A walk on a dusty road with friends. (photo: Evelyne Pouget)
I fell in love with Mexico on my first trip in 1989. I was on my honeymoon and travelled around by bus for a month with my new husband. Merida, in the Yucatan was our first stop and when we arrived, it was a blissful sensorial shock to my system. The language fell melodious into my ears. The smells flowed through and out my pores. The vivid color threatened to burst my retinas. All of the “foreignness” intrigued me and I absorbed it like my sweat-soaked tank top in the jungle of Quintana Roo.
My month-long initiation prompted me to dream, If I ever get the chance to move to Mexico, I will. My “chance” came in 2012, in the form of a job teaching English Language Arts at a new high school in San Miguel de Allende, the colonial jewel in the heart of the country. For most of my life as a visual artist, I had sustained myself in part by teaching. Coincidentally, my mother-in-law and her husband, both writers, had lived in San Miguel for 15 years. Long known as a mecca for artists and writers, I visited them there twice in the 1990s. The charming town worked its famous magic and it felt meant to be that I should be offered a job in that very same place.
Former students, Dia de Los Muertos
When I informed my then-85-year-old mother that I would be moving to Mexico, she asked, “Why in the world would you do that?” To my way of thinking, “the world” was the reason. Since I am an artist, I have often looked to other cultures for my muse in color, pattern, inventiveness and traditional craftsmanship. My mother’s question was no doubt motivated by losing her middle daughter to great distance, but living in another country was always something that intrigued me. I never quite understood where the desire came from, as I certainly did not grow up with any sort of travel in my childhood. Aside from one trip to DisneyWorld with my family when I was 12, the Jersey shore every summer was the only destination that took me out of my native Philadelphia. My father, who travelled the world as a young marine, however, often dreamed of travel in his later years. He always encouraged me to wander, and unlike my mother, he reveled in my decision and gave me his blessing. Even though that initial teaching job turned out to be not what I wanted, it allowed me to move to Mexico and continue the love affair.
Dia de Los Muertos market
After that initial visit in 1989 and perhaps laying some unconscious foundation, back in the U.S. I began to study Spanish. This endeavor was accelerated after I made the decision to move. I was fortunate to find a native Spaniard who gave small weekly classes in her home. She helped me approach this seemingly daunting task with discipline and enthusiasm. Learning a new language has been challenging but undoubtedly has created new pathways in my brain (and heart). I also firmly believe learning the language is essential to begin to understand the culture in earnest. How could I learn about Mexico, if I couldn’t speak to its people? My observation is that if you can speak the language, or at least attempt to, you are treated more as a welcome guest. The language keeps me on my toes and gives me great joy. I’m constantly fascinated to compare how two languages can express the same thing so differently.
When I first moved to San Miguel de Allende, I kept a diario that turned into a newsletter I sent to my friends and family. I was intent on capturing my observations and reactions in order to more fully understand my transition. Newness was everywhere and I was navigating sola, so that aloneness needed to be processed as well, and writing was my way in. Most of this diary took place during my first few weeks here.These short vignettes offer a glimpse into what it feels like to be an extranjero. And here I have to acknowledge that it doesn’t feel strange anymore. Like the hot chiles I regularly enjoy, Mexico has permeated a few layers of me and continues to lodge itself deep under my skin. Having said that (and because this is beloved, but unpredictable Mexico), I continue to adapt and sometimes be baffled by many things. I try to never forget that I am a guest in this beautiful country and to have respect for the customs and way of life, however inconvenient they are at times. Finding humor in all situations is a helpful tool for survival here.
"Mojigangas" puppets wandering the streets
Everyone talks about the same things that drew them to Mexico, and in particular, San Miguel de Allende: the people, the climate, the culture, the food, the beauty—not to mention a lifestyle mas económico. I of course, second everything on that list and more. But those of us who've lived here a little while understand that in the end it isn’t about the things on that list, but what happens around all of those things. In other words: the experience, the exchange, the connection. And this Mexico has in abundance.
Reviewing these excerpts of writing from my current perspective reveals states of mind that were sometimes naive, sometimes stressed and sometimes awed in those first weeks. There’s a thread of patience woven throughout. They also allow me to see how since then, I’ve not only adapted and survived, but grown and thrived in some very real and profound ways.
August 11, 2012
After many trips around town—there have to be many because I can only carry so many things at once—I landed in my new apartment, which I tried to begin to see as a friendly place. Without a car, I am at the mercy of strong arms and legs and fortitude. Every day seems to be a mission of finding things. Yesterday, I found la papelería, a place to buy notebooks and a binder that I so desperately needed for school. But did I buy the binder I so desperately needed? No. This is the other conundrum about finding a store that has what you need. It is not always convenient to buy the thing when you're there because then you must carry it around to the rest of your errands, or have to make a trip home to drop the thing off. Is it beginning to be understood how much time everything takes here? Have I mentioned that in general, I am not a very patient person? This will become part of my practice: Not only want less, but get used to waiting for it. As Vero, one of my cheeky new colleagues, said yesterday, “If you don’t develop patience in this country, you will shoot yourself in the head.”
Once I accomplished all my errands for the day, I arrived at my new apartment to begin unpacking. This brought an unexpected bout of the mini-blues after I discovered the glass in the frames holding my favorite pictures of Ryder, my son, had broken in the move. I decided that I needed to be around people, and remembering my previous invitation, I took myself out to the Canto Mio Café to hear my new friend Fernando sing his romantic ballads. He told me he played at 9 o'clock and so I arrived around 8:30 at the small café, where the only other guests were a table of six obviously enjoying a party. Fernando was nowhere in sight and after being assured by the waiter that he was indeed scheduled to play, I sat down alone at a table and ordered a glass of wine. Within minutes, someone from the group called over “Come and join us, would you like to? You are all alone!” I was so delightfully surprised that of course I accepted. After friendly introductions (and being seated next to the very handsome Ricardo), suddenly there was a plate of food in front of me that they insisted I eat, lest I insult the host. I was overwhelmed with the generosity of these kind strangers who completely took me into their evening party.
The generosity and friendliness of the Mexican people is often referred to. As a culture, they’re used to living with sometimes several generations under one roof. Family is extremely important. The fact that someone is alone seems odd and sad to them. The natural tendency to share is rampant here, and in my personal experience, a quality that has humbled me many times.
There’s a man named Julio who appears to be in his 60s, who often sells avocados close to my apartment. I pass him on my way home. He’s quite sweet and affable, and I’ve always bought at least one avocado and stopped to chat with him for a few minutes. I hadn't seen him in quite awhile, and today, there he was when I turned the corner. I walked up to greet him and give him a hug. When I asked where he’d been, he related how he was doing his other work of patching and painting walls. We chatted a bit more about which was easier or harder work, and even though I really didn't need one, I chose my avocado. When I asked ¿Cuánto cuesta? he waved his hand in the air and flashed his broad smile. “Nada Señora, es un regalito.” It was a gift. After I gushed my thanks, I thought about insisting he take my money. Poor Julio selling avocados on the hot and dusty corner surely needed that $10 pesos more than I did. It occurred to me that I didn't want to insult his generosity. So instead, I thanked him profusely and saw how much it pleased him to give it to me. We forget that the poor want to give also, even if their pockets dictate they shouldn't. A sage reminder in a town that sadly for some, produces conditions ripe for begging.
Making palms on Palm Sunday
The music began with a different singer; sad, acoustic love songs that somehow seemed to suit my mood. Fernando with his friendly face finally arrived and seemed happy that I had made it out to hear him play. A couple of days earlier, I'd enjoyed hearing him practice at the guest house where we met. His singing voice feels like a comfortable caress that you don’t want to squander. After Fernando’s set, another musician played and, judging from the ovation he received must have been a well-known poet and “old-timer” of San Miguel. He first read a long poem, accompanied by acoustic guitar, dedicated to his sister. I couldn't understand all of it, but the passion and love and expression in the way he delivered it made my eyes fill with tears. I even told him this as we were leaving and he hugged me goodbye. I could tell that he was moved by my confession. There’s no lack of, nor embarrassment of, emotion in this culture. It is a place where tears flow as easily as laughter and are indeed recognized as coming from the same place.
When asked, “What’s your favorite thing about living in Mexico?” I invariably say the street life. The street is the place to witness all of the emotion described above, as well as all the stuff of life itself. I'm so used to seeing so much happening on the streets that I fail to fathom how in the world I survived a childhood growing up in the barren, lifeless suburbs of Philadelphia. The architecture with its emphasis on courtyards and roof gardens assures that even at home, you're living outside most of the day. Here, on the street there is food (naturally), dancing, passionate kissing, music and singing, gatherings, plazas (!), selling, children playing and artisans working. Some shops are so small the artisans sometimes overflow into the street. I regularly see men weaving chair seats sitting outside on the high stone sidewalks. Being surrounded by liveliness in this manner creates connection, to be sure, but also a sense of the surreal. I truly never know what or who I’m going to encounter when I walk out my door, which is often a delight. And by the way, Fernando—my first friend in San Miguel—and I are still friends. We travel in the same circles, and now I see him with his beautiful young family, Claire and little Chloe.
Festival of San Miguel-one of my favorites and most colorful
August 12, 2012
The hunt and hope for internet was on. At the suggestion of our landlady, Vicky, my new upstairs neighbor, and I are going to share the internet. We decided we needed to get a little “squeaky” with our service provider. Having some experience in this area, Natasha, who had lived and worked in Guadalajara a long time, offered to go with us. As we were headed to the bus, she joked, “OK, what's our strategy? Gringa bitches, or shall we put on a little lipstick?” We opted for the latter and off we went back to Mega Cable where we found the sweet man who took our order and pesos on Friday. With his shining eyes and friendly smile, he assured us that tomorrow for sure, el técnico would be there. He even gave us his name and personal cell phone, just in case. OK, we will see.
I learned a long time ago that Mexicans really hate to disappoint. They don’t like to say no. This appears to be very nice. And it is. It’s meant with the utmost sincerity at the time. The bad news is that some people will promise you everything, but in the end it’s merely a suggestion which they may not be able to actually deliver. (Romancers included, by the way). Some would rather send you on a wild goose chase with directions, for example, than say they don’t know where something is. I think you have to decide this is charming or once again as Vero says, “…you will shoot yourself in the head.”
August 13, 2012
How can the same people who are associated with the hammock, the most siesta-inducing piece of “furniture”on the planet, also be responsible for some of the most un-user-friendly seating known to man? The chairs in my new apartment defy fitting the curve of anyone’s back. This paradox seems to match the Mexican people’s dual personality of a joyful and spontaneous view of life, but also their fierce stoicism when faced with the most incredible adversity. They're an ingenious people who seem to have an outside-the-box resourceful solution to any problem you might come up with. And if they don’t, they simply shrug and don’t worry about it. The aforementioned patience I'm trying to develop comes in spades here. I've never seen people be rude, inconsiderate or boorish in any way. (So much kissing and hugging!) They go about their daily lives for the most part with politeness, kindness and grace.
Even my ever-so-slightly jaded attitude six years later would say this is still true. On the other hand, people are people everywhere, and some days you simply don’t get the best of them. I don’t think I’m doing my Mexican friends any favors by lumping all of them together stereotypically as “smiling, joyful souls.” There's plenty of frustration here, for both extranjeros and locals. We all seem however, to acquire patience like a collective ooze that drapes over the population like smoke and when nothing goes according to plan, it lulls us all into uttering with acceptance, así es la vida. Things eventually work out one way or another.
August 18, 2012
I was recently reminded why I do (and must!) look down whenever I’m walking in this town. A new friend took a bad fall caused by an unseen boulder in her path. She broke her arm in a few places and apparently had some bleeding in her brain due to hitting her head pretty hard. Yikes. Indeed, I’m often tripping on something, and the terrain is uneven at best and pretty treacherous at worst, with huge, sudden drop-offs in the sidewalk or just dangerously large holes to fall into. These accidents happen frequently enough here that someone coined the phrase the “City of Fallen Women” when referring to San Miguel. (I’ve grown to seriously dislike this phrase). It’s quite hard to be a graceful walker though, and the women who brave heels in this town leave me in awe.
Yesterday I bought a lamp. Isn’t that exciting news? I can’t tell you how incredibly happy it made me, to have some ambient light in my apartment. Mostly I’d been using candles. While lovely, these old eyes were given quite the strain trying to read by them. This new life has made me grateful for small accomplishments and small gifts, many unexpected. The slowness of time, the walking, the doing without, has been quite a lesson in not taking anything for granted.
When the desire to purchase something arose, my working-class father used to ask: Do I need it? Can I afford it? Can I get along without it? Having heard that for most of my life, it finally made sense to me here in Mexico. These days I no longer find it desirable to complicate my daily life with so many possessions. Six years ago I unburdened myself of so much stuff in order to make this move. I live by choice in a very small apartment, so I can’t accumulate too much. I've learned what many are gravitating toward these days: It really is human connection and the momentary ephemeral that makes us happy, and not all the “things.” I would say that living in Mexico has allowed me (sometimes forcibly) to be grateful for those “small accomplishments,” the kindness of strangers and the occasional domestic find that makes life a bit brighter.
Dia de Los Muertos altar
August 19, 2012
My practice of accepting impermanence is sorely being tested. This morning I woke to no internet and no water—hot or cold. I'm beginning to understand what I've heard from many friends, Mexican and otherwise: Services can be spotty and unreliable. For the moment, I have my comfortable bed, a cup of good coffee and an incredible view. I think I’m adapting.
Last night, Vicky upstairs accidentally turned the gas off on her water heater instead of turning it up. Since this is new to both of us, I couldn’t remember how to re-light the thing. After we risked blowing ourselves off the roof by all manner of knob-turning and button-pushing with a lit match, I offered my shower for her to use. As she was showering I could hear her laughing hysterically, saying the pressure was so horrible, someone may as well have been spitting on her. It’s true. I've considered cutting all my hair off in order to reduce the amount of time needed for rinsing off shampoo.
Americans don’t like to wait for anything, have you noticed? We're incensed when we can’t have what we want—service or product— now. I’ve witnessed some foreigners here acting belligerent and rude when they’re inconvenienced in some way. In contrast, I’ve begun to develop an instinct to adapt. Things go wrong. People don’t show up. You’re confused (a lot). Impermanence is a quality deeply rooted in the Mexican culture, most illustrated during Day of the Dead. I believe impermanence and adaptation are close cousins. When things fall apart, you need to either change or deal. Be prepared for nothing to go your way. And here’s the trick: not lose your shit over it.
August 21, 2012
Most of the shops in San Miguel are about the size of a big walk-in closet. This shopping experience suits me just fine, as I've never been fond of the U.S. mega-stores. This means that these “tiendas de la esquina” are not big on selection either. This also, for the most part, suits me just fine. I never thought we needed 20 different kinds of toothpaste anyway. Having said that, some of these tienditas are like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. You ask for something obscure that you clearly don't see anywhere, and usually they’ll pull it out of somewhere for you.
At the immigration office—which is quite small—there are only two men who hold your fate. As we take a number, Vero prays to get the kind, handsome bureaucrat on the left, because, as she complains, “One day I yelled at the other guy and now he hates me.” Somehow, I think these things are important when you’re trying to deal with bureaucracy. I can’t tell you how many procedures and papers have passed through me by now. As Vero was dealing with the not-so-nice guy (prayer not answered), Vicky and I had to go across the street to get our photos taken for resident ID cards. I sat on the little stool and after I was instructed to take off my earrings, the sweet young man with the camera came towards me and oh-so-gently tucked the tendrils of hair around my ears and off of my forehead before he took my picture. It was one of the tenderest moments I’ve ever shared with a stranger.
When we returned, Vero had moved over to the desk of the kind, handsome bureaucrat. I thought she probably yelled at the other one. (She is a fiery Argentine.) At the end of the day, I was told that sometime in the near future—as yet to be determined—I will have an official temporary resident card.
Having just been bestowed my permanent residency, I can state that dealing with migración is still not an easy task. My whole process took three months, with at least 10 trips to migración, two trips to Hacienda (the tax office) and two trips to the accountant, as well as visits to a couple of banks—in order to make payments to migración —thrown in. These offices are not on my “beaten path” so there are cabs involved or very long walks. There are limited office hours. There also seems to be some reluctance to give you ALL of the papers and instructions you need at one time. Just when you think you’re all set, there’s always “one more paper” needed in order to complete the process. When they were finally stamping my papers (they love to stamp), I was roused out of a malaise I’ve developed, reserved for waiting in tiny airless offices. By that time, I was so over the process I couldn’t even celebrate being over the process.
I’m sure it’s the same for foreigners everywhere and I have no doubt it's worse in the U.S. and probably more so these days. But it’s the expat’s price of doing business, so to speak. It helps to see it as something like theater.
September 16, 2012
Time, for me, has almost stopped. One month of life here has felt like six. I'm not sure what that implies but I do find myself slowing down. México is teaching me that things are not always what they seem and reminds me daily to be open to surprises, without judgment. And that’s a very good thing.
Ever since I moved to Mexico, my friends and family have asked, “When are you coming 'home?’” My mother might have continued to ask as much if, sadly, she hadn’t died four months after I arrived. Being far from loved ones is one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. But my relationship to time is becoming very Mexican, very fluid. As someone who has struggled to ignore the clock, México has taught me to not project too much into the future and instead, simply to enjoy what's in front of me. A planned day of busy-busy can easily change into a day of lazy-lazy and I flow with it. ¿Quién sabe? has become my mantra. Who knows what will happen, and indeed, anything at all can.
To immerse yourself in another culture, in the end, is to immerse further into yourself. After all, we only discover our truest nature bit by bit when we’re in the presence of “other.” Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell refers frequently to the function of ritual being something that “pitches you out,” not something that “ wraps you back in where you've been all the time.” To travel, experience and live in another country is to perform a kind of ritual. It’s an ongoing process to beat a path to ourselves by embracing foreignness.
What better way to walk that path than to wander the streets of an ancient, cobbled town, where you might run into the occasional student, neighbor or friend, pick up one of Julio’s avocados, buy a beso del diablo ice cream or a small bouquet of gardenias, maybe get a shoe shine. And if you're lucky, you just might come across some surreal or unexpected spectacle or happening that manages to “pitch you out” and therefore, wake you up.
At the "presa" on my 60th birthday.
This essay was published in the book, "Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats", availabe on Amazon.