Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fruitcake: Let's Give It a Little Respect, Please

I’m an unabashed thrift hound.  Before I left Santa Monica, I happened upon my dream scenario: a junk shop closing and selling off its stock, including 25-cent cookbooks. Even though I was focused on getting rid of stuff, I couldn’t resist. Grubby from foraging and flush with that treasure hunter’s glow, I left laden. I scored junior league compilations, obsolete appliance recipes, dubious diet tomes, ethnic cookbooks, even a few classics. I love all those kinds of things for the nostalgia value but I’ll occasionally find something in them to cook.
Leafing through my spoils, I discovered a folded sheaf of yellowing onion skin paper tucked into a book of one-dish suppers. A recipe for “Christmas Cake” was hand-written on it in cursive script. The long ingredients list revealed that the writer likely was English. Clues were that it called for sultanas rather than golden raisins, vanilla essence instead of extract. 

English Christmas Cake
The words transported me. In English homes, making Christmas cake in November heralds the beginning of the holiday season much as Thanksgiving does in the states. Even though I spent most of my childhood in the Southern hemisphere and Christmas fell in summer, we still doggedly followed all the old traditions. The house would be a furnace as the Christmas cake baked for hours. The cooled cake was packed away to “cure” in an air-tight tin. Then a few days before Christmas, we’d unpack the stored cake, redolent of cinnamon and cloves, to be iced. The first layer was marzipan, rich with ground almonds and egg yolk; then came white royal icing that dried hard as a frozen pond. For decoration we had a little winter wonderland kit kept in an old cookie tin. There was a snow-covered cottage made from plaster of Paris, a couple of bristly pine trees like green bottle-brushes, and a plastic snowman that was taller and wider than the house. 
Our holiday dessert tradition never varied: mince tarts made on Christmas Eve and eaten—their flaky butter-and-lard pastry still warm—after midnight mass; domed plum pudding and golden custard sauce with the big feast always eaten at midday; and Christmas cake for afternoon tea. You’d think we’d be full by then. But there was always room for a wedge of dark, dense cake with its soft marzipan and crisp icing. For me it was the star of the Christmas treats.
 Imagine my shock when I found that in the United States, my adopted country, Christmas fruitcake is scorned. You’ve heard all the jokes. The first year I was here, I heard Johnny Carson make fun of a fruitcake on his show. I didn’t get it. I was especially puzzled because my favorite holiday story is Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory.

My slipped-covered first edition
of A Christmas Memory is one
of my most treasured possessions.
That lonely boy and his elderly cousin foraging for pecans and baking cakes for people who’ve been kind to them throughout the year brings me to tears every reading; and I read it ritualistically every year. How could a country that produced such magnificent fruit cake literature treat the real thing with disrespect?
Over the years, I’ve tried to make converts. I can see how some people have been put off by the dry loaf-shaped cakes that are more common in the US than the round succulent iced version I’m familiar with. But it’s all to no avail and so now I’ve given up.
I guess some memories are best packed away in the old cookie tin of your mind and pulled out to be enjoyed alone.
There have been compensations. I created a whole new set of wonderful memories by holding Christmas teas. (I miss you, girl friends!) They gamely pulled Christmas crackers and wore the silly paper hats. We gorged on cream scones, cookies, and trifle—but no fruitcake.

Christmas Tea 2008

Christmas Tea 2009
Now I’m about to spend my first Christmas in Mexico. I have opportunity to learn new traditions. To the best I’ve been able to find out, cake doesn’t have much place in the festivities. The only cake I see on the horizon is rosca de reyes. That’s the crown-shaped cake that’s served on day of the kings or twelfth night, which falls on January 6th. It has a small representation of the baby Jesus randomly inserted into the batter. Whoever scores the baby in their slice gets to hold a party on February 2nd, the feast of candelaria.(Way to keep the festivities going, Mexico!) In the meantime, I’ll have to make do with galletes de Navidad and buñuelos de viento. That’s okay. Christmas cookies are an okay substitute for Christmas cake; especially when eaten in volume.

Baby Jesus is lurking somewhere in here!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Gringa Moment

So I was sitting at my computer doing my Rosetta Stone Spanish Language exercises and absentmindedly picking from a bag of peanuts – I do like my salty snacks – when I pulled out something that was definitely not a peanut. It was a desiccated carcass about half an inch long, reddish brown in color. It had what appeared to be little legs or tentacles sticking off it. I screamed in horror; spitting partially masticated bits of peanut all over my laptop screen.
 Because we all love to share our disgust and horror, I dropped the “thing” back into the bag of peanuts and I dashed over to my landlady’s house.
“Oh, JesusMaryandJoseph,” I cried. “There’s a dead roach in my peanuts. I think I already ate some. There are other broken bits of it in the bag. Look! I’m going to throw up. Do you think I’ll die?”
She recoiled, suitably horrified. We went back and forth saying very bad words and shuddering with revulsion. 
Then she calmed down and took a closer look. She frowned, picked it up, and popped it into her mouth. Now I know people in Mexico eat fried grasshoppers and drink worms in their mescal, but a cockroach? Are you serious?
 “It’s a dried chili,” she said.
Before you pass judgement ...
what would you have thought?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dating My Clothes

One of the many things I love about San Miguel de Allende is that people take the time to dress up. Perhaps it’s because there’s a preponderance of women here and women like to show off for each other; or maybe it’s because the beauty of the place inspires people to step it up so as not to sully the landscape.

Can you imagine doing this in sweatpants?

In any event, it’s common to see women bedecked, bejeweled, and be-hatted.  Styles you see on the street range from trendy to classic to Santa Fe hippie to Frieda Kahlo.
San Miguel diva Eleanor Piazza

This all suits me just fine.

I’ve been a bit of a clothes-horse since age17 when I made myself a Nehru-style jacket from an old brocade curtain. This sartorial adventure was not inspired by Scarlett O’Hara but rather by early Sonny and Cher in their hippie days, before they went all Vegas-y and Bob Mackie crazy. I saw the duo on television in the mid-60s singing “I Got You, Babe” and was quite overwhelmed by their outfits. I didn’t actually remember all the details, but I had an impression of a fur vest, hip hugger pants, stripes, and mismatched prints. It was in black and white so I don’t know what colors they we were wearing.

My Sonny and Cher inspired era:
I made that skirt from some old jeans and scraps of fabric

Then I thought to search on YouTube to see if I could find that performance. There were actually several clips of them singing that song from 1965, including this one and another from English television also featuring the Beatles. (I love technology! This memory would have been lost to me without it.) The outfits were every bit as insanely cool as I remember and I’d still wear them today if I didn’t stand to look ridiculous. And yes, I remembered more-or-less correctly, there was fur and stripes and frills galore.

They clearly influenced me because my taste has always run to off-beat vintage clothes and exotic ethnic garments made, I hope, by craftswomen contributing to the economy of their village and not 13-year-olds toiling in a sweatshop. You’re more likely to find me rummaging at an estate sale than at Barney’s sale.

In fact, I’ve done more than just buy this stuff. In the 1960s my friend Liza and I had a stall on Portobello Road selling old clothes: and I mean really old; Victorian, 20s. Later, I had one at Camden Lock market dealing in army surplus clothing. And more recently, I had booths in Antique malls in California where I bought and sold vintage clothes. It’s a bit of shocker to find that 80s styles are considered vintage now!

But here’s the thing: I was chagrined to realize a while back that my own wardrobe was more interesting than me. I tended to buy clothes for the life I’d like to live, rather than for the life I actually live. What was I thinking when I bought that silk shawl with flowered embroidery and a beaded fringe at a yoga convention? I must have been in some blissed-out state to have fallen for the sales lady’s pitch about how great it would be over a strapless dress after a night of dancing. At the time I hadn’t been out dancing since about 1992 and have never in my life worn anything strapless.

And what about that faux leopard skin vintage coat? I sprang for it because I’d seen a fashion magazine story about how leopard print was the hot look that season. There were photographs of hip looking people in New York swathed in leopard at swell events: scenes right out of Serengeti and the City.

Wow, I thought when I spotted the 1960s version at a garage sale, I’ll wear that next time I go to a swanky event. Since it only cost $12 it didn’t seem worth dry cleaning, so I tossed it in the washing machine. It came out resembling a predator with a bad case of bed-head. But after a couple of hours of grooming it was quite spiffy. After all that trouble, a year later it was still hanging unworn in the back of my closet. The implications were quite depressing. I assessed each unworn outfit and tried to remember what fantasy scenario I had in mind when I bought it. There must have been some subconscious longing to be the person who would wear it and fulfill the promise that it held.

Clearly, I had two options: throw a garage sale, or let my clothes out to live the life they deserved. I had to assume that my clothes would be a pretty good guide and companion to the social life of my dreams.  Of course, I did neither. I wasn’t really ready to relinquish my cherry-picked wardrobe, nor was I likely to change from being a homebody who was not very proactive about making social events happen.

I eventually opted for a third scenario: I moved to San Miguel with pretty much nothing but a couple of suitcases full of clothes. Finally, I found a place where wearing just jeans and t-shirts and staying home are not an option. There’s too much going on to miss, and my clothes have turned out to be a pretty good guide and companion to the social life of my dreams.

Out dancing in my 1970s vintage
Diane von Furstenberg silk shirt

My only regret is that I left my faux leopard coat in storage, not realizing how bitterly cold it gets here at night. You can be sure it will be coming back with me next trip down.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

San Miguel de Allende: The City of Fallen Women

San Miguel de Allende is often called the “city of fallen women.” The streets are alive with the sounds of snapping clavicles and cracking ulnae as members of the brittle bone brigade make contact with the sidewalk. Cranky ex-pat retirees regularly write to Atencion, the weekly paper, and post to the local Yahoo group, somewhat ironically named the civil list, demanding to know why the city doesn’t do something about the streets.

Hello! Did you not know before you moved here that San Miguel is famous for its cobblestones, 18-inch wide sidewalks, ski-slope streets, and precipitous stairways? All of them made more hazardous when you have to quickly sidestep the parade of the day or a speeding horse (it has happened!).

It took some nifty footwork to not get mowed down here

This state of affairs has even given rise to one thriving business: the San Miguel Shoe; subtitled, the original combat cocktail sandal. Designed and made by a local cobbler, they look a bit like Ace bandages on rubber soles and are apparently very comfy and perfect for helping you remain upright in San Miguel de Allende.

The combat cockatail sandal

I’m looking forward to eventually getting a pair but don’t need to just yet because I came down here with a suitcase full of Birkenstocks.

Happy feet are important to me.
For my last birthday, a friend kindly invited me to choose a gift from a catalog that she would then have delivered to my house. It was filled with lotions deliciously scented with vanilla and jasmine; glamorous costume jewelry; silk scarves, and useful gadgets. So what did I choose? Why, a vibrating foot bath. It’s a device about the size and shape of a bedpan. You fill it with hot water, plunge your feet in, and switch it on for a pulsating massage. I can’t think of any other choice that would have more loudly screamed, “Congratulations: You’re 60!”
On writing this, something just occurred to me. All my favorite gifts have involved my feet. A few years ago for Christmas, I got this pair of soft bootees with bags of seeds in the bottom that you heat in the microwave. When you slip your feet into them, the warm soles send waves of pure bliss throughout your entire body. I brought them with me even though the seeds are getting a bit funky now from being zapped so often. They’ve come in really handy on these below-freezing San Miguel nights.
Another time, someone took me for a Chinese reflexology foot massage in Los Angeles for my birthday at a kind of a hole-in-the-wall place short on any kind of pampering elements. The masseurs were all elderly Chinese guys who didn’t speak any English and wore hospital scrubs. I suspect they are real deal Chinese doctors, possibly illegally in the US. I picture them living together in a shipping container somewhere,  since the massage only cost $20 for an hour of unadulterated agony and ecstasy.
That’s sort of emblematic of feet: they can bring both pleasure and pain.
On the pleasure front, they dance and dig pleasingly in sand at the beach and look pretty when you paint your toenails. Well, that’s about it for the good stuff.
Then there’s the pain. You’ve heard the adage that says not to judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. If you’d have walked in my pointy-toed stilettos during my 20s and 30s, you’d have thought I was an idiot at best, a masochist at worst. You’d have experienced agonizing calluses, painful heel spurs, cramped toes, and tight Achilles tendons that caused shin splints. Why would I have done that to myself? Well, part of it was because I’m so short and spent years trying to measure up to the rest of world. But also because heels gave me elegant arches, shapely calves, and a sensuous swing to my walk. Mostly it was because I was in my 20s and 30s and was indeed a masochistic idiot.
This madness included the years I lived in London. I became quite adept at running for a bus or walking up and down the stairs to my third floor flat in three-inch heels without breaking an ankle. It makes me laugh when people think those “Sex and the City” girls invented all that. Let’s not forget that in my day your feet were also usually encased in binding nylon pantyhose. How my feet would throb and burn by the time I got home from work or a night out (sometimes experienced consecutively and not necessarily in that order).
Finally, motivated by I know not what — late blooming common sense; a fashion for flats? — I eased with a grateful sigh into comfortable shoes. I’ve never worn high heels again; probably couldn’t anymore if I tried. (Actually, I think this was just a return to my roots. Apparently, I was raised in sensible shoes as you can see below.)

Me at four: a hula girl in Clark's sandals
By then I was living in California and overcompensated by wearing nothing but rubber flip flops and ballet flats in all seasons. Then I developed an excruciating pain in my left sole. I hot-footed it to the podiatrist, who diagnosed plantar fasciitis, a fairly common inflammatory condition that feels like you’re walking barefoot across the rocky floor of Death Valley in July.
“It’s your shoes,” the doctor admonished me. It turns out what I was wearing offered no arch support, heel cushioning, or shock absorption. In fact, a report had just come out saying that flip flops were more damaging to your feet and your musculature than high heels. What! That doesn’t seem fair. I got a big lecture on how I had to wear sensible shoes. He recommended that from then on I should wear only athletic shoes.

Comfortable boots and Amazon mud with my friend, Christine.

I hobbled off with some stretching exercises to do, a prescription for pain killers, and a determination to find shoes I could wear. Many hundreds of dollars and a closet full of butt ugly shoes later, I discovered my dream footwear.
Have you see Birkenstocks recently? Yes, they still make those clunky, wide-strap, buckled, beige clod-hoppers so beloved by die-hard granola-heads (well, okay, I suppose that’s me). But now you can also get cool ones in a variety of colors and my favorites, for dressing up, are silver thongs. They support your arches, don’t crunch your toes, and those cork soles are surprisingly warm, even in cold weather. That’s a good thing since I figure I’m still a decade or so away from wearing them with socks. To be honest, I can’t wait because Birkenstocks and cozy socks sound like a dream team for happy feet if ever I heard one, especially on the streets of San Miguel. But then I haven’t tried those combat cocktail sandals yet.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Coffee Table Caper

I’ve already mentioned that Travels with Charley is one of my favorite books, but more than that, it contains a passage that has greatly impacted my life. Steinbeck wrote:

“In Spanish there is a word for which I can't find a counterword in English. It is the verb vacilar, present participle vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere but doesn't greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. My friend Jack Wagner has often, in Mexico, assumed this state of being. Let us say we wanted to walk in the streets of Mexico City but not at random. We would choose some article almost certain not to exist there and then diligently try to find it.”
I’m not sure why this resonated with me so much, but ever since I first read it some 30 years ago, it’s not only informed every trip I’ve ever made, but perhaps even my entire life. And since I moved to San Miguel, I’ve become increasingly aware of why the word vacilar works so well in Mexico! And maybe it’s yet another reason I feel so at home here.
Yesterday, Eleanor and Margarita and I eramos vacilando. We set out in my car to look for a coffee table of a certain size and design for my casita. We headed along the highway to Dolores Hildago, just outside of which Eleanor’s friend, Enrique, owns an antiques shop.  We hadn’t gone far when we spotted a long string of what can only be called purveyors of fine junk along the side of the road. We made a screeching U-turn and pulled up in a spray of gravel. I’m not sure how long we stayed there, wandering from vendor to vendor among the rusted ironwork, fading painted and carved doors, and assorted ephemera. It was long enough for Margarita to almost buy a copper birdcage; for Eleanor to almost buy a batch of old photographs; and for me to almost buy a pink-painted cabinet. In the end, though, we left empty handed because we were really on a quest for a coffee table.
There were other tempting places to stop along the way, but we finally made it to Enrique’s magnificent establishment and discovered pretty quickly that he didn’t have any coffee tables of the kind we were looking for either. That didn’t stop us from spending another hour or so exploring. I’m always drawn to books and magazines, especially when they concern my passion for vintage clothes, and I ended up buying three copies of La Moda Elegante magazine from 1912.  
What the fashionable senorita was wearing in April 1912

As we were leaving, almost in chorus we all said, “I’m starving.”
In that area there was really one way to go: Carnitas Don Vicente. A young woman at the antiques store told us where it was and we found it a few kilometers away after a fork in the road: no mean feat given how colorfully Mexicans give directions and my impaired sense of right and left.
Oh, mama! At the door of the unpretentious little café that was blaring ranchero music, was a three-foot-across copper vat containing an entire cut up pig stewing in its own fat and Coca Cola. (Eat your heart out Anthony Bourdain.)

Yummy yummy pig parts
We ordered a half kilo of carnitas, and Eleanor who knows about these things, told them to make it todos suave. If you don’t order “all smooth,” you get the gristly, snouty, trottery bits mixed in. The mound of succulent shredded pork came with steaming corn tortillas wrapped in a towel and all the usual fixings: chopped white onions and cilantro, pico de gallo; limes, and those green chilies and carrots that blister the roof of your mouth. We ate ourselves into a stupor and still had enough carnitas to take home. When the bill came, including three soft drinks and the tip, we each owed the grand sum of 55 pesos (roughly four dollars and change).
Since we were already so close to Dolores Hidalgo, we decided to drive on into town. Dolores is basically famous for three things: Father Hidalgo, who instigated the Mexican insurgency against the Spanish there; Talavera pottery outlets; and ice cream.  I’d pretty much had my fill of Fr. Hidalgo during the bicentennial celebrations of the insurgency in September. His bald-headed image was everywhere you looked so I wasn’t much concerned with going to his museum. The colorful pottery is lovely but once you’ve seen one outlet, you’ve pretty much seen it all. So, of course, it became all about the ice cream.

Going potty on the Doloros highway

The little town square in Dolores is surrounded by vendors with carts of every kind of ice cream you can imagine. They are all vying with one another and will give you a taste of any of their exotic flavors. 

One of many ice cream vendors

Now, I’m going to do you a great favor. If you’re ever there and tempted to try the octopus ice cream: don’t. I’ve done it for you (you’re welcome). This is a taste that lodges in your limbic system, which rules both your sense of taste and your memory: not a good thing in this case.  Settle for a gentle taste of rose petal or angel’s kiss. If you’re really adventurous try the tequila or the avocado or one of my favorites, the elote (corn).  Just don’t sample the octopus. Seriously. I eventually settled for a double scoop of cappuccino and the vanilla special: a kind of butter pecan but with prunes  replacing the pecans. That set me back another $2.50.
We rolled on home into the sunset after taking just one accidental scenic detour. We stopped at the first junk shop we’d visited because Margarita decided she really did want that birdcage. But they were closed: only the dogs and chickens were still scratching around behind the locked gate. So the day netted a lot of fun, a pork-and-ice cream feast, and some vintage magazines -- but no coffee table.
Martha Stewart was in San Miguel de Allende last week and I bet she didn’t eat nearly as well as we did yesterday. And she probably just orders up her coffee tables from a guy who delivers them to her door. Poor us; we'll just have to keep on looking.

Friday, November 26, 2010

First San Miguel Thanksgiving

·         Flock-of-sheep roadblock on the way there
·         Ruth and Collier’s magnificent home that they built in the country
·         Morgan and Alexis making it from Colorado, despite snow hold-up
·         Loads of fabulous Mexican Champagne-like sparkling wine

·         Eleanor’s funny grace (she said, “Grace”)
·         Yummy calabaza soup
·         Precious $9-a-bag fresh cranberries
·         Stuffing with chapolines (fried grasshoppers)
·         Yams with fresh coconut
·         Magnificent falling-off-the-bone turkey
·         Pumpkin cheesecake from El Petit Four and lemon tart from Café Rama
·         Marge’s two kinds of ice cream
·         Coyotes howling in the distance
·         Dinner table talk about snakes and why drug lords leave San Miguel alone
·         Gary’s dry wit
·         Ruth reading from her newly published story about arriving in San Miguel
·         Almost full moon guiding us home  
·         Leftovers

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Did You Pack Your Flak Jacket?

Henry was the reason I decided to drive to Mexico rather than fly. He’s just a bit too big to fit under the seat and there was no way I was putting him the cargo hold. When I told people my plans, here’s what I was warned would surely befall me.

I’d be riddled by bullets, caught in the crossfire between dueling narco traffickers. I’d be kidnapped for ransom (I’m sure my 13-year-old Rav 4 with its spiffy cassette player and GPS would tag me as someone worth the effort).


I’d be stopped and shaken down by corrupt cops who’d take all my cash. I’d break an axle on my car when I hit a pothole and die of thirst by the side of the road in the desert. Worse, I’d hit a guy on a burro and rot in a hell-hole Mexican jail for the next 30 years. Gas station attendants would cheat me at the pump. I’d pick up amoebas from the bottled water that was really just tap water and die from dysentery. I’d never find anywhere to stay because Mexicans don’t allow dogs in hotels. 

And that was if I even made it across the border. I had too much luggage for a tourist and would be hit with import taxes. They’d confiscate my second computer. Henry’s papers would not be in order. And on and on and on.

Holy mother of sweet baby Jesus. I’ve done some hare-brained things in my life, but this was shaping up to be the most fool-hardy. And at an age I really should know better, don't you think?

I spent hours on-line researching the best and safest route. Old Mexico hands recommended doing as much of the driving as possible in the US, crossing the border in Texas, and then hauling straight through to San Miguel in one shot so I wouldn’t need to overnight in Mexico. So I planned to drive through the desert South West and cross at Laredo. A week before I was due to leave, hurricane Alex wiped out pretty much every highway and bridge on my route. The Rio Grande rose 30 feet above flood level and swamped the Laredo border crossing.

Not crossing here 

On to plan B: a route that had me crossing the border at Nogales; along the west coast of Mexico; a swing inland at Mazatlan; through Guadalajara; and on to San Miguel. It was about the same driving time but with the situation reversed: I’d have only one day in the states and three in Mexico.

I got Henry a lean, mean tropical haircut and tricked out the front passenger seat for him with his bed and toys so he could ride shot-gun. We’d only been on the road an hour when Henry found a spot he liked better than the one I’d prepared for him: on top of the luggage on the back seat where he could see out of the window and he spent the rest of the journey there.

King of the road

I got to the border at 6 am, taking a calculated risk that narcos were not early risers, especially on a Monday morning. I was the only person there.  I took Henry around with me while I got my visa and temporary car import sticker and nobody so much as looked at him, let alone asked to see those vaccination and health certificates I’d paid a fortune for and copied in triplicate. At the customs barrier, the young man with the rifle asked if I had any weapons. “No,” I simpered as Henry tried to lick his face through the window, “just an attack dog.” He laughed and gave us the green light. And just like that, we were in Mexico. It had taken all of ten minutes.

As advised, I got straight on a toll road and stuck to them all the way. They were magnificent: well paved and practically empty for long stretches but there were plenty of gas stations with OXXO stores and clean restrooms. The toll roads are too expensive for Mexicans and between the economy and the scare tactics, gringos are staying away in droves. Often, the only vehicles I’d see for kilometers were the Green Angels:  trucks that patrol the roads giving assistance to breakdowns – for free.  

The first two days on the road were all desert: first the Mohave then the Sonoran, shimmering in the brutal 120 degree heat. I didn’t dare let Henry out of the car for more than a few minutes at a time. Whenever I stopped for gas, he hopped out to relieve himself then jumped right back into the air conditioning. He even ate in the car. We were both happy when we finally reached the green and humid coastal zone. My favorite stretch of the journey was when we turned inland and started the long, slow climb from sea level to the Mexican central highlands at over 6,000 feet.

I solved the accommodation problem by way of Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum. I connected with a woman there who had driven from Vancouver to Oaxaca with a pit bull and had done all the leg work on which Mexican hotels would allow dogs. She kindly sent me her list and I booked our stopovers from it. My favorite was our last night on the road when we stayed at the Koala Bungalows, a lake-side nature lodge in Nayarit. Since it was the off-season we had the place practically to ourselves. Henry was able to roam around off-leash and it was a beautiful and reviving stop, the massive nighttime thunderstorm notwithstanding, before we pushed for our new home.

Koala Bungalows

I met with kindness everywhere on our journey. People were endless patient with my horrendous Spanish and made every effort to communicate with me. Shop clerks meticulously counted out my change when I gave them 200 pesos for a 5 peso bottle of water. Toll both operators gently corrected my punctuation when I checked to make sure I was on the right road. Once, when I was unsure how to bypass a town to get back on the highway, I asked in a store and a man got in his car and led me to the right place. I encountered one military roadblock and the young man sent for his colleague who spoke some English to question me about my destination. They quickly sent me on my way with best wishes. Henry was welcomed everywhere and was often the icebreaker.

The most terrifying site I saw? Bags of fresh shrimp being sold by the side of the road in the middle of the desert hundreds of miles from the ocean. My most distressing moment? I drank so much water one day that I was afraid I wouldn’t make it to the next rest stop. I pulled over on a completely empty stretch of desert highway, opened the front and back doors for shields, and squatted between them. The event that nearly brought me to tears? Missing a turn and getting lost in a one-way system in Guadalajara for two hours. Big whoop.

All-in-all, the trip was so pleasant and uneventful that I was almost let down. Almost.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Road Dog

One of my very favorite books is Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, in which he drives around the US accompanied by his French poodle. Given this, and since I've had dogs most of my life, it's surprising that I've never taken a road trip with a dog. Driving from Santa Monica to San Miguel de Allende with my little dog Henry was a first.

Henry came into my life at Thanksgiving so we're celebrating our fourth anniversary this week. But at first, I didn't want him. I was grieving the loss of Andy, who had died at age 13 from cancer a few months before. Andy was a black lab/tank mix and weighed more than many a Hollywood starlet. When he became sick, getting him up and down the stairs at my house and in and out of the car to go to the vet was a nightmare; and having him die in my arms was a heartbreaker. I swore I was going to take a good long break before getting another dog. So when my neighbors asked me if I'd take Henry, I said a decisive, "No!"

Henry's story was that he had been abandoned in a park and it was three days before anyone realized he'd been left there chained to the fence. Subsequently he was adopted by a couple who named him Henry. After a year they separated and neither wanted custody of him as they thought he would cramp their style as new singles. So my neighbors took him in. But they already had two dogs and two cats and adding Henry to the mix caused friction in the pack. With this history of people wanting to be shot of him, I thought be must be some kind of serious bad-ass. I was surprised then, when I went to my neighbor's house for Thanksgiving dinner and discovered he was an 18-pound powder puff. That only strengthened my resolve not to take him. After all, I'd just lost a "real" dog.

That bad-ass Henry

After dinner, Henry unbidden jumped on my lap and curled up in a ball. In my tryptophan/carbohydrate/cabernet stupor it felt kind of nice. I'd never had a lap dog before. "Okay," I was surprised to hear myself saying, "I'll foster him until we can find a permanent home for him." Before the words were out of my mouth, my neighbors had his bags packed: toys, food, dishes, grooming tools, and so forth. Henry and I trucked off next door; me telling him all the way not to get too comfortable; this was only temporary.

That plan remained valid for about three minutes. Henry sat in middle of my living room and looked at me with his head cocked. I know I'm anthropomorphizing but I swear he looked resigned and stoic. It was as if he was saying, "I don't know who you are or what you're going to do to me, but I guess I'll handle it." From that moment on I wanted nothing more than to protect this little dog and make him happy and we've been inseparable every since.

Henry turned out to be talented. He can run, leap, dance on his back legs, and swivel on a dime. I suspect he's mostly Bichon, a breed with a history of being circus performers, so this make sense. I enrolled him in agility class at the Zoom Room in Culver City. He went with his good buddy, Yoda (who is on a mad adventure of his own right now). With another dog they formed a team that we named The Three Dog Knights. The third dog quickly flaked out so The Three Dog Knights were actually only two. What they lacked in finesse they made up for in enthusiasm. Yoda became known as a "bleeder." With wild abandon and with an endearing eagerness to please he'd regularly crunch into some piece of apparatus and cut himself. Henry did only those elements of the course that he liked and stubbornly refused to do the rest. He'd run up and down the A-frame multiple times but wouldn't jump through hoops for anything. On one occasion, he simply walked off the course and made himself comfortable in a spectator chair and just watched for the rest of the day. At the end-of-school tournament, the two Three Dog Knights came in dead last but were given ribbons and trophies anyway. They seemed absurdly happy to get them.

The Three Dog Knights and their last-place trophies

Henry's not just an athlete. He also writes poetry. I have voice recognition software on my computer and one day when it was on, he went into a barking frenzy over something. The program picked up the sound and started translating it into words! I thought I'd made a quantum breakthrough in human/animal communications only to find to my disappointment that dogs talk gibberish. But then when I took another look, I realized there was a rhythm and rhyme to the words: it was poetry. I give you one of his compositions here.

While world while the wow out while our web.
How will the Tao end violent that it will gladly read that who will pattern
But Hong black bow
As you Boone in the high but big room
The both were in Manhattan.
All awards. Why are all four no?
Will all the worm wow and while?
It will hold a hole in a workbook
The blue, the real world opal, will will will will bore
All the talk. All the talk.

Now you tell me that's not genius. You tell me that couldn't have been written by one of the beat poets. Henry might just have finally found his place in the world because, as it happens, San Miguel has a history with the beats. Although from what I've been able to gather, many of stories about their times here are apocraphal. Legends have it that Jack Karouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs were here variously in the '50s and '60s but whether or not it's true and if so for how long and what they did all seems a bit, well, hazy. For sure, Neal Cassady died in San Miguel in 1968. (There's a highly entertaining back-and-forth among some colorful self-proclaimed experts about the whole business here.)

In any event, Henry's here now and like many an ex-pat in San Miguel, will surely continue to explore and express his latent creativity.

In the End It’s All Just Stuff

I've downsized twice in the last few years. The first time was when I sold my house (for the full asking price five minutes before the housing market tanked; thank you very much). I got rid of years-worth of stuff that time, mainly by way of a weekend moving sale. The easiest things to sell and the hardest to let go of were my books: hundreds of them. I also gave away a lot of furniture and appliances to worthy causes, which made me feel a bit better about letting it go. I only kept what would fit into the 600-square-foot cottage I rented in Santa Monica that was supposed to be a stop-gap while I decided what to do next, but actually ended up being my home for the next three years.

Purging from there when I left for Mexico was more difficult because I'd already pared down to things I loved and things I used: when it comes right down to it, the only reasons to keep stuff. But I was determined to be ruthless. I couldn't take everything with me to Mexico on a tourist visa and I don't believe in spending a lot of money on storage rental. Some years ago I interviewed a professional organizer for an article. He said that he never advises people to put their belongings in storage because typically, you keep it for three years then get rid of it all. You end up spending a fortune on rent for your crap. That made sense and stuck with me. So I budgeted $50 a month for storage and that bought me a 4 foot x 7 foot place at a storage facility in a sketchy neighborhood near LAX. Anything that wouldn't fit in there had to go. Hello, Craigslist.

I helped a woman wedge my overstuffed chair into her SUV. A young couple who had just graduated, got married, and moved to California from Pennsylvania brought a tool kit and dismantled my huge, heavy sleigh bed. A man bought my Aeron office chair for his new business. A young guy bought all my planters because he was going to start growing things. I didn't ask. The Salvation Army truck carted away my TV and its armoire, my desk, and a whole lot of small kitchen appliances. Finally, I paid for a green trash removal service to take my mattress and anything else left lying around and dispose of it all responsibly. All of that happened over the course of two days and I'm not saying it was easy. I practiced a lot of non-attachment. Everything I owned eventually fit onto the flat bed of the pick-up truck I hired to transport it to the storage unit.

Everything I own in the back of a pick-up truck

My first day on the road I felt a little panicky. At that moment I was homeless and owned practically nothing. I felt like I'd jumped off a cliff. Then as the miles rolled by, I started to feel a heady sense of liberation. I had clothing, my computer, a phone, my music, my dog, and money in the bank. I was okay. I could have changed course if I'd wanted to: gone anywhere and done anything, really. But I stayed on course for Mexico.

My casita in Mexico is lovely and fully furnished and stocked. I haven't lived in a place that came furnished for decades. It's been a bit of an adjustment but I'm settling in. It's funny the things you miss: not so much the big stuff. I miss having a junk drawer. You know? That one where you'll find a rubber band, a book of matches, a package of that powder you put in vases to keep the flowers fresh; take-out menus, chop sticks, and the instruction book for the microwave. It takes time to accumulate that sort of useful detritus. I also miss my Mason jar full of screws and nails of all sizes. I recently spent a couple of days searching San Miguel for two screws to attach a handle to a cabinet. And I don't have any old clothes; the kind you throw on to paint or garden. I had to decide on which of my good clothes I didn't mind down-grading and now a pair of brown cargo pants and a white tee-shirt are on their way to ruination.

This strange state of not having "stuff" makes you feel a bit like a newly minted human – or someone who just came out of a coma or prison!

Inevitably, though, I'm starting to buy things. At San Miguel's Tuesday flea market this week I bought three magazines from 1940. The covers were so perfect and vibrant that they must have spent the last 70 years boxed up away from sunlight.

Who could resist these gorgeous dames?

From the same vendor I bought a little green shelf, crudely made but charming and hand-painted with a sweet decoration. It's perfect for my bathroom wall.

My sweet little shelf
 On Friday at St. Paul's Church pre-holiday bazaar I sprang for some delicate embroidered and lace cloths. I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do with them but I suspect they'll end up in my bedroom on the night stands when I've finished painting them.

All hand-made

I also got a coffee table book called Yoga Art by Ajit Mookerjie. When I flipped through it at the sale my first thought was that for 15 pesos (about $1.20) I could take it apart and use the images for collaging. I recently took a class and plan to take more. But when I examined it more closely at home I realized it was a spectacular book with beautiful images and text and in no way a tear-down.

 Just out of curiosity, I looked it up online, not really expecting to find anything much since it was published in 1975. And I had a little Antique's Road Show moment. My book is selling from $223 to $225 on Amazon and for the equivalent of $365 on a British rare books site!

The only conclusion I can come to from this is that the Universe is sending me a clear sign to start accumulating stuff again. I'm going to an estate sale tomorrow.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Road Tripping

People thought I was crazy when I said I was driving to Mexico, but I've always had a comfort level behind the wheel of a car. There's something about having a full tank of gas, a credit card, and an open road that makes me feel both free and secure.

I learned to drive in London … in a stick-shift. There was a job I really wanted at Shepperton film studios, which were outside of town and no public transportation ran there. "No problem," I lied at the interview, "I have a car." I had two weeks before the job started so I went to a driving school and booked ten lessons. When I told the Jamaican instructor that he'd better teach me well because I wanted to take my test at the end of those lessons, he laughed good-naturedly and said the 1974 version of, "Yeah, right."
Nobody I knew had a car so I didn't have opportunity to practice between lessons. But I had the strangest experience. Every night I dreamed I was driving: not just moving in a car but actually steering and changing gears. I took the test at the end of two weeks and aced it; much to the shock of my instructor.
The first time I ever drove by myself was when I drove the ancient wreck I bought at a South London dealership home to Notting Hill Gate, negotiating the formidable Marble Arch traffic circle like a pro. The second time I drove alone was my first day at my new job. Don't I wish I had that kind of youthful chutzpah today!

Still, I always figured if I could drive London I could drive anywhere and road trips have been significant in my life. When I was offered the opportunity to move to California, I took a road trip around England with the idea that by the time I'd circled back to London I'd have made up my mind. England was experiencing an unusual Indian summer and was at its most beautiful. I distinctly remember sitting on a cliff-top in Cornwall – one of my favorite places – my back against a warm rock, waves crashing below, and rabbits gamboling in the grass. It'll be hard, I thought, but it's time for change.

I'll admit that driving in California for the first time was nerve-wracking. It was a huge pick-up truck, my first automatic, my first time on the other side of the road, and I was driving on the 405 freeway in rush hour. As I felt my way along in the slow lane, trucks honked at me and my cowboy-hatted passenger, whose truck I was driving, screamed instructions at me. (Yeah, he didn't last long.) But by the time I bought my 1974 MGB convertible in British racing green, I was totally at home zipping around Los Angeles.

Other memorable road trips involved driving a lake-like rutted road in the Costa Rican rainforest, and taking my then 80-year-old mother on her first trip around Ireland, where her father was from. When a friend died way too young, an early victim of AIDS, I tried to out-drive my grief. I got in my car with no destination in mind and when I came to my senses I was just outside of San Francisco. I slept in my car in a turn-out and drove home again in the morning.

As I was contemplating moving to Mexico, I took another road trip, this time up the coast of California. I love central Cali with its sensuous, golden hills and wide beaches. I stayed overnight at Pismo Beach, ate clams, and watched surfers. I got as far as Cambria before turning back. But before I did, I sat on gorgeous Moonstone Beach, and in a scene reminiscent of my experience in Cornwall thought, it'll be hard, but it's time for change.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Then and Now

I woke up one morning not too long ago, sat up in bed, and thought, Holy crap, I'm in my 60s! How did that happen?

In fact, I do (mostly) remember how I got here, at least physically. Metaphorically, I'm adrift in uncharted territory, trying to figure out what it means to be 60 in the here and now. The 60-year-old people I knew in my youth were, well, old. I don't associate myself with them in any way, shape, or form. I look at pictures of my maternal grandmother somewhere in her early 60s (she died at 66) and she's a wizened, white-haired old lady with no teeth, bent over with early osteoporosis, and wearing a floral pinafore smock. She grew up in poverty, had eight kids, and survived the great depression and World Wars One and Two, so that accounts for a lot.

My Grandma, Jane Flynn, in her early 60s
 I've been racking my brain to remember what my own mother was like at 60. But I only remember her on a continuum: a woman who didn't work outside the home and was noted for her cooking, baking, and sewing skills. Photos of her 60-year-old representation of that show her in polyester pants suits and with tightly permed hair.

On the other hand, I do yoga, listen to Green Day and The Killers—okay, in between The Beatles and Bob Dylan—on my MP3 player, have a Facebook page, and dress primarily in jeans. Perhaps I'm not typical, but I have enough friends who are like me to suggest that I'm not un-typical either. Your experience of being 60 might be different from mine in the details, but I'll bet we have more in common with one another than we do with any other cohort. But perhaps I'm just thinking too much about age?

This age-related navel-gazing is not a new phenomenon for me. In the 1980s I worked as a staff writer on a magazine called Moxie for women over 40 (way ahead of its time, as it happens, and it lasted only a few years). I'd just turned 40 myself when I got the job and so wrote from personal experience. Recently, I've revisited some of those same themes and I'm amazed how my perspective has changed in the last 20 years. Looking back, 40 seems as young to me now as 20 does. At 40, life still seemed full of angst and I was constantly striving to improve my lot; become a better human; and trying to manipulate people and situations in ways that I thought would make me happy. At 60, I'm way less stressed and feel more comfortable in my own skin (perhaps because it's looser!) and in the world in general. If you had ever told me that I would be happier at 60 than at 40 or even 20, I would never have believed it.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because of that, I've been feeling a restiveness and an imperative to make a change; to shake things up. (There are reasons for this that I'll cover as we journey along together.) So I sold off most of my stuff, packed what was left and my little dog Henry into my 13-year-old Toyota, and drove to Mexico.

This blog is about my new and open-ended adventure in San Miguel de Allende. It's part travelogue; part memoire (a traveloire?) I'm writing it for my own gratification and to have a record in words and pictures of this particular chapter in life; and so my family and friends can follow along. But everyone is welcome.