Thursday, April 26, 2012

April 26, 2012

Hello, everyone

I haven't written this blog for over four months because Rick and I are divorcing, never an easy time.  However, we have worked out our differences and are now changing our relationship from bad spouses to good friends.  Under the circumstances we've agreed it's better not to live as close to each other as we have been, so he is looking for another place to live.  In the meantime, we are fine here, and neither one of us would consider moving back to the United States.  You would not believe the number of people who have told me they are happier in San Miguel than they have ever been in their entire lives.  And for good reason.

But despite all the emotional upheaval, life has not stopped and San Miguel is wonderful as always.  I read a story recently that in one way captures a truth about Mexico that often puzzles Americans.


An American investment banker was on the beach of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman came ashore. Inside the small boat were several large yellow-fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, "Only a little while."

The American then asked why didn't he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs.

The American then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life."

The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats; eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would leave this village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But, how long will this all take?"

To which the American replied, "15 - 20 years."

"But what then?", asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich.  You would make millions!"

"Millions - then what?"

The American said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos." 

It is true that Mexicans seem to value family and friends over work and obligations, which I find lovely.  And it's also lovely that much of the time they spend with family and friends is spent in public, in the Jardin, on the stoop of the house, at the neighborhood taco stand.  The town pulses with life every evening.  

But in another way the story is absolutely untrue.  Mexicans are the hardest-working people I know.  I saw it among the workers who built my house, and often I see people doing astonishing hard physical work for many hours on end.  One of the reasons many streets here are cobblestoned, aside from the fact that San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and therefore can't pave over the old colonial cobblestoned streets, is that paving a street with cobblestones provides more employment than paving it with asphalt.  (Too bad for the cars and the walkers!)  I once saw workers building an overpass over a road, and they hauled up a huge boulder with a pulley system.  It took many men to do that.  At times like these I am reminded that Mexico, while gaining more and more of a middle class, is in part a third-world country.

I have been busy with various projects in the last few months, partly for mental health purposes but partly for the pleasure of it all.  One of the best things is that I have been volunteering with Pro Musica, the classical music organization in San Miguel that brings often superb chamber musicians to town for concerts in a church.  I edit the program notes for them.  In February Pro Musica put on San Miguel's first staged opera in our small theater, a real production challenge.  They chose to do Tosca.  It was entirely a Mexican production, singers and production staff, all professionals, and my role was to find housing for them in local homes.  As a result, I corresponded with them all so that by the time they got here it felt like I was welcoming friends.  Several of them stayed in my guest room at various times, and during the week leading up to the performances in February three of the singers had breakfast here every morning.  I had dinner with them one night and went to a terrific party with them another night, where they took turns singing for fun.  The opera itself turned out to be a pretty lousy production, actually, but the music was good and I have made marvelous new friends.  La Bohème will be presented next February, and meetings for that have already started.

One new friend is the basso profundo, Charlie Oppenheim, who is bilingual and also publishes Mexico's version of Opera News, Pro Opera.  You can hear him sing on YouTube, including a marvelous "Old Man River" (  I spent a day with him in February in Mexico City, where I was privileged to hear him sing in a stripped-down hour-long children's version of Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute, in part of the National Auditorium Building.  It was absolutely brilliant.  It was held in an enormous room, tiered like a regular auditorium, but the tiers were 10 or 12 feet wide.  At the front of the tiers were small cocktail-size tables with four chairs, and in back of the tables and chairs was where people walked.  There must have been a thousand people, and I didn't see one empty chair.  Food was available so parents went to the snack bar and brought back food and drink for the kids.  No one minded the constant low hum of children's talking and laughing.  Papageno and Papagena were played by life-size puppets (with the singers standing next to them), and the woods were shown in animation projected from behind on a screen.  It was sung by professional Mexican opera singers in German, with super-titles in Spanish that parents read to small kids.  This was only one of half a dozen children's operas presented each year, and tickets are cheap -- 250 pesos for adults, about $21, and 150 pesos for kids.  Now if we could do this in the US, we'd be able to stop moaning about the lack of a next generation that loves classical music.

Another project is that I helped the director of the girls' orphanage here cook up a role model program for the girls.  There are about 35 girls who live in Hogar Santa Julia (Santa Julia Home); many of them are not in fact orphans but are kids whose homes were so toxic that they were brought to the orphanage.  A big problem is that as girls reach the age of 18 they often don't want to live in a "little kids'" home and they do want to live in a real family.  When they choose to return to their families of origin the result is usually a disaster, with the same dysfunctions as before and now still another mouth to feed.  The girls all go to school while they are in the orphanage, but early educational deficits are often hard to make up and they don't have many examples of people like them who have managed to overcome tough early lives.  So I suggested a low effort-level role model program:  young women ages 16-25 who have indeed overcome tough early lives and have managed to make something good of their lives.  Young women will come in for an hour or so hopefully each week to speak to the girls, and will receive a small honorarium, and will in this way broaden the girls' horizons with more possibilities for their lives.  After all, you can't become something you never heard of.  I figured it would be easier to get more young women to commit to one hour than to a continuing "Big Sister" mentorship type of thing.  This program should be starting in the next month or so.

My adult education program, which you might remember from last year, has been resurrected.  I will pilot it in October in a classroom at Café Contento -- those of you who have been to San Miguel might remember it as the café across Hernandez Macias from Bellas Artes.  That will be a good place for a pilot but not a good permanent place, because I will need, besides a classroom or two, administrative support and a web page that permits visitors to pre-register.  Publicity will start in June, when I will be looking for instructors to teach two or three courses in October. 

And my last little project is getting involved next month with a program which every year hosts  ambassadors to Mexico from 15 or 20 countries for a week in San Miguel, some sort of brotherhood thing or for all I know just a junket.  Funding comes from the state and national governments.  I vaguely remember reading about it last year in the paper.  I saw an announcement that they were looking for local sponsors, and I thought that would be fun.  I managed to get the only French-speaking ambassador, a man from Morocco of all places, which Rick and I visited three years ago in a great home exchange, so my French will get a booster shot.  Apparently as a sponsor I get to accompany them to all sorts of classy events for a weekend, maybe more, and show them around town.  What could be bad?

My final offering is a lesson in how to make churros, those delicious and horrendously fattening things you can get for a dollar each at Costco:  a fried strip of dough covered with cinnamon and sugar.  Near the place where several buses stop near the Biblioteca there is often a  stand where a couple makes and sells churros.  I was fascinated by the process.

First, the man extrudes the dough by a hand crank from a metal container at the top of the stand, which is he doing in the photo above.  Next, he deep-fries the strips.

Last, he passes the hot strips of fried dough to his wife, who dunks them in a cinnamon-sugar mixture and places them on absorbent paper, below.  Then they are sold in a paper bag, hot and totally delicious, 10 for 10 pesos, about 80 cents for the bag.  Superb.