She Drives Me Crazy

car and burro

The burro, perhaps a more suitable method of conveyance than a car on the roads of San Miguel.

If you plan to drive in Mexico, you should know that while they drive on the same side of the road as we do in the U.S., and the laws are basically the same, owning and operating a car in this country has its challenges. They don’t do things the way we do, and it seems that you’re just supposed to know that, as I have yet to come across any driving manuals in print in either English or Spanish. For better or worse, a driver’s license issued by an American state grants you the privilege of driving on Mexican roads.

Highway driving can be especially nerve-wracking here. There are many divided highways that you might compare to our interstate system, and which are in great shape and easy to drive on. These roads typically require the payment of tolls, but after a few hours of driving behind chicken trucks, tractors, and cars clearly suffering from some automotive malady you welcome the chance to pay someone to drive on a better road.

But sometimes the only option is a two-lane highway, and there are some things you’d better know before you set out. For starters, know that the shoulder is not a place for you to pull over to check your GPS or text your friend that you’re on your way. Mexican drivers boldly pass other cars on the highway, and it seems that the double lines down the middle of the road are mere suggestions. To that end, it’s expected that if you’re approaching a blind curve, or if a car is coming towards you in your lane in an attempt to overtake another car, you will pull your car onto the shoulder to avoid a head-on collision. It’s perfectly fine, and again even expected, that you’ll continue on the shoulder at a high rate of speed. Knowing this, it might become apparent to you why road cycling is not a very popular sport in this country.

construction in the street

Just another construction project that extends well into the road.

You also don’t stop in the lane with your blinker on waiting to turn left across traffic when it’s clear, either. This would, after all, force those behind you to wait until you turned off the highway, and Mexican highway drivers don’t like to wait. So what do you do if you want to turn left? You get over onto the right shoulder and sit, with your left blinker on, until both lanes are clear and you can cross the road. I’ve heard it compared to the “jug-handle”, for you New Jersey drivers out there, without the helpful signage and actual road.

And while we’re on the subject of blinkers, know this: in many parts of Mexico, if you put your left blinker on while driving down the highway, it’s a message to the driver behind you that it’s safe to pass. You can imagine how THAT could get totally awkward if you thought you were signaling your intent to turn left and the guy behind you thought you were politely telling him to go around you, ON THE LEFT. Maybe disabling your blinkers in Mexico is an idea to consider.

this is a two way street

Two lanes, plus parked cars. Sometimes you have to smear a little lube on your car to get it past another one.

San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the central historic section is more than 500 years old. The streets are paved with stones, and are oftentimes not much wider than the average compact car. At some point someone decided that signs would clutter the look of the place, so there are none. When approaching an intersection, it’s expected that drivers will treat it as a four-way stop. While on the surface it might seem that this could be chaos-inducing, it works very well, and I have seen very few accidents since moving here.

Driving a car in Mexico is not only hard on the driver, it’s hard on the car. There are man-eating potholes and random rocks sticking out almost anywhere you drive. Roadways drop away without warning, one-way streets aren’t marked and streets are built with pitches that would never be considered in the U.S. I know, because I live on one. Our car, by no means pristine when we arrived but without noticeable body damage, is now like Courtney Love: she’s got a few marks on her.

In San Miguel there is a level of courtesy afforded by most drivers that I have not seen elsewhere. One time in Cairo I was standing on the concrete island in the middle of a divided roadway waiting to cross the other half of the road. Somehow I dropped my purse, and I bent over to pick it up. As I stood up again I felt the whoosh of a taxi cab as it sped by me at an alarming rate of speed, with horn blaring. If I had still been bent over, my head extending into the roadway, there is no doubt I would have been decapitated, and not in a clean way like Marie Antoinette got. In Egypt, a horn is more of a here-I-come-and-I-WILL-run-over-you warning device.

calle bonita

Beautiful, if narrow.

Here there is less of an urgency about getting somewhere it seems, which I realize may not always be a good thing. But when you live in a 500 year-old city, you have to accept that for the garbage truck to pick up your garbage, it has to lumber its way down your narrow, one-lane street. And inevitably a line of cars forms behind it, and no one lays on their horn or extends their fist out the window and shouts obscenities. You’ll get there when you get there.

But woe betide you if your car has a mechanical failure in Mexico. Just before the New Year, the clutch went out on our car. While not a simple repair in the U.S., getting our car fixed in Mexico took on new dimensions of difficulty when we were told that our model of car is typically sold in this country with a six-speed transmission, not the five-speed that we have. Shipping an entire clutch assembly from the U.S. was prohibitively expensive, we were told, but having someone pick it up in Texas and drive it down would not be. So we called Audi of Dallas (not exactly the low price leader, but dependable) and had the part driven to San Miguel by a guy named Carlos, who apparently makes a living doing things like that. Unfortunately this meant that our car was out of commission for several weeks while all this got sorted out.

trench and garage

Our garage tucked behind a wall of dirt and a trench.

And now, ironically, we are well into the second week of a public works improvement project on our street that involves removing the water main that runs down the center of our street (one of the oldest in town, I’m told) and replacing it with new pipe. Seems like a good idea, as a couple of months back we woke up on a Saturday morning to a raging flood in the street courtesy of a broken pipe. But digging up a cobblestone street and putting it back together is kind of a big deal, and there is currently a two foot-wide trench down the middle, which is keeping our car snug in its garage. Since this started last Monday I’m averaging walking a little over nine and a half miles a day. Even with the 10% margin of error claimed by FitBit, that’s some considerable ground. I asked the stone mason working one street this morning how many more days he thought this would take, and he gave me the classic Mexican “maybe tomorrow” response, which was accompanied by a look that let me know plainly that he thought there was no way in hell they’d be done tomorrow. From the looks of things, I doubt it, but maybe walking is easier than driving after all.

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At Least I’m Enjoying the Ride

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St Michael, the archangel, patron saint of San Miguel. Or at least his likeness. Apparently he stepped on the devil and sent him back to hell, right here in San Miguel.

Perhaps I flatter myself that you think of me, but you may have noticed that my postings to this nugget of literary goodness have dwindled as of late. Gone are the weeks when I was able to get at least two blog posts up, and several witty Tweets and Facebook postings to boot. I just covered one eye and peeked at my WordPress dashboard, and egads, my last post was on September 27th.

But whether it shows or not, I put a lot of thought into these posts. In fact, at times I would compare producing them to giving birth. After a while I just want them out, even if potentially paralytic drugs or surgery are required, but I’m also a lot little on the type-A side, and I can’t just spew words and hit “publish”. So I walk around town and I contemplate, and I write a little, and then I come back to what I’ve written and hope to find some meaning there, unfortunately sometimes not for days.

A New York Times article recently made the social media rounds. It told the story of a man who made a video during an emergency on a JetBlue flight in which one of the engines blew and the cabin filled with smoke. He obediently strapped on his oxygen mask and promptly pulled out his iPhone and recorded the entire event for YouTube. I just checked YouTube, and as I write this over a million people have watched this guy’s video.

By the way, I’ve heard more than enough about the airline at this point to convince me to avoid JetBlue at all costs. But I digress.

The ultimate point of the New York Times article was to ponder the question of whether we are all spending our time recording history instead of living it. While more than many people I appreciate the importance of documenting our lives, I agree that we might consider some restraint as we load the cloud with footage of our kid struggling through “Fur Elise” at a piano recital or another moment of a cat doing anything.

I once watched a fellow tourist videotape (yes, this was in the days of actual video recorders with actual, tiny tape cartridges in them) an entire Balinese dance. It was well over 2 hours of subtle head-bobs, foot stomping, and eye movements (Balinese dance is not for adrenaline junkies, I need to point out). Three thoughts kept me from concentrating on the show: 1.) Who is going to have to watch this once this guy gets home? 2.) God, the light from his screen is annoying!, and 3.) Does he get AT ALL the irony of watching what’s happening real-time in front of him on a 2″x3″ screen?

So I’ve been living my life, clearly as opposed to recording it, and it’s gotten quite full, actually. In the years following his retirement, my father-in-law was fond of saying that he did not know how he ever had time for a job, because his retirement activities kept him so busy. At the time we laughed uproariously over the idea that one could actually be busier in retirement than in full-time employment. I am now, however, perhaps seeing his side of things.

I’m sure you’re all getting misty-eyed over the thought of how busy I am while I spend a year not working. It’s doubtful that there are any adults who haven’t fantasized about how they’d like to pull a Johnny Paycheck and tell the boss where to put it. But how would you spend your time, if you weren’t working? Would you volunteer? Would you learn to knit? Feed the homeless? Drink more? Drink less? Write a book? Exercise until your abs resurface?

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The Alborada, one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. It started at 4 AM and consisted of 2 things: people having fireworks flung at them from the front of the cathedral, and people in motorcycle helmets repeatedly firing rockets into the air. For one. solid. hour. Again, in honor of Michael, the Fun Archangel!

All have their merits, although some are more worthwhile than others. Ultimately you have to decide what is most important to you and prioritize. Because the honest truth is that once you announce to the world that you have free time it won’t be, for long. There are so many things to do here in San Miguel – take art classes, learn Spanish, volunteer, hike, bike, eat, drink, study culture and history, or just sit in Parque Benito Juarez and enjoy the brilliant fall weather.

As a veterinarian I have some unique gifts to share, and it’s never hard to find someone who needs them, and there’s certainly plenty of need in Mexico. I volunteer every Thursday at the local animal shelter. It’s been extremely heart-wrenching but also rewarding. I’ve seen more parvo virus in 2 months than I saw in seven years of practice in Colorado. I have NEVER seen distemper in my life, but I’ve seen several cases here already. Both are preventable with appropriate vaccination. But whether people don’t know or don’t care about vaccinating their animals, many of them don’t in Mexico, and seeing a puppy die a completely avoidable death is terrible, and I’ve seen it much too often. But I’ve also spayed and neutered lots of animals, and treated lots of sick ones.

I got a free pass to go to a big veterinary meeting being held about an hour and a half away in Leon, and Roxanda, the vet from the shelter, and I went together. It was very cool being back with colleagues, walking through the exhibition hall, and hearing a few lectures. In the weirdest case of small-world syndrome I’ve ever seen, one of my own professors from CSU, Howie Seim, was lecturing on surgery, and (bonus!) in English!

I’ve also been able to get a regular workout routine established, which is wonderful. Three days a week Wiley and I work out at a gym just down the street from Wiley IV’s school. We kiss him goodbye, then workout, finishing up just before nine in the morning. Add on the walking I do, usually at least seven or eight miles daily if you believe my FitBit, and I’m probably in the best shape of my life.

circus

Me, doing something I think that’s called a pike, on an iron ring. This was right after I started circus class. I can do many more potentially dangerous things now.

About six weeks ago I began to hear about a woman here in town who teaches circus tricks to adults and kids. Two of my friends harassed me into going with them one morning. It was scary and hard and painful, and I was hooked. The instructor, Ceci Corona, was a ballerina for years, and now she runs a local circus troupe called Gravityworks, and teaches circus to kids and middle-aged moms with a death wish, like me. After the first few classes I felt as though I had been run over, and most decidedly did not look like Cirque du Soleil material on the equipment. But I’m starting to get the hang of things, and it’s amazing how you develop strength in places that even working out with weights doesn’t touch. I doubt that I’ll run away and join the circus anytime soon, but I’m loving learning some cool moves and becoming more flexible.

And there’s lots of other stuff keeping me busy, like twice weekly Spanish tutoring, various school obligations and meetings (I somehow accepted an office in the PTA at Wiley’s school), and shuttling Wiley IV to guitar lessons or art class and to and from school. I also got inducted into a group of women writers who meet monthly to drink wine, eat dinner, and share our writings. Most of us would like to write a book and the group members help each other to coalesce ideas into themes and outlines. Oh yeah, and I decided I need to learn how to knit. In my free time.

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Dancers in the Feast of St. Michael (the Archangel, which is what I believe he prefers to be called) parade. It went on for over two hours and the variety of costumes and dancers was like nothing I’d ever seen.

Add to all of this my on-going obligation to CSU’s vet school admissions committee, for whom I’ll soon be reviewing over 150 applications, and the fact that I agreed to write copy for each of Wiley’s three company newsletters, and maybe you’ll start to see why I’ve been doing more living life and less writing about it. But I’m taking it all in, and keeping my eyes open, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride.

Morning Has Broken

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Action shot, on the road to school

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, August 31, 2014 – Life is starting to take on something that resembles a routine.  Just like for families all over the world, for us here it coincides with the start of the school year.  While everyone loves summer and the freedom it brings, it’s undeniable that the return to school restores order and routine to life for those of us with school-age children.

Our mornings here begin while it’s still dark.  Mexico observes daylight savings time, and it ends in late October, but right now it’s full-on dark when the alarm goes off at 6 A.M.  I used to be the first one up, but now Wiley gets up first and does some work before breakfast.  I’m up by 6:30 and I try to rouse the little man starting at around 6:40 or so, with varying degrees of success.  Sometimes getting him up and going requires more than one trip to his room.

After the dogs go out for a quick walk, we all sit down to breakfast together.  On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we all walk to school together, since those are gym days for Wiley III and me.  The walk takes fifteen to twenty minutes, depending on how hard I’m driving the pace.  The school doors open at 8:00 and stay open until 8:15.

On the way to school we share in the mundane tasks of daily life with those around us.  We become just another family walking to school.  On the way we see lots of kids, freshly scrubbed and combed, sporting backpacks and lunchboxes adorned with Despicable Me’s minions and mindcraft icons.  My understanding is that all Mexican schools in San Miguel require uniforms, so everyone, including Wiley, is dressed in the uniform of their particular school.  One school close to us requires that the boys wear white wool pants – I can only imagine what kind of laundry nightmares those produce.  It’s a new experience for us, and while donning a white polo shirt and khakis every day takes away any ambivalence about what to wear to school, I kind of miss seeing Wiley in his wacky t-shirts and well-worn jeans he typically favors.  So far he seems resigned to the idea of wearing a uniform, although he typically rejects the navy blue cardigan.  Perhaps it’s a tad too preppy for him.

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Garbage truck and workers in the back, with the garbage. Co-mingled recycling takes on a whole new meaning.

Around here the garbage gets picked up from the curb.  The ancient narrow cobblestone streets make getting the truck directly to everyone’s door impossible, so we carry our bags of trash up the hill to the road behind us twice weekly.  The garbageman signals his arrival by clanging on a long piece of metal with another piece of metal, a la dinner bell-style.  The men working this job are abnormally cheerful, given the time of day and the nature of their job.  They are typically seen in the back of the truck, sorting the trash into its various categories, by hand and with no gloves.  Wiley IV claims he saw one of them finish off a half-consumed carton of chocolate milk the other day, but I choose to believe that this had been his carton all along.

A common morning pursuit in San Miguel seems to be the daily sweeping of the street.  This is often accomplished with a rough broom made of twigs, but we also see regular brooms being used.  The street is being cleared of small debris, such as fine gravel and fallen blossoms.  The streets are typically very clean because of this.  An older man who is the caretaker at one of the houses on our road greets us every morning as he sweeps with, “Hola!  Buenos Dias, como esta?”.  On our way home we often find him exiting our neighborhood tiena, or small store, with his morning refreshment of two bottles of Victoria beer.

The tienas are an interesting phenomena.  There are three or four in our block alone, some almost right next to each other.  Some of them, like the one directly behind us, sell only a few items; others have packed a sizable inventory of cleaning supplies, canned and fresh food items, and drinks into a space the size of the average American walk-in closet.  Most mornings we are cheerfully greeted by the couple that runs our go-to tienda.  Sometimes we’ll stop and buy six or seven eggs to round-out breakfast, which the shop keeper puts in a plastic bag with no carton for us to carry home.

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Typical sidewalk stand selling breakfast

Along with way we see lots of Mexicans making their morning meal at little taco stands.  Many are large and quite elaborate, offering several kinds of tacos and/or tamales, which are a staple of both breakfast and lunch here.  Often they sell fresh-squeezed juice as well.  Most patrons eat their meal while standing and then return the plastic plate to the seller.

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Single file on the shady pathways of Parque Benito Juarez.

On our way to school we pass through Parque Benito Juarez, which is only four or five blocks from our house.  It’s the only substantial green space around, and it is heavily and lovingly used.  In the mornings the paths are crowded with joggers and walkers, there’s usually a couple of games going on at the basketball courts, people are walking dogs, doing yoga and tai chi, and chatting with neighbors.

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The front of Wiley’s school, where we drop him. On the banner is one of the few things Hillary Clinton ever said that I agree with.

Once at school Wiley heads inside and we go to the gym just down the block.  On Fridays parents can come in and participate in or just watch the morning “focus time”, during which the dance teacher, who I understand to be a semi-professional tango dancer, leads the group through the paces of a raucous Latin dance routine in the courtyard.  The kids then settle down to their work, and parents chat for a while (it’s an incredibly friendly group) before heading off to start their day.

It’s a very different way to start the morning from the routine we established at home in Colorado.  We always had breakfast together, then I bolted out the door to get to work by 7:30, Wiley III “commuted” downstairs to his office, and Wiley IV rode the five blocks to his school on his bike or scooter with friends.  It’s nice to be able to send Wiley off to school together, to hear about each other’s upcoming plans for the day, and to start the day with some shared exercise and conversation.

A Very, Very, Very Fine House

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My courtyard, where I’m writing you from. You can see my wine glass. Where’s yours?

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, August 10, 2014: I think I’ll pour a glass of wine and tell you about our house.  Feel free to get one yourself while you read; it will be like we’re have a drink together.

We live really close to our neighbors here.  Like, we share walls with them.  There is no space between houses, and all of them have very high walls around them; at least 15 feet high.  Currently our neighbors to the west are enjoying Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” at what is likely a normal volume; however, due to the proximity of our living quarters it might as well be coming out of my speakers.

I’m OK with this, but if they break out anything later than “The Stranger”, it may be time to go meet them and have a discussion about selling out in popular music.

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Gizmo beckons you from the entry way. Front door’s open, come on in.

We used to live in downtown Atlanta.  You get used to a certain amount of noise when you live in the center of a city; you’re not alone and things are going on around you most of the day and night. During the 1996 Olympics I was awakened most mornings by the droning of the Goodyear blimp outside my window.  You get pretty good at tuning out the noise, and I think I’m finally getting there at this house, although sleeping soundly through the night still eludes me most of the time.  I have mentioned the locals’ penchant for early morning fireworks before – these are not the pretty, sigh-inspiring showers that we do get over the city center fairly frequently during celebrations .  These are just the loud, panic-inciting M80-type fireworks, and they are typically shot first thing in the morning around 6 AM, although you can really expect to hear them at any time.  If you were particularly paranoid I suppose you could be convinced that the city was under siege, but as they are not followed by screaming or sirens you rightly assume that someone is celebrating some significant milestone with explosives, again.  Currently some gringo is trying to get a petition signed to stop these celebratory fireworks, but it’s likely that hell will be a frosty cold place before this happens.

The street directly behind our house is a major road, and it’s steep, so we can also hear buses struggling up it during the daylight hours.  Trollies carrying tourists stop at the top of our street for a quick look and photos, ostensibly so that the occupants can gasp at the incline and wonder who would possibly live at the top of a hill like that.  Ahem, actually, that would be us.

But our house is quite comfortable and we are at peace here.  We’ve added a few of our own touches, like some potted herbs and a tomato plant – seems kind of silly to grow them when a kilogram of them costs less than a dollar, but growing things makes a house a home, I think.  Our house is over a hundred years old, and has been completely renovated.  The owners are two guys who are interior designers, so our surroundings are beautiful and tasteful, although the master bedroom artwork trends towards nude men, but I’m OK with that.  There are only two original walls remaining, so they completely gutted it twenty years ago during the renovation.  Like all of the other houses in town the exterior walls of our house are substantial; they top twenty feet high and are nearly a foot thick.  As we sit at the top of our street and very near to the top of town we command an amazing view from our rooftop terrace, which is more than fifty steps up from the street level.

From what I’ve seen most houses here do not have yards, and we’re no exception.  That means every day starts and ends with a dog walk.  Gizmo has no problem with TCB (Taking Care of Business, for those of you too young to remember Bachman-Turner Overdrive) just about anywhere, but Pancake has always been what I’d call a Selective Pooper, and seems to have a very defined set of criteria for the PPS (that’s Perfect Pooping Spot, might as well continue this awesome acronym roll I’m on) that no one understands but her.  Lately it seems to be right in the middle of the street, and I’ve annoyed more than one cab driver while we all wait for my dog to finish pooping and get out of the street.  Also, so sudden is her selection of the PPS that it often causes her to dart quickly and forcefully into the street, which has almost gotten her run over once and caused me to disallow the holding of the leash by anyone but me.

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Here’s the kitchen.

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A view into the antique bar.

I like to cook, and my husband and son love to eat, so it was important for us to find a house with a well-equipped kitchen, and we were not disappointed here.  There is a Subzero refrigerator which is lovely and enormous, and freezes my lettuce.  We’re working on that.  There is a six-burner propane stove.  Everyone uses propane in Mexico, and the tank is on the roof, and I’m trying not to think about what kind of tragic accidents could occur due to that.  Seriously, when you need more gas the truck pulls up and a guy climbs a ladder to your roof to fill it up.  I’m hoping that happens when I’m not home.  We also have a dishwasher, something that is incredibly rare in Mexico, as I recently discovered when I went out and tried to buy more Cascade.  There is more glassware, linens, cookware, silver serving pieces, and dishes than you could ever need.  There is a formal marble dining table that seats six.  There is an antique mirrored and lighted bar with linen cocktail napkins and sterling silver cocktail picks, and a stunning collection of barware.  We suffer for nothing, except waffles, as there is no waffle iron (sniff).

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The living room is open to the roof. Upstairs are the bedrooms and the “den”, along with Wiley’s office.

The floors are brick throughout, and there are beautiful area rugs and cow hides on the floors all over the house.  There is a formal living room, two fountains, and speakers in most every room, including outside.  Wiley has a huge antique desk made from whisky barrels.  There are six fireplaces, including one here in the interior courtyard.  The beds are coma-inducing, and the sheets have upwards of ten-thousand threads per square inch, it seems.  All four bathrooms are tiled in traditional Mexican tile, and I can lay flat and float in my bathtub.  We have Mexican cable TV, but we brought our AppleTV and can hook it up to one of Wiley’s big monitors for Family Movie Night (dare I say it?  FMN!!!) with Netflix or Vudu.  We have excellent wifi, and a local phone as well as a Vonnage voice-over-IP line.  The house has an intercom and a security system.  There are fourteen sets of French doors, and all of the ones upstairs lead out onto little balconies, which the dogs languish on in the afternoon sun.  There is a garage with an electric garage door and a whole-house water purification system.  We even have air conditioning, although we haven’t turned it on.   

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Our bed. The French doors open up onto an amazing view of the city. Great way to wake up in the mornings, unless there are explosives going off.

 And then there’s the roof.  I think when we looked at this house the first time both Wiley and me had visions of killer parties on that roof dancing in our heads.  It is three levels, is filled with plants and fruit trees, and you can probably see fifty miles to the west from it.  There are two dining areas and lounge chairs for lying about in the sun.  You can go up onto the roof at most any time of the day and be transported by the sheer magic of the atmosphere up there.  The beauty of the Parroquia, the main cathedral at the center of town, at night when it is lit up is breathtaking.

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Bullfighter’s costume, along with some religious garments, mounted for decoration.

Did I mention the staff?  Well, yes, the house comes with a staff.  We had no say in whether we wanted or needed them or not, they just show up.  Sandra is our housekeeper, and she comes four days a week.  She cleans and washes the clothes, and would cook for us, but then what the hell would I do?  She is a lovely person and we have very halting and often uncomfortable conversations in Spanish that are routinely augmented by Google Translate.  Jesus is the gardener, and he comes twice weekly to take care of what must be more than a hundred plants on the premises.  He used to live in San Antonio, and speaks fluent English.  Thank God he was here when the water man knocked on the door one day to tell me that we had used an exorbitant amount of water in the past month.  I figured it was my floating in the bathtub, but turns out there a leak in the purification system.   

So we’re pretty comfortable, to say the least.  I had to buy a new food processor, because the one here in the house was pretty puny, and I do put my food processor to use several times a day.  I also bought a coffee bean grinder, although for some reason it’s hard to find whole bean coffee here, even though Mexico grows and exports a fair amount of coffee.  We also bought a grill, which is wobbly and small and charcoal comes dear, so we’re not grilling as much as we typically do during the summer.  I left out potentially the most important detail, and that is that there’s a lovely spare bedroom that sits awaiting its first visitor.  As we say in Tennessee, y’all come.

 

It’s Getting Better All the Time

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX: Pulling out the Beatles’ quote as my title for a couple of reasons.  First, little Wiley is obsessed.  He’s discovered the Beatles, and he’s WAY into them.  Like, walks around singing “Penny Lane”, and “Strawberry Fields” obsessed.  Hours in his bedroom watching Youtube videos of the Beatles obsessed.  Tonight I’m at home alone, as he and his dad have gone to watch a Beatles’ tribute act that is playing at one of the local theaters.  Early on I averred myself to be strongly “Rolling Stones”, in the great “Rolling Stones vs. Beatles” debate, and so when we became aware of this event, it defined itself as their night together.

The second reason is because it is.  Getting better all the time.  With every passing day, it becomes easier, feels more like home, and we start to fit in.  Or at least feel more at home.  While I assert that this blog is not a virtual diary of every passing day of our lives, as I hope for it to be more, I will give you a run-down on the latest.

Last week I visited the Sociedad Protectora de Animales, or SPA, as its commonly called.  I contacted them many months back and told them we were moving here for a year and I’d love to help out.  I was pleasantly surprised at the cleanliness of the facility.  I met the director, as well as the veterinarian on staff.  They have cats as well as dogs, and call themselves a “no-kill” shelter, although there is no generally accepted definition of this term in the world of animal rescue.  It turns out to be what each facility can do, and in the case of SPA they keep animals as long as they can make them comfortable without excessive intervention or medical care, and adopt out as many as they can.  For example, a diabetic animal would likely be euthanized upon diagnosis, as they just can’t afford to take care of it.  I recently completed three and a half years on the board of directors for the Fort Collins Cat Rescue and Spay/Neuter Clinic, and assuredly, their definition of “no-kill” is quite different.  From my visit on Tuesday I learned that the budget of the SPA is around $200,000 USD per year.  I suspect they are doing amazing things with the resources that they have.  We agreed that I would come every Tuesday and help out as I can.

Wiley IV attended an art camp last week, and hopefully you saw the amazing masterpiece that was his final project: a portrait of our dog Gizmo.  The woman who ran the camp is a native of Vietnam, who emigrated to Canada as a young girl, and eventually moved to Mexico.  She uses this camp as a means to fund outreach activities to local villages, to teach the children there how to express themselves through art.  It’s always so very cool to meet people who are making a difference in some small way.

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New friends eating Brazilian food

Out of the blue, Hannah (Wiley’s art teacher) invited us to attend the grand opening of a Brazilian restaurant in San Miguel.  We weren’t sure what to expect, but since our social calendar was pretty dang open, we accepted.  We dressed up, and took a cab to the restaurant.  We found Hannah and her group of friends inside, and were quickly made to feel at home, although we later found out that our group was larger than the restaurant had expected.  No one seemed to mind, and the food and drink came freely.  And Hannah’s friends, Bob and Mary Beth (from the U.S.), Guillermo and Silvia (from Mexico City), and Winifred and Sirina (he a German diplomat stationed in Havana, and she from Thailand) welcomed us with open arms.  Really, an amazing group of people, several of whom rearranged their seats so that they could sit and talk to us and get to know us.  They extended an invitation to us to watch the World Cup finals the next day with them, and Winifred being German, it was clear that it was a pretty big day.

And let me just go ahead and admit: we are completely CLUELESS about soccer, or “football”, as they call it outside of America.  I kept asking stupid questions, like “why are they letting that guy kick the ball out of the corner of the field?” and “what happens if NOBODY SCORES A GOAL???”.  Ultimately, as we all know by now, it didn’t matter, as Alemania got the win.

Let me take a moment to shout out the awesomeness that is Google Translate, the fantastic application which just told me how to say “Germany” in Spanish.  Do you know this capability?  Have you needed to speak with someone who doesn’t speak English, because let me tell you, it is beyond amazing.  Our housekeeper Sandra stayed with Wiley last night while we had Date Night, and I don’t know how we would have had a meaningful conversation without it.

Date Night.  Do you do this, if you’re married with children?  Because I highly recommend it.  Hell, I recommend it even if you’re not married, or if you are and you don’t have children.  It’s a chance to go out and be adults, and talk about what’s important between the two of you.  And let’s be honest: until they substantially lower the drinking age, kids will continue to get bored in bars.

Wiley and I went out last night in search of fun and did indeed find it.  We visited an excellent mezcalaria, which we have been eyeing since arriving but didn’t really feel comfortable taking the Little Man to.  What’s a “mezcalaria”, you ask?  Really, they don’t have these in your neighborhood?  It’s a bar that specializes in that uniquely Mexican liquor, mezcal, which is somehow related to tequila, only it’s not, and I’m certainly not the person to tell you why.  It gained notoriety at some point as the liquor that had the worm in the bottle, but it has grown in prominence and sophistication as of late.  I had an incredibly delicious mezcal margarita made with ginger and mint that was TO DIE FOR.

We then headed out for parts unknown, wavering on the boundary of is-it-too-early-for-dinner-or-should-we-have-one-more-drink.  You’ve all been there.  That’s what I love about Date Night: you never know what’s going to happen.

In the quest for a bar I had seen the week before, we found ourselves in another place, the lobby of the Sierra Nevada hotel.  The expensive-hotel-drinking siren in my head went off, and I was just about to suggest an exit when the very hospitable staff swarmed us and bade us sit, relax, have some peanuts.  So we did, and ordered margaritas, using that married people telepathy that we have developed after nearly twenty-five years of sharing toothpaste to telegraph OK, one drink here and then we’re OUT.  I had no sooner visited the lovely bathroom with the tiny individual linen hand towels when the lights went out and a ridiculous gutter-choking thunderstorm hit.  We were handcuffed in velvet ropes at the Sierra Nevada, serenaded by the guitar and violin combo (who gamely continued to rearrange themselves to avoid the leaks that continued to sprout from the ceiling) and lulled by the sounds of thunder and pounding rain on the rooftop.  We ultimately ordered an excellent dinner and wine and spent less than $100, taking a taxi home five blocks because of the continued downpour.

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A ridiculously extensive selection of candies available at the Tuesday market

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This lady is selling the freshest, most delicious strawberries you can imagine. One kilo (2 pounds) for $2.

One other event of note to mention was our visit to the Tuesday market.  C’mon, guess when it happens!!!  Tuesday, that’s right!  This place is enormous; estimates of its size put it at three football fields.  We had read about it in the guide books, and I’ve certainly been to many local markets around the world, but holy cow, this was something to see.  Beverages, snacks, vegetables, fruits, tires, batteries, remote controls, calculators, lady’s underwear, nuts, meats, fish, flowers, machetes, car parts – I can go on and on.  If they don’t have it, you don’t need it.  Walmart on steroids, without the rednecks in stretch pants.  It’s on like Donkey Kong, for us, every Tuesday.

I’ll close by telling you that it’s starting to seem like home, although things like church bells and fireworks at 6 AM (no, I’m not kidding) continue to remind us that we’re in a foreign land.  Thanks for your lovely comments, and for sharing our adventures with your friends and loved ones.  We miss you all, but it’s getting better.  All the time.

 

 

The Hills Are Alive (But They Are Possibly Killing Me)

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This is looking uphill from halfway down our street, Calle Montes de Oca. We are at the very, very top, on the left.

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, July 16, 2014: I have a recurring dream.  OK, let’s call it a nightmare, because that’s really what it is, although sometimes it ends more horrifically than other times.  It involves me being driven – I’m always the passenger in the vehicle; whether or not that matters, I’m not sure– up a street that becomes impossibly steep.  No one in the vehicle realizes it at first, but ultimately it’s too late, and the vehicle either begins to lose traction and falters, rolling backwards faster and faster downhill, or, in the more harrowing version of the dream, I’m in a convertible and it flips back over onto itself, throwing passengers out or landing on top of them.

I’m now living on that street.

The picture at the beginning of the post was taken from about half-way up our street.  It starts out steep at the bottom, but halfway up it becomes really, really steep.  Like, steeper than it should be possible to build a road that cars travel over.  I’m going to need one of my civil engineer friends to come down and take some measurements, because I’m fairly confident I’ve never been on a publically-maintained road in the U.S. that’s this steep.  I’m estimating the incline at forty degrees, although Wiley tells me that’s impossible.  If I had only had room to pack my astrolabe…but then, where would be have put the vitamins?

San Miguel is built on a hill.  From the very “bottom” of town, where Wiley’s school and our gym are, it’s a gradual climb up to our house, which is still not at the very top of town.  The Plaza Principal, which is the center of town and where the beautiful cathedral, the Parroquia, is located (you’ve likely seen the spires of this amazing structure in pictures taken from our house), is about halfway up the hill. 

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Brunch on the rooftop. Killer view. Parroquia is nearly out of frame on the right.

There are definite advantages to the layout.  At six-thousand feet the air is crystal clear, and on most days you can see well off in the distance, possibly as much as a hundred miles, from our roof.  We have an amazing view of the entire town and all of its beautiful architecture.  

OK, I’m pretty much done with the upside.  The downside is that when you want to go out, you have to eventually come up.  Pretty much everything we need is down, so that means the “up” trip can and often does involve carrying things back up the hill.  Oh sure, we could drive, but have I explained about our garage?

The list of things I have not done since arriving here a little over two weeks ago includes watching television and driving. You don’t really need to drive here, because most everything is within walking distance, but you also don’t really WANT to drive, either.  The streets are impossibly narrow, and many are one-way with street signage of variable quality.  The oldest streets (including ours) are cobblestone, and the others are flat slate-like paving stones.  Both are noisy, murder on your suspension, and slippery when wet.  Which they are a lot lately, because it’s the rainy season, and it rains pretty much every day.

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View from the top. That’s our open garage door on the right.

Which is, in fact, what it was doing when we arrived in town.  A light mist, to be sure, but rain nonetheless, which made the cobblestones on our street slippery.  When driving, you have to approach our house from the top of the street, because our half of it is one-way in the downward direction.  The street itself is approximately the width of one and a half small cars, and all of the houses are right next to each other, forming a continuous wall and giving new meaning to the term “zero lot line”.  As you teeter over the brink of the crest of our street and start your freefall down, immediately on your right you’ll encounter our front door and then our garage door, which is a ninety-degree turn from the street.  It’s so sharp it’s impossible to execute with one turn, and the extremely steep “lip” that carries you up from the street to the garage floor threatens to crush your front end, especially if the car you’re driving is laden with a year’s worth of stuff (mostly vitamins, ha-ha), three bicycles, two Chihuahuas, a stressed father, a panicked child, and an overloaded Thule box. 

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The car, snug and safe in its garage.

But Wiley did successfully get the car into the garage, although our child was permanently traumatized and immediately began planning how, when we leave next year, we will park the car at the bottom of the hill and carry all of our belongings down to it, instead of trying to get it fully-loaded out of the garage.  And that is where it has been, quietly sleeping off its sixteen-hundred mile journey, since we arrived.

So we walk, a lot.  There has been talk of buying a scooter, although at the moment it’s just talk.  Most days I make the trip up the hill three to four times, between shopping, walking the dogs, and delivering Wiley IV to his appointments.  I keep score, and make it a point to report nightly on my trips to gain sympathy, which rarely works.   Ultimately my calves will no longer fit in my jeans, and I’ll have that, at least.

Just returned from taking the dogs to the park, upon which I witnessed a woman running over someone’s stoop on Huertas, the next block over from us, then proceeding to tear off her driver’s side mirror on a house when backing up.  The car emitted a nasty hissing noise with steam, as if a fatal injury occurred somewhere under the hood.  Definitely, she should have walked.

Outlander

2014-07-02 15.17.53San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, July 10, 2014 – I am a huge fan of the Outlander series of books, written by Diana Gabaldon.  I devoured the initial seven books in the series late last summer (all of them are big enough and heavy enough as hardbacks to be used as paving stones, if necessary), and finished the eighth book in the series a couple of weeks ago at the beach in four days.  The highly anticipated series based on the books starts in August on the STARZ network, which sadly I will not see as it is not being shown in Mexico.  Netflix and I have a date when I get home.

The heroine of the book, Claire Randall, a British nurse, goes on a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands with her husband once they are reunited at the end of World War II.  While visiting an ancient stone circle she gets transported back in time to Scotland of the 1740’s, just prior to the Jacobite uprising.

Stay with me, I promise I have a point.

Claire is smart, and when she’s rescued by a band of Highlanders from a blood-thirsty redcoat, her first instinct is not to panic, but to try to Act Natural.  Fit In.  Nothing to See Here, Move Along.  Because of course what she wants to do is scream “WTF, is this some kind of crazy way-too-realistic historical re-enactment or something???  Because all of you people smell, and I.  DO.  NOT.  BELONG.  HERE.  WITH YOU.”.  To make things worse, everyone speaks Gaelic.  She’s called an “outlander”, which means stranger, or you-ain’t-from-around-here-are-you?.

I’ve been feeling a little like Claire since arriving here, but I’m starting to get the hang of this.  I live here now, and the last couple of weeks have been devoted to making a life for my family and me.  I’m not working, so while Wiley went back to work as soon as he got his computer set up, most of my energy has been devoted to getting our daily routine established.  Our kitchen is very well-equipped, and there is a whole-house water filtration system, so we can use the water from the taps without worrying about getting sick.   I’ve checked out all of the grocery stores and markets and have found sources for most of the foods we like to eat.  We avoid wheat and most other grains, so I was resigned to the fact that we would likely do without a lot of the things we like while here.  But I’ve been pleasantly surprised and even found a grocery store that sells almond flour and red curry paste a host of other items that I like to keep on hand.

Not to be outdone in the way of rigorous dietary demands, our dogs eat prescription dog food.  We brought down a bag of kibble (they actually rode all the way on top of it, unbeknownst to them) but being peculiar little creatures they eat poorly when they are fed only kibble.  Gizmo carries it, piece-by-piece, into an adjoining room, where he plays with it, or fondles it with his mouth, before deciding he will eat it.  I have seen people get through four pounds of unshelled crawfish faster than he can eat a half cup of kibble.  The dogs desire a spoonful of canned food carefully mixed in, and without this they were both clearly losing weight.  Not a bad thing for Pancake, who was slightly thick around the middle, but Gizmo’s hip bones were starting to protrude.

I thought that I had communicated sufficiently with the receptionist at a vet clinic in town such that she was ordering me a case of canned food.  We looked it up in the book, she told me it would be there Thursday afternoon, and to come back then.  Thursday afternoon she was not there, and the guy who was there said to come back “maῆana”.  Maῆana came and I was back, but she wasn’t.  Somehow I managed to understand, through a combination of hand gestures and poorly understood Spanish prepositional phrases, that I was to visit the vet clinic behind the MEGA (the enormous chain supermarket on the edge of town) next to the gym, where they had the food.  I jumped into a cab and told the driver to take me to the MEGA, hoping I could figure it out from there.  Sure enough, behind the MEGA there was a gym, and behind the gym was a large veterinary hospital.  I went in and got so far as asking for “pato y patata” and was struggling with how to let him know I wanted canned food when he said something like, “Hey, why don’t we speak English?,” with no trace of an accent.  Turns out he was the veterinarian, and he was born in Boston.  We had a nice chat and I’m invited back the next time his two children, who are both vets, are in town.  No duck and potato distributed in Mexico by Royal Canin, but they do have Hill’s z/d, which the dogs love and are they are both cleaning their bowls right away.

If you typically work out, you need to join a gym when you move, as this puts a familiar routine back into your day.  For me, it makes me feel less like an outlander.  Since I’ll be walking Wiley 4 to school and back every day, it made sense to join the gym just down the block from his school.  It’s a no-frills gym, with mostly dudes working out and keeping to themselves.  You walk in and pay your monthly fee (about $30) in cash, and an old guy painstakingly writes your receipt.  When you come in you sign the book, and it’s his job to make sure you’re paid up for the month.  No waivers to sign, no tour, no Crossfit or Pilates, and no sports drinks for sale.

It became obvious after the first couple of days that without the neighborhood kids knocking on the door round the clock for him, or the neighborhood pool to go to, or any of his typical activities, Wiley 4 needed something to do other than watch YouTube videos and play Mindcraft.  I signed him up for art classes, which he’s been going to every day this week.  I also found an adventure camp that I can hopefully talk him into going to, or if all else fails I play the parent card and force him. We visited his school and met with the headmaster and I think we are all feeling very comfortable with what that will be like, but we’ve got five more weeks of summer to get through before school.  Right now I am his best friend and playmate, and we have been exploring town together most afternoons.  He has achieved Olympic-level wheedling skills for ice cream or whatever delicious-looking thing he’s currently wanting on these excursions, and I’ll admit that I’ve considered leaving him outside on the sidewalk while I go into a bar and throw back a cold one (not seriously…mostly) but it’s good time together, and he keeps me laughing with his non-stop questions and wacky ideas.

So I’m getting there.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve had a couple of break downs.  I was buying some flowers in the market the other day and the girl selling them to me seemed really mean, and I’d swear she was talking bad about me in Spanish to her friend.  Paranoid, much?  After that I got home, which involves walking up no less than five hills (more to come on THAT subject), and my son began detailing all of the things that were wrong with the batch of granola I had just made, as if I had somehow landed on an episode of “Chopped”, and he was a high-end restaurateur.  I mean, come on, I’ve been in Mexico ten days and I’m making GRAIN-FREE GRANOLA people.  Give me a break already.

I didn’t burst into tears until after I had singed the hairs off my forearms by lighting the oven.  It’s propane, and I guess I turned the gas on and walked away, thinking that I had turned on the oven.  But of course, no, I hadn’t, because you actually have to stick your head AND an open flame INTO the oven and actually light it.  So once I remembered that there was a fair bit of gas just hanging out in the oven, which I somehow did not notice despite the distinct smell of – guess what?  GAS!!!  – , and once I snapped the lighter on I got a giant WHOOSH of flame.  Startling, made me cry, but no eyebrow or eyelash loss, thank god.