Thursday, December 8, 2011

English Fruitcake Part Two: The Recipe

This time last year, I wrote a piece about fruitcake and how it gets no respect. It turned out to be the blog entry that got the most hits of any that I posted all year. Who knew?  Apparently, there are people who really do have reverence for this staple of the English holiday tradition. Most of the search terms used were for a recipe, so this year I’m happy to oblige.

This simple recipe (they can get a whole lot more complicated) is from my own book, The Pleasures of Afternoon Tea. It was a best-seller in the late 1980s and is now out of print but used copies are easily found on Ebay and Amazon.

English Christmas Cake


2 and ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking poder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups golden raisins
2 cups dark raisins
2 cups currants
1 cup candied cherries, chopped
½ cup chopped mixed candied peel
1 cup blanched almonds, chopped
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup packed light brown sugar
4 eggs
Juice of 1 lemon (about ¼ cup)
Grated peel of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon molasses
3 tablespoons brandy or dark rum
Milk, if needed


Preheat oven to 300F (150C). Grease a 9-inch springform pan. Line the pan with a double thickness of parchment paper; grease paper. Set aside.

Sift flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon into a large bowl. Add raisins, currants, candied cherries, and candied peel; toss until fruits are well coated with flour. Add almonds. Set aside.

In another large bowl, beat butter and brown sugar with a mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually fold in flour and fruit mixture. Add lemon juice, lemon peel, molasses, and brandy. Mix to make a batter that is soft enough to drop from a spoon but too thick to pour. If batter is too stiff, add milk, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Spoon into baking pan and smooth top. Bake 1 hour. Reduce oven temperature to 275F (135C) and continue to bake 3 to 3 and ½ hours longer or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack. When cold, turn out of the pan and peel off paper.

You can make this ahead and keep it for a couple of weeks wrapped securely in parchment paper in an airtight tin. You can “top off” the cake by poking holes in the top with a toothpick and pouring a few additional spoonsful of brandy or rum over it in the tin.

You can, of course, eat this cake just as it is. If you decide not to ice it, you can add a ring of blanched almonds around the top before baking. 

But a real traditional English Christmas cake will be iced first with marzipan and then with royal icing.

It’s hardly worth going to the trouble and expense (it requires ground almonds) of making marzipan as you can buy it readymade at grocery stores or by mail order. Here’s how to apply it: very light coat the top and sides of your Christmas cake with a jelly: apricot is good. Roll out the marzipan thinly and drape over the cake. Pat it down to make it smooth and trim of the excess. Leave it for 2 to 3 days uncovered in a cool dry place before coating with icing.

 Royal Icing


3 eggs whites, room temperature (if you don’t like the idea of using raw eggs, it’s okay to use the equivalent amount of pasteurized egg white available by the carton in stores but it might not whip quite as stiffly)
6 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice


In a large bowl, beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually add sugar and beat until icing holds soft peaks. Quickly beat in lemon juice. (If your kitchen is hot, icing may start to harden as you are working with it. To prevent this, dampen a kitchen towel in cold water, wring out, and drape over bowl.

Tip: This will give you that “hard as a frozen pond” icing that I talked about in my original post. If you prefer a softer icing, add a tablespoon of pure vegetable glycerin at the same time as the lemon juice.

Working out from the center and using a straight-sided knife or spatula, spread icing evenly over the marzipan. If you want a coating that looks like snow, rough up the texture with the knife. If you like, you can put any excess icing into a pastry bag fitted with a decorating tip and pipe edging or a design on the cake.  Bedeck with small Christmas ornaments.

I use this little group of caroling mice that I’ve had since childhood.

Enjoy with a nice cup of tea on boxing day.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Meanest Kitty in Mexico?

When I bought my house in Mineral de Pozos six months ago, the previous owner warned me about the feral cat issue. (She also said there were ghost cats in the house; but that´s another story!)

Sure enough, when I moved in it became apparent that cats had been running rampant in the empty house. There was a hole in the very old, small door leading from the bathroom to the courtyard that gave them ingress; cat pee in the corner of a bookshelf; and little dusty paw prints all over the house. My first line of attack was to block the hole in the door from the inside but proved ineffectual as I´d come home and find my barrier pushed aside. Then I piled bricks in front of it on the outside. But these were super cats. The bricks would be tossed aside like Legos. Finally, I dragged a big pot with a particularly vicious cactus plant in it up to the hole and finally had an effective blockade. Eventually, I had a new door made and the picturesque old one is now an art installation on my porch. La puertacita a ninguna parte. (¨The little door to nowhere.¨)

The Little Door to Nowhere with the ¨cat hole¨in the bottom

But that didn´t stop the cats entirely. All the rooms in my house open to the courtyard so I have to make sure every door and window is closed and latched when I go out. I even have to close the doors on one side of the house if I am on the other side. I learned this the hard way when I went into my kitchen one night after watching a movie in the living room, and it was wrecked. The trash can was up-ended and the contents strewn all over the floor. The dog food dragged off its shelf and scattered everywhere. And there were broken dishes in the sink.

The mayhem in the house was not the only problem. The cats would party on my bedroom roof at night. They were a rowdy bunch: wailing and yowling and running around, making far more noise than you´d think possible. I´d see their shadows spookily passing over my skylight. They regularly overturned the recycling can with a clatter and used the fern bed under my bedroom window as a litter box.

Of course, I do have a secret weapon against them: Henry. My little dog Henry actually has no problem with cats. When we visit a friend who has one he will politely sniff them and yield the territory and if we meet one on a walk, he will just stroll on by. But these cats were a different breed. If he encountered one skulking under the lavender bush, it would go all saber toothed tiger on him. Just because he´s polite doesn´t mean he´s a wuss: When the cat arched its back, bared its teeth, and hissed at him, he´d fight back. Next thing, I had Wild Kingdom going on in my garden. Cats streaking and emitting blood curdling howls and Henry right on their tails, silent, focused, and looking for a take down. Further, at night, when he heard them on the roof, he´d hurl himself at the door barking loudly. Did I mention this was the middle of the night?

I decided it was time to know the enemy. I identified three: a pretty white female, a ginger tom, and a gray one of indeterminate gender. I realized pretty soon that the latter was the alpha whatever. Before long it had banished the other two to the perimeter of the property. I still see them sunning themselves on top of my water tank or prowling along the wall topped by broken glass (putting paid to the idea that it would deter a cat burglar) but they rarely come any closer.

Ginger cat is now exiled to the ruins next door

And now I think gray cat is trying to get rid of me. He has no fear at all. I see him watching me everywhere I go.

He´s always there; just watching and waiting

Several times he´s walked right into the kitchen when I´ve been in there. If I try to shoo him away, he makes noises like something out of The Exorcist. He brazenly tries to sneak passed me and into the house, crawling low to stay out my line of sight. He sleeps on my outdoor furniture at night and should I venture out to the courtyard after dark he acts like I´m the one who shouldn´t be there.

(OMG, even as I´m writing this, he just jumped on my firewood and knocked the whole pile down!)

Quite frankly, I´m scared of gray cat.

Don´t let his benign apperance fool you. One step closer and he would have had my eyes.

I really do like cats, so why not just make peace with him and since he already lives here, adopt him and fix him? Well, for one thing, he´s probably too feral to tame. He´s in pretty good shape and probably feeds off rodents and scraps so I don´t feel too badly about not trying to save him. And I know he drinks from Henry´s water bowl.

And secondly, I´m allergic to cats. At age five, I developed severe asthma. I´d have attacks of the kind that these days would have you rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. But in 1950s Africa, I just had to gut it out because there was no help on offer. Additionally, no one apparently made the connection between the onset of this condition and the new cat I got that slept on my pillow; both of us tucked snuggly under a mosquito net. His name was Smokey and he was followed over the years by Misty and then Mr. Jinx. And throughout my entire childhood I wheezed and huffed so hard my ribs would ache for days. Once I actually broke a rib.

Me at five with Smokey. Oh, if only I´d known ... !

The attacks stopped quite abruptly when I moved to England. I just thought it had been something in the air: maybe the jacarandas? Then after I´d been in London about three years, my roommate brought home a little calico kitten and we both fell in love. We named her Tiffany. (Hey, this was the early 70s and it was all about the movie, Breakfast at Tiffany´s. We were way ahead of the trend.) Within a couple of days, my asthma was back and I finally made the link. Now though, I was able to go to the doctor and get pills and later an inhaler that got me though until my roommate moved out and took Tiffy with her.

For the next 20 years, I avoided cats. It´s sad because I love all animals and would love to snuggle with a cat like I did in my childhood.

Who could possibly not adore Chacha and RubyCat, the new kitties at Galeria 6?

After all those years of dodging them, I tentatively tried being a room with one and I learned I´ve built up a tolerance.  My threshold is about two hours before I start to feel that familiar tightness in my chest. Some of my friends will be surprised by this revelation because I rarely talk about it. The thing is; if you say you´re allergic, people want to put their cat out of the room. But it´s the cat dander and hair that is already in the room that causes the problem and banishing the poor cat from its own home doesn´t really help. I had to clean and paint my house from top to bottom when I realized the cats had been hanging there while it was empty.

So, no, gato gris and I are going to have to make some kind of peace. He/she needs to understand that I am the mistress of this house and is going to have to find somewhere else to haunt.

I know: Fat chance.

Friday, October 28, 2011

My Desert Island Discs

Since I don’t have television here in Mineral de Pozos, I rely almost entirely on the internet for entertainment. I can access US television shows online the day after they’ve aired so don’t have to miss The Good Wife or Project Runway, and I do have Netflix instant. But far more I listen to the radio. For me this is going back to my roots. We didn’t have TV in Africa, where I grew up until I was 17 so the “wireless” as we called it – a big burled wood cabinet with cloth stretched over the speaker and Bakelite knobs – was our access to the world.

My prized possession as a teenager was the transistor radio I got for my 15th birthday. During my teenage angst years when I thought all my friends were having a better life than me and my parents were so lame I couldn´t even be in a room with them, I’d sit on the back step in the dark with my radio listening to the latest pop music from both the US and the UK.

The transistor radio, big curlers, cool shades, and bellbottoms

Now the internet has literally opened up an entire world of radio possibilities. The radio truly is “wireless” in a new way and I rediscovered an old friend, BBC radio. Not a whole lot has changed since the 50s when we’d listen to crackly broadcasts of half hour comedies and witty wordy panel shows on the world service.  The names and the games are different, but the fare is pretty much the same. I’ve lost my taste for British humor in the intervening years, but I still enjoy the game shows like Just a Minute, The News Quiz, and Round Britain Quiz.

My favorite guilty pleasure is Desert Island Disks, which has been running continuously since 1942. Celebrities are invited to choose the records they would take with them if they were stranded on a deserted island. It’s really just a gimmicky way of doing a celebrity interview but their choices of music are often quite entertaining and surprising. Whoever would have figured horror meister Steven King for a Rihanna fan? (There’s a massive archive of celebrities to dip into.)

It’s pretty much impossible to listen to the show without thinking about what eight pieces of music you would take. So for my own entertainment and I hope your listening pleasure, here are mine. I´m willing to concede that my choices are entirely predictable for an old hippy baby-boomer and that I am a philistine: no classical. My chief criterion was that songs had to have stood the test of time: I listened to them years ago and still have them in rotation on my MP3 player today, so yes, they are oldies. I do love a lot of contemporary music but we’ll see how much of it I’m still listening to in 20 years.

One: Love Minus Zero written by Bob Dylan and performed by the Walker Brothers. I think this is the most beautiful love song Dylan wrote but it needs a sexier voice than his to do it justice. The Walker Brothers were wildly popular in England in the 60s, where I played this luscious version on my record player over and over and over in my London flat in 1967: picking up the needle and dropping it down in the groove as the song ended. I had not heard this version in years until I stumbled across it on youtube and got goose bumps.  I now play it repeatedly, just like I used to 40 years ago. You might find it cheesy, but I love this video because it’s so evocative of the time plus it was great to see Scott Walker, my teenage crush.

OMG, he was so cute!

Two: Desolation Row by Bob Dylan. If I could only take one artist with me to this island it would be Dylan. I heard him for the first time on that transistor radio singing The Times They Are A Changing when I was about sixteen and was totally gob smacked. I’d never heard a voice, a sound, lyrics like that and it’s not hyperbole to say it changed my life. I’ve stuck by Bob all through the weird and mumbly years, buying everything he releases and seeing him in concert countless times. The hard part was choosing just one song (well, I cheated a bit with song number one). I finally settled on this one because I find some new imagery in the lyrics every time I hear it.

PS: When the Daily Telegraph newspaper asked readers to vote for their favorite DID artist this year, Dylan was overall second only to The Beatles and number one favorite individual male performer.

Three: Into the Mystic by Van Morrison. I’ve never met anyone of my generation who doesn’t love this song. I can’t count the hours spent, somewhat impaired, discussing whether this should be played at your wedding or at your funeral, and what exactly it’s all about. I heard an interview with Morrison, who said he didn’t know either. Whatever! After all these years, whenever he wails out that line about rocking your gypsy soul, the hair stands up on the back of my neck. I had a peak experience listing to this in the car while on a road trip around Ireland.

Irish road trip: playing Van Morrison as the
cliffs of Moher disappear into the mystic.
Well, at least into the mist.

Four: One Love by Bob Marley. I was introduced to reggae in the early 70s when I lived in Notting Hill Gate, London. It was not the trendy place it is now, but mostly a West Indian ghetto with this strange, cool music blasting from open windows during a hot summer. I remember when Bob Marley first played London and the entire city was talking about him. There was a time in my life when I was struggling to be happy that I played this song first thing every morning, sometimes several times, to lift my spirits. It still does.

My Notting Hill Gate flat. I lived on the third floor

Five: Red Dirt Girl by Emmylou Harris. How much do I love Emmylou? She’s another I’ve enjoyed for decades and who in my book can do no wrong. I met her briefly in 1977 when I was working for the Wembley Country Music Festival, but I was too star-struck to engage her in conversation though she seemed approachable. I debated over choosing one of her earlier songs when her voice rang like a silver bell or a post Wrecking Ball one when she was writing most of her own songs and her voice is more mature. I eventually picked this one. I like story songs and as many times as I’ve listened to this, I still tear up when Lillian lays that hammer down.

PS: Emmylou did a Desert Island Disks show in which I finally heard the straight-from-the-horse’s mouth story about her and Gram Parsons.

Six: Pancho and Lefty by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Like I said, I love story songs and this is a fine one. Some of the lyrics are astonishing. “You wear your skin like iron and your breath is hard as kerosene.” I have four versions of this on my MP3 player. The original by the writer, Townes Van Zandt; a beautiful acoustic one by Emmylou; a duet by Willie and Bob Dylan; and this one that I chose because I get the bonus of Merle Haggard, who I think has one of the best voices in pop music. It’s also a great road trip song for driving in Mexico.

Pancho and Lefty is a great song for road tripping in Mexico

Seven: Biloxi by Jesse Winchester. I first heard this in the mid-seventies when I was spending a summer on a Greek Island and the lyrics, although written about a place a world away, seemed so apropos of the life we were living. Because Jesse Winchester’s career was pretty much derailed by his fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft, it’s really hard to find any video on him. After I lost my vinyl version years ago, I wasn’t able to hear this song until I found a CD in one of Austin’s amazing music stores. Sadly, the best I can offer you is this poorly recorded version of him singing it at the New Orleans Jazzfest this year.

That Greek Island summer

PS: When Biloxi was devastated by Katrina, legendary KCRW disc jockey Tom Schnabel did a tribute show and played a cover version of this. I emailed him and asked him to play the original and he wrote back saying he loved it but couldn’t find it. Since I lived two blocks from the station in Santa Monica, I downloaded the album onto my computer then dropped the CD off for him. I never had a response, but I suspect people were always leaving CDs and demos for him and he never got it.

Song number eight was the hardest to choose. The first seven were must-haves, but then the field got huge: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, Ray Charles, any blues guitarist, Johnny Cash … argh! In the end, how could it not be The Beatles?

Eight: Hey, Jude by The Beatles. Collectively and individually, they provided the soundtrack to my adolescence and early adulthood. I danced to them, made out to them, studied to them, traveled to them and they permeate almost every cherished memory I have. Hey Jude is perhaps a cop-out choice since in poll after poll it’s the most popular pop song ever so it was easier to just pick it rather than agonize over their entire repertoire (although I did kill a couple of happy hours listing to Beatles’ songs today).

So what are your eight? Feel free to post them in comments.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Construction Moment

My bathroom re-do is well underway. The guys are working really hard and doing a beautiful job. Then yesterday at 6 p.m. as they were finishing for the day, they told me they had run out of tile.

¨How can that be?¨  I asked. ¨I bought the amount you said you needed.¨

¨Yes but we thought you were getting bigger tiles. These tiles are chico,¨ they replied.

¨But you told me to get 8 square meters and I did. It doesn´t matter how big or small the tiles are, they still should cover 8 square meters.¨

¨No, senora,¨ they explained patiently. ¨When the tiles are smaller you need more and they get used up quicker.¨

My beautiful chico tiles

¨Um, okay, ¨I said, scratching my head like Curly of the Three Stooges, ¨then I guess we need some more tile.¨

We decided not to go the square meter route this time and count instead. Cinco cajas -  five boxes - they told me.

It necessitated a three-hour round-trip drive to the tile factory, where I showed them the sample and ordered six boxes to be on the safe side.  They loaded them into the car for me. When I got home, I discovered they were the wrong color.

So it´s back to Delores Hidalgo again tomorrow for me. At least it´s a nice drive.

Out of the car window on the road to Delores Hidalgo

Sunday, September 4, 2011

My Summer Vacation in Mineral de Pozos

Regular readers will notice that I haven´t posted a new blog for many weeks. The official explanation is that I took the summer off. The fact is; I haven´t felt one bit like sitting down and writing, either this blog or actual work. That´s unusual for me as generally I´m more comfortable in front of a keyboard than anywhere else. But since I settled into my new old house in mid-June, all I´ve been moved to do is work on it and in the garden. It brings me tremendous joy although I have to keep reminding myself not to feel guilty about not writing.

Now it´s September and somehow just the turn of the month has put me in a better frame of mind for sitting at my computer.  So to kick things off again, this is a catch-up with pictures of my Mexican summer.

Despite it being the rainy season, we had a hot, dry spell that gave me loads of time to plant and weed and reorganize my courtyard garden. The previous owner told me that she loved the garden to be all tangled and mysterious. I do get the appeal of that, but I felt I was not actually seeing half of it so I tried to sort it all out. I dedicated an area to succulents and cacti (and have the scars to prove it).

A shady spot outside my bedroom window has become the fern garden but there´s also a magnificent ojo santos bush that was thriving there.

I got the funky fish fountain to work, although it´s sort of jerry-rigged at the moment. I wasn´t sure if I should be reassured or made nervous when the dengue fever task force came round and put something in it to deter mosquitos.

Once I uncovered everything, I found I was better able to showcase my magnificent lavender patch; two spectacular hibiscus bushes; and a highly perfumed rose bush. After a shower my garden is heady with scents.

My fruit trees yielded me some delicious tiny peaches, a handful of figs, and more pomegranates than I or the birds could eat. I have a fruit called a lima that I´d never heard of before. It´s a citrus that´s not as tart as a lemon or as sweet as an orange.  I´m experimenting with smoothies and salads.

I also did a little art project in the garden. I inherited a painted arch over my bedroom door and embellished it with some metal birds and old birdcages I found.

 And speaking of birds, I had two batches of baby golondrinas in my entryway nest! The first was a trio that peeped and cheeped all day so I called them Peter, Paul, and Mary. I watched and photographed every stage of their development with total fascination and was sad when they finally got their wings and took off. On the other hand, I was happy not to have to clean up bird poop every day.

Then a couple of weeks later I was amazed to discover I had another four. Like all second children, they didn´t get photographed as much as the first, nor did I name them. They´re at the stage where they fly off during the day but around 7 p.m. come home and, fully grown, cram themselves back into the nest for the night with tails and wings sticking out everywhere. More poop to clean up.

The house got its share of attention. I repainted the kitchen, which was no easy task since the walls were red and now they are white. It took four coats! It´s still a work in progress as I´m planning to tile the floor and put in a colorful tile backsplash. The bathroom, which I thought would be the very first thing I´d do, is still not started. This is because the guy I found to do it is not available as his mother had an accident and he doesn´t want to leave her side.  Get well soon, mama!

I also had the sala painted; too big a project for me but Oscar and Chucho did a great job. And I finally unpacked all my boxes from California. I cranked up the sewing machine that came on the truck and made pillows and drapes. I invested in a couple of pieces of show-stopping furniture: What I call the Marie Antoinette bed and a huge room dividing buffet. So it´s starting to come together.

But the summer wasn´t entirely about work. I went to a number of lovely parties both here in Pozos and in San Miguel de Allende. Some had mariachis!

Happily, my friends Eleanor and Barbara each have places in San Miguel where I can bunk down for the night when I don´t want to make the 40-minute drive back to Pozos after dark.

Pozos also had a number of wonderful events: a blues festival, a mariachi festival, a mine tour, a home and garden tour, and several art openings. During the Toltecidad, Zaragosa Plaza looked like Venice beach on a Sunday afternoon. 

Friends who came to town from San Miguel for these happenings knocked on my door so I had a constant stream of visitors. Plus, I´ve made a whole lot of new friends in the neighborhood. What I´m finding is that weekdays are quiet here but there´s a whole lot going on at the weekend. That set-up pretty much suits me to perfection.

The only fly in the ointment this summer was that my little dog Henry got a nasty eye infection in both eyes. Many vet visits, antibiotics, three kinds of eye drops and mucho dinero later he now seems to be fine.  

Well, the other bummer was that my computer hard drive fried and my new one has a new operating system with the instructions in Spanish so that has been, to say the least, an interesting learning experience. I don´t really know if Windows 7 is good or bad because I don´t really know how to use it properly. But I´m managing well enough to have no more excuses for not writing, so tune back in for regular posts.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Case for Living Authentically

I've come to the conclusion that trying to suppress your true nature is like attempting to hold a basketball under water. It takes all your concentration, is truly exhausting, and in the end is futile. 

When I tell people that I’ve bought a house in Pozos, a small ghost town in central Mexico, I’m often faced with a blank stare and after a brief hesitation an “Oh,” or from the bolder, a blunt “Why?” I can read the unspoken, “are you out of your mind!”
It’s okay. I understand. I’ve seen that look and heard that “Oh,” many times in my life; and I welcome them because it's my indication that my life is on track.
The first time was when I was barely turned 19 and announced that I’d saved enough money from sorting letters in the Post Office to buy a one-way ticket on a steam boat from Cape Town to London.

Bright-eyed and bushy tailed on the way to
England at age 19

Many of my high school friends were going to university or getting married. I was ravenous for experiences my Catholic up-bringing, all-girls school, and small town in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) had never afforded me. I arrived in London in the summer of 1967 with the equivalent of about $100 in my pocket and a two-week reservation at a hostel. Music was everywhere; Carnaby Street and Kings Road were the axis of the fashion universe; and barefoot hippies passed out flowers in Piccadilly Circus. I was both in culture shock and delirious with joy.
Within a couple of weeks, I had moved into a Thames-side flat with five other girls. There I made a lifelong friend in Maureen. We shared an Irish heritage and had similar coloring: People always took us for sisters. We also had the same birthday, although she had a couple of years on me. She became the older sister I never had. We made weekend trips around the UK and traveled together to Paris, Austria, and the Greek Islands.

Maureen in Greece 1968

She went back to South Africa and a couple of years later I flew over there to be a bridesmaid at her wedding. By then I had moved into a smaller flat in Notting Hill Gate with one room mate: Liza.

Me, Liza with a monkey, and some odd guy
with a dusbin lid in a London alley in the
(No I have no recollection of what this was about.)

For almost ten years, Liza and I egged each other on in madcap schemes: selling vintage clothes on Portobello Road; operating burger stands at rock festivals; and working in promotion (we were those girls at conventions who demonstrate things): almost all of which earned us both “the look.”

In a formula one race car at the London Auto Show

Liza and I lost touch a few years after I relocated to the States, but thanks to the internet, reconnected again and picked up exactly where we’d left off.
In the late 70s, I got the stare and the “Oh,” when I pretty much ran away and joined the circus. Only it was a recreation of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show that was playing at Wembley Stadium. I got a temp job there and hit it off with cowboys and Indians. They invited me to go touring with them in Japan and Singapore and how could I say “No” to that? Technically, I was the promotion manager but in that type of show, everyone has multiple jobs, so I was also a can-can dancer in the saloon.

Kicking up my heels (second from left)
as a can-can dancer when the
Wild West Show played Japan

After six months in the Far East, the show returned to California where they sponsored me for my green card. I got it on the basis of being a specialist in the American Wild West. (I’m not kidding.) Shortly after, the show went broke and I was left adrift on another new continent, in culture shock again but thrilled to be in Southern California.
I decided to take the opportunity to reinvent myself as the writer I had always secretly wanted to be. God Bless America: you really can be and do anything you want if you work hard enough. And I did. With just a couple of brief periods of employment as a staff writer, for the next 30 years I supported myself as a freelancer. It suits my nature; working on a different story and topic every few weeks. Still, as my 40th birthday approached, I was restless and craving a change.
You should have seen the looks and heard the “Ohs” and “Whys?” when I decided to shake things up by spending four months traveling through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town by myself. I flew to Egypt and used trains and buses to get to Khartoum in the Sudan. I had to abandon my plans for a total overland experience and fly from there to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia because there was a war in the region. But thereafter I stuck to the land going through Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and arriving in Cape Town, South Africa just in time to celebrate our joint birthday with Maureen.

Wading ashore in Zanzibar 1989

Not long after I got back to California, I garnered a barrage of looks, “Ohs,” and “Whys” when I cast my lot in with a personage of dubious nature. I had the hubris to stand in the path of a human tornado and laugh off the possible consequences. Did I ever get my comeuppance! A few years later after the tornado had passed, leaving my entire life in a catastrophic shambles, I decided it was the Universe telling me it was time to mend my ways. I needed to grow up and be a responsible person. A therapist also told me as much.
I bought a little house in a family suburb. I worked really hard. But I quit writing screenplays (even though I’d sold two) and novels. Instead, I concentrated on magazine articals and eventually started ghost writing books for other people. I did volunteer work and joined groups and served on boards. I took vacations in Europe and stayed in proper hotels and went to museums. (I’m not knocking that, they were wonderful trips, just different for me). I ate healthily and went to the gym three times a week. And slowly and inexorably over the next ten years, I slid into a depression.
For the first time in my life, I became an insomniac. I would be so tired during the day I’d fall into a coma on the sofa in the afternoons. I wasted my life away doing Sudoku puzzles and watching Home and Garden TV. If someone invited me somewhere, I’d go; but I never initiated anything.  I'd lost my joy. Then, in the space of a year, Maureen died from breast cancer and Liza died from a melanoma that spread to her liver. Their deaths affected me deeply. I started to feel like I was squandering my own good health by not living an authentic life.
I finally lost control of the basketball when I was attending a board meeting of a non-profit called APECA that does good work in the Amazon disseminating health information and building rainwater catchment tanks to provide clean drinking water to remote villages. One of the other board members, Christine, said she was thinking of going to Peru to see the operation. Out of nowhere and with no aforethought, I heard my own voice saying, “I’ll come with you.”
Bam! The ball hit me in the face. 
Within about a month, we were flying to Lima then on to Iquitos, one of the most exotic cities I’ve ever been to, and then were on a tiny boat chugging two hours down the Amazon to APECA headquarters deep in the jungle.

Me and Christine sailing down the Amazon

We slogged through the rainforest knee-deep in mud; fought off mosquitoes; met extraordinary people doing remarkable things; learned about natural rainforest remedies; ate weird food and drank vile boiled river water; saw the fabled pink dolphins; and gorged on star fruit right off the tree.

$5 each in Whole Foods.
Free in the jungle!

One experience was particularly memorable. Our guide, Pablo, took us another two hours down the river and along a small tributary of the Amazon called Shatto.
Pablo and me paddling down Shatto

We camped out on platforms under mosquito nets hundreds of miles from the nearest electricity. We had one truly magical night when we glided down the river on the current in a small boat. Being so far from any artificial light, the night sky was absolutely extraordinary. There was a cacophony of jungle creatures and we could see eyes glinting all around us. Pablo, with some kind of uncanny knack, would occasional thrust a spear into the black water and come up with a fish on the end of it.

Pablo speared these fish in the pitch dark

That night, I felt my joy!
Other significant things happened on that trip. For one, while I had lost Maureen and Liza, I found a new soul sister in Christine. Although years apart in age, we bonded instantly and stayed close after returning to Santa Monica where we both lived.
There’s something else: I’ll simply tell the story and let you come to your own conclusions. One night when camping at Shatto, Christine and I awoke simultaneously. We could hear a particularly strange and plaintive noise from what we took to be a bird or other jungle creature. We also could hear Pablo walking around outside. Next day, Pablo quite casually told us that he’d encountered a spirit. It was, he said, someone who had just died and was visiting people and places that they’d known before moving on. We asked him if he was concerned that it was someone he knew, but he said, “No. It could be anyone.” He went on to tell us hair raising stories about the spirits – both good and evil – that populate the jungle. The people who live there are quite matter-of-fact about them.
A week later when I got back to Los Angeles, there were messages waiting for me to say that Tornado Man, with whom I had not had contact for several years, had died from lung cancer that night. In these matters, I prefer to let the mystery be. But you have to admit it was a pretty weird coincidence! In any event, his death was also the end of cycle of my life and my trip to the Amazon was the birth of a new one.
It took another two years for me to pull up stakes and drive to Mexico. And what a lot of looks, “Ohs,” and “Whys” I got in response to that decision. But hey, to me that just an indication that I was me again. It’s interesting to note that the first night I was in Mexico, I slept for eight hours and have slept like a baby ever since.
And so that brings me back to this decision to buy this house in a small ghost town. Right now, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. I’m deliriously happy. I know it’s not for everyone – or hardly anyone, for that matter. So it’s quite okay for you to be skeptical and give me the look: I'm cool with it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

There's a Guy for That

Dealing with bureaucracy anywhere can be challenging, but especially so in Mexico. The problem is if there are any rules no one quite seems to know what they are; or the rules change every week. Gringos here spend an inordinate amount of time worriedly exchanging information, passed along like that game of telephone and so in the end totally wrong, about the latest regulations for, say, owning a foreign car in Mexico or getting your visa renewed. You can go to official government websites that Google will adventurously translate from Spanish to English for you only to find the person working the desk at the local office will have completely different\outdated\up-dated information and you haven’t brought the right paperwork or enough money for the fee. I know someone who got her car impounded a week ago over a regulation she didn’t know existed.
The answer, I’ve discovered, is to find someone who knows a guy. (And before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, I’m speaking generically, of course: the "guy" could be a woman.)
I’m a pretty independent person and for the most part like to take care of business myself. But now I’m having to learn a whole new way of doing things. When I wanted to change my status from tourist to resident, I looked up the info and thought I knew what documentation I needed and how many copies to make of it. Then I would just take it to the immigration office and file my application. Hah! Before I actually embarked on this foolish endeavor, my friend Eleanor took me firmly in hand and said I was not to attempt this myself; she had a guy for that.
Apollinaire came to the house, filled in all the paperwork for me (which was in Spanish way beyond my reading a menu/getting directions level of comprehension); held up a white sheet for a back-drop and took the right size and type of photo; and then took it all away to file for me. A week later he called and asked me to meet him at the immigration office. We walked to the head of the line, where he greeted the official by name. She scrutinized my driver’s license, fingerprinted me, and handed me my laminated FM3 visa in the space of about 10 minutes. When I saw a number of bewildered looking gringos wandering around the building with manila envelopes clutched in their sweaty hands, I was really glad I had a guy. (By the way: only a month old, this visa type of visa was phased out in June and no one really knows that implies for those of us holding one!)
The next step was getting my stuff into the country. With my new visa I had six months to bring my personal household goods into Mexico without incurring import fees. But to do so, you have to make a list of every single item you want to import in both Spanish and English. I’ve heard some horror stories about things that happen at customs. I mostly had a lot of boxes and had long since forgotten what was in them.

Itemising this stuff would have been a challenge.

Man: Did I need a guy for that! Enter Mario of Goldenbear moving.  He picked up my stuff in California and delivered it to my door in Pozos. He took care of everything that needed to be done at the border for me, no questions asked.  

Mario (r.) the guy for getting your stuff here.

So whether you have furniture that needs refinishing; clothes that need altering; or are looking for health insurance, a cell phone, or a massage, you just have to ask around because for sure someone will have a guy for that.
But now I have a dilemma.  My new old house needs a bathroom make-over. The floor is covered with death-trap high gloss tiles, the paint is peeling off the walls, and the unenclosed shower wets everything in the entire room except the person standing under it. (But it does have a lovely vintage sink.)

This great old sink will find a place in
the new bathroom

Fortunately, I know what to do because I have a guy for that in the guise of my friend Ruth, a wonderful designer. She came up with great ideas and made an architect’s rendering that I now need someone to execute. And that’s the problem. Everyone I speak to in my new home town has a guy for that. There’s a plethora of go-to guys in Pozos.

Designer "guy" Ruth came up with this incredible plan
for my bathroom. Now I just need a guy to do it.

Do I go with the guy who’s worked in the states and understands Gringoese? Or do I opt for the guy who does great work but speaks no English? Or the guy who’s apparently totally hot and who cares what he speaks? Or the one who’s really cheap? And this is a small town so will anyone be offended if I don’t choose their guy?
I need someone to help me decide what to do. Is there a guy for that?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Best Laid Plans …

So, yes, I do remember that when I sold my 80-year-old house in Los Angeles a few years ago, I went all Scarlett O’Hara and raised my fist to the sky declaring, “As God is my witness, I’ll never buy an old house again.”  

You tell 'em, girl

I have total recall of how exhilarated I felt when I got rid of most of what I owned, enabling me to fit into a 600-square-foot bungalow near the beach and being all excited because I was unencumbered and light on my feet. And how liberating it was to just call the landlord when the plumbing was acting up.
Further, it’s burned into my psyche that the most miserable I’ve ever been in my life was in the early 90s when I lived in Fawnskin, a tiny community in the San Bernardino Mountains.  After three years I hot-footed it back to Los Angeles, done with solitude, wood fires, shoveling snow and the whole damn mountain woman lifestyle.

Just in case you think I'm
making this up.

A year ago, I wholeheartedly agreed with those friends who said, "Okay, live in Mexico if you must but for heaven’s sake, don’t go and buy a house."

 “Of course not,” I said. “I’m not totally crazy.”
Do you hear God busting a gut right now?
Because what I have gone and done? Why, I’ve bought a 300-year-old colonial house, bigger than anything I’ve ever lived in before, that needs fixing and furnishing and that I’ll likely be working on for the rest of my life.

Looking at my front door from the courtyard.

The washing machine gets filled from a hose with water from an actual garden well, the house is heated only by a wood fire, and in the kitchen there’s a plastic bag duct-taped around the overhead light bulb. I can only guess the rain comes in and since clouds are gathering, I’m sure I’m about to find out. Oh, yes, and it’s in a ghost town 7,500 feet up in the Mexican highlands.

An actual well

But ohmygod, it’s so cool!
The house has bullet holes from the Mexican revolution around the 12-foot high front door, two-foot thick rock walls, and every room has French doors that open to a courtyard with pomegranate, lemon and fig trees; lavender and rosemary; succulents and cacti. Steps lead up to a roof terrace with a stunning view of the church and the town’s picturesque ruins.

My view

Golondrinas have built a nest in the entry way and it currently has babies in it (the seller tells me the swallows come back to the same spot every year). So I’ve named my new home, Casa de la Golondrina.

These sweet golondrina tiles are popular here.
I'd like to score some for my bathroom.

Gulp. This bathroom.

If you haven’t guessed yet, it’s in Pozos. I did lay down clues when I blogged about Pozos some time ago. From the moment I set foot in the town, it was almost an inevitability that I would end up there. I don’t why know; it’s just so. I looked at all the houses I could afford in town and from the moment I walked into this one, it called to me although at first I resisted. I’ve always strongly believed that buying a house is an entirely emotional decision. I’ve experienced it myself before, and I’ve seen it in other peoples’ faces when I’ve been selling. I always knew who would be the one to make an offer on the house.

Pozos rush hour.

Buying a house in Mexico is vastly different than buying in the States. There are no credit scores, mortgage applications, bank appraisals, inspections, termite reports, punch lists, disclosures, escrow, and so on and so forth. Once the buyer and seller have agreed on a price, they go to a notorio: an attorney who specializes in real estate matters. The notorio takes care of some business like a permit for foreigners, title searches and possible liens, camital gains tax if any, and then both parties sign a document that’s kind of a combination contract and deed. The buyer pays minimal closing costs, and then you make an exchange of the money and the keys! My file of paperwork for the sale of my last house in California is six inches thick. This transaction was completed in a five-page document. Of course, without all those inspections and disclosures, you are pretty much buying a pig in a poke.
But it’s so freakin’ cool!

It's really cool.

The next part of this blog is like an academy awards speech in which I thank everyone who helped make this possible. So if you are one of them, read on. If not, go and look at the pictures.
I’d like to thank Pam Ernst, Anthony Perez, and Claudine Rajah at Ameriprise in Santa Monica, California, whose brilliant handling of my retirement funds made it possible for me to take this flyer without feeling like I’ll end up in the poor house. Nick Hamblen was the realtor in Pozos who patiently showed me houses and knew this one was mine even before I did. He also held a luncheon for me at which I met the ex-pat townsfolk (yes, they fit around a table).  Sculptor John Osmond, an early adopter of Pozos, was the first person to take me there and became my go-to guy for all Pozos knowledge. The seller (I’ll respect her privacy but she can identify herself if she wants) entrusted her much loved home to me along with some of her furniture, plants, the golondrinas, and the home’s welcoming spirits (um, what now …?). Mario Ortiz at Golden Bear Moving went above and beyond anything expected of him to get my belongings out of storage in California even to meeting my brother, Jimmy, at a truckstop to pick up some additional pieces of furniture to transport to Mexico so that I’ll have my meager amount of much loved stuff in my new house very shortly. And finally, Eleanor Piazza, whom I brazenly made my sounding board about buying a house although it meant I would be vacating her casita. She good-naturedly even went looking at houses with me!
Come back next week when I'll be taking an up-close and personal look at buyer’s remorse.