Monday, May 30, 2016

Afternoon Tea Comes to Pozos

Years ago I wrote a book called The Pleasures of Afternoon Tea. It was a best-seller in the late 1980s and was well reviewed by the likes of chef Jacques Pepin and the Tea Council of USA. It’s no longer in print, but you can pick up second-hand copies on e-bay and Amazon (you’ll have to fight me for them!) Although I’d appeared many times on television demonstrating how to bake scones and was hired by companies such as Williams Sonoma and Lipton to teach staff about the concept of afternoon tea, I’d never fulfilled my dream of having my own tearoom: it remained a bucket-list item for me.

So when I saw the lovely boutique hotel, La Villa de Pozos under construction in our little town, I thought, hmmm … So I approached proprietors, Rosa and Oscar about the possibility of having seasonal pop-up teas there. Happily, they liked the idea, too.

                                          La Villa de Pozos

We held the first – the spring tea – in April. The idea proved more popular than we had dreamed. We reached our full capacity of 25 people and had a waiting list. Who knew that this classic English tradition would prove so popular in Mexico? Our guess would be that it’s because it’s unique in the area. If you want afternoon tea, you have to come to Mineral de Pozos! And they did: from San Miguel de Allende and from Queretero. Our little pueblo magico in the mountains is full of surprises.

                                   A full house of lovely ladies

Since La Villa de Pozos was still under construction at the time, we had to scramble to make it presentable for our tea guests. But with a herculean effort by all concerned, it was looking fabulous on the day (as long as you didn’t look behind any closed doors!). We held the tea in the elegant courtyard with its caliche (local limestone) walls and stone floors. The ladies – yes it was all ladies although we would love to welcome gentlemen – played their part by coming in their spring finery. The weather co-operated by providing us with a sunny, mild day.

                                          Looking fine!

The theme of the day was lavender (a nod to spring and to Pozos’s famous lavender farms) and the menu was traditional.

We had five types of tea sandwiches; classic scones with clotted cream and artisanal jam; and four small pastries. All accompanied, of course, by two types of black tea and to make the occasion extra elegant, a glass of champagne.

The big news is that this week – starting June 1 – we will be taking reservations for our summer tea to be held Sunday, June 26. We’ve changed the day from Saturday to Sunday to accommodate those people who work on Saturday. The theme will be roses, because what says English summer better? The menu will be completely different, except for the cream scones, which are such a cornerstone of afternoon tea that we would not dare change them!

Hope to see you soon with pinkies raised.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Wedding: Part Two

Well, it was just lovely.

The bride looked stunning (but then she was a slender little 18-year-old so why wouldn't she?) She only got her dress the day before; brought down from the US by a relative. We asked her if she had been concerned it wouldn't fit, but she just shrugged. If it hadn't, a swarm of people would have descended upon it and made it work. One of the things I've learned and love about Mexicans is that they can fix anything; and well. The groom, literally the boy next door and life-long friend, was dashing.

Bride and her father arriving at the church

The ceremony started right on time, which is worthy of note to anyone who is familiar with "Mexican time." Our parish church offered a glorious setting, which made up for the refreshing lack of pomp and circumstance.  The bride's mother in her newly purchased striped cotton top simply walked the bride down the aisle unaccompanied by music, bridesmaids, or flower girls. Then the bride and groom sat in chairs in front of the altar while the priest said mass (complete with collection plate!) In accordance with Mexican law, the couple had already been married in a civil ceremony, but the church blessing is more important to most Mexicans. After a lengthy talk by the padre addressed directly to the couple that I couldn't quite hear, they were pronounced married in the eyes of God.

Used to the traditional triumphant walk back down the aisle, I was at first a little taken aback when people then got up from the pews and started milling around. I soon realized that this was time for the photo ops. The couple stood in front of the altar with various permutations of family and friends.

The bride and groom with her brothers and sister

After everyone had had their turn, they began drifting out of the church. And that's when the fun began.

Mariachi's, in their best wedding whites, were playing in the church courtyard. It was they who chanted, "beso, beso, beso (kiss, kiss, kiss)" and after the first chaste peck called for "otra, otra, otra (more, more, more)."

After a while, we all repaired to our town's visitors center for the reception. The mariachi's continued to play (for the next four hours!) in the hall that was set up with tables all decorated in white. There was a top table for the bridal couple and their families and a multi-tiered cake. But that's where the resemblance to a gringo wedding stopped.

Instead of wine and Champagne, each table had a huge bottle of tequila, bottles of soda, a tub of ice and plastic cups so we could help ourselves. This made the assembled group very happy.

The meal was cooked and served by the families and consisted of chicken mole and rice, carnitas, and tortillas. All absoltely delicious. During the meal, a lady came around with a basket of gifts for the women. Despite the fact that I held out my hand, she steadfastly ignored me. When I asked someone who was the recipient of the largess what it was, she showed me a rosary. Fair enough. The gift dispenser had me pegged for the heathen that I am.

In honor of the occasion, the tortillas were wrapped in monogrammed cloths.

After we were all sated, the dancing commenced and a good time was had by all.

Well, there's always someone

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Wedding: Part One

I've never totally understood the cult of weddings. According to this survey, the average cost of a wedding in the U.S. in 2012 was $28, 427! (And that's not counting the honeymoon.) That's a down payment on a house or a new car. I've seen the months of stress and anxiety brides put themselves through planning these wing-dings down to the last detail. Then there's the almost inevitable family strife and hurt feelings about stuff like who's picked to be the bridesmaids or the seating charts at the reception.

The weddings I've been to have been memorable not for the type face on the invitations or the centerpieces on the tables, but for the moving speech the best man made or the entertaining thing the drunk uncle did. I've never given a crap about whether the cake is lemon or chocolate. After a couple of glasses of Champagne, it goes down well whatever it is. Oh, and the dress! Here's the thing about that: the bride is always the most beautiful woman in the room regardless of what she wears. I'd be shocked if anyone actually noticed the specific pin tucks or the precise placement of the spangles.

Of course, the reality TV world just about wets its pants in excitement over the opportunities wedding planning offers for drama devolving into hysteria. Bridezillas. Say Yes to the Dress. Way too many others to mention.

Don't pretend you don't know who this guy is.

So call me the wedding Grinch if you like; I'm quite happy to cop to it. But today I'm attending a wedding here in my little Mexican town and have to admit I'm looking forward to it.

Let me tell you how it's gone down so far. Last week, the lovely young bride and groom hand delivered the invitations around town. I RSVP'd to them in the affirmative right there on my door step. The first printing of the invitation had a typo on it, but they used them anyway and just told people the time of the church ceremony was 3:00 pm not 13:00 (one o'clock). I got one of the second printing with the correct time.

The invitation was hand delivered to my house

Yesterday I bumped into the mother of the bride and asked how things were going. Great, she told me. In this part of Mexico the groom's family pay for the wedding so she was just cruising. I asked how many people they were expecting. Three hundred. Or maybe 350. When my eyes widened and my jaw dropped, she rather defensively said, "Well, it is two families." That's not the thing, I explained. Aren't you concerned about knowing how many to cater for? She dismissed that with a wave of her hand. They were cooking mucho, mucho carnitas y barbacoa. Plenty to go around no matter who showed up. However, she had needed to go around town knocking on doors asking if friends could accommodate out-of-towners and had found beds for them all. I jokingly said if those other 50 showed up about 25 could camp in my courtyard. Yes, she said, and 25 could sleep on the roof. (Yikes!)

On to the important stuff: what was she wearing? She didn't have anything and was going out to buy something that afternoon. I did mention that was the day before the wedding? Maybe I should have copied her on this in case she's unaware of  the "seamless entourage" factor.

Let's just take a moment to recap here. There were no save-the-date notices six months out and no three part wrapped-in-tissue engraved invitations requiring a response as to whether you were bringing a plus one. There's no seating plan at the reception and no one's sure just how many are going to show up. The families and friends are cooking the food. The mother of the bride has not pre-planned her outfit: OMG, what if she's wearing the same color as the groom's mother? And what if San Luis de la Paz is out mother-of-the bride dresses?

Clearly, this wedding has disaster written all over it. Come back tomorrow for a full report complete with pictures.

The wedding is going to be here in San Pedro's: so that's good

Have to go now as the wedding is shortly and I still need to figure out what to wear.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Las Golondrinas of Mineral de Pozos

It's been a topic of concern around our little pueblo: Where are the swallows? Each year that I've been here, the barn swallows, known by the far prettier name of las golondrinas in Mexico, have shown up in early March. According to the previous owner of the house, they had been coming back to the nest in my entryway for five years. I've heard various stories about swallows mating for life, or the last year's babies coming back to where they were born. I'm not a birder so I don't know. But I do know that last year whoever it was that showed up made a new nest right next to the old one, daubing up a little cone in the corner of the roof and a beam in record time.

Finishing up work on the new nest last year
I already had babies in the nest this time last year. I know because I have loads of photos I took of them that have date stamps. But here it was nearly Easter and no sign of them.

With all the dire stories in the news about how the monarch butterfly population is severely down because of the drought conditions, I had to wonder if the golondrinas were suffering some similar fate. Since we're in the tropics but at a high altitude and get cold winters, I'm guessing they go to South America for the winter. That's a long way: anything could have happened to them! I'd go up on to my roof terrace and scout the air for them.  How could I continue to call my house Casa de las Golondrinas if I had none?

I even had golondrinas on my birthday cake 

So this morning, I was luxuriating in bed for a few minutes, gazing through my french door that opens to my courtyard (one of the things I love about my house) at the glorious sunny start to the day. I saw a flash of iridescent blue heading towards my entryway, closely followed by another. Then almost immediately they came back the other way. They were home!

I dashed out of bed and gazed up at the sky, and there they were; wheeling and diving against the already cobalt sky. I've been seeing and hearing their twitter all day but they haven't settled into one of the nests. Perhaps they're enjoying a short time of freedom before they become parents and take on all that egg sitting and baby feeding.

Anyway, I'm happy to see you, little birds. This being Mexico, you of course have your very own heartbreaking song to welcome you home.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Well-Traveled Book

The year I turned 40, I decided to celebrate/ignore/escape/memorialize my birthday by travelling through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town. As I was about to leave Los Angeles on this epic four-month adventure, a friend handed me a book for the plane. It was an already well-thumbed copy of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; and it was a must-read, my friend insisted.

At 994 pages, the paperback was two-inches thick and weighed more than I wanted to carry around in my backpack in those pre-Kindle days. Also, I didn’t read westerns. I decided I would just leave the book on the plane. My genre of choice was (and is) mystery novels and I had one I was looking forward to getting stuck into on the long flight.

And it was a very long flight. I finished my mystery crossing the Atlantic. Then, about a hundred years after takeoff when we should have been arriving in Cairo, we were told were being diverted to Istanbul because a wind storm made it impossible to land in Egypt. But before we could land there, we were diverted again to Ankara because of a snowstorm in Istanbul. It would be a while, we were told. So with nothing else to do, I opened Lonesome Dove.

By page ten I was hooked. The writing was so spare but so vivid that I already knew exactly where I was and who the characters were: and I loved them. The five hours we sat on that Turkish runway passed fast.
Lonesome Dove oddly became one of my abiding memories of that African trip. It was my solace when I got sick in Egypt. I’d spent over $700 before I LA to get shots for an alphabet soup of hepatitis; typhus, typhoid, tetanus, yellow fever, and so forth. I’d bought four months worth of anti-malarial meds and just-in-case antibiotics. And in Egypt I got the flu. Between trips to the pyramids and museums and bazaars, I shivered in my high-ceilinged room at the venerable Windsor Hotel sipping hibiscus flower tea for my throat and reading.

The sad view from my Cairo hotel room, a world away from Lonesome Dove

Then as Gus and McCall trekked north from Texas to Montana, they kept me company as I traveled south through The Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Malawi. I became thrilled that there were 994 pages; then as I neared the end, was desolate that there were only 994 pages. I finally read the last word somewhere in Zambia.

Reading Lonesome Dove on board the ferry Ilala on Lake Malawi 

The smart thing to do would have been to hand the book off to some other traveler, but I was unreasonably reluctant to part with it. So it came with me down through Zimbabwe to South Africa, then to England for a stay, and finally back to the States.

I became a Lonesome Dove evangelist, trying to press it on everyone I talked to. I discovered that people fell into two groups: those who’d already read it (it had, after all, been on the New York Times bestseller list for 24 weeks) and those who were adamant about the fact that they did not read westerns even if they had won a Pulitzer Prize. In other words, I didn’t have a lot of luck and my battered copy stayed put on my overstuffed bookshelves.

That was not the end of it for me, of course. It had introduced me to the writing of Larry McMurtry and I had a backlog of his work to catch up on like Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show. And there were prequels and sequels of Lonesome Dove to come, not the mention the wonderful mini-series made from the book. In my view, the best, most well cast film adaptation of a book ever.

Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus and McCall: perfect

I was happy to learn that McMurtry owned a huge second-hand bookstore in Texas; since August, 2012, sadly gone the way of many independent bookstores.

McMurtry's much missed massive book store in Archer, Texas

Most recently, I learned something about him from Magic Trip, the documentary made from the raw footage shot by Ken Kesey on the famous cross country adventure in the Magic Bus. McMurtry was a friend and they stopped off to see him in Texas. He was already married with kids, and is seen looking mildly bemused in his Buddy Holly glasses as the Merry Pranksters descend on his family. (As a side note, McMurtry is now married to Kesey’s widow.)

You'd be bemused too if this showed up at your door.

Anyway, years later I finally managed to persuade someone take my copy of the book. A friend was moving from Los Angeles to Austin and I insisted she could not in all conscience live in Texas without having read it. So she took it with about as much enthusiasm as I had first received it. From time to time over the next decade, I’d ask if she’d read it and the answer was always, “Not yet.”

Now picture pages flying off a calendar as more time went  by and I moved to Mexico. My first year here, my friend from Austin came to spend Christmas. “Look what I’ve brought to read,” she said showing me my familiar old friend. So that was the end of her for that vacation. When she finally looked up from the book, it was time to leave for the airport. After she’d gone, I found it sitting on the night stand.

So twenty-five years, three continents, thirteen countries (if you count sitting on the runway in Turkey) and way too many cities to add up later, Lonesome Dove is back on my bookshelf. I opened it up when I started writing this but at page five firmly snapped it shut. I have things to do.

But if you haven't read it ... seriously, you have to read this book. I don't care if you don't like westerns, you have to read this book. Just read a few pages and you'll be hooked. Trust me. Read this book. I'll even lend you this one if you promise to give it back.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Dogs: Ambassadors of Love

In the late 90s, I bought a sweet little 1920s canyon bungalow in Mt. Washington, an old Los Angeles suburb. Shortly after moving into it, I realized that I was living in an entirely family neighborhood and was likely the only single person for blocks. It was a nice, but I felt a bit out of place. I didn’t immediately connect with the community and I somewhat morbidly used to wonder if I fell down a ravine while on one of my daily walks with my dog, Andy, how long it would be before anyone noticed I was missing.

We lived on Glenalbyn and hiked up to the top of Mt. Washington every day

Andy, like most of my dogs, was a foundling. Before buying the house, I had lived for three years in the mountain community of Big Bear, California. Early one Monday morning, when I was walking around the lake, this long-legged puppy joined me and wouldn’t leave. I believe he’d been left behind at a nearby camp site that had been packed with people over the weekend: either intentionally or because he’d wandered off and got lost. I spent two weeks trying to find his owner; then happily called him my own.

He grew to be 100 pounds of sweet-natured goofiness. I’m not sure what he was, but he likely had some Labrador or even Newfoundland in him. His fur was long and silky and shed water like the proverbial duck’s back, and had a thick undercoat. He loved swimming in the lake and the rolling around in the snow.

Andy was swimmer and was known to come out of Big Bear Lake with a fish!

We went through some tough times in that cabin. One day when playing in the snow, his leg went down a gopher hole and sustained a terrible injury. He had to have two operations to repair the ligaments in his knee and was in a cast for months. I know he was in pain a lot of the time so I took the mattress off my bed and slept cuddled up with him on the floor. 

Later, when his leg was mended but my heart was broken, he’d jump on the bed, circle a couple of times, and then curl up next to me. I wasn’t sleeping very well back then and whenever I opened my eyes, he’d be gazing at me with his big, soulful eyes.

When we moved back to town, I knew Andy missed being out in the wilds so I took him for very long walks every day all over the neighborhood. One day, a little boy playing behind a fence struck up a conversation with me. I heard is mother call out through a window to ask who he was talking to. “It’s that lady with the nice black dog,” he said. I realized then that I actually was not as invisible in the neighborhood as I thought. People were aware of me, but probably more so of Andy. Things got rapidly better after that and I became close with my neighbors and made many friends in the area. A lot of it had to do with Andy. He was so pretty and so sociable that people would stop to pet him and talk to me.

Then after I’d lived in that house for about nine years and Andy was around thirteen, he got cancer. By the time it was diagnosed, the tumor on his pericardium was big and growing rapidly. The vet told me he only had weeks before it grew so large that it would stop his heart from beating. About six weeks later, he keeled over panting and couldn’t get up. My neighbors on either side came over and made a stretcher from a blanket and carried him to my car. Another came with me to the vet and stayed with me until Andy gave one last big gasp; his heart, big as it was, was no match for the cancer.  

Andy had so many friends that I couldn’t stand the idea of having to tell the story over and over. So I pasted a picture of him on some card and put a little note on saying he was gone. Then I tied it to my front gate. By the next day, I had a “Princess Di” situation going on! Kids brought handmade cards with sweet messages in crayon and stuck them on the gate. People left flowers and notes for me. Someone even stuck a bottle of wine through the fence, another a tin of homemade cookies. Andy truly had been an emissary of love.

Now, years later, I moved to my current home in Mineral de Pozos, with Andy’s successor, my little dog Henry

Henry at home in Mexico

Things were different here. I felt immediately at home and assimilated into the community very quickly. But there are the odd occasions when I still feel like the new girl. Then one day last week I met some friends for a drink at Pozos’ new swanky hotel, Casa Diamante. Since I hadn’t been there before, the assistant manger offered to show me around. As we were touring the impressive rooms and gardens, I started to tell him that I lived in Pozos. “Oh, I know,” he said. “I see you walking your little dog when I’m driving to work every day.”

Welcome to the hood.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

My Quest for a Second Soul

To have another language is to possess a second soul
-- Charlamagne

I’m trying to learn Spanish. Let me rephrase that: I’m learning Spanish. I’m banishing negative self talk about it like, “I’m way too old to learn a whole new language,” and (imagine a whiny voice) “This is hard.”

I do at least have a bit of leg up on people from some other parts of the States and Canada who come to Mexico since I lived for over 30 years in Southern California. It was, of course, part of Mexico up until 1849 and still remains a largely Hispanic city. You pick up a certain amount of Spanish by osmosis. I already knew, for example, that Hermosa Beach translated to beautiful beach; that Puente was bridge; and that you didn't need to say La Brea tar pit because La Brea meant tar pit. I could correctly pronounce Sepulveda, La Cienaga, and Cahuenga boulevards. And in general I developed an ear for what Mexican Spanish should sound like.

Olvera Street in down town LA: really

When I made the decision to move to Mexico I frantically started listening to Spanish language tapes in my car. On arriving here, I noticed people looking at me funny when I attempted to speak and discovered that I had been studying Spanish Spanish and not Latin American Spanish. They’re the same language of course, but with subtle differences in usage. My Pimsleur tape instructed me to say, “Encantada” on meeting someone. Mexicans are much too polite to snicker but I’m sure they were amused inside when I said the flowery, “enchanted.” I learned quickly that here people say, “Mucho Gusto.”

The year I lived in San Miguel de Allende it was all too easy to be lazy about it because there is such a huge ex-pat population and so many of the Mexicans that work in the largely tourist industries speak English. You could go days without hearing anything but English spoken. Still, I bought and started plowing through Rosetta Stone Spanish, which many people swear by. I find it a bit tedious, but perhaps because I already spend so much time at my computer that another hour a day is a chore. I do, though, like a podcast from, of all places, Scotland called “Coffee Break Spanish.” They’re 15-minute conversation sessions on specific topics and I’ve learned a lot by listening while making my dinner or doing other chores.

When I moved to Mineral de Pozos, the situation became more urgent. The foreign population is much smaller and far fewer of the locals speak any English.

Pozos: not a lot of English spoken here

I’ve discovered that learning functionally is a good method for me. If I need to say something, I use a translation program that lets me see and hear what to say. Then once I’ve used it, it tends to stick. The flaw with this method is that then people respond and I have no idea what they are saying! My Mexican friend Rosa wants to learn English so we spend an hour every week helping each other. I also watch movies with Spanish sub-titles and usually pick up a word or two each time.

Rosa and I: able to communicate against the odds

In the last year and half, I think my Spanish has improved exponentially but I have problems conversing because I’m still translating everything in my head. By the time I’ve figured out what to say, everyone else has moved on. I also understand a lot more than I can speak.

This year my resolution was to get fluent. In talking to friends, I discovered that several others in our little town had made the same determination. So we got together and hired a Spanish teacher from San Luis de la Paz to come to Pozos twice a week. The lovely and patient Lourdes is taking us rapidly to the next step. But, it seems, there’s no getting around the issue of learning some things by rote: like verb endings. It brings up memories of sitting in a hot African classroom chanting French and Latin conjugations.

I was struggling yesterday to memorize the Spanish verb ser “to be” (not to be confused with estar, the other Spanish verb “to be”), when out of a brain cell lingering from around 1965, up bubbled the Latin conjugation for “to be” in all its tenses! Spanish is not identical to Latin, but close enough that it was like a light shining on it and I suddenly got it. Right after that, I also called up the Latin conjugation of “to love.” Again, the verb endings were so close that it became a tremendous shortcut for me. There was also something about the memory of the rhythm of chanting them that helped me chant the Spanish verbs.

And hey, I am living in Latin America.

So here’s a shout out to Miss Linder, who as a young women in the 1960s valiantly drilled Latin verbs into the heads of a bunch of fidgety teenagers at Umtali Girls High, most of whom couldn’t really figure why we needed to learn a has-been language. Miss Linder is advanced in age and still living in Umtali (now renamed Mutare) so she might like to know:  it came in handy after all! 

Somebody posted this picture to my old high school facebook page, 
showing Miss Linder back row left: still teaching long after I had gone.