ex-pats

The Dog Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dia de la Madre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q.E.P.D.

My impossibly compromised and frail mother finally died last Sunday. No matter how you try to soften it; she “passed away”, “made her transition”, “left us”, “crossed the rainbow bridge” (though I think that’s reserved for Wagnerian gods or pets) or whatever, the bottom line is that she died. And to tell the truth, her demise was horrible to watch. Thank god she was pretty much unconscious for the last twenty-four hours of her life for she was in pretty bad shape. The doctor examined her, and pronounced that she wasn’t going to last too much longer; her lungs were perforated from the emphysema, and everything else was starting to fail, too. She was, after all, 90, and had been in the process of dying slowly for at least eighteen months; and in failing health for a good ten years before that, so none of this came as a big surprise.

When it was becoming apparent that this was probably going to be it, (no more amusing revivals where after two comatose days she abruptly woke up in her hospital bed to ask for chocolate milk), Arnold and I felt that we should just stay there, with her, in her little room at the home, until the very end. Which is what we did. I will never know whether she knew I was there or not though I tried to comfort and reassure her through her last night. Although actually watching her die was heartbreaking, since there was nothing more anyone could do, perhaps when my own time comes having seen it will make me a little less frightened. At least now I sort of know the stages one goes through, from my dad’s death as well. Who knows, maybe it isn’t so final after all; now all these books are coming out even written by formerly disbelieving, atheistic, humanist scientists, that have gone through near-death experiences for one reason or another, and they’re starting to say “Gee, there really IS something out there, many people are reporting the same thing and now I’ve seen it for myself….”

Well, however the end comes or whatever follows it, I sat with her till hers came, dealt with the doctor and the funeral home and the people who run the convalescent home where she spent her last days, then came home and collapsed, exhausted emotionally and physically, into bed. A week later, I feel a little bit like an animal that has been down in a cave hibernating for years, and is just coming out into the bright sunlight, sort of blinking and stretching. It has been a long slog with poor Mother,  and both for her sake and mine I am very glad that it is over. 

Over the past couple of days I have been thinking I about what best to do to memorialize her, since at least for the moment, we don’t have plans yet finalized for a memorial service, although we are thinking about doing something for both my mother and father back in Los Angeles, the closest thing there is to a “homeland” for both of them. Even though Wendy and I had divided up all her jewelry a long time ago, I never felt comfortable wearing any of it while she was alive, even though there was obviously no way she was ever going to be getting dressed again. Yesterday one of her favorite silver chokers caught my eye in my jewelry box, and I glanced past it looking for something else of mine, as I always did, until I suddenly remembered that she was gone now. I figured “Well, it’s mine now, for better or worse, I’m gonna put it on and wear it.” Then I decided that to incorporate her things into mine, I would try to wear one piece of her jewelry every day for a month. Sort of like the cats, let the various pieces, mine and hers, all get used to each other in the drawers.

I made a couple of trips back to the home to empty out her room, and I was struck by how sad it was that my mom, who painstakingly remodeled and decorated several wonderful houses throughout her lifetime, was reduced to having just a pitiful handful of her things around her when she died. Just to make the room feel more like “her” place, Wendy and I brought over some of her Japanese prints, a couple of her tables and lamps, put some fine old Mexican textiles on the bed and dresser, and tried to make the place look a little less spartan. She did manage to barely whisper, on several occasions, that she really liked her room and was happy to have ended up there, which made us feel good. Having inherited her decorating genes, I know we did make the place look much nicer for her. But now the time had come to clear all that out and make way for the next poor ancianito who will spend his or her last days there; I brought all the stuff home in a couple of carloads and with some help from Rosa’s son-in-law, who has a pickup truck, and that was the end of that.

The next day I stopped by to see Maria, the wonderful lady who really took physical care of Mother, changing her diapers, feeding her chocolate milk with a spoon, pulverizing all her food because she could no longer swallow, turning and bathing her. I wanted to thank her and I gave her a photo of Mom as a beautiful younger woman, which I had promised her. We chatted for awhile and Maria said “You know, Señora, the strangest thing happened….I was down on my hands and knees cleaning in the bathroom after you left the other day, and I missed your mother so much that I was crying, But I felt this soft hand, almost a caress, running down my back to console me, and no one else was in the room…I just KNOW it was her”. I told her that I bet it probably was her, that I have read and heard about such things happening. “Maybe she was trying to tell you that she is okay now, that she is at peace”, I added. Maria thought that was true, that she was with my dad now, and all that. It helps a lot to be religious, I guess. But there might just be something to it, one cannot know from this perspective, maybe it will become evident from the top of the Rainbow Bridge when one arrives there.

In any event, with this chapter over, I am one step closer to my own death as I move up a notch into the slot of “probably-the-next-generation-to-start-dying-off” in my family but I also feel that in a weird way, now that I have indeed discharged my filial obligations to the best of my abilities, I’m about to be reborn somehow. The “Third Age”, tercer edad, the Mexicans call it. If I’m lucky, I’ll have another twenty years or maybe even a bit more, si dios quiere,  so I think my task over the next few weeks and months as I mourn my mother, however that turns out, is to think about what I want to do with the time I have left and then get busy doing it. Listening to a lot of Bach these days, ageless, timeless perfection. Tempus really does fugit.

Q.E.P.D

(Que En Paz Descanse)

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!

A Fond Farewell?

Our house, a fond farewell?

Our house, a fond farewell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shall see!

December 31, 2012

For some strange reason, it is pouring rain tonight in normally bright, sunny Ajijic. It has been dark and cloudy the last couple of days, just enough to wring all the warmth out of the air, and now Arnold and I, Reina the dog and the cuatro gatos are hunkered down in our house in warm clothes, wrapped in sweaters and rebozos, to try to get warm.  The kitties are all too cold to fight, each one has found a nice toasty place, one on my stereo receiver, one on the TV satellite box, two others tightly curled up on sofas. The good news about not having a heating system in your house  = no heating bills. The bad news = when it does get cold out there you freeze, especially after the sun goes down. We do have a gas fireplace with cement logs in the living room, and in desperation we’ve been turning it on the past couple of nights. It does help, but it isn’t in a room we really frequent, and I wonder how quickly we are going to have to call Javier, our liquid propane guy, to come and fill the tank again. Hopefully not tomorrow, as it’s New Year’s Day and nearly everything will be closed up tight.

Less and less frequently do they shoot off pistols in the air for New Year’s – it used to be a bit dangerous to be out late at night on December 31. But it is still enough of a concern so that I’m just as glad we are staying in. Before we moved into our house, while we were still living in Santa Fe but had actually completed the purchase, our gardener reported a huge, growing puddle of mysterious origin in the garden. For the life of him he couldn’t figure out where the standing water was coming from, so, fearing some long term damage to the house’s foundation, we told him he’d better dig up the whole water line to see what was going on. Turned out some undoubtedly inebriated loco had fired a pistol into the air over our wall on New Year’s Eve and it landed buried several inches in our lawn, severing the water line. Puzzle solved.  We may be living in a fantasy world, but it does seem to us that at least in our very Mexican neighborhood, those shenanigans have diminished somewhat in recent years. Or they know the house is occupied now so they very kindly shoot somewhere else.

We won’t even be able to hunker down in bed and watch the midnight ball drop in Nueva York on TV because of course, our TV is out because of the rain. But – we can be reassured that things haven’t gotten totally waterlogged –  we can still hear a few rockets and firecrackers going off here and there, rain or no rain. We’ve been invited to a little party tomorrow, so that should be nice; then we will stop off and see my mother and tell her “Happy New Year”, which won’t be so nice, but it is obligatory and with any luck she will be at least a little bit awake and will recognize us.

Having survived the surgery about as well as anyone could, I am full of gratitude that things went so well and exactly as planned and predicted; but still, it’s unnerving that I seem to have lost a couple of months out of my life to medical tests, x-rays, CT scans, trips to Guadalajara for medical appointments and much worry – whoosh, gone, just like that. And now, suddenly, it’s practically 2013.  So I’ve been a bit unsettled and over the weekend, my first couple of days of being truly pain-free and with a bit more energy, I did the only thing I could figure out to do, to re-establish some relationship with quotidian life – went into girlie mode and fiercely emptied out and rearranged all my clothes closets.  Gave some things away, took some things to the resale store. Most Mexican houses don’t have great closet space (that’s what those wonderful painted armoires are for!) and ours is better than most, but I still complain constantly that pants are here, shirts are crammed in another closet a room away, coats and sweaters somewhere else and I have to traipse all over the house to find things.

I keep arranging and rearranging, trying to find a system that will work for me to have access to my wardrobe  (This time I’m trying a “color wheel” system for organizing clothing that I read about online….hey, it’s worth a shot!) Arnold says “it’s just stuff, get rid of it all” – but at this chilly moment I am very happy indeed that I have not given my winter clothes away. In fact, contrary to what a lot of people do when they move here from Michigan or Canada (and jettison everything but their Teva sandals and their Bermuda shorts), I kept enough of a variety of winter clothes left over from my old Santa Fe days – where I gather it is snowing tonight – so that the fortunate fashionista even has a choice of which warm sweater to wear. And, of course, the sun will be out again in a day or so. Naturally, keeping all this winter stuff has only made my closets more tightly packed, but what’s a girl to do?

No one is talking about it much, but it feels to me like much of Mexico is really ready to bid a not-so-fond farewell to 2012, with the horrific bloodshed and violence brought  on by Calderón’s six-year war against the cartels. Our newly installed movie-star president, Peña Nieto, is promising everyone here the moon; and we all know how far he’s gonna get with all that fol-de-rol given Mexico’s intractable disregard for the rule of law and pervasive corruption inbred from the days of Spanish rule. Still, from what I can tell, perhaps things will feel a little calmer, but one will never know whether the perceived tranquility is just an illusion with the same unthinkable things going on but with less publicity – or whether the new regimes, both local and national, really will be able to get things settled down a bit. One can only hope.

In any event, if tonight was to have been an evening of wild parties to ring out the old and ring in the new, whether with pistol shots into the air or not, it probably ain’t gonna happen in our little town, or at least not to any great degree.  One thing is for sure, the people around here are very spoiled by their normally superb weather and a cold, driving rain, expected to go on for awhile, will undoubtedly keep many people in their houses and off the slippery cobblestone streets. Probably, actually, not such a bad idea.

So, having said all that, feliz año nuevo everyone, stay safe.

Back in the saddle?

Day of the Dead, midnight, Ajijic. Where I left off writing in November....

Day of the Dead, midnight, Ajijic. Where I left off writing in November….

Surely I am not the only blogger out there who has taken a break from writing for awhile.  Once again, life intervened and obliterated my good intentions to write at least SOMETHING over the past couple of months. But, in brief, here are my excuses.

We decided, for financial reasons as much as anything, to move my mother yet again, into a nearby convalescent home, basically, and begin the process of taking apart  her house here (we keep having to take apart houses my parents – or now, just my mother – have lived in, and it’s time-consuming and draining, to be candid). Since she is now pretty much blind and bedridden, keeping her where she was, in her own private home, was not making financial sense any longer.  But this time we found a much more economical and reasonable solution for her, where honestly, we are pretty sure this will be her last stop. They take terrific care of her there, as only doting Mexican ladies can, feeding her wonderful chicken caldo (broth), vegetables and, by doctor’s orders, chocolate milk whenever she wants it, which gives her enormous pleasure after years of obsessive dieting and diabetic diets. She has been so weak and immobilized that now she actually can use the calories – and the enjoyment to keep her spirits up. To whatever extent she is capable of rallying now, she does have occasional moments of more lucidity and we even get to see faint glimpses of her old wicked sense of humor, which is heart-wrenching in a way, but also lightens the load a bit. Much of the time she is just asleep, but in the rare moments when she is candid, it is good to see that for that moment, at least, she’s still “in there” and can manage a faint smile.  She will turn ninety in January, and when I reminded her of this and told her we’ll have a big party in her room at the asilo, she barely could get out a whisper, but she did say “wow, amazing”. And so it goes.

Then I was surprised in November by a couple of medical problems that pretty much required immediate surgery – I tried to figure out alternative therapies or ways around my medical issues, but after all my hesitation and resistance, I finally had to surrender to the reality that I probably couldn’t fix things on my own, and I had to face the situation head-on and deal with it. Mid-December, I had a three-day stay in a private hospital in Guadalajara that was just terrific. Through that experience, I also found wonderful new doctors who can take good care of me going forward, so in that respect, it was fortuitous. Now, I’m on the mend and surveying the wreckage of everything (I seem to have utterly missed Christmas this year, and my birthday December 23!) that was left undone and littering my path before I disappeared from view for awhile. Well, surprise surprise, all that stuff is still right there where I left it lying around while I dealt with more pressing matters – unfinished projects, unanswered e-mails,  and of course my poor lonely blog. It’s all still here, sort like our dog Reina lying patiently at my feet, none of it went anywhere, so I guess I can pick up where I left off.

The good news is that we are about to start a new year, which gives me an excuse to say about this last one that – well, I’ve seen better. As I have gotten older I seem to feel that way at the end of every year, and last year I had a REAL excuse for giving 2011 a bad review because we did go through my dad’s death. I mean, that would have seemed a much better reason to wish the year was over and hope that next year would be better. This year we had a horrific crime wave here in Ajijic that terrified all of us but now when we look at it from the perspective of the murder of all those children in Connecticut, the random murder of people, especially young people, doesn’t seem any weirder here than back in the Ancestral Homeland. Whether you get snatched from the street in a kidnapping or mowed down at your school, your friendly local mall or at the movies, what’s the difference? The final outcome is the same, I guess, for you and the people who love you.

So we stay – cynically perhaps? here in our paradise, which, after all, by now is home, and hope for the best. Undoubtedly the weather here is better than anywhere else we can think of and if for no other reason – and inertia – here we shall most likely stay, year after year, enjoying the sunshine and flowers. Sometimes we talk about a different house, but as a practical matter it isn’t something we can tackle right now. Perhaps mañana.

My mother is still alive, doing as well as can be expected in her pretty and, as such spaces go, large and bright room at the rest home. Arnold, Wendy and I brought in a few decorative items and linens of hers from the storage unit when Wendy was here a couple of months ago, so on the days when she can see – some days being better than others – she knows that some of her own things and art are in there; we made it as nice as we could given that her real world has shrunken down to a hospital bed with occasional moves to a wheelchair for bathing and such. She has sliding glass doors out to an eternally green garden, and I hope that she makes it long enough for us to have her crack a few more jokes before she takes off.

The Kitty Psychiatric Ward

The cuatro gatos are still battling each other for domination of our household, four months to the day after their “introduction”, and we have just about had it. Just when you least expect it (like when you’re in the shower) one jumps another and you have to race to wherever the confrontation may be (probably diagonally across the house and either up or down a flight of stairs), squirt bottle in hand, to break up the fracas. Both of us have struggled with what to do about the fact that they just seem not to be adjusting to one another, and it has become for us a terrible moral dilemma. Tabitha, my mother’s hugely overweight tabby female, and jet-black and big-eyed Luigi, the male, arrived on the scene just wanting lots of love and attention from us, but the minute they spotted their two rivals in the living room, war was declared.

I had promised my mother years ago, when she was still “compos mentis”, that we would take her two in if she and my dad could no longer care for them. In retrospect, my promise to her to keep them with us “forever” may have been not such a bright commitment to have made. And now, to be honest, if I wanted to weasel out of it and give them up for adoption, I surely could, because she is completely gone mentally at this point. Still, a promise is a promise, aside from which the shelters here are overflowing with stray kittens and cats, dozens of them, needing homes (that’s how we got Missoni, after all). But neither Arnold nor I could do that now to both my parents’ poor kitties. They have been traumatized; starting with being brought down here from the States and adjusting to that, then going through the death of my father last year (he adored both of them and they were really disoriented when he died) and then they suffered, not  comprehending, as my mother stopped petting them and talking to them (they used to sleep on my parents’ bed in the old days). They don’t understand why or how she became bedridden, blind and suffering from dementia, eventually not relating to them at all.

I think cats do understand death and dying, and sadly, they both reacted to the loss of their master and mistress by becoming hugely depressed and hiding in a closet in my mother’s house, pretty much all day and all night long.  Well, I’d promised to take them in. So, seeing these two poor cats confused and disoriented, if we have to run a kitty psychiatric ward once they come here to live, I thought to myself, so be it. Guess we’re stuck; and Arnold agreed. In the old days, back in Santa Fe, roaming around my parents’ house and enjoying their affection, they were the world’s sweetest pair of kitties, but they have been upset now to a point where – good news – they get it that we are their new masters, but – bad news – they want us ALL to themselves. Desperately, both of these poor cats want security and lots and lots of affection from us. From their point of view, there is no room for any other cats to compete for attention.

Thus, we quickly found that my daughterly devotion unleashed upon our household two panicky felines who, starting the day they arrived, began incessantly to stalk and attack our two delicate, much more sensitive cats, who are half their size and terrified of these two invaders. As a result, our original two have become nervous wrecks. This turmoil was, of course, on top of the stress we were enduring with Arnold’s coronary adventures and his stent procedure. We tried everything “natural” we could think of to calm them down, and which Dr. Jesus suggested, including various and sundry herbal and flower-based aromatherapy sprays and drops in their food, none of which have really worked, or at least not to the point where it’s made any difference that we can see. In exasperation, one morning I went out and bought collars and tags for both of them, and threw them both out onto the terrace. I had hoped that keeping the newcomers out of the house for much of the day would mean that Group 1, and we, had a break from the catfights and we could go about our lives for awhile each day in relative peace.

At first they were scared and hung out near the door meowing incessantly to be let back in – having been indoor cats their whole lives – but day by day they have timidly ventured further away from the house and thankfully, now they are totally digging being out there, chasing bugs and rolling on the grass for the first time in their lives. Our garden walls are so high they can’t escape and of course Tab is too gordita to climb anything, sadly for her. (That’s our next job, getting her on some kind of kitty diet …I keep saying she needs Dr. Catkins). If anything, her metabolism is now more messed up than mine from stress. Luigi doesn’t have front claws so fortunately he can’t really climb too much either. He was declawed when we adopted him from the shelter in Santa Fe, and luckily, now that he’s older, our garden seems to be plenty big enough for him to explore.

By now they are generally content to find chairs on the terraza and just hang out there.  Jet black Luigi also strolls around contentedly and has found a nice maguey he likes to crawl under for his afternoon naps. The only thing you can see, if you need to find him, are those two huge green eyes! After sundown, though, we still feel we have to bring them into the house. First of all, even though Ajijic is warmer in winter than many other places, the nighttime temperatures here in the winter can get down to the high thirties and frequently the low forties. And the creepy crawlies we do have – black widows, scorpions, and brown recluse spiders, are out there and much more likely to sally forth at night.  So while peace has begun to return during the daylight hours, we still are having battles in the evenings. Missoni and Rosie find high places and just stay hidden, trembling and wary. Winter is coming and the days are already getting shorter. Not good.

Well then, what to do? Mexicans are very paradoxical about drugs – some pills, like Viagra, it seems you can buy by the handful in any farmacia in the country. But anything that might be even vaguely addictive or dangerous is now controlado (controlled) and it’s every bit as hard to come by the stuff as it is in the U.S., even for animals. At my wits’ end and ready for a stay in an asylum myself, I went in to town to see Dr. Jesus, the classical-guitarist vet.  I said “I know you like all this natural stuff and don’t want to prescribe drugs for them, but honestly, we need to try to put at least the two new ones on kitty tranquilizers for a while to see if it ratchets down their “chase and dominate” instincts. It’s not fair to our two: their whole existence now is about being pursued and/or hiding in high places”. I confessed to him that I had dug around and found a few pills left over from when Arnold brought Group 2 down in the plane. Even though the medication had expired long ago, I figured, let’s see what happens – and I tried chopping the pills up into quarters and giving them this small dose. Thankfully, for we were at the end of our ropes, it seemed to quiet things down quite a bit. Dr. Jesus agreed to get us some kitty calmante drops – they have to be ordered from Guadalajara and it takes a few days to get them. We can experiment with different dosages and “medication schedules” to see what works best to settle the four of them down. I am hoping that  we won’t have to  keep them doped up for more than a couple of weeks, I suspect, till their little kitty motherboards are reset and hopefully we can all go on about our lives. Better living through chemistry.

Today, we brought  Group 2 in at sundown and gave ‘em two of the four little pill fragments I have left. Stoned kitties means that we don’t have to race up or downstairs, with squirt bottles in hand, to break up altercations when we hear screaming and hissing from some part of the house where someone has been cornered and is about to be pounced upon. I have enough until tomorrow; I’m praying that Dr. Jesus does indeed get the stuff from Guadalajara for us or we will be back at Square One. For now, at least for part of the evening after dinner, thankfully, Luigi and Tabitha just LIE there, right in the middle of everything, sort of like meatloaves. But no stalking, no switching of tails, no narrowing of the eyes followed by chasing and the inevitable attack.  We are so preoccupied over my mother right now that we just don’t need the house to be insane and tense from the cats. As I write this three of them, for the first time, are calmly in the same room. Rosie is still hiding upstairs in a closet, but I’m grateful for what I’ve gotten. The two newcomers are lazing on the dining room table, eyes kind of glazed (anyone who grew up in the ‘sixties knows that look!) but mellowed out, at least for the moment, with Missoni underneath the table perched on a chair. No one is hissing, no one is growling. I decided to make a run for it, put down my weapon (the squirt bottle), and came upstairs to write this. Maybe, just maybe, peace will reign in the land.

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!

Piles of Signs

A street in the village….

Sad to say there was another narcobloqueo in Guadalajara the other day – major roads blocked, buses set on fire, a bus driver killed, the usual. Rosa said they found two men hanged in Zapopan too. To the north, it sounds just horrible, gunfire and grenades in the night. Supposedly our fun and games here was in revenge for the federales having captured a big drug kingpin and extraditing him back to the States. Guadalajara continues on “Alerta Roja” (red alert); the scuttlebutt is that they are zeroing in on another capo or two. No matter, alas, if they get the one they want another is right behind him (or increasingly, her) in line to move into the top spot. It just never ends.

But at least over the past couple of months, we have been spared anything too horrible here in our little village, though everyone is always somewhat on edge, because of course it can all start up again at any time.  Still, for a change, there are the stirrings of some good things happening  – signs that people are coming out of the shadows after so much recent violence.  At least this week, instead of dealing with mayhem, our local government has been trying to spiff the place up a little bit, in hopes of encouraging tourism and “quality of life”, one supposes. Our much-loved contractor and volunteer-about-town, Moctezuma (Chuma for short),  has organized a charming remodel of our town plaza, with mosaic floors, new plantings, and art donated and commissioned from a number of  favorite local artists and craftsmen. The crew does as much work as they can till they run out of money, then they stop.  Chuma puts on a fundraiser or two, and they then continue on. We ran into him in town today and he said that next month there is going to be a folk dance performance we have to attend – to benefit the plaza redecoration project, as the project is once again broke. Of course we will go.

Then, the last time we took the bus in to Guadalajara, we noticed a little cement block bench at the bus stop, where before, people waiting had to stand in the blazing hot sun in the middle of a knee-high weed patch just off the highway in order to avoid being killed by oncoming traffic. The grass around it had just been trimmed and someone had painted the little bench white. This was really nice because so many of the people who wait for the bus are elderly, or are parents with little kids or babies in their arms. And then a few days later, a steel roof magically appeared over the block bench to shield people from the sun.

They have also been putting up new street signs all over the village to replace the now rusty and faded old ones. When I saw them being put up everywhere I thought “Boy, our corner could really use one of those.” The original one got knocked down or stolen years ago and now, since there are no street signs anywhere on our street, people are never quite sure where they are. So I went into our little city hall and stopped at the entrance, where a tiny desk was flanked by three police officers (one a young woman), their scary-looking automatic weapons leaned against the wall in a corner as they chatted amongst themselves over styrofoam plates of tacos. I asked, as respectfully as I could, given the armaments just a few feet from where I was standing, where the Street Sign Department was. I told them I wanted to find out how to apply to have one put up. “Oh, just go upstairs, Señora, they are working on them now and someone will help you.”

Upstairs consists of two rooms, a tiny office where the delegado – basically the mayor – works, and a second room, which was filled with boxes and piles of street signs all wrapped in plastic. I went in and pled my case – that we really needed one of those on our corner, people often got lost, there had been one before, etc. “Of course, I think we have an extra one here, and I know exactly where you mean for it to go”, said the nice man who was on all fours in the middle of the room organizing all the piles of street signs. “We’ll run out there tomorrow morning and put it up for you…” “Muchas gracias”, I said, carefully backing out of the small room. “De nada, señora, que le vaya bien”. Once back out on the street, I thought, sort of growling to myself, oh, sure, I know I’ll be back here twenty times asking about my famous sign before I ever see it, if they ever DO put it up. There are a zillion signs in there they are dealing with, they’ll never get around to it…but at least I tried. I went off on my other errands and forgot about it.

Well, damned if I didn’t walk to the corner early the following morning on my way to my exercise class, when lo and behold, there was the new sign in all its glory, gleaming in the sunlight, nailed up precisely where I had suggested they put it. Not completely straight, but there it is. Que le vaya bien.