The good, the sweet, the poetic

The heavy-lifting of moving and setting up a household in San Miguel de Allende is done. Without a job to go to my days are my own and, while it may not last forever (what does?), it’s good to be retired. Of course there are days when I don’t know what to do with myself, though I could always dust, but I get to figure out what’s important on my own schedule.

Thus, as a means to impose self-discipline, I’m beginning Julia Cameron’s excellent course again:

We’ll see …

The Sweet

For some reason the woman who handles expat accounts at my bank and I hug each other as if we really mean it.  Today was banking day and again, we lit up on sight.  She shepherds me through the process and we kibbitz while we’re waiting in line.  Often one of us will give the other one a hug while commiserating over very hot or too cold apartments, the absurdity of computer systems on a tantrum,or the difficulties in setting aside enough money for family birthdays. I can’t help but to contrast her personality, and the authentic smiles of so many Mexicans working here, with the typically harassed attitude at many services in the states.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are plenty of sullen workers in San Miguel too, but if I can break through some of those masks I find there is a warmth of personality here that’s rather extraordinary.  Actually, it’s lovely.

The Poetic

There’s a jacaranda tree in the middle of my patio.  The last few nights the full moon has filtered through the branches to form a theatrical scrim on the flag stone. The dogs play in and out of the pale light and I imagine that they’re choreographed like Nutcracker animals. Last night, in my furry bathrobe, I twirled under the tree with them.

Until Panda grabbed the end of my sash and pulled with all his might. Trance broken, memory sealed.

Lincoln loyalty

Here’s Bella’s update:

“Well Jackie, this dog continues to amaze!  He is so loved and adored by all who meet him that I feel like I’ve got the next dalai lama in my care.  His sweetness reigns, but he is definitely feeling more confident and I have to really keep an eye on who’s wearing the leader hat.  I’ve given in on him sleeping in my bed (think you saw photographic evidence in my last letter!) although he tends towards the foot of it and still spends a good chunk on the floor.  And he hops up on any couch he feels like….since he doesnt shed it doesnt bother me, and he feels so much like a family member—dont think it wil be a big issue because, honestly he prefers the floor (unless I have company and then he wants to sit up with the big people)  He just not an abuser of his privileges and so it’s easy to extend them. Plus his FACE could launch a 1000 ships!”

I’d say we have a successful adoption, eh?

In other news, our house guest Panda has turned out to be an uber-barker, nipper, chewer, and champion chow-hound who would bring down a buffalo if it was bleeding. Just like all the other 8-month old puppies out there, he bears constant watching.

Fortunately Mia treats him like the puppy he is, and most fortunately for him he backs off when she lowers the boom.

Now if I could only train him not to bark at every frigging sound.

Argggh.

Six months in San Miguel de Allende: Water

“By the way,” I ask brightly, “how’s the water pressure at your place?”

I *wish* I had this much pressure!

Nine out of ten people smile wryly, arch an eyebrow, or heave a small sigh.  Granted, I haven’t taken a scientific survey, but here are some explanations I’ve been offered:

“Welcome to the third world.”

“Well, you see, in the non-industrialized nations the water systems are built on the principle of gravity. Most people have their water tank on their roof …”  [Not being a water systems engineer, this doesn’t seem helpful because it makes me think the water should come down harder.]”

“There are so many minerals in San Miguel’s water, maybe the pipe is clogged.” [Hidden costs alert – your landlord will not investigate or clean your pipe.]

And from my Mexican neighbors across the street, wry smile, arched eyebrow and small sigh combined. “Our shower is… o.k., but we only get a trickle out of our sinks.”

It’s the little things that getcha.

Like not having a decent shower for six months, or the mineral content in San Miguel’s water.

The get-around for the water scale on your glasses, dishes, and silverware is to dry everything pronto, but not like you’ve dried anywhere else.  You’ve got to polish this stuff or you’ve got scale.  If you miss, you’re into the vinegar soak – which is something you have to do with your shower head at least once a month. And don’t forget, you’re washing yourself with this water.  I hear about people searching for water softeners and ‘magic’ shower filters all the time.  None of them seem to work. There’s a Big Business in skin creams and hair conditioners here.

You, or your laundromat are washing your clothes with this water.  Be prepared for the fade-out of color in quick order.  In answer to what clothing people should bring down, one woman wrote: “Just bring grey. That’s what everything will look like once you’ve been here for a few months anyway.”

Oh, I know that’s harsh!  But, there’s a grain of truth in every exaggeration.

Of course, you can’t actually drink this water. [Old hands say they do, have never suffered ill effects, and think the rest of us are wusses. But, I have enough health issues.]  Nor can you wash your produce in it. Instead you buy bottled water to drink and wash your produce in a colloidal silver solution.

Sold in most tiendas and all super mercados, a few drops will wash a head of lettuce. If you dare.

You must also choose whether to rinse your toothbrush in a glass of purchased water or a glass of tap water dosed with Microdyn. [I’ve been advised to avoid getting shower water in my mouth, but with my shower pressure that’s just not an issue.] I solve the toothbrush thing by buying lots of toothbrushes because I never feel like swishing them around in a glass gets them clean.

Of course, the well-to-do among us solve the water woes by building or renovating their homes with spanky-new whole-house water systems.  They use ozone-kill-it-all thingys, super-duper gravity pumps, and reverse-osmosis stuff.  But if you’re coming to Mexico on a pauper’s budget like me, be prepared to develop an entirely new relationship with water.

Did I know all of this before I made the move?  Well, except for the part where so-very-few Mexican rentals have water pressure, yes I did. Did I resolve to make the trade-off between having more locally grown food and being fearful of the bacteria I’d have to scrub off before I ate it? Yes, I did.

Did I understand how privileged I was to have abundant, clean water back home?

No.  I didn’t.

But, I do now.

P.S.  These are the trade-offs that people make to live in a relatively peaceful place with a temperate climate.  Over time I’m sure the water trade-offs become second nature.  It’s good to remember, and remind myself, that I’m writing at a six month evaluation point where indeed, it’s the little things that will getcha.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mia has a puppy!

Well, he’s not really our puppy.  We’re taking care of him until December 5 when his foster mom Maureen returns from vacation.

Panda is his name and puppy is his game.  He’s 8 months old, maybe 25 lbs., and in that gangly teenage stage where he trips over his own paws trying to get Mia’s cookie.  This I warn him sternly is not a good game plan.  She may be tolerant with the puppy play, but she will not brook f#^&ng with her food.

Mom … tell him he can’t have my toys either!

I’ve had to put the toys on top of the refrigerator.

Still, Mia lets him nip, bite, chase, paw, and wrestle with her and seems to enjoy it.

She does not let gender roles get in the way, and gives as good as she gets.

[Yes, their absolute favorite place to play is on my bed.]

Your bed? Nah ah. Our ring. Wanna play too?

Maureen rescued Panda from a bad situation 3 months ago.  She can’t keep him and it’s a damn shame that someone doesn’t adopt him *right this minute* because he’s prime material.  He’s so eager to please, and so wants affection, that he learns almost immediately.  I say almost because he will chew a shoe, but whaddya want from a puppy?

Me? Chew on your embroidered pillows? I thought they were stuffed toys.

And, he’s such an elegant little guy.  Maybe, with the spots, there’s some Dalmatian in that lineage, but I keep thinking Whippet (or some such) for his long legs and slender frame. Whatever it is, he’s got natural kohl around his eyes and the most stunning snow-white eyelashes.  It isn’t fair!

I’m quite proud of Mia’s ‘mommy’ ‘tude.  Let’s face it, puppies can be annoying, especially when they worm between you and your Mom when she comes home and you’re the one who is ecstatic to see her because you were here first

He just a puppy, but he CANNOT have my toys.

I know Mi, but then again, as long as he’s here, neither can you.

Ah, the dog follies. Ya gotta love ’em.

Alright, you two, let’s take that outside!

 

P.S.  You probably can’t tell, but Mia has stopped shedding and her new coat is the most glorious, glossy, velvety fur you’ll ever run your hands through.  She’s like hugging your very own Velveteen Rabbit now.  Most delicious.

Six months in San Miguel de Allende: Dust

It’s a pretty town.  The dead-center is anchored by the cathedral ‘La Parroquia’ and El Jardin, a garden plaza where on an average day people sit around reading their newspapers and chatting or, on many days, enjoying a local festival unreeling in front of their eyes.  Tourists stroll, people walk their dogs, Mexican families buy balloons for their kids, teens flirt.

There are some charming neighborhoods radiating out from el Centro, but few can afford them. In normal neighborhoods not manicured for the real estate market there are charming streets. An ordinary block can suddenly turn lush because gardens are spilling over a wall.  But, mostly San Miguel de Allende is a small city of brick and cinder block houses of no particular charm where Mexican families eke out an unsatisfactory living, as does most of the nation.

… on the street where I live

That blue sky is what attracts a lot of Americans here, and what keeps a lot of Americans looking for a way to maintain themselves beneath it.  For the most part, San Miguel de Allende has a lovely, high desert climate that slashes utility bills, though I’ll talk about the climate’s hidden costs.

So, with a lovely center city, a vibrant arts scene, and a near-perfect climate, what’s not to like?

Before I say anything else, I must say that the single most important fact that has me re-evaluating my decision to move to San Miguel has nothing to do with San Miguel de Allende itself. It has everything to do with being an aging ex-pat on a slim budget that, after six months in Mexico, is rapidly revealing itself as inadequate for the costs of health care.  In this case, whether inside America, or outside its borders, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

But, back to San Miguel.

If you grew up in the American southwest, say Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, even parts of southern or inland California, the geology, fauna and flora of interior Mexico is going to look mighty familiar.  Same Bougainvillea climbing adobe and concrete walls, same mesquite twisting in the wind, same arthropods trying to sting you. Sans the color combinations Mexico is so justly famous for on its buildings and in its textiles, same dust blowing in your face.

I was in a cab the other day exchanging the usual pleasantries.  The driver told me he’d lived in Mississippi for several years which immediately brought us to humidity, my personal weather yuck factor. We both agreed that San Miguel is better than Mississippi because it’s so dry.  Then he said, “But, we have the dust.”

 

It seems like such a small thing, doesn’t it?  But dust, or as I see it, small particles of dirt, is everywhere.  Mexicans lament it and live with it, but at this point, I’m not sure if I want to.

If I hit the arm pillow on my couch in a fit of laughter dust rises into the air exactly as if I hadn’t used a hand vac on that pillow 2 hours ago.  When I’m walking down my street and a car comes through the dust swirls off the pavement to mix with the gas fumes and I hold my breath.  Outside, the dust permeates my clothes and – hidden costs time – I send everything to the laundromat after one wear.  In principle plazas where buses turn around I’ve seen dirt blow in billows and turned back from my route to take another way.  And kids, I haven’t lived here during the really dry season in April and May.

There is probably a way to minimize the dust problem in San Miguel. Be able to afford a well built home with an air filter system installed. Have a maid come regularly. For god’s sake, don’t take buses.  Live on a street with more plants and trees. Or, since we all agree that no place is paradise and that San Miguel de Allende has a lot to offer, and everyone has a different tolerance level for dirt, learn to live with it.

But …. I’m at the six month re-evaluation point and this is a blog for friends both here and in the USA, as well as people who are thinking about making the move.  If you’re one of the latter, you might want to think about the labor costs and laundry bills you’ll have in keeping your home and clothing relatively clean.  (Setting aside respiratory problems you may already possess.)

Which brings me to water.

Soon.

 

 

New rules: $1,950.00 US per month to (legally) live in Mexico

And, you’re going to have to provide proof via social security, pension papers, and/or investment income for at least six months prior to  your application for residency.

For Americans retiring on the *average* social security of $1,200 a month [the sum required prior to November 9] the situation is similar to what happened to many of them during their employment years:

Of course, nations have every right to set their minimum residency requirements wherever they like.  For the not-so-well-off (a number that will surely decrease in San Miguel de Allende as the new rules go into effect) the big discussion is why Mexico jumped $750.00 US per month or, as some of us old business women like to calculate it, $9,000.00 a year in additional income?

I have my suspicions.

I’ve heard it called the Grey Wave and the Silver Tsunami, but in the U.S. it’s a demographic boom(er) bulge that’s begun to leave the workforce – sometimes by choice but, as economics stand in America, mostly by …. not ‘choice’. [You can fill in those blanks, eh?]  No longer able to bear market-rate rents, mortgages and/or utility costs pretty much anywhere in the U.S., they’re looking south for a place in the sun. I think Mexico’s actuarial talent has seen those crinkly eyes looking down this way and said,

“Um. No.”

Let’s face it.  Medicare is not portable, and god knows there’s no such thing as an affordable ex-pat insurance policy.  With the *average* social security check, at some point the Silver Tsunami previously looking at Mexico will face self-pay.  No Mexican healthcare provider – doctor, nurse, hospital, clinic – will extend credit, and I think Mexico has decided to nip that right in the bud. Along with the burial costs.

There are a lot of other wrinkles in the new rules and if you think you’d like to explore them I’d recommend Rollybrook’s “My Life in Mexico”web pages.  He’s carved out a decent reputation posting helpful advice:

http://rollybrook.com/Page%20Directory.htm

As for me ….. on this day and this moment in time it looks like I can renew my legal residency in May for an additional three years -with only a letter in Spanish that stipulates I’m here at the income level under which I applied (ye olde *average* social security check).  But on the fourth year I’ll have to prove that I have the additional $750.00 a month required.  At that point:

Please don’t think that I blame Mexico for changing its mind.  (A) It’s a sovereign nation and (B) its gotten screwed over enough times by North America that a little pay-back could be seen as poetic justice.

The other part of this is that I’m at the been-here-six-months evaluation point.

More about that to come …..

Reflections on Mexico’s ‘Dias de los Muertos’

Recently a Mexican man wrote into one of the online lists in San Miguel de Allende & settled it for me.  I’ll paraphrase:

“We live near El Jardin and took a lot of time to set our altar up at home, looking forward to a simple celebration with family and friends. Then the rock music concert started, lasting all day and far into the night.  Needless to say, our family time was ruined.”

Obviously, there’s a tension between private ritual and public celebration surrounding the Days of the Dead among Mexicans.  During my experience, and now some two weeks after the fact, I find that I fall squarely on the side of private ritual.

Despite the fact that I was surrounded by flower and candy merchants for a week leading up to the event,

was mildly confused by the melding of Halloween and Dias de los Muertos dress-up parades

found the images of the clean-swept and decorated Mexican cemeteries hauntingly beautiful,

and knew that a new festival inaugurated itself this year to “put San Miguel de Allende” on the Day of the Dead Map worldwide,

I couldn’t shake the feeling that, because I am a person with no skin in the Mexican Days of the Dead game, just by walking around and observing I was intruding on something intensely personal.

Mexico has designed a delicate dance between Eros and Thanatos, and it is part public bacchanal. But, somewhere at its core is a private ritual for individual families into which, as a foreigner, I just don’t want to inject myself.

For me, that meant an attitude of respect, and a disinclination to join in the public hoopla.

Because …. it kinda feels like crashing a wedding, or going to a funeral just for the food. What’s up with THAT?

 

 

 

 

 

The loneliness of the aging ex-pat

Well, we might as well get this out in the open, though by its existential nature there won’t be any easy answers.

As a woman who’s kept her eye on sociology for many a decade, the thudding proclamations that “Loneliness kills” have not escaped my notice.  And, I agree: it is surely a blessing to be surrounded by one’s children, family, and dear friends in old age, much less on one’s deathbed – as cultural imagery has hammered into our consciousness:

Undoubtedly most of us now in our 60s hoped that our lives would be enriched by a happy, extended family and a loving partner. But, at least in the U.S., an increasing number of us are facing old age alone. Ever the capitalists, America’s marketers are hard at work tapping this new market:

http://finance.fortune.cnn.com/2012/01/25/eric-klinenberg-going-solo/

Speaking only for myself, I would say that a combination of an unconventional (yes, rebellious) temperament, coupled with intellectual curiosity and the political times I came of age within, set a course that dictated I would (take the chance) of going it alone.

Yup, I was in that 1970’s crowd of second-wave feminists fighting for equal pay for equal work and all the other fine ideals a minority of my generation struggled to bring into fruition. Did it take courage and bravery to deliberately place myself in opposition to my culture?  Some people say it did, but I’ve always thought it was the only intellectually honest thing I could do, though I knew at a young age what it might cost. So yes, I paid the piper.

Oh, don’t get me wrong – I was as romantic as any one else, and positively pined for my soul mate.  In fact, I was probably more romantic than most, since I imposed decades of self-suffering on myself as that particular brass ring slipped out of my fingers again and again.  But over time, I got used to being alone.

What I didn’t count on is the fact that the piercing loneliness of ‘marching to my own drummer’ within my own culture would be so wildly amplified by moving to a foreign country. You’ll say I ‘should’ have known, and I’ll agree with you.  But there is a vast chasm between knowing something intellectually and actually experiencing it. The experience is where I am now.

On its own, aging is a series of losses for which we grieve secretly at best.  Friendships fray, our physical powers decline, death claims our loved ones, ambition gives way to a lack of time in which it can be realized. Ha!  As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, ” … let me count the ways.”  [This is NOT the post where I’ll be enumerating the gifts of aging, so do what you must.] Most of us will absorb the blows and find creative ways to come to terms with mortality.  On occasion we will be so wracked by loss, and so horrified at the prospect of what is to come, that we’ll be seized by a moment of rational lucidity and consider bringing the story to a close.

There.  I said it.  And on top of that, I think it’s a perfectly normal response all human beings experience as they face old age.

What I’d like to communicate is that the existential pain of human loneliness can be ramped up exponentially when one places oneself in a foreign culture, and I don’t particularly care what foreign culture it is.

Everything familiar is gone.  And, if you’re anything like me, you have no idea how much comfort you get from even the stupid things you once bitched about in your own culture.  Like a quick trip to Mickey D’s for a bad-bad-bad-for-you strawberry milk shake.

I’m told that I am going through a phase, a stage if you will, that given time will pass, and I believe it.  ‘Life’ moves in forward motion. Its propulsion carries us through adjustments and compromises, depositing us whither we do not know, but definitely on the other side. It’s just that if you are reading this with an eye towards moving out of your own culture at an advanced age, you may gain some slight advantage by contemplating how you will deal with a form of loneliness you haven’t given much thought to.

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Before anyone writes to tell me about all the positive ways that loneliness can be brought to heel – volunteering being of primary essence – let me say quickly that this isn’t what this post is about. No matter the spiritual challenge we face at any time in our lives, ultimately we come to grips with it in the silence of our own personal mid nights. This is just a peek into mine, which I suspect is not so terribly different from yours, and is part of the journey you’ve been taking with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reality … as tough as ever

For those of you who followed me down to San Miguel de Allende it probably won’t come as a big surprise to learn that the honeymoon is over.  True to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the one book I always have with me,

and despite a lot of wishful thinking, I did not leave my troubles behind.  Ha ha ha.  Big surprise, eh?  But, here it comes:

Setting aside the loneliness of the aging ex-pat in a foreign country, the biggest trouble that keeps me up at night in San Miguel is health care and money.

Granted that while in the U.S. these are thoughts that focus the mind, ultimately we know that the worst probable outcome ‘back home’ is that we’ll be driven into bankruptcy. [This is happening so frequently in the U.S. that the moral tarnish is gone. Now, a reasonable financial plan for the sick and elderly is to set aside money for the bankruptcy attorney every 10 years and get on with it.]

To Mexico’s credit, there is a floor here through which no one will sink. Ex-pats with residency qualify for “Seguro Popular”, the national health care plan, at a ridiculously low fee – if not free.  Seguro Popular is, and should be treated as, catastrophic coverage: if you break your leg in the middle of the street you will have your femur set. (Obtaining adequate pain relief is another matter.)

But, you’ve heard the expression “Medicine is more of an art than a science.”  If you are in Mexico with any kind of a ‘medical mystery’ requiring diagnostics, tests and specialists, you are going to face the self-pay equation.  In most cases, a good doctor is going to cost much less than the U.S., but some of us are going to hit the self-pay wall sooner than later.  While I’m not sure whether you’d be put in jail for failure to pay, I do know there is no reset button for your debt.

There’s another *huge* part to this.  If you think it’s difficult to understand your medical results in the U.S., imagine getting them in a foreign language.  Imagine being in a crisis situation and trying to communicate with the attending surgeon. Imagine trying to tell your nurse that you need more pain medication.  Imagine ….

Oh, don’t bother.  I’m imagining all of this for you …

And so, after the huge effort of making the transition, finding a place to live, exploring my new surroundings, and learning where I can buy salted butter, it’s s~l~o~w~l~y dawning on me that at my age I may not have enough time, or brain-power, left to sock ‘fluent in Spanish’ under my accomplishment belt.  Without the resources to hire a translator, I so do NOT want to find myself in a health crisis here.

Ouch.

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When I started this journey I wanted to know if it would be possible to retire [in a stimulating environment] south of the border on an average social security. After five and a half months, I still don’t know whether that’s a realistic figure in San Miguel de Allende.  I’m told that some people manage on much less.  For me, there’s been just enough of a financial surprise each month to push me past my budget, but not by much and, perhaps, not irrevocably.  In fact, it may indeed be possible to live la vida bonita here on that sum – as long as you are healthy.

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You should know that all of this will become a moot point at some time in the future because of the new Mexican income requirements. But more of that later.

For now, if it’s any help to older Americans thinking about the move, think long and hard about giving up the crap health-care that Medicare currently provides.  And, fight like hell against the “Grand Bargain” about to brokered in Washington, or you too may find yourself having … restless nights.