Monday, January 31, 2011

my mexican love affair...

     For many years, at least since the early 1990's, I have wanted to come to San Miguel de Allende, a 'gringo artist community' in the mountains four hours to the east and north of Mexico City.   It was the large Hispanic community in San Fransisco and their celebration of Dios de los Muertos that convinced me 'one day I will go to San Miguel de Allende'.
     Jump forward 20 years to 2011 and I have finally arrived.  20 years of fantasies and expectations can easily ruin a place and from the moment I got off the bus San Miguel has not been what I expected.
   Although it IS technically Mexico, (taken over by gringos since the 1930's), I assumed I could ask any Mexican a question in English and they would understand what I was asking for.  Wrong! 
   The moment I got off the bus, exhausted after 4 hours of Mexican scenery, one bag across each shoulder like a pack mule, I start walking up a very busy street in a not very nice part of town.  I have to find the Starbucks so I can access my wifi to find the address of the place I am staying at.  After walking several hundred yards and feeling like this may be a very bad idea I ask the first guy I see who happens to be Mexican, "Where is the Starbucks?" I ask, fully aware he must be rolling his eyes thinking 'another f***ing gringo just off the bus'.  Quickly he answers with his hands and in broken English, "You see the fence there?  Just up past that".   I walk another two hundred yards and realize this can't be right.  Tired and grumpy I hail the first cab I see and ask him to take me to Starbucks. 
   I have spent entire days pointing to things and looking up words on my I-Phone English-Spanish translator trying to communicate what it is I wanted to say.  Often in return, I have gotten blank stares and strained laughter, frustrating me to the point of tears.
    One night I was looking for a bottle of wine and not knowing the whereabouts of a store I began to go into bars along 'El Jardin' asking 'can you sell me a bottle of vino blanc?'  "Cuanto Questa?" I would say and the prices varied from 180 pesos to 520 pesos depending on the bar.  I went into a bar called "Beer and Fun".  Three younger white guys were playing pool and a young Mexican woman was serving drinks. A Nirvana song blared throughout the place while the balls on the pool table made that familiar sound as they rolled into each other.  I asked the young lady in my chopped up, brain damaged gringo Spanish,  "Cuanto questa para un botela de vino blanco".  In perfect English without so much as an accent she says to me "180 pesos". 
    'I am desperate but not that desperate',  I think to myself and walk out continuing my search of El Jardin for a cheap bottle of white wine.  Finally I arrive at a store that sells every kind of liquor on the planet.  'Bingo' I think to myself.  But once inside I quickly discover there is no white wine in the whole store.  'What is it with Mexicans and white wine?'  I am wondering to myself.  By this point my level of desperation has peaked along with my fouling mood.   I ask the kid working the store in broken Spanish where can I get a bottle of white wine?  Taking pity on me and without a word he points across the street to a small but well stocked wine, beer and liquor store.
   Tired and weary I walk across the street and ask once again for a bottle of inexpensive white wine.  Fortunately the old guy who owned the place spoke enough English so that I didn't have to navigate any more Spanish.  (I only have so many brain cells per day and I had used them all up).  So happy was I that I gladly paid 69.50 pesos for a bottle of Chilean white wine.
    Despite my frustration in those first few days most of the Mexican people I have dealt with are much more kind and patient than Americans.  For instance though there are way too many cars on the cobblestone streets (that were never intended for vehicular traffic) and the sidewalks are too narrow to allow two people of normal size to pass each other, someone always goes out of their way to let the other pass.
     Have I mentioned that there are no stop signs or traffic lights in the entire city?  And yet, I have not once, in the month that I have been roaming the streets witnessed a single accident.  Though a street may be a parking lot of cars at certain hours, I have never felt hostility from the drivers as I weave between them.   In comparison to drivers in American towns the people in San Miguel must have the patience of saints.   It is rare that I even hear a horn while they sit gridlocked in traffic.
     Not that anyone is perfect.  In comparison to Oaxaca I do feel some contempt from the Mexicans towards me, a non-Spanish speaking gringo.  (I can just hear them thinking  'Your in my country the least you can do is learn the language!')   I try everyday when I go into Starbucks to figure out how to say a '16 oz hot black tea with cold soy milk, please' in Spanish.  And everyday I am prodded in Spanish, "Esta? or Esta?".  Sometimes the order comes out wrong and I am flustered thinking  "It's Starbucks for fucks sake! I come here everyday! You should know my order by now!" 
    There is only one young lady named Arili who has even bothered to introduce herself and remember my face.  Such relief I feel when she takes my order that I always tip her my change.   Each day I practice a little Spanish on her and she practices a little English on me.   We kindly correct each other when what we have said isn't right.  She is my little saint in San Miguel for without her I get lost in a sea of Spanish words that just don't translate. yona c. riel


  1. hi Yona!! I just took a break from algebra to read your blog. I'm so glad I did. I love reading about your observations and experiences and I can appreciate how much attention and time is required to set it down in type :) I'm sorry San Miguel wasn't what you expected and you started off feeling so frustrated...on the other hand, it is what it is, and I know you to be a woman of perseverance and you go right into the world screaming your salute so there you have it I'm glad you're doing what you're doing!! xxxx - Vic

  2. ps - the word I had to type to pass the 'not a bot' test was 'blessess'


  3. and THAT word to post the ps was 'ingshee', which is Pig Latin for 'shing' which is sing with a lisp, or a drunken drawl (on vino blanc of course)

  4. 'prutregl', my post-post script password to publish that comment.

    That, my dear, is an apt descriptor of my brain on algebra.

    It is how I will now sign off on my missives to you.

    your friend,

  5. San Miguel de Allende is a truly magnificent location, and is becoming a locale of choice for American and Canadian expats. There is a highly developed infrastructure that supports a very large and sophisticated English speaking community here. Culture abounds, and there is extremely active social calendar. There are easily forty or more art galleries in town. The climate is among the best, with warm, dry temperatures year round. Real estate here is among the most beautiful in the world, and your dollar can buy you so much more house than in North America. I lead exciting home buyer trips to San Miguel. Join me on one of these exciting tours to view and buy real estate in San Miguel.

  6. thanks vic for all your comments... and you are so right, 'it is what it is'...
    @david, yes i been here for a month and the weather is amazing but you cannot tell me that there is not SOME animosity towards the gringos who have driven up the price of housing and food. I sat in el jardin just today speaking in my broken spanish to an older mexican lady who kept saying, 'muy malo, muy malo'. i know she was there looking for money so i gave her some...hoping it helps her to get some food. at least the food carts r cheap.
    but also there are some very well off mexicans here who make better money than any other place in mexico becuz of the gringos.. so it's a case of golden handcuffs i guess... don't mean to sound negative, just putting my reality out there.. thanks for reading david! and vic yr da bomb!!