Sunday, August 9, 2009

Back in the U.S. of A.







Contrary to the dictates of reality and common sense we tried to delay the date of occupancy by the buyers of our old house so that it would more or less coincide with the completion date of our new place. The transition from old to new would flow as smoothly as a waltz.

Naturally our control-freak acrobatics didn't work. We soon realized that along with our two dogs and three cats we would have to rent a place to live for at least four months. Friends with experience in home construction in Mexico whisper the delay is more likely to be five or six months.

Luckily we spotted a rental house that was so perfect it was eerie. Too perfect.

Sitting on the back porch the day after the move, I mentioned to Stew how strangely "comfortable" the place felt.

"Yeah, it feels so... familiar," he replied, looking around the place as if searching for the solution to a puzzle.

After a while the answer came to both of us: We had just rented an American house, probably built by an American, using American plans down to the American-made doors and windows, kitchen appliances and cabinetry. Except for the dyspeptic plumbing and electrical system, there's nothing Mexican about this place.

If a helicopter plucked it off its foundations and dropped it on an empty lot in an older, middle-class neighborhood in South Florida no one there would notice any difference.

No wonder this place feels so comfortable and familiar.

Think of the set for the 80s TV show "The Golden Girls" but only on a more modest scale. You're sitting in the glass-enclosed back porch--I think in Florida they'd call it a lanai--waiting for Betty White to emerge from the living room, past the aluminum sliding-glass doors, and tell you some St. Olaf/Norwegian/Minnesota joke that would be god-awful yet hysterical.

The all-American look and feel of the place start with the almost blinding amount of interior light, coming in from windows and skylights everywhere.

Despite lush and sunny interior courtyards, many rooms in traditional Mexican houses tend to be dark and gloomy, where you have to switch the light on even at high noon. On the other hand, Mexican homes feel much warmer and inviting, particularly at night, when this type of American construction turns clammy and uncomfortable as the white ceilings appear to recede a mile over your head.

The unusually large and bright kitchen, open toward the dining and living rooms, is also very un-Mexican. Traditional Mexican homes often have what Americans would consider small, isolated kitchens. Cooking is done by a maid, usually behind a closed door. It's not the participatory event that it tends to be in the U.S., with friends and family loitering and chatting around a breakfast bar or center island while someone does the cooking.

And now, time for a San Miguel real estate agent joke. "Does the kitchen have a dishwasher? Of course it does, it's called Maria!" Ha, ha.

The vintage of the wheat-tone kitchen appliances is circa 1980--including an Amana "Free 'O Frost" refrigerator--and despite a few missing knobs, every piece works perfectly. Most amazing is the oven, which keeps perfect temperature, a vast improvement over Mexican-made stoves that came later and which feature the notorious "Mas o Menos" thermostat.

The oven in the sleek, stainless steel stove at our last place was off by 25 degrees, which had to be converted to Farenheit and then adjusted for San Miguel's altitude in case you were baking something. The results were usually "mas o menos."

The dishwasher, another beater with all-English signage, has only three wash cycles: "Light," "Normal" plus something like "Ready Next Week" for those particularly tough cleaning jobs. Newer machines have "turbidity sensors" connected to a canary-size brain that is supposed to determine how long the cycle should go on, depending on the amount of muck still sloshing around in the wash water. Mas o menos for that, too.

Most noticeably missing in this house is any notion of conservation, be it gas, water or electricity. Everything seems to run according to the former U.S. resource-management strategy of "Let 'er rip, hon! There's more where that came from!"

But even in this all-American creation beats a bit--actually two bits--of Mexico: the electric and plumbing systems. If the plumber and the electrician who rigged up this place tried to set up shop in the U.S. they'd probably be arrested for criminal incompetence.

A pressure pump tried to liven up the flow of water but the wiring is so bad the lights would dim throughout the house whenever it kicked in, which was about every 15 seconds because the pressure sensor is either shot or not set properly. The lights also dimmed whenever you got the notion to run the microwave while the "Free 'O Frost" refrigerator was purring. Refrigerator, pump and microwave running simultaneously? Don't want to go there.

Indeed, the random dimming and brightening of the lights gave the house a certain manic-depressive ambiance.

So Juan the electrician, a beefy guy who learned his trade in Atlanta, came over and checked the entrance panel. He shook his head ominously and diagnosed the problem as someone having done the wiring "with his feet," presumably instead of with his hands which would have turned out much better.

His solution was bizarre as it was effective. He unhooked all the white wires in the panel from the metal grounding bar, twisted them together, wrapped the mess with electrical tape and shoved the whole thing back in the box.

Bingo. Don't ask how that works. I don't want to know. It just does, including the pump.

Such quirks notwithstanding, this house is very comfortable, much more so than our former Mexican-style condo. Stew is right--it's just so damn familiar.

Yet you wonder why someone would go to the trouble and expense of building something so out of place, so foreign in a foreign land.

It's not a purely gringo phenomenon. In Chicago I remember walking through Mexican neighborhoods, filled with traditional brownstones or Victorian buildings, and then finding an oddball little house built by someone who clearly had an image of a Mexican rancho in mind: Spanish tiles on the roof and lots of elaborate iron work on the windows and doors, plus a small shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe in the front yard. This tableau would look particularly striking under a foot of fresh Chicago snow.

In the Polish neighborhoods on the Northwest Side of the city you found typical Chicago bungalows, each with big "picture windows" which gave passersby a peek of the treasures inside, some no doubt brought from the Old Country.

House after house would have some insanely ornate table lamp set smack in the middle of the picture window like a trophy, with crystal baubles and doodads dripping from the lamp shade and the base. If the lamp was lit, you'd also get a glimpse of a living room full of Polish baroque furniture, all neatly covered with clear plastic.

It's a home in a strange land. It may be out of place or even ugly to some, but it's comfortable and familiar to those who live there.

We asked the Mexican owners of our rental if they knew the people who built it. They were Americans alright, but from Las Vegas not Florida.

Las Vegas is a place I've never been to but which after living in this house I feel a bit familiar with.

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