The late Richard Neville was the founder of Oz, a counter-cultural magazine in 1960s London, which became embroiled in an obscenity trial, he also later brought up a daughter, Australian, Lucy Neville, whose debut book, Oh Mexico! (2011) is a sharply-written, honest and entertaining account of an eventful time in her twenties spent living, studying and working as an English teacher in 21st century Mexico City.
Armed with a degree in Spanish and Latin Studies combined with a powerful sense of the exotic about her favourite region, she arrived in one of the toughest places on the continent with the intention of carving out a viable existence amid the political and urban turbulence of modern Mexico while improving her Spanish skills.
At the airport she is warned by a fellow passenger to avoid taking a taxi yet rejects the scaremongering and quickly finds Jesus – the name of the taxi driver who takes her to the correct hotel and offers unconditional extended family help. The author contrasts this with a previous experience in Madrid where an unfriendly taxi driver dumped her in the red light district to find cheap accommodation and criticised her rudimentary Spanish.
However, this is no holiday for Lucy. She supports herself by a teaching job she finds at Fifth Avenue English School. Her female students – the First Wives Breakfast Club – offer plenty of insights into Mexican society, especially local men, the threat of crime, and the brutal economic realities for most. She spells out her motivation for the students: “In Australia it’s perfectly normal for people to live in other countries, for the experience and challenges.” This, however, serves only to highlight the cultural and economic divide she represents, though with a growing sense of awareness she delivers her findings like a wise anthropologist at a conference: “When Mexicans go live in other countries it’s because of the necessity of finding a job.”
Along the way, she meets other foreign adventurers with eclectic motives, but is struck by how little they have in common and prefers to live with a (distractingly handsome) Mexican in a shared flat in a lively neighbourhood close to where American writer, William Burroughs once found infamy in a shooting incident with his wife, where she can at least practise her evolving Spanish and enjoy good company in an unfamiliar and often chaotic city.
The language learning doesn’t always go well but she stays sufficiently alert to grab opportunities when they come her way. Even a major political rally which attracted her curiosity turned into an informal lesson in advanced Spanish vocabulary: “through the haze of verbs, articles and prepositions, some solid nouns began to stand out: ‘solidarity’, ‘economic justice’, ‘neo-liberal imperialism’."
On another occasion when buying street food (tortas) she confuses ‘abogado’ and ‘aguacate’. This results in a request for extra lawyers - instead of layers - on her sandwich. The seller sees the funny side but it causes language learner anguish that would be familiar to many, and triggers doubts about the value of formal study back in Australia memorising, for instance, verb endings, while: “I still had serious problems when it came to buying a sandwich.” Her housemate, Octavia, adds a linguistic twist by sharing a Mexican (male) interpretation of innocent everyday terms and the sexual connotations of accepting or rejecting "tortas with sausage and chips…" when ordering street food.
Increasingly, the reader is left in no doubt that Lucy has fully immersed herself in Mexican society, having to deal with early morning subway rides to work and a range of weird subterranean characters, as well as a lousy local boss who fails to pay staff on time. To supplement her income and pay the rent she takes private students and experiences the ‘sink or swim’, ‘live for the moment’ mentality, which seem to prevail in her adopted country. Most evident, arguably, in the spectacular annual Day of the Dead festival that she fully enjoys, and concludes that attitudes to death are jokey and playful in Mexico in contrast to many other cultures.
Finally, a brief, and unlikely, foray into the world of Mexican acting and advertising alleviates financial worries and adds another string to the author’s bow. Her romantic entanglement eventually sorts itself out and she returns to Australia with boyfriend Ricardo by her side, a severe case of reverse culture shock, and a new future to contemplate.
Any feelings of euphoria, though, are quickly tempered by the realisation that, while she may be part of a sophisticated, international couple, the wider mutual ignorance between their two countries, even in cosmopolitan Sydney, is all too apparent. She finishes a terrific debut read, and a compelling introduction to a place I have never visited, with insights that could only come from a returning exile adjusting to a new reality at home: “Just as for most Mexicans, Australia could be Austria, Mexico is anything involving beans and blankets with rainbow-stripes-coloured. We are drinking Sangria, which most Mexicans have never even heard of.”
You may not be booking for the first flight out to Mexico City after reaching the end of Oh Mexico! but you will very likely be drawn to the more adventurous among us who have spent time in the country, beyond the manufactured tourist spots, and now have a few tales to tell. Adios. (R.I.P. Richard Neville, 1942 – 2016).
About the reviewer
Lloyd Wright is an under-employed EFL teacher who values engagement with students and others from across the globe – Chile to China – and especially their quirky views about British life. He writes occasional articles for diverse outlets and was briefly on the Disney payroll while writing about the unfolding drama of the 2002 World Cup.