Merry Christmas

23 Dec

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For many days now there has been a special energy in the air as San Miguel prepares for Christmas, a major event in this largely Catholic country.  The colorful flags that traditionally grace our streets during festivals have been replaced by strings of small white lights, and all of the parks and gardens have been planted with an abundance of poinsettias, known in Mexico as La Flor de Noche Buena, the Christmas Eve Flower.  (Parenthetically, poinsettias are indigenous to Mexico and Central America and were first introduced to the United States in 1825 by Robert Poinsett, the first US Minister to Mexico; hence the name, “poinsettia.”)  Houses and walls have been repainted, streets cleaned, and there are decorations everywhere.  Some streets have been closed to traffic to make room for the many makeshift booths and tents that sell everything remotely connected to Christmas.  I was interested to observe a kind of time line:  first there were Christmas trees and poinsettias everywhere.  Then a few days later, all the things one would wish to put on a Christmas tree began to appear in the markets and stalls, together with hundreds of piñatas.  A week later an entire side street was closed to traffic and devoted to the various traditional contents of a piñata, i.e., candy, peanuts, sugarcane, fruits, etc.  And then the poinsettias were all gone, replaced by mangers and manger inhabitants; now its moss and bromeliads and straw and other materials associated with the construction of a manger scene.

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I have read that the representation of the nativity dates from the 13th century and is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.  In Mexico the manager scene, known as El Nacimiento, is the principal holiday adornment and while the poorest family may not be able to afford a Christmas tree, virtually every family will set up a creche in their home.  Since 1960, a life-size manger scene has been erected in the Jardin Principal, the main garden at the center of town, and when we walked by this morning it was almost finished with Mary and Joseph in place.  It should be completed later today and will include live animals.  The baby Jesus will not appear until Christmas Eve.

Christmas preparations seemed to move into high gear on December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  With just a hint of pink in the early morning sky, we were awakened by a cacophony of church bells at 6 a.m., interspersed with rocket fire, as the celebration began.  Although theological controversy has long surrounded this festival, I had been unaware that it refers not to the conception of Jesus but rather to the conception of Mary by her mother, Saint Anne.  The festival dates back to at least the eighth century and in 1854 was finally declared by Pope Pius IX to be an essential dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.

Of course that celebration paled in comparison to what awaited us on the 12th, the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, also known as the “Empress of Latin America,” and the most famous and beloved icon in all of Mexico.    To Mexicans, she is THE MOTHER.

The Virgin of GuadalupeThis is her story: In 1531, an indigenous man, Juan Diego, was on his way to church when the Virgin appeared to him on Tepayac Hill, near Mexico City. She instructed him to tell the bishop to build her a church on that spot. But poor Juan, being only an Indian, could not convince the bishop he was telling the truth. So the Virgin appeared to him again. At her feet, Spanish roses grew, even though it was winter. She told him to wrap them in his cloak and take them to the bishop as proof of the miracle. When he spilled the roses at the bishop’s feet, the brown-skinned Virgin’s image had been imprinted on the cloak—which is now in the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe that stands on Tepayac Hill.  In San Miguel, an image of the Virgin is mounted over the gate in front of the Parroquia.  Late in the evening of the 11th, the mariachis gather and at the stroke of midnight they serenade her with the Mexican Happy Birthday song, Las Mananitas.

The 16th of December was the first of nine consecutive nights of candlelight processions, known as Las Posadas, a tradition in Mexico for over 400 years and a tradition in San Miguel since 1737.  Posada is Spanish for “lodging” or “accommodation” and each evening’s procession is a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s quest for lodging in Bethlehem.  Although there are variations, most often children personify the members of the holy family with “Mary” riding a real donkey or burro.  As the procession moves along the street, many fall in behind, sometimes in costumes of angels or shepherds.  By pre-arrangement, the procession will stop at various dwellings requesting shelter for the night and be turned away.  Finally at the last stop they will be told that while there is no room in the inn, they may take refuge in the stable.  The doors are opened and all are invited to enter.  After the rosary is prayed, a traditional Christmas punch is served, Ponche Navideno, along with tamales and bunuelos (a deep-fried dough ball rolled in brown sugar and cinnamon); the evening ends with the breaking of a large piñata.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, Noche Buena, and is the most important evening of the season and the occasion when the children open their presents.  Incidentally, Santa Claus and the clatter of reindeer hooves on the rooftop are not part of a Mexican Christmas; rather the wishlist of a Mexican child is directed instead to el Niño Dios (the Holy Child) for Christmas Eve and the Reyes Magos (Magi) for Three Kings Day, Dia de los Reyes, January 6th.

Tomorrow evening we have invited a few friends for dinner in front of the fireplace and Christmas Day will find us dining on another round of turkey.  But the season will continue unabated with many celebrations yet to come including the Day of the Holy Innocents, Los Santos Inocentes, on December 28th, New Year’s, and then Epiphany.  I can’t remember ever having had a richer holiday experience than this one in San Miguel.

As the passing solstice has reversed the Sun’s ebbing presence in our sky, so may the coming New Year bring you increasing light and love.   Happy days ahead.

 

Dia de Gracias

21 Nov

It is the day before Thanksgiving and I’m still in bed drinking a second cup of coffee, Oliver asleep beside me, as I watch the early morning light reach the domes and spires of San Miguel.  The day promises to be lovely with temperatures now in the 40s, a predicted high of 79.  Since moving to San Miguel I have a new appreciation of the word “azure” as it relates to the color of the sky; it is, indeed, a deeper blue than I have know before, no doubt a consequence of the altitude.

Thanksgiving is that quintessential American holiday.  Because of the number of Americans in San Miguel, shopkeepers work hard to provide all the “fixings” and sweet potatoes and pumpkin pies are readily available, as are turkeys of course, free-range or otherwise.  A few weeks ago cans of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce began to appear on the shelves and a few places even have real cranberries for sale.   We will be sharing the traditional feast with our friends and neighbors, Tom and Barry, with whom we created a menu as well as a division of labor.  Since our oven is too small to accommodate a turkey, we will be dining at their home just down the road.

I am deep into Level 2 Spanish and will spend tomorrow morning in class as I will every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, from 9 to noon for the next three weeks.  I am finding it extremely challenging as I learn the first, second and third person singular and plural, word order, direct and indirect pronouns.   I’m struggling mightily with word order.  For example, instead of saying “I gave it to him,” one would say “To him it I gave.”  Or rather than ask “Did you buy it for him?,” one would ask “For him it did you buy?”   My teacher assures me that over time I will develop “Spanish mind” and it will all fall into place; I remain skeptical but willing.  It is an intensive course of study and I find it completely preoccupying.  As Oliver and I walk about town I am always practicing my Spanish out loud to myself and am confident some locals wonder about the crazy gringa that talks to herself.

Speaking of my Spanish class, I still have a few hours of homework awaiting me which I can’t put off any longer; consider this a pebble at your Thanksgiving window.  I leave you with my warmest wishes for a joyous holiday surrounded by those you love.  May we all remember the abundance of life and the bountiful bonus of friendship, past, present and ongoing.

More Images from Day of the Dead

8 Nov

Before I stop thinking about Dia de los Muertos, I wanted to attempt to create a slideshow and share some more images from the celebration.  Although not the most aesthetically pleasing, my personal favorite is the volkswagon “skull” with Oliver in the foreground.

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Day of the Dead

5 Nov

No amount of reading could have prepared me for the Mexican celebration known as Day of the Dead, or  Dia de los Muertos, an event that actually spans three days.  I found the occasion to be more complex than I had first imagined with layers of meaning; thus, I approach the topic cautiously, aware that I understand only a fraction of what it is about.  Although celebrated in various other countries, it is primarily a Mexican holiday.  It is a time of celebration, a time of rememberance, a time of mourning, a time of laughter, a time of hope.

The history of the event is old and complicated, going back to the Aztecs, and is essentially an invitation to those who have preceded us in death to return for an annual visit.  Originally a month-long celebration during the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, the Spaniards attempted to abolish it, believing it to be incompatible  with Catholicism.  Unsuccessful in that attempt, they settled for moving the event to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, November 1st and 2nd.

From the vantage point of a “gringo,” (I’m actually a “gringa”) at first blush the whole affair can seem somewhat morbid with nearly every storefront decorated in skulls and skeletons together with tons of some kind of red flower and yellow marigolds, sometimes called Flor de Muerto (Flower of Dead), a bloom thought to attract the souls of the dead.

Instead of the red, green and white flags that adorned every street during the Fiesta Patrias in September, now the flags were brightly colored in pinks and lavendar, orange and yellow.  On the first morning we went to the garden, Jardin Principal, and found it had been completely replanted with yellow marigolds.  Altars were being constructed, a bandstand was being set up, and a miniature graveyard had been constructed in the street.

Prominent among the various skeletal representations is “Catrina,” a skeleton of an upper class woman wearing a large hat, created in 1910 by the artist, José Guadalupe Posada.  Catrina, also known as “the elegant skull” or “the grande dame of death,”  has become one of the most popular figures associated with the Day of the Dead although her popularity is evident year-round.  The children of the international school created a replica of Catrina in the park, a photo of which you’ll find below.  These representations of death seem to signify not the absence of the fear of death, but rather a way of coping with that fear by mocking death; laughing at it, belittling it.  At the same time death is accepted, not as an end but as an almost parallel world.  Apparent in everyday life, death is prominent in the native art and even in children’s toys and games, such as the game called “Funeral” in which children pretend to be undertakers and play with toy coffins. But I digress . . . .

Beginning on the evening of October 31st, it is believed that the spirits of the dead begin to arrive to visit their families, leaving again on November 2nd.  Plans for these special days are made throughout the year, which include the gathering of goods to be offered to the deceased.  To welcome the dead, many families construct altars or small shrines in their homes or on the street on which they place scores of candles, incense, photographs of all deceased family members together with masses of yellow marigolds.  Then they add the offerings, or ofrendas, which usually include the favorite food and drink of the deceased.   Some altars hold bowls of fruit or a roasted chicken while others may include a bottle of tequila or a six-pack of coke.  Toys are offered for dead children (los angelitos or “the little angels”)  and a special bread, called pan de muertos, usually in the shape of a skull, is prepared only for this occasion.  Traditionally the family will spend significant time around the altar, praying and telling stories about the deceased.  Most believe that the dead are “present” and will hear the prayers, the jokes, the anecdotes directed to them by the living.

Another ritual involves going to the cemetery.  In the days preceding the event, the cemeteries are cleaned, weeds pulled, walls painted, graves decorated.  Then the families come with children carrying large bunches of yellow marigolds.  The cemeteries remain open all night, for two nights in a row, and some families stay continuously, presumably to be with the souls of the departed, while mariachi bands play and dances are performed to honor the spirits.  Pillows and blankets are left out so the deceased can rest after their journey.  It remains unclear to me exactly where the spirits go since some families build altars at home, some build altars at the cemetery, and others build altars in both locations.  It is a national holiday and banks and many businesses are closed, allowing employees time for these activities.

In addition to the altars built in homes and in cemeteries, there are many altars erected in public places such as the main garden and the park.  An opportunity for expression by the myriad artists who inhabit San Miguel, I saw remarkable things.

As I understand it, Dia de los Muertos allows the dead to live again, to return to their earthly homes to visit and rejoice with their loved ones.  And for those still living, the celebration is a way of retaining connection with the unseen world — a world to which it is believed we will all return one day.
I was deeply impressed with the amount of effort that goes into this celebration, generally borne of love and commitment to one’s deceased relatives.  Yet for some the celebration is motivated by fear and/or suspicion for there are many folk tales of untoward things that befall one who neglects his ancestors on Dia de los Muertos.  It is said, for example, that if a spirit returns to find no altar, they will feel sad and angry and may seek vengeance on those who have forgotten them.  Or even worse, those who ignore their deceased loved ones may fall ill and die shortly after the holiday.
A celebration of this dimension is a reminder of how little I understand the culture in which I find myself; I continue to be intrigued.
 
As I write this, it is election eve in the United States.  I like the Mexican way:  one six-year term and a limit of three months for campaigning.  The house that we rent comes equipped with Canadian television, not because the landlords are Canadian but because the Canadian satellite offers the greatest number of channels — something like 250!  In addition to Canadian television (which hosts a great number of ice hockey games), we get an NBC station from Los Angeles, an ABC station from Detroit, a CBS station from Seattle, as well as several local New York stations.   But as I observed once before, watching American politics from afar takes some of the sting out of it; the distance lessens the pain.
From reading my last post you might imagine that by now I have reached new heights in my Spanish studies.  Unfortunately it was not to be for just as the class was about to begin I came down with a throat infection complicated by bronchitis.  I’m still in the last throes of recovery but expect to finally, belatedly, begin Level 2 Spanish next week.  We anticipate spending Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, with our friends and neighbors, Tom and Barry, originally from New York, and their dog Henry who is Oliver’s best friend.
And finally, I close with a weather report.  After weeks of gorgeous autumn-like mornings and summer afternoons, it has rained now for nearly two days straight, the longest period of mostly continuous rain since we arrived in April.  Although it is not cold by anyone’s standards except perhaps my brother’s (59 degrees this afternoon), there is a chill in the house and I have lit the fireplace this evening.  Oliver wants nothing to do with the rain and at the moment is happily curled up next to me on the couch, snoring softly.  Sunny skies and warmer temperatures predicted for Wednesday.

Autumn Musings

14 Oct

It has been nearly two months since I last posted an update on our Mexican adventures.  I have no explanation for this hiatus other than the sense that time travels in warp-speed here; it is often I glance at the clock and wonder where the hours have gone.  Oliver and I continue to spend a good deal of time walking and exploring and he shares my enthusiasm for new sights and sounds, always expanding our reach outward from the city center although the park continues to be our favorite place.  The weather has been particularly enticing with chilly autumn-like mornings in the 50s, followed by a slow warming into the high 70s by mid-afternoon.  The rains that accompany summer have waned, replaced now with autumn breezes adding to the allure of our postage-stamp garden to which I continue to add new plantings.  And in addition to the normal routines of modern Mexican life, we have had our first houseguest and I have been to San Diego and back.

Those of you who followed our adventures in the Republic of Panama (www.panamareality.com) may recall that during our 14 month tenancy there, our good friend Marie was our one and only visitor.  In March of 2011 she traveled from San Francisco to Los Angeles and then to Panama City where we gathered her up for the hour and a half drive to our home in the mountains of Panama.  We had a lovely time.  Indeed, it was Marie who first encouraged me to start this blog and then made it all possible by her gift of this MacBook Air laptop computer and she continues to assist me with technical “support,” most notably my difficulty inserting photos.  Thus it should be no surprise that Marie became our first (and so far only) visitor here in San Miguel.  This time she flew from her new home in Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco and then on to Mexico City where a car and driver drove her the 180 miles northwest to our front door.  She stayed eight days and we had a grand time; it was a delight to share with her the many sights and charms that San Miguel offers and she appeared to share our enthusiasm for our relocation.  Since she is totally fluent in Spanish she was a great help with certain chores for which my rudimentary Spanish was not adequate (such as going with me to the cleaners to learn how to get just the right amount of starch in a shirt).  We mostly stayed close to home, enjoying the August full moon at the Luna Bar, a rooftop terrace atop the Rosewood Hotel; dining well in an assortment of restaurants; and walking, walking, walking.  Here’s a picture of Marie with the “leather guy,” one of the many shopkeepers with whom she had spirited conversations in Spanish.

Marie is an adventurous soul (if she hadn’t come to Panama we might never have taken the partial transit of the Canal), so while here in San Miguel she encouraged us to branch out; thus we took a major excursion to the City of Guanajuato.  Birthplace of Diego Rivera and an historically important city in Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain, Guanajuato is large (estimated population 1.5 million) and is the capital of the State which bears its name.  Named a World Heritage Site in 1988, it is about 138 miles from San Miguel and we hired a van (which lacked shock absorbers) to take us for a day-long excursion.  We were joined by Tom, one of our favorite neighbors, and it was a pretty drive through the countryside with occasional fields of wild flowers, both yellow and purple.  Located in a narrow valley, the streets of Guanajuato are narrow and winding; indeed, many are alleys through which cars are unable to pass and the steep mountainsides are lined with lengthy sets of stairs.  The origin and growth of the city came from innumerable silver mines in the mountains surrounding it and the city was one of the most influential during the colonial period.  Many of the original mine shafts, active in the days when two-thirds of the world’s silver was found there, have become major thoroughfares, partially or fully underground, giving one a subterranean view.  Our driver dropped us off a block from the historic center of the city, populated with numerous small plazas and gardens.  Guanajuato is a university town and as we lunched at one of the many outdoor cafes surrounding the main garden, students ladened with bookbags ambled by along with school children in an assortment of uniforms.  We were there on a Monday; alas, the one day of the week the museums are closed, so we limited ourselves to the various churches (including the basilica), the university, and the myriad paths and alleyways that wandered through the city center.  Cervantes was in great evidence with numerous statues and museums; we later learned that Guanajuato is host to the Festival Internacional Cervantino which has grown to become one of the most important international artistic and cultural events in Mexico.  

We had a lovely day there and it is a place we will visit again.

Our trip to Guanajuato preceded by a few weeks the celebration of Mexico’s independence from Spain, one of the largest celebrations of the year.  Beginning late in August, all of Mexico begins to prepare for Dia de Independencia, primarily by decorating homes and storefronts with the red white and green of Mexico’s colors; the Mexican flag was abundantly visible on every street and byway.

On the eve of Independence Day we dined on the traditional meal of chiles en nogada, a poblano chili stuffed with meat and fruits (apples, pears, peaches) and spices, topped with a walnut-based cream sauce and garnished with pomegranate seeds.  The green chili, the white sauce and the red pomegranate seeds reflect the colors of the Mexican flag.  One of the main events of this two day celebration, Fiesta de Patrias, occurred later than evening when millions of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and fellow revelers gathered in virtually every town and hamlet throughout the country to join a massive, synchronized call-and-response dating back to 1910, the 100th anniversary of Mexican independence.   Each year on the night of September 15th, at 11 in the evening, the President of Mexico rings the bells of the National Palace in Mexico City.  Similarly, at the same time, in every city and village and in all Mexican embassies and consulates worldwide, bells begin ringing after which the presiding official (in San Miguel it was the Mayor) calls out the cry of patriotism to those assembled, naming important heroes of the revolution.  After each hero is named, the crowd responds in unison:  VIVA!   This call-and-response, known as el grito, ends with the threefold shout of Viva Mexico!  Then church bells ring for several minutes followed by the mass singing of the national anthem accompanied by a military band.  And then the requisite fireworks display.  It was a marvelous experience.

The following morning, Dia de la Independencia, began with a lengthy parade complete with multiple groups of school children, military troops and armaments and, finally, horses.

Later in the afternoon, a reenactment of historical events took place with horses galloping into town followed by bands of peasants wielding machetes, all in period costumes.   It was wonderful!

But then San Miguel is a party town and it seems there is always a celebration of one kind or another.  For example, the populace is currently preparing for November 1st, the Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos.  These last weeks of October are filled with cleaning and pruning gravesites and cemeteries and painting cemetery walls in preparation for the return of the spirits of the dead, carried by the wind.  Marigolds seem to be an important part of this celebration, perhaps only because they are in bloom at this time of year; I’ll have more to report on this event in my next post.

You never know who might arrive on the next gust of wind.  And so it was that I arrived at my brother’s house in San Diego on a late September evening, having flown from Leon (70 miles from San Miguel) to Tijuana International Airport, a 3-hour flight.   The airport in Tijuana is new and impressive but getting across the border was time-consuming since I stupidly scheduled my flight to arrive early Friday evening when hundreds of others were waiting to cross the border; I’ll know better next time.  I had planned my trip to coincide with my sister’s birthday and we celebrated with a small dinner party at my brother’s home.  I thoroughly enjoy being with my two siblings at the same time, a rare occurrence when I lived in Northern California, and our conversations ranged from the ordinary to the profound.  I had a terrific time and saw both of my nephews, Erik and Lee, and my grand-neice Emma as well as “extended family” including Virginia, Sylvia, Marcella and Jack.  After five days and  before the first week of October had passed, I was home again in San Miguel, refreshed and renewed.

And now I prepare to begin Level 2 of my Spanish studies, reportedly the most challenging of the levels, covering preterite regular, irregular and reflexive verbs, direct and indirect pronouns and word order.  24 hours of class time over a three week period with 6 to 8 hours of homework each week; I can’t claim to be looking forward to it although I’m confident it will move me to a whole new level of conversation.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Mexico 2 Brazil 1

11 Aug

It’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight as word spreads throughout the community that Mexico defeated the juggernaut Brazil 2 to 1 in the Olympics soccer final.  Despite entering the match as underdogs, Mexico has captured the gold medal for the first time in its history.  As Oliver and I took our morning walk we noticed an unusual quiet; it was only when we visited the sparsely attended organic market that I noticed all the Mexican vendors were gathered around the radio, listening to the game.

The Mexican people have great pride in their country, despite its troubles, and everyone we passed on our afternoon walk had a smile on their face.  I anticipate fireworks this evening . . . .

San Miguel is awash with music, apparently a common state of affairs since music is an essential part of the fodder that nourishes the populace.  Currently we are in the midst of the 34th Annual Chamber Music Festival which opened with a performance by the Pacifica Quartet, winners of the 2009 Grammy Award for best chamber music performance.  We were in the 7th row of the orchestra as this celebrated  group performed first a Beethoven String Quartet, then a Shostakovich String Quartet and finally the “American” String Quartet by Dvorak, a work I had not heard before.   As the festival draws to an end next week, we will return for a performance by the Atlanta Chamber Players, a mixed ensemble of strings, winds and piano.  Other annual events include the Baroque Music Festival, now in its 7th year, and the 17th Annual Jazz & Blues Festival.  In addition to the Mariachis, a plethora of musicians wander the streets, guitars in hand; it’s a rare restaurant that does not offer live music of one kind or another.  After the chamber music concert we went to a little Italian joint for dinner and were serenaded by a talented classical guitarist.   In addition to the many musical performances available for the taking, one can study any number of instruments here including Aztec and Mayan instruments such as the ocarina (a flute-like wind instruments usually made of ceramic), Mariachi instruments like the vihuela (guitar with a rounded back) and the guitarron (a large bass guitar), as well as the concertina and Latin percussion.

In addition to musical opportunities, the availability of “spiritual” possibilities is downright daunting.   The Shambhala Buddhist Center offers sitting meditation, the Meditation Center welcomes “all forms” of meditation, and the LifePath Center teaches Mayan meditation as well as Tibetan Singing Bowls Healing.  One can learn the Pneuma System (a description of which eludes me) or EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) and there are classes in the Tibetan Bon tradition (not to be confused with Buddhism).  Then there’s the Hindu Festival offering workshops on mandalas and/or chakras.  One can take a course in Dharma Study and there’s something called “The Gathering” with a different topic each week (this week it’s reincarnation).  The Innerself Development Group offers numerous workshops and then there’s always The Course in Miracles.  The physical body is also looked after as there are myriad forms of yoga being practiced and taught as well as tai chi, qi gong, and something called Shen Tao — this is in addition to the old stand-bys like pilates and zumba — and the corner gym.  Of course if one prefers a more traditional method of getting one’s exercise, there are many venues for dancing and Arthur Murray has a very active studio here (complete with bar) that offers lessons in all the latin dances including the Argentine tango; I may just have to sign up.

I have completed Level I Spanish and have a few days off before beginning the next course.  I have enjoyed it immensely and although I managed to excel in class, I still become tongue-tied whenever a native speaker addresses me.  I was very impressed with the quality of the teaching and the course included a lecture on social protocol with a brief history of the United States (as it relates to Mexico) as well as a brief history of Mexico (as it relates to the United States).  I was particularly interested in the contrast between the core values of the two nations; for example, Mexicans are more interested in personal dignity than in financial opportunity.  Gaining an ever-increasing understanding of the culture adds so much richness to the experience of being here.

Speechless in San Miguel

24 Jul

Much time has passed since I have written much of anything — nary a post, and hardly an e-mail; I seem to have been rendered mute or nearly so.  It is not the first time this has happened to me so I feel no sense of panic.   Writer’s Block, a condition first described in 1947 by Edmund Berger, a psychoanalyst, is apparently a common affliction with a variety of causes, none of which seem to fit my particular circumstance.   Among the more common explanations are a lack of inspiration, depression and audience awareness.  It seems counter-intuitive that this affliction would befall me here, in San Miguel, a place so rich in creativity that others reach eagerly for pen and paintbrush.  Might contentment not also be a cause?  For whatever reason my creative processes, as least as they relate to my ability to write, seem to be on sabbatical.  I was, however, drawn to that blank canvas in the art supply store the other day . . . .

I can conjure up many a reason not to write since the charm of the city lies just beyond our doorway.  At every turn there is much to delight the eye and a simple walk is never without interest.  Now that we are fully ensconced we have begun to expand our “reach” and, for example, have attended a concert at the Teatro Angela Peralta, a theater built in 1851 that looks similar to the renderings I have seen of the theater in which Lincoln was assasinated.

We were there to hear madrigal singers, 32 in all, performing choral music, mostly Baroque.  The voices were fabulous, an excellent concert, and free as well!  We also hosted our first dinner party, on the 4th of July, complete with potato salad and grilled steaks, and as I was making my way about town gathering various ingredients, several of the shopkeepers seemed to know that it was a special day for Americans — “dia de la independencia” they would say, nodding and smiling.  Last week we discovered a “pocket theater” just a few blocks away, where we saw the first movie we have seen in nearly two years, the Exotic Marigold Hotel, a delightful British film with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.  The theater is in a room off of a courtyard bar with 21 seats and a price tag of 80 pesos ($6) which includes a bag of popcorn and a drink of one’s choice (including beer or wine).  On another day we  hired a taxi to drive us to the neighboring town of Celaya (52 kilometers) to visit Costco where we stocked up on items not readily available locally, like USDA beef.  The drive through the countryside was pleasant, similar to the landscape between here and Mexico City.  The driver had been instructed to wait for us; yet when we emerged an hour later (with two shopping carts) he was no where in sight nor was his taxi anywhere in the parking lot.  Fortunately our consternation was short-lived since he pulled up about ten minutes later, explaining in rapid Spanish and lots of sign language that he had had a flat tire and had gone to have it repaired.

We went to church on a recent Sunday morning, Saint Paul’s Church, Iglesia de San Pablo, the Anglican church of Mexico.  It turned out to be the Sunday on which the pre-school had its graduation (the five year olds part of the processional attired in white caps and gowns).  In addition, it was also the Sunday on which the congregation bid farewell to its minister, now retiring after 15 years; they called it “The Ending of a Pastoral Relationship.”  Many parts of the service were read first in English, and then in Spanish, but the part I liked best was when some of the prayers (such as the Lord’s Prayer) were read simultaneously in both languages.  It gave me goose bumps — not on any religious basis but around the idea that we really are just one people, struggling to figure it out.

On another day we found ourselves among the first patrons of a new restaurant called Calenda, which offers fine dining at its finest, in a charming courtyard in a hacienda-style home that had been left by the original owner to his gardener.  The restauranteur, a woman from Mexico City, was delightful and the food was beyond compare with each course more amazing than the last (i.e., seabass with pineapple and avocado, gazpacho made with cherries rather than tomatoes).  There are photos of us dining on their Facebook page — check it out at http://facebook.com/calendarestaurante.

As I write this it occurs to me that perhaps one reason I have not been writing is because I’ve been living!!!  I feel much more engaged here than in Panama and the weather is such that the outdoors beckon seductively.  As the hot season has faded (May and early June), the weather continues to delight; it’s hard to imagine a more perfect climate.  The mornings are always cool, the afternoons warm, and the evenings sometimes chilly; highs in the 70s or low 80s, lows in the 50s, with occasional afternoon thunderstorms.  Oliver and I continue our daily explorations and it’s not unusual for us to be out and about for a few hours a day.  We continue to spend a lot of time in the park where tree stumps are turned into sculpture and amaryllis now thrive.  The trees are filled with white herons and the sky wonderfully blue.


San Miguel is such a fabulous walking town and the streets are kept nearly immaculate. There’s always new things to see.  In the garden, Jardine Principal, men sell balloons, newspapers and straw hats while women sell baskets, flowers and silver jewelry.  Dogs wander among the children while others get their shoes shined.  Walking down the hill recently I witnessed a funeral procession with the casket followed by musicians and then several dozen mourners.  Nearly everyday I see something I had not seen before.

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Although Oliver and I spend a lot of time negotiating the cobblestones, he has a dog walker three mornings a week which coincides with my new Spanish class, 9 to noon, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Although I enjoyed the Spanish class I took in June at the Instituto, this new class is a better fit for me and has about 20 students. It comes complete with serious homework and study groups.  The teacher, el professor, is a man who came here 22 years ago on his honeymoon and never left (fortunately his wife stayed as well).   I’ve met lots of expats with similar stories; folks seem to fall in love with San Miguel with alarming speed.  I spoke with one man who was here for a week’s holiday and bought a house on the third day!

Many of you have inquired as to my sense of safety.  It’s a reasonable question, especially with all the negative press in the United States about the drug cartels, kidnappings, etc.  No doubt Mexico has enormous challenges about which I read in the newspapers.  San Miguel, on the other hand, is off the beaten track and has a crime rate in keeping with the size of its population.  The weekly “Police Blotter” has been consistently unremarkable, last week reporting 5 burglaries, 3 muggings, 3 vehicle thefts, and 4 street fights.  The population of the larger municipality is upwards of 120,000 but the city has around 80,000 of which nearly ten percent are expats.  We live in “Centro,” an area about 20 square blocks, and it feels like a small town.  I rarely go out without seeing somewhat whom I have met.  San Miguel hosts the largest expat community in Mexico, large enough to warrant our own U.S. Consulate.  In addition to over 125 non-profit organizations, all of which are run by Americans, San Miguel has a chapter of the Lion’s Club, a post of The American Legion and The Veterans of Foreign Wars, as well as Mexico’s only Audubon Society chapter.

The economy, however, has suffered from the absence of American tourists as well as the global economic woes; real estate prices continue to be 30 to 40 percent off their highs.  There are two tourists seasons in San Miguel, the primary one commencing in December and lasting through the middle of April.  We arrived on the 10th of April, just as the high season was winding down and I confess I enjoyed the laziness of May and June when there seemed to be few tourists and the town was left to those of us who live here.  But it was clear that the economy was suffering and some shops and restaurants began to close.  July has brought an influx of tourists, mostly from other parts of Mexico, and once again the streets are alive with activity, pedestrians, and so many cars it creates periodic traffic jams.  [In an earlier post I mentioned that there were no traffic signals in San Miguel; at the time I did not realize there are also no stop signs.  At the outskirts of town, where city streets converge on major highways, one finds traffic circles.]  I sometimes stand on a busy corner and watch in wonder; somehow it all works and I’ve yet to witness so much as a fender-bender.  We continue to walk or taxi wherever we need to go and are enjoying not owning a car.
Having just been told by my computer that I have written in excess of 1500 words, perhaps my muteness is abating.  Time will tell . . . .

The Bells of San Miguel

13 Jun

I cannot remotely claim to understand the bells of San Miguel.  I have been unable to conjure up a theory which could possibly explain the timing and variety of their ringing.  When I quizzed my Spanish teacher, a woman who has lived in San Miguel her entire life, she just smiled and shrugged.  There are bell towers all over town, too many to count.  I’ve been told there are 278 churches and chapels in the greater municipality, most of which are equipped with at least a single bell, if not multiple ones, which ring in different tones in different octaves at mostly different times of the day — although once in a while it seems they all ring at once, a cacophony of sound.  Sometimes there is a slow low tolling of the bells which I’m told signifies the death of a parishioner.  Other times there is an exuberant pealing, so rapid it is hard to distinguish between the individual rings and becomes more like a reverberation or an echo of a sustained and quavering note.  The bells do not necessarily correspond to the hour and there seems little consistency in the number of peals or chimes, sometimes few, sometimes many.  The first bells usually ring around 6:30 in the morning, just as it is getting light, perhaps to awaken the faithful and call them to mass.  And the church bells go on, punctuating the day and evening and into the night; last night I heard 3 bells as I was falling asleep at 11 p.m.  It’s a sound so unique and yet oddly familiar, perhaps reminding me of Spain and Switzerland, circa 1973.

As Oliver and I take our early morning walk, we watch San Miguel awaken.  Shopkeepers slosh buckets of water on narrow sidewalks, sweeping them clean with what appear to be homemade brooms fashioned of twigs.  The populace threads their way through the streets, some en route to morning mass, others headed for work or school, coffee shops abuzz with activity.  We wander the great slabs of stone sidewalks, worn smooth by generations, and navigate the cobblestone streets, sometimes strewn with confetti left over from the previous night’s festival.  It seems there is always a party and the evening dusk is often filled with the sound of firecrackers, followed at night fall by the sight of impressive fireworks, a common event over the main plaza and easily visible from our deck.  Last week it was the celebration of Corpus Christi — which I had previously known only as the name of a town in Texas.  As it turns out, the Feast of Corpus Christi is a Latin rite celebrating the tradition and belief in the body and blood of Christ through the Eucharist.  There were decorations all over town, mostly in the form of deep crimson banners hanging from windows and doors.  I’m told there was a procession of the blessed sacrament through the streets but, alas, I missed it.  Today is the Feast of St. Anthony and Sunday is the Day of the Locos (Crazy People) which we’re told is quite an event.

At the risk of repeating myself, I must comment once again on the formidable walls which embrace the narrow streets, in shades of cayenne, rust, clay and mustard.  Yet contrary to how it might seem, San Miguel befriends you, drawing you in; it’s easy to engage here.

Our afternoon walks often find us at the Mercado de San Juan de Dios, a large marketplace with many stalls where we buy fruit and flowers, yesterday a dozen gladiolas for 40 pesos ($3).  And on Fridays we pick up a copy of the

 Atencion, the weekly bilingual newspaper that reports on local matters and has a ‘que pasa’ section detailing the various pleasures scheduled for the upcoming week, including art openings, restaurant specials, concerts, etc.  The newspaper also keeps us informed about the coming elections and the season is upon us with banners all about town.  Mexican elections occur every six years and here in San Miguel the citizens will soon vote for a new President, a new Governor of our State of Guanajuato, and a new Mayor of San Miguel.  Mercifully, the election season is relatively short with only a few months of campaigning.  My favorite taxi driver predicts the “pretty boy” will win the Presidency.  Another item in the Atencion that I usually peruse is the Police Blotter.  Last week there were 6 residential burglaries, 6 muggings, 4 stolen vehicles, 10 street fights and 10 instances of vandalism in a city with a population of 80,000 to 90,000.  My bet is the vandalism is mostly attributable to graffiti which has been a growing problem and seems to be largely perpetrated by the junior high school crowd.

We often end up at the Garden, the Jardin Principal, a shady square-shaped park with black rod-iron benches under trees carefully pruned into geometric rounds.  Vendors mill about selling balloons, wind-up dogs, cotton candy, roasted corn on the cob, and soft drinks.  Wrapped in hand woven serapes, indian women lay out various arts and crafts on the sidewalks for sale to passersby.  As the sun goes over the mountain, mariachi bands gather to entertain. It’s easy to spend an hour or two, just watching the life of the town as it ebbs and flows past the Garden.  And walking home we hear the strains of guitars, or trumpets, streaming from doorways as we pass bars and restaurants where evening festivities are getting underway.

Another place that exerts a gravitational pull on us is the Park which I have mentioned before.  We find our way there at least once a day, sometimes twice, and never tire of its allure.  Although I’m sure there is a soccer field somewhere in San Miguel, basketball appears to be the sport de jour and except for the Saturday morning aerobics class (which takes up the entire basketball court), we have never been in the Park without seeing a game in progress, women, men, leagues, complete with uniforms, referees and score keepers.  In spite of the multiple activities which occur there, underneath the human voice is a penetrating and profound silence.  As we walk home from the Park, our favorite stop is at the Cava Deli where the most delightful man sells cheese and other gourmet items — we’ve become so friendly that recently he allowed me to take his picture.

Until I accepted the challenges proffered by the New York Times crossword puzzles, I had never thought of the word “artsy” as a pejorative; nonetheless I’ve come to understand that in certain instances it refers to an affected or pretentious display of an interest in the arts — as in, I suppose, the phrase “artsy fartsy.”   I don’t know how to find the line between art and artsy but San Miguel clearly has both.  Walking down the sidewalk the other day I looked up to see this:

With a long reputation as a haven for the visual arts, San Miguel attracts both professional and amateur painters, sculptors, printmakers and, in recent years, writers.  The town is awash with music and theater, workshops and classes, a plethora of galleries and a ton of jewelry makers.  There’s a marked creative atmosphere and I’ve spoken with several people who never thought of themselves as artistic until falling under the spell of San Miguel.  Free art classes are offered to the children and The Children’s Art Foundation offers an annual contest with several hundred submissions.  And finally there is something about the light.  Isn’t that what all artists seek?  The light?  It reminds me of a poem I read years ago by Michael Blumenthal entitled “Light, at 32.”  Here’s a portion of it . .

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.