Here is your weird Mexico fact of the day. Mexicans, when smelling a flower, do not put their noses to it as we do. Taught as children that this is dangerous because they could inhale animalitos, they smell a flower from its side. And how do I know this? Elvira, my Spanish teacher, is a font of fascinating glimpses into formal and informal Mexico.
For the first time since I've been in Mexico I roasted a chicken in the oven the other day. I bought the chicken, un pollo completo, at my favorite chicken shop a block away at the mercado. An old man and presumably his son know me by now. I double-parked and while they were wrapping it up a truck honked because he couldn't get by. I got into the car, made a U-turn around the center median, and when I approached the chicken shop there was the son in the street, holding my chicken out to me.
The chicken — one of their smaller ones —was nevertheless so big that I couldn't use the gadget I usually use to roast a chicken. It's an obscene piece of metal that you jam up the opening in its bottom so that the chicken is held upright and the fat can drain out. This top-heavy chicken just fell over, so I used a rack instead. One of the dinner guests that night is a superb cook, and having lived here for nine years she was delighted to learn about the wonderful digital sensor gadget that's been available in the U.S.: no more opening the oven door to check the chicken's temperature because instead an alarm rings when it reaches the preset level. Well, it almost worked right. The stove has a timer knob on it to turn off the gas in the oven as a safety measure. I forgot about it and of course the oven heat went out so I had to relight the oven and wing the cooking time (ouch, pun unintended). But I'm telling you this because even so, the roast chicken that night was the Platonic ideal of all roast chickens. How do they raise chickens here to be so unbelievably moist and tender? I'm still marveling, a week later. When you come and visit, I will make you a roast chicken.
The house construction is proceeding beautifully. Rick's kitchen and bathroom have been tiled. The worker in the second photo is painting the bathroom wall white. And isn't the curve at the shower lovely?
Unlike my casa, Rick's casita is nearly done. The casita was lived in more recently than the casa and needs much less work. The walls need painting and cabinets installed, and two windows with exterior iron security bars need to be installed in his bedroom, and then that will be pretty much it.
In my house, the floor tiles throughout the downstairs — living room, kitchen, pantry, and study — have been laid. In preparing to do that they discovered that the existing floor levels were not even. The way they went about creating a single level was just fascinating. First, they started with an arbitrary point about a meter off the floor, and used a level (the long ruler-type thing with a bubble in liquid) to find a straight line, which they drew on the wall to be painted over later. When they came to a doorway or other non-wall space, they used a taut string from the existing line to the next place, and put the level on the string to achieve the same height as before. Using this technique, they drew a line around the entire place. The tile was to be laid exactly one meter below this line, so where the floor was a bit too high or too low it was added to or shaved off. In this photo, you see the line drawn on the wall.
The kitchen floor, however, was an inch or so below the level of the other rooms. To make it level and even with the other rooms, first they tiled the living room using the line as a guide. Then they measured a meter below the line in the kitchen and cemented a few small pieces of brick along the wall and the beginning of the kitchen counter. In the photo below, you can see the edges of cement. They let the cement harden a bit, and put both ends of a long stick — you see two of them in the photo — on the cement reaching across the low places. Next they troweled more cement on the low red places, smoothing it out with the stick. The end result: a perfectly level and smooth floor throughout the entire first floor.
Below is the floor in the living room; the kitchen counter is beyond the column. The light on the floor comes from a tragaluce, a glass brick in the ceiling. Twenty of them are being installed in several rooms, including your guest room and your bathroom. Tragaluces are better than skylights because they allow a lot of light and very little heat. My kitchen was the most important as it is the only room that has no windows at all. Perhaps some day I'll be able to take a photo that satisfies me of this place. I love the complexity of the intersecting planes of the arches in the living room and to the study behind. Perhaps it reminds me of how thrilling the intersecting planes are in gothic cathedrals. When there's more light in the study, perhaps the photo will work better.
Here's the same place taken from the kitchen, with two sides of the U-shaped counter-in-progress. The counter walls are made by cementing over a prefab foam core covered with the equivalent of chicken wire, a technique used for interior walls. You can see this prefab thing two photos above of the uneven kitchen floor. Open spaces are left for the stove, refrigerator, and dishwasher (yes, I will have a dishwasher!)
Upstairs in my bedroom, the old opening to the bathroom has been completely closed — I showed you what it looked like in process last time.
The bathroom floor has been tiled. The curved thing to the left is actually the sink and shelves below it. I loved the curves, and left it alone.
In the bathroom, a bit to the right of the picture above, a doorway (there will be a door) has been made in the wall that leads to the outdoor shower on the sleeping porch. Holes are being cut in it for glass blocks.
Here is a shot of my sleeping porch wall, taken from the center garden area between the casa and the casita.
The exterior of the casa, the casita, and the guest suite will be white, which is beautiful with the red Mediterranean roof tiles, the green trees, and the sunshine. The upstairs patio area of the casa, next photo, has been painted, and it gleams.
We have started buying appliances and furniture. If we had only known that we would be buying a place and needing to furnish it, we would not have gotten rid of so many things when we moved. Oh well, it can't be helped. A normal stove here is gas: electricity is relatively expensive, and actually I have not seen an electric stove anywhere. The standard stove has not four but six burners, often with a grill that fits over the two center burners. Cheaper stoves do not have electric ignition but must be lighted with a match. Often seen is a glass cover that hinges down over the burners from the back, but we both decided it was not worth an extra one or two hundred dollars. Refrigerators only come with the opening to the left — why this should be so is a mystery. I had to design both kitchens to take this into account. Moreover, nearly all refrigerators come with the freezer compartment on the top, which is contrary to common sense from both a physics and an ergonomics point of view. However, two stoves and one refrigerator (I will use the refrigerator that was left in the casita) cost us only $1,000.
And for pure luck, we went to Celaya yesterday, a larger town about 40 minutes away, to look for furniture stores because I need a sofa. We found a big store that was having its annual half-price sale. I bought a cream-colored suede sofa for less than $550, delivered. So fair warning to all guests with small children: no eating on the sofa! At one of the four consignment stores in San Miguel we found a really comfortable chair that glides back and forth on runners and comes with a gliding hassock as well for only $80, which Rick will use in his casita.
While it is true that we are being careful about prices, it's possible to get things here for not very much money. For example, a carpenter has been hired to make all this:
Fine wood panel for living room side of counter
Cabinet under powder room sink
Door for powder room
Restoration of large armoire in dressing room, now in lousy shape, as a closet
Door for upstairs bathroom
Medicine cabinet for bathroom
Cabinets for Rick's pills and supplements, bathroom
Cabinet under bathroom sink
Door to bedroom
Door to bathroom
Medicine cabinet for bathroom
The carpenter's fee for all this will be 50,000 pesos, about $4,500. The wood — alder, a beautiful wood — will cost an additional $3,000 or so, and the cabinet hardware maybe less than $1,000. This would be impossible in the U.S.
Speaking of the cost of things, a few weeks ago we went to a private eye clinic in a town called Irapuato, about an hour from San Miguel. I had seen it mentioned on the Civil List, a hugely helpful listserv serving mostly expats here. Where do you find X? How do you get Y? Who is good at doing Z? One person posted that he had gone to this family-owned clinic and had gotten better care for his macular degeneration than in several U.S. cities. I know I have the beginnings of macular degeneration, as my mother did, and needed to find out if the recent change in my vision was something to worry about. I was given a 6 PM appointment. The ophthalmologist spoke pretty good English and gave me a thorough eye exam. Then an optometrist, speaking only Spanish but that was okay, gave me an excellent exam for a new prescription for glasses, assuring me that while they could fill it there I could take the prescription anywhere. Including the time waiting for my eyes to dilate, the appointment took nearly two hours and cost exactly 300 pesos: about $27. And no, I don't have to worry — yet — about my vision. Rick too is happy to know about this place, because he needs a good ophthalmologist for his diabetic retinopathy.
How I wish this blog had an audio component! Right now I am hearing drums and horns in a nearby marching parade, and periodic explosions of firecrackers or just noise bombs or whatever they are. This morning, like every Sunday, we were treated to a symphony of church bells. I love this place.
Besos y abrazos, mis amigos y amigas.