Archive | May, 2012

A Visual Place

17 May

San Miguel continues to delight the senses at every turn, and finally my camera is operational so I can share a small sampling of what I see everyday.

Although we’ve made a few excursions outside of the central historical district, we mostly hang out in town, wandering the streets and every day uncovering new delights.  In general the layout of the city center is a straight grid, a configuration favored by the Spanish during colonial times, yet due to the hilly terrain many streets are not precisely straight.  There are no parking meters and very few parking lots.  There are no traffic signals or fast food restaurants.  The streets are lined with colonial era homes and churches and the architecture is generally domestic rather than monumental.  The majority of buildings have solid walls against the sidewalks, with facades of ochre, orange and yellow, with windows and doors framed by handcrafted ironwork.  Vines of bougainvillea cascade over walls and fences behind which are hundreds of interior courtyards, generally well-tended and protected from the dust of the cobblestone streets.  Unlike Panama City with its huge skyscrapers and modern construction, San Miguel’s buildings are rarely more than four stories tall and its skyline is filled with steeples and bell towers and dominated by La Parroquia, the parish church of San Miguel.  One of the most photographed churches in Mexico,  it can be seen easily from all over town; we have a fabulous view of it from our upper deck.  Built in the 17th century as a traditional Mexican church, it was modified in the late 1800s by an indigenous bricklayer and self-taught architect, Zeferino Gutierrez, who added a neo-gothic facade thought to have been inspired by postcards of European churches.  You’ll catch a glimpse of it in the slideshow below.

Cobblestone streets will no doubt strengthen one’s ankles, but the flat stone sidewalks can be downright treacherous, having been worn smooth and slippery by millions of traveling feet.  The sidewalks are narrow and I’ve yet to discern the proper etiquette when approaching another person since it often requires one or the other of us to step into the street temporarily.  Some of the streets have cobblestones embedded in concrete while others are embedded in dirt or gravel.  In addition to being hard to walk on, cobblestones appear to be unkind to one’s automobile — imagine the effect on shock absorbers, tires, etc.  One of the pluses is that traffic necessarily moves more slowly and the major streets have speed bumps, also fashioned of cobblestones, so there’s a leisure about the pace of automobile traffic.  As a true California girl, I have never imagined a life without a car, the quintessential symbol of independence and freedom, yet being carless in San Miguel has turned out to be preferable.  The transportation system is excellent with Mercedes-Benz buses and taxi cabs in proliferation.  Buses run all over town, every ten minutes, and cost 6 pesos, about $.60, no matter how far one goes.  Taxi cabs are plentiful and rarely cost more than 30 pesos, about $2.50 to any destination in town; so far the longest we have had to wait for a cab is about 60 seconds.  When we go grocery shopping at the big “mega” store on the outskirts of town, not only does the taxi driver deliver us directly to our front door, but he carries the groceries into the kitchen as well.  Having enjoyed the ease of Panama’s adoption of the U.S. dollar, I was not looking forward to learning about currency conversion, math being my least favorite subject, yet it hasn’t been as difficult as I had anticipated.  Earlier this week the Mexican peso lost 1 percent against the dollar as the Greek fiasco plays out and the current exchange rate is around 13.8 pesos to the dollar; when we arrived five weeks ago it was closer to 12.5.

Discovering the way things work here has its challenges — and charms.  For example, it turns out that the garbage truck announces its arrival on our street by ringing bells.  We erroneously interpreted the charming sound of the bells as perhaps the ice cream man so our garbage piled up until we finally figured it out.  The garbage truck stops in the middle of the block, rings its bells, and everyone comes out with their bags of garbage.  Then we stand it line and take turns handing the bags up to the guy in the truck.  It appears there may be some recycling going on but not much.  We took Oliver for his first haircut — 200 pesos ($16) for bath and cut.  Unfortunately my Spanish betrayed me in that some of my instructions were “mis-heard” — or more likely “mis-communicated.”  He returned with fewer eye lashes and the outside of his ears were shaved so he looks a little like a wet puppy.  Fortunately he doesn’t appear to be embarrassed by his new look and  it will, of course, grow back.  The learning curve continues.  The grooming place came highly recommended and is run by a bi-lingual veterinarian who is reported to be an amazing healer — I’ve heard many stories including one in which he carried a dying toy poodle around in a sling for two weeks, day and night, until it recovered.  He is a show dog enthusiast as well which means he is especially appreciative of Oliver’s handsomeness.  There’s a picture of his new grooming place in the slideshow that accompanies this post.  And speaking of Oliver, he now has a dog walker to supplement our personal travels.  Francisco arrives at our door three mornings a week, just after 7 a.m., and takes Oliver, along with 4 or 5 other dogs, for a walk/run (sometimes Francisco is on his bicycle) for an hour and a half.   After initial reluctance, Oliver now eagerly awaits Francisco’s arrival and already, even after only a few weeks, he is definitely thinner, having gained weight in the lethargy of Panama.

We continue to meet new people and find new restaurants, learning evermore about San Miguel.  Yesterday we visited the Biblioteca, founded in 1954 as a lending library for children.  It is now the second largest private bilingual library in Latin America, holding more than 60,000 volumes.  During its 50 plus year history it has evolved into the cultural center of the city with a theater, cafe, classes, workshops, etc.  The children of San Miguel can take art classes there without cost and they sell their unframed paintings and drawings for 100 pesos (about $8) with half going to the child-artist and the rest to support the program.  And I learned that expats go there in the afternoons between 4 and 5:30 to practice their Spanish with one another.  I think I’ll try it.

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I’m reading Pound

8 May

“What are you reading?” my friend inquired in a recent e-mail; I replied, “Pound.”  In looking through the bookcase at this very scholarly house where we now reside, I came across a book by A. David Moody, Ezra Pound, Poet: the Man and his Works.  As it turns out, it’s only the first of three volumes, this one published in 2007.  Without footnotes and indexes, it runs over 400 pages long.  Can you imagine being worthy of three such volumes?  But just seeing the title I was reminded of another day, scores long past, when I was 13 or 14.  I was on a train.  I was either going from Phoenix to Pasadena – or in the reverse direction; my parents lived in different climes and I was a frequent traveler.  I sat next to a woman who at the time appeared to me to be very old; she reminded me of my grandmother with white hair braided into a bun and hands that fluttered.  As the cadence of the train crossed the Southern California landscape she wove a story drawn from her patchwork quilt of memory about a friendship, a lost friendship ,with Ezra Pound when they were both young and living in Paris; I think it was during the 20s.  There was a wistfulness about the tale – as though perhaps she had once loved him.  At the time my knowledge of Pound was scant yet I knew he was a poet admired by my Mother — or perhaps it was my stepfather.  I remember feeling privileged to hear this story about a famous man of whom I had only heard and it spoke of a world of which I wanted to become a part.  My teenage mind envisioned a world in which I might exchange repartee with Dorothy Parker or snappy dialogue with Scott Fitzgerald — or perhaps one day drink champagne at the Algonguin or walk along the Seine after a night of too much wine coupled with too much philosophizing.  As it turned out I never read much of Ezra Pound for my teenage taste for poetry ran to Millay and Dickinson.  Except for an occasional answer to a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle (although sometimes the answer turns out to be Ezra Cornell), I never thought much of him again.  Until now.  Finally, all these decades later, I am reading the poetry of Ezra Pound.

A Singular Place

5 May

The official name of Mexico is the “United Mexican States” or Estados Unidos Mexicanos.  I didn’t know that.  Nor did I know that Mexico is a federation comprised of 31 states, with the capital, Mexico City, a federal district similar to Washington D.C.  In retrospect it seems strange to me that I know so little of this country, having grown up in Arizona and California, both of which share a border with Mexico.  I remember studying South America in the 4th or 5th grade but I recall nothing about Mexico; having a checkered academic past, perhaps I was distracted during the Mexico module.  I remember going to Tijuana when I was about 8 and as an adult I have spent a week in Cabo San Lucas and ten days on the Yucatan peninsula.  I like Mexican food and can sing “La Bamba” in Spanish; otherwise I’m clueless.  And now I live here, in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, State of Guanajuato, in the United Mexican States.

Historically San Miguel de Allende, commonly referred to as San Miguel, was the first town in Mexico to declare its independence from Spanish rule during the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821).  It is also known as the birthplace of Ignacio Allende, an early leader of the rebellion, whose surname was added to the town’s name in 1826.  Yet in spite of its auspicious beginnings, by the beginning of the 20th century San Miguel was in danger of becoming a ghost town.  In 1937 the seeds of its renaissance were planted by a young American, a Princeton graduate with a trust fund.  A writer and artist, Stirling Dickenson had first come to Mexico in 1934 to research a book, Mexican Odyssey, and then in 1937 found his way to San Miguel.  Although he had done post-graduate study at the Art Institute of Chicago, he knew enough to know that he would never be a great artist.  However his love of art led him to become the first director of San Miguel’s first art school, the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes located in a former convent, and  then, in the early 1940s, to establish another art and cultural school, the Instituto Allende.  Then after the Second World War the United States Congress passed the G.I. bill which allowed U.S. veterans to study abroad; some came to San Miguel.  In 1947 Life magazine published a three page article entitled, “G.I. Paradise:  Veterans go to Mexico to Study Art, Live Cheaply and have a Good Time.”   As a result of this article, more than 6,000 G.I.s applied for admission to the Instituto Allende at a time when the population of San Miguel was only 10,000; 100 were accepted.  The town’s regeneration was well under way as more and more G.I.s, artists and writers arrived spurring the need for new hotels, shops and restaurants.  In the 1950s the town took on a Bohemian quality; in the counterculture environment of the 1960s, hippies arrived, many of whom appear to have remained.  There is a huge population of vintage VWs here, vans and beetles alike, and Birkenstock sandals on bearded aging gringos a common sight.  Americans are credited with having saved the town from obscurity and unlike many other places around the world, Americans are warmly embraced here; it is estimated that one out of every ten residents is an American.  Today there are more than 100 non-profit organizations in San Miguel, all of which are headed by Americans, a fact which is well known and much appreciated among the native population.

The growing attraction of the town and its colorful colonial buildings created a vibrant real estate market which seemed more or less immune to the ups and downs of the Mexican economy since most of the real estate buyers were foreigners.  The real estate market peaked here in 2008 and has been depressed ever since with prices falling 25 to 45 percent.  It is not only the world’s economic woes that have affected real estate but the onslaught of  negative press regarding drugs, cartels, crime rates, kidnappings, etc., none of which are evident in San Miguel.

We have rented a house  just down the way from where we were staying and like many structures in San Miguel, it is narrow and vertical with a small garden and a fabulous book collection including old New Yorker magazines and Stanford Law Journals.  Our landlords are both Stanford graduates and a delight; they live just a few blocks away.  We moved in on Wednesday and had our first guests for cocktails last night.

Walking about in the evenings, one hears music coming from bars and restaurants, the majority of which is live.  In the main square, known as the garden, musicians wander with guitars and trumpets and art galleries abound.  Dogs and children populate the narrow sidewalks, green and white taxis navigate the cobblestone streets, and one hears singing at all times of the day and night.  It is a happy place.

It is tempting to make comparisons between Mexico and Panama but to do so is largely unfair since not only is San Miguel not representative of Mexico, but neither was our residency in a small corner of Panama.  Nonetheless I am compelled to make a few general observations.  First, San Miguel is very clean, as was the road we travelled from Mexico City (a toll road which may have been a factor).  Although it may exist, I have yet to see any razor wire in San Miguel; rather stucco or adobe walls are topped with either decorative rod iron spikes, or broken glass artfully arranged by color.  While safety bars adorn windows they appear more as exercises in rod iron art with decorative flourishes.  Because of the large expat population English is widely spoken and even more widely understood.  And, surprisingly, things seem cheaper.  We have just returned from the “Saturday market,” a weekly outdoor organic market complete with live music (a guitarist/signer and a bass player), and lots of expats in an acquisition mood; we got some fabulous cheese, a quiche, a brownie, and some homemade bread.

Our boxes are scheduled to arrive from Panama in the next few days so I’ll find the cord to connect my camera to the computer and my next post will have photos — I promise!