Monday, June 15, 2015

Gringolandia's joys and laments

Almost ten years after Stew and I retired in Mexico most of our expectations have been fulfilled. We built a beautiful all-solar house to satisfy both our needs and whims and for much less than the project would have cost in the U.S.

With some exceptions our living expenses are lower and the nearly perfect climate of San Miguel certainly beats Chicago and Boston winters as well as Houston and Tallahassee summers. Or Minnesota year-round.

The biggest rewards are visual: From most windows and the terrace of our house we see mountains, valleys and herds of sheep and goats meandering about. Cue in Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony."

San Miguel's gorgeous colonial center never seems to get old. By comparison the assault of constant retailing that scars so many American cities deadens our senses: Home Depot/Walmart/Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, Petsmart. . . each strip mall with its own twenty-screen cineplex playing the same five or six movies.

View of the valley and the mountains from our back terrace
a few minutes ago, with rain moving in. 
Still. San Miguel and Mexico remain foreign, places that Stew and I call home largely by default: we'd have no other retreat if we had to move out in a hurry, say, just ahead of a volcanic eruption or a peasant revolution.
Mexico has not assimilated us or vice-versa.

We live in a largely closed, self-referential Gringolandia that exists side-by-side with the rest of Mexico, as two circles overlapping only slightly and only occasionally. Americans and Canadians, and a much smaller contingent of Australians and New Zealanders, dine, pray, socialize, shop, do volunteer work and celebrate among themselves.

One curious exception I discovered recently is the Shalom Jewish Community Center of San Miguel, whose small, no-frills synagogue has about thirty Mexican members.

Yes, expats consume lots of tacos and enchiladas—though seldom more venturesome Mexican fare for fear of illness—and mostly at restaurants where we expect to, and regularly run into, a roomful of familiar English-speaking gray heads. Hug-hug. Kiss-kiss. Hi-hi.

I'm not complaining about our social lot. We've developed a far wider circle of friends, particularly gay couples, than we had in Chicago and also have met and befriended quite a few Canadians, many of whom indeed say "eh?" after every third sentence, and come from a huge and beautiful country.

This is also a sophisticated expat community, with far more scientists of all sorts (including an astronomer from Chicago's Adler Planetarium), lawyers, doctors, writers, artists, college professors, photographers and assorted eggheads one would expect to find in a such a demographic sliver: the number of foreign permanent residents in San Miguel is estimated at only ten thousand or so.

Just heard this morning that the husband of a good friend we met at church is a former Rhodes Scholar. As a Canadian would say, impressive, eh?

Yet meeting and socializing with Mexicans remains a challenge as dense as a brick wall.

In fact, after all these years and some effort we have yet to meet any Mexicans with whom we would regularly exchange dinner invitations, let alone add to the list of close friends. When we lived in a condo development with owners of both nationalities there was no social interaction between the two groups, aside from mumbled pleasantries while walking the dog. We know a half-dozen gay Mexicans too, but only two have ever been to our house and we have yet to be invited to theirs.

Language is the most obvious and impenetrable barrier that keeps gringos jabbering to themselves. English is a natural security blanket for monolingual expats a bit intimidated by the raucous and sometimes chaotic Mexican world outside their homes.

The most critical endorsement a dentist or doctor can get is that he or she "speaks perfect English," although, as Stew and I can verify, language and professional proficiency are not synonymous. We've met a number of incompetent providers who speak flawless English and sport eyes as blue as Paul Newman's.

Learning Spanish at the half-dozen or so language schools in San Miguel is a wistful rite of passage newcomers undertake but quickly abandon; after a few weeks the language tapes and books go to the back of the closet next to the winter coats.

Listening to Americans wrestle with Spanish, mano-a-mano, can be cringe-inducing but I admire the effort anyway. Many more gringos just point to things or fire away mindlessly as if Mexicans are expected to speak English.

Still, my reasonably fluent Spanish hasn't opened any social doors. Vernacular Mexican Spanish is its own kettle of posole and it doesn't sound at all like my Caribbean Spanish.

At an old-age home for the indigent where Stew and I volunteered, a disoriented resident, I suspect with more than a touch of dementia, inquired politely the first time I met her: "¿Cubano?" 

Colloquial expressions can be tricky. We met an ancient guy named Tacho, whose body had been crushed probably by a stroke that somehow had left his mind untouched. He couldn't talk or move much but his eyes—they could turn wily, smiling or withdrawn—made up for any words. He was a mean domino player who'd been nicknamed "el tiburón" or "the shark."

One day we noticed Tacho was missing and an attendant told me he'd gone "upstairs," which puzzled me because the nursing home was a one-story facility. It turned out "upstairs" was a polite equivalent for "dead," as in Tacho had "bought the farm" or "kicked the bucket."

But in my observations over nearly ten years I've also concluded that Mexicans tend towards the taciturn, shy, inward-looking and solitary, as Octavio Paz noted in his aptly titled "The Labyrinth of Solitude." They can be difficult to befriend, particularly if you don't speak the right kind of Spanish or look too foreign. Neither Stew nor I are good at blending in: Stew is a blond Norwegian and I'm six-foot-three-inches tall, always sticking out in a crowd of Mexicans like a cornstalk in a pumpkin patch.

¿Mi casa es tu casa? About to open on the outskirts of San Miguel,
this famous eating establishment could become a meeting point for the
Mexican and ex-pat community. Hmm. Probably not.

Note that "inward-looking" and "taciturn" are not equivalent to rude. Quite the opposite. Mexicans in my experience tend to be extremely polite, respectful, almost formal. I'm constantly addressed as "usted," a formal version of "you," and sometimes—ouch!—as "Don Alfredo" a formal designation I thought was reserved for old men. I guess I qualify.

Among Cubans and Puerto Ricans social niceties are looser, voices louder. (T-shirt spotted in Miami: "I'm not yelling, I'm Cuban!") When Stew and I visited Cuba three years ago folks on the streets often approached us to start a conversation, ask questions, tell stories—language barriers be damned.

Once, we curiously approached a group of men working on an antique Cadillac on a street in the town of Cienfuegos and shortly were offered a sip of rum and a detailed description of the Frankenstein mechanics needed to keep a car running in Cuba: a diesel engine from a Russian truck; a transmission from an East German sedan and a monster air conditioner that formerly cooled a bus.

At no point did anyone stop to think that my blond hubby Stew couldn't understand a goddamned thing they were saying. The chatter went on.

Actively approaching Mexicans who live in the dirt poor villages around us is even more daunting. You are viewed almost suspiciously: What are you doing here?

With our gardener Félix as a guide and host, we've attended his wedding, invited his family to celebrate the kids' birthday at the local broiled chicken restaurant, visited his parents and grandparents, even taken family members to the hospital when they got sick.

The biggest compliment for my efforts came from Félix a couple of years ago when he blurted out that his parents thought we were "buena gente," or "nice people."

Flattered and curious I asked why.

"Porque ustedes conviven con nosotros," he said, which roughly means "because you socialize with us." He considered that an admirable if quirky character trait on the part of a gringo patrón.

Indeed, we have attended fiestas, pilgrimages, village meetings to discuss repairs of our cranky community well or a project to fix the tiny, one-hundred-year-old chapel. We have given countless rides to people when the buses don't come, and made many other friendly gestures.

By now the folks know Stew and me and recognize our red car and green pickup; that much is established. For the most part they no longer look at us suspiciously.

But I don't think we'll ever get past that distant, formal cordiality.

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