Ex-pats

The Familia Has Grown!

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Figaro has arrived!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simultaneous sleeping, after a morning of running around.

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

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

Arnold & Figaro

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

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

¡ Feliz Cumpleaños!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¡Feliz Cumpleaños!

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!

Gaby and Carlos

 

One of the most fascinating things about living here, from my perspective as a well-educated, well-fed, and reasonably well-off American expatriate, is how Mexicans are reacting to the unrelenting images, marketing, and pressures of their powerful neighbors to the north. And we are a huge part of that influence, particularly here in Chapala, where there is such a large American and Canadian expat population. Many people who live here have nothing more to do with their maids and gardeners than to give them direction and pay them every week. But we have somehow become more and more involved with my maid’s family, with each passing year.  As a result of hours and hours of conversation with them, suggestions and financial assistance for various and sundry, they are beginning to see that the key to any kind of financial or “career” options for Mexicans is education, education, education. And it is in no small measure because at least some of us expats keep hammering away at them about it. Over and over again. Don’t drop out. Don’t let your kids drop out. Yes, there are scholarships out there, we have heard about them. Don’t get pregnant at fifteen. Don’t get married too young. The government here offers free birth control. Don’t be afraid to ask for it; don’t be afraid to ask for information.

Our ever-increasing involvement started years ago with eleven-year-old Sofia, who asked me for help in sending her to Secundaria (Middle School) because she desperately wanted to stay in school and her mom (Rosa) probably wasn’t going to be able to afford it. Even though school is “free”, there are expenses for books, uniforms, bus fare, and so forth, which many families just can’t manage. She invited Arnold and me to come to her graduation from Primaria and the ceremony itself was a charming glimpse into Mexican life that we never would have had otherwise, and we were smitten as Sofi received many awards and certificates of merit; we agreed this kid really was serious about school and we made the commitment to her and to Rosa that we would make sure she got the education she was hoping for. Six years later, Sofi is heading into her senior year at one of the best private high schools in the region – supported by us, another American couple who love her as well, and a scholarship from the school. She has learned about things like doing a student exchange to Europe, and is thinking about taking a year “off” to travel and see a bit of the world, and then going on to medical school. Arnold and I are both looking at each other and saying “we better batten down the hatches” – because most likely we will have to pay for a lot of it and help her find financial aid as well. We love the kid, although It’s a good thing I am not on Dr. Atkins any more because there may well be lots of tortillas and beans in our future!

Sofia has two older sisters whose example she has studied carefully: the oldest one dropped out of secondary school to run off with her boyfriend, and now she has two kids and helps her mom cleaning our house and also works as a maid for another American family. The middle daughter, Gaby, who was a very good student in high school, also managed to get herself pregnant and dropped out just before graduation. This despite an offer from friends of ours who were very fond of her, to pay her way through culinary academy, as she had then expressed a great interest in becoming a chef. Of course her getting pregnant ended all of that; our friends moved back to the States, and there was teenage Gaby, with this little baby and no possible means of supporting herself and her child except to move back in with her mother and try to find some work cleaning houses.

Although it is slowly changing, unlike in the U.S. where there is always a night school, online option, or a G.E.D. program somewhere, here once you drop out of school you are pretty much done for as far as finishing school is concerned. You can’t go back easily, which was very sad for Gaby because she was so close to finishing high school. When she realized the error of her ways, she made several futile attempts to get back into a preparatory school somewhere nearby where she could finish that last term and graduate, But there was no space anywhere for a “returning” student – even as it is the public schools are horribly overcrowded with forty five or fifty kids in most high school classes with school facilities being utilized to the max with both morning and afternoon double sessions to include twice the number of eligible younger kids. So, no luck.

I was able to recommend her to a good friend of mine and she has turned out to be a pretty good maid, very responsible and detail-oriented. Of course the boy’s father immediately took off with another girl, and Gaby decided she really didn’t want her son to have anything to do with him because every time he saw his father he came back miserably unhappy and complained about the fact that he didn’t like him, that on his visits he was pretty much ignored. He much prefers Arnold, who he calls his “Tatito”, and me, who he calls his “Maci”. Who knows why, but those are our titles and we happily accept them. It’s his way of placing us in his universe; he knows perfectly well that we aren’t really his aunt and uncle, and “Tio” and “Tia” are what the other kids in the family call us.  But we are fixtures in his life, going to his school and dance functions, and he seems to adore both of us.

Then, Gaby decided that her best path forward after this adventure was to focus all her efforts on bringing up her son the best way she could. The government social service agency in our village offered a free parenting class; she signed up, took the class, and is very proud of her certificate of completion. She learned how to discipline a child without hitting him, how to do “time outs”, and all sorts of other useful parenting hints and somewhere along the line she learned that for boys, particularly, pre-school was very important; that it would socialize a kid and prepare him for primary school, giving him a much better chance of success, as he would get there already knowing how to behave in a classroom, reading and writing and knowing basic math. Rosa, Gaby’s mother, who says she loved school, barely got through the second grade before she was forced to drop out because her parents had no money for books or shoes and besides, what did a girl need an education for?

But Gaby had already begun to think differently about what she wanted to do for Carlos and once he turned three, she enlisted her older sister Mirella in a series of visits to every pre-school in the Lake Chapala area, visiting them all in a series of long bus rides, to try to find the one she thought would be the best place for Carlos. I heard the reports about these schools as they went to them, one by one, sometimes with their mom Rosa, sometimes on their own. This one had too many kids, the classes were too large. That one had filthy restrooms. In this one the kids were totally wild. In that one the reputation was that they hit kids. In this one the teachers seemed too distracted. And on it went until they discovered the Montessori pre-school in Chapala which was “just right”.

Of course this school is full of children from much wealthier families and was more expensive than the others; but I encouraged Gaby to go to the administration, be honest with them and tell them she cleaned houses for a living and lived with her parents, but more than anything she wanted a good education for her son. Off to Montessori Carlos went! Arnold and I have ended up helping her with the tuition, plus she did get a discount from the school. He has turned out to be one of the brightest and most popular kids there. He loves learning English, he’s working on his multiplication tables, he loves to read. We have all begun to realize that he is very intelligent. Arnold has kind of taken him under his wing – a) he’s a boy and b) like Arnold, even as a very young child he has no use for sports, much preferring to be in arts-related classes, his after-school dance activities, reading and studying. Hmmmm. We know we are getting sucked into helping Gaby keep him in good schools, but he is turning out to be such a delightful little kid that it’s a pleasure.

A few weeks ago Gaby invited us to come to his school’s Spring Festival (Primavera) which is a big deal for little kids in Mexico. At almost every school, no matter how basic or poor, moms make or purchase costumes, and the kids dress up as birds, bees, butterflies, ladybugs, you name it, and learn dances and songs all about nature and the spring. They do a presentation for friends and relatives followed by (of course) cake and a giant potluck with tacos, tamales, and various casseroles, and everyone has a great time. The kids are (naturally) adorable. I shot a bit of video of the Chapala Montessori School’s primavera festival and if you would like to have a respite from imagining how we are fighting off the narcos here, take a look and see how these kids are trying to learn English.

Later this summer, Carlos will be graduating from Montessori and ready to move on to “real” primary school as a first-grader. Arnold and I spent hours mulling over this child’s probable fate if he were to go to public school in San Antonio Tlayacapan, where he (and we, now) lives. Forty kids to a class. Hardly any books, no school library. No extracurricular activities. Stressed teachers. Early exposure to drugs and god knows what else. After Montessori pre-school, an almost-certain disaster, we felt. Meanwhile, Gaby and Mirella headed off on their next search for a good school and found a very nice, old, established private school very close to where they all live, and once Gaby saw that school, she decided that come hell or high water, he wasn’t going to public school, he was going there. But she is already working seven days a week and there isn’t much more she can earn than what she is earning. Of course we have offered to help.

 

Summer is coming for sure

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

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

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

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

city safety

Violence in Mexico vs. American Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Inch by Inch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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