¡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.

The Familia Has Grown!

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Figaro has arrived!

I was awakened at five a.m. this morning by the sound of our neighbor’s dog barking, once again. This miserable dog barks constantly at night; everyone on the street complains to each other about it but no one wants to approach our neighbor about it. The fragility of the peace we enjoy on the block is apparently worth the molestia of this poor dog’s incessant barking. But it also got me to thinking about dogs, what makes them happy and what turns them into neurotic messes, and it reminded me also that in my attempts to once again post something here every once in a while, I have neglected to note the arrival of our newest animalito, who certainly at least hasta la fecha (up until now) counts among the really happy ones.

Indeed, our most significant domestic news is that we have now a wonderful new family member, a rescued Standard Schnauzer puppy we named Figaro after our last schnauzer, who died way too young and was a lovely dog. He has given Reina a new lease on life and the two of them have been inseparable from the moment they laid eyes on each other. Their antics playing and running around the house and garden have had us in stitches much of the time. I had been thinking for quite awhile that it might be a nice idea to look for a second dog to be a companion for Reina – somehow she had severed a ligament in one of her hind legs, and ultimately needed surgery to repair it. While she had recovered perfectly well from the surgery and two nights in the fancy orthopedic veterinary hospital in Guadalajara, she was a bit tentative in running around and had become a lot more quiet. Also, hard to believe, but she is nine years old now….not a puppy herself anymore! So I had been thinking that maybe a second dog might be just the trick to perk her up. But with everything else going on, the usual stream of houseguests and our own travels hither and yon, I never had time to get really serious about it.

Until, one day glancing through Facebook, I saw a post from a woman who was fostering what was apparently a quite fine Standard Schnauzer who had been running loose on the carretera, then had been hit by a car. She and another good samaritan ran to rescue the dog and take him to a vet – it turned out his injuries were minor and after a week of observation and a bath and a proper schnauzer haircut (apparently he had been out there for awhile, and was matted and filthy and pretty miserable) he was now ready for adoption as no one had stepped forward to claim him. When I showed the Facebook post to Arnold he was as curious as I was and – well, it was indeed a schnauzer, his favorite breed. I wrote back to the lady immediately and said we were interested in meeting this dog. It seemed like potentially the best of both worlds: while we both had loved the idea of having another schnauzer, there is no way you can live in Mexico and not rescue a stray. There are just so many in shelters and loose on the streets who need homes. This solved that ethical problem and from the picture he also looked like a particularly fine dog. I just had a funny feeling looking at his pictures, you know, one of those very powerful sensations, that this dog might well be the one for us and I determined to move heaven and earth if I had to, to at least get to meet him. He looked wonderful, cheerful and intelligent, in the Facebook photos. Somehow it just seemed like we had to pursue it.

The lady said “well, there are two people ahead of you who have expressed an interest in him, and I am going to interview them and check out their situations, and if neither of them works out for any reason, I will let you know.” We were of course crestfallen thinking that surely one of those petitioners would work out – it seemed as though quite a number of people had seen the photo of this doggie and suspected that he was something pretty special. The vet had estimated that he was somewhere between six and eight months old; he still had several of his baby teeth. I loved the idea of a younger dog we could train and socialize ourselves. I told her that we were very seriously interested, that we’d had two schnauzers back in the States, and please to keep us posted. Sure enough, the following day she phoned to say Potential Adopters #1 and #2 hadn’t worked out, and were we still interested and available to see the dog? #1, it turned out, was about to depart for a six-week trip leaving this puppy in the care of a housekeeper (or someone) and no, that isn’t the way to bond with a puppy who is newly rescued from what was obviously a terrifying experience out on the streets. #2 was a sadder story – a lady who already had two dogs, a younger one who would have been a fine companion to a new, younger dog, but also had a 15-year-old second dog who was dying of cancer. There was no way the couple fostering Figaro were going to “do that” – e.g. sic an exuberant and playful puppy – on a dog who was clearly in need of as little external stress as possible. So that left us.

It turned out that the dog’s foster parents had a lunch club meeting that day at a restaurant literally a block away from us, so I suggested that they drop the dog off here, see our setup, meet us and our other animals, and then come back after their luncheon and we’d all see how Reina and the new dog were getting along, and take it from there. When they arrived soon thereafter, they could see that our property is totally walled and safe, and it was pretty obvious that this dog was going to have a pretty cool life here.

They brought him in, took his leash off, and we brought Reina out. They sniffed each other, touched noses while all four of us were watching them anxiously for any signs of aggression or discomfort. After two or three minutes of sniffing and investigating, they took off playing and chasing each other across the lawn; then they played and played for a couple of hours until they both just collapsed in a heap for doggie naps; then they woke up and started in again until the foster parents came back from their lunch. When they asked “how is it going?”, all we had to do was point to the black flash alternately chasing or being chased by the white flash across the lawn and then both of them on their backs rolling around on the grass or nuzzling one another. To say they were getting along was the understatement of the century.

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Simultaneous sleeping, after a morning of running around.

So the lady said, “Well, looks like we are just going to leave him with you!” with the caveat that if anything changed they would of course come back and pick him up. It turned out that in her pre-retirement life she had been a dog breeder and exhibitor and she knew dogs and terriers, in particular, very well. She knew this was a special dog and if no suitable new owner had turned up she and her husband were actually planning to keep him themselves.

But he stayed with us; that first night we dragged out Reina’s old crate and he calmly went right into it. He seemed to know what to do; we’ll never know, of course, but we could tell he had been well socialized and how he got out, got lost, escaped, was dumped, and ended up loose on the highway will forever remain a mystery. We have showered him with love and attention; began to “touch up” his housebreaking a bit – there were a few accidents in the house – and get him used to the cats. He is just thriving, of course. He is very smart and easy to train, and Reina continues to think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Luigi and Missoni got used to him very quickly; we have had more trouble with Tabitha who for some reason is terrified of him – he runs around and barks a lot and he is much bigger, of course, than Reina. But even she, gradually, is a bit calmer now around him now and we are hoping that in a few more months she’ll be back to normal. We have a lot of training to do; he barks a lot and jumps up on people, the usual puppy stuff. But for the next month we are home, no travel, no houseguests – so aside from me wanting to get into my studio and finally spend some time in the art world, we’ll have time to work on his training without so many interruptions.

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Arnold and his new best friend on his office sofa….

So now, our little domicile is populated by two humans, three cats and two dogs. All of them, whether originally from Santa Fe or here, are rescues. We are doing our bit for the dog and cat overpopulation problem and having a lot of fun with them all at the same time. To Rosa and Mirella, he is “Figarito”.  ¡Bienvenido!

¡ Feliz Cumpleaños!

Arnold had his eightieth birthday back in August, and true to his fundamentally reclusive nature, despite the entreaties of Rosa, Mirella, and everyone else in our “Mexican family”, he steadfastly refused to have any sort of commemorative fiesta, even a smallish one for our closest friends. He admitted to me that for him, especially now with several stents in his heart and a pacemaker, the marker of 80 was for him a complicated and emotionally challenging birthday. He was quite clear about it – not only did he not wish to have any sort of public acknowledgement of it, he was angling to leave town and head for New York – his favorite stomping ground – and celebrate it privately there, with me, à deux, in a nice restaurant somewhere in Manhattan.

I was happy to grant him his wish – I loved the idea of going off to Nueva York, especially in August – the heat (unlike the cold, which always makes me end up with bronchitis) wouldn’t bother me, and it would be fun to wander all over the city shopping and prowling and eating, enjoying the city. So off we went last August 7, leaving plenty of time to get in and get settled before his real birthday on the 9th; and cashing in a bunch of mileage so we could go Business Class to celebrate the momentous occasion. We got to the Guadalajara airport in plenty of time only to be advised that Delta’s computer system had gone down, and no one was flying anywhere for several hours at the very least. At least the Delta people dragged out a coffee cart and offered coffee and pastries to everyone who was hanging around waiting.

Finally we made it to Atlanta that evening, but the situation was even worse there, no flights in or out. I feared that I was going to have to call the restaurant where I’d reserved a table for us the following evening near our hotel in New York, and cancel because we were apparently going to be stuck in Atlanta for a while. But being in Business Class had its advantages – they found us a hotel for the night and told us to come back in the morning to try to catch an early afternoon flight, as things were by then slowly coming back on line. It sounded like this whole massive meltdown, which brought all of Delta Airlines to its knees, was caused by some funky router the size of a shoebox! Or so they said.

In any event, we ultimately made our way to LaGuardia, and thence to our hotel, threw our bags on the bed, and walked the couple of blocks to the restaurant, and managed to get there literally eight minutes ahead of our 7 p.m. reservation on August 9, Arnold’s actual birthday. After years of experience with air travel, we had planned the extra day just for disasters such as this. We got ourselves settled in our very nice hotel and then spent our remaining days in New York, just as we had said – nothing going on in the way of big-deal concerts, but we enjoyed the city. Arnold said on several different occasions that this was the birthday he had thought he’d like to have. Thankfully the flight back to Guadalajara was completely uneventful, and I was a happy camper because we’d been just in time for all the end-of-season sales for summer weight clothes at some of my favorite stores.

That was fine, but then there remained the matter of my own upcoming 70th birthday, and obviously it was going to fall to me to have the big fiesta. Rosa and Mirella were itching to plan it, and there wasn’t any remodeling going on, no health issues, no plausible excuse – and we did have a lot of friends for whom we needed to reciprocate for various invitations over the past year, and friends we just plain hadn’t seen for awhile. So I sat down with Rosa and Mirella and we began to sketch out an extravaganza that hopefully wouldn’t break the bank and would be fun for everyone. I was also stuck because as it turned out the actual date fell on a Friday. Given that my birthday is December 23, we’d have to deal with the fact that the evenings here are nippy (even if the days are warm and beautiful) – we wanted to have it in the garden, where people could spread out, and for me, live music was “obligatorio”.

One reality about life here in our little Ajijic bubble is that there tends to be a “gringo” price and a “local” price for many things, and often things related to parties fall into the “you will pay the ‘gringo tax’” category. So Rosa and Mirella offered to make all the arrangements so it would be less expensive, and I would discreetly hand them envelopes at the end of the fiesta to pay everyone involved in cash. But the conceit would be that they were throwing this party for us, which was fine with me because they were going to have to deal with most of the logistics themselves anyway. From parties I had been to here over the years, I had managed to save two business cards – one from a guy who comes to your house with a crew and sets up a taco bar “wherever” in your house or on your terraza, including waitstaff and a bartender. Simple! People come and eat gazillions of tacos and guacamole and whatever else they proffer. And Arnold wouldn’t be stuck behind a card table somewhere pouring glasses of vino.

The other dog-eared card was from a lovely trio of older guys who sang the beloved old Mexican songs from the forties and fifties – no amplification – and I thought that would be just the right touch. There would be a guitarrón, a regular guitar, and a requinto, the tiny little guitar you see in mariachi and jarocho music as well. As the daughter of a musicologist, of course I wanted the real deal. Rosa said “they know all the songs you will want, trust me”. And so I did, and they were perfect, even though as it turned out that at the last minute, we lost one of the trio to a gout attack. His doctor had prohibited him from standing, but he sent a buddy to replace him and all was well. I would have loved a mariachi but since a mariachi is usually ten or twelve guys, it would have been a lot more expensive. I’m saving that idea for the next big fiesta, perhaps, in the summer.

I showed both cards to Rosa and said “can you contact these people and say that you’re interested in a party on December 23, and see if they’re available and how much they might charge? Rosa lit up when she saw the musicians’ card – “I know these guys, I have known them for years! They are right here in San Antonio and the leader is an old friend of mine! I’ll call them right away.” Mirella did basically the same thing. She noted that the taquiza guy (the fellow who has the come-to-your-house taco party service) lived just below us on Jesus Garcia and was also basically a neighbor. So the date was reserved, deposits made, and I came up with the guest list – which wasn’t all that hard. Mexican tradition dictates that when you have a fiesta of a certain size, you invite all your neighbors (ref. Quinceañera de Rubí for those of you who followed that whole recent Mexican adventure!) It totaled more than fifty people – I thought, well, let the games begin!

The taco folks then sent me a list of menu options (by WhatsApp, which is what Mexicans use nowadays to communicate) and I had to let them know what we wanted. They would provide a lady to make tortillas on the spot (yum) and then you picked seven fillings, which they would have available buffet-style in earthenware casseroles on a portable stove. We also had our choice of several “botanas”-appetizers – to be on the tables as guest arrived – chips and salsa, or other options. We could have had dessert too but of course we would opt for a cake (from my favorite local bakery). Of course, since Rosa and Mirella arranged it, it was going to be quite a bit less expensive than if I’d made all those calls myself. We decided to do it in the afternoon, comida style, from 3-6 pm rather than in the evening, because it would be dark and much colder by then. And those of us viejitos who like getting home before dark would have no problem.

Arrangements were made for a big outdoor party tent (virtually no chance of rain this time of year, but, still, mejor prevenir que lamentar (better safe than sorry). Five tables of about ten each, out on the lawn, under the tent. People would get up and wander over to the buffet and load up on tacos, and other fixins and the musicians would circulate and play at each table. All was set.

The day before the fiesta the toldo (tent) people would come and set up the tent and deliver the tables, linens, and chairs. I splurged and ordered some very cool looking plastic tableware and napkins from Amazon to be sent down from the States – I just didn’t want the basically awful and flimsy plastic cutlery we could find in the local supermarkets here. So the tables (my mother would have definitely approved) would be pretty.

The morning of the fiesta arrived – I put on a wonderful old antique huipil I had purchased years prior in Mexico City and threw on a favorite crystal necklace; took care of some last minute details, and then waited – and waited- and waited – with increasing gringo panic -for the food people to show up. They said they would be there an hour ahead to set things up and be ready. Well, a la mexicana, at 2:45 p.m. they were still nowhere to be found. I kept asking Mirella to call them, and they said they were on their way. Meanwhile, I was a nervous wreck when at literally ten minutes after the guests were supposed to begin arriving, they showed up, and in a blur of activity, they had everything ready amazingly quickly. I could only conclude that Mexicans do two things with some degree of organization and punctuality – the long-distance buses tend to run exactly on time, and parties seem to come together perhaps at the last minute, but everything magically was ready by the time the first guests actually came into the garden. I was standing out there forlornly looking at the area of lawn we had designated for the taco guy, who was nowhere to be found, when the musicians arrived, and came around the house looking for me, playing the traditional Mexican birthday song, Las Mañanitas as they walked in.

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(If you would like to hear what Las Mañanitas actually sounds like, here is a nice version with Mariachi Vargas. This is a folk song, so of course there are lots of different variations, but I will bet that you recognize it when you hear it! )

The musicians then surrounded me singing, and everyone in the house who was scurrying around with last minute chores came out to the garden to join them. and I felt completely happy and very loved, and even stopped fretting about the food – which arrived about ninety seconds into my birthday serenade and all was well. Everyone, including me, was crying – a good sign for the soon-to-begin fiesta as the guests arrived shortly thereafter. Rosa had apparently hunted all over the place for a crown, which of course I duly put on.

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The party itself was just wonderful – people ate, drank, visited, we had pitchers of margaritas, beer, great food, a beautiful cake (I swore I was going to eat at least a sliver of my own 70th birthday cake, carbohydrates be damned, which I did), and everyone said it was a completely memorable fiesta.

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I had told Rosa, Mirella, and the rest of our “Mexican family” that they were to be guests, and I didn’t want to see any of them in the kitchen, we had waiters for that. And they obeyed! They danced and participated and the kids practiced their English a little bit with our gringo friends. A great time was had by all.

I woke up the next morning 70 years old and none the worse for wear. I’ve determined that to the extent I can I am going to really enjoy this year; a number of my friends who are already in their 70’s said “it’s the best decade ever” – and I can see how, given our very fortunate circumstances and the amazingly interesting (if complicated!) life we have forged for ourselves here, that might actually prove to be the case.

¡Feliz Cumpleaños!

A Hazy Christmas Day, 2016

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 It’s been a long time, but once again, I am back – I decided that WordPress’ email advising me that they were going to charge my credit card for yet another year, and considering that I hardly wrote anything last year, I either had to bail on the blog altogether or try to get back to writing it to justify the ongoing expense. And some of my friends and family have said that they have missed it, so here I am with an update and hopefully some further commentaries as we close in on (May 6, 2017!) our actual tenth year anniversary living in Mexico.

This year has been fun, but hard in some ways, and even setting aside the political craziness back in the Ancestral Homeland, I am not sorry to see it be over with. We now have a beautiful, finished jacuzzi in our back yard and we are enjoying it whenever it’s warm enough to merit heating it up – but building it took eight months, and a bunch of dust, stress, and money, including the Monday-Saturday all-day-long invasion of a ton of workers digging and bashing around from 8 to 6 each day. We also completely redesigned the front entry to the house, with a high new wall, built by Rosa’s husband Jose Luis. It turned out beautifully but the disruption with construction both in back and in front of the house  was a lot to deal with.

Then in other sorta bad news, it turned out that in the middle of all of that, Arnold needed three new stents put in, so off we went to the hospital in Guadalajara for an overnight visit  and had to deal with that. Then shortly thereafter,  I was diagnosed as diabetic and immediately put on medication – which didn’t last too long because I completely rebelled against it and decided I could manage it on my own with my diet. Probably this is a topic for its own separate blog post, it occurs to me now. We also had to put our beloved little Abyssinian kitty Rosie to sleep when she developed a fatal cancer, which she battled bravely until the very end. It was very difficult and we still miss her.

We continue to support Rosa’s daughter Sofia, now in her second year as a law student  at ITESO, one of the best private universities in Mexico. She is doing brilliantly and absolutely loves being a college kid! She turns twenty on Thursday and we’ve planned a celebratory luncheon at a really pretty restaurant here in town (she picked it) for her and her family. The younger kids are doing well too – Nicol and America entering Secundaria (middle school) in the fall, and they are benefiting enormously from the much better quality of education available in an excellent and established Jesuit school. Carlos, the youngest, goes into fourth grade and he is also doing really well and adorable to boot.

Today being Christmas Day, the whole family came over for presents and comida – two days ago I had an enormous party to celebrate my 70th birthday (subject of a separate post, I promise!) so I was way too tired to actually fix food for everyone – we got some pizzas from Domino’s, which fortunately was open today, and called it a day.  Every year the whole family – Rosa and Mirella – who clean my house, and Dani, who does a lot of the handyman tasks – comes over for presents – most of which are practical things and clothing for the kids, which they desperately need) – lunch, cookies, and margaritas on the terrace for the adults. I really enjoy having them sit down on the sofas out on the terrace,  and I bring the margaritas out on a tray for THEM, for a change.

It should be crystal-clear looking out my second-story office window this weekend, but it’s hazy and my contacts sting a bit. The Colima volcano has been erupting on and off for the last few days and if the wind is in our direction, we get a bit of the the dust and ash here. Hopefully it’ll settle down and the sky will clear over the next few days, perhaps in time for New Year’s.

Remodeling and making ceramics again

I’m back up to my old tricks remodeling our house – this time we decided, after much discussion, to add a jacuzzi to our lap pool. We know we’ll enjoy it and obviously guests and family will too. Right now, they are just digging an enormous hole out there, but when it’s done it’ll be great. We are “between” house guests right now and of course it is the dry season so it’s definitely the time for construction, and we have it going on both in front of the house and in the rear, so it’s a bit nuts around here these days, with two crews working at the same time. And in typical Mexican fashion, they arrive around 7:30 a.m., have a quick breakfast under a tree out there, and then are hard at work by 8.

There were two burglaries on our little “privada” a few months ago. It had to happen sometime. In the first, some garden tools were stolen from a neighbor’s cochera (garage) and in the second, the burglars apparently managed to get into the house – it’s a weekend house and the owners are rarely there – wandered around checking things out but for some strange reason didn’t take anything. Still, it made us stop and think that our front fence was sort of a joke for any determined ratero (thief) and we though we should build it up higher and make a solid rock wall with iron spikes on the top. I of course asked our architect for his opinion and he came up with a couple of really great ideas for redesigning the entryway and front garden, and then I began looking at the whole thing with fresh eyes, and now I am doing a bunch of things out there that will make it a lot nicer, in addition to giving us a much greater level of security and privacy.

Having the new wall go up just forced me to finally inaugurate my ceramics studio, which has been unpacked and waiting for my arrival in there for more than two years. I knew there was going to be a big, new, blank cement wall facing the street that just cried out for me to make our own address tile and some other elements that could be embedded into the cement around it. My plan was to have the tiles all done by the time the wall facing the street was ready to be cemented over — and that day was today. Of course it didn’t happen, too many things got in the way — for one thing I’ve had a horrible flu-like bug for a month and am just now coming back to normal. Then when I finally did get out there and get the long-dried-out clay ready to use and all the equipment functioning, we hit an unusual-for-us-here cold spell and the clay I had rolled out and cut has just refused, for at least a week, to dry. So I missed my deadline but rather than get too discouraged about it, I just told the guys to cement it with a half-inch less at the wall surface so we can loop back in a couple of weeks, install the tiles when they are done, and cement it all over then and finish it. I am working on the whole project every day and it will be done in a couple of weeks, I am sure. No real harm done but it would have been nice to have the pieces all ready to go up onto the wall today!

The good thing about the whole exercise is that it did, by hook or crook, finally get me back into ceramics. I have a great little studio now in back of our house – it is too small to house all my stuff but I’m figuring out how I can work with things spread out all over the place. The kiln is in the laundry, the slab roller and extruder are in the cochera, and all the glazing, painting/forming supplies and tools are in the studio itself. There’s a lot of running back and forth between “work areas”, but I figure the one thing I have learned is that – at least, the way I am wired – a studio that is too pretty and clean just doesn’t get used. In our old house, my studio became the guest casita whenever that had to happen. It was such a hassle to clean everything up in order to switch its purpose every few months as we had visitors, that I just stopped working completely after awhile. Now, it seems like it might be different with this crazy arrangement we have here. The guest room is its own separate thing and I don’t need that space for my work, so I have hope that now that I seem to be conquering whatever demons I had blocking me, maybe I will have better luck this time.

It is certainly harder to do my kind of ceramics here in Mexico than it was in the States, which is ironic since so much of my work is built upon and influenced by Mexican folk ceramics. But as a practical matter, the clay is different, the glazes are different, and a lot of the techniques I used back in the old days need to be modified here. But on the other hand I have found a distributor in Guadalajara of at least one kind of the glazes and underglazes I have used for years, and I’ve bought from him every now and then when we have gone into the city. The last time I was in there he said “you know, Señora, for the gas you have to buy to get here, and the time and stress of you coming into my shop, why don’t you just email me your orders, pay me by bank transfer, and I’ll ship your glazes out to you the next day?” I had filed this conversation in my mind at least a year ago, but this week I picked up the phone and called him and asked if he remembered me, the American lady who was trying to do ceramics in her home studio and needing materials. He said of course he remembered me, and what did I need, and he’d get an order together for me and ship it out right away.

I managed to haul myself into the bank in Ajijic to make the bank transfer this morning after I had emailed him my list, replacing dozens of bottles that were nearly empty, dried out, crystallized, and past reviving. So my new supply of glazes and underglazes should be here in a couple of days and now I am researching some new-to-me, at least, clays that are available here and which I can experiment with. Of course you can have things sent from the States, but it is horribly expensive and slow. Plus, one has to think that obviously Mexico is one of the world’s great ceramics centers, and someone or other here has to be selling clay, glazes, tools, whatever people need to do their work. So my job was just to get over my nostalgia for the way I worked back in Santa Fe and begin to figure out what might work here.

It’s been ironic that I’ve had so much trouble getting myself back into the ceramics part of my life, now that I theoretically have all the time in the world, being retired. When I was working my problem was trying to cram precious studio time into nights and weekends, but Santa Fe Clay and the big ceramics supplies store in Albuquerque had absolutely everything and anything I could have wanted. But such is life, I guess – anyway it is fun to be slowly figuring, or re-figuring this whole part of my life out. When the tiles are installed up on the wall I will take some pictures of them and then hopefully start all over again with a new batch of clay. I had forgotten how much fun it is, and hopefully I won’t forget again going forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

QDEP Mom and Dad – April 5, 2015

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Wendy welcoming all the guests.

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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

Jacarandas

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!