Friday, November 9, 2012

Great Border Crossing Plus Seven

Stew, with his remarkable recall for dates and events, casually mentioned on Sunday that November 7 would be the anniversary of the Great Border Crossing. I, the one with a far foggier grasp of birthdays and most other significant historical markers, replied: "The what?"

Indeed Wednesday was the seventh anniversary of our voyage from Chicago to Mexico in a Volkswagen Passat station wagon, which also carried two howling cats and a geriatric dog with dicey bowel control, and so much stuff that both humans and animals were pinned in place with barely a few inches to move in any direction.

It was not as dramatic as the Mormons' trek to Utah, cowboys dodging Indian arrows or Pilgrims praying and getting seasick on the way to New Wherever, but for us it was a momentous move, one that would take nearly a couple of years to recover from but ultimately couldn't have turned out much better.

In a pop-psychology magazine I remember reading that retirement and relocation to a different city, never mind a different country, can be among life's most stressful experiences primarily because you're not quite sure what you’re going to find at the other end.

Some people consider that uncertainty exhilarating. At church last Sunday we talked to a couple--neither partner in the spring-chicken age bracket--who has relocated regularly every seven years, just for the kicks of something new.

They have lived in San Miguel for eight years, one year past their “scheduled” moving date, so on the first of next month they will head for Pátzcuaro, another photogenic colonial town about three hours from here. They had talked about moving to Ecuador or Morocco, but I guess they're slowing down.

Señores Stew and Pooch in San Miguel
Stew and I on the other hand had lived in Chicago for thirty years. In fact, Stew had spent his entire life suffering through blizzards, ice storms and other wintry miseries in various parts of the Midwest, namely Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and finally Illinois. My move from Cuba at age fourteen certainly counts as a Great Crossing, but after that I’d led a relatively settled life too, ten years in New York and then Chicago.

But at around age fifty-seven, both of us had come down with an acute case of "gotta get out here" fever. Both were sick with our jobs and particularly with northern winters.

The prospect of another February in Chicago loomed as a daunting Prozac moment. February is when Chicagoans turn a shade of beige as a result of sustained lack of sunlight—or orange from too many hours in tanning salons--and the ground is covered with a grayish, big-city winter mush that barely conceals  several months' worth of dog turds.

We had visited other possible retirement cities from Vancouver to Santa Fe, and pretended to search for a destination in a rational, matrix-like way, weighing different factors, among them cost of living, gay-friendliness, climate—that, above all—and cultural life.

We've been asked a thousand times why we chose San Miguel as our landing place and I can't come up with a single answer. We'd visited San Miguel only twice before and only for a few days each time. I recall being struck with the mildness of the climate, the endlessly photogenic beauty of the town, particularly at the end of the day, but really not much else.

So after all our computations and pretense of logic, we ultimately surrendered to impulse without doing much arithmetic and not unlike our friends moving to Pátzcuaro.

Our VW Passat is not a covered wagon. It has air-conditioning, satellite radio, comfortable seats and other amenities. Yet the five-day southward journey, across landscapes unbroken by any snow-topped volcanos, verdant jungles, herds of exotic fauna or archaeological sites, did evoke in us great sympathy for the original band of Mormons.

Cutting across Illinois lengthwise is boring enough to short-circuit most of your synapses. And then you hit Cairo, Ill., once a thriving city at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers but any more the most dismal ghost town imaginable.

Past that, you're faced with the prospect of traversing Kentucky or Tennessee, I can't remember which. And on and on and on. We also gained an appreciation for the sheer enormity of Texas. It's huge, gigantic, interminable, particularly coming after Oklahoma.

Finding a motel involved quite a bit of stealth because—yet something else we hadn't thought about—although there may be a few pet-friendly motels none are quite so friendly as to welcome two howling cats and our incontinent, forty-pound mutt.

So we resorted to asking for the room farthest away from the reception area (“we want peace and quiet”) and then sneaking in the animals under the cover of darkness. We had a bought a wire crate for our Pooch which we had to assemble and take apart every night. Each night we also had to persuade the cats to eat something, check out the cat litter tray, and please not hide behind the refrigerato so we could regroup promptly first thing in the morning.

For all their fright, the cats eventually settled into a trance-like routine that involved both squeezing into a single carrier, and remaining motionless and silent for hours. For his part Pooch decided that sleeping four-fifths of the time was the best policy.

Pooch was the greatest dog until the very end, the best animal companion we've ever had. He died two years after we arrived in San Miguel, at seventeen years old or thereabouts.

The initial details of settling in San Miguel—finding an apartment, waiting two months for our furniture and other belongings to arrive and then discovering we should have left most of it in Chicago—were daunting. Two people who had led quite stable existences bumped into an almost complete lack of regimen, the points of reference of their lives suddenly upended.

Most distressful though, was the loss of our roots. We didn't know anyone here. All the markers, large and small, that gave our lives rhyme and direction—our jobs, our house, our friends, the screeching Chicago el and countless others—went missing.

And after complaining endlessly about our jobs, we found that the lack of a job and in particular a daily routine, was most disorienting. Suddenly you have all the free time you had yearned for yet don’t know what to do with it.

Our two cats recovering from their trip. Ziggy, the
orange tabby, died a few months ago.
There was much thrashing about during the first eighteen months, including four moves, searches for counseling from both professionals and also layman expats, and for me a renewed stint of Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.

It was not a good time and to this day I’m baffled by the people who claim to have landed here, instantly fallen in love with everything San Miguel and never looking back to their previous lives. That was far from our experience.

The turnaround for us was building our house, a long-postponed dream. We had talked and planned and read books and articles and here we were finally able to turn ideas into brick-and-mortar.

Our new house, completed almost four years ago, turned out to be everything we wanted, one of those rare life experiences when expectations neatly coincide with reality.

It also firmly planted us in Mexico. As Stew keeps saying, other than a few relatives, we have no longer have physical connections with the United States and wouldn't even know where to go if we had to move back.

That has forced us to stop looking at Mexico, Mexicans and Mexican ways of doing things through the lens of American expectations.

One day during the construction of our house Stew—a home inspector in his previous life—complained about something not being "like we do back in the States." The architect calmly explained, "Yes, but we're here, not there."

We're hardly Mexicanized. Stew's Spanish still sounds like a weak impression of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose public, mano-a-mano struggles with the language have earned him the nickname “El Bloombito.”

We watch Canadian satellite television; go shopping on the “Other Side,” namely Texas and Chicago; and eagerly await the arrival of new American movies. We just saw the latest James Bond epic--two days before it was released in the U.S.--and it was terrific, particularly Javier Bardem and Judy Dench.

Undoubtedly some aspects of daily life in Mexico remain annoying. Take for instance our dealings with a technician from Telcel, who started installing a new wireless telephone and internet system two weeks ago and still hasn’t finished. For this guy mañana is more than an ethnic stereotype: It’s a principle to live by.

Yet I haven’t found any aggravation that can’t be salved by a quick walk around the ranch, especially early in the morning or by moonlight. At this point in our lives there’s no other country or house where we'd rather live—particularly when February comes around.


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