Author: Jillian Sandrock

Retired in Mexico after a number of varied careers in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors - married, am a classical music and opera nut, have my own ceramics studio (not enough time to work in it!). Aside from running a household here, I am trying to learn as much as I can about Mexico and its culture - every day brings some sort of new lesson, that's for sure!

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!

Summer is coming for sure

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

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

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

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

city safety

Violence in Mexico vs. American Cities

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

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

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

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

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

End of an Era

Image

Last cleanup and ready for its new owner…

Image

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

End of an Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slogging along…

My kitchen these days....

My kitchen these days….

Will it ever end?

Will it ever end?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hither and Yon

From this.....

From this…..

20131110_173047

to this, in just a couple of easy months!

Finally, we have come to the end of the tales of my mother’s violin, and all the follies surrounding its place in our family’s lore. Over the years we admittedly rolled our eyes but also tried to sympathize with the mythic status it held for her (she always referred to it as “the Guarnerius” even though my father would chide her as he knew there was a virtual certainty that the label inside it was a fake and that it was no Guarnerius, but rather something else entirely, though no one knew quite WHAT it actually was. The sad thing is that he, with a doctorate in musicology, would have so enjoyed the process of figuring out the mystery of its true provenance, but even he couldn’t handle the idea of separating mother from her beloved fiddle and the family legends that surrounded it, even years after she was no longer capable of playing it. So there it sat for a decade, and like their enormous house, the whole issue fell to us to resolve. Once the decision had been made to sell it, the process of determining what it in fact was, and doing what we needed to do to get it out of our rather sad clutches and off to a new life somewhere, took on a life of its own.

Finally, after having been flown hither and yon, cleaned and examined, scrutinized and evaluated by both Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York and London, and lastly Ingles and Hayday, the new firm started by the former stringed instrument experts at Sotheby’s, the violin was accepted for auction in London on October 29. “Let’s go”, said Arnold, always eager for a travel adventure and thinking it would be appropriate for him, me and Wendy to all be present for the final step in our family’s caring for this iconic heirloom. Kind of like those Piaget watch ads where the mother is wearing the Piaget watch in a domestic scene with her little girl, and the ad says “you don’t own this, you just take care of it for the next generation”. The wood in the violin was dated to 1681 and thus that violin has been around a long, long time. So maybe close to a hundred years in our family and then, on to its next stop.

Wendy was dying to go to London anyway, and we all agreed it would be fun to jump on the Eurostar and include Paris in the visit (why not…it is SO close….we all said). So we cashed in a bunch of miles so we could go Business Class as a treat and respite from all the dust and chaos of remodeling, and off we went. The timing was perfect because Arquitecto Roberto suggested that as the guys were going to be taking out the massive (beautiful but leaky, dangerous, and damaged) skylight in our living room and replacing it with far safer and more practical glass block, the next couple of weeks would be a really convenient time for us to be GONE. How could we resist? We knew the removal of the skylight was going to be a nightmare of noise, falling glass, possibly perilous for us and the pets, and Rosa insisted that she was happy to stay in the house, and take care of everything while we were away.

So on October 16 we got on a plane for Atlanta, thence nonstop to Paris where we spent a delightful ten days or so. We all just loved it, had some wonderful food and shopping, spent hours in various museums, saw my young cousin Katie who lives there with her family. We all drank in the civilization, the quality of everything – and yes, the expense. The elegance of the Parisian women, the interesting way London has become a truly global metropolis. It was interesting to sit in restaurants next to Muslim women with headscarves and contrary to our perception of them as oppressed and miserable, they were chatting, laughing, and at least outwardly seeming to be having a great time out and about in the city. We saw great art, wonderful shops, and admired the smoothly functioning and readily accessible public transport in both cities. I prowled around Westminster Abbey for old times’ sake (back in the day, it was a major grantee of the Skaggs Foundation and part of my honeymoon in England was spent on a memorable site visit there). We took tour buses and gaped at Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, saw the Crown Jewels, had fish and chips in pubs, ate all the Poilâne bread we could cram into ourselves, and walked both cities for hours on end.

However, shortly before it was time for us to head for London, I knew I was coming down with some awful cold thing. Horribly sore throat, fever, chills, coughing, sneezing, the whole nine yards. I knew that the stress of the last few days at home getting ready to leave, combined with the noise and dust and chaos of the house, had gotten to me at last. I had a big list of things I wanted to do in both cities but I just felt too awful to press on after awhile, with fever and chills and aches and all that. I soldiered on as best I could but by the time we got to London I was too sick to even contemplate getting out of bed, so I thought I’d just take a couple of days off and try to lick the bloody bug.

It helped, but sadly, I was just too sick to go to the violin auction itself. Wendy and Arnold went, off on the red double-decker bus down to Oxford Circus and Sotheby’s, where the auction was held and I stayed back in our rented flat trying to get some rest. When they came back later that day, they reported that it had all been rather perfunctory and that in fact I hadn’t really missed much, though they were very glad they had gone. My mother’s violin was Violin #8 in their beautiful printed catalog. The theory of the Sotheby’s folks was that rather than having been a Guarnerius it was a Venetian maker, late 18th century, and that was pretty much that. A dealer had expressed an interest in it when the violins (and there were some in the auction that sold for six figures) were available for inspection and playing, and he ended up purchasing it for the reserve price of £11,000, about $17,000 USD. There were no other bidders. We were both relieved that it had sold relatively painlessly but of course, our secret hopes for a last-minute Antiques Roadshow moment where we found ourselves in possession of a half a million bucks were forever dashed.

We would have liked to have met the buyer and told him all about the violin’s history with our family, sentimental types that we are. We thought for sure someone would be interested in its coming to the U.S. from Hungary close to a century ago with my grandfather, its having been a wedding gift to my mom, its life with our very musical family, the hours it played chamber music in my parents’ living room, and so forth. But, apparently not. He picked up the fiddle and the two bows that were sold with it, wrote out a check, paid for it and was gone. The funds are to be wired to our bank account, after they deduct the auction house’s costs – commissions, the back and forth to London for study, cleaning and so forth. We split it with my sister and that was to be the end of that.

Well, sort of.  For many years when my niece Saida was a young girl and later an art student, my mother promised her a trip to Venice when she graduated from college. Saida of course took this promise seriously but when she did graduate years later my mother had become too sick and frail to go, aside from which we honestly think she had forgotten all about it. So we decided to hit the reset button on that one and both in honor of my mom and to make good on her old promise- especially since my mother loved Venice more than anything in the world and the violin is now thought to have been Venetian – the three of us decided that if the violin sold for anything reasonable at all, we would use  some of the proceeds to take Saida and her husband to Venice finally after all these years. Now, a couple of weeks after our return, a very thrilled and excited Saida and Eric are now figuring out child care and such for next year and we are planning yet another European jaunt with them. It will be a lot of fun and we can only hope that if Mamá is looking down from that Great Saks Fifth Avenue in the Sky, that she would approve.

Meanwhile we are still slogging through the construction here, though we actually are contemplating the end of it, or at least the end of the worst of it. My office is done and I have moved what I can into it, with an odd assemblage of boards-and-bricks, folding card tables and baskets, and cartons still unpacked serving as tables to set things down on. Soon we will bring over some real furniture from the other house, which of course still hasn’t sold, and it will be a little more civilized in here. But I love the space…it is everything I wanted, light, bright and airy with a filtered view of the lake and a spectacular view of the mountains behind Ajijic. All mine to enjoy through enormous glass pane windows until the lot next door gets sold off for a condo complex or something equally dreadful and the wonderful, open vista toward the cerro (hill) is blocked.

But at least right now there is no sign of that happening and it is really beautiful to see the mist and sun alternating on the tops of the hills as we move into the winter here. The snowbirds are back; it is impossible to park in town, but it’s all part of the great circle of life, I guess. I am pretty much over the horrid bronchitis and sinus infection my cold had become, thanks to some killer antibiotics and cough medicine from the doctor. I gave it to Arnold and Wendy for which I feel very guilty but they seem to be surviving, though coughing, hacking and dripping along with me, as well. With any luck in a couple of weeks we will all be over this wretched thing and we can carry on without having to have boxes of Kleenex at our sides.

Inch by Inch

Reina, Purebred Mexican Street Dog, guarding her favorite toys on our lawn..

Reina, Purebred Mexican Street Dog, guarding her favorite toys on our lawn..

We are just slogging through this construction phase in the new house – every day the crew has their breakfast on a portable comal (a round metal sheet for warming tortillas) which they can plug in upstairs in my half-built office now that they have electricity up there. They sit around in a circle on the unfinished cement floor, as though the comal were a campfire, eating freshly warmed tacos, chat and joke for awhile, then they get up, get their tools and go to work – straight through till they break for lunch at 1 p.m. They fix their lunch and rest, sometimes really conking out and going to sleep on a pile of cement sacks or under a tree somewhere, until 2  p.m. Then they resume work again, without stopping, till 6.

The front part of our garden continues to be a sea of mud, our section of the cobblestone street is filled with sand and rubble which the yellow truck comes and carries off once a week (to Reina’s continuing delight), and there are always pieces of brick and rocks and rebar all over the place. The carport is stacked with cartons under tarps, bags of cement and tools. It is really a mess out there, and noisy as all get out while they are working, between their hammers and chisels, their radio, and their cheerful (terrible) singing and bantering back and forth. Arquitecto Roberto shows up every so often to check on their progress, and Saturday afternoon he stops by to pay them, after Arnold has made a bank transfer to cover the week’s expenses. Once they’re paid they head off and calm descends all too briefly upon the place until Monday morning. I keep thinking I’ll be able to get things a little more organized on Sundays with some peace and quiet and without the constant interruptions, asking if I want this here or there, dealing with deliveries, and other distractions. But as a practical matter, we can’t unpack much more than we have because there’s no place to put x thing yet, so the house is still stacked with boxes and art still leaning up against walls pretty much everywhere. And by the weekend I am so exhausted that I just want to lie around and do nothing. Still, in spite of the mess, we can see that inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter, week by week the addition is getting built and from my perspective, at least, it will have been well worth the chaos of these few miserable months. But miserable, right now, it most certainly is.

Reina has of course, as would any sensible Mexican street dog, figured out when the guys are going to be eating and she begs to be let outside so she can scrounge bread or tacos or tortillas from them. These she carries around in her mouth for awhile until she finds a place to bury them. The first time she did this I saw her scratching around under a hedge and was sure she had found some awful dead thing under there, till I saw what she was doing. We try not to let her into the house with these unearthed treasures once she digs them up (to enjoy them at leisure, I suppose), but sometimes she sneaks them in and stretches out on the living room rug with this disgusting piece of taco or whatever…but this is doggie heaven I guess so what can we do? It’s devoured soon enough so we leave her alone.

With the 4 gatos and Reina it is sometimes hard to tell when something goes wrong with one of them. The floors in the house are white tile and the least little bit of mud or anything shows up pretty dramatically. We’ve all noticed little spots of dried blood on the floor over the past couple of days and Rosa’s oldest daughter Mirella, who is now helping Rosa with the housecleaning, worked for years as our vet’s assistant and she thought we should take Reina in to be checked out – maybe something is going on with her rear end. So she and Rosa walked over to the vet’s office with Reina and the vet suspects that she may have a kidney infection. He has run some blood tests and we will have the results on Monday. She seems to be none the worse for wear, if that is what she has, because she is still eagerly eating her hoarded garden treats in addition to her own dog food and running around. Maybe a teensy bit droopier than normal but now we think maybe we are seeing things. We will soon find out what, if anything, is going on with her. If it isn’t her, it’s one of the cats and that will be really complicated to track down. We looked sequentially, under all the kitties’ tails to see if anything looked amiss, but they seem fine to our laymans’ eyes. But, as Arnold says, one step at a time.

In any event, I am really worried about Tabitha, my parents’ tabby cat, who eats nonstop and is becoming enormous. We have tried limiting her food but it is very hard with three other cats in the house and she cries for more if we cut down her rations. The house is so open that it would be difficult to keep her away from food but I am beginning to think that the “free-feeding” thing with the feeder is not working with her. I am terrified that she will get diabetes and have to be be put to sleep the way our much-loved Korat, Achille, was, after a year of insulin injections and a declining quality of life. The vet, who is very practical, had suggested, when the second two cats arrived, that our lives would be a lot easier if we just let them have a feeder and eat whenever they wanted and it has worked well for three of them, but poor Tab just can’t stay away from the food and I am afraid that ultimately it will kill her. And the saddest part is that she is now so happy here with us, she’s like a whole new cat. Purring, contented, not aggressive any more the way she was when we first brought her into the household. We finally get things right for this unfortunate kitty, who was scheduled to be put to sleep the day after we first saw her in the shelter and adopted her, and then she has this lifelong weight thing which will probably be the cause of her demise. It echoes my own fears about myself, and my inherited predisposition to diabetes. What an ongoing battle the whole fending-it-off thing is for both man and beast.

With Achille, we gave him his insulin shots at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. promptly. This played havoc with our social lives (hard to go out to dinner with friends or to concerts, etc.) To make matters worse, the easiest way to test a cat’s blood sugar is with a pin prick to that big vein in their ear which you can pretty easily see. This hurts them and it makes you feel awful and soon they are running away from you and the whole situation is dreadful until finally their kidneys fail and you have to put them to sleep anyway. So I am wrestling with what to do about her weight, and since I have been struggling with my own weight issues since I was a little kid it is not a happy or easy topic for me. And like so many things in life and death, there may just not be an answer to it except to live through it and do your best as things unfold.

On the other hand, I guess I have to weigh (pun sort of intended) how crazy I am going to get over the whole four-cat situation. They are doing so much better now in the new house – there is the occasional hiss here and there but basically now they are all getting along reasonably well, and one really could say, since three of them are shelter cats who, once adopted, have led long and happy lives, that at their present ages it wouldn’t be surprising if bit by bit they start to get sick or at least to begin to show some signs of aging. And if Tab gets diabetes, the vet’s attitude is, don’t let her suffer with insulin shots and constant pricking and poking for blood sugar readings, just put her to sleep before it gets awful. I don’t know that an American vet would have that attitude, but here there are so many mistreated animals around, dogs running around loose in the streets, just the barest beginnings of a public consciousness about spaying and neutering; these vets deal with things differently than they did back in the Ancestral Homeland. Maybe you give them the best life that you can and when it’s time for them to go, they just have to go without the heroic measures one could try. Was Achille better off because we delayed euthanizing him for that year? Maybe the vet is right, the second he began to react badly to the whole shot ritual we should have put him down and spared him all that suffering, though we felt, at the time, that we had done the right thing by giving him the insulin as long as we could. But attitudes are different here.  We got Reina in the first place as a two-month old puppy because she had been dumped in front of a vet’s office and his kids found her there. He of course took her in and tried (and succeeded) to find a home for her. She’s been a great dog, too, smart and loving and fun.

Meanwhile, on a cheerier note, we are definitely planning to escape to London and Paris for a couple of  weeks – it should be a great trip and Arnold is looking forward with great anticipation to getting out of here  for a reapite from the incessant noise and invasion of the construction. For my part, I am looking forward to all the wonderful food and art, and being able to revisit both cities, neither of which we have been to in many years. My sister will join us which will be fun, and I know I’ll do at least a little bit of retail damage over there!  When we get back from the trip, I’m guessing that the worst of the banging will be done, and they will be at a quieter stage – installing light fixtures, plugs, flooring and even starting to do some finishing work and painting. My new office will be just wonderful; I can’t wait to move into it and unpack my books and other things, which now are stacked up in storage in huge cartons. And when the office is done and the cartons moved out, the casita will be liberated to be turned into a little art studio for me, and I am already thinking about some ceramics and other projects I would like to tackle.

But who knows – right now it seems like a long way off and life mostly consists of getting through each day, waiting for six p.m. when the relentless chiseling, drilling, cutting through cement, stop at least for the evening. Sundays continue to be the best – they’re off for the day and the house and garden are quiet, and I can indulge in imagining what it is going to be like when the whole thing is done, and what will I really do with myself? I had been warned that when my mother died six months ago, there would be this huge hole where the worrying about her and dealing with her illness and her maintenance would have been. The hole is there for sure, but I don’t feel it as a cause for depression, just this sort of quizzical “and now what?” sense; made more complicated by the fact that I won’t really be able to move into this new house and settle into it for a few more months. It is just a time of waiting and going off on a European jaunt to look at art, see some opera, and eat some really great food may be just what the doctor ordered.

A Calm Few Minutes

Day One

Day One

Jesus Garcia house construction 003

My Future Laundry Room!

Arnold calls it "the new wing"...somehow it started as a little room for my desk and just grew!

Arnold calls it “the new wing”…somehow it started as a little room for my desk and just grew!

With everything that has gone on, this is the first moment I have had to sit down and write something. It’s been a while, I know – we did manage to get ourselves moved into the new house, which of course meant I was distracted for awhile with all sorts of things ranging from a much-loved houseguest, travel that just couldn’t be rescheduled, and finding the carton where the coffeepot had ended up. We did go for a week to Puerto Vallarta for our long-planned Mirkin Cousins’ Reunion, which was great fun and actually went off, more or less, without a hitch. I had hoped that all the young cousins would get to know one another, some never having met, and by the week’s end they were pretty much inseparable after hours playing together on the beach and in the pool, so mission accomplished there, thankfully.

Meanwhile back at the (new) ranch, it certainly is true when they say that moving is one of the most stressful things you can do, even if the house you are moving into is one you know you are going to love, and you were more than ready to leave the old one behind. With all the uncertainties of the visa situation, the scheduling of the movers, our crazy travel plans right in the middle of all of it, we have just had to hang on and hope for the best. Like Rosa says about the rattly bus that lurches up and down the main highway here, “agarrate como puedas….” (Hang on as best you can!”)

We are a bit overwhelmed at this point with everything that has to be done, and getting settled and unpacked we now can see will take us months – maybe by the end of the year we will be able to see daylight. And of course, since we are crazy, we launched into the new construction – an upstairs office for me and a new laundry/utility room – the first week we were in the new house. Why not just dive in and get it over with? we thought. So on top of the move we signed up for a good three or four months of building madness. All complicated to some extent by being in a foreign country, where no matter how much you feel you’ve adapted, there are weird little surprises everywhere that leave you scratching your head.

I remain convinced that the “let’s get it over with” approach is best, at least for us, but as a practical matter we face months still living with boxes and piles of stuff all over the place and incessant clatter from the guys out there working. And they start promptly at 8 a.m. and work till 6. Since in Mexico virtually all the construction is masonry, there is a constant din of chisels and hammers and concrete nails being pounded in. There are huge delivery trucks with loads of bricks, long steel girders, conduit, bags of concrete and other materials, a huge yellow bulldozer thing that comes every few days to clear away the current six-foot-high pile of debris (Reina barks at it every time), and so it goes. It will be a long time till we are able to easily find whatever we are looking for and there isn’t space yet for many of my clothes or my books, files, and boxes of other items, till my office is done. I know it will be wonderful – but getting from here to there is harder this time for some reason…maybe just because I’m older and I’ve done the remodeling gig so many times, who knows. I joke and say “this is it, no more moves for me, they’re gonna carry me out of here feet first! ” and I am laughing but there is this flickering, somber sense in the background that it might just be true this time.

The outlines of the new addition now are starting to take shape – while it’s still basically just bricks, I can now walk out into the space that will be my office and I can tell that when it’s done I will love my new aerie with its beautiful view, through the rooftops and trees, of Lake Chapala. But meanwhile, we both feel like we’re in one of those first-act curtain-closer Rossini ensembles where everyone is holding their heads from the chaos and confusion. There are probably eight or ten guys working out there, Monday through Friday and a half day Saturday. In addition to the electrician and plumber and their assistants, there is the usual Maestro who supervises the actual construction guys, several “peones” who fetch and carry water, cement, bricks, whatever is needed day in and day out, up and down ladders and across boards perilously placed across various trenches. They are unbelievably cheerful all day long. Maybe it is because they are in such good physical condition, who knows? They have an amazing way of accepting their lot, it seems to me, from my admittedly privileged perch as “La Señora”. A couple of them have taken quite a liking to Reina, who manages to show up right when they are about to take their one-hour “comida” break – she’s gone through enough construction projects in our other house so that she knows the right time to wander outside looking cute, tail wagging at half mast (just the right degree of pathos) and scam tortillas, bread, tacos, whatever she can get, from their lunches. They play with her before they start their day, and if she wanders outside the open gate to the street they call her to get her back inside the garden….”Reinita, ven”…

It seems so counterproductive to us but they build the whole room or house or whatever out of bricks and cement and then afterward they go in and chip out all the channels for the electrical and plumbing conduits with chisels and mallets. Bang, bang, bang, all the live-long day, now, for every single electrical outlet and light switch. You end up at six p.m. with spirals in your eyes just from hearing it everywhere, even out in the street. There is no escape from it other than putting on your noise-cancelling headphones (Thank You For These, O Great Bose Gods) but then you can’t hear them if they are looking for you to ask you a question or something, so one uses these judiciously.

And somehow, In the middle of all this chaos, life trundles forward. Miraculously, last week our visas came, so we now are permanent residents and we can leave Mexico and come back into the country whenever and however we wish. With these new visas, we can even work (heaven forfend!) if we file the necessary paperwork. The cuatro gatos, amazingly enough, had their little kitty motherboards reset when we brought them over here. We ferried all four of them over at once in an assortment of carriers, and Rosie, who had been utterly terrified of the two newcomers for the past year, has amazed us by coming out of hiding here, striding around the new digs, claiming her territory, perching on high places she likes, eating with the others in the kitchen. That has been really gratifying. Though there are still occasional hissing matches, it is much, much better with all of them. When they arrived, they were all so busy being disoriented that they apparently forgot that they were supposed to be fighting.

Yesterday afternoon, a Saturday, the guys all worked their usual half day. I realized as the whole crew walked, chattering and laughing, out the gate and into the street to begin their own weekend, or what was left of it, that at least for a day and a half no one else was coming over, no workers, no friends, no maids, no gardeners, and I could actually just BE here quietly and listen to some music (Fauré, as it turned out). A good moment to unwind a bit from the constant invasion and racket. While I battled guilt for daring to stop unpacking boxes and organizing things, I thought I’d bake some cookies and enjoy the relative tranquility (notwithstanding a huge, till 3 a.m. party down the block last night) at least till Monday morning when it all starts up again. Well, the cookies I baked burned to a crisp in the completely useless oven I have inherited, and then while I was angrily throwing them all out, there was a mighty crash from upstairs when Arnold overloaded a shelf with too many books and it broke and came thundering down to the floor. Probably wisely, we both decided it was time to break for the cocktail hour. I fixed dinner on the aforementioned wretched stove (soon to be replaced, of course), and I am looking forward to my first hopefully peaceful Sunday here.

Several times over the past couple of weeks I have had this flash that my parents, each for different reasons and in different ways, probably would have liked this house a lot and enjoyed watching us remodel it and settle down here. If my mother is looking down on all this, she is loving the fact that I have inherited her proclivity for remodeling (though she is probably annoyed that I have a bunch of her furniture now); my dad the Depression baby, I feel, would have been particularly proud that we could have afforded it; we know he felt that way about his ownership of their big, rambling house back in Santa Fe. But these would have been the “my parents” of fifteen years ago, though, before their various ailments and psychological issues overtook them. It is those parents of so long ago that I miss, and it is still rough knowing how both of them met their respective endings, even as we press forward with our lives, toward our own inevitable exits, undeterred.

Million Dollar Deal

Arnold has become completely addicted to a TV reality show about young real estate brokers making million (well, read two million, five million, nine million) dollar real estate deals, buying and selling apartments in New York. Since in a perfect world, he would love to have one of these places as he adores it there, it is only logical that once he discovered this show he would need to sit in his study and watch every single episode he could find and download online. Occasionally I hear whoops of glee floating up the stairs, when one of the young turks either closes a sale or (in the case of a few apparently horrid clients) the nasty people are turned away by co-op boards. Or something else happens which he must immediately report to me on a TV break standing in the kitchen. I guess I’ll have to break down and watch these episodes myself; he is having so much fun with them!.

I have stood over his shoulder and looked at his computer screen at some of these exceedingly wealthy people, being shown these apartments, just long enough so that it reminds me of some of the really awful people I met in my former life as a financial advisor. Obsessed by the money game, they only wanted to keep making as much as they could, oblivious to any long-term risk. Anything I said to these folks, even to hint at the idea that the market might not go up forever, and that they maybe needed to be a little less greedy and a little more protective of the assets they had accumulated, fell on completely deaf ears. These were the people who shopped for financial advisors like the newest and fanciest cars; searching for people who would reinforce their own desire to buy a bunch of the then-current strange derivative concoctions being sold like hotcakes everywhere in the country. They wanted someone to agree with their beliefs and reassure them that their investments were sure-fire winners as they wrote up the orders to buy. I would always only have one, relatively brief appointment with people like this, before they went elsewhere.

But I was not liking what was being presented to me by young wholesalers coming into the office and though it cost me a lot of money in commissions and trailers, I refused to have anything to do with it.  For the most part, these whiz kids couldn’t even begin to explain how these investments were really constructed. And I was in turn becoming more and more conservative in my allocations for clients as I felt increasingly worried about what was going on in the U.S. economy. Nothing – in spite of wanting and needing the income  and the new clients in my book –  could make me comfortable with where it seemed to me that the markets were going. I kept saying to Arnold, even as early as 2004., “we need to go to all cash, get rid of our fancy Santa Fe house on five acres, ditch this lifestyle, and get out of here while we can…” I could see, through the tunnel, the distant headlight of the 2008 locomotive coming down the track, and I sensed that when it roared through that tunnel and crossed paths with all of us innocents, it was going to be lambs to the slaughter. With us in starring roles as the lambs.

By the time the excrement, as they say, hit the ventilator, we had achieved our goal and gotten “outta Dodge” with our assets pretty much intact, a nearly full-price offer on our house, and we had bought the house we now inhabit in Mexico for cash. In turn we tried and tried to convince my parents to sell their house and downsize while they could, but old age, illness, fear, and rigidity all took their toll and it was impossible to get them to even address what I sensed was a looming financial crisis. They really didn’t understand the urgency of it, so we finally decided to just take off ourselves in 2006, and leave them where they were, sort of frozen in place with round-the-clock care in their beautiful, huge house, which ultimately drained almost every penny they had. All very sad.

But now they are both gone, and following their deaths we are more determined than ever to enjoy whatever time we have left and to make the right decisions. We found this new house we liked a lot, put ours on the market, and sat back to wait for Mexican immigration to clear the decks for our seller so that she might be able to evade some of the horrific taxes on property sales they foist upon foreigners without permanent resident status. We both had become used to the idea that this was going to take several more weeks at the least and settled into a mode of just waiting, when the phone rang a couple of days ago and it was our brokers saying “Your seller just got her visa, and we are closing on your new house tomorrow; be at the Notario’s office at noon with your passports!” So we went flying to his office in Chapala, documents in hand and sat there for two and a half hours while the Notario and his assistants rushed around like crazy people trying to get the documents in order. They were completely unprepared, and we decided that the brokers had just decided they had had enough of us and our seller and her visa problems and us squawking about it, and they were going to get this deal done and get their commissions already, no matter what.

In Mexico, a Notario is far more powerful than a U.S. “Notary Public”. Notarios are specially trained lawyers who are almost like judges in the U.S. system. They can make decisions about charges due or waived, taxes due or not, what deductions can be accepted, a whole host of things. There are only so many Notario “slots” available in each part of the country and you can see pretty quickly that they are able to make a whole lot of money and have a certain amount of power. In our case, it seemed like our file was just tossed on his desk a few minutes before we got there, and it was pretty chaotic as our broker, the seller’s broker, and the Notario’s two assistants plus the great man himself reviewed all the papers literally seconds after they had emerged wet from the printer. But we got it done, all signed, sealed and delivered, we got the keys, hugs and kisses and bouquets of flowers were given to the seller with many “¡felicidades!” – a Mexican tradition – and before we knew it we were out on the street with a cottage-cheese container filled with keys and two garage door openers, a manila folder with our escritura (deed) in it, and quite a bit poorer than we had been a couple of hours previous.

Of course we HAD to go over to the new house and walk around and see it for the first time empty of the seller’s furniture and belongings. We realized both how much we like the place and at the same time how much work we will have to do over the next couple of years to make it truly “ours”. Nowhere even close to a million dollar deal, but we think we will be happy there. I thought it might be festive to go out to dinner to celebrate but we were both so completely exhausted at the end of the day that I threw something together and we both just crashed. We figured tomorrow is another day, we’ll go over there and take a load of stuff over and slowly begin moving things in. We are still in a bit of a state of shock! So typical of the way things happen here – you wait and you wait and just when you think you’ve made your peace with the idea that this is Mexico and everything moves at a snail’s pace, whatever legal process you are in makes it to the top of someone’s pile and you have to be in their office in ten minutes ready to rock and roll. Oh well!

The other big real estate news of the week was that the sale of my parents’ house in Santa Fe was finally concluded, so that is another huge chapter in our lives that has closed. We have our house now, and thanks to the favor of the real estate gods, had the funds comfortably in hand to pay for it. We will move in over the next couple of weeks, and then hopefully sometime within the next millennium we will get our present house sold, and we’ll be done with all these real estate transactions, and get on with it, whatever “it” might happen to be. Hopefully I have a while to figure it all out.

M is for Mahler

On the prowl at Uniqlo, hunting for great t-shirts on sale!

On the prowl at Uniqlo, hunting for great t-shirts on sale!

DSCN0821

At B&H Photo, waiting for our electronic toys to be delivered to the pickup desk from the bins overhead!

Poor Arnold off in the distance, having to lug my packages

Poor Arnold off in the distance, having to lug my packages

It was a whirlwind trip to New York, and a nice diversion from the waiting, waiting, waiting for our interminable visa and real estate messes to resolve themselves. So, well, why not opt for a little retail recreation while we remain on hold?  We stayed in my favorite hotel on the Upper West Side, where we’re near all Arnold’s favorite haunts (Zabar’s!) and within walking distance of Lincoln Center. The hotel folks are getting to know us and are willing to do nice things for us like receive mail order packages we have sent from various vendors who still just won’t send to Mexico. We ate a bunch of Chinese food and walked all over the city enjoying the warm weather and window shopping – well, some real shopping too. Channeled my inner Shirley (my late mother) and picked up two handbags and a great backpack for travel that I liked at good sale prices. We made a stop at Capezio for new leotards and tights for Rosa’s grandchildren so they have new things that fit them for their dance classes; absolutely essential (well, not so much) makeup items at Sephora – the usual materialist nonsense I am unfortunately prey to. Even Arnold succumbed to temptation and bought a few things for himself.

It turns out that Mother’s violin, the reason for the trip in the first place, will head off to London once again for another go-round with the experts; this time a different group of experts.  In an interesting turn of events, the very British young man we met with at Sotheby’s had a different take on the violin than the Christie’s folks. Probably not totally Italian, maybe mostly British. I somehow figured they would all draw more-or-less the same conclusions about it but there are diverse theories as to its possible origins and even its age. Alas, however, there seems to be general agreement (sorry, Mom) that it ain’t no Guarnerius, in spite of the label inside its f-hole (probably fake) but it IS quite old and of some interest not only because of its age but because of its sound. The dendrochronology study places the wood at about 1681, but of course no one can say exactly when the violin itself was actually MADE from the wood, nor who made it.

But it was of enough interest to the people who saw it so that they decided to take it back to London one more time for further study by still more experts and probable inclusion in a new auction to take place late in October. Now that we are in the middle of this violin escapade, the whole story of how they date these things and appraise them has become quite fascinating to us. In the course of our travels, we’ve had a chance to see a couple of REAL Guarnerius instruments worth a million dollars each – it is a bittersweet experience to see the real deal and realize that Mom’s flights of fancy about her fiddle were just that, flights of fancy. If we get anything reasonable for her violin we will consider ourselves fortunate, but however it happens, we are still basically determined to find a good home for it with an active musician. Sadly, it is still languishing in its case unplayed, though god knows it is racking up a lot of airline miles. However, on the plus side, the young man from Sotheby’s heard someone play it somewhere along the line and thought it had a really “sexy” sound, so that apart from the monetary value of these things, it is nice to know that there is at least some interest in their function as actual musical instruments.  We actually think we might try to head to London with my sister Wendy and be present at the auction if it really happens as scheduled; we suspect that it could be a really fascinating adventure and a great trip for the three of us. We’ll see how the mileage gods treat us when we try to get those elusive international plane tickets!

Back in Ajijic on the home front, the visa pesadilla (nightmare) continues unabated. We of course have heard nothing from Immigration about the status of our request for new visas, and we are hearing more and more of people who have been stalled in the system far longer than we have. No one who is selling a house here, for whatever reason – like us, just wanting to move into a different place, or others who are returning “home” to Canada or the States for some reason, wants to pay the enormous tax the Mexican government will charge you on sale of a home without one of these permanent visas. So of course everyone and their brother is lining up to get one and the delays seem to be longer instead of shorter.  People are getting paranoid about it…is it some sort of diabolical revenge for the horrid way Americans have treated Mexicans living up there?

Or at least it feels that way. Nevertheless we also need this visa to sell OUR house (whenever it sells, which of course could be years from now, but one never knows in real estate….), and the seller of the house we are purchasing needs it to avoid the taxes SHE would have to pay, and on up (or down) the food chain, the seller of the house she is in turn planning to buy also needs this visa. We all put our paperwork in, signed, sealed and delivered months ago, but none of us seem to be getting anywhere in the system. Or if we are, it is at a snail’s pace. Until everyone in the line gets their visa, no one can conclude their real estate transactions, so here we all sit, if not physically, then metaphorically, twiddling our thumbs. Everyone has heard or experienced different things about the delays; but the reality is that we are stuck in the mire of the impenetrable and inscrutable Mexican bureaucracy with nowhere really to turn; the most cynical of the impatient expats in the proverbial line with us lament that unlike the good old days, there isn’t even anyone to bribe any more because Mexico is trying to clean up its act. You feel like you are coming face to face with one of those gigantic La Venta carved stone heads they have on display at the Xalapa archaeological museum: impassive, unresponsive, and very ancient. Things have, whether we like it or not, always been this way here.

In our case, the delay doesn’t especially matter because there are very few buyers in town now and there have been hardly any showings of our house, so we aren’t panicked about that – but it has delayed our closing – and hence our taking possession – on the new house, for what will may be a few more weeks or months, but we really just don’t know. So it’s more limbo. We don’t really want to start packing up for the move too seriously because it’ll be just our luck that when we do there will be a further delay and there I will be frustrated because I’m unable to find my potato peeler – or something essential like that. So here we sit, ready to move forward, especially after all the trauma with my mother’s death, to begin our “next chapter” – but we can’t.

But we are trying to do what we can do at this end, which mostly means throwing stuff out or donating what we are pretty sure we can do without, to lighten up the load when moving day does finally roll around. Arnold has begun a major sweep through all his CDs and DVDs to try to eliminate everything he feels he can do without, or reorganize it so it can be easily unpacked and found at the other end. For the past week at least, every time I have walked into his office, he’s had Mahler on – since of course when you pull the CD off the shelf, if you haven’t heard it in a while you MUST listen to it. He’s made it through most of the symphonies and now to the songs, and a wonderful rendition of “Der Abschied” caught my attention when I went in to his office to tell him that dinner was ready.

I said, “More Mahler? It’s been a week of pure Mahler symphonies down here!” “Yes,” he said, “Well, I’m working my way through the alphabet and I’m kind of in the middle, at the M’s.” Sort of in the middle, I thought, and here we are still stuck, also in the middle of all these huge changes in our lives. Ye gods, such a frickin’ drag. We are both sick of the stallling, the e-mails and phone calls with the news of more delays, the uncertainty, by now. We were ready to pack up and move weeks and weeks ago. But the music is and was, of course, absolutely wonderful and in a weird way it has calmed me down. I have realized that I would actually quite happily listen to another several weeks of Mahler floating into the kitchen if I had to, so I decided that I need to be more Mexican about this whole situation and let my American impatience and need for precision and proactivity go. At least for now, I keep telling myself  “You know, relax, it’s just not that bad that we can’t move forward quite yet – we can stay here as long as we need to, this house hasn’t sold, no one is throwing us out into the street.” The rains have started up in earnest, it’s cool and nice out, the hills are green. Things may be stalled and we may be mightily irritated, but in fact, they could be far, far worse.