Ajijic

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.

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!

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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.

I Guess We Are Staying

I Guess We Are Staying....

I Guess We Are Staying….

The Mexican government has decided to change all us expats’ resident visas around, with a range of implications for the foreigners who are living here. As was the case before, now you’re either herded into the “tourist” group, or a permanent residents’ group.  As a “temporary” visitor, e.g. tourist, they give you a piece of paper called an FMM which gives you 180 days to hang out in Mexico, and you can bring your U.S. or Canadian plated vehicle in with you. You can legally then stay in the country for six months,  really touring around, living in your rented casita to finish writing your novel or whatever. But you have to leave Mexico when the six months (or ten days on the beach) are up. Alternatively, you’re a permanent resident, which opens a different can of worms. Before, there were different classes of resident visas all the way up to “inmigrado” which meant you figured you were here to stay and your next step past that, if you were interested, was naturalization, going for Mexican citizenship. That visa came with the ability to get working papers – essential for all those condo salespeople at the beaches and others living and legitimately working here.

But now they’re changing all of it, and people are none too happy about it because they are tightening up the rules that directly affect us – about driving foreign-plated cars, how much money you have to have to live here permanently as a retiree, and a couple of other important things. The financial requirements for residency used to be quite minimal, and it was one of the things that made it attractive for Americans who had only the most basic Social Security income to move down here. But under the new rules, everyone needs to demonstrate a stable income of about $2,100 a month. The lawyers are saying “don’t worry, they will probably grandfather in people who have been here for a while” but nonetheless, already some people are panicking that they’ll be thrown out anyway, and proactively planning to head back NOB (North of the Border).

The old Mexico hands are also saying “wait, wait, they will revise and clarify these laws, they’ll see that they are running off perfectly good folks who employ maids, gardeners, and pay VAT and other taxes – they will backtrack on this”…. but there is a lot of discussion about just going back up north instead of hunkering down and seeing what happens. Our feeling is that most of this talk comes from people who have never been too happy here; it gives people a good excuse to bail. But some lawyers believe that there will probably be some sort of credit or point system put into place, so that even absent the required income stream, if you own your own home, or have other investments, you’ll get your permanent visa income notwithstanding. However, as of now the new rules are the new rules and everyone is having to deal with them. There are lots of theories as to why this is being done…revenge for the U.S.’ horrible immigration policy? Trying to get a “better class” of person here with tighter regulations? (try to emigrate to Canada, New Zealand or Australia and see what THEY require!) – no one really knows, but all of us who are living here, for all intents permanently, are now being forced to deal with the new requirements.

The car situation is complicated too. Because cars are cheaper up north, many people have been down here for years with older foreign-plated vehicles with long-expired registrations from wherever they came from originally. It makes perfect sense to me that the Mexican government wants to have everyone who is living here as a permanent resident be driving – in our case – a Jalisco-plated car so they can track it if they need to. Amazingly enough, all car registrations in Mexico are on computers now. But as a practical matter they are now forcing those with U.S. plates to scurry back to the border to sell their vehicles and come back down and buy something here in Mexico that will have Mexican plates.

There seems to be a process by which you can “nationalize” a car with foreign plates IF and only IF it was made in a NAFTA country. Meaning they look at your VIN number and see where the car was manufactured. If it was made in Mexico, Canada or the U.S., you may be able to nationalize it – a big hassle, and the nationalization route quickly became rife with fakery and corruption so it was an expensive risk to take. People paid a lot of money to “consultants” who turned out to be scam artists when the hapless gringos discovered that their fancy new Mexican registrations and plates were entirely fake. We have friends who have a much-loved Subaru they’ve been driving around here for six years, but alas, it was built in Japan, so no nationalization is posible for them. They have to return the car to the border, have its importation tags cancelled and removed, and get rid of it. They are buying a new car down here, the legitimate way, from a dealer in Guadalajara.

All of it is a big pain in the neck. We’re fine in the car department; after the carjacking in 2007, I decided I didn’t want to drive around with foreign plates any more and our present car has had Jalisco plates since the day we bought it. Much easier and we are grateful now that we see so many people going crazy with all these new rules and regulations! So the car thing is a non-issue for us, but it turned out that  our old visas (called an FM-3) were destined to present us with some problems. Aside from the fact that they are being done away with, they were “sort of” permanent resident and “sort of” not. One of the bad things, we discovered, about our old FM3 visas was that if and when we sell our present house, we would have owed a huge amount in capital gains taxes to the Mexican government. The way around that is to become permanent residents under the new rules. Then you’re allowed to buy and sell a house once every five years without owing capital gains taxes on the sale. Some of the other visa classifications also had limits on how long you could be out of the country, and other weird rules we could just as well do without.

So Arnold and I, without even having any sort of conversation about it, called our attorney and said “we need to apply for those permanente visas, because our house is on the market and when it sells we would be liable for a lot of capital gains taxes!” We actually had the notario figure it out and it was scary how much we would have owed, in spite of the fact that we have actually not made a dime on this place. Actually, we have put a lot of money into remodeling it and updating the electrical, plumbing, etc. But with the collapse of the U.S. real estate market we had a collapse here too, so no one is making any money on the sale of their houses. A huge tax bill on top of that would not be what we had in mind.  We were told that to apply for the “change of condition” in our visas from FM3 to permanent, we had to submit six months worth of bank statements, proof of our income and investments, and tons of other stuff and it is taking about three months now to get these visas. It used to be that the little immigration office right here in Chapala could handle this, but now, once again, they’ve tightened things up and all the decisions about getting or not getting a visa are handled out of Mexico City. So you send in your request and you basically sit there and wait until you are summoned – in our case, to Guadalajara – to be fingerprinted and a couple of weeks after that your permanent resident card is ready for you to pick up – or so we are told.

Being a permanent resident is also, like the old inmigrado classification, one step below being a naturalized Mexican citizen. And unlike the old visas, which had to be renewed every year, these are permanent and at least right now, for the moment, they are saying once you have it, that’s it. No need to renew it annually or anything like that. Of course down the line they may realize they are giving up a nice income stream in fees or whatever and they may change the rules, but right now we are looking forward to getting the new permanent visas and being free to come and go as we please.

So we made an appointment with our attorney, went in to her office with the requisite piles of bank statements and such, paid to have an official translator translate them all into Spanish, then she submitted them a few weeks ago, and now we just wait. We’re figuring we might get them in August sometime, but ¿quien sabe? Walking back to the car we just looked at each other and said “Hmmm, I guess we’re staying here, yes?” “Yeah, Arnold said, well, we are buying our second house here, and we now have four cats and a dog (no New York co-op for us, even if we had the dough…); and we can’t figure out where we would move to that we could afford even if we DID want to leave here, so, well, I guess we are staying…”

And we went home and I fixed dinner.

Dia de la Madre

We have come to the hot, dry, dusty season where we are all waiting for the rains to start in June. One can only hope the rains will come soon and be plentiful, as there has been no real rain since last September. The lake level is very low, our gardens are drying up, the hills are brown, and it’s gradually getting hotter here in the summers, exactly the same as pretty near everywhere else.

But nature does send us some positive indications. Every year the cicadas come out of the ground and for a month and a half make a terrific and unmistakable racket; the folklore around here is that the rainy season will start exactly six weeks after the first cicadas make their appearance. The expats around here call them “rainbirds”, actually, and that’s what they sound like when they get going… an introductory and quite loud “chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck” for a few seconds, followed by an ear-splitting whine. As the season wears on, there are more and more of them out there so it becomes pretty deafening at times, but most people are eager to hear the first ones, as harbingers of lush gardens and emerald hills, and a recovering lake, just a few weeks from now. One gets excited calls from friends….”I just heard one! I just heard one! The first rainbird!”

However, setting thoughts of the dusty streets aside, it’s Mother’s Day here – unlike the States where it floats every year, here it is fixed, May 10. The village is full of balloon and flower-sellers and moms walking around in their best finery carrying armloads of flowers with little kids trailing behind in regional dance costumes, communion dresses, or other special outfits. The schools always have the children prepare some kind of special Mother’s Day party and performance – a folk dance show, music recitals, little plays. Of course all of this gives every kid a chance to be in a costume and Mexicans love any kind costume or mask – any excuse to shape-shift into something historical, folkloric, mythical, religious. Everyone knocked off work early, half the town was closed up by 2 p.m. and now, in the late afternoon, people are are busy barbecuing, stereos at full blast, kids running around, with much merriment as you’d expect. I normally complain mightily about the blaring music right over our walls, but the folks across the street have a big fiesta going for their family and they’ve got Jorge Negrete or Antonio Aguilar or one of those great old singers on their stereo, volume cranked to the max, and I have to admit it’s actually really nice for a warm, beautiful spring evening. You can tell they’re getting more and more sloshed because they’re starting to sing along with the CD quite lustily. I ran into town for some groceries for the weekend; Wal-Mart was giving away free cake and every cart that came out of the store had at least one cake in it, and people were carrying out boxes with new blenders, pot and pan sets, and all sorts of other Mother’s Day gifts and regalia.

Mexican friends have asked me if I miss my mother on this dia festivo and of course the answer has to be terribly nuanced because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. On one level, the truth is “no, I really don’t” but the more accurate response is that sure I miss her, but I miss the Shirley several decades ago, before illness, depression and dementia took their horrible toll. It would have been so much fun to have had her as she was back then, to go house hunting with us in this latest relocation escapade. She would have so enjoyed seeing all these wonderful Mexican houses. And of course in her imagination she would have occupied herself with remodeling and decorating each and every one of them. It is really too bad that she wasn’t well enough to have had a home of her own here; it would have been a fantastic project for her. That missed boat along with a long list of other missed boats just fill me with sadness, I guess, but there’s no going back now; she’s gone, my dad is gone, and we are getting on with our lives.

Meanwhile, as luck would have it, in spite of not having sold our present house as we had hoped, we did find a new one we absolutely love and we seem to have purchased it! So my “leisurely” summer to lie around, relax in the pool and do my nails has now turned into having to pack this place up, move to the new house on or about July 1, get it up and running and start the process of settling in to a new home. The new place needs a fair amount of cosmetic work, which made it affordable – so we have some grungy times to live through with some construction and repairs to be done. But its bones are wonderful – a great “Mexican Contemporary” on a clean, quiet, charming block-long cul-de-sac street with nicer, larger homes, mostly inhabited by wealthier Mexicans and older, long-retired-here expats. After a couple of years there, having fixed up the things we want to fix up, it should be the perfect house for us; with any luck, we won’t have to move again.

To be completely frank about it, one of the biggest pluses will be getting away from the things that have driven us crazy about our present neighborhood. We have adjusted to it, but not all that happily, to be honest: the incessant barking of the roof dogs at night, rockets (which terrify pets), roosters at all hours (charming at first but there are zillions of them and contrary to popular belief, they DON’T only crow at dawn!) ear-splitting loud parties on the weekends, car alarms going off, constant noise from the highway, garbage in the street in front of our house after every weekends’ fiestas. This almost incessant racket will be greatly diminished, if an issue at all, in the  part of town we’re moving into.

When we first become expats, we didn’t want to live isolated in a gated upper-class fraccionamiento (subdivision) or in an expat community. As a newbie, many people want to live down among the people and all that. Well, we’ve done it for seven years now and while our working-class neighborhood has its charms – and it really does; there are parts of it we will definitely miss  – as aging Americans in a completely foreign culture, we are more willing to admit that we’re over it; at this stage of our lives we need something different for ourselves. You realize that you can love the country you’re in, and we have no plans to go back to the States, but after seven years here, we will be happy to be in a slightly classier (read cleaner, quieter) part of town. And the new house is a bit bigger and better suited to our needs now than this one is.

So that’s where we are. Since Arnold had his second stent put in a couple of weeks ago, we are both feeling “you know, life is short, we don’t have any kids to leave our estate to, let’s enjoy what we have and if moving into a different house is part of the plan, well, let’s just do it!” He’s fine, but his new identity as a permanent, “till death do us part” cardiac patient has been unsettling. His cardiologist is sure he has a long life ahead now that his plumbing is repaired, but the symptoms, especially back in Santa Fe at 7,000 feet, had him rattled (Conclusion: guess we aren’t moving back THERE). So my job will be to manage the house move as well as I can without letting either of us get too stressed about it. Fortunately we’re in Mexico where you can hire a couple of strong young people to move furniture and boxes around for you all the live-long-day and it is a fraction of what it would have cost in the Ancestral Homeland.

It’s fun to have something to be really excited about after all this sadness and loss; I am counting the weeks till we move on July 1. I definitely could use one of those glittering New York New Year’s Eve balls to drop the night of June 30 with the roar of a huge crowd counting down the seconds till the next phase of our lives really will begin.

Domestica

Just back from three days in Guadalajara, where we stayed in a delightful hotel and – since we had tickets to a performance by the Flamenco Ballet de Andalucia one evening (they were fabulous!), doctor’s appointments and some other errands to do, we decided to just hang out in town for a bit and have a little break from our normal routine.

In the colonia  where the doctor’s office is, there are a number of high-end decorating stores and showrooms. We had a quick bite in the very contemporary-looking restaurant of one of the nicest hospitals in Guadalajara (carpaccio with oil and balsamico for me, a grilled panino for Arnold, no tacos on the menu there!). Since, for a change, we had the time to explore the area, we set out on foot, wandering in and out of all sorts of places, astonished at the range of gorgeous faucets, hooks, towel bars, sinks and vanities from Europe, and so forth, that are now readily available here. Expensive, as would be the case anywhere, but available. A few years ago you could only look at cool design magazines and pine (or haul the kitchen faucet of your dreams back from the States in your luggage, which I actually did, to get the one I really wanted). But it appears that things are changing! Excellent news for the visually fussy señora who is already planning to remodel a kitchen in a new house she possibly hasn’t even seen yet. But, as I insist,  you can’t start researching these things too early.

Any of you out there who know me know that I am a pretty dedicated cook and love messing around in the kitchen.  In every house I’ve owned, even before I met and married Arnold, I remodeled whatever kitchen was there – taking after my mother, of course, who took the kitchens in all the houses my parents ever inhabited down to the studs and started over again – with great success. Given that role model, and also being a girl who never hesitated to take a mallet to a wall that begged to be knocked out,  I diligently saved my pennies until I could re-do each kitchen along the way. I would buy the very best appliances I could find, using them happily until I went on to the next house and repeated the scenario – each time with (naturally) upgrades to the latest hotsy-totsy thing I could afford. Along with my love of good coffee, I freely admit to being an appliance addict. In Mexico, of course, one has workers to do this stuff, you don’t have – thankfully – to do it yourself any longer, because it provides employment for people who desperately need it, so that lets you off the hook. Plus one is no longer in one’s thirties with the strength and energy to bash walls down on the weekends, alas.

Continuing the tradition in these more convenient circumstances, in our present house, we put in a Wolf cooktop when the kitchen was remodeled, and for me, at least, it is the best stove I’ve ever had. The houses we have been looking at all have perfectly reasonable Mexican stoves and I’ve been saying “Oh, if we buy this house, this stove will be just fine, I don’t need to spend all that extra money”….but Arnold, who knows me far better, says “Are you nuts? I don’t want to have to listen to you whimpering about missing your old stove. You KNOW you will want a new Wolf so let’s just plan on it wherever we move.” Truthfully, when he said that, from my end there was a huge sigh of relief.

So, one of the things I wanted to do while we had some free time to wander around in the city was to find and go to the new Subzero-Wolf showroom so I could see and play with the latest and greatest. A few years ago, when I put the present stove in, the only way to get a Wolf was to order it from the States via Monterrey and wait patiently a good two months or more till it arrived in its crate, presumably by burro freight. Now there is a beautiful showroom right in Guadalajara, where you can see all the new models, (plus a variety of Sub-Zero refrigerators and freezers, along with some other gorgeous-looking European brands)…and there are also similar showrooms in Puerto Vallarta, Monterrey, Mexico City, and a couple of other places.

They wholesale only, so you can’t buy the stoves directly from them, I discovered…so I asked the young man who helped us how you would actually go about GETTING one of these delivered and installed in provincial Ajijic. He replied rather nonchalantly, “We work with your kitchen designer….” Hmmmm…. I’ve never had a kitchen designer, but Arnold said “you know, maybe that would actually be helpful because now there is so much available here that we just don’t know about…you might get some good ideas from working with someone on your next kitchen project.”  He’s probably right about that, though I never would have thought of it myself.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps it didn’t come by burro express anymore, given the Wolf-man’s response, so I asked how long it took to actually get one nowadays, and he said “Well, if you order something more exotic, like the six-burner one with the griddle, radiant broiler and grill and the two ovens, they build it to order and it’s six to eight weeks. But if it’s something fairly simple, like the basic four or six-burner range or cooktop, we have it overnight.” Arnold’s comment was “Guess Mexico isn’t a third world country any more!”

Oh goody, I can hardly wait!

Happy Birthday, Mom

Prior to my surgical adventure, in full Princess mode, I had planned several weeks lying abed in frothy negligees being waited upon hand and foot by everyone around here, time to read stupid magazines, do my nails, feigning agonizing discomfort so I could string it out a bit longer. Well, as they say, not so much! I sort of HAD to call a halt to all that after a couple of days enjoying the obligatory painkillers, and get out of bed and resume my life. Oh well, next time.

The saga with my mother goes on and unfortunately it requires, to some extent, that I be on my feet and functioning. Both my parents – as my sister so aptly put it – somehow managed to be fifty years old until one day they woke up at 85 and were completely bewildered as to how to respond to what was happening to them both physically and mentally. We both theorize that because in both their cases – family members on the East coast had done all the “elder care” for their failing parents and in addition to those responsibilities, had seen the other members of the family age and die ‘up close and personal’.

Gradually, after my father’s passing, my mother’s world has shrunk from the beautiful houses she shared with him over the years, to a hospital bed in a convalescent home here in Ajijic, where she lies week in and week out, bedridden and blind, not even really able to speak any more. Her care is wonderful, the Mexican ladies who work there dote on the patients; she and her airy room, which has a sliding glass door opening on to a pretty garden, are kept immaculate. It’s as good as it could possibly be for her given that she is growing weaker month by month and losing what little she has left of her faculties. She’s not in any pain, though, and seems to be happy “wherever” she is mentally – and that is a blessing for all of us.

The only good thing you can say about me, Arnold and my sister having to deal with this situation ourselves is that we have learned a great deal about aging and planning for it, the hard way. After watching both their decline (and my father’s death) over the past ten or fifteen years, we are big into carpe diem these days, whatever that might mean to us at the moment. But it is terribly sad and it has just been, truthfully, a colossal burden for all of us. The taking apart of their much-loved house in Santa Fe was horrible; for years before he retreated into whatever shell he constructed for himself, my dad kept saying “one of these days we will have to move to a smaller place” but never could or would take any concrete steps to move in that direction.  So in spite of insisting  that he didn’t want to leave that enormous undertaking to the three of us, as a practical matter, as both of them faded away, there the house was, intact, staring us in the face.

We finally had to at least get them both out of Santa Fe, for a whole variety of reasons. I tell friends it was like some opera where conflict and confusion dominate the plot and then there’s an intermission where you mull over the fates of these characters, until whatever the final act’s resolution might be. In Rossini, those closing ensembles where everyone is completely at their wits’ end can be hilarious, but in our case it was no fun. We had the neurologist telling us my father had some form of dementia resulting from mini-strokes and a brain hematoma, and the worst possible thing for him would be to remove him from his familiar surroundings.

Then my mother’s doctors, seeing her suffer from (in addition to diabetes) COPD and emphysema, insisted that we needed to get her to a lower altitude than Santa Fe’s 7,000 feet, and someplace warmer for her crippling arthritis.  She was on oxygen 24/7, and the machine was cranked up to the highest output a home machine was capable of – next stop for more oxygen was in a hospital. My father retreated further into himself and only wanted to sleep on the couch all day, stopped listening to music, stopped reading, stopped talking for the most part. My father who spoke several languages, rather well.

We spent a couple of years going back and forth trying to figure out what on earth to do, during which they only declined further. We tried desperately to get them to think about coming to be nearer either me or my sister, but by then neither of them were capable of planning such a giant move, nor did either of them want to leave the house they loved. The financial stress on them and on us only made it worse. Finally, we got them down – with their two cats (now ours, see earlier posts) to Mexico “just for the winter” (they bought the ruse), where at the very least, they were a ten minute drive away from us and it was sunny pretty much all the time. We knew they were never going back to Santa Fe, but they didn’t. Indeed that winter, there was a major break in a gas distribution line somewhere in Texas, and much of New Mexico was without gas to heat their homes as the temperatures plummeted to below freezing and stayed there for several days. When the house caretaker finally made it up there, she found my dad’s piano in four inches of water because the pipes in the living room had frozen and burst. Meanwhile my parents, happily enough, were sitting in shirtsleeves on the terrace of the house we had rented for them, watching the hummingbirds zip around the little garden, and gazing out at the view of Lake Chapala below, glittering in the sun.

Once we got their new care arrangements in place, full of dread, the three of us trooped back up to Santa Fe to deal with the house and its contents.  I was not really surprised to discover that my parents indeed left the whole joint – including zillions of dollars of deferred maintenance- kind of frozen in place like Pompeii. There were dried-out toothbrushes by the sinks, clothes still in the laundry hampers, with more dead toothbrushes and the like scattered in all the bathrooms, and it went on from there.  Like so many “adult children” who find themselves in this situation, dealing with the house was de facto left to us because the house was big, crammed with two lifetimes’ worth of possessions, and as my parents aged and failed physically and mentally, they totally lost control of it.

It took a couple of months out of our lives to be up in Santa Fe working twelve hours a day to figure out what to do with every pillow, pan, item of clothing, piece of furniture, book, CD, DVD, music score, piece of art, along with the plethora of balls of string and rusty coffee cans every Depression-era senior citizen seems to save. Our wonderful friend Sylvia came to help, as did others, thankfully. We filled a couple of moving vans and Goodwill trucks, and closed the house up. Their house is STILL sitting on the market, price reduced ad absurdum, but still no one wants it because it is now such a white elephant. Very sad for us, who have wonderful memories of family dinners and parties in that wonderful spacious living and dining room.

Of course we are certain that if we do something impulsive to give ourselves a break from all of this, like try to nip off to Europe for a couple of weeks, that will be the moment she chooses to make her exit, and we’d have to turn around and come right back, so for several years now we haven’t gone anywhere terribly far, though we are (pun sort of intended) dying to. This week Arnold wants to go to Cordoba. Not happening right now, alas.

Now that Mother is pretty well settled in at the convalescent home, where, barring something really unforeseen, she will remain till the end, as things have stabilized, however, we are ever-so-cautiously asking ourselves what WE want to do next for ourselves. Thank god she is here in Mexico where things are so much more affordable and she could live on indefinitely and it won’t break the bank. Having of course inherited my mother’s love of buying, remodeling and decorating houses, in thinking about our future, my first impulse has been to start looking for a new and in all likelihood, a bigger house.  Some people never learn.

Well, since yesterday was her 90th birthday, Arnold and I brought her some flowers, and set the arrangement by her bed in the home. I’d asked the lady at the flower shop to pick bright colors she could see, so she put together some enormous orange and yellow lilies, and hot Mexican pink Gerbera daisies, one of her favorites.  A couple of people she knows also brought her flowers and those were by her bed too. But when we brought ours over, she didn’t open her eyes, didn’t even really try to talk. Maybe after we left she was able (or chose to) see them, but we couldn’t tell. We just said “Happy Birthday, Mom, you made it to 90!” To which there was no response whatsoever , not even the blink of an eye trying to open, and after sitting with her awhile in silence, she nodded off, so we came back home.

A Fond Farewell?

Our house, a fond farewell?

Our house, a fond farewell?

In recent news, Arnold and I have decided to put our house on the market and uproot ourselves once again looking for a house that better suits the way we are living these days. It will surely be an adventure, and hard for me, who doesn’t do well with big uncertainties, to say the least.  I wish we had the money in hand to just buy whatever new place we fall in love with and sell ours later, in a leisurely fashion, but we don’t. And friends here who tried that gambit ended up not able to sell their original house and now have it rented out. They are enjoying being landlords and having the extra income but we – alas – will need every penny we can wring out from the sale of our present casa to propel us into the next one.  As our real estate market here is so tied to whatever is going on in the States, the market for sales is awful, and as you’d expect, the market for buyers is full of relative bargains. There are loads of absolutely beautiful places up for sale here so finding something that we will both love will be the least of our worries, I think, once we know how much we can get for this house and have an offer on it that looks reasonable so we can forge ahead.

The good news about living in Mexico is that with few exceptions there are no mortgages. Every sale is “all cash” which frees you from the stress of worrying about those horrid payments every month. Being free of debt in a house I never could have afforded back in the States was one of the things that I found attractive about the idea of retiring in Mexico. But propelling yourself out of one house and into another is in a way more crazy-making, because no matter what price you negotiate on both the sell side and the buy side, you still have to arrive at the notario’s office on the day of your closing with the requisite fistfuls of cash for the entire purchase wired to your seller’s account. So you dare not fall too much in love with any house that is more than what you can scrounge up in real money  – but on the other hand if you don’t go out and look you have no idea what is really, truly, out there for sale in your price range, so it is a little bit crazy-making, but  this is where we are right now. First step, get ours on the market and see what happens over the next few months. Our real estate agent is telling us – and we know she’s right – that right now, when all the snowbirds are in town till April – is a good time to be putting it up for sale. In spite of all the bad publicity about Mexico, there are at least a few buyers out there, apparently.

It will tear me up to leave this place when the final days here come, especially the garden, which I carved out of what was basically a cobblestone parking lot. It has become really beautiful, a sanctuary for birds and butterflies, with two fountains and dozens of flowers everywhere, plus we are growing all kinds of fun things – bananas, mangoes, papayas, limones, avocados, and all sorts of herbs and spices – all the bounty that a Mexican garden provides year-round as a matter of course. I am hoping that someone else will in turn fall in love with it on the spot and want to live here. But there is no doubt in my mind – nor Arnold’s, I suspect – that in many ways we have outgrown the house itself and need something with a different configuration. Short of remodeling this place, which doesn’t make economic sense as we have way more into it now than we’ll ever get out, given how the market has declined – to get the space and quiet we are looking for these days, we will have to move.

So this week the preparations have begun.  I called our trusty construction guy, Ricardo, last week, who has sent over three or four workers who are now crawling around painting, plastering, repairing, redoing the floors – the cosmetic stuff you know you should do when you are simply living in a house (but never get around to). Of course these repairs become imperative once you decide to put it on the market, and it has to be if not impeccable, then more presentable than what you just ignore most of the time before you make the decision to sell. It’s weird; we have even rearranged some furniture and reorganized things  “for showings” and realized that we should have made x change years ago because it looks so much better now. Why didn’t we do it before, why didn’t we see it before?

It is interesting how a stay in the hospital for surgery, heart procedure, whatever, can change your perspective on your life. In my case, my ailments were painful and inconvenient but not life-threatening; but Arnold’s heart adventures – plus the fact that he’s ten years older than I am to start with –  have made him more aware of the passage of time in recent months.  It seems like getting into, or approaching, your seventies can put your own mortality into sharper relief. Especially dealing, as we do every day, with the agonizingly slow departure of my mother, who will turn ninety in a few days, but has spent much of the last third of her life in an inexorable physical decline (much of which she could have fought against but didn’t) that has left her completely bedridden and unable even to talk these days. Thus we are both in a “if we are going to do things, we need to do  them NOW” kind of place, and dealing with the house, the inevitable addition of some of my parents ’ treasured Mexican furniture, and the changes in the way we are living these days, is inevitably pointing to moving rather than trying to patch something more accommodating together here.

Everyone is asking us – since our present house is two stories – and actually three, if you count the rooftop mirador where I take my morning coffee for a view of the mountains and the lake – if we’re downsizing and looking for something on one level. Typical of us, al contrario, the one house we both managed to fall in love with is three levels as well, with breathtaking views of the lake from high up on the mountainside. If we get serious about it we will have an elevator guy come from Guadalajara to look at it and tell us whether and how they could eventually put an elevator, or one of those chairs that move up and down stairs, into it. But we don’t want or need to anticipate being incapacitated just yet. Neither of us needs it now and we seem to be doing fine with the stairs in the house we have , so we can know it’s possible and leave it at that until or unless we need it down the line. Since my surgery, I have not been allowed to do the kind of exercise I was doing before, so the stairs actually are about my only exercise right now, for the next few weeks, at least. Arnold refuses to do the “look at a one story place” routine; we’ve always lived in two-story houses and I think for him it’s a kind of surrender. Anyway, pun intended, many steps before  we get to the rearrangement of x new house wherever it may be and whatever tweaking it might need.

We shall see!