travel

Hither and Yon

From this.....

From this…..

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to this, in just a couple of easy months!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inch by Inch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Ghosts of Dinner Invitations Past

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

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

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

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!

¡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.