¡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.

QDEP Mom and Dad – April 5, 2015


Wendy welcoming all the guests.


The three of us.

We gathered old photos of them for everyone to peruse, setting them out on Wendy's coffee table.

We gathered old photos of them for everyone to peruse, setting them out on Wendy’s coffee table.

Well, I guess I am back to writing – true confessions, I just got too wrapped up in other things for awhile. But people seem to have missed my posts, as rare as they have been, so I have been convinced that I should sit back down at the computer and try to be little more prolific. I mean, let’s try to not have months and months go by without saying anything at all, I told myself. Even Arnold, who is the soul of discretion when it comes to urging me to do anything — I am eternally grateful that he never has hassled me about my weight, for example, no matter how much I was tormenting myself about it over the years – implied every so subtly, in about five well-chosen words, that he thought I might be well served (somehow) to get back to my blog.

Actually, a few significant things have happened – we did go up to Los Angeles for ten days, and scattered my parents’ ashes (Ava’s were scattered on Lake Chapala) back in April. We had a memorial service for both of them in under the big trees in Wendy’s back yard and we were surprised that well over thirty people remembered them enough to want to attend, even after a couple of years since their respective departures.

Wendy found a very nice, very Reform, rabbi to officiate so we actually sent them off – even if a bit late – with Kaddish and the 23rd Psalm and a few other ceremonial niceties in a quite lovely afternoon gathering, followed by an enormous feast procured from what everyone told us was the best Jewish deli in the San Fernando Valley. We figured the “nosh” part they would have loved, especially my dad. We ordered a platter of whitefish in his honor. Arnold made up a collection of music they both loved to be played – some Mahler, some Joshua Bell, and of course a pastiche of some of Dad’s music. But the rest of it — they were both so anti-religion, both so totally secular all their lives, that up till the end we had some misgivings about whether this was what they would have actually “wanted”. But Wendy wanted it and some of our older relatives found it very moving and appropriate. And Wendy still insists that our dad once confided to her that he wished he had had a bar mitzvah and certainly as he grew older – well, both of them, really – more Yiddish crept into their speech. Ultimately, being Jewish was certainly a big part of who they were, no matter how you slice it.

We had gone back and forth – for a couple of years, really – about where to scatter their ashes – here, in Lake Chapala or somewhere nearby? back in L.A.? Venice? We had always joked with Mother about scattering her ashes in the Beverly Hills Saks. But at the end of the day we decided that Mexico wasn’t right, a memorial park (even a nice Jewish one in the Valley somewhere) wasn’t right, the ocean or a forest somewhere wasn’t right either. Actually, other than gathering for cocktail-hour drinks around their pool in Encino they were the least outdoors-y people you would ever meet. Thus, for a long time, and maybe that was just adjusting to the finality of the whole thing, nothing seemed quite right, so they stayed in my bedroom closet in their nice Mexican urns on a high shelf for a couple of years while life went on and unconsciously, I suppose, we sorted it out in our minds. For Mom, hanging out in my closet with all my (and some of her) clothes and Ferragamo shoes seemed perfectly comfortable, at least for the time being. Dad probably would have wanted to be near her (though inevitably they would have hissed at each other and fought) so that part seemed all right as well, at least for the time being.

But we all felt we had to do something more with their ashes, and WHAT to do with them was always in the back of our minds. As horrible as it was, the thought of US dying with them still stashed in my closet was not something we wanted to contemplate. So we mulled it all over and invariably talked about it when the three of us were together, around their – now our – dining room table here at our house in Mexico.

At the end of this process we felt that Encino was, in a weird way, where they had perhaps been happiest – young and glamorous, with the replaced-every-few-years red Jaguars and the restored-every-few-years MG in the carport, and family outings to various restaurants and concerts at the L.A. Opera or the Philharmonic. So the Encino hills felt right and Wendy discovered that since much of the mountain range behind their old house has since been made into a state park, that you could actually drive up into the park and look out over the San Fernando Valley and have their old house pretty much directly below you. The trees had long grown up too tall to see the house itself, but we knew exactly where it was from various landmarks – the water tank on top of the hill at the end of the road, where we had often taken walks, their street itself, the neighboring houses and empty lots where both of us had hiked and wandered around as kids.

A few days before the memorial service we went over to the deli and asked to speak with the catering manager to put in our order. Of course he wasn’t in any way Jewish – he was a Mexican from Jalisco and before we even got down to talking about the food for the event we spent a half hour chattering away with him both in English and Spanish about Mexico and his life as an immigrant in Los Angeles, and how he had started as a dishwasher in the deli but now had worked his way up to being the catering manager. He knew more about Jewish food in his pinkie than I ever will. He so enjoyed meeting us that he sent us back to Wendy’s with (gratis) bags of rugulach and hamentaschen, apart from our catering order. We knew we were probably ordering way too much food but we figured we’d share it with everyone in doggie bags – they even gave us a stack of takeaway containers because “this always happens” – and in the spirit of Mom and Dad, we sort of didn’t care, we just wanted it to be a great spread reminiscent of their own great parties. One thing we knew for sure was that they both would have approved of a fiesta.

Early the morning of the memorial service Arnold, Wendy and I drove up to the park with a discreet bag containing both sets of ashes and we hiked up the main trail. Other people had similar-looking bags, so we figured we were weren’t the only ones with this idea. It was very nice up there, actually, and since it was a Sunday, there were all sorts of folks walking around up there, riding bikes, hiking up or down the more difficult trails. Wendy carefully opened the bags and scattered their ashes – some together, some apart – on a promontory right where they would be overlooking their old, much loved, home on Gable Drive – with the valley spread out below them. It was a slightly foggy morning – but we knew there would be those clear days when you can see every detail even of the mountains ten miles across the Valley where Wendy lives now – and at night, of course, it is a carpet of glittering lights – très Hollywood – and on smog-free evenings, we used to enjoy that view all the time from our living room windows when we lived up there.

We all felt better that evening, after the last guest had gone. I guess there had indeed been some “closure”, and for Arnold and me, who never get deli food down here, the reception after the memorial service was a highlight. It was good to see so many friends and family members there. We tried hard to do whatever would have been appropriate and “what they would have wanted” but as we all know now, with 20-20 hindsight, they were increasingly incapable of dealing with even the most important details of their future lives as they aged. Having any kind of conversation about them about their inevitable ends proved to be impossible (though every once in a while, in financial planner mode, I would take a doomed stab at it), so we ultimately just had to wing it. We did the best we could. Que En Paz Descansan.

Spring and the Jacarandas are in Bloom


Spring along the malecon and kids’ play area, Chapala

Arnold commented that I hadn’t put any details about our European trip on the blog, and I guess the truth is that when we got home at the end of October, after a month away, I was pretty tired and ready to just chill for awhile back in my own house and enjoy sleeping in my own bed. And of course, traveling to Europe with my professional photographer nephew-in-law Eric made it into a photography trip rather than a writing trip; I took hundreds of images and we had a lot of fun posting them on Facebook and having friends follow our progress through Italy. Then Wendy, Arnold and I went off to Paris for a great week, eating our way through every bakery and charcuterie we could try in Montmartre, where we stayed in a perfectly delightful apartment.

So of course when we got back home and all the excitement was over, everything ground to a halt for awhile, and before I knew it it was my birthday in December, then Christmas, then time for our annual week in Puerto Vallarta, and now here I am realizing that I haven’t put anything up on the blog in months. The months that passed were all so – well, quotidian, and the point of the blog always was to record our adventures adjusting to our lives as expats, and the contrasts between our new life here and our old life back in the States. But the contrasts, aside from the deep differences in the world-view of most Mexicans and ours, seem to me to be be diminishing somewhat, at least here in our little bubble by the lake. Where I look for contrast and cultural differences, more often than not something interesting happens that makes the two countries seem to be approaching each other — even though I know it’s just an illusion…scratch the surface and those deep differences will quickly appear. But, I also think I am just increasingly accustomed to life here; things that would have really thrown me a few years ago seem normal by now.

Still, there are little subtle changes all the time here as Mexico continues to stumble into the First World. I went into the post office the other day to mail a package of real estate information to a friend who is planning to move down here sometime this year; I paid for the package and proudly Jorge, the young post office manager, handed me a little slip of paper with a bar code on it. “Look, Señora,” he said. “It’s a tracking slip. Now you can track your package all the way to where it crosses the border into the U.S.” Of course this won’t tell me whether it will have actually GOTTEN to him in California, or when, since once the envelope crosses the border and hits customs, the Mexican tracking number is useless for the U.S. Postal Service, but, hey, it is a start. Some day they will probably have some cooperative agreement between the two postal services where the tracking number will work in the U.S. too, but that is probably years away. At least now I was able to look up the package and it said it’s en route, which I guess means I don’t have to worry that it’s still stuck in the Ajijic post office, forgotten under a pile of magazines or something. Poco a poco, like we say around here; little by little.

I’m aware that the apparent ease of my adjustment might only be a fond dream for many of the other foreigners around here, who battle daily with cultural differences and the language barrier makes it endlessly frustrating for many of them. I have the advantage of speaking Spanish, so things that might confound me or confuse some other person who is trying to sort out what’s really happening, almost always really have an explanation. Sometimes it might be almost fanciful – like the time a plumber told me that the reason he hadn’t called me nor answered his phone when I repeatedly tried to contact him was because his cell phone fell down into an aljibe (water storage tank) he was cleaning out, and he had to get some money together to purchase a replacement. Many people here simply wouldn’t believe such a tale, and would think the guy was just being stereotypically Mexican, not wanting to deal with clients (until “mañana”) – but I was perfectly willing to accept his alibi and get on with my life. I actually enjoy these screwball stories most of the time, just shake my head, and figure whatever needs fixing will be fixed eventually and I should just chill. Maybe I’ve lived here too long.

So once again, the jacarandas are in bloom, littering the streets with purple blossoms with every little breeze. Life is steaming along for everyone in our little circle; Sofia will be graduating from preparatoria in July, and she is already deep into the process of applying to universities and figuring out where – courtesy of us, pretty much – she will want to go. We tried and tried to get her a visa to come with us to the U.S. but it has proven to be impossible, so we have given up on it. It’s the topic of another blog post, but the long and short of it is that the U.S. government refused her a visa to come to the U.S. as a tourist for a couple of weeks on her spring break, convinced she was lying and that she wanted to go up there to work. They never even would look at the stack of documents she had prepared before her interview there; the whole misadventure was a horrible and, dare I say, expensive, fiasco.

But kids spring back from most disappointments, and after she was denied a visa for the second time, she just recommitted herself to her studies and pulled her grade average up to a 9.6, which will greatly enhance her chances for a nice scholarship at one of the colleges she has picked out. Now she is seeing the end of prepa, kind of like the horse seeing the barn, and she’s working really seriously to get her grades up as far as she can between now and June, when she will take her final exams.

The three younger kids are all doing well in their first year in private school, thriving with nice new friends from good families and tons of homework and real books and real lessons, none of which really happened at the underfunded and overcrowded public school in San Antonio, where they had been going before (and not learning much of anything). It has been fun to watch them blossom in their new environment.

One thing we are facing, rather resignedly and sadly, is that both my parents’ ashes and those of Arnold’s daughter Ava, have been languishing in the bedroom closet. It has been ten years since Ava died, and we have decided we need to send all three of them to their final resting places. More on that in a subsequent post, I promise.

The Fall has arrived

Fall has arrived and with it nippy morning and evening temperatures, and an almost weekly frente frio – cold front – which means put on a sweater and perhaps socks once the sun goes down, and throw an extra cover on the bed. There is no ice or snow here except once every decade or two, thank goodness. And mostly it is gloriously warm during the days. None of the houses here have heat, so we are creative about bundling up a bit at night and then ditching all that stuff once the sun gets high enough in the late morning to return temperatures to their usual norms.

Everything is very tense and scary out there – but it is only because I read and watch the news. Thousands of people marching in protest of the killings in Guerrero, and all the other “desaparecidos” and victims of Mexico’s corrupt police and government – but honestly, if you didn’t turn on your computer or, god help us, your TV set, you would never know anything was going on here. There have been a couple of silent – people dressed in black and carrying candles – protest marches in Chapala and Ajijic. We actually might have gone but we had workers here and it would have been complicated to leave the house. We can only hope that someone out there gets the message that they can make their trade deals with China and everyone else till the vacas come home but until and unless Mexico gets serious about addressing the corruption that has plagued the country for centuries, it will never be able to fulfill even a tiny bit of its potential. It is sad, because there IS tremendous potential here for improvement and economic growth if the problems were addressed in a serious way.

Meanwhile here, things are tranquil. In spite of the protests and killings and the rest of the goings-on, I still tell friends who are jittery about visiting us here that not to come to Lake Chapala is like not going to visit San Francisco because of all the violence in Ferguson. The biggest controversy we have had lately is that the Chapala municipal government decided to move some utilities underground and at the same time, repair some aging sewer lines and such in Ajijic. They took that opportunity to re-do the ancient cobblestones in parts of the “centro” cementing them down, and putting in some flatter stones that will be easier to walk and drive on. Elements of the expat community put up a howl of protest, saying they were wrecking Ajijic’s traditional charm and the gringos had no business telling the Mexicans what to do with their village – a reaction to the numerous falls, sprained ankles, broken elbows and arms, that befall our aging community especially when they don’t look where they are going. In cocktail party conversation there is always griping about the cobblestones and how hard they can be to navigate – easy to trip on and slippery in the rain.

But the government said no, no, this didn’t have anything to do with us, it was in the long-range plans of the municipality for many years – basically we may think we have that much power around here but we don’t. Meanwhile, when the expats quieted down long enough to notice that the newly redone streets are turning out to be very pretty, with charming designs (fish, and other water themes as befits a town beside a lake) set into the pavers by the ever-creative Mexican artisans, they suddenly became very quiet about the whole project.

We spent most of the month of October in Italy, including a final week in Paris. As we had planned, the disposition of the sale proceeds of Mother’s violin went to a quite wonderful trip to Italy, with my sister Wendy, Arnold and me taking my niece Saida and her husband to see Milan, Florence, and of course the promised land, Venice. My mother had promised Saida a trip to Venice when she graduated from college. She duly graduated but the promised trip never happened. It was, alas, typical of my mother to promise all sorts of things she never made good on. My history is also littered with those unkept promises so I was particularly keen – as was my sister – to right this omission. My mother loved Venice and thus we felt it was even more appropriate for us to use the proceeds from its sale to take “the kids” there, as the final theory as to the violin’s provenance was that it was, after all, Venetian.

So off we went, for nearly a month; then Saida and Eric went back to their lives and their kids in Los Angeles, and Wendy, Arnold and I stayed on for another week in Paris. It was really fun, but a fair amount of running around and I, at least, was glad to get home and look forward to a couple of months’ stretch in which we have no travel plans, so I can start on some of the projects I have had pending for awhile. Finally, I unpacked the four stuffed cartons of old photographs that we’d been toting from house to house for decades – and Arnold has taken on the project of organizing them, tossing duplicates and blurry shots. In the pre-digital era, you just had to take so many more pictures, it seems to me, to get the exposure and focus right and unlike now, when you just delete the useless things right in your camera, back then you paid to have the whole lot developed and somehow those bad ones stayed in the little envelope right along with the great shots, never to be seen unless you unpacked the whole lot. We’ve got some albums and we will organize the “winners” in those and hopefully reclaim some storage space in our closets.

We have been without power (you can imagine) because CFE, the Federal Electricity Commission, turned our power off without any warning! We did indeed go solar, and the process of pulling out the old meters and putting in a special new one that is capable of measuring what you send BACK to them involves a total change in your CFE account to a special one with a new account number for solar customers. You get billed once a month instead of once every two months and there are some other things that are different about a solar account, which I am slowly learning the hard way. Anyway it turned out that they never sent us a bill (sound familiar?) because the total was just $18 PESOS! for the entire month of October. (This is about $1.35 in U.S. dollars). We were told that we shouldn’t worry about it, that they wouldn’t cut us off for a measly 18 pesos so we sort of forgot about it until last week when all of a sudden the whole house went dark as we sat there having dinner. I knew something was weird because it was only us – the street lights were all on, etc. Anyway, they cut us off and I didn’t even have an account number to be able to pay it online. We couldn’t get out of the carport because we also need to have our ironworker, Reynaldo, come and fix the emergency release on the carport door, so we were stuck.  Turns out that in the old days it was a human being that reviewed all the arrears accounts and if it was a tiny sum, indeed the person would decide to just add it to your next month’s bill. But recently the human being was changed to a computer; the computer sees arrears, whether it’s a peso or five thousand pesos, and off your electricity goes.

Danny to the rescue – he came over to help out and spent the morning using all his contacts to hunt up a roving CFE crew who could turn our power back on. He sent them over as fast as he could, and of course there was big propina (tip) to “put us at the head of the line” to have the power connected – otherwise it would have been five more days! And me with a refrigerator and freezer full of Thanksgiving stuff. All over eighteen blankety-blank pesos! In the middle of it all, I tried to remind myself as I sat there in the dark unable to do anything, that the good news was that our entire CFE bill for the month WAS only 18 pesos. In spite of the rocky start, the solar is working and it really is sort of amazing.

This year’s fiestas patronales have started in Ajijic.  Pretty much every town and village has a nine-day fiesta honoring its patron saint. We were out for dinner last week with a friend and our dinner was interrupted – rather pleasantly, I thought! – by the enthusiastic ringing of all the church bells a block away and a ton of rockets going off. The whole center of town, around the Plaza, is blocked off by rides – a Ferris wheel and a little carousel, and tramplines, bumper cars, carnival games, and such for the kids. Lots of other games, street food, portable bars set up in the plaza, and a street market that opens every night. It is always fun. We may wander down there one of these evenings during the nine days the fiesta is on, honoring San Andres, St. Andrew, Ajijic’s patron saint.

The fiesta in Ajijic also signals the beginning of the holiday season and for us expats that means Thanksgiving and of course Christmas. More and more Mexican Christmas is starting to feel like U.S. Christmas. With Wal-Mart and other U.S. chain stores having such a large presence down here no one should be surprised that – just like back in the Ancestral Homeland – the Christmas balls and light-up Santas now begin to appear on shelves just after Halloween. We are already trying to figure out the season’s entertainments – looks like we will have Christmas here with Rosa’s family and some of our own friends. We know it will be a lot of fun to watch the kids open their presents and I am reminded that I need to go into Guadalajara soon, to one of the big toy stores to rustle up some goodies for them!

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!