¡Hola! We Are Still Here…

 

Since my husband Arnold and I moved to Mexico (from Santa Fe, New Mexico) in 2007, any number of our friends have asked me “why don’t you start a blog?” Truthfully I never really considered it because I kept thinking “oh, honestly, all those ‘We restored a wrecked house in (insert name of exotic foreign country)’ books have been written, and they were pretty much all far better than what I could have written. But when we’d see friends back in the States, or they came to visit us here, and I would tell stories about this or that thing that happened to me (they really loved the tale of the carjacking-at-gunpoint I endured a few years ago, it was much juicier than the dishwasher blowing up). Anyway, folks have persisted and at least for the moment, overridden my “who cares about my little life?” protests, so here I am.

My family lived in Mexico City in the ‘fifties and I certainly must admit that I came to our present expat adventure with certain advantages: I knew and loved Mexico, even though it was the Mexico I remembered from childhood and quite different from Mexico in the 21st century. I spoke the language, loved the weather and the aesthetic, and I learned the first time around that I could survive and thrive here. In fact, now that we have indeed been here for awhile, I actually feel that I may have developed a better instinct for interpreting what I see around me. My Spanish is much better now, even Arnold, my husband, is much more comfortable here. It is an interesting time to be living in Mexico and it is also an interesting time to be viewing the events back in the U.S., our Ancestral Homeland, from another perspective. Now, here we are, in this no-longer-third-world-but–not-first-yet-either country, with a front row seat.

So, welcome to my new blog; let’s see how long and if I keep it up!

Sunset over Lake Chapala - the view from my office window.

Sunset over Lake Chapala – the view from my office window.

Here comes the sun….

Our New Solar Panels!

Our New Solar Panels!

DSCN1745 DSCN1747 DSCN1748

A time of crazy travel, just how it worked out. Back from a delightful week in Puerto Vallarta with my sister and her dear friend and colleague from Poland – his first visit to Mexico, and great fun was had eating and lying in the sun and swimming with dolphins and trying different kinds of margaritas. Many people believe that Puerto Vallarta is uninhabitable in the summer because of the heat and humidity, so there were very few people at the resort, and that made it even nicer. Yes, it was hot, but we were never more than a few steps from the pool or the beach, so we didn’t care!

We came home for just a few days, then we head out again for New Jersey and New York for my Aunt Kay’s 90th birthday party, a couple of performances in New York (Netrebko in MacBeth, one could not resist, and Audra MacDonald’s Billie Holiday show) and restocking some supplies to get ready for the harsh Mexican winter. The most urgent thing – since we don’t have any heat in our house – is a new electric blanket since ours died and the controls and cables were somehow lost in the move to the new house. It doesn’t get terribly cold here, maybe down into the forties or even the high thirties in the middle of the night during the coldest part of January – but without any heat in the house you do feel it. Electricity is expensive, though, and it’s controlled by the Mexican federal government – they can basically charge whatever they like – so running that nice warm electric blanket or the space heater in your bedroom becomes quite a luxury.

Thus it is hard to live in Mexico, where it is sunny pretty much all the time, and not have the thought at least cross your mind that if you could harness all the energy the blazing sun just gives us, especially in the winters when you use more electricity in the shorter and colder days (ironically, it is sunnier in the winter months) you could realize a huge savings in utility bills over time. We have never had enough hot water, and even with our old hot water heater cranked up to “max”, the water, especially at the far ends of the house, was never really hot enough. Friends and our architect all commented that with solar hot water we would have water that was so hot we might well have to install a gizmo that mixes some cold into it so we wouldn’t burn ourselves, and we both became intrigued with the idea. Indeed several friends who have done this have told us that they are delighted with the result; both because your electrical bills go down to virtually nothing and that you really can generate enough heat to have plenty of hot water without needing to be continually purchasing propane. And we have been consuming a LOT.

After a year of lukewarm showers and not-quite-clean dishes from the dishwasher, I was ready to give the whole solar idea a try.  So, in a mad impulse we decided to have solar panels installed on our roof to generate electricity and added a solar hot water heater as well. The solar hot water tank should reduce our consumption of propane very dramatically. Poor Francisco the propane guy will be very sad when he stops by next time to fill our propane tank and we won’t be needing any — hopefully, not for months to come. Not only will it be fun to use all the electricity I bloody well want (keep the fountain running, which keeps it from getting full of algae, have the pool heater on more frequently, all those little things where you are conscious of turning switches off all the time….) since we are generating our own power now, but we can feel smug about doing the right thing to get off the grid and reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. While it is a big investment upfront, one can calculate that after a few years the investment will have repaid itself in reduced utility bills and from that point forward, most of your electricity and hot water (except for the few cloudy periods we have here) are basically free.

So we now have a big array of sixteen solar panels, plus the solar hot water heater, up on our roof, and it will definitely get in the way of my planned New York-style roof garden, but there is still plenty of open space up there so whenever I do get around to dragging some flowerpots and plants up there, it’ll still look nice. The solar guys still have some tweaking and adjusting and cleanup to do, but it is kind of amazing to see how it works. After some preparatory laying of cable and making new connections to our electrical boxes, a very efficient team of maybe ten young guys from the solar energy company climbed up to our roof and in one day they had the whole system installed. After it was done, they told me to come out to the street and stand in front of the electrical meter to watch what was going to happen as they flipped the switch and turned the new solar system on. “Watch; your meter will begin running backwards, Señora”, they said. “At that point you will be generating power and sending it BACK to CFE (the federal electricity commission). Sure enough, all of us crowded eagerly around the meter stuck in our cement front wall and the second they turned the system on, the little wheel inside the meter obediently reversed direction just as they said it would. I can hardly wait, now, to get our next electrical bill!

A Weird Patch

One of our afflicted primavera trees

One of our afflicted primavera trees

We are going through one of those weird patches where NOTHING goes right, or as it is planned. The summer here is beautiful, my favorite time of year, but it has been hard to enjoy it with all the annoying – and expensive – things that are going wrong in our domestic lives and distracting us from the things we actually were looking forward to doing with our time this season.

The car’s transmission conked out for no apparent reason that we could see – it just stopped shifting gears one fine day and had to be immediately towed to Guadalajara for service a week ago. We’ve just found out that we’ll be without a car for at least two to three more weeks – which a la mexicana probably is going to be mean a month or longer. And of course the new transmission will cost a fortune. No, they don’t fix it, they just put in an entirely new one. Fortunately it will be guaranteed for two years, parts and labor, so that will be a consolation when we finally do get it back.

The dishwasher died unexpectedly and it turned out not to be the dishwasher but some bad wiring left over from the original house construction that caused a short and sort of blew the whole thing up. Not what we needed! The electrician has been here twice to dig the melted wires out of the concrete wall to fix the problem. Everything is working except now part of my kitchen lights don’t work, so (sigh) I will have to call him again and get him back here in the morning.

The list goes on and on, all sort of dreary and depressing. The new kitten we got for Rosa from the local cat shelter suddenly came down with a life-threatening illness, a viral infection in her brain, and we all were sure the kitten was going to die. The kids were crying and crying and sure that they were going to lose their new best friend and also that their mother was going to think it was something they had done to hurt the kitten. But Delfino the veterinarian is giving her shots and fluids every day and at least as of this morning’s vet visit, she looks like she may be able to turn it around and fight the bug off. A brain virus in a kitten! Who would have imagined such a thing, but it exists and is deadly, and highly contagious, so the other, even younger kitten (both of them rescued) got hauled in to Delfino this morning for a checkup and a vaccination since she has been licking and snuggling with the other, older, kitten “to make her feel better” (or so we humans think).

But, on a much cheerier note, in an odd way, old friends have been coming back into my life and it is really fun to reconnect with them. My newly-retired high school classmate David and his wife are here for a few weeks, experimenting to see if they like it here well enough to consider moving here. If I hadn’t been so distracted with all the domestic crises we have had I would be spending more time ferrying them around to see the sights. If we do get the car back soon – or we can find one to rent – we will do more of that in their remaining time here and it will be fun for all of us I hope. I guess some people lose track of their high school friends and never see them again, but I have managed to keep in touch with a few of the kids from that really special time in my life. We have a shared language and memories which probably make no sense to our bewildered spouses, the mere recollection of which can send us into gales of nostalgic laughter. Here we are, in our late sixties and reliving all this silliness as though it were last week.

Then my dear friends Jan and Kay, each of whom moved back to the States awhile back for various reasons, are in town for a couple of weeks, we are all hoping to have a little fiesta on Saturday to celebrate their being here. They both know and are fond of Rosa and her family, so a Mexican feast featuring Rosa’s famous tamales is being prepared for the occasion. It’s also Arnold’s birthday – a great excuse for “pastel” (cake). And there is nothing Mexican kids like more than pastel, so everyone will hopefully get together to enjoy an afternoon in the sun.

The “golden tears” trees – (“primavera” to the Mexicans) in our garden are still covered in yellow flowers and as they fall they leave a brilliant yellow circle in the lawn. But over many nights, hordes of leaf-cutter ants continue to invade one tree or the other, and carry off the fallen flowers and they have done their best to utterly strip the trees down to the bare branches, which they actually can do, if there are enough of them in their little army. So far, the trees still look beautiful and they are fighting off the invaders, but the top branches are stripped of leaves and flowers completely, so we broke down and called the tree guy to stop by and deal with the ants and the other bugs chewing everything up. It was obvious that in order not to end up with naked and dying trees, we needed to intervene. Like Rosa’s little kitten fighting for her life, you wonder how anything so afflicted can still be so beautiful.

 

Gaby and Carlos

 

One of the most fascinating things about living here, from my perspective as a well-educated, well-fed, and reasonably well-off American expatriate, is how Mexicans are reacting to the unrelenting images, marketing, and pressures of their powerful neighbors to the north. And we are a huge part of that influence, particularly here in Chapala, where there is such a large American and Canadian expat population. Many people who live here have nothing more to do with their maids and gardeners than to give them direction and pay them every week. But we have somehow become more and more involved with my maid’s family, with each passing year.  As a result of hours and hours of conversation with them, suggestions and financial assistance for various and sundry, they are beginning to see that the key to any kind of financial or “career” options for Mexicans is education, education, education. And it is in no small measure because at least some of us expats keep hammering away at them about it. Over and over again. Don’t drop out. Don’t let your kids drop out. Yes, there are scholarships out there, we have heard about them. Don’t get pregnant at fifteen. Don’t get married too young. The government here offers free birth control. Don’t be afraid to ask for it; don’t be afraid to ask for information.

Our ever-increasing involvement started years ago with eleven-year-old Sofia, who asked me for help in sending her to Secundaria (Middle School) because she desperately wanted to stay in school and her mom (Rosa) probably wasn’t going to be able to afford it. Even though school is “free”, there are expenses for books, uniforms, bus fare, and so forth, which many families just can’t manage. She invited Arnold and me to come to her graduation from Primaria and the ceremony itself was a charming glimpse into Mexican life that we never would have had otherwise, and we were smitten as Sofi received many awards and certificates of merit; we agreed this kid really was serious about school and we made the commitment to her and to Rosa that we would make sure she got the education she was hoping for. Six years later, Sofi is heading into her senior year at one of the best private high schools in the region – supported by us, another American couple who love her as well, and a scholarship from the school. She has learned about things like doing a student exchange to Europe, and is thinking about taking a year “off” to travel and see a bit of the world, and then going on to medical school. Arnold and I are both looking at each other and saying “we better batten down the hatches” – because most likely we will have to pay for a lot of it and help her find financial aid as well. We love the kid, although It’s a good thing I am not on Dr. Atkins any more because there may well be lots of tortillas and beans in our future!

Sofia has two older sisters whose example she has studied carefully: the oldest one dropped out of secondary school to run off with her boyfriend, and now she has two kids and helps her mom cleaning our house and also works as a maid for another American family. The middle daughter, Gaby, who was a very good student in high school, also managed to get herself pregnant and dropped out just before graduation. This despite an offer from friends of ours who were very fond of her, to pay her way through culinary academy, as she had then expressed a great interest in becoming a chef. Of course her getting pregnant ended all of that; our friends moved back to the States, and there was teenage Gaby, with this little baby and no possible means of supporting herself and her child except to move back in with her mother and try to find some work cleaning houses.

Although it is slowly changing, unlike in the U.S. where there is always a night school, online option, or a G.E.D. program somewhere, here once you drop out of school you are pretty much done for as far as finishing school is concerned. You can’t go back easily, which was very sad for Gaby because she was so close to finishing high school. When she realized the error of her ways, she made several futile attempts to get back into a preparatory school somewhere nearby where she could finish that last term and graduate, But there was no space anywhere for a “returning” student – even as it is the public schools are horribly overcrowded with forty five or fifty kids in most high school classes with school facilities being utilized to the max with both morning and afternoon double sessions to include twice the number of eligible younger kids. So, no luck.

I was able to recommend her to a good friend of mine and she has turned out to be a pretty good maid, very responsible and detail-oriented. Of course the boy’s father immediately took off with another girl, and Gaby decided she really didn’t want her son to have anything to do with him because every time he saw his father he came back miserably unhappy and complained about the fact that he didn’t like him, that on his visits he was pretty much ignored. He much prefers Arnold, who he calls his “Tatito”, and me, who he calls his “Maci”. Who knows why, but those are our titles and we happily accept them. It’s his way of placing us in his universe; he knows perfectly well that we aren’t really his aunt and uncle, and “Tio” and “Tia” are what the other kids in the family call us.  But we are fixtures in his life, going to his school and dance functions, and he seems to adore both of us.

Then, Gaby decided that her best path forward after this adventure was to focus all her efforts on bringing up her son the best way she could. The government social service agency in our village offered a free parenting class; she signed up, took the class, and is very proud of her certificate of completion. She learned how to discipline a child without hitting him, how to do “time outs”, and all sorts of other useful parenting hints and somewhere along the line she learned that for boys, particularly, pre-school was very important; that it would socialize a kid and prepare him for primary school, giving him a much better chance of success, as he would get there already knowing how to behave in a classroom, reading and writing and knowing basic math. Rosa, Gaby’s mother, who says she loved school, barely got through the second grade before she was forced to drop out because her parents had no money for books or shoes and besides, what did a girl need an education for?

But Gaby had already begun to think differently about what she wanted to do for Carlos and once he turned three, she enlisted her older sister Mirella in a series of visits to every pre-school in the Lake Chapala area, visiting them all in a series of long bus rides, to try to find the one she thought would be the best place for Carlos. I heard the reports about these schools as they went to them, one by one, sometimes with their mom Rosa, sometimes on their own. This one had too many kids, the classes were too large. That one had filthy restrooms. In this one the kids were totally wild. In that one the reputation was that they hit kids. In this one the teachers seemed too distracted. And on it went until they discovered the Montessori pre-school in Chapala which was “just right”.

Of course this school is full of children from much wealthier families and was more expensive than the others; but I encouraged Gaby to go to the administration, be honest with them and tell them she cleaned houses for a living and lived with her parents, but more than anything she wanted a good education for her son. Off to Montessori Carlos went! Arnold and I have ended up helping her with the tuition, plus she did get a discount from the school. He has turned out to be one of the brightest and most popular kids there. He loves learning English, he’s working on his multiplication tables, he loves to read. We have all begun to realize that he is very intelligent. Arnold has kind of taken him under his wing – a) he’s a boy and b) like Arnold, even as a very young child he has no use for sports, much preferring to be in arts-related classes, his after-school dance activities, reading and studying. Hmmmm. We know we are getting sucked into helping Gaby keep him in good schools, but he is turning out to be such a delightful little kid that it’s a pleasure.

A few weeks ago Gaby invited us to come to his school’s Spring Festival (Primavera) which is a big deal for little kids in Mexico. At almost every school, no matter how basic or poor, moms make or purchase costumes, and the kids dress up as birds, bees, butterflies, ladybugs, you name it, and learn dances and songs all about nature and the spring. They do a presentation for friends and relatives followed by (of course) cake and a giant potluck with tacos, tamales, and various casseroles, and everyone has a great time. The kids are (naturally) adorable. I shot a bit of video of the Chapala Montessori School’s primavera festival and if you would like to have a respite from imagining how we are fighting off the narcos here, take a look and see how these kids are trying to learn English.

Later this summer, Carlos will be graduating from Montessori and ready to move on to “real” primary school as a first-grader. Arnold and I spent hours mulling over this child’s probable fate if he were to go to public school in San Antonio Tlayacapan, where he (and we, now) lives. Forty kids to a class. Hardly any books, no school library. No extracurricular activities. Stressed teachers. Early exposure to drugs and god knows what else. After Montessori pre-school, an almost-certain disaster, we felt. Meanwhile, Gaby and Mirella headed off on their next search for a good school and found a very nice, old, established private school very close to where they all live, and once Gaby saw that school, she decided that come hell or high water, he wasn’t going to public school, he was going there. But she is already working seven days a week and there isn’t much more she can earn than what she is earning. Of course we have offered to help.

 

The Gap Year

Sofi's selfie

Sofi’s selfie

It’s been a long time since I posted anything about the ongoing growing-up of Rosa’s youngest daughter, my goddaughter, Sofia, who is now seventeen.

After secondary school we, along with another couple who are also tutores (meaning we act as her sponsors, footing the tuition and other bills and providing guidance), got her into what is probably the best private school here. It’s new and still in the process of formation but in spite of some administrative fits and starts as they have moved into a newly-built, modern and attractive campus, it’s still the best school in town and Sofi is doing well now in all her subjects – especially her English and Spanish are both improving dramatically. She faces one more year of prepa (preparatoria, which is high school) and then it’s time for college.

There are three of us retired women who comprise what we jokingly call “Team Sofi” – myself, her other sponsor, and one other good friend. One is a retired school psychologist and the other is a retired master Spanish teacher. Both of them saw early on that Sofia was extraordinarily motivated and intelligent, aside from which she’s charming and funny and beautiful, so they hopped on the bandwagon to help by being her coaches and mentors in any way that they could. It has been lots of fun and the three of us have become closer as friends as a result of our weekly coffee “check-in” meetings with Sofia after school. There is also the occasional meeting with various people at Sofia’s school, just to keep on top of things there. But after an initial rough start, going to a school that was both truly bilingual and also a lot tougher than where she had been, now she’s getting 90’s in most of her subjects, so we are reasonably sure she can get into a good college when the time comes. But my gut has been telling me she just isn’t ready to make a career choice yet; she has no family role models for anything except being a maid or a gardener; she didn’t know of any of us who are helping her now when we were still working.

Here, as in many European countries, you graduate from high school and you elect a carrera – a career course – in college – and you start working toward that from day one. No time to dabble in the liberal arts, take underwater basket weaving or humanities courses or an art or music history course for general enrichment and take your time learning what your career options might be, the way it was when I was in college. No, you better pick right the first time or you have to start all over again from the very beginning in a new “career” curriculum, Sofia says she is interested in medicine, becoming a doctor, but competition to get into the University of Guadalajara medical school is beyond intense and if she makes a wrong choice and decides she doesn’t really like it, she’s wasted a lot of time flailing around. And since Arnold and I have committed to helping her financially, we also don’t want her to make what could be a costly mistake. No one in her family as ever even graduated from high school, let alone gone to college, so she has no one really to give her any decent guidance except for us, and we all went to college, not here in Mexico, but in the States, fifty years ago.

We all realize that for her, travel and experiencing another life and another culture would be key to her continuing development. But how? Getting a visa for her to travel to the States has proven to be nigh impossible, though we are going to keep trying. But there are all kinds of other ways for young people to travel in exchange programs, year-abroad, and so forth. The world, fortunately, is a big place. We had a chance to meet yesterday with a delightful young woman from AFS to learn about their student exchange and year-abroad programs. They offer programs in fifty countries and both for kids under and over 18, with a range of choices. In one form or another all of us involved adults benefited from travel and/or student exchanges earlier in our lives; it shouldn’t be all that surprising that now we all live outside the U.S. as expats. Clearly we all get it how life-changing an experience traveling and living outside Mexico could be for her.

After I had contacted AFS’ branch office in Mexico City, they said “we’ll put you in touch with our person in Guadalajara.” We made an appointment to meet with her here in Ajijic; rather than us all coming to the city to meet with her she suggested meeting here for coffee, because she had a family reunion coming up. We had no idea how old this lady was going to be or who she was; I told Sofia “dress decently because this might turn into a sort of an interview, you just don’t know!” So no shorts or tank top for Sofi, she showed up in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt with just a hint of makeup and little ballet flats (perfect!).

Well, the “lady” from AFS turned out to be an absolutely stunning and delightful young woman named Ana who is barely two years older than Sofia. She is now in college, recently returned from a year as an exchange student in Denmark, and she loved the experience so much that she volunteered to work for the organization and she’s charged with getting the local chapter started here. She and Sofia immediately started chattering away in Spanish and Ana told her all about her year abroad, and how it had completely changed who she was as a person, even so far as to change her direction in college. She had opted to delay her college entrance for a year so she could do the year abroad, and she suggested that Sofia consider the same thing. We all kicked the idea around with Ana, who had great information about the different programs AFS offers.

By the end of our meeting with her, we all agreed that Sofia should seriously consider doing this “gap year” before college. She really wants and needs to get out of her house and her poor neighborhood and begin to broaden her horizons about what is out there in the world. For where she is coming from, the idea of living a year in a foreign country is even more significant than it might be for other, more privileged kids. Ana suggested that Sofi think about going to Denmark, where she spent her year, because of course the language she would use there would be English. But Ana also learned Danish and she said the experience of living there – a place so unlike Mexico in every way, was just incredible. She urged Sofi to consider the Denmark exchange because you’re also based in Europe and you can hop on a train or a cheapie flight and use your year there to explore a bunch of the rest of Europe. Sofi thought that was just fantastic. She probably doesn’t even know where Denmark IS on a map but she was ready to pack her bags.

In contrast, I got a wake-up taste of her reality last night. She was of course totally excited after meeting Ana and I brought her back to our house and said “okay, now your assignment is to tell Arnold, IN ENGLISH, what just happened and what we are all thinking about might be a new direction for you instead of just going straight on to college after you finish prepa…” Arnold of course had been thinking that English and travel to the U.S. were top priorities for her, and this changes the equation a bit. So Sofi gamely launched into her dissertation and I just let her tell him as best she could. So she and Arnold spent some time visiting and talking about her future, which was terrific. And the more she uses her English in situations other than the classroom, the better.

Then, I said “let me run you home” since it was dark out and by then it was probably 9 p.m. We went down her narrow, cobblestone street and I parked to let her out and let other traffic by and it was obvious that she wanted to talk to me about everything, but especially the situation with a boy who has been seriously after her and she’s been fending him off as best she can. However, she said, the situation with this boy is a bit more complicated because apparently he’s really a nice kid. He works, he’s involved with the dance company the little kids all dance in, he’s well mannered and well behaved and she likes him a lot “as a person” – he’s just – well, in love with Sofi. Sofi says her mother and sisters are all saying “well, you can at least be NICE to him” instead of just telling him to get lost. She said she tried to tell him she was happy to be just friends, have coffee, etc., but nothing more, and he wasn’t happy about it. She senses that her mom and sisters are subtly pressuring her to get a novio (boyfriend) after all and she wants none of it. I of course don’t really know the truth but I did say “Sofi, put yourselves in their position – they love you and only want the best for you. But in their world the best means hooking up with a nice guy who won’t beat you and lock you up in the house with a string of little children all day. Now you are really, for real, moving out into the world and away from them and everything they have known, and they are probably pretty confused: both proud of you and afraid for you at the same time. And probably deep down inside, more than a little threatened.. By now you are far better-educated than they are; use your new-found powers of analysis and critical thinking to parse this out. Human psychology is very complicated but you can deal with this!” (or words to that effect, by this time it was an hour later).

Meanwhile on the street two or three doors down from her house a gang of tough-looking kids had emerged from one of the houses and were standing on the sidewalk smoking dope and dealing to people who walked by. Then Sofi sighed and said “yes, they are there and I manage to avoid them or have my uncle Danny walk with me if I need to go to the store or something, but the worst is the couple who live next door to us. They have horrible fights, he slams her against the wall and beats her horribly, she screams and comes running out into the street covered in blood. When he throws her against the wall all my mom’s dishes rattle and the young kids in our house become terrified and confused”…and on and on this tale went. It also got scary out in the street with this gang of boys eyeing us talking in the car in the darkness, so as Sofi continued talking, I started the engine, drove around the block, and parked dead in front of her door so she only had to walk a couple of feet to get in. (Soon after the boys all left.).

After we were more safely right in front of her door, I ventured, “No wonder you want to get out of there, Sofi! And what is the lesson you take away from this? That a woman could be so utterly without resources, human or financial, that she has to stay and tolerate this situation? How does a woman get into this mess in the first place?” And we talked about THAT for awhile, and I said “Look, love and romance are wonderful things. When I met Arnold I was REALLY in love and acted like a loca for quite awhile because I wasn’t sure exactly WHAT was happening to me because it was the real thing! I by then had bought and sold two houses on my own, my career was stable, I had savings and investments, and a really pretty little house -in my own name – up in the hills of the East Bay with a view out to the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. I wasn’t a baby anymore and I STILL fell in love and we got married and it was even more beautiful and romantic because it two real adults getting together and making this lifelong commitment, not two kids! I did the early-twenties marriage thing and it was a sad mistake that ended in a divorce.” Sofi sighed, with the weight of the world on her teenage shoulders, “that’s why I am telling all these boys that I don’t want a novio, but it is really hard for me”.

Arnold later said, laughing, “Oh, and the kid’s going to go to Denmark where every one of those blue-eyed, tall, handsome Adonises is going to look at this exotic, dark-eyed beauty and their tongues will be hanging out!” (of course, the male point of view!) I thought, he’s right, but at least she’ll be older and hopefully they won’t be street bums out on the corner dealing
drugs. He’s reading some particularly dark Scandinavian novel right now so that isn’t helping, but he really does think the gap year is a great idea for her. We shall see!

Day of the Dead, Chapala

Summer is coming for sure

A couple of my faithful readers asked if I could change the format of the blog to not be white type on black – they said it was hard to read – so see if everyone likes this better. I am planning to tweak it a little bit but for the moment perhaps this will be easier on everyone’s aging eyes. Comments welcome.

All isn’t totally quiet on the Western (or Southern) front, but it definitely is quieting down. The installers came today to put in my fancy-dancy new range hood, next week they will start the process of the ductwork to connect it to the outdoors, the locksmith came and adjusted some of the locks that were misbehaving, but other than that, no workers, no plumbers, no nothing. Just quiet. It is very nice. Arquitecto Roberto is stopping by to check out some last little details, and yes, of course, there are a few, but every week that goes by there are fewer and fewer items on the punch list.

Arnold is back home having survived his surgery and we are both grateful that the worst of the remodeling is over, and now we can really kick back and enjoy the spring. As much as we love to travel, it is expensive and complicated and we are both so tired from the relentless banging and crashing that has been with us for the past seven months that we’re thinking we just want to stay home now for a little while and gather our wits. Since the old house sold, we are free of that obligation, so I can begin to think about what I want to do with myself going forward. No more remodeling, that’s for sure! Oh, maybe a little tweak here and there — I am my mother’s daughter after all! There is no such thing in my genetic makeup for “leaving well enough alone” — but as for adding new wings and such – I think not.

A few old friends from the States have let us know that they are seriously thinking about moving down here – an interesting development! One of my good buddies at Merrill Lynch, who is both ready to retire and ready for an adventure, and one of my high school classmates and his wife. I keep wondering whether the horrific winter up north this year will mean that in spite of being terrified about the violence down here and the undeniable challenges of living in a foreign country, more people will be sick enough of the weather and some of the other strange political developments up north so they just decide to brave the unknown and come down. Someone sent an interesting graphic around, via one of the webboards of the ex-pat community:

city safety

Violence in Mexico vs. American Cities

As I write this, it’s eighty-four degrees and sunny, just gorgeous out there. So maybe at least a few people are thinking, gee, it can’t be as bad dealing with the cartels and the narcos as it is with sixteen feet of snow, let’s get out of here. One never knows.

Meanwhile, in the “dealing with another culture” department, after driving around with expired drivers’ licenses for months (thank god I still have a valid NM license!) We actually got our Jalisco licenses renewed today! We are both in a state of shock. We have been trying for months to get this done. But every time we have gone over to the license place, we apparently needed a different piece of paper, a different document, a newer document, a newly issued I.D. number, some crazy thing, result being that we have had an awful time. Arnold – rightly – was concerned about driving himself around town with no valid license; the gossip is that they can impound your car – I am not sure whether that is true or not but neither of us wanted to take a chance. So I have been doing pretty much all the driving for the past several months, with Arnold only taking the car out himself when I had to stay here for workers or to be on duty for something in connection with the remodeling. It has gotten old and inconvenient and we are both sick of my having to be the chauffeur-in-chief, so once he got back from the States and his surgery done with, we picked up the thread and tried yet again to get all the paperwork in order.

There was one final document – kind of like a Mexican social security number – that we needed and after months of waiting and engaging a facilitator to help us get these numbers for each of us, we finally got them and the moment came for us to venture back to the license office to try yet again. We decided we’d get up early, BE there at 8:30 when they opened (so as to avoid a two-hour wait in line), and hand all our documents over like good little kids and hopefully be back home in time for our architect to stop by and review some items with us. So we packed up everything in a nice folder and hied ourselves to Chapala, where we were third in line (easy!) and strode confidently up to the little desk. Whereupon the transito cop processing the documents told us that we had to go BACK to the recaudadora (car tax office) and pay another twenty pesos each because we had paid for our new licenses a few months ago but as of the first of the year the cost had gone up. WHY they couldn’t have told us this when we were there the last time and they scrutinized our documents with the receipt in plain sight, I have no idea, since it was just a short week ago. But – hey, bienvenidos a Mexico and all that.

So we RAN, literally RAN, over to the recaudadora, made our way to the front of THAT line, paid the freakin’ $20 pesos or whatever it was, RAN back and by then of course there were a ton of people in line. But we were not to be deterred. Actually, it wasn’t too bad and this time we just stuck it out till we made it to the front of THAT line. After an excruciating wait while the officials checked everything in minute detail,  they grudgingly had to admit that everything was “correcto” so they took our photos and our fingerprints and to our amazement they finally said “wait here for a few minutes and we’ll call you when the licenses are ready”.

Ten minutes later the little machine spat out our new licenses and we flew out of there clutching them to our hearts before they changed their minds! They are good till 2018!

End of an Era

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Last cleanup and ready for its new owner…

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The terraza where we spent so many hours sitting, talking, watching the hummingbirds, listening to the fountain. Deserted and quiet, but its new owners are on the way, to give it new life and turn it into a home again.

End of an Era

After we moved out of the old house, it became harder and harder to go back there – to keep an eye on the place, give instructions to the increasingly lazy gardener (who knew his time there was limited), keep the pumps and water systems running, pay the bills, keep the property from slowly succumbing to the encroachment of the vines and plants that grow like weeds here, even in the winter.  We both knew we had to check in over there every few days and make sure there weren’t any leaks or disasters, but seeing it vacant was hard, after we’d put so much energy and money into it. And at the new place, there was the noise and dust and invasion of the remodeling. It wasn’t like you could go back home and sit on your terrace, drink in hand, and enjoy the new digs in peace. It was hard to do our obligatory visits to the now-vacant house with the dusty “Se Vende” sign out in front. The neighborhood kids had pulled all the numbers of the agency’s phone number off the sign, making it look even more deserted and forlorn.

Every time I went back there, I had to confront the mystery of why I was so ready to leave my once-beloved home behind, which was complicated for me and very confusing. I could remember placing every plant and rosebush in the soil, the dinner parties we’d had there, the houseguests who were discovering our little corner of Mexico for the first time. I could remember figuring out where each tree or that shrub should go, measuring this and planning that, remodeling the kitchen, my bathroom, building the casita. Every square inch of the place has the mark of my hand and my eye and my design sense. But for some mysterious reason – my mother’s death and the finality of being free of having to care for my parents? Having inherited much of their furniture which just didn’t really FIT? My own heading into toward my seventies and wanting something very different for myself? Who knows, but in spite of how hard it was to say goodbye, I was ready to do it.

After going through the emotional part of deciding to sell it, to have hardly any showings once we had signed the listing papers was a big letdown. We could say to ourselves over and over again “well, people are afraid to move to Mexico now”, “things in the States are bad and people can’t sell their houses up there” or whatever we thought would make us feel better as of that moment. But the reality was that the house was on the market for over a year and we knew we were going to have to reduce the price to a ridiculous level to even think about selling it. So once again we felt very stuck, and the longer it went on the more frustrated we got – with the real estate people, with the economy, with the gods, with each other. Living with the disruption of the ongoing work here at the new house most certainly did not help.

But to our amazement an offer came in – not what we had hoped to get for the house, especially given that we had poured a ridiculous amount of money into it fixing and remodeling (thanks for the remodeling gene, Mom). But the thought of really being able to close that chapter and move on proved to be far too tempting. After just enough negotiation so that all parties felt that they had been able to get the best possible deal, we signed off on it and as of two days ago, the house now has new owners and we can get on with our lives. They wanted a quick closing and so did we, and last week, after a whole bunch of work scrambling to get all the requisite documents together, the deed was done, and the house is finally sold.

It is interesting how you can live in a house and feel that it is home, enjoy fixing it up and making it your own, work to get things “just right” for yourself visually, practically and dare I say spiritually – and then one day, just like that, you wake up dissatisfied and feel that you are ready to move on. It’s like a lover, or a marriage gone wrong, I guess – things can appear to be fine one minute and then the next minute, for a variety of reasons, the whole thing is just over with and there is no going back. I swore we wouldn’t even START to look for a new house until we had sold the old one, but curiosity got the better of me – Arnold too – and we went out looking and of course once we saw the house that was going to become our new casa we moved ahead full steam not only to buy it, but then immediately to undertake a seven-month remodel that almost finished both of us off. The house was already bigger than the old one. Truthfully, in my renegade Princess heart I loved the idea that whereas everyone around us, now in their sixties and seventies, is downsizing, we found a house that was bigger AND to make matters worse, we added a couple of rooms to it and redid the kitchen.

Fortunately, the couple who bought the house have turned out to be delightful people and they appear to really love the place, which is gratifying. I am happy that the house now has new owners who can take it to the next level, and I’m on to whatever comes next in my own life. The remodeling of the new house is not yet complete but we can see the end of it, truly, within the next several weeks, and the daily workers have all gone, so at last I am getting a sense of what it is like to live here without feeling the need to be dressed and presentable pretty much all the time. All that remains is the installation of my stove hood, which requires a part that’s on order, and finishing up of the little bathroom in my office, also needing a faucet that has been ordered, and once those items show up, there will be a final flourish of workers running around for a day or two and then that will, for all intents and purposes, be it.

With no more workers ringing the gate bell at 8 a.m., and days of being able to be here without interruptions, I have started my exercise program up again and have begun the process of setting up the ceramics studio outside in the little casita, which Wendy insisted (rightly) that we do as soon as the workers were gone. It made sense since they were no longer using both the bathroom out there and the rest of the casita for storage of all their tools, coils of wire, and other supplies. So that lies ahead of me, organizing all that and hopefully getting back to my ceramics and whatever other art and craft projects seem like they might be fun.

Arnold had yet another nasty skin cancer which he decided to have removed in New York, so he has been gone for two weeks dealing with that, and I remained behind to deal with the business end of selling the other house and to be present for the closing. As I write this, he is on his way back and should arrive later tonight. He saw opera, went to concerts, saw a couple of museum shows he was curious about, and of course did a bit of shopping and on the days when it wasn’t snowing, walking all over New York as is his wont. Yet even he is saying he got sick of the really cold weather there this winter, and I know when he gets out into the fresh air, even heading for the parking lot at the Guadalajara airport with Luis, I can imagine him taking off the heavy woolen New York coat, then his heavy woolen Nueva York sweater, stowing the luggage in the back of the car, burden lightened and relieved and happy to be heading back up the hill towards Lake Chapala. They assured him they got all the cancer off his scalp and we can only hope and pray that it’s true, and we can begin to really settle in to our new place, finish the last of the unpacking and organizing, and enjoy the bright Mexican spring.

Slogging along…

My kitchen these days....

My kitchen these days….

Will it ever end?

Will it ever end?

A long overdue update, albeit a brief one. It’s crazy to post things about remodeling, but some faithful readers have asked how things are going with our “gran obra”, so here’s where we are (god help us).

As with so many remodeling projects, we have had a few unwelcome surprises, and one of them was in our kitchen. Behind the cabinets they found a bunch of horrible black mold along the outside wall. Smelly and pretty disgusting, if truth be told. When the guys dug in there and pulled everything out, it appeared that for some insane reason rather than using concrete on the walls for the kitchen interior the original builders had used plaster, which is of course the biggest moisture-magnet there is. The cabinets went up against this, and whatever moisture there was is trapped in there, rotting the cabinets and causing other problems. This wall faces the garden where of course there is irrigation, rain, and so forth. I was telling the chief guy on our crew, Antonio, when he discovered this awful black mold on the back of the cabinets that I have plaster molds I use in ceramics to drape slabs over for platters etc. precisely BECAUSE it wicks away a tremendous amount of moisture and hastens the drying of the clay. Anyway that has slowed us down by at least a week because they now have had to take the walls – all of them – down to the original brick to see how bad and where the mold is, then they will put a special moisture-resistant cement up over all of it, let THAT dry, before they can re-finish the walls and reinstall the cabinetry at its new, lower level. They are dropping all the granite-topped cabinets down a little over two inches, which sounds like not much but it will make a huge difference to my back over the years. Even ARNOLD said, the other day “you didn’t hear it here” (which is how he prefaces anything where he is going to admit he was hassling me unjustifiedly) “but these counters ARE high” (as he was slicing up a limon for his drink).

I knew that the dropping of the counters and treating myself to a new stove was going to involve some moving things around in the kitchen. But I didn’t plan on having to anything this extensive. Nonetheless, we have had to deal with it, and here is what my kitchen looks like as of this morning….all the contents thereof are stacked and piled, (including the cabinets) out on the terraza, where of course they are becoming covered with dust mostly from what they are bashing out in the kitchen itself! We put my parents’ old microwave into service up on the outdoors bar counter (it is so ancient that it takes five minutes to heat up a bit of water for coffee), the toaster oven got moved out there, the little dorm refrigerator is coming in handy, the coffee grinder etc. So you get up in the morning and put on a robe and go outside to make coffee and fix some breakfast al fresco as best you can!  I am having to feed the cuatro gatos and Reina in the living room because the kitchen is all covered with plastic and closed off.

Then the lock to the second story hallway door disintegrated and fell down into the door so we are having a helluva time keeping it closed and animals off the open roof till the aluminum guys show up to repair it. So far with the remodeling in the New Year, 1 cat got out, 1 cat threw up all over some really nice art books, one cat fell off the balcony down one level into the front garden fountain (Rosie the little Abyssinian – she survived the fall just fine but once rescued from the water, slithered off to groom herself, beyond embarrassed that she was seen in public with wet legs and tail). Arnold can’t even FIND his vodka bottle (kitchen contents all stacked up in piles outside on the terraza) and with half a dozen workers tromping around all day, all hell continues to break loose here. We will have to continue camping out like this for a couple more weeks, I am sure. Of course now the kitties aren’t allowed out there after Rosie’s misadventure so they are really pissed off and being aggressive with each other again because the constant banging, dust clouds, and drilling through cement with power saws affects them too, the racket much of the time is horrific.

Anyway onward and upward. One of the guys is busy replacing chipped and stained old tile in my shower, and since he’s in there basically from 8 till 6 I have moved into the guest bathroom for the moment. So at either end of the house there are people working and we just kind of huddle where we can in the middle. Arnold is eagerly starting to pack for his annual bachelor trip to New York to see a bunch of theater and opera. After years of dealing with the snowy Santa Fe winters, I opt out of anything involving even the remote possibility of snow, but off he goes to run around happily in New York for at least a week every winter. And I con him into bringing me back whatever I absolutely MUST have from the States, of course. He at least knows he is OUTTA here at 5 a.m. on Saturday, leaving me to deal with the ongoing racket and mess while he is gone. But I don’t mind, I can actually see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel once these last few projects are completed.

So that’s the report in a nutshell. Wish I had something more philosophical to say about all of it, but all I can report for the moment is that I am counting the hours till – much as I am fond of these guys – all of them are gone and I can begin to enjoy the house and figure out what my next Big Project might be. Stand by!