Tuesday, June 28, 2011

June 28: Proud new owners

I am happy to announce that for the first time in my life I am officially a Grande Dame, defined as owning more than one house.  Like rich people, we own a house on Camano Island and another in San Miguel de Allende.

We bought Sleeping Beauty's Castle yesterday -- forked over a total of $160,000 at the notario's office.  Part of the procedure is that a translator is required, and the translator read us in English the entire purchase contract, written in Spanish.  Then I spent an hour and a half in the bank waiting for the paperwork to wire the money (less the real estate commission) to the seller in Austin, TX -- paperwork they had been informed of several days earlier.  It's best not to expect efficiency.  In the meantime, I and the two real estate agents had a very pleasant conversation.  I discovered that the seller's agent is quite a musician and is on the Board of Pro Musica here in town, an organization that imports first-class chamber musicians for a series of 10 to 15 concerts a year.  He was delighted to know I had contributed money to Pro Musica and performed choral music in Carnegie Hall in New York, and I was delighted to know that he's not only on the Board but also writes all their very impressive program notes.  A good new friend!

We have realized we are sort of sorry we saved $650 by getting a permiso from the Mexican government to buy the house in only one name and not two.  It's now in my name only, with Rick officially included in the deed as life tenant and beneficiary, but it feels worse than we both though not to have both names on the deed.  We might change that:  the hell with the $650.

Part II of buying a house here is to receive confirmation that the wired money has been received, only after which could we return to to the notario's office (I was so pleased that this was a young woman) to get the deed with her signature.  We did that this morning and then went to the electricity office and the water office to change the name on the accounts.  At each place they required a copy of the deed (!) and of my visa.  At the electricity office they told us we'd be charged the change fee on the next bill, but the clerk couldn't give us any kind of receipt.  Instead he turned his computer screen toward us and showed us where my name was on the screen.  Then at the water office, they charged us 42 pesos to make the change, about $4, but were unable to deliver the bills to where we are living now until we move: the bills are delivered to each house by hand, and the two addresses are not in the same route.  Complete impossibility.  Isn't this fascinating?!

Another thing we did today was to see the work of one of the two contractors at the top of our list, and it was lovely.  This contractor, Gerardo Peralta, has been our friend since we moved here and we were determined that if he turned out to do our work it would be because he earned it, not because he is our friend.  It has made for some uncomfortable moments, for sure.  But Gerardo submitted the lowest and the most thoroughly planned bid (the lowest was not in itself the clincher, not by a long shot), and we have full faith and trust in his honesty and determination to do a wonderful job.  He very definitely earned it.  We will have the first meeting with him and Pedro, the maestro, on Thursday, and hope the work can start Friday or Monday.

So:  we bought the property for $160,000 and Gerardo's bid is for $56,750 including the pool (and its solar heaters) but not including things we'll choose such as tiles or light fixtures.   Plus furniture, etc., and we will have two houses and a guest suite, fully furnished, for well under $300,000.  Isn't that amazing? I am sure that when the work is done, if we were to put it on the market the price would easily be above $400,000, something we could never have afforded.  So far, so good!

Tomorrow, think of us between 4:00 and 6:00 Central Daylight Time:  we will be drinking champagne with friends at the new place!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June 22

Hola, everyone

The day before yesterday it finally rained here in San Miguel.  The daytime temperature in most of June was back into the low 90s and you cannot believe how sick and tired I was of the weather.  In addition, the house we are in has no screen doors, so if we want the cool night air in the house we also get, at no extra charge, tons of mosquitoes and flies.  Do you know how revolting it is to have bugs in your kitchen???  However, thanks to the hurricane on Mexico's Pacific Coast two days ago, we had a dramatic jump start to the rainy season.  The temperature dropped instantly by 10 degrees.  Today it is cloudy and cool, just perfect weather for a Pacific Northwest girl.  I am much happier!

The deadline for the five contractors supposedly preparing fixed-price and fixed-deadline bids is in two days.  This morning we got the first bid and it is very good news.  It is from the contractor many Americans here work with, and I have been told by two people who have hired him that he does excellent work but he is very expensive.  I have been hoping that all this work would cost less than $100,000 -- including the pool! -- and the expensive contractor submitted a bid for about $91,000.  So we will likely wind up going with another contractor for less.  Think of it:  two houses, a separate guest room, a pool, and two tall trees for $160,000 plus under $90,000 for renovations!  Lovely arithmetic.  The closing date is Monday; next week we'll go to see some houses that the top contractors built and then will choose one and start the work.

One sad thing.  My friend and cooking teacher, Yurina, will be moving to Cuernavaca, a city an hour south of Mexico City (and therefore about 4 or 5 hours from San Miguel), next month to take a job there.  No more cooking lessons, no more recipes!  Que lastima!  (What a pity!)

As usual, it's fiesta time in San Miguel.  There has been a lot of discussion lately on the San Miguel Civil List, a website for people to ask and answer questions and to discuss various aspects of life here, about fireworks. San Miguelenses love fireworks.  Not just fireworks, but anything that goes BOOM.  Church bells are everywhere and they are augmented many times by a huge variety of noise-making devices.  Some of them sound like small bombs to me, but hey, I love the cheerfulness of it.  Some people have been complaining about the predilection for 5 AM fireworks, for reasons that utterly escape me.  There was an article in AtenciĆ³n, the local bilingual paper, that said that some fireworks are from the families of people recently deceased, to announce to God and the angels that their Dear One is arriving soon.  Isn't that terrific?!

The most recent festival, this past Sunday, was El Dia de los Locos:  the Day of the Crazies.  It's sort of like a Rio de Janeiro Carneval, a Philadelphia Mummer's Parade, and a Seattle Solstice Parade all combined.  There are thousands (the paper said ten thousand!) of people who marched in it, dressed in nutso costumes either in groups or as individuals, and zillions more watching.  People come from many cities within a few hours of San Miguel to watch, to say nothing of this entire town's population.  They start lining up hours earlier -- and remember, it's early afternoon, full sun, and temperature above 90!

Groups were generally preceded by vehicles with large signs announcing the group's identity, often neighborhood-based.

Many small children marched.  I love the brilliant Mexican colors.

And many grownups did too.  I am told that some people had managed to gussy up a burro to march in high heels, and am so sorry I missed that.  I think one of the abiding objects of interest in San Miguel is watching women walk in 5" spike heels on the cobblestones.  It's not even a rare sight!

Part of the fun of the parade is that the participants throw dulces -- candy -- to the onlookers.  Some onlookers apparently decided they wanted dulces more than they wanted to be out of the sun.

One of my favorite marchers was this woman, who from her accent was American.  Carnitas are sort of pulled pork, eaten (naturally) in a taco.  Que ricas carnitas = how delicious carnitas is/are!

To conclude today's entertainment, here is something I found on the Civil List recently.


An American was thinking of visiting San Miguel de Allende but he was afraid. He contacted a native of SMA, saying he had some questions.

The American said, "I'm afraid to travel to central Mexico.  Is there drug cartel violence in San Miguel?"

The SMA native replied, "No, most of the drug cartel violence is along the border with your country."

"What about earthquakes, then?" asked the American. "I hear there have been some bad ones in Mexico."

"Yes," said the SMA native, "but we don't have earthquakes in San Miguel.  Most of the earthquake activity is around Mexico City."

"Hmmm," said the American, "I've read about the devastating hurricanes you have there during the summer, though.  I'm very concerned about that."

"No," said the SMA native, "We're located in the center of the country; the hurricanes occur along our coasts. The hurricanes bring us rain but we're are grateful for that.  We need the rain."

"Well," said the American, "then you must have TORNADOES!"

"No, no," said the SMA native, "We're located in the mountains and it's very dry and warm here in the spring. We don't have the weather conditions for tornadoes here."

By this time, the American was becoming exasperated. In the States, news reports were filled with all the terrible things happening in Mexico. "Well, look," he said, "San Miguel de Allende must have SOMETHING."

"We do," the SMA native replied.  "Fiestas."

Sunday, June 5, 2011

June 5: photos of Sleeping Beauty's castle

This post will consist mostly of real estate stuff and kitten stuff, in all likelihood far more than most of you want to know.  No cooking lesson last week, so no recipes.  If you are bored by one or both subjects, fair warning!  And this is a long post:  many pictures.

Three days ago we paid 10% down on the house we are buying: US$16,000.  I have to tell you how we got the money together.

We had been told that we would need a cashier's check in dollars because the seller is an American in Texas, and Intercam, an investment firm, is one of two places in San Miguel that can do that.  First, we closed two checking accounts and a savings account at Scotia Bank because we were not happy with its policies (imagine having to come back the next day to transfer money if you come after 1:30 PM!  etc.)  Closing the accounts took over an hour.  We took 66,000 pesos -- about $5,700 -- in a cashier's check made out to me to Intercam to open an account there with it.  The agent, a lovely person, regretfully pointed out that the cashier's check had to be made out to them, not to me.  So back we went to Scotia Bank, prepared for another charge of $12 for another cashier's check.  No such luck.  Because we no longer had an account at Scotia Bank (typical) they would not issue me another cashier's check for love or money.  So we cashed the one we had into an unbelievable pile of paper money, about 8 inches high.  Of course the teller had to count it at least twice, and we counted it, which took the better part of an hour.  We carried cash worth over $5,700 across town back to Intercam.  The agent was really regretful this time:  there is a 3% tax on cash over I forget how much, but we were over it.  This is a national regulation that is supposed to discourage narcos from depositing their ill-gotten gains.  We had no choice but to pay it, so that cashier's check cost us nearly $200, and the whole process took over 3 hours.  The rest of the money was wired from our bank on Camano Island with no drama, so Friday we paid our deposit.

This weekend we were at the house measuring and noting zillions of things to be fixed, and I finally took pictures for you.  Remember that I call it Sleeping Beauty's castle -- at the end of her 20-year sleep -- for a good reason.  It is the same reason we managed to get this place, consisting of three buildings and a good-sized lot, 60' X 90', for as little as $160,000.  Here goes!

First, the view as you come in the door from the street, specifically the place for the car.  The overgrown area is between the two houses.  Mine, the casa, is to the left; Rick's, the casita, is to the right.

From the other side you can see the rusted metal garage door, which has a cutout for very short people to enter.  It will all be replaced.  In the left rear are laundry sinks complete with concrete washboard; they will come out and we'll put the washer and dryer there under a shed roof.

Then, my casa.  The living room, with lovely windows but a floor that will have to be redone.  The thing on the wall to the left is a gas heater:  no central heating in Mexican houses!

And for a reason I can't fathom, a sink on the other side of the living room, which will obviously come out.  Notice the elegance of the brick supports, too.

The room behind it will become the kitchen.  Isn't the floor lovely?

Behind the kitchen but entirely separate from the entire first floor with only an outside entrance (!) is what will become my study.  We'll have to make a doorway between the kitchen and the study, which will be to the left in the back.  That's a gas heater on the back wall.  I am delighted with the pillars, shelves, and archway!

Then you go upstairs, and the only way to do that is on exterior stairs which are now open to the sky (and rain when it comes) but will be roofed in and lighted.  First is the room which will be a dressing room / sewing room. 

The derelict armoire will be tossed.  You're looking at a couple of walls in the back of the room which are only clutter and will be removed.  Then my bedroom with huge glass windows in two walls and a door, to the right in the picture below, to the upper patio in a third wall.

Out the door from the bedroom, to the left of the picture above but not shown, is a long narrow porch, with no railings on part of it.  It will all be screened and fenced in.  The end you see here will become my summer sleeping area; behind the end where I stood to take the picture will have an outdoor shower.

And the bathroom, which has lovely light,

but is breathtaking in its current stupid layout:  see below.  That will all be changed.  The tub will be changed to a shower, too.

Now to Rick's casita.   It consists of three rooms, shotgun style.  It is in better shape than the casa, having been lived in more recently, but would you want your kitchen in your living room?  The room behind it, through the doorway at right, will become the kitchen.  We'll also knock down part of the rear wall between the living room and the kitchen to make more light in the kitchen, since most of the light is from the front of the living room.

Here's the front of the living room, with its wall of glass windows and a door.

There isn't much to see in what will become the kitchen other than the gas heater, which by now you can recognize.

And through the doorway at the back of the kitchen, you can see what will become his bedroom.  The two high windows open onto the street.  They will be enlarged a little, not too much considering security.  To the right of the wall below, but not shown, is the bathroom.  Small and dirty white:  to be retiled.

All along the casita next to the living room and kitchen is a 30' covered walkway about 8' wide.  We'll screen in one end of it to make a sleeping porch.  Sorry, I forgot to take a picture of it.

Now back to my house.  Here is the patio in front of my living room, to the rear of the property and facing north.  The tiles will all have to be refinished.

And looking over the edge of the patio (from the upstairs sleeping porch) is the hole in the ground which will become the pool, pretty much delineated by the line you see in bricks.  Why the line is there I have no idea.  The plan is for the pool to be cheaper because essentially it can be an above-ground pool, and its lip will be level with the patio.  (Under the patio is even a storage room.)

In the space between the two houses is a lot of very overgrown and messy greenery, with vines growing like mad in the trees.  This is a picture of one of the two huge jacaranda trees, which make gorgeous purple flowers in March and April.

Last, here's where you'll stay when you visit.  It is now pretty disgusting.  Outside the window and behind the wall you see out there is what has been described as a "servant's bathroom" -- a filthy toilet and a filthy sink.  At least there's plumbing.  It will be expanded, with a doorway to the guest room broken through the wall to the right of the window.

And on the other side of the room now is -- you guessed it -- what was once decrepit sink.  I don't know what the fixation was with sinks in this place.  And please note the beautiful floor:  peeling, pitted concrete.

When you come I hope you'll remember how awful it is now so that you can better appreciate how beautiful it will be.

Most of the rooms are good in terms of size.  Here are the measurements I took.


Living room            21’ 11” x 12’ 9”
Kitchen                   12’ 0” x 11’ 10”
Pantry                      7’ 3” x 7’ 10”  (now a full bath behind the kitchen; not needed as such)
Study                      17’ 0” x 8’ 8”
Powder room           6’ 8” x 3’ 4”   (now a full bath off the study; will remove shower)  
Dressing/sewing room         19’ 1” x 8’ 5”
Bedroom                 13’ 4” x 16’ 0”
Sleeping porch         21’ 9” x 6’ 9”


Living room         17’ 8” x 11’ 2”
Kitchen                13’ 0” x 11’ 2”
Bedroom              13’ 0” x 11’ 5”
Bathroom             8’ 9” x 5’ 8”
Hallway               3’ 1” x 6’ 6”

Guest room

15’ 5” x 12’ 3”

Closing is June 27.  I have been working hard on lists of work to be done, and it goes on for pages and pages.  The plan is to have several contractors in this week or next and get firm bids and timelines from them.  We'll choose one and start work as soon as we can after June 27.  Contractors who visited before we bought it suggested it would take from 3 to 6 months to finish the work, so we hope to be moved in before the new year.  We'll leave the garden mess for later.

Now, kittens!  

You may recall that our housekeeper showed up with three kittens some weeks ago:  she knew I wanted kittens and her friend's cat had recently had a litter.  I certainly wasn't aiming for three, however, and I guess I should be grateful the mother cat didn't have six kittens.  Nor did I want three so young:  they were maybe 4 or 5 weeks old.  But there they were.

We've had them now for what, 4 or 5 weeks?  More?  They are now completely used to our dog Mela and she to them, and they are finally getting comfortable enough with us (we feed them, dammit!) to snuggle on our laps.  Which is, to my mind, the biggest reason to have a cat.  Reading a book without a cat on your lap is an inadequate experience.  Their names are all Spanish verbs:  Ser, to be/permanent; Estar, to be/temporary; and Hacer, to make or to do.  As is Mela, all three are chicas (girls), so there's a lot of estrogen in this house.

Here is Ser, the bravest of the three.

And Ser's two sisters, Hacer to the left and Estar to the right.

Because they were too young when they were brought to us, it is pathetic to see that Ser and Estar sometimes nurse at their sister, Hacer, who is moreover the littlest of the three.  I don't suppose they get much milk.

The only other thing I wanted to tell you tonight is that we have finally had a week of respite from temperatures in the 90s pretty much throughout April and May, but still with no rain.  To a Seattle girl the heat has been excruciating.  Air conditioners are extremely rare, so the only relief we had was to go to a public pool a few times.  At night we slept with multiple fans, and got up several times to take cool showers.  People insisted it was unusually hot, but that was no help.  It was so bad that frankly if we had come to San Miguel only in April and May of this year, I would not have wanted to move here.  But we are here now and we are moving to a house with superb breezes, probably because it's on a hill -- the view from the patio looking toward the center of San Miguel is below -- and the garden between the two houses is shady and actually makes a kind of wind tunnel.  Moreover, the orientation of the house is north, which will help a lot.

So with the weather advantages of the new house and with the pool, we should be in fine shape for all future horrendous heat.

Our adventure progresses!