ex-pats

The Fall has arrived

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the sun….

Our New Solar Panels!

Our New Solar Panels!

DSCN1745 DSCN1747 DSCN1748

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

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

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

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

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

A Weird Patch

One of our afflicted primavera trees

One of our afflicted primavera trees

We are going through one of those weird patches where NOTHING goes right, or as it is planned. The summer here is beautiful, my favorite time of year, but it has been hard to enjoy it with all the annoying – and expensive – things that are going wrong in our domestic lives and distracting us from the things we actually were looking forward to doing with our time this season.

The car’s transmission conked out for no apparent reason that we could see – it just stopped shifting gears one fine day and had to be immediately towed to Guadalajara for service a week ago. We’ve just found out that we’ll be without a car for at least two to three more weeks – which a la mexicana probably is going to be mean a month or longer. And of course the new transmission will cost a fortune. No, they don’t fix it, they just put in an entirely new one. Fortunately it will be guaranteed for two years, parts and labor, so that will be a consolation when we finally do get it back.

The dishwasher died unexpectedly and it turned out not to be the dishwasher but some bad wiring left over from the original house construction that caused a short and sort of blew the whole thing up. Not what we needed! The electrician has been here twice to dig the melted wires out of the concrete wall to fix the problem. Everything is working except now part of my kitchen lights don’t work, so (sigh) I will have to call him again and get him back here in the morning.

The list goes on and on, all sort of dreary and depressing. The new kitten we got for Rosa from the local cat shelter suddenly came down with a life-threatening illness, a viral infection in her brain, and we all were sure the kitten was going to die. The kids were crying and crying and sure that they were going to lose their new best friend and also that their mother was going to think it was something they had done to hurt the kitten. But Delfino the veterinarian is giving her shots and fluids every day and at least as of this morning’s vet visit, she looks like she may be able to turn it around and fight the bug off. A brain virus in a kitten! Who would have imagined such a thing, but it exists and is deadly, and highly contagious, so the other, even younger kitten (both of them rescued) got hauled in to Delfino this morning for a checkup and a vaccination since she has been licking and snuggling with the other, older, kitten “to make her feel better” (or so we humans think).

But, on a much cheerier note, in an odd way, old friends have been coming back into my life and it is really fun to reconnect with them. My newly-retired high school classmate David and his wife are here for a few weeks, experimenting to see if they like it here well enough to consider moving here. If I hadn’t been so distracted with all the domestic crises we have had I would be spending more time ferrying them around to see the sights. If we do get the car back soon – or we can find one to rent – we will do more of that in their remaining time here and it will be fun for all of us I hope. I guess some people lose track of their high school friends and never see them again, but I have managed to keep in touch with a few of the kids from that really special time in my life. We have a shared language and memories which probably make no sense to our bewildered spouses, the mere recollection of which can send us into gales of nostalgic laughter. Here we are, in our late sixties and reliving all this silliness as though it were last week.

Then my dear friends Jan and Kay, each of whom moved back to the States awhile back for various reasons, are in town for a couple of weeks, we are all hoping to have a little fiesta on Saturday to celebrate their being here. They both know and are fond of Rosa and her family, so a Mexican feast featuring Rosa’s famous tamales is being prepared for the occasion. It’s also Arnold’s birthday – a great excuse for “pastel” (cake). And there is nothing Mexican kids like more than pastel, so everyone will hopefully get together to enjoy an afternoon in the sun.

The “golden tears” trees – (“primavera” to the Mexicans) in our garden are still covered in yellow flowers and as they fall they leave a brilliant yellow circle in the lawn. But over many nights, hordes of leaf-cutter ants continue to invade one tree or the other, and carry off the fallen flowers and they have done their best to utterly strip the trees down to the bare branches, which they actually can do, if there are enough of them in their little army. So far, the trees still look beautiful and they are fighting off the invaders, but the top branches are stripped of leaves and flowers completely, so we broke down and called the tree guy to stop by and deal with the ants and the other bugs chewing everything up. It was obvious that in order not to end up with naked and dying trees, we needed to intervene. Like Rosa’s little kitten fighting for her life, you wonder how anything so afflicted can still be so beautiful.

 

The Gap Year

Sofi's selfie

Sofi’s selfie

It’s been a long time since I posted anything about the ongoing growing-up of Rosa’s youngest daughter, my goddaughter, Sofia, who is now seventeen.

After secondary school we, along with another couple who are also tutores (meaning we act as her sponsors, footing the tuition and other bills and providing guidance), got her into what is probably the best private school here. It’s new and still in the process of formation but in spite of some administrative fits and starts as they have moved into a newly-built, modern and attractive campus, it’s still the best school in town and Sofi is doing well now in all her subjects – especially her English and Spanish are both improving dramatically. She faces one more year of prepa (preparatoria, which is high school) and then it’s time for college.

There are three of us retired women who comprise what we jokingly call “Team Sofi” – myself, her other sponsor, and one other good friend. One is a retired school psychologist and the other is a retired master Spanish teacher. Both of them saw early on that Sofia was extraordinarily motivated and intelligent, aside from which she’s charming and funny and beautiful, so they hopped on the bandwagon to help by being her coaches and mentors in any way that they could. It has been lots of fun and the three of us have become closer as friends as a result of our weekly coffee “check-in” meetings with Sofia after school. There is also the occasional meeting with various people at Sofia’s school, just to keep on top of things there. But after an initial rough start, going to a school that was both truly bilingual and also a lot tougher than where she had been, now she’s getting 90’s in most of her subjects, so we are reasonably sure she can get into a good college when the time comes. But my gut has been telling me she just isn’t ready to make a career choice yet; she has no family role models for anything except being a maid or a gardener; she didn’t know of any of us who are helping her now when we were still working.

Here, as in many European countries, you graduate from high school and you elect a carrera – a career course – in college – and you start working toward that from day one. No time to dabble in the liberal arts, take underwater basket weaving or humanities courses or an art or music history course for general enrichment and take your time learning what your career options might be, the way it was when I was in college. No, you better pick right the first time or you have to start all over again from the very beginning in a new “career” curriculum, Sofia says she is interested in medicine, becoming a doctor, but competition to get into the University of Guadalajara medical school is beyond intense and if she makes a wrong choice and decides she doesn’t really like it, she’s wasted a lot of time flailing around. And since Arnold and I have committed to helping her financially, we also don’t want her to make what could be a costly mistake. No one in her family as ever even graduated from high school, let alone gone to college, so she has no one really to give her any decent guidance except for us, and we all went to college, not here in Mexico, but in the States, fifty years ago.

We all realize that for her, travel and experiencing another life and another culture would be key to her continuing development. But how? Getting a visa for her to travel to the States has proven to be nigh impossible, though we are going to keep trying. But there are all kinds of other ways for young people to travel in exchange programs, year-abroad, and so forth. The world, fortunately, is a big place. We had a chance to meet yesterday with a delightful young woman from AFS to learn about their student exchange and year-abroad programs. They offer programs in fifty countries and both for kids under and over 18, with a range of choices. In one form or another all of us involved adults benefited from travel and/or student exchanges earlier in our lives; it shouldn’t be all that surprising that now we all live outside the U.S. as expats. Clearly we all get it how life-changing an experience traveling and living outside Mexico could be for her.

After I had contacted AFS’ branch office in Mexico City, they said “we’ll put you in touch with our person in Guadalajara.” We made an appointment to meet with her here in Ajijic; rather than us all coming to the city to meet with her she suggested meeting here for coffee, because she had a family reunion coming up. We had no idea how old this lady was going to be or who she was; I told Sofia “dress decently because this might turn into a sort of an interview, you just don’t know!” So no shorts or tank top for Sofi, she showed up in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt with just a hint of makeup and little ballet flats (perfect!).

Well, the “lady” from AFS turned out to be an absolutely stunning and delightful young woman named Ana who is barely two years older than Sofia. She is now in college, recently returned from a year as an exchange student in Denmark, and she loved the experience so much that she volunteered to work for the organization and she’s charged with getting the local chapter started here. She and Sofia immediately started chattering away in Spanish and Ana told her all about her year abroad, and how it had completely changed who she was as a person, even so far as to change her direction in college. She had opted to delay her college entrance for a year so she could do the year abroad, and she suggested that Sofia consider the same thing. We all kicked the idea around with Ana, who had great information about the different programs AFS offers.

By the end of our meeting with her, we all agreed that Sofia should seriously consider doing this “gap year” before college. She really wants and needs to get out of her house and her poor neighborhood and begin to broaden her horizons about what is out there in the world. For where she is coming from, the idea of living a year in a foreign country is even more significant than it might be for other, more privileged kids. Ana suggested that Sofi think about going to Denmark, where she spent her year, because of course the language she would use there would be English. But Ana also learned Danish and she said the experience of living there – a place so unlike Mexico in every way, was just incredible. She urged Sofi to consider the Denmark exchange because you’re also based in Europe and you can hop on a train or a cheapie flight and use your year there to explore a bunch of the rest of Europe. Sofi thought that was just fantastic. She probably doesn’t even know where Denmark IS on a map but she was ready to pack her bags.

In contrast, I got a wake-up taste of her reality last night. She was of course totally excited after meeting Ana and I brought her back to our house and said “okay, now your assignment is to tell Arnold, IN ENGLISH, what just happened and what we are all thinking about might be a new direction for you instead of just going straight on to college after you finish prepa…” Arnold of course had been thinking that English and travel to the U.S. were top priorities for her, and this changes the equation a bit. So Sofi gamely launched into her dissertation and I just let her tell him as best she could. So she and Arnold spent some time visiting and talking about her future, which was terrific. And the more she uses her English in situations other than the classroom, the better.

Then, I said “let me run you home” since it was dark out and by then it was probably 9 p.m. We went down her narrow, cobblestone street and I parked to let her out and let other traffic by and it was obvious that she wanted to talk to me about everything, but especially the situation with a boy who has been seriously after her and she’s been fending him off as best she can. However, she said, the situation with this boy is a bit more complicated because apparently he’s really a nice kid. He works, he’s involved with the dance company the little kids all dance in, he’s well mannered and well behaved and she likes him a lot “as a person” – he’s just – well, in love with Sofi. Sofi says her mother and sisters are all saying “well, you can at least be NICE to him” instead of just telling him to get lost. She said she tried to tell him she was happy to be just friends, have coffee, etc., but nothing more, and he wasn’t happy about it. She senses that her mom and sisters are subtly pressuring her to get a novio (boyfriend) after all and she wants none of it. I of course don’t really know the truth but I did say “Sofi, put yourselves in their position – they love you and only want the best for you. But in their world the best means hooking up with a nice guy who won’t beat you and lock you up in the house with a string of little children all day. Now you are really, for real, moving out into the world and away from them and everything they have known, and they are probably pretty confused: both proud of you and afraid for you at the same time. And probably deep down inside, more than a little threatened.. By now you are far better-educated than they are; use your new-found powers of analysis and critical thinking to parse this out. Human psychology is very complicated but you can deal with this!” (or words to that effect, by this time it was an hour later).

Meanwhile on the street two or three doors down from her house a gang of tough-looking kids had emerged from one of the houses and were standing on the sidewalk smoking dope and dealing to people who walked by. Then Sofi sighed and said “yes, they are there and I manage to avoid them or have my uncle Danny walk with me if I need to go to the store or something, but the worst is the couple who live next door to us. They have horrible fights, he slams her against the wall and beats her horribly, she screams and comes running out into the street covered in blood. When he throws her against the wall all my mom’s dishes rattle and the young kids in our house become terrified and confused”…and on and on this tale went. It also got scary out in the street with this gang of boys eyeing us talking in the car in the darkness, so as Sofi continued talking, I started the engine, drove around the block, and parked dead in front of her door so she only had to walk a couple of feet to get in. (Soon after the boys all left.).

After we were more safely right in front of her door, I ventured, “No wonder you want to get out of there, Sofi! And what is the lesson you take away from this? That a woman could be so utterly without resources, human or financial, that she has to stay and tolerate this situation? How does a woman get into this mess in the first place?” And we talked about THAT for awhile, and I said “Look, love and romance are wonderful things. When I met Arnold I was REALLY in love and acted like a loca for quite awhile because I wasn’t sure exactly WHAT was happening to me because it was the real thing! I by then had bought and sold two houses on my own, my career was stable, I had savings and investments, and a really pretty little house -in my own name – up in the hills of the East Bay with a view out to the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. I wasn’t a baby anymore and I STILL fell in love and we got married and it was even more beautiful and romantic because it two real adults getting together and making this lifelong commitment, not two kids! I did the early-twenties marriage thing and it was a sad mistake that ended in a divorce.” Sofi sighed, with the weight of the world on her teenage shoulders, “that’s why I am telling all these boys that I don’t want a novio, but it is really hard for me”.

Arnold later said, laughing, “Oh, and the kid’s going to go to Denmark where every one of those blue-eyed, tall, handsome Adonises is going to look at this exotic, dark-eyed beauty and their tongues will be hanging out!” (of course, the male point of view!) I thought, he’s right, but at least she’ll be older and hopefully they won’t be street bums out on the corner dealing
drugs. He’s reading some particularly dark Scandinavian novel right now so that isn’t helping, but he really does think the gap year is a great idea for her. We shall see!

Summer is coming for sure

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

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

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

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

city safety

Violence in Mexico vs. American Cities

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

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

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

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

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

End of an Era

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Last cleanup and ready for its new owner…

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

End of an Era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Future Laundry Room!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M is for Mahler

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

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

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At B&H Photo, waiting for our electronic toys to be delivered to the pickup desk from the bins overhead!

Poor Arnold off in the distance, having to lug my packages

Poor Arnold off in the distance, having to lug my packages

It was a whirlwind trip to New York, and a nice diversion from the waiting, waiting, waiting for our interminable visa and real estate messes to resolve themselves. So, well, why not opt for a little retail recreation while we remain on hold?  We stayed in my favorite hotel on the Upper West Side, where we’re near all Arnold’s favorite haunts (Zabar’s!) and within walking distance of Lincoln Center. The hotel folks are getting to know us and are willing to do nice things for us like receive mail order packages we have sent from various vendors who still just won’t send to Mexico. We ate a bunch of Chinese food and walked all over the city enjoying the warm weather and window shopping – well, some real shopping too. Channeled my inner Shirley (my late mother) and picked up two handbags and a great backpack for travel that I liked at good sale prices. We made a stop at Capezio for new leotards and tights for Rosa’s grandchildren so they have new things that fit them for their dance classes; absolutely essential (well, not so much) makeup items at Sephora – the usual materialist nonsense I am unfortunately prey to. Even Arnold succumbed to temptation and bought a few things for himself.

It turns out that Mother’s violin, the reason for the trip in the first place, will head off to London once again for another go-round with the experts; this time a different group of experts.  In an interesting turn of events, the very British young man we met with at Sotheby’s had a different take on the violin than the Christie’s folks. Probably not totally Italian, maybe mostly British. I somehow figured they would all draw more-or-less the same conclusions about it but there are diverse theories as to its possible origins and even its age. Alas, however, there seems to be general agreement (sorry, Mom) that it ain’t no Guarnerius, in spite of the label inside its f-hole (probably fake) but it IS quite old and of some interest not only because of its age but because of its sound. The dendrochronology study places the wood at about 1681, but of course no one can say exactly when the violin itself was actually MADE from the wood, nor who made it.

But it was of enough interest to the people who saw it so that they decided to take it back to London one more time for further study by still more experts and probable inclusion in a new auction to take place late in October. Now that we are in the middle of this violin escapade, the whole story of how they date these things and appraise them has become quite fascinating to us. In the course of our travels, we’ve had a chance to see a couple of REAL Guarnerius instruments worth a million dollars each – it is a bittersweet experience to see the real deal and realize that Mom’s flights of fancy about her fiddle were just that, flights of fancy. If we get anything reasonable for her violin we will consider ourselves fortunate, but however it happens, we are still basically determined to find a good home for it with an active musician. Sadly, it is still languishing in its case unplayed, though god knows it is racking up a lot of airline miles. However, on the plus side, the young man from Sotheby’s heard someone play it somewhere along the line and thought it had a really “sexy” sound, so that apart from the monetary value of these things, it is nice to know that there is at least some interest in their function as actual musical instruments.  We actually think we might try to head to London with my sister Wendy and be present at the auction if it really happens as scheduled; we suspect that it could be a really fascinating adventure and a great trip for the three of us. We’ll see how the mileage gods treat us when we try to get those elusive international plane tickets!

Back in Ajijic on the home front, the visa pesadilla (nightmare) continues unabated. We of course have heard nothing from Immigration about the status of our request for new visas, and we are hearing more and more of people who have been stalled in the system far longer than we have. No one who is selling a house here, for whatever reason – like us, just wanting to move into a different place, or others who are returning “home” to Canada or the States for some reason, wants to pay the enormous tax the Mexican government will charge you on sale of a home without one of these permanent visas. So of course everyone and their brother is lining up to get one and the delays seem to be longer instead of shorter.  People are getting paranoid about it…is it some sort of diabolical revenge for the horrid way Americans have treated Mexicans living up there?

Or at least it feels that way. Nevertheless we also need this visa to sell OUR house (whenever it sells, which of course could be years from now, but one never knows in real estate….), and the seller of the house we are purchasing needs it to avoid the taxes SHE would have to pay, and on up (or down) the food chain, the seller of the house she is in turn planning to buy also needs this visa. We all put our paperwork in, signed, sealed and delivered months ago, but none of us seem to be getting anywhere in the system. Or if we are, it is at a snail’s pace. Until everyone in the line gets their visa, no one can conclude their real estate transactions, so here we all sit, if not physically, then metaphorically, twiddling our thumbs. Everyone has heard or experienced different things about the delays; but the reality is that we are stuck in the mire of the impenetrable and inscrutable Mexican bureaucracy with nowhere really to turn; the most cynical of the impatient expats in the proverbial line with us lament that unlike the good old days, there isn’t even anyone to bribe any more because Mexico is trying to clean up its act. You feel like you are coming face to face with one of those gigantic La Venta carved stone heads they have on display at the Xalapa archaeological museum: impassive, unresponsive, and very ancient. Things have, whether we like it or not, always been this way here.

In our case, the delay doesn’t especially matter because there are very few buyers in town now and there have been hardly any showings of our house, so we aren’t panicked about that – but it has delayed our closing – and hence our taking possession – on the new house, for what will may be a few more weeks or months, but we really just don’t know. So it’s more limbo. We don’t really want to start packing up for the move too seriously because it’ll be just our luck that when we do there will be a further delay and there I will be frustrated because I’m unable to find my potato peeler – or something essential like that. So here we sit, ready to move forward, especially after all the trauma with my mother’s death, to begin our “next chapter” – but we can’t.

But we are trying to do what we can do at this end, which mostly means throwing stuff out or donating what we are pretty sure we can do without, to lighten up the load when moving day does finally roll around. Arnold has begun a major sweep through all his CDs and DVDs to try to eliminate everything he feels he can do without, or reorganize it so it can be easily unpacked and found at the other end. For the past week at least, every time I have walked into his office, he’s had Mahler on – since of course when you pull the CD off the shelf, if you haven’t heard it in a while you MUST listen to it. He’s made it through most of the symphonies and now to the songs, and a wonderful rendition of “Der Abschied” caught my attention when I went in to his office to tell him that dinner was ready.

I said, “More Mahler? It’s been a week of pure Mahler symphonies down here!” “Yes,” he said, “Well, I’m working my way through the alphabet and I’m kind of in the middle, at the M’s.” Sort of in the middle, I thought, and here we are still stuck, also in the middle of all these huge changes in our lives. Ye gods, such a frickin’ drag. We are both sick of the stallling, the e-mails and phone calls with the news of more delays, the uncertainty, by now. We were ready to pack up and move weeks and weeks ago. But the music is and was, of course, absolutely wonderful and in a weird way it has calmed me down. I have realized that I would actually quite happily listen to another several weeks of Mahler floating into the kitchen if I had to, so I decided that I need to be more Mexican about this whole situation and let my American impatience and need for precision and proactivity go. At least for now, I keep telling myself  “You know, relax, it’s just not that bad that we can’t move forward quite yet – we can stay here as long as we need to, this house hasn’t sold, no one is throwing us out into the street.” The rains have started up in earnest, it’s cool and nice out, the hills are green. Things may be stalled and we may be mightily irritated, but in fact, they could be far, far worse.

I Guess We Are Staying

I Guess We Are Staying....

I Guess We Are Staying….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we went home and I fixed dinner.