Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Arrival of the Little Man

As is the case with so many events in Mexico, the arrival date of Félix' new baby was only a rough estimate, with a variance of one to four weeks. He and his wife had consulted with three doctors, who predicted delivery anywhere from the first week of November to sometime in the middle of December. I told Félix that although I didn't know much about birthin' babies, those estimates seemed somewhat sloppy.

The only thing the doctors agreed on was that the baby would be delivered by Caesarean section. I suggested to Félix that he ask the doctors why so, but they just gave him an explanation he didn't understand. So a C-section it was going to be and he was told he needed to round up two blood donors before the operation.

Stew donated one pint and Stew's brother, who was visiting from Minnesota, offered to donate the second pint. Why didn't Félix donate the second pint? Pssst: He's scared to death, and so apparently is everyone is family. Félix rather melodramatic explanation was that he had been rejected as a donor because "his defenses were down" and he might need a transfusion himself if he donated. Or some such cockamamie story. Finally, he rounded up a friend to be the second donor.  

Stew and I went to Peru for a week and left Stew's brother Knute in charge of the animals, the house and keeping track of the imminent, or not so imminent, arrival of Félix' baby. Though Félix fancies himself a what-me-worry, cool as a stale enchilada type of guy, he was visibly worried about the arrival of the baby.

The baby boy arrived on November 8, a mite weighing 2.232 kilos or 4.9 pounds. That's small, but so is Felix' wife, who couldn't weigh more than 100 to 110 pounds herself. The baby and the mom were sent home two days later, and I took Ysela--and Felix, their two-year-old daughter and his tough-as-nails mother-in-law--to the local clinic to have the stitches taken out last week.

Shortly after the birth Knute began asking for the baby's name but Felix didn't seem to be in a hurry. When I asked Felix, he just said it was just an hombrecito, "a little man." I didn't expect the impassive Félix to jump up and down with joy but he was clearly pleased with the new baby, and also that it was an hombrecito rather than another girl.

It wasn't until this past weekend, when I went to their house to photograph the baby, that the new name was revealed: Edgar. I acted supportive but in my head wondered where that name had come from. Edgar Allan Poe? Felix insisted that he didn't know, that it was just a name he'd heard and liked.

Besides the three saints on the birthday, which some Mexican families use to name babies, were Martín, Severino and some other weird-sounding guy. Edgar sounds pretty good by comparison.

Officially registering the baby birth, which Félix still hasn't done, will take another trip to City Hall and the attendant paper shuffling. Maybe days, or perhaps a few more weeks. Baptism is not even in the prospective schedule yet.

The important thing right now is that the tiny baby is healthy and naturally, cute as can be.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving in a different language

There's no holiday that more reminds us expats that we're not in Kansas--or Illinois or North Dakota--than Thanksgiving. That's not a bad thing.

Start with the holiday itself. The Thanksgiving story is anchored in American history, real or mythical, and not at all portable to a different country. You can dress Mexican kids as little wizards and pretend to celebrate Halloween. And besides, the Day of the Dead, with its own air of ghoulishness, almost coincides with Halloween.

Christmas and New Year's fall roughly on the same dates worldwide and with some adjustments for local climate and cultures, they are celebrated universally. Of course we have a few awkward moments, like the pathetic sight of those poor Mexican guys at the shopping centers sweating inside a Santa Claus suit, but the general idea is the same.

Thanksgiving on the other hand doesn't travel well. Pilgrims with tall hats and Indians with feathers on their heads gathering around some fairly bland dishes like roast turkey, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie are hard to explain to someone like Rocío our cleaning lady or Félix the gardener.

Let's see. There were some people in Europe who were being persecuted for their religious beliefs and they came over on a boat, and once ashore set up shop in the New World by taking land belonging to the folks already quite settled in Massachusetts. Then one day everyone got together to have a lovefest of a dinner and give thanks for the harvest and everything.

By now I can imagine Félix screwing up his face and asking why the Indians would break bread with a bunch of paleface strangers who'd ripped off their lands and possessions and eventually would either kill them or push them into exile somewhere near Bayonne, New Jersey. Then there's the business the huge inflatable cartoon characters in a parade in New York and the football games, and... nah, forget it, Félix.

American Thanksgiving in Mexico is like Ramadan in Bozeman, Montana--a non-event--except for the few Americans who live here. A few frozen turkeys and spiral hams appear at the Costco for Americans to buy and Mexicans to examine with curiosity, but that's about it.

A few enterprising San Miguel restaurateurs have tried to cash in on the Thanksgiving dinner tradition but generally with disastrous results. A couple of years ago we invited a couple of Australian friends to Thanksgiving dinner at the Sierra Nevada Hotel, one of the fanciest in town. It was one of the most expensive and wretched meals Stew and I have ever had. The guys in the kitchen clearly had no clue.

For many of the expats, Stew and I included, the lack of family here leads us to community dinners organized by churches and other groups. These are really pleasant events, requiring enormous amounts of work by the hapless volunteers. They deserve lots of good karma, papal indulgences and a free pass out of purgatory.

The weather is generally gorgeous. Dress casual. English spoken. Lots of friendly hug-hug, kiss-kiss and chit-chat. But after two hours or so, you drive back into the general population, who is coming back from school, getting their shoes shined and who otherwise has no idea what Turkey Day is all about. C'mon, doesn't anyone know it's Thanksgiving?

It's just as well. Since the holiday doesn't exist, there's no aerial bombardment on TV about sales or projected retail volumes on Black Friday with additional prognostications about how it will impact economic recovery and blather-blather-blather. Retailers in Mexico fired their first Christmas salvos back in mid-October, but these are feeble campaigns compared to the offensives mounted by their American counterparts who for two months assault all your senses, all the time.

If you retain your self-control you can also escape television specials of some ideal Thanksgiving get-together as envisioned by Martha Stewart or Paula Deen, when everything is cooked expertly and there are no drunken  uncles to wreck the otherwise perfect family occasion.

So with all that noise missing, expats in San Miguel indeed may be more able to focus on true thanks-giving and gratitude, perhaps one of the most underestimated spiritual exercises in the U.S., where public attention seems to be focused on what people don't have--and ought to buy--and lately on fear: of terrorists, immigrants, Muslims, economic calamity, foreclosures, Democrats, Republicans, Fox News and pretty much life in general.

During a walk-around on Thanksgiving morning, I marveled at our house and the gorgeous landscapes that surround it, thought about our good fortune to be healthy, of life together with Stew for nearly forty years, the numerous friends we've met since we arrived here--just as most of our acquaintances in Chicago inevitably have faded away--and the bumper crop of leaf greens Félix has scared up from the ground in our raised beds.

There are always problems with life . Right now the most annoying is our new dog Domino, who inexplicably has fallen off the housebreaking wagon and decided to pee on all corners of the house as if it were in flames. But even that'll pass.


Monday, November 21, 2011

New demographics, new menu

Contributors to the Civil List, the local internet bulletin board for San Miguel expats, frequently drool and rhapsodize about a new dining discovery, a place with better fish than any in San Francisco or steaks every bit as tasty as those in Houston or Omaha. The raves keep flowing like bad coffee at a roadside diner even though, really, restaurants in San Miguel--except for a few you can count with some of the fingers of one hand--range from just "OK" to "fugetaboutit."

Many of the good ones, like Doña Diabla, a tiny Oaxacan joint run by a young Mexican, for some reason open and shortly afterward fizzle. Or if they go on, the quality of the food and service are inconsistent.

Some of the Civil List posters even talk about San Miguel as a new gastronomic center of Mexico and a "heaven for foodies," forgetting many hardly-shabby restaurant towns like Puebla, Morelia, Oaxaca, Yucatan and even Mexico City. Still, if not remotely world-class, our town's collection of ho-hum restaurants, and the few good ones, compare very favorably with nearby towns. Visit Celaya or even the state capital of Guanajuato, and you'll be singing hosannas to our local eateries on the way back, flawed as they may be.

On Friday, to celebrate Stew's Medicare birthday (65!), we went to a one-seating culinary extravaganza at the Hotel Matilda, featuring star chef Enrique Olvera, 33, of Mexico City's Restaurante Pujol.

Well, shush your mouth. The evening, though hardly a cheap treat, was memorable, from the setting, to the service, and certainly the food. It may also have been a preview of what San Miguel is becoming.

I don't know enough about high cuisine to say whether Olvera's cooking qualify as "molecular gastronomy," but some of the portions were so miniscule they may have qualified as "subatomic."

A tiny ear of corn at the end of stick, dipped in some exotic sauce that arrived in what seemed a hollowed-out pumpkin. A few sprigs of nopal cactus leaves with a dash of some intense dressing. A corn mushroom tamal, with a dollop of some sort of cream on top and a green tomato sauce on the side. For a "whaat?" touch, there was a taco, or more properly a taquito, with a fish called "escolar" and dusted with "ceniza," which means "ash." Ash on an oily fish we'd never heard about. Who knew? A really wonderful piece of slow-roasted lamb followed, and at the end came my favorite, an amazing dessert of glazed sweet potatoes in a sauce with four or five little cubes of white gelatin (according to Stew; the waiter didn't really know).

My consistent use of the singular throughout my description of the dishes is not an accident: These were single and very small servings of very nicely prepared food. Molecular gastronomy supposedly involves unusual treatments of ingredients, bordering on lab experiments. I don't know if Olvera's cooking qualifies as molecular, but it tasted wonderful. I'm certain he does not do bronco-busting steaks, Dallas-style, or two-kiloton deep-dish Chicago pizzas.

Matilda also was a revelation. It's one of several super deluxe hotels to open in San Miguel, with prices to match. This used to be the site of the Jacaranda, a tired hotel, in Mexican-rustic style, that showed movies every week for five dollars, one drink and a bag of popcorn included. Some weeks, the audience--mostly gringos--looked as old and tired as the hotel. Now Matilda is a super modern facility with a plexiglass roof over the outdoor dining area, automobile tires hanging in the lobby--and not a trace of the old Jacaranda or even anything remotely Mexican-looking.

The sell-out crowd was a revelation too. Only about 20 percent of it was foreign, judging from the rat-tat-tat of Spanish and the fashions in the room. Men wore casual-shabby jeans and dress shirts open to showcase the many hairy chests. Men were also accessorized with expensive watches and the ubiquitous iPhones. In the minimalist spirit of the evening women favored micro, high-water skirts. This was not just a dinner but a coming-out scene for well-to-do, 20- and 30-somethings from Mexico City, and possibly a snapshot of San Miguel's new crowd.

How much, you ask. About $175 US for the two of us, a hefty portion of which--our one complaint--went for six open-ended servings of liquor after every course. Because we don't drink, the waiter was kind enough to replace the alcohol with sodas and juices. But that still was way too much booze for a meal, enough in my opinion to muddle the taste of the lamb or the dessert.

A thin and quite attractive, older American woman sitting at the next table methodically posed during the earlier courses for pictures by her husband and a roving photographer, flashing a just-so smile while holding very non-molecular glasses of wine, also just-so. Alas, by the end of the meal her posing technique had crumbled a bit, as she leaned to and fro, like a palm tree after a hurricane.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Didn't see nobody cryin'

So strange are Mexico's Day of the Dead traditions that there's little chance a foreigner will ever be able to fully comprehend them.

Elsewhere in Latin America, people celebrate the Día de los Santos Difuntos alright, roughly the "Day of the Saintly Deceased," with tightly-wound decorum. Dirges and whispered prayers waft in churches filled by women wearing black dresses and veils. A hushed procession to the cemetery may follow, for more prayers, kind words, stifled tears and flowers in memory of grandma Josefina or uncle Rigoberto.

In the U.S. whatever religious significance All Souls' Day ever had long ago succumbed to the commercial hustle of Halloween and three weeks after that, Thanksgiving. Still, on Memorial Day some families wearing their Sunday finery will decorate the graves of their dead relatives and place small American flags on those who were in the military.

There's none of that propriety and restraint for Mexicans. Their directness starts with the name of the feast day: Forget "souls," "saints," "departed," "passed away" or other pious euphemisms. On November 1 and 2, Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead. Josefina and Rigoberto are not up on a cloud benignly spying on their progeny below, but dead 
--though hardly forgotten.

As if to underline the point, Mexicans bring out into play all sorts of death-related paraphernalia--bones, skulls, skeletons--that in other countries would be considered morbid, in bad taste or downright gross. What's the story with Mexican children nibbling on skulls made of sugar?

Recently, along the blood-splattered states near the U.S. border, where the narco wars have killed tens of thousands, some Mexicans have minted a new saint, "Santa Muerte" ("Holy Death") though the Catholic Church disavows any such creature.

Mexican writer Octavio Paz famously asserted that the word "death" burns the lips of a Westerner while a Mexican caresses it, celebrates it, and jokes about it. "It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love."

As many times as I've read the "Day of the Dead" chapter  in "The Labyrinth of Solitude," and marveled at Paz' silver prose, I still can't fully appreciate what he is talking about. How can anyone celebrate and caress death?

My perplexity mounts every time we visit a Mexican cemetery on the Day of the Dead, which has become a well-trod tourist spectacle. This year we skipped the crowded main cemetery and went to smaller one on the outskirts of San Miguel, closer to the ranch.

There was a festive country-fair air as we approach the cemetery, or panteón, as Mexicans seem to prefer. Vendors sold food, flowers--thousands of brilliant marigolds are the standard--plus balloons and toys. Visitors arrived with plastic chairs and shopping bags full of food, as if heading for a picnic, and in some cases also brought cans of paint, brushes, and picks and shovels for last-minute gravesite remodeling or maintenance.

There were several for-hire duos and trios too offering quick, spirited bellowings of Day of the Dead favorites, and a few larger combos playing more elegant serenades by singers accompanied by accordions, guitars, bass fiddles, and drums.

A young guy lost in his memories,
perhaps of his dead mother or father.
What we didn't see was anyone crying.

Yet there was nothing disrespectful or crass about the celebrations, except for an occasional drunk stumbling by. Some families huddled around a grave eating lunch and presumably talking about the dead relative. Others read from dog-eared bibles or prayer books, or touched up the paint.

No amount of music or chatting though could soften the impact of the disproportionate number of rows of baby-sized graves, marked with little angels of stone or concrete, and signs noting lives that may have lasted only a few days, weeks or months, if that.

Behaving like a couple of Mexicans-for-a-day, Stew and I bought a handful of Day of the Dead marigolds and put them in a vase next to the urn containing the ashes of my mother who died nine years ago.

For the requisite touch of frivolity I then placed the urn and the flowers next to clay figures of a couple of Day of the Dead bandoleros who look like Bonnie and Clyde each clutching a rifle, except these are skeletons wearing sombreros.

My mom probably wouldn't appreciate the humor. Not mom.

If I were dead, though, I'd be flattered by such festivities around my gravesite. All I ask is that the musicians tune up and practice just a little bit, and that visitors, please, clean up after themselves.


Below are others photographs we took during our visit. 

The children's section of the cemetery. 
One offering for a dead child.

Multi-tasking: Painting the tombstone while listening to the music.

A prayerful vigil amid the festivities. 

A kind gesture: Some visitors drop marigolds on
gravesites otherwise unattended. 

Two parakeets get to visit the cemetery,
maybe to chirp for their dearly departed owner.