Travel

Hither and Yon

From this.....

From this…..

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to this, in just a couple of easy months!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Violin Round II

Last October, we left my mother’s violin in the hands of the fine instrument curator at Christie’s in New York,  who sent it off, as he said he would, to have dendrochronology studies done on it by colleagues in London. The violin was duly shipped there and the studies done, with interesting news both pro and con in terms of its history and value.

The study of the wood of the violin – the dendrochronology process itself – is  fascinating, and it reveals some other interesting possible facts about the violin. They matched it to the wood grain samples in their databases and concluded that  it is definitely quite old, possibly even late seventeenth century. And as my family and others have known all along, it is apparently unequivocally NOT a 100%  Guarnerius. The label it has inside the f-hole  remains something of a mystery but the feeling from all the experts who looked at it is that it is not from the workshop of Guarnerius, but the wood is similar to that used by the Guarnerius atelier. Interesting, but bye-bye fantasies of selling Mom’s fiddle to Joshua Bell for gazillions of dollars. However, such is the state of classical music that I just read somewhere that Joshua was able to play in the New York subway for hours with no one recognizing him or, apparently, noticing that this cat was pretty bloody good for a street musician, so maybe that plan wouldn’t have worked after all. Plus we know he already has a perfectly reasonable Strad, maybe even several! Onward and upward, I guess.

We had left the violin with Christie’s as they had told us that their next fine instruments auction was planned for sometime in November, and they planned to put the violin up for sale in that auction, as they would have a better handle on its provenance by then with the dendrochronology studies having been completed. And someone seems to have gotten around to playing it during its New York-London sojourn,  because it had been noted along the way that it has a wonderful sound.  Since my feeling about  the whole escapade as been that it would be terrific to get the violin back  into the hands of someone who will actually play it and bring it back to life, this was good news. We figured we would plan a trip to New York to be present for the auction, as much for curiosity as anything else (and of course we did take a look at the Met opera schedule), but got on with our lives as we figured it was safe and sound till then in Christies’ vault, and kind of let sleeping violins lie.

However, a few weeks ago Arnold  received an unexpected call from the folks at Christie’s. The bad news: It now turns out that both they and Sotheby’s have apparently decided to get out of the fine instruments business, and the fall auction has been cancelled, and would we please come and get our violin out of their vault. The good news:  Two gentlemen from Sotheby’s in London, experienced fine instruments experts, had left the firm and started their own specialized auction house for fine instruments, and they were very much interested in seeing our violin. Could we possibly arrange to be in New York in late June when they would be visiting from London and bring the violin to them for examination? Presumably, if they liked it, they would pick it up from us and put into THEIR next auction in London, coming up in a few months. It took us a nanosecond to decide to do this – first of all, the violin is far better off with these folks than it is with us languishing — and enduring a house move — with us here in Mexico, and it gives us a great excuse to take care of some business and have a little fun (I of course need various and sundry indispensable items for the new house, important things like a new kitchen timer as mine just bit the dust) at the same time.

So off to Nueva York we go, and we’ll get back from there just a couple of weeks before when our closing on the new house is supposed to  take place. The violin will now embark, one expects, on its second trip to London while we manage only to get to New York for a few very busy days, and then race home to deal with more immediate domestic matters. We don’t seem to be able to get the “nip off to London” thing right (Violin 2, us zero) but I am grateful for whatever I can get at this point.

Ghosts of Dinner Invitations Past

My mother has been gone now for just over a month; I am adjusting to life without her, and life is definitely going on.  Arnold and I are both dealing with mountains of paperwork, the closing of accounts and opening of new, retitled accounts, the various bureaucracies one has to deal with at a time like this, ending some things, starting new things. In retrospect, it is a good thing I was a financial adviser all those years; the required procedures and paperwork are all at least somewhat familiar. Looks like we will have to head back up to Santa Fe for a few days to have some meetings about the final closing down of my parents’ estate. Arnold thinks it’ll be weird to be back there, staying in the guest house on their property which is now inhabited by renters; but I’m actually looking forward to it.  Things do change, the old saw about one door closing so that another one can open was never truer than in our case just now. We are still numb from it all – not only the fact of her death but my father’s death and the two years leading up to her passing, and we cannot even begin to imagine what our lives might look like going forward, when hopefully things have shaken out somewhat.

So a trip “outta Dodge” will be a good idea for us, not only because we really do have to have these meetings, but it will be a break in the routine. We’ll see old friends, eat at some of our favorite old haunts, check out what’s new in town, and see what is gone – some much-loved old stores and restaurants have disappeared; gone out of business, victims of awful tourist economy up there. But friends tell us there are some new places to eat and shop and such in between our appointments. There has been absolutely zero activity on the sale of our house, so nobody is moving any time soon. No buyers, everyone still scared to move to Mexico, or having trouble selling whatever house they have to sell to purchase a new one; no nada. We might as well head up to Santa Fe, and have some sopaipillas and green chile stew!

One odd thing about my mother’s death is that while I haven’t had “visits” from her, I don’t think, like Maria has, touching me or communicating some kind of reassurance, I have lately remembered her phone calls to my office, or to our house in Santa Fe, over the years. She would always announce herself by saying, cheerily, “this is your mother calling”….and now several times since she died, I have heard her voice in my head – exactly as she used to sound when she was far younger and far healthier – identifying herself that way. I am wondering if it really IS my mother calling, and how I’m supposed to pick up the psychic phone, and what am I supposed to say? If she’s calling from The Other Side, she probably already knows I’m okay, and all that. In the old days, in this life, she would have been calling to invite us to join her and my dad for dinner, or some such thing. Unless it’s a rehash of Don Giovanni, THAT isn’t the reason for her call. The weird thing is, I never thought about her phone calls till she died and I began hearing her voice in my head. As a practical matter, she didn’t even call all that often. On top of which I’ve never seen, felt, heard, been around or encountered anything even remotely resembling a spirit or a ghost, so I’m at a loss to interpret any of it. Perhaps  something is going on but I am so hopeless at interpreting other-worldly phenomena that I have no clue what it might mean. Where is John Edward when I need him?

Domestica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh goody, I can hardly wait!

The Regata de Globos

I guess a lot of towns have a couple of crazy things they do every year – special traditions that take root somehow and resonate with local folks as annual events, so they get repeated each year, and they evolve and change – or, sometimes even better, they don’t. It’s basically just the same thing each year, which is what helps people feel rooted to their communities, I suspect. When we lived in Santa Fe there was the Christmas Eve walk up Canyon Road by candlelight , singing carols as we froze in the snow, and in the late summer, the burning of Zozobra, a huge paper-filled mannequin that supposedly took all our cares up with him to the great beyond as he was incinerated with much fanfare from the assembled crowd. As one who has always had an interest in traditional culture, I have always enjoyed these unique events wherever I’ve come across them.

Mexico is full of such festivals, many of them religious, of course, but some of the most delightful ones are secular. They just evolve and become a part of the local calendar of annual fiestas along with Christmas, Dia de la Independencia, and the other “obligatorio” Mexican holidays. We have a couple of them here but one of my absolute Ajijic favorites is the annual Regata de Globos held each September around the time of the Fiestas Patrias, Mexican Independence Day.  It’s a homegrown balloon festival where the community gathers to watch impossibly fragile tissue paper balloons rise giddily to the heavens – if they don’t burn up first. No one really seems to be able to definitively describe how the globo festival got started here. People remember their fathers and grandfathers making them, though, and I’ve heard various stories of how the tradition “really” got started. Just like the sturdiest of the balloons, which manage to get lost in the mists above the soccer field and fly off over the lake, the real roots of the regata are probably now lost in time.

Having spent years in Santa Fe where one’s idea of a balloon festival was the enormous, world-famous annual International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, ours here definitely assumes its place 180 degrees opposite that one on the balloon scale, I am sure. The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta attracts enormous and spectacular balloons, flown by licensed pilots, who descend upon Albuquerque each year from all over the world, many sponsored by corporations. Its gorgeous, carefully planned, mass ascensions are televised in their entirety every October. So you can imagine my surprise when I first learned that there was a baby balloon fiesta right here. Big or little, there is just something people love about seeing something they made – kite, model airplane, balloon, sail up into the sky as if by magic, defying gravity.

We love our local version, and Arnold and I go now to see it down on the Ajijic soccer field every year. The difference being, of course, that our balloons are still – mandated by tradition – all made of colored tissue paper; there is no helium or gas or professional races or television cameras or anything like that – just hot air, and neighborhood teams of volunteers who work all year to painstakingly piece dozens of the fragile balloons together with scotch tape, and hundreds of people taking the afternoon off and simply having a good time.

I could describe it in great detail but it was so much fun to shoot these pictures that I assembled a video. I suspect that it will give you a better sense of the goings-on down on the Ajijic soccer field than I ever could write. Just sheer madness and fun!

A Romp Through Andares

Last week it was time for Arnold to go have his new stent checked out at Dr. B’s office – and I also was due for a checkup and a stress test (just to be sure I would survive at least as long as Arnold will now with all his new hardware).  This required us going in to his main office, in the gleaming new Puerta de Hierro medical center in Guadalajara. Both of us got poked and prodded and tied to various machines and after two hours of this, Dr. B. said we were both fine, he’d see us in three months. Then Dr. B’s topic turned to where we were going to have lunch at the splendid Andares mall right next door. Have you tried this place, have you tried that place, this one has fantastic steaks, this one has a very fine wine list – and so it went for fifteen minutes before Dr. B. sent us on our merry way – after offering us cappuccinos to strengthen us for the arduous shopping ahead — and he had to see his next patient. How many cardiologists have espresso machines in their offices? We are getting very spoiled.

I spent most of my childhood in the San Fernando Valley, where many of the first of the “outdoor” malls cropped up. Instead of being under a roof you walked across landscaped courtyards with splashing fountains from store to store. The first one that I recall was Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks. It was always fun for my sister and me to go there with our mother to pick out clothes for school, home décor items, whatever we needed. Andares shopping center is located in a new community of tall glass office and condo towers, taking shape in one of the nicer parts of Guadalajara. It is similar in concept to Fashion Square because like Los Angeles, Guadalajara’s temperate climate allows for the mall’s restaurants and stores to be clustered around open gardens, green all year round. So of course the Valley Girl feels right at home there. We lucked out too, because there was lots on sale, it being August. It made for very good prowling through the men’s department for Arnold (who didn’t buy anything but enjoyed looking).

Anyone who still thinks of Mexico as being a land of mustachioed campesinos sleeping in white cotton pajamas and huaraches beneath a cactus needs to pay this place a visit. It’s anchored at either end, as malls tend to be, by Palacio de Hierro and Liverpool, arguably the two fanciest department stores in Mexico. You can wander in to the gleaming marble atrium of Palacio de Hierro and find pretty much anything your acquisitive little heart requires – after you pass through the sizable cosmetics section, which has counters for just about every international brand you can name from Chanel to Lancome to Bobbi Brown to Clinique, Yves St. Laurent, and many more.  Then for insane luxury purchases, there’s a Tiffany, a Louis Vuitton, a Cartier, Gucci, a Ferragamo, an English gentlemen’s club kind of store for men, – well, you name it, it’s pretty much there. The dozens of  stores in the mall itself are loaded with the latest fashions and crowded with shoppers. Mexico has more and more high-end merchandise for sale, so if you wake up one morning and decide you must purchase your Rolex watch that very day, you no longer need to get on a plane to hunt it down; there are plenty of places – not only Andares – in Guadalajara where you can find the watch of your dreams.

How times have changed. One of my favorite high-end Mexican shops (which has boutiques located in the main Mexican airports, fortunately or unfortunately) is Pineda Covalin, where exquisite items in silk and other fine fabrics are adapted brilliantly into prints from traditional Mexican folk textile designs. Their designers are endlessly creative and find the most wonderful embroidery and other images to transform into silk scarves, shawls and accessories you could wear with perfect elegance into any opera house in the world.

But what has made my Jewish American Princess heart sing of late is that there is now (yippee!!) a Sephora cosmetics store at Andares mall. I know, how superficial, how ridiculous, overpriced makeup when you could buy the same thing at the drugstore. Well, here, you CAN’T buy the same thing at the drugstore; in that respect it is still different from the States. Back in the Ancestral Homeland the scruffiest CVS or Duane Reade has a boatload of modestly priced and fun makeup and beauty accessories (hey, I’m 65, I need all the help I can get), but here, the farmacia pretty much sells medications and a few household items like diapers and toilet paper, and that’s it. Farmacia Guadalajara, the big chain around here, has hardly any cosmetics at all.

Thus I was looking for a few things I missed picking up in New York; I knew that Sephora would likely have them. So I went in with great anticipation as they have just recently opened their first stores in Mexico. To my great delight I found most of what I needed but a few things were not to be found, and the very nice young man who seemed to be the manager said “Yes, I’m so sorry we don’t have that in yet, Señora, but we will. Every week they are shipping us more things and soon we will pretty much have what Sephoras elsewhere in the world have. You must come back soon.”

We had a lovely lunch, along with dozens of stylish, professional Mexicans, executives having business meetings, elegant women having ladies’ lunches, young families with kids turned out in all the latest gear, at a terrific sleek, gray and steel Italian restaurant. We wandered around afterwards and bought a few more things, having had a much-needed (after all the medical stress of the last few weeks) dose of retail therapy. Just knowing it’s all there, an hour away, somehow makes more bearable the infuriating lapses of electricity, the home repair people who say they’re coming and then don’t; the petty thievery of the glass from the lamps outside our gates, the garbage strewn around the calle carelessly after every weekend’s fiestas and other stark reminders of the class differences in our village. A romp through Andares, with all its superficiality and contemporary temptations, sometimes is just what the doctor ordered, especially after an in-office cappuccino. From my Encino-bred punto de vista (point of view), every once in awhile one needs a break from the undeniable fact of Mexico being indeed the “land of contrasts” with a return – however brief – to the familiarity of the good ol’ global monoculture.

Apparently they are coming out with a new Andares app for your cell phone that will tell you everything that’s going on in the mall and gives you contact information and such for all the stores. – sales, special events and such. ¡Muy padre! (very cool). I can’t wait to take my sister there when she comes down to visit next month, so we can both wear something pretty for lunch, and channel our inner Valley Girl heritage, at least for a day.  Meanwhile if you want to see what an upscale Mexican mall looks like, here is a link to Andares’ 360 degree photo panorama. And of course, it’s like this all year. No snow in Guadalajara!

http://www.andares.com/andaresv2/recursos/vista/CentroComercialAndares.html