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Only In Oaxaca: A Summer Abroad:

Part III I have found that, as I try to adjust to life back here in California, if I’m not talking about Oaxaca, I’m thinking about it. When I’m not telling a friend – for the fifth time – about salsa dancing until three in the morning, I’m sitting on my couch, wondering, “Why is my living room inside? Why are my walls white? Where are the random explosions of fireworks at all hours of the day and night? Why do I hear the grating sounds of the English language floating in the window?” Writing these articles has been, much like chatting online in Spanish – where they type “jajajaja” to express amusement – and salsa dancing alone in my room, another wonderful way to indulge myself, and transport myself mentally back to the cobblestone streets of Oaxaca. My favorite expression of Mexican culture is its  celebrations. A guest list was a totally foreign concept and even I, the newly arrived gringa, was welcome to everything. Weddings, birthday parties, going-away dinners…at every celebration I attended I was met with open arms and a full plate of food. One morning, I stumbled out of my room, already late for class and fatigued from the dancing of the previous night. I had barely set foot in the courtyard when the entire extended family burst through the front gate bearing a grocery store cake and singing the Spanish birthday song at the top of their lungs. “Estas son las mañanitas…” It was Tomás’ birthday, the youngest cousin of the family who was staying, with his older sister Alma, in Teresa and Augustín’s house for most of the summer. I tried to walk out the door and head for the Institute, but a chorus of voices insisted I join them. As I devoured cake, pancakes and sweetbread dipped in Oaxacan spiced hot chocolate, I quickly forgot about the grammar lessons awaiting me. As the family laughed, told stories, and wiped crumbs off their faces with paper napkins, I thought about all the elaborate birthday parties my friends and I have put on for ourselves. For all the painstakingly designed invitations, planned activities, and novel locations, were any of them really as warm and happy as the impromptu birthday breakfast going on around me? After filling myself to the brim and receiving a million kisses on my cheeks I finally forced myself to leave the house and head for school. I’ll never know what verb tenses I missed learning that day, but I wouldn’t have traded the birthday breakfast for anything.  Every party I attended had the same carefree  intimacy, though some of the dinners Teresa gave took hours of preparation. I came back from class at the Institute to find Teresa and Eleni hard at work in the kitchen, preparing for Eleni’s last family dinner before she set off for the United States. I asked how I could help, and Teresa laughed. “By eating it later!” After a few minutes of coaxing, however, they finally let me stir the giant pot of thick mole negro as they added ingredient after ingredient. I never saw them use either a recipe or any measuring device. I stirred in awe of their expertise (I can’t even make chocolate chip cookies without a recipe). A smoky, spicy, sweet scent filled the kitchen as the mole turned from tan to chocolate-brown to a rich, earthy black. A staple of any party, mole, in all its different flavors, colors, and textures, is Oaxaca’s most famous culinary contribution. While greedily licking the last spicy-sweet bits off my fingers at Eleni’s party, I though about how the mole, with its habit of getting all over hands, tablecloths and shirts, is similarly all over the heart of Oaxaca, and for me, the scent and taste will always bring to mind the open, loving party atmosphere of my homestay.  Because Instituto enrollment was on a week-by-week basis and the children of my host family had a bad habit of setting off on their own adventures, I found myself constantly bidding someone goodbye. I had to say goodbye to Eleni only a few days after arriving. I had to say goodbye to Ben and Jordan, two wild boys from Miami who showed me where to get hamburgers at four in the morning and brought the male-female ratio of the salsa class up to a whopping 2:5. I had to say goodbye to Eloi, to whom I could have easily talked for days on end. But the most difficult goodbye of all was with my host parents, Teresa and Augustín, a few hours into my last day in Oaxaca. “You must come back to stay with us very soon,” Augustín told me in Spanish.  “Yes, little daughter,” chimed in Teresa. “We’re going to miss you so much.” Teresa and Augustín, the two people who had been my parents for an entire month, had to bid me goodbye early in the day, even though my flight wasn’t until 4:30 p.m., because they had to attend a cousin’s birthday party in a neighboring village. They waved to me from the gate, sad smiles on their faces, as I sat in one of the rocking chairs on the porch. “Te querremos, Alicia!” they called. “We love you.” I burst into tears, not the tears of my first week when I naively bit into a chili offered to me by my mischievous host-brother Saulo, but the tears of knowing that I had to leave this household that had given me so much. I looked at the patio, where I had practiced salsa moves with any male I could grab, at the wrought-iron spiral staircase leading to the roof, where we all rushed when a rainbow appeared during an afternoon storm, at the couch, where I had watched hilarious telenovelas with the family. Where would I find a house like this, a family like this, again? Only in Oaxaca.When I first entered the house, barely able to babble in the present tense, the family knew nothing but my name and age. Four short weeks later, they kissed me and called me “daughter.” This, for me, is Mexico.

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