Food and drink

Oaxaca diary: Our month with Mexican grandparents

11 September, 2015

Day one

We’ve just moved into our new apartment in Oaxaca! It’s nothing fancy, but we have a comfortable bed, a lounge (with a sofa, no less!) and all the amenities we need… including a kitchen so small it might be considered a cupboard.

Our landlords, Yolanda and Pablo, are lovely. They’re retirees who are slowly converting some of the excess space in their four-storey home into apartments, and we’re the first to move in.

Yolanda is fussing around us, showing us the little details she’s proud of – like the dried flowers and detachable shower head. She merrily chats away at us in rapid Spanish, most of which I fail to understand.

By contrast, Pablo is laid back and laconic. He has that cheeky sense of humour that dads everywhere appreciate; he loudly feigns injury when I go to cut a cable tie he’s holding out for me. I like him.

Chairs and texture

Day two

We have a set of double doors that open out onto Yolanda and Pablo’s entrance hallway, and Yolanda seems keen that we should keep them open when we’re working at home. I’d assumed they’d prefer that we keep to ourselves, but I keep forgetting that we’re in Mexico!

We hear someone on the street greet Yolanda as ’abuela’ (grandmother) and that becomes our shorthand name for them from now on – the abuelitos.

Day five

This neighbourhood is beautiful! It’s full of cobbled alleyways and colourful flowers, and there’s an organic market that pops up in the nearby church courtyard at the weekend. I like the street art too, it provides a nice contrast to the genteelness of the area.

street art, xochimilco

From our walks around Oaxaca, Xochimilco (zoch-y-milcoh) certainly seems to be one of the prettiest neighbourhoods.

Xochimilco arches

Day eight

We’re struggling with the wi-fi so Pablo takes us to the roof where he says the internet is better.

There’s a great view from the roof terrace. It’s surrounded by thin black webbing, but we can still see the mountains stretching out around us. As we ooh and ahh about the view, Pablo proudly shows us his BBQ set up and potted veggies.

View from the terrace

It’s a great place to work for a while, but without power we eventually have to make our way back downstairs.

Yolanda is waiting for us in the kitchen, and offers us a taste of something reddish-brown that she’s holding in a plastic bag. “Chapulines,” she says. Fried crickets.

They’re shredded into what looks like a bag of legs. We grab a pinch, and find that they’re crunchy and surprisingly citrusy – much nicer than the chapulines we’ve had elsewhere. She looks happy that we like it and offers us some more, but our Britishness kicks in and we politely decline – we don’t want to eat all their food! She looks disappointed. Hmm, that might have been a faux pas.

Day nine

It seems all is forgiven – she bustles in with two glasses of freshly made lemonade and mint. Delicious! We drink up, wash the glasses and thank her profusely.

I realise how little conversational Spanish we know, and wish we could have a proper chat.

Day 12

We start to feel a little exposed having the doors open all the time. It’s lovely to have the abuelitos saying ‘Hi’ whenever they come in or go out, but it makes it difficult to relax.

We find ourselves going out to work in cafes more often.

Day 14

More treats! This time tostadas. A brittle tostada topped with bean paste, crumbly cheese, lettuce and spicy guacamole. Yum! And she won’t even let me wash up this time.

Yolanda's tostada

We ponder how to return the favour – what British treats can we make for them when we don’t even have an oven?

A fry up? Eton Mess? Deconstructed cottage pie?

And then it hits us; There’s a hipster bakery nearby that sells English muffins and scones. We decide we’ll buy them some as a leaving gift.

Day 16

It’s the Guelaguetza festival, and a parade comes close to our apartment. The procession is loud, brassy and colourful, and brings the main highway to a halt with people lining the street to cheer and take photos.

Amazingly, people are walking around offering shots of Mezcal! I’ve had 2 by the time I make the short walk back up to the apartment. The abuelitos are standing outside, all dolled up and ready to go out, and they introduce us to their son and his family. Their son offers me his Mezcal shot.

I don’t want to offend anyone this time, so I take it and thank him. And then his wife offers me hers – I look at Lewis for help, but he’s working today and is strictly off the booze. Shot 4 it is then.

Pablo hands me a murky brown liquid he says is tamarind flavoured, so that’s number 5. AND THEN, the son actually flags down one of the guys handing out Mezcal for number 6 (a coconut creme Mezcal) – at which point I find myself distinctly merry at 4pm on a Sunday.


Day 17

The abuelitos seem amused by yesterday – they greet me with a sing-song “Jennnnnyyyyyyyy” and snigger. Maybe my drunken Spanish conversation wasn’t as scintillating as I thought!

Day 21

We’re getting spoilt again. Today’s treat is Yolanda’s homemade pozole – hominy, white cabbage, radish, a scrape of avocado and a dollop of spice, all brought together in a tasty chicken broth.

Yolandi's pozole

We can’t get over how fresh it tastes. It’s the best soup in Oaxaca!

We tell Yolanda it’s delicious and she agrees. Ha!

Day 22

There’s a sign on the bakery door saying that they’re about to close for a few weeks, so we’ll have to bring forward our gift-giving. Tomorrow it is.

Day 23

We come back with the goodies to find Yolanda and Pablo are out, so I leave them on their kitchen table with a note and head out for dinner.

Almost as soon as we get home again, Yolanda comes in to say thank you for the gift – and brings through FOUR huge tostadas as a counter-gift. This is escalation!

I need to come up with something else to say ‘thank you’ now. Argh!

Yolanda's tostada

Day 25

Just before we leave for work we tell Yolanda about a problem with the microwave, and she stays for the longest chat we’ve had so far.

I can just about understand the gist of what she’s saying; She says that she used to be a secretary and says she doesn’t like all the new technology now – she prefers typewriters.

She asks us if we like Mexico and we say we do. She tells us we should ignore all the bad things on the news – Mexico is about good food, beautiful places and friendly people.

She says she loves to cook and tells us that she’s making enchiladas for lunch. We make approving noises and tell her that her cooking is delicious. She seems happy with the compliment, so we leave on a high note and say ’hasta luego’ before heading off for work.

Day 26

Uh-oh. We must have misunderstood what she was saying – I think she was actually offering us the enchiladas! And we just went out!

Not only that, but we stayed out all day, and then got up early to go out for breakfast this morning. When we get home, she looks very annoyed. She’d saved them for us and now they’ve gone to waste. We feel awful!

Time to make amends. We sweep into action, heading straight to the market to buy her what is possibly the biggest bunch of flowers ever made, and I quickly learn how to say: “Thank you for everything”.

We shuffle into her kitchen and Lewis hands over the flowers while I say my bit, thinking that we’ll ‘mea culpa’ and that’ll be the end of it. But she holds her hand up to her mouth and looks shocked.

She’s welling up. That’s not supposed to happen!

She motions to feel the skin on her arms – she’s got goosebumps.

She looks overwhelmed and chokes out that we’re like family to her. More tears!

We give her a hug and a warm thank you… and promptly run away.

How do people cope with being so emotional all the time?!

Day 30

It’s time to move on. We’ve changed our plans at the last minute and decided to stay in Oaxaca for one more month, but we’re moving to a different apartment downtown. They still think we’re travelling to Morelia, and I’m too worried about upsetting them to try to explain otherwise.

We’ve barely seen the abuelitos since enchilada-gate, but when we go to say goodbye they’re just as kind and welcoming as the day we moved in.

They pose awkwardly for our farewell photos, and even though our time together has been somewhat stressful at times, I realise that I’ve grown really fond of our adoptive Mexican grandparents.

As they wave us off from their doorstep, I turn back to say ‘Adios!’ and Yolanda suddenly looks annoyed again: “No adios!” she says. “Hasta luego!”

Until next time!

Me and the abuelitos


  • Reply Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) 18 September, 2015 at 14:31

    Love this! I adored your neighborhood and the abuelitos sounded so sweet (I would never turn my nose up at homecooked meals!), but your place was teeny and I could see how constantly feeling like you had to be prepared to socialize would get tiring ESPECIALLY with the language barrier.

    • Reply Jenny Smith 18 September, 2015 at 23:50

      Yeah, it was such a great experience but a little bit too intense to be a longterm thing – for us, anyway. I definitely miss the cooking though, and I really regret not being able to try those enchiladas!

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