Ex-pats

Inch by Inch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Calm Few Minutes

Day One

Day One

Jesus Garcia house construction 003

My Future Laundry Room!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Million Dollar Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M is for Mahler

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

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

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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.

The Dog Show

We had our first bit of tentative rain last night – it was just enough to tamp down the dust and break the cycle of heat and oppressive humidity, bringing in a gorgeous cool morning with bright sun and fluffy clouds. We are in the weird in-between period with the new house purchase where almost all the papers are signed, or at least enough of them are signed so that we are reasonably certain we have a deal.  However in typical “mañana” Mexican fashion, the real estate agent representing the seller has gone off to Spain on vacation for a month and a half, and our own agent (who is also a good friend) is off to Mexico City for a couple of days of business and pleasure, right in the middle of the wrapping-up of these house-purchase negotiations. With my American sensibility and knowing how insanely compulsive I used to be about my clients back in the old days, it is absolutely unfathomable to me that anyone would just leave with a purchase contract sort of hanging there in limbo and take off for six weeks, but I guess he figures we’ll still be here when he gets back, ditto the seller and the house itself, so what’s the big rush? It’s hard to relax about it but I think that is what the real estate gods are telling me to do at this point.

It’s going to be probably two months till we really do get in to the new house – too early to start packing things in earnest – why live in chaos? – but obviously we are done with any new projects here at our old house, so we are just finding things to amuse us locally and we’ll just bide our time till everything comes into sharper focus. Right now we aren’t sure exactly WHEN we will move, it’s all sort of blurry. It is hard for me to live with blurry, either physically or mentally (I just went nuts getting new glasses and contact lenses!) but that also seems to be the lesson of the day.

In the area of things we CAN do while we sit here in limbo, we have been on a campaign of finding new homes for things we no longer think we need or want – on Mother’s Day after seeing all the moms being feted in town Arnold impulsively threw open the doors of the armario (armoire) in his office and gave Rosa his old television set – she had been complaining that her next door neighbor had gone up on the roof and illegally stolen her cable signal by rewiring the cable to his TV; and she’d been paying for it for months now, thinking her tele was broken since there was no reception. The entire family had been bashing away on this poor television set, poking it, hitting it, fooling with its knobs and wiring, to try to get it to cooperate and show some sign of life, till they finally did destroy the TV and then when the mystery of why the cable wasn’t working was discovered, the poor thing was by then truly muerto.

Arnold of course has his heart set on something newer and fancier for the new house, so it all worked out. Rosa was thrilled, her whole family has TV now and a flat screen even! The little stand that holds the set upright had broken awhile back, but Carlos rigged up a new stand with some wood and screws and god knows what so it was good to go. Rosa said the old TV that had been wrongfully accused of not working was twenty years old anyway; she had purchased it when she was pregnant with Gaby who is now 22 or 23! Now Rosa is battling with the cable company to reimburse her for all the time she paid and paid and got no service, but she is resigned to the loss of her money as it turns out the neighbor’s kid works for the cable company and she suspects that’s how he knew how to rewire the roof connection to from hers to their TV in the first place. Could be Mexican paranoia but she might be right. Anyway her cable is working again now and the new TV is being venerated by everyone over at her house.

Meanwhile this afternoon we decided to check out the dog show they’ve been advertising. This was supposedly a dog show sanctioned by the Mexican equivalent of the American Kennel Club and since we are avid Westminster Dog Show watchers every February (luckily we have figured out a way to watch it down here) we love seeing all the dogs, so off we went to see what we could see.

Well, as Arnold wryly pointed out, Westminster it ain’t. But the handlers and judges were very serious about it all; they had set up a series of big tents where the judging took place sheltered from the blazing Mexican sun, and off to the sides were the grooming areas with all the dogs’ crates set up. There were plenty of us ex-pats there, along with the Mexicans, enjoying the afternoon’s activities. Just like dog shows everywhere, many of the dogs had fans – family and friends – who applauded their every move with great gusto. We stayed to watch some of the judging – mostly  bulldogs and the labradores – the labs. The men mostly wore suits and ties which is quite formal attire in Mexico; the dogs were like show dogs everywhere- some of them amazingly well behaved and “into it”;  a few who you could tell would much rather be chasing a ball somewhere. But all beautifully groomed and turned out.

As with so many things Mexican, they had their own stamp on it – everywhere there were children, picnics, babies, and grandparents. There were kids who were “junior handlers” just like they have in the States and doting parents showing them the ropes. People brought out coolers with all sorts of things to eat and as much as an excuse to see the different dogs, it provided a chance for yet another gathering with friends and family and scarfing down a few tacos. No alcohol allowed on the grounds though, so it was all rather civilized and – excuse the pun – well-bred.

Then we came home to discover that Pedro the pool guy had left the hose running to fill the fountain and forgotten about it and taken off; of course it had overflowed so there were huge puddles all over the garden. Arnold turned the hose off in disgust – a dumb waste of water. Then after dinner our neighbors started up their dreadful high-powered stereo again for some awful party; then on top of that, there is wedding up at the evento place – we know it’s a wedding because at one point the Mendelssohn wedding march came crackling over the loudspeakers and the sound carried down to our house easily, a block and a half. In self-defense, I have retreated to the comfort of Corelli aided by my ipod and excellent noise-cancelling headphones which block out most of the external din. As long as I can escape it, nowadays, it doesn’t make me as much of a nervous wreck as it used to. I am getting used to it, just in time for us to leave.

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.