Mexico

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.

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.

Happy Birthday, Mom

Prior to my surgical adventure, in full Princess mode, I had planned several weeks lying abed in frothy negligees being waited upon hand and foot by everyone around here, time to read stupid magazines, do my nails, feigning agonizing discomfort so I could string it out a bit longer. Well, as they say, not so much! I sort of HAD to call a halt to all that after a couple of days enjoying the obligatory painkillers, and get out of bed and resume my life. Oh well, next time.

The saga with my mother goes on and unfortunately it requires, to some extent, that I be on my feet and functioning. Both my parents – as my sister so aptly put it – somehow managed to be fifty years old until one day they woke up at 85 and were completely bewildered as to how to respond to what was happening to them both physically and mentally. We both theorize that because in both their cases – family members on the East coast had done all the “elder care” for their failing parents and in addition to those responsibilities, had seen the other members of the family age and die ‘up close and personal’.

Gradually, after my father’s passing, my mother’s world has shrunk from the beautiful houses she shared with him over the years, to a hospital bed in a convalescent home here in Ajijic, where she lies week in and week out, bedridden and blind, not even really able to speak any more. Her care is wonderful, the Mexican ladies who work there dote on the patients; she and her airy room, which has a sliding glass door opening on to a pretty garden, are kept immaculate. It’s as good as it could possibly be for her given that she is growing weaker month by month and losing what little she has left of her faculties. She’s not in any pain, though, and seems to be happy “wherever” she is mentally – and that is a blessing for all of us.

The only good thing you can say about me, Arnold and my sister having to deal with this situation ourselves is that we have learned a great deal about aging and planning for it, the hard way. After watching both their decline (and my father’s death) over the past ten or fifteen years, we are big into carpe diem these days, whatever that might mean to us at the moment. But it is terribly sad and it has just been, truthfully, a colossal burden for all of us. The taking apart of their much-loved house in Santa Fe was horrible; for years before he retreated into whatever shell he constructed for himself, my dad kept saying “one of these days we will have to move to a smaller place” but never could or would take any concrete steps to move in that direction.  So in spite of insisting  that he didn’t want to leave that enormous undertaking to the three of us, as a practical matter, as both of them faded away, there the house was, intact, staring us in the face.

We finally had to at least get them both out of Santa Fe, for a whole variety of reasons. I tell friends it was like some opera where conflict and confusion dominate the plot and then there’s an intermission where you mull over the fates of these characters, until whatever the final act’s resolution might be. In Rossini, those closing ensembles where everyone is completely at their wits’ end can be hilarious, but in our case it was no fun. We had the neurologist telling us my father had some form of dementia resulting from mini-strokes and a brain hematoma, and the worst possible thing for him would be to remove him from his familiar surroundings.

Then my mother’s doctors, seeing her suffer from (in addition to diabetes) COPD and emphysema, insisted that we needed to get her to a lower altitude than Santa Fe’s 7,000 feet, and someplace warmer for her crippling arthritis.  She was on oxygen 24/7, and the machine was cranked up to the highest output a home machine was capable of – next stop for more oxygen was in a hospital. My father retreated further into himself and only wanted to sleep on the couch all day, stopped listening to music, stopped reading, stopped talking for the most part. My father who spoke several languages, rather well.

We spent a couple of years going back and forth trying to figure out what on earth to do, during which they only declined further. We tried desperately to get them to think about coming to be nearer either me or my sister, but by then neither of them were capable of planning such a giant move, nor did either of them want to leave the house they loved. The financial stress on them and on us only made it worse. Finally, we got them down – with their two cats (now ours, see earlier posts) to Mexico “just for the winter” (they bought the ruse), where at the very least, they were a ten minute drive away from us and it was sunny pretty much all the time. We knew they were never going back to Santa Fe, but they didn’t. Indeed that winter, there was a major break in a gas distribution line somewhere in Texas, and much of New Mexico was without gas to heat their homes as the temperatures plummeted to below freezing and stayed there for several days. When the house caretaker finally made it up there, she found my dad’s piano in four inches of water because the pipes in the living room had frozen and burst. Meanwhile my parents, happily enough, were sitting in shirtsleeves on the terrace of the house we had rented for them, watching the hummingbirds zip around the little garden, and gazing out at the view of Lake Chapala below, glittering in the sun.

Once we got their new care arrangements in place, full of dread, the three of us trooped back up to Santa Fe to deal with the house and its contents.  I was not really surprised to discover that my parents indeed left the whole joint – including zillions of dollars of deferred maintenance- kind of frozen in place like Pompeii. There were dried-out toothbrushes by the sinks, clothes still in the laundry hampers, with more dead toothbrushes and the like scattered in all the bathrooms, and it went on from there.  Like so many “adult children” who find themselves in this situation, dealing with the house was de facto left to us because the house was big, crammed with two lifetimes’ worth of possessions, and as my parents aged and failed physically and mentally, they totally lost control of it.

It took a couple of months out of our lives to be up in Santa Fe working twelve hours a day to figure out what to do with every pillow, pan, item of clothing, piece of furniture, book, CD, DVD, music score, piece of art, along with the plethora of balls of string and rusty coffee cans every Depression-era senior citizen seems to save. Our wonderful friend Sylvia came to help, as did others, thankfully. We filled a couple of moving vans and Goodwill trucks, and closed the house up. Their house is STILL sitting on the market, price reduced ad absurdum, but still no one wants it because it is now such a white elephant. Very sad for us, who have wonderful memories of family dinners and parties in that wonderful spacious living and dining room.

Of course we are certain that if we do something impulsive to give ourselves a break from all of this, like try to nip off to Europe for a couple of weeks, that will be the moment she chooses to make her exit, and we’d have to turn around and come right back, so for several years now we haven’t gone anywhere terribly far, though we are (pun sort of intended) dying to. This week Arnold wants to go to Cordoba. Not happening right now, alas.

Now that Mother is pretty well settled in at the convalescent home, where, barring something really unforeseen, she will remain till the end, as things have stabilized, however, we are ever-so-cautiously asking ourselves what WE want to do next for ourselves. Thank god she is here in Mexico where things are so much more affordable and she could live on indefinitely and it won’t break the bank. Having of course inherited my mother’s love of buying, remodeling and decorating houses, in thinking about our future, my first impulse has been to start looking for a new and in all likelihood, a bigger house.  Some people never learn.

Well, since yesterday was her 90th birthday, Arnold and I brought her some flowers, and set the arrangement by her bed in the home. I’d asked the lady at the flower shop to pick bright colors she could see, so she put together some enormous orange and yellow lilies, and hot Mexican pink Gerbera daisies, one of her favorites.  A couple of people she knows also brought her flowers and those were by her bed too. But when we brought ours over, she didn’t open her eyes, didn’t even really try to talk. Maybe after we left she was able (or chose to) see them, but we couldn’t tell. We just said “Happy Birthday, Mom, you made it to 90!” To which there was no response whatsoever , not even the blink of an eye trying to open, and after sitting with her awhile in silence, she nodded off, so we came back home.

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.

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!

Podando (pruning)

This week, we had a crew of guys crawling all over the garden in hard hats and tree gear pruning our trees. They grow like weeds here, especially during the rainy season, so this monster haircutting has to be done once a year at least. There was a huge wood chipper parked outside, partially blocking the calle, and our gate stayed open all day long so they could haul debris out to put in the chipper. Adding to the stress, chain saws and pruners were everywhere, with branches falling all over the place, so we and the animals all had to be locked inside all day. We have the “nicest” house in a very Mexican neighborhood, and I am always a little jumpy about who can peer in and check out the property. Having the driveway gates open makes me nervous since I don’t like passers-by being able to see into our garden.

Then the plumber was here trying to figure out exactly where our septic tank is located; we have never had a set of plans for the house and no one ever has known exactly where it is.  “It’s by the back wall somewhere” was the best the guy who painted the house originally could do, trying to remember back to when the house was built in 2003. Thus no one had ever inspected it or cleaned it out. So, fearing a seriously unpleasant disaster somewhere down the line (literally and figuratively), I said, if this plumber has one of those cameras – as he said he did – and can figure out where the bloody thing is and look at it and tell us it either needs cleaning out or is okay, that would be well worth the investment.

So he also was out there banging and running drills and equipment, poking holes in the lawn and chipping out our exterior walls every few feet trying to locate the septic tank itself and the lines that lead to it. He did locate it out back, finalmente, and put a nice new sort of manhole cover on it, so now, if there are problems, it’ll be easy to get septic cleaning equipment down there. This new plumber is replacing the guy we’d used for years, who – sadly – has developed just a little bit too much of a drinking problem. The terrific new plumber-designate, is gradually working his way through all our temperamental and problematic plumbing and electrical systems, correcting all sorts of things that – as it turns out – had been done halfway, or totally wrong. It’s costing a fortune but step by step, things are undeniably improving around here. Or so we like to think.

But we still are suffering the ongoing battles of the cuatro gatos, which adds to the craziness. The new arrivals are still fighting to establish territory, mercilessly chasing and ganging up on our original two. Poor little Rosie got cornered on the kitchen counter by Taby this morning and took a flying leap down into the open empty dishwasher. The poor kitty, who is tiny, landed right on all the upright prongs in the lower rack. She seems okay, but pobrecita, who knows. I decided enough is enough and I called our vet, Dr. Jesus, to come over and a) give them all the shots they need, especially rabies for Group 2 who are venturing outside now into the enclosed garden with its high walls. I asked if he could prescribe some calmantes (tranquilizers) for all of them so maybe we can ratchet down the inter-gato tension a bit. Group 1 is completely stressed out and maybe Group 2 will be less aggressive with a little relaxant. He said he’s going to try some natural remedies first and see if that helps the situation. He says some Vitamin B will help with all their stress (in their water bowl!) and there are herbal remedies to try to see if it helps the territorial battles before we go to real drugs. Thank god he makes house calls – we did not look forward to bundling four yowling cats, plus Reina the dog, who also needs booster shots, into carriers and going into the village to his office.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the chaos, we had one of those Perfect Mexican Moments when Dr. Jesus did come to the house. He arrived with only half the vaccinations he needed, however, having forgotten the others. He gave the kitties what shots he had with him, and then our house call came to a screeching halt. Oh well, mañana. He is a wonderful veterinarian and much-loved by pet owners here, but in his other life he is a very serious classical guitarist and everyone in his family is musical. When he realized that he could go no farther with the vaccination project, we began chatting, as we often do, about music. In passing, he mentioned that he had his guitar in his car.  Well, we said, since you don’t have the other vacunas with you, how about you play us something? A little Sor or Tarrega etude, or perhaps some Bach? Claro que si, and he ran out to his car and brought in the guitar and serenaded us for a half hour with several pieces.  It was just delightful, hearing the music float through our house as the afternoon began to fade. The kitties, having been spared for the moment, ran off and hid for the rest of the day.

Then he had to go to minister to some other cats and dogs and took his leave, saying he’d come back tomorrow with the missing vaccinations – which he did.  But no recital on the second trip.  Sadly, he said he had to get back to his office because two guys had a very old, much-loved Rottweiler he was going to have to put to sleep, and he said “I know I will have to stay with them for awhile, it will be very hard for them to say goodbye to this poor old perro, even though they know his time has come.” This is how he is; he consoled both of us so wonderfully when we had to put our much-loved Korat cat, Achille, to sleep a couple of years ago. I said to Arnold, “So typical, he forgets half of what he is supposed to do but then, also SO typical –something completely delightful and unexpected happens instead.”  If you can just let go of your assumptions about precisely how things are to be done and in which order – difficult for us gringo types – sometimes you get really nice surprises, like the sound of a guitar  echoing against the masonry walls of your house for awhile.

In all the chaos and noise of our week of home maintenance, I tore a contact lens and without even knowing it really scratched up one of my eyes. Looks like I was in a bar fight. It’ll be okay in a few days but who needs it? But the good news is that the crew is all down there singing and bantering back and forth over the horrific racket of the chainsaws, drills, and the chipper outside. Without being too colonial about it, it is good to hear them belting out Mexican favorites at the tops of their lungs as they work. It reminds me so much of one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, the chorus of sailors in Act I of Britten’s Billy Budd, the sea chantey they sing while they are fixing the sails, readying the cannons, and scrubbing the decks of their ship, the Indomitable.

A Romp Through Andares

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¡Viva México!

On top of the stresses of my mother’s ever-so-agonizingly-slow decline, the ongoing territory battles of the cuatro gatos, the occasional armed robbery and murder here to keep us on our toes, we have had to deal with the outcome of Arnold’s PET scan, done just before we went off to Puerto Vallarta. Sure enough, as Arnold’s Mexican cardiologist, the wonderful Dr. B., suspected, the PET scan showed some additional problems in his heart, and he wanted to get in there to do an angiogram – and probably put in at least one “estent” (stent) as soon as possible.

So our choices were – A) Go back to New York, where Arnold is in the hospital’s system and Medicare plus his insurance would pay for the whole thing. He mused, “We could go back to New York, I could go into the hospital overnight and then be out and guess what – we’d be in New York! We could shop and play and eat and see some performances and yippee! If we’re going to be spending all that money anyway.” B) Have it done in Guadalajara, where we would have to pay for everything ourselves, but one would come back from the procedure to one’s own home and bed – and garden terraza (terrace), with vodka and tonic at hand rather quickly – in a matter of an hour or so after being released from the hospital; no hotel rooms, flights or going through customs required. I did a rough calculation and figured that it was pretty likely to be a wash, or close to it, with New York hotel prices, airline tickets, food, and such. So it was really up to Arnold, where he wanted to have this done.

He really liked the idea of going back to New York; everyone in the hospital speaks English, and they have even more fancy technology there (or so we thought) than they do here, should something go wrong. I wasn’t sure I agreed; my wifely instincts were telling me we shouldn’t mess around with this, getting on what amounted to four plane flights, the stress of traveling and then staying in a hotel, and the general hassle of it. What if something happened to him on a plane? And there was the nagging question as to why the wonderful specialized American cardiac center had utterly missed this possibly fatal blockage in the first place. In the process of putting his pacemaker in they had done god knows how many echocardiograms and x-rays during the time he was in there. But it was his decision, so I said  “Of course, whatever you want to do” even though my gut said we should hie ourselves off to the catheterization lab in Guadalajara like NOW.  Dr. B., who deals with Americans all the time, said “I get it about wanting to have Medicare cover it, but don’t delay on this too much longer” which for a Mexican is pretty much a five-alarm bell, at least in my view.

Still, Arnold, undaunted, persisted in wanting to go back to the Ancestral Homeland. He got on the phone and contacted my cousin’s highly regarded cardiologist in New York City. Well, not exactly the doctor himself, but his office, whose Patient Care Coordinator told an eager Arnold rather briskly that unfortunately the first available appointment was mid-October and this was mid-July. Welcome to the U.S. medical care system. So, good news, you can have it done in the U.S. and Medicare and your insurance will pay for all of it. Bad news, if you wait five more months with a couple of badly clogged arteries you could be dead.

Poor Arnold then called Dr. B. and said with a bit of trepidation, “Okay, okay, I get it that I can’t wait till October. Let’s just do it here and get it over with; tell me what I need to do”. “Stop by the office and we’ll make a plan”. So we go, and Arnold regales the doctor with his disappointment in the folks in New York, who wouldn’t make the institutional waters of the great and famous cardiac center part for his stent procedure. The good doctor listens patiently while Arnold vents about the whole situation. While Arnold talks about it all, Dr. B. intently studies his arm, saying “let me see your hand; make a fist, open it, close it, now turn your hand over”.  He then pronounced, just as Arnold put the finishing touches on his lament about Nueva York; “Great, we can go in through the wrist”. “What?” we both asked; “not through the femoral artery in the groin, with the eight hours of a sandbag on you and you cannot move an inch?” “No, he said, we don’t do it that way any more; nowadays we go in through the wrist. Much better, you can get up and move around, go to the bathroom, even go home in a few hours although we generally keep patients in overnight just to observe them. ”

Then he said, “How about day after tomorrow? I’d do it tomorrow but I have appointments with patients.” Be at the hospital at 8 a.m. and I’ll schedule it for 8:30. What? You are worried about getting to the middle of downtown Guadalajara on a weekday morning, a good hour away from where you live? No problem, we will send a car and a driver for you and your wife.”

The nice driver called us at 7 a.m. to say he was stuck in traffic himself coming from the city, but “no hay problema”, he had already texted the hospital and they were expecting us despite the delay. When we walked into the hospital’s reception area, a lovely gentleman in a while lab coat, Dr. B. SENIOR (our Dr. B.’s father, also a cardiologist, who works with him, it turns out) whisked Arnold away immediately to the catheterization lab. He told me to go in to his hospital room and wait, after I had filled out a bunch of paperwork. His room was basic, nothing fancy, a bed, a private bathroom, a TV, a couch for a family member to sleep on, and a bashed but very comfy old recliner. “Disculpe”, the doctor said, “this is a very old hospital and there are newer and prettier ones around, but this is the one where all the cardiologists work because this one is where all the best equipment is”.

An hour and a half later the younger Dr. B. called me and said “Come downstairs, I want to show you the images of his angiogram. I’m very happy you both decided to do this here and I’ll show you why in a minute.” I went downstairs into the lab and there Arnold was with a bunch of tubes coming out of him and a big pressure bandage on his wrist; he was wide awake and very happy it was over with. I noticed that they had rushed him in there so fast that they had left his wedding ring and watch on. There were six big computer screens over the table above his feet; Dr. B. said “I want you to look at this” and showed me “before and after” – what turned out to be a 98% blockage in the left anterior descending artery.  This is a really serious one; turned out he was a sitting duck for a massive heart attack. He explained, “The PET scan showed us there was a problem there, but sometimes we just can’t tell how bad it is until we actually get into the catheterization and can really see what is going on. He is very, very lucky – now he will be fine. We can do miracles repairing peoples’ hearts these days but believe me, it is so much easier BEFORE the person has the heart attack than it is afterwards.”

They moved him to his room, he promptly turned on the Olympics on the TV; I stayed with him for several hours and then decided to head home on the bus. Dr. B. saw him later that evening and said “You can go home tomorrow – how will you get back?” Arnold said “well, I’ll probably just  take a taxi to the bus station and take the bus back.” “Wait, Dr. B. said, I have patients to see in my office in Ajjic tomorrow. I’ll pick you up here at 9 a.m. and run you back there, and your wife can pick you up at my office there around 10:30.” Talk about customer service!

So the next morning, I picked him up at Dr. B.’s office here in the village, and brought him home. The four kitties and Reina greeted him, and later we both went out to the terraza  for our regular evening cocktail and chat. The next day he took off the teensy weensy spot bandaids he had on each wrist – one where the catheter went in and the other where the IV port was. And that was that.

Meanwhile Mexico just won its first Olympic gold medal in soccer and the neighborhood is going nuts, shooting off rockets and one can only imagine how crazy things are in town. Arnold is fine, recovering his equilibrium, paying bills at his desk, after having had the wits scared out of him by this series of events.  I think this means that at least for the moment, life is going to go on.

¡Viva México!

The massive wound left by Arnold’s stent procedure, through the wrist!

As You Were

No one except a crazy person would think of taking their Mexican maid and her teenage daughter, all expenses paid, on a week’s vacation to Puerto Vallarta.

The four of us at the “delifnario” ready to play with the dolphins!

And ordering the maid not to do anything, for once in her life, to just relax and let the camaristas do their job scrubbing the bathrooms and cleaning the place. Not even to make a bed. In utter defiance of every dictum of expat life (e.g. “Don’t become overly familiar with your household staff and their families”) we decided that Sofia needed a proper graduation present from secundaria. And that Rosa should come along too, to be spoiled a bit, see a new place, and to have some fun. We knew it would be a very special experience for them both.

Sofia had never seen the ocean, never walked on the beach. Of course in the private school where she is a scholarship student, all the other kids have back and forth been to the beach for vacación all their lives. Arnold and I knew she would be thrilled at the chance to get a glimpse of a lifestyle her friends have known since they were born. I had read Paul Gallico’s Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris as a kid and that book had a tremendous impact on me – the idea that even if you could only cross the class boundary once in your life, as if by magic, the experience would change who you were forever.

Rosa had cruelly been thrown into the water when she was younger, not knowing how to swim; she nearly drowned and had been terrified of the water ever since. I decided for some inexplicable reason that to get her past that fear would be a cool thing to do. So I began to plan a week at the beach for the four of us; Sofia, Rosa, Arnold and me. They were beside themselves when I said, in the most off-the-cuff manner I could muster, “Hey, we’re going to the beach this summer and we want you to come with us this time”. Usually, they stay behind and take care of the house and the animals, but I roped Gaby, one of Rosa’s other daughters, into housesitting duty. She was happy to help out, saying “it would be so wonderful for my mother to have this experience….of course I’ll do it!”

We found a terrific “rent one condo and get one free” online deal for the summer, when it is  mostly steamy, rainy and hot in Puerto Vallarta. But summertime is when kids are out of school, so there are promociones and sales to get people to come. It is interesting for us, too, because the feeling in Vallarta is completely different from the winter when the Americans and Canadians are all there – mostly sans kids – fleeing the freezing weather up north. But in the summertime, just as it is in the States, families bundle everyone into cars and head for the beaches, the difference being that here in Mexico “everyone” includes not just the nuclear family but grandparents, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and every imaginable stripe of related kid. In fact, seeing the place overrun with Mexican families was just the lesson we wanted for Sofia.  We wanted to give her some food for thought about her future, seeing this nice hotel crowded with Mexican families from abuelita (grandma) to the littlest babies, the generations all together for one week. We said to her “Think about what these people must be doing for a living, to be able to afford to bring a bunch of their relatives here and spend this time together….they can’t ALL be narcos!” Of course they aren’t; they are also doctors, executives, and engineers, members of Mexico’s growing and increasingly influential middle class. To Sofia this is all new: if she gets even through high school she will be the first one in her family to have made it that far. But after a year of lessons in the covered indoor pool of the local swim school she is now a strong swimmer and was more than ready to try her skills in the warm waters of Banderas Bay and enjoy the enormous pools at the resort…baby steps.

Still, I was worried about the long-term consequences of this adventure, of course (as I always am). Here we are, taking two people from a completely different social class and background and introducing them to “our” world – a breezy week at the beach, an attractive hotel where they could each have their own room and bathroom (Sofia doesn’t even have her own bedroom at home), huge buffets served throughout the day; all you have to do is wave your arm with the plastic bracelet that says you’re on the meal plan, to have absolutely anything and everything you want delivered to you poolside or wherever. What would be the result of this? Was it cruel to open the doors to an experience where people very much like you are the ones waiting on you? When you can’t swim or have never seen the ocean, to be exposed to beach activities, playing in the sun by the pool? And if it was, at the end, a life-changing experience and a total blast for them, to have had a magical week? Then what? A la Cinderella – everyone returns to their customary places, sort of like “as you were, men” in the military; or musical chairs, where everyone scrambles to plop down when the music stops? I kept thinking about that, and how the one who doesn’t HAVE a chair gets tossed out. Survival of the fastest.

But arguing for going ahead with the adventure was that Sofia has just gotten herself admitted to what is probably the best high school around here; a completely bilingual school where there will be no more than ten students in a class. She is going to have American and Canadian kids as classmates, and all the kids in the school are obviously university-bound. Everyone who is working with Sofia – volunteer tutors, teachers, relatives, all think she has a tremendous future ahead of her – but as a part of her development she needs to think outside the box of her incredibly loving, warm, but provincial upbringing. She indeed had never seen the ocean. We imagine that someday it would be great to take her to New York, to Paris, to Mexico City one day, even to California (where I never have given her the long-promised trip to Disneyland). But given everything that is going on, with Arnold’s heart stuff, my mother, my sister going in for surgery – right now, those big trips are only fantasies. However, we thought, “But we can take her to see the ocean. THAT, right now, this summer, we can do.”

Flying was ridiculously expensive for a forty-minute flight, so the four of us took the bus, heading west over the mountains, past extinct volcanoes and the agave fields of Tequila, then snaking down toward the coast through the Nayarit jungle. Even that was new for both of them, though Sofi, like all the kids I know, had to be prodded to lift her eyes from her cell phone (busy texting her friends) to catch that first glimpse of the blue ocean through the jungle. These kids experience life in a way totally different from my generation, where, when we travelled, we looked wide-eyed at all the scenery through the window of whatever conveyance we were on – car, train, plane, bus, whatever – and focused on every passing detail. Of course, in those days they hadn’t even invented computers yet, let alone Facebook and texting your pals. These kids experience everything through the filter of technology. I shake my head at how taking a photo or video of something is starting to replace actually SEEING it. But, my laments aside, obviously it’s the new reality for all of us.

Breakfast by the sea: Sofia, Rosa and Arnold

Once we got settled in our rooms, we looked around for some educational experiences, especially for Sofia, knowing that on her own, since she’s gregarious and not as shy as she used to be, she’d make friends down on the beach or by the pool and without some structure, she’d just hang out all day. We found out about a program that sounded like fun – where you get to be a “Trainer For A Day” and go to the “delfinario” where dolphins and sea lions are kept – and learn about how they’re trained and try your hand at working with them yourself. We signed Sofia up for the full day class, and we adults signed up for the much shorter “dolphin encounter”, just for fun, ourselves. Then there was a “canopy tour” harnessed to cables that fly over the jungle. On another day we sent her out alone on a day-long snorkeling cruise. She had to get herself back by taxi – we told her where she had to go, gave her cab fare, and sent her off for the day. In my beady little mind, all preparation for the day when hopefully she gets sent off to college somewhere.

Well, we can report that it all was a huge success; we all had a wonderful time. Rosa came into the pool with me guiding her (“Don’t go any farther than this, it’s too deep for you and I don’t want you to get frightened”) but after a few tries ended up – like everyone else on vacation at a resort – running from the pool to the Jacuzzi to wade into the ocean, and back again, and absolutely loved all of it. Sofia indeed made some friends; she swam and played beach volleyball until the sun went down. One day she rode on the “banana” –  a scary-looking inflatable yellow tube several people straddle, one behind the next, hanging on for dear life. You’re taken on a hair-raising ride towed by a speedboat tearing madly through the ocean until the grand finale when you, and your compañeros sitting atop this thing, are dumped with much merriment into the water as it turns sharply and heads back toward the beach. Then you all have to swim back to shore (yes they all must wear life jackets). She loved snorkeling and said the brilliantly colored fish were amazing. At the end of the day, the boat returned to the marina in a driving rainstorm over choppy water, so that was part of the adventure, too.

A Girl (me) and A Dolphin

Now, without a doubt, Sofia has experienced the ocean and Rosa is over her fear of the water and can’t wait to get back in. Sofi has to begin her new life as a preparatoria student (high school) in a couple of weeks and with her new course load, she won’t have time for swimming lessons any more. She swims well enough now, so I asked Rosa if she’d like to take Sofia’s place at the swim school, go three times a week for a couple of months till she has learned the obligatory four strokes they teach you; and once and for all, at nearly 50, to learn how to swim. I said I’d pay for it as a special treat. She is signed up and will start in a few days.

So it IS “As you were, men” but not quite. Both of them have seen a new place and learned a little of what it is to travel. Sofi learned how to snorkel and how to hang out with dolphins and sea lions and Rosa got into a Jacuzzi for the first time in her life, and we practically had to drag her out of it. We all got kissed by dolphins, nuzzled by a sea lion whose whiskers turn out to be surprisingly soft, and after it was all over we hauled our sandy selves back onto the Vallarta-Guadalajara bus and came back home. Life has resumed its normal routine but undoubtedly two lives have been changed.

In other news, we were without power for a day, and it was just restored a few minutes ago. Someone stole a block’s worth of electrical cable for the copper, leaving the whole calle without any power for almost 24 hours. The electrical guys must have found some new cable in a warehouse somewhere, because everything, gracias a dios, seems to be back to normal now. Rosa came to clean on her regular schedule and thanked us again and again. “Never in my whole life, “she said, “did I think I would ever get in the water and not be afraid, let alone ride around on a dolphin…” She is a little apprehensive about swim class and doesn’t want me to spend any more money on her, but I have convinced her – “for once, let us do something for YOU alone – a few hours a week not taking care of your daughters, your grandchildren, or the house or worrying about us”; and now after some badgering from me about how I want her to be able to swim for pool safety around her grandchildren if nothing else, she’s eager to try it. Sofia went off to the new school to finish her placement exams for the next semester. Soon it’ll be time to purchase her new uniforms, getting ready for the fall. Jose came over to see us with his periodic report on Mother and to pick up a new supply of opera DVDs from Arnold. The battles of the cuatro gatos continue apace, and we are trying different things to see what will help them all get adjusted, with varying degrees of success.

For the moment, at least, everyone got a chair.