Thursday, July 26, 2012

San Miguel de Allende: The City of Fallen Women Part II

A while back, I wrote about how San Miguel de Allende is known as the "city of fallen women" because its picturesque but lethal cobblestone streets and wonky sidewalks have brought many a virtuous woman to her knees. Well, it was only a matter of time, right?

The story of my fall from grace is not without some high irony. I was in San Miguel for the day from Mineral de Pozos to attend a birthday lunch for a game old girl who was turning 97.  Marie lives alone except for week day help on the outskirts of Pozos and has more energy and enthusiasm for life than most people I know a quarter of her age. She collects art, gardens, and is engaged in politics. So of course she was going to have a birthday party.

There must be something in the water in this part of Mexico; either that or it attracts a lot of Americanos with great genes because in my 60s, I was the “kid” in the room. I probably brought the average age down to about 80. And let me tell you, these geezers can really knock them back. The martinis, margaritas, and wine were flowing in abundance. As a general rule I don’t drink during the daytime because it leaves me sleepy and headachy, plus I had to get back to Pozos; so as well as being the youngest person in the room, after a while I was the only sober one.

I was a bit concerned about how some of these sweet old dears, who were half in the bag, were going to get home and was feeling a bit responsible for their safty. But that turned out to be hubris, since I was the one who ended up ignominiously sprawled all over the street on leaving the party.

Yeah, image cracking your skin on this curb.

I’m not quite sure how it happened: usually you don’t know in these cases. One minute I was upright, the next I was pitching forward and landing with my left shin on the curb. I’m not going to blame my trusty Birkenstocks because I wear them all the time without mishap.

As I sat on Calle Potranca clutching my shin with tweety birds flying in a circle around my head, all I could think was, oh no, I’ve done it again!

Several years ago I was on a hiking vacation on Vancouver Island in British Columbia (which, incidentally, is one of my favorite places on the planet). I was walking slacked jawed through the stunning old growth forest not paying a lot attention to where I placed my feet, when I lost my footing, rolled down a slope, and landed with my right shin wrapped around a moss-covered boulder.

Breathtaking Vancouver Island

You know how much it hurts when you hit your shin on the coffee table? Multiply that by infinity. That incident resulted in an ambulance ride to the emergency room and all I can say about that is, “yay for Canadian socialized medicine." I had to shell out a whopping $104 Canadian for all that treatment. It also necessitated a premature return to Los Angeles. That left me deeply disappointed as the next day I was scheduled to have the renowned afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. 

The world famous afternoon tea at the Empress in Victoria

Although I do have to say that the ride through the airport in a wheelchair, early boarding, and a bulkhead seat were some small compensation. After I got home, I spent days on excellent painkillers; weeks on crutches; and months in physical rehab.

But, painful as it was, I hadn’t inflicted anything like that kind of damage this time. I had a nasty scrape and in subsequent days my lower leg turned from black and blue to green and yellow. I might have nicked a bone because I still have a small painful lump on my shin that jars a bit when I walk. All told, though, it was just another day in colonial Mexico.

The following week I had a little birthday tea party for Marie and her Pozos girlfriends at my house. Not as impressive as the Empress, I'm sure, but a good time was had by all. And this time there was no booze and everyone managed to stay on their feet.  I’m sure Marie probably found the whole event very tame.

Marie, bottom left, at her 97th birthday tea at my house

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Pozos Story

So it was Karen’s birthday party and the town got together and decided to surprise her by turning it into a 60s theme. We all dressed up in hippie drag.

That's Mary Jane and Janice Representing
And we made 60s-style food: chicken and pineapple skewers; mac and cheese from a box; chicken wings and blue cheese dressing; onion soup and sour cream dip with potato chips; devilled eggs; three bean salad, and Ritz Crackers.

Oh, and brownies.

Despite the rainy weather, a grand time was had by all (well, except perhaps for Billy Ray but the less said about that incident the better).

The most memorable moment was when Pablo presented his wife with a birthday gift. It was a big box that he suggested she set on the ground before unwrapping it.

And when Karen opened it; up popped a chicken. It was Rudy!

The story is that Rudy was a stray rooster who hung out in their garden. Karen fed and named him. And then a few days prior to the party, he disappeared. Pablo checked around to find out if anyone had seen the missing fowl. He discovered – shock, horror! – that their neighbors had sold Rudy to a cock fighting operation.
Demonstrating that he’s up for husband of the year, Pablo found them, bought Rudy back, and brought him home to Karen. Everyone was thrilled, not the least of which was Rudy who hopped onto a wall and crowed loudly.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

The New Elizabethans

Last month saw the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne of England. I know I’m late to the party in acknowledging this, but since I don’t have television here in Mineral de Pozos, I pretty much missed the whole hoop-la. Besides, I come from a family that is not, shall we say, big time monarchists. Our working class roots run too deep, our Irish blood is too thick, and we lean a little too much to the left to really get into the spirit of a royal wing-ding.

I’m not quite as vehemently opposed to the royal family as others. I tend to think of royalty as a bit like the English version of Disneyland: they bring in tourist dollars; they are efficient at putting on great costume parades; and they have it all over Disney in that they have real castles and princesses. I can’t help thinking England would be a lot drabber without them. It does cheese me off, though; that Prince Charles (above right with his mum), who was born the same year as me, hasn’t even started his real job yet while I’ve been toiling away for the last 45 years.

Eat it Disney!

That said; I am enjoying one thing that came out of the whole jubilee to-do and that is listening to a terrific series of programs on BBC Radio 4 called The New Elizabethans. They’re doing a 15-minute broadcast every day (I get the pod-casts) for 60 days about British and British Commonwealth people who impacted the world during the 60 years of the queen’s reign.  

They started with Sir Edmund Hillary, who reached the summit of Everest with Norgay Tenzing  at the end of May 1953, but the announcement wasn’t made until the morning of June 2nd, the queen’s coronation day.

The Queen may have gotten a crown; but Tenzing and Hillary got cool decorations from the Kingdom of Nepal

Others are from the worlds of the arts: Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, and Francis Bacon, for instance.  Inevitably, they’re covering Lennon and McCartney, but more surprisingly, David Bowie. These are all people I know something about, but I’ve been really blown away by hearing about people I had no idea had affected the world in the way they did.

One is Richard Doll, who made the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Others are Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web; and Cicely Saunders, who founded the hospice movement.

Tim Berners-Lee: thanks, dude, wouldn't be here without you.

I’m a little alarmed to see Simon Cowell coming up later to the exclusion of people like Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon, who radically changed the way Brits (and the rest of the world) looked during this time. I’m sure Anita Roddick of The Body Shop is worthy, but why not Laura Ashley, who created a global clothing and decor empire? Probably everyone can come up with exclusions that irk them, but on the whole, it’s fascinating listening.

This all got me to thinking that my own life-span pretty much corresponds with the queen’s reign. She and her family have been background noise for as long as I can remember. One of my very earliest memories, when I was three, was walking with my mother in Salford, England, where I was born and seeing the little shops she frequented closed and with their windows covered in black crepe paper.  When I asked why, she told it was because the king (he of The King’s Speech fame) had died in his sleep the night before. I didn’t really grasp the concept, but I did get that something momentous had happened.

My memories from the following year, when the young queen was crowned, are inextricably tied up with my memories of us immigrating to Africa. We were actually aboard The Braemar Castle on the high seas between London and Cape Town on coronation day. But prior to that, we were caught up in the pre-coronation excitement. It was the tipping point for people in England getting television sets. Prior to the coronation, no-one in our blue-collar neighborhood had a TV; after it, almost everyone did. I saw it for the first time at a neighbor’s house just before we left (and since there was no TV in Africa, didn’t see it again for years). My last memories of our street were the red, white, and blue bunting strung from house-to-house.

This stock shot of a coronation party is on a street almost identical
 to the one we left from in Salford.

All my going-away gifts from friends and family were coronation related. Among other things, I got a picture book of the royal family, a little replica golden coach and horses, and a mug with the queen’s picture on it. Everything was lost during the many moves we made over the years.

I found a picture on Amazon of the very book I was given as a going away gift. Seeing it brough a flood of memories.

Naturally, the ship put on parties so the displaced Brits could join in the celebrations. I recall my mother getting ready for the ball. She wore a dress she had made with a silver lamé strapless sweetheart top and a huge “new look” style white tulle skirt that practically touched the walls of our little cabin. For the occasion, she pinned three red-white-and blue bows down the side of the skirt. She looked beautiful. Next day, we kids had a party with copious amounts of cake and ice cream and balloons. And they gave us all commemorative silver tea spoons. I’m sure I still have mine but I can’t find it.

The Braemar Castle docking in Cape Town after transporting us across the Atlantic from London

Does this allow me to call myself a New Elizabethan? It would make a welcome change from Baby Boomer, wouldn’t it? But, nah, I think not: it sounds kind of daft.

Monday, July 9, 2012

You Say Wimpleton; I Say Wimbledon

After a hiatus, I’m picking up my blog again and what better way than to start with a rant? Every year at this time, I have a conniption fit over how people in the American media pronounce Wimbledon. There’s no P and no T in Wimbledon: it’s not Wimpleton. I don’t know when or how this started, but it’s pervasive and people who grew hearing it on TV also say it that way.  Listen to how the tennis players and English commentators say it; they get it right.

I’ll admit that many English place names are not said they way they are spelled: Leicester, as in Leicester Square, London’s theater district, is a good case in point. It’s pronounced “Lester.” And when you talk about the popular Worcestershire sauce it should be said “Wooster.”  I can fully appreciate how Americans would come to believe that all English place names have spellings and pronunciations that don’t synch but there’s no need to over think it. There are plenty of straightforward ones, and Wimbledon is one of them. Say it with me, Wim.ble.don. Thank you.

Wimbledon station: see how it's spelled? That's how it's pronouced. 

I no longer follow Wimbledon tennis like I used to but there was a time when I lived in England that I’d be riveted to the black-and-white TV, watching Billy Jean Kingor Rod Laver tear up the court. Only once did I actually go to Wimbledon. I believe it was 1969, when these two stars were in their heyday.

I’d been living in London for a year when my dad made his first trip back to England from Africa since he’d moved there in 1952. He was a fan of all sports, especially any he could bet on, and decided he’d like to go to Wimbledon. I have no recollection of who we saw play that day, but I do have two enduring memories.

My dad and I took the tube, the easiest and quickest way to get to Wimbledon on the outskirts of London. We were not alone, the trains were packed. At one junction where we had to change to a different line, we stood on an escalator behind a gentleman dressed up in full regalia of tail coat, top hat, and cane. Clearly he was a toff headed for the Royal Box. I nudged my dad and pointed to the man’s feet. He had huge holes in the heels of his black socks clearly visible between his shiny black shoes and the hem of his striped pants. My dad roared, and enjoyed telling this story many times throughout the rest of his life.

Me and my dad that summer we went to Wimbledon

The second thing I remember was the woman fainting.  It was a particularly hot day for England and as we stood in the mob at one of the off-center-courts watching an early heat, a young woman standing near us passed out. The crowd parted then in typical English fashion pretended not to notice. My dad was the only person to squat down, put her cardigan that she’d dropped under her head, and hold her hand until the ambulance men (as paramedics were called then) came. I never said anything at the time, and now I’m sorry that it’s way too late to tell him that I was proud of him.

I could have gone to Wimbledon again as I had an “in.” In the early 1970s, my flat mate in Notting Hill, Liza, answered an ad in the paper for drivers for the fleet of cars that ferried the tennis players to and from their London hotels to Wimbledon and around town to play and site see. She did the job for years and, being a beautiful young woman, invariably got invited to the parties and balls and quite often had romances with players. (It was the 70s!) Eventually, she graduated from driving to working in the transportation office and ended up running the whole operation.


Liza and I gradually lost touch after I moved to the US in 1979. It was easy to do in the pre-internet days. But a few years ago I was feeling nostalgic and decided to try and look her up. I had no response from writing to her last known address, so decided to take a long shot and see if she still was connected with Wimbledon. I emailed the transportation office and asked if anyone there remembered her and had contact info.

It turned out that Liza had retired a couple of years before. But her daughter, who was born the year I left for the states, had taken over her job and my email reached her! Liza and I were thrilled to be back in touch and caught up with our lives via email. The next time I went to England, I got to see her. As chance would have it, she’d married a man who had a farm not far from where my mother lives in the North of England. To my eyes she looked exactly the same and we spent one afternoon in her glorious farmhouse kitchen reminiscing. But our next meeting was cancelled because she had to rush down to London as her dad had taken seriously ill, and in fact he died within days. So we didn’t see each other again on that trip.

Not long after I got back to California, Liza emailed and told me she had been diagnosed with a melanoma that had metastasized to her liver. A few months later, I heard from her daughter that she was gone. 

On one hand, I’m so glad we had that brief time together. On the other, I almost wish I hadn’t found her so I could imagine she was still out there somewhere, preserved as I’d known her:  long legs in a mini-skirt being scandalous at Wim.ble.don every year.