Thursday, May 26, 2016

moving to mexico -- cost of living

Yesterday in "i just adore the colors", I mentioned that the standard expatriate answers to the question "What do you like about Mexico?" runs the gamut from "the people" to "the weather" to "the food." None of those things drew me here.

Now, I do like the Mexican people -- about in the same proportion I like any particular group of people. And, for me, the weather is a bit too warm and the food is -- well, not to put a fine point on it -- boring.

They are not the reasons I moved here. But I did move here for one reason that is discussed tangentially by expatriates -- as if the subject were somehow just a bit tawdry. It is less expensive to live here than it would be to live in Salem.

Let me give you an example. My friends the Millers spent a week with me last month. I love having visitors. Not only do I get to spend time with people I really enjoy, I get to show off the area to them. Not to mention (though, I guess I am about to), I get to share my very beautiful house with them.

Somewhere along the line in my long life, I picked up a habit. It sounds like one of those habits passed on by mothers, but I am not certain about that. When guests arrive, the house should be filled with flowers -- especially in their bedroom.

Living in Mexico makes that a snap. Not only are almost every type of bloom available in our local shops, it does not require taking out a signature line loan, as it is in The States, to buy floral arrangements.

I bought three for the Millers's visit. That is one of them on the courtyard table.

Having just purchased flowers for Mother's Day, I have a good idea what floral arrangements in The States cost. And it was far more up north than what I paid here.

The cost in Melaque? $450 (Mx) -- that is about $24 (US). Not for one arrangement, but for all three. I ended up paying about $8 (US) for each arrangement.

At that price I could fill the house with flowers every week for less than a dinner for two at a good restaurant.  (By the way, dining out here is also a bargain.)

Frequent readers will be reminding me that I have consistently said I moved to Mexico not to fall into a comfort zone; I wanted to live somewhere that when I woke up each morning, I would know how I was going to make it through the day.

But not knowing how I am going to make it through the day, while knowing that it is not going to cost me very much, is not a bad formula.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"i simply adore the colors here"

"Why did you choose to live in Mexico?"

It must be one of the most common questions around the local haunts frequented by foreigners. We have even played the game in my Spanish class.

There are a predictable list of answers that people who have moved here "simply adore." As vague as they are predictable.

The food. The people. The culture. The weather. And, yes, the colors.*There is no arguing with the fact that almost everything in Mexico is far more colorful than anything up north, with the possible exception of Miami. But that exception proves the rule.

Houses. Signs. Nature. All seem to have conspired to paint Mexico in shades far more brilliant than the average burgher from Belgium would appreciate.

And most of the combinations work together. Remember that color wheel in the eighth grade with its complementary shades? It seems to be second nature to Mexicans. If you see jarring color combinations here, you can almost be certain they were chosen by some northerner hoping to look "local."

But color sense is not universal here.

I have a pair of Ecco shoes. They are the third pair of the same design. So light and unobtrusive, they almost feel like dancing shoes. They are my favorites.

But even more than the fit, I liked them because of their color. It was a reddish brown -- almost a shade of mahogany. Exactly the color a shoe designer in Milan would spend months trying to get just right.

Unfortunately, the rocks in our local streets and fields combined with my old man shuffle have not been kind to the shoes. Within about a year of wear, they looked as if I had tried to polish them with a bench grinder.

Unlike some of the fancy colonial towns in the highlands, we do not have ranks of shoeshine chairs in our plazas. What we have is one guy who occasionally shows up to shine and repair shoes.

I looked for him for several weeks, but I could never find him. I assumed he closed up shop when the northern tourists returned to their summer ponds.

Yesterday, while walking through my neighborhood to Spanish classes, I saw him. He lives about two blocks away from me. I went back to the house, picked up my scuffed shoes, ad dropped them off for a good polish. His expression was rather glum as he examined the remnants of what had been a good pair of shoes. He told me they would be ready when my classes were over.

When I returned, he was just finishing up. The shoes looked a bit odd to me -- as if they had been re-colored, instead of polished. We talked a bit, and I discovered that is exactly what he had done. But he made it quite clear that they were exactly the same color as the original dye.

They weren't. What had been Italianate mahogany was now somewhere between Minnesota gumbo and the shade of brown on counterfeit designer bags.

But they looked like new shoes. New shoes from Value Village. But new. Shiny and ready for strutting my stuff in Barra de Navidad.

And that is good enough for me. No one here is the least bit concerned if my shoes are an off shade.

After all, this is the land of the bejeweled sandal. And that is just the guys.

Nancy -- hit it.

* -- I will skip over the oft-repeated patronizing canard that all Mexicans have lovely singing voices. That is an essay of its own.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

five presidents down

The American presidents continue to march through my library and bedroom.

Six weeks ago, I updated you, in bumping off the presidents, on my project to read a biography of each of the American presidents before I shuffle off to The Final Campaign. At that point, I had just finished reading the biography of James Buchanan -- arguably the worst of the forty-three men who have occupied the office.

Since then, I have dropped several more presidents in the "read" file: Andrew Johnson, the man who nearly undid everything Lincoln had tried to accomplish through the Civil War; Rutherford B. Hayes, who made it to the White House with an election far more controversial than the 2000 Bush-Gore kerfuffle; Chester Arthur, who was elevated to the presidency when a disgruntled office seeker cut short President Garfield's life, and platform to bring the country back together; Grover Cleveland, the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms in the office; and Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of a president, and the guy who gave Cleveland his unique place in history.

Finding good biographies of this line of presidents was difficult. Even though I have been very unhappy with the quality of "The American President Series" (badly edited by Arthur Schlesinger), I resorted to them for several of these presidents. There simply are not a lot of good biographies out there on late nineteenth century politicians.

There were two exceptions, both recently released. The first was The Forgotten Conservative: Rediscovering Grover Cleveland by John Pafford, a professor of history and philosophy. Dr. Pafford, as you can see by the book's title, has a certain point of view. He contends Grover Cleveland was one of the few conservative (at least, in the way we use the term currently) presidents following the Civil War.

I am always a bit leery of such arguments. They tend to reduce the subject matter to the historical heresy of presentism by clogging the prose with a series of anachronisms. For that reason, I almost did not buy the book.

I am glad I did. Dr. Pafford clearly explains the two big issues that dominated post-Civil War politics (currency and tariffs) and why both issues summed up two opposing views of what America should be. Cleveland stood with for the gold standard (which put him at odds with the populist wing of his party) and low tariffs (to protect consumers from high prices).

He may not have been the most imaginative of presidents, but he was the first to put the brakes on William Jennings Bryan. And that may be good enough.

The second biography is of a far different man. Cleveland may have been the paragon of conservatism and morality, but Chester Arthur was a man who believed that politics was the art of governing through filling pockets -- often his own -- with gold. Thomas Reeves perfectly captures the contradictions that drove the twenty-first president in Gentleman Boss.

Chester Arthur was part of the Conkling machine in New York. Before civil service reform was enacted, most government positions were divvied up under the spoils system -- pioneered by Andrew Jackson. Ability to do a job (or any expectation that the officeholder would actually perform his duties) was not a hiring consideration.

Arthur captured one of the plum jobs under the spoils system -- collector of the New York Customs House. He was well on his way to becoming wealthy from the job when his fellow Republican, President Hayes, tried unsuccessfully to remove him from the job.

To our twenty-first century way of thinking, the next step in Arthur's career is almost unimaginable. In an attempt to bind the factions of the party together, the Republican nominee for president, James Garfield, selected Arthur to be his running mate. That seems about as likely as Bill Clinton choosing Ken Starr to run with him.

Because God has a great sense of humor, Garfield was assassinated early in his term. And not just by anyone. His assassin shot Garfield out of spite for not receiving the patronage job he thought he was promised. Oh, yeah. He also shouted "Arthur will be president" while shooting Garfield.

It was not an auspicious start for the Arthur presidency. He already was known as a corrupt machine politician. Now he could add "assassin" to his résumé.

But the opponent of civil service reform turned into the advocate for the reform. Reeves does not hide the fact that Arthur's conversion may have been more out of the sense of political survival instead of a change of heart. Whatever the reason was, he helped push civil service reform on its way -- badly damaging his former machine in New York.

The price was his inability to receive the Republican nomination to serve as president in his own right. Instead, another New Yorker became president -- Grover Cleveland.

Arthur is now ranked amongst the worst of American presidents. Reeves disagrees with that assessment.

Given Arthur's political background, the traumatic and unprecedented circumstances of his elevation to the White House, his fractured party, the divided and slothful Congresses he faced, the severe restraints upon the presidency at the time, and the burden of his poor health, his record as Chief Executive is both responsible and admirable. He was a good president at a period in our history when the American people neither expected or sought great presidents.
It is an apt summary of Arthur's presidency. And there may be a lesson there. Maybe we should be satisfied with presidents who are simply good, rather than presidents who seek to be great.

Monday, May 23, 2016

flat as a pancake -- and twice as tasty

I have heard of a fellow in Australia who found a road kill cane toad flattened by several tires. He slapped a stamp on it, and mailed it to a friend.

Now, I do not know how accurate that story is. After all, people slap stamps on all types of things and mail them around the world. American GIs would mail coconuts from Hawaii that way to the folks back home.

Those of you with a scientific bent of mind already know that cane toads are quite toxic. When threatened, the cane toad exudes its poisonous defense, a bufotoxin, in the form of a milky fluid. Last summer, we discussed all of that in mr. toad's wild ride.

The writer of the Lucretia Borgia postcard undoubtedly thought dead cane toads are no more deadly than a politician trying to tell a joke. I would have thought the same, but we were both wrong. The bufotoxin glands, if hydrated, can be as deadly in death as when the toad was happily hopping through the garden. Or so said a study I read last night.

You might be curious why I am taking you on this little trip down biology lane. There is a reason. And, of course, it involves Barco.

Last night , while on one of our walks, I saw him grab something. Because it sounded like a bone he was mouthing, I did not bother wresting it out of his mouth.

And he treated it as a bone. Rather than let Güera get near him, he trotted toward the house. He just wanted inside the front door.

So, I did not bother him with his new-found treasure. About fifteen minutes later, he came into my computer room and started nudging me with his head, as if he wanted me to take his "bone" from him.

In the light, I could see it was not a bone. It looked like a fish part. He loves dead fish cured for several days on our hot streets.

When I got it out of his mouth, I could see what it was. A dead cane toad. Flat and dried, looking like an offering in a Saigon food market. But clearly a cane toad.

He did not fight me when I took it from him. I immediately went on line to discover if a dead cane toad had any danger. We all now know it can.

The next step was to take immediate measures just in case he ingested any of the toxin. A thorough washing of his mouth -- which he did not resist -- was the first step. I then monitored him to see if he showed any of the known signs of poisoning.

He didn't. He was merely a bit lethargic. But he, like Steve, gets that way late at night. I thought we were out of the woods.

We weren't. He must have ingested enough toxin (or toad body parts) to upset his digestive system. For the full day, he has had extremely watery diarrhea. Up until this evening.

His system seems to be resetting itself. If the diarrhea continues through the night, I will take him to the veterinarian tomorrow.

I suspect he will be fine. While the automatic garage installer was here this morning adjusting my garage doors (a story I have yet to tell you), Barco bolted out the door and headed straight for the garbage on the corner.

By the time I caught up with him, he had swallowed a small plastic bag filled with spicy salsa to keep the other dogs from sharing in its joys. If he can stomach both the bag and contents, I am ready to declare him a prime Darwinian survivor.

Four years ago, Gary Denness over at mexile, sent a post card of the queen to me -- partly in an experiment to see how long it would take to show up in my box. If any of you would like a cane toad post card, I could send you one.

I will even draw a caricature of the queen on it for you.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

kant stop the bribery

I love to exercise my moral dudgeon.

Here in Mexico, two topics will always get me worked up. Pirated DVDs and paying bribes to police officers.

Pirated DVDs are about as common here as they are on Manhattan street corners. The fact that people who purchase the DVDs are stealing money from the people who used their skills to create the movies is not my prime concern. It is where the revenue goes.

In New York city, it is to criminal rings. Some Mafia. Some Chinese gangs. Some drug cartels. Everyone gets a piece of the quesadilla.

I choose not to buy them for that reason. What other people do is their choice. And I can exercise my election as a moral agent almost every day of the week here in Mexico.

Not so with police bribes. In the eight years I have been here, I have never been stopped by a policeman, let alone being asked for bribe money.

Not that the police haven't tried. Several cops on foot have waved me over. I simply ignored them.

Our local message board mulls over this question regularly. If you are stopped and are asked for a bribe, should you comply or refuse? I have always taken the Kant position -- the moral imperative would prohibit me from indulging in an action that would corrupt my soul and the social order in which I live.

That is big talk from a guy who never had to take out his high morals and run them around the block. That changed today.

I was stopped by a federal policeman on my drive back from Manzanillo this afternoon. Around here, the federals have a reputation for being good cops -- riding high above the tawdry world of money passed surreptitiously as a form of legal absolution.

The cop made a fair nab. I committed the type of traffic error that is commonly practiced here, but is still simultaneously dangerous and stupid. I thought I had got away with it. But two miles further down the road, the policeman caught up with me and pulled me over.

He knew I knew what I had done. There was no sense in arguing. He then asked me for my drivers' license. I ignorantly pulled out my wallet to had the license over to him. Of course, that was simply a good way for him to see how much cash I had.

He then asked me for my registration. Stupidly, I had taken everything out of the car this morning while leaving it to be cleaned. I failed to stop at the house to put everything back in. Just as in The States, driving without a registration is an infraction.

There was no doubt I was in trouble. The Kant side of my brain said: "Accept the citations. You earned them. And move on having learned a moral lesson." Before any other voice in my head could speak up, the officer informed me he was going to write two citations -- or I could simply pay the "fine" on the spot.

I asked: "How much?"

He responded: "Six thousand pesos."

At this point, I broke into a cackle that would have made Hillary Clinton proud. Six thousand pesos is the equivalent of about $330 (US).

"-- Or you do not get your license back."

At that point, the Trump in my head slipped Kant a mickey, and suggested that we might be able to do business. After a few rug merchant exchanges, we arrived at an accommodation.

In a bit of negotiator flourish, rather than slip the pesos subtly into his hand (which I understand to be the custom here), I held them out the window about face level. He was not pleased.

So, my moral high tower turned out to be made of Jello. I could try to justify my action by pointing out that I had a carload of frozen goods that were returning to their natural state, and I did not have time to sit by the road and await my citations. After all, the whole encounter took about five minutes. Very efficient. Very corrupt.

Let me point out once again. I fully deserved the loss of that money. It would have gone to him or to some judge.

But, best of all, the entire exchange was in Spanish -- and I held my own.

Even with my moral lapse, that is success enough for me for the day.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

my dinner with -- you

Come on in and sit down. It's time for dinner.

What shall we talk about? Food is always a good starter. But then starters are food, aren't they? (Yup. It's going to be one of those dinners.)

Because our weather has crossed the boundary into hot and humid, I thought I would have something light for my mid-day meal -- "dinner" as my Minnesota grandmother would have it. I had some leftover home-made chili served over pasta waiting in the refrigerator, but it was just too heavy for the day.

Instead, I decided to do what good cooks (those who are not tied to Stalinist recipes) do, and put together a meal with whatever was fresh in today's market. Despite the heat, I found some firm, small cucumbers -- and a rather inviting jicama.

If you have not tried jicama, you should. It is a root, indigenous to Mexico,  that looks a good deal like a turnip wrapped in brown paper. The flesh is crisp with a slightly sweet taste. Some people say it reminds them of apple. To me, it tastes like -- jicama.

With the cucumbers and jicama in hand, I knew what I was going to make. Pico de gallo. Or rooster's beak.

When I moved to Mexico, I thought pico de gallo was a salsa made of onion, chilis, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime juice. I was disabused of that notion when I asked a local grocer if I should use jalapeño or serrano chilies in my pico de gallo. She laughed, and said neither.

Pico de gallo
is made with cucumbers, pineapple, and jicama. The tomato salsa is more properly called salsa mexicana (Mexican sauce) or salsa fresca (or fresh sauce).

Of course, I soon discovered culinary life in Mexico is not that simple. There are regions where the tomato salsa is called pico de gallo. And, because I live in a village where people have come from all over Mexico, the tomato salsa is called a lot of things by different people.

But, culinary matters, like most things, are far less complicated within the walls of the house with no name. Here, pico de gallo is made without tomatoes.

Today's version is also made without pineapple. I have been told that mango is also a good substitute. But neither were in the market today.

Watermelon was. It turns out to have been a great choice. Cubed, the watermelon, jicama, and cucumber have complementary crunches. And the lime and chili powder (lots of chili powder) make for a very refreshing dinner on this fine Mexican day. 

A simple salad. A warm afternoon. A tranquil courtyard. It may not be quite the stimulating adventure I initially sought in Mexico, but it is days like this that make me glad I crossed the border.

It was a pleasure having you stop by for dinner. Sorry I dominated the conversation. Maybe next time.


Friday, May 20, 2016

a man with too many countries

I am no Philip Nolan -- the protagonist in Edward Everett Hales's The Man Without a Country.

Hales's tale is a reminder of the consequences of hubris -- getting our just deserts from our own wishes. In Nolan's case, at his treason trial for his part in the Aaron Burr conspiracy, he announced: "I wish I may never hear of the United States again!"

The judge granted Nolan his wish -- sentencing him to spend the rest of his life in exile on board a series of American Navy ships. Love Boat meets Guant

Even if you do not know the story, you know the ending. It is, after all, an American tale.

Nolan spends 55 years in his floating exile and step by step learns that he loves his country. He may not have stepped foot on its soil in decades, but its essence is part of who he is.

Two recent posts caused this little reverie. Yesterday, I mused on my Canadian roots in steve cotton has a secret -- a deep, dark secret,and in pat -- i'd like to buy a consonant, I wrote about learning Spanish to meet my Mexican citizenship requirement.

What does it mean to be a citizen of a country? And is that different from wanting to be part of a country?

A reader had a long email conversation with me last night about my ancestry. From the names I used in my Canada essay and from the photograph of the young me with my family, he deduced that I was a Sephardic Jew of German ancestry. He conducted several name searches in Jewish data banks, and concluded his hypothesis was correct.

I would like that to be true. My family has strongly supported Israel before and after its creation.  The problem is that my cousin Dennis, who has extensively researched our family tree, has come up with no evidence to support the hypothesis.

Maybe my reader is correct. Maybe I do have the seed of Abraham in my DNA.

But that does not make me culturally or religiously Jewish. I am Christian. Not just Christianish -- as Anne Lamott likes to joke. And there is nothing culturally Jewish about my upbringing -- other than my mother's assertion that all pork products are an abomination.

I am an American. Culturally, I believe in the founding principles of the country. They inform all of my political decisions -- and many of my social choices.

So, how do I square that with my desire to be a Mexican citizen -- as well as an American citizen?

While composing this essay, I ran across a piece of music that helped put some of my thoughts in perspective. The tune is "Anthem" from a badly-constructed musical, Chess. The author of the book used the conceit of a Russian-American chess match as an allegory for the cold war.

At the end of Act One (because these moments should always leave the audience at the interval wondering what will happen next) defects. When the reporters ask him why he is leaving his country, he sings "Anthem." (Choose an HD setting if your internet connection will support it.)

The song is about what you would expect from the composers of ABBA along with the lyrics of Tim Rice. Like Oakland, there is not much there there.

That has not stopped the Chess groupies from pulling out the stops in finding the true meaning of the tune. My favorite is the post-modern claptrap that the song is a deconstructionist tribute to the negation of nationalism. I suspect that came from a high school drama coach who was desperately trying to find a good hook for this schmaltzy pastiche.

Considering the cartoon aspect of the production, there is probably no subtext to the song. It is all text on the top -- simply saying that true patriots can still love their country even if not there because "my land's only borders lie around my heart."

That is why Americans such as Morris Cohen, Alger Hiss, and Philip Agee could claim western nationality and concurrently owe their allegiance to Russia or Cuba.  It is not that they had any particular love for the Russian or Cuban people (that I know of). They were soldiers in a foreign ideology. Not to mention being as treasonous as the leaders of the Confederacy.

As simple as the song is, it may be the answer to the question why I want to be a Mexican citizen. I want to be part of the civic community in the country where I permanently reside. And, unlike Cohen, Hiss, and Agee, it is my fellow Mexicans that tie my heart to this land. There certainly is no ideology that would make being a dual citizen inconsistent with my allegiance to The States.

And, if it turns out I have Jewish roots, that will just be the icing on the cake.