Ajijic

¡ 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!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fall has arrived

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the sun….

Our New Solar Panels!

Our New Solar Panels!

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

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

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

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

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

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!

End of an Era

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Last cleanup and ready for its new owner…

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

End of an Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slogging along…

My kitchen these days....

My kitchen these days….

Will it ever end?

Will it ever end?

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

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

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

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

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

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