Thursday, June 1, 2017

Where's home, anyway?

After eleven years here, Mexico should
be home to us. But it's not that simple. 

In a recent post, fellow blogger Steve Cotton wondered if his house on Mexico's Pacific Coast was a "home" or merely a "house."

For expats that's not a fatuous question. Stew and I vote in Chicago, our last foothold in the U.S.; have a private mailbox in Laredo, Texas, where get our mail and which functions as our official address in the U.S. We visit the U.S. regularly, mostly San Antonio, to attend to medical matters, shop and watch movies not likely to make it to San Miguel.

A uniquely Mexican moment: A fully
attired ten-year-old mariachi singer
belts out a song at memorial service
for the sister of a good friend. 
But our house, which we planned meticulously and built eight years ago, and which we've referred to on occasion as our "forever house," is in Mexico.  It's a space in which I feel totally comfortable, all the more because I share it with my husband, five dogs and two cats.

The surrounding seven-and-a-half acres are equally beautiful: A walk outside with the dogs early in the morning, at sunset, or on a starry night will readily flush any bad moods out of my head.
And yet it feels like a walled-in resort. The minute I step outside the gate, I find myself in Mexico, a country I'm not emotionally attached to or whose flag I salute. Fascinating and beautiful as it is, it's not home. 

Some expat friends vehemently claim to live immersed in Mexico and its culture. Except in the case of a few long-termers who have a Mexican spouses and children, I don't believe such conversion stories.

Fact is the vast majority of expats here live in an airtight bubble inside of which they find all the elements needed to survive while remaining American, including restaurants, churches, clubs and volunteer organizations where they can socialize with other expats—all in English.

I'd bet that at least sixty percent of the expats in San Miguel don't know enough Spanish to order take-out pizza—except from Pizza Pig, whose owner is from Iowa.

When they first arrive, expats get caught in the frisson of Mexico's foreignness, and excitedly attend and photograph every one of San Miguel's parades, processions and fiestas.

But by the second or third of year of noise, traffic jams and incessant fireworks, the thrill wanes and it all becomes, truth be told, annoying as hell. During these events, some expats may leave town until the racket is over.

It's crossed my mind to write a Mexican version of the delightful "A Year in Provence," by Peter Mayle. Stew and I certainly have more than enough anecdotes and adventures, humorous and otherwise, to take me through the first one hundred pages.

Problem is that unlike Mayle I have haven't met enough Mexicans who have invited me into their homes and vice-versa, to populate the rest of the book.

Despite clichés of happy-go-lucky Mexicans chanting "mi casa es su casa" on their front step to every passerby, I have found Mexicans to be unfailingly polite and formal, but also reticent and leery of strangers.

As much as I've walked through the towns near our ranch, I still can expect silent, perhaps curious glances, but no spontaneous "buenos días" or even a shy smile.

There's an obvious economic divide: Just about about every Mexican within shouting distance of our place is very poor. Maybe it's that poverty, and widespread illiteracy, that forms an impenetrable moat around our ranch which, from the neighbors' perspective, must look like a Newport mansion.

The one exception, of course, is Félix, our gardener, dog-minder, security guard and community affairs advisor. We've been invited to all of his family's events, including weddings, baptisms, first communions and most movingly, the funeral of his grandmother whom he mourned deeply.

I have spoken to or read blogs from some Americans whose attachment to Mexico seems to be based on a deep resentment toward the U.S. and everything American. Quite often these self-avowed political exiles swear Mexico is their last stand yet can't stop talking or writing about all things American, particularly politics.

Others I know migrated to Mexico largely for economic reasons.

Neither Stew nor I share such views or issues. We're proud to be Americans even in this time of partisan warfare back home.

We inhale American culture—movies, news, commentary, books and art—largely through the internet, yet know hardly anything about similar subjects in Mexico.

We retired in Mexico because we were tired of northern winters, the very high cost of living in Chicago, and the monotony of America's consumer culture, which can make the country look like one continuous strip mall, from Chicago to San Antonio to Ft. Lauderdale.

Mexico was, and is still is, a different and exciting place to live, that can still offer moments of heart-stopping magic, such as the full-lung serenade by a ten-year-old fully dressed in a mariachi outfit during the memorial for a sister of a good friend. You don't get moments like that back home.

Yet after all these years Mexico remains fascinating but foreign.

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