Emergence of a friendship

I have mentioned Antonio and Eloisa several times in these posts, and I know I will mention them again. Over the last decade or more, they have become close friends. They look after our house when we’re not here, and when we are here they welcome us into their home and family. Sometimes we help them prepare for the evening’s taco business by chopping onions, preparing ingredients for salsa, or cleaning tripe. (Actually, I’ve never done that. Jack has.)

Lots of north Americans spend time in Mexico. Even those who live here full time are rarely integrated into a Mexican family as we have been. Antonio and Eloisa are our go-to people for advice about where to find a plumber, how to coax the bougainveallas to bloom, how much to pay a cleaning lady, how to say “no” without causing offense. This year, they oversaw the house construction until we got here. And earlier this fall, they made a trip to Ontario—their first time out of Mexico. After two weeks of introducing them to our family and friends, showing them fall colours, Lake Superior, Toronto, Niagara Falls (of course!), we felt closer to them than ever.

How did we become friends with this wonderful couple, their daughters Christina and Monica, and their son Issac? It wasn’t a propitious beginning. A few years ago, as an assignment for a writing class, I wrote the following essay about how this friendship began.

tacoI tossed off the sheet and swung my legs over the edge of the bed, then stood up and took several steps to the wood-framed French doors that opened onto a shallow, iron-railed balcony. The scene outside hadn’t changed in the past six hours. From this vantage point, I saw the stucco walls and barred upper windows of the Banomex building at eye level. Looking down, the taco stand was still crowded with people – mostly men at this late hour – leaning against the metal frame, talking in voices that didn’t quite drown out the music coming from a small black-and-white television mounted just above the tray holding salsa, onions, cilantro, and beans. It was 2:00 am, just off Plaza Los Angeles, in the central Mexican city of Guanajuato.

Just three days before we had been delighted to find this house to rent for the winter – centrally located on a quiet side street rising so steeply up the mountainside that, like many of the little callajones in this city, it served foot traffic only.

At 8:00 on our first evening, the sounds of clanging metal interrupted the steady murmur of pedestrians walking past the living room window. I peered out and was surprised and amused to see a couple and their teenaged children putting together the pieces of a portable structure just a few metres from our front door. How picturesque! How Mexican! By 8:30, the smell of frying meat filled the house. By 10:00 the street sounded like a party in progress. By 11:30, I wondered how late they would stay open. By 2:30, I knew.

By the third night, I was no longer either surprised or amused. Exhausted and angry, I stared out the window at the scene below. As the last stragglers moved away and the owners began to dismantle the stand, I crawled back to bed for what was left of the night, imagining random acts of violence against the taco-people and wondering how hard it would be to find another house to rent.

Days passed. “There they are again,” I said, night after night, as growing exhaustion fuelled my anger.

One evening, after a couple of weeks of sleepless nights, we left the house during a lull in the evening’s taco business. “Buenos noches,” said the man, and for the first time I looked squarely at him. An open, intelligent gaze met mine, and he smiled broadly under a thick mustache. His wife looked up from her side of the stand and smiled too. Where were we from? How long were we staying? What were we doing here? We answered in halting Spanish. Then,“Hasta luego,” as they turned their attention to a small cluster of customers waiting for their evening meal.

Gradually, they became Antonio and Eloisa. We exchanged greetings and I chatted with their three children, who tolerated my attempts to speak Spanish with giggles and corrections. We began buying the occasional taco and acknowledged that the crowds around the stand at night knew what they were doing.

Still, I continued to dread the evening set-up, and when bedtime came, I wished them gone. I struggled with ear plugs (they hurt my ears); I piled pillows over my head (and became claustrophobic); I contemplated narcotics; and I rarely slept before 2 am.

In mid February, we left for a week at the beach. When the familiar clanging of metal began in the evening of the day of our return, I tensed as usual against the inevitable, feeling the anger begin to rise. An hour later we opened the door, and Antonio gestured to us to cross the narrow street. He explained in careful, patient Spanish, that they had noticed we were gone and assumed we had left suddenly since we hadn’t said goodbye. He hoped nothing was wrong. He wanted us to know that he had kept a careful eye on the house, and that all had been well. We thanked him, told him about our trip to the beach, apologized for not letting him know, and continued with our evening walk. I felt an odd combination of gratitude and discomfort.

Later that night, sleepless as usual, I went to the bedroom window to stare down at the taco stand. People were coming and going, leaning against the stand chatting, calling out to one another. Eloisa glanced up and saw me looking down. She smiled and waved. I waved back. When I crawled back to bed, I listened to the noise from the street below. The local team’s soccer players scored a goal and the crowds ­on TV roared in approval. I heard voices rising and falling, placing orders, conversing, occasionally laughing. But the familiar knot of anger was loosening. I simply felt tired. I rolled over, pulled the sheet over my shoulders, and slept through the din.

Over the next six years, we rented that house for two more winters, at which point we decided to buy a house of our own. We’re now a ten-minute walk from the taco stand—which is still flourishing.

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