks, and penny loafers. I pictured him as an avid reader of Mechanics' Illustrated and I'm sure that in 1959 or whenever he designed it my compartment represented his vision of the future. Well, the future is here in that respect but I'm afraid that his vision of it didn't match up with my expectations on a timely basis. I won't go into picky details, after all this was supposed to be an adventure and as it turned out an adventure it surely was.

Well, as you can tell in the beginning I was pretty negative and I was beginning to think that maybe the Texas Eagle was about ready for Jack Kevorkian. Fortunately, things got a little better at dinner time. I made the 7:30pm seating in the dining car and was seated with three other total strangers but we all quickly became friends. That's the best thing that I can say about long distance travel by train. It is more of a "voyage" than a trip. After dinner which I would rate about a "5" or a "6" on a scale form 1 to 10 I made my way back to my compartment. I must add at this time that all of the Amtrak employees that I encountered on the train were very professional and friendly and always helpful. I sat for awhile collecting my thoughts and stared out the window at the traffic on Interstate 55 which paralleled the tracks and about 10:pm I decided to call it a day and turn in. I wrestled with the bed for awhile and then gave up and asked the attendant to help me which he promptly did.

I didn't think that I would fall asleep at all the way we were being knocked about. Up till now the only way to move around was to stagger like a drunken sailor. As I relaxed a bit sleep finally overcame the struggle until about midnight as the train began to slow down for St. Louis. I woke up in time to see the St. Louis Arch appear phantom-like out of the gloom as we slid around the back side of Busch Stadium and up to the prefabricated metal shack that St. Louis Amtrak calls home. We dropped off a few of our newly made friends and took on a few new strangers and we soon slipped out of town into the night south by southwest steady as she goes...

On Saturday morning I awoke shortly after 6:am feeling curiously refreshed and some of my discomfort and apprehension about the trip began to fade. I was actually starting to enjoy myself a little bit, especially when we hit Little Rock, Arkansas. As we approached North Little Rock it was like being in freight car and locomotive heaven. We went right past the hump yard and I saw every imaginable type of freight car and at least one of each of just about every kind of locomotive on the Union Pacific roster. It was quite a sight. The only trouble was that it passed by too quickly and we were once again plodding through the Arkansas countryside. About 10:am or so we passed through Hope, Arkansas and everyone rushed to the left hand side of the train to get a good look at you-know-who's boyhood home. It's a wonder that the poor train didn't tip over. I guess that made us all honorary friends of Bill. One can only hope that Bill is truly a friend of ours.

About 11:am as we approached Texarkana I began to notice a very sharp contrast between the rail traffic that I was used to seeing in the Midwest and the traffic that I saw in and around East Texas. Back home the traffic is heavy into grain cars, paper cars, coal cars, auto parts cars, automobile rack cars, and trailer and container-on-flat cars.. Around Texarkana there are mainly two types of cars, tank cars, and plastic pellet cars. Oh yes, there are a few lumber cars also but not as many as the other two types I mentioned. The whole area seems to revolve around the petroleum and plastics industries.

At lunch there was another pleasant interlude in the dining car and I can't tell you much about what happened right after that because I took a little snooze. I awoke again about 2:30pm as we were stopped in a little town called Mineola. The train stopped right in the middle of a street fair. All sorts of people were milling about and looking like they were having fun. I wished that I could get off the train and join them. As we approached Dallas (25 minutes early) I stood with my head out in the corridor to hear what the attendant was trying to say on the intercom. Apparently there was this lady named "Pinky" who for years and years would come out and wave every time a train would pass. She died a few years ago but her daughter, also named Pinky, adopted her mother's tradition and supposedly waved at all the trains from then on. The attendant had us in suspense as we approached Pinky's pink little house but as it flashed by we discovered that, alas, Pinky was a no-show. So much for tradition. Dallas turned out to be a non-event. We parked in front of the almost deserted station for about a half an hour and as we got underway again the dining car steward came by to take reservations for the dinner seating. "Hey Buddy", I told him, "Put me down for the six o'clock. By then I'll be hungry enough to eat the locomotive!".

We only went a short way and then had to stop again to give Fort Worth equal time. I figured that at this rate we'd never get to San Antonio. We backed into the Fort Worth station which took some jockeying around. I did get a chance to wave at some railfans. You could tell they were railfans quite easily. They were sunburned and stooped over from carrying all that camera and video equipment...that and their silly grins. I hope they got a picture of my train because I hadn't had a chance to get one yet. At one point I asked the car attendant if I could have a list of the "consist" including built dates and other particulars. You would have thought that I had asked for the secret formula for Coca-Cola or something. He said that he had been working the train for 13 years and to his recollection he had never been given that information. Somehow I believed him. The train shed at Fort Worth wasn't much to look at. Just some wooden posts with "Y" style cross arms between the tracks with pitched gable roofs made from corrugated tin. Pretty shabby looking to say the least, especially the parts that were covered with pigeon guano. This was mainly on the water and electric pipes that hung from the rafters. In a bi-level you get a birds' eye view. We pulled out of Fort Worth about 5:pm on the last and final leg of the outbound journey. It was time to start remembering the Alamo.

About 5:30 we passed through Cleburne and I thought back to the many times that I had visited the Cleburne Shops of the Santa Fe Railroad. Those days are long gone now and fading fast from memory. I still remember two important things about Cleburne though, nice town and nice people. We made a short stop at McGregor, Texas about 6:50 to let somebody off and then headed due south with a beautiful sunset on our right hand side. No sooner had we gotten under way again we slowed down and stopped at Temple, Texas for about 20 minutes. This was definitely not an express train. I imagined that a slow boat to China might be a little faster. I decided that there was nothing I could do but go with the flow and took another snooze. As I was drifting off to dreamland to the muffled sound of the diesel horn. It seemed to me like the engineer blew the horn an awful lot. I had always thought that two longs, a short, and another long meant an approaching crossing. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to his (or her) horn blowing though. It seemed almost random. I don't know...maybe it was just because the engineer was horny.

About 11:30pm an announcement was made that we were approaching San Antonio, our final destination. A hush of anticipation descended on the passengers who searched about to gather their personal belongings (and maybe some of Amtrak's too). The engineer teased us as the train slowly picked its way through the outskirts of town at a snail's pace. Finally, at the appointed time we pulled up to the station. The door opened and the herd spilled out into the night air and marched down the track to the quaint old station building like ants at a picnic. It seemed more like a "happening" than the end of a journey. I finally got a chance to see the entire train and it posed for me in all its glory with the reflected lights of the street lamps gleaming off the sleek shiny cars like beams of light from the crown jewels. It reminded me of a giant space ship and that is what it really is...a space ship that connects two universes. One universe is called Illinois and the other is called Texas.

My bus trip from San Antonio to McAllen and then the journey by car to Monterrey, Mexico and back are subjects for another story. Suffice to say that the adventures were plentiful and sufficient to fill a good sized notebook. For now I'll just stick to the Amtrak story. My return trip was supposed to depart San Antonio at 7:am on Sunday, October 27th. I arrived in San Antonio the night before and since there was a time change from Daylight Savings time scheduled for 2:am Sunday morning I called Amtrak to check on the schedule. The person that I talked to on the other end didn't seem to know anything about the time change and told me not to worry about it. You guessed it...that's about the time that I began to worry. As expected, I arrived at the station one hour prior to the scheduled departure time of 7:am and found everything in a state of disarray. After much shuffling around the train was finally ready to depart about 8:45. From this I learned that time changes and train schedules are apparently not compatible.

The trip from San Antonio to Dallas was uneventful except that the stops along the way were much shorter in duration in order to make up the time. The equipment was a little newer than the outbound trip and a little more comfortable but only slightly so. We entered a fairly severe storm en route to Dallas but that didn't seem to slow us down much and as darkness fell I made my way to the dining car to make some new friends. As I was eating my dinner it suddenly dawned on me that of all of the people in the dining car there were only three of us who were under sixty years of age and all three of us were pushing fifty. It looked like an AARP get together. So much for the bridge to the future idea.

After another night of bump and grind, bump and grind, clatter, creak, and groan I woke at dawn just in time to see the DeSoto, Missouri Union Pacific freight car repair shop slide by. I knew then that we were nearing St. Louis. After a rather long service stop in St. Louis we were off and running again trying to make up for lost time but by now we were very late. We finally pulled into the Chicago station about 2:15pm which is over an hour late. By then I could hardly wait to get off and this time I was right at the front of the herd and into the first taxi in the line. I had been gone seventeen days all together and it seemed more like a month.

In retrospect what can I say about Amtrak and the Texas Eagle. Well, it was an interesting experience but one which I am not eager to repeat anytime soon. I don't think that Amtrak can keep this thing going much longer without more appeal to mainstream America. If you are a student with limited funds or if you are retired and have plenty of time it can be a nice adventure but if you are a businessman like me or a family with small children I definitely don't recommend it. It turns out that the Amtrak employees are the best thing about Amtrak but it is easy to see that they are struggling against the tide. They really make the difference between the status quo and failure. Isn't that the way it always is though. It's people who make the difference. Let's hope that they can hold on, at least for a little while anyway.

Texas Eagle 2009 update: The Amtrak Texas Eagle is still alive and well and makes twenty-six stops between Chicago and San Antonio, on the 1,308-mile daily segment of its route.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.