Monday, October 16, 2017

dropping che

"Not only does democracy offer the best hope of progress for the masses, it also protects the left against its own mistakes. It is long past time to bury Che and find a better icon."

So says The Economist in this week's issue, supporting the idea that Che Guevara is exactly the wrong role model for the left to follow. Such are the things that keep me amused on cruises.

Communism is a zombie ideology. Not only is it the very essence of evil, it just refuses to admit that its permanent address is the Dustbin of History.

Take those Che t-shirts. I always assume the wearers have left their Hitler hoodies in the laundry.

The Danes have found a very creative solution for some of Communism's fallen symbols. And Halloween is the richer for it.

While shopping in one of Copenhagen's better supermarkets for a good blue cheese to take along on the cruise, I chanced upon a bit of Halloween paraphernalia. On top of the pile was this re-purposed sickle -- complete with bourgeois blood. For all I know, its fraternal hammer was in another bin. The Danes are that type of utilitarian folk,

Now, if we could put all of those Che t-shirts in the same warehouse with the statues of Robert E. Lee, we would all be a bit better off.

Readers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your change. 


Sunday, October 15, 2017

mad about ophelia


Today is the day we set sail for America.

At least, it is the day we are supposed to set sail for America. But, just like Hamlet, Ophelia may complicate our lives.

If you have not been following Ophelia (the storm, not the drowned lover). it is a category 3 hurricane that is now to the west of the Azores (our first landfall) and heading directly for Ireland and Scotland. If she follows her current path, she should be there by Tuesday. Probably, downgraded to a tropical storm. There is not a lot of hot water off of either coast.

This is the ship captain's issue. How can he cross over the top of Jutland and head south while avoiding the storm. The English Channel is a terrible place to be caught in high winds. Maneuverability is extremely limited. Just ask the Admiral Duke of Medina Sidonia how it worked out for him.

But that is just punter blather. Norwegian Cruise Lines is not going to put one of its newer ships in the path of a storm. There has even been some loose talk about visiting ports in the Baltic Sea to give the storm time to pass. But that is just talk.

Either way, we are about to leave our apartments to board the Getaway (Yup! Commercial ships are now being named as if they were the same as your Uncle Ralph's 35 foot pleasure boat).

Taking into account the vagaries of shipboard internet this may be:
1) My last essay until we get to Florida.

2) My last essay until we get on board the ship.
Or 3) My last essay (because I have made God laugh about my plans).

Whether I write or not, I am planning on a great time at sea -- no matter where we end up stopping for ports. Hurricanes pulled St. Thomas and St. Martin off of our list. Ophelia may do the same for the Azores and Bermuda.

Fear not. There will be tales to share. Some time.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

rainy days and saturdays


Rain alters the way we see life.

I wrote about that phenomenon earlier this year in Sydney (sydney as london). The city my friends Roy and Nancy wanted me to love never showed up. Sydney hid behind a wet London impersonation.

I am glad I saw Copenhagen yesterday in full sunlight. Danes have told me the day was an exception for this time of year. Usually, the sky is overcast with bits of drizzle now and then.

Today was the norm -- with overcast skies and drizzle. So, the three women in our group decided it would be a great day to go shopping.

Copenhagen has a street dedicated to shoppers who want to buy high-end items. Louis Vuitton. Hermes. And a lot of middle brow stores. Victoria's Secret. Foot Locker. The type of retailers you can find in any decent strip mall.

And the shop fronts could be almost anywhere. Until you turn around and look at the view. That steeple is quintessentially Danish Lutheran.



Our shopping tour gave me an opportunity to share an interesting fact about Copenhagen. It is a city filled with bicycles, and bicycles reign in the pecking order with their special lanes and high-speed commuting. Pedestrians are far more likely to be hit by a bicycle than by a car.



The bicycle parking lot is in the midst of several food tents. While the rest of our group enjoyed Danish hot dogs, I visited a salami and cheese stand staffed by Dutch merchants.



And I came away sated. With three pepper salami sausages and a wedge of cheese stuffed with very spicy chili. I managed to eat most of it before I got back to my apartment.

Yesterday, I told you Copenhagen has had the opportunity to rebuild itself after two major fires. But they were not the only fires that damaged Copenhagen's historic buildings.

Christiansborg Palace has been the home to the Danish parliament since 1849. Before that, it was the residence of the Danish monarch.

The current monarch, Queen Margrethe II, still uses the palace's chapel, whose architecture is pure Danish Lutheranism. Like the palace, the chapel has been rebuilt several times due to changes in fashion or as a result of fires.

The latest chapel fire in 1992 caused the dome and ceiling to collapse. The art of building this type of architecture has almost been lost. But, by referring to old records, the restoration was completed using original materials. And here is the result.



But there are two figures that we have not yet visited that define Denmark for outsiders. The first is Hans Christian Andersen, the author of such stories as "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Little Mermaid," and "The Ugly Duckling." All of them built around rather conservative moral lessons.

He is honored with a statue in front of the City Hall. So many people have sat on his lap or rubbed his knee that his trousers are looking a bit brassy.



The second Copenhagen institution is Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world. The oldest is 
Dyrehavsbakken, started in 1583 -- also in Denmark. By that standard Tivoli is a youngster, having opened in 1843. Apparently, Walt Disney visited the park in the early 1950s to get ideas for his own parks.

There are two rules of life. The first is that change is always good. The second is that new is not always an improvement. That is certainly true of amusement parks.

Compared with Disney parks, Tivoli is quaint and charming. It is not snazzy and spiffy. It is just fun. And its recipe for amusing people is what has kept it running since James Polk was president of the United States.

Tivoli was dressed in its Halloween finery during our visit tonight.



Many amusement parks decked out their sites with electric arches when light bulbs were introduced. It is a tradition that still thrives at Tivoli.



And then there are rides. A couple are modern. But most retain the park's traditional amusements that seem just a bit quaint. But still endearing. If not thrilling.



I managed to avoid any emotional response until I saw the bumper cars. My brother and I spent hours on the bumper cars at Jantzen Beach and Oaks Park. The smell of the electricity arcing off of the metal ceiling brought back pleasant memories. Most of them built around revenge.



There are also ranks of restaurants in the park -- an idea Walt Disney slipped into his establishments. I am convinced that all foods cost the same in Disneyland. Do you want a large Diet Coke? That will be $40. A five-course Cajun meal?  $40. I did not look at the Tivoli menus to see if that is where Disney developed his food hegemony.

For a day that began (and ended) in the drizzle, Tivoli managed to put a nice spin on the day. And, isn't that what an amusement park is supposed to do?



Friday, October 13, 2017

how do you say tip in turkish?


Some people say returning to Venice is like falling into the arms of an old mistress.

If that is true, returning to Copenhagen is like visiting your banker. In her office.

I am quite fond of the city. But it is not a place to arouse unseemly sentimentality. Like the Danes, it is orderly with classic lines -- and cool (both in the stylish sense and temperature). The type of city you could take home to meet your mother.

Not many of us would consider Denmark to be a major power. Sitting on top of Germany, it looks like a pencil eraser. But, Copenhagen was once the capital of a great empire that included the Kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden along with the territories of Iceland, Greenland, and a scattering of islands.




"Island" is an important concept for Denmark. It still rules the largest island in the world (Greenland). But a large portion of the kingdom consists of islands. The largest of the group, Zealand, hosts Copenhagen. Unlike most European capitals that are near the center of their country, Copenhagen is almost on the border with Sweden.

The island identity is re-enforced by its harbors on the Baltic Sea and the canals that cut through the city. Denmark has thrived on trade for centuries. The canals are the remains of a past where Danes grew rich on moving merchandise. And, of course, there was a bit of wealth derived from those Viking raids on the rest of Europe.




The Viking past seems ancient history when looking on the city today. Its restrained look is rather new. Very little remains of its medieval past. Most of that burned down in the great fires of 1728 and 1795. But, like most natural disasters, destroyed buildings made way for contemporary architects to show off their skills. And they did.



Copenhagen has some of the best examples of neoclassical and neogothic architecture in the world. And its modern architecture is just as stunning.

Like the opera house.




Or the national library's black diamond.




But not everything In Copenhagen is that staid. I suspect there must have been an outbreak of children being locked up and left in abandoned guard houses. What other reason would there be for this sign?




Or for this one on the gangplank to a Russian sailing vessel. What if something fit into both categories?




(I will hear from my mother about that one.)

But, my favorite Copenhagen story happened last night at the airport. After collecting my luggage, I hired a taxi to take me to the hotel.

The driver loaded my luggage without a word. I showed him the address of the hotel. And we were off. Both of us silent. Until his telephone rang.

It was his daughter. She asked him to bring something home. But none of it was in English -- or Danish. But I recognized enough words to understand what was being said. I just could not place the language.

Then, he spoke his first word to me. Kish? It was clearly a question, but I wasn't sure what he wanted to know. He repeated it with a slightly different accent. Kesh? While holding up his hand rubbing his fingers together in that readily-understood international sign.

"Ah," I said. "Dinero." Yup. I started speaking Spanish to a cab driver in Denmark.

As absurd as it sounds, it worked. He knew more Spanish than English. So, we stumbled through a conversation. The type of conversation that could only have taken place in a Berlitz world.

He was from Turkey. His daughter had asked him to pick up bread. He was from the fourth largest city in Turkey -- Bursa. Once the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He preferred cash to credit cards.

I make it sound as if we had the type of conversation two Spaniards would have over coffee in a sidewalk cafe in Madrid. It wasn't that elegant.

And here is my proof. Somehow, he thought I was from Spain and wished me a happy return trip.

When I told the story to my friend Nancy, she said: "Your Spanish must be getting rather good."

I responded: "As long as I am talking to a Turkish cab driver."

And that is how I hope this trip continues. Just as Henslowe informed us in Shakespeare in Love: "Strangely enough, it all turns out well. . . . It's a mystery."




Thursday, October 12, 2017

flying with hef


People who fly for the quality of airline food are the same people who read Playboy for the articles.

That pearl of wisdom came to me while flying high above the Atlantic. I was reading Hugh Hefner’s obituary in The Economist. The cabin steward delivered my full English breakfast just as I was reading: “Hef in his dotage would retie his silk dressing gown, shuffle into his velvet slippers and get one of his nubile assistants to adjust his hearing aid, since too much Viagra – ‘the fountain of youth’ – had made him deaf.”

Now, that is a sentence with punch.

I could not say the same thing for my breakfast. Or my chateaubriand last night. Even though I flew first class from Mexico City to London, in-flight meals are subject to the “Playboy for the articles” rule. If you want good food, you do not book a seat on British Airways. You book a table at Noma in Copenhagen.

The only true luxury of flying international first class is the seat. The Mexico City-London leg of my trip was just over nine hours in the air. Too long to stay awake the whole trip -- especially, on a night flight.

I have trouble sleeping on aircraft. For a pilot, that is a virtue. For a passenger, it is an annoyance.

I cannot sleep sitting up. And, if I am to avoid wandering the aisles in the night like an air-borne Lost Dutchman, I need a seat that flattens into a bed. That means a first class seat -- along with a duvet and black pajamas that look as if they are from Viet Cong war surplus.



That is the theory. And, it usually works just as it should. But, not last night.

Because a few older passengers complained the first class cabin was “freezing,” the purser stoked the heat to what my father called “cremate.”

They slept. I didn’t. I sweated. Until I started wandering the aisles like -- you guessed it -- an air-borne Lost Dutchman.

After a quick layover in London, I was on my flight to Copenhagen. And that is where I am now.

It is evening, and I have met up with my friends Nancy and Roy. I am ready for bed. But not before I share just one more thought.

One of these days the crankiness that comes with old age will most likely catch up with me. Maybe it has already. Until then, I am going to keep the airlines in shekels and the flight attendants in stitches.

As for Hef and his Viagra-induced deafness, everything has a cost.


Even travel.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

waiting for to go*


I am a terrible waiter.

I don't mean the profession. But I would be terrible at waiting on tables, as well.

What I am terrible at waiting for is things to happen. Anything. And the worst place on earth for impatience is airport terminals.

Most of my flights the last few years require changers of airplanes. My flight today is a perfect example. I flew from Manzanillo yesterday though my main flight is today. Aero Mexico has a tendency to cancel flights out of Manzanillo with very little notice.

My solution was elegant. Or, so I thought. I decided to stay at the Hilton in the Mexico city airport terminal where my flight will originate. I could get a good night's sleep and then have a leisurely day seeing Mexico City before returning to my room to freshen up for the flight.

That sound you hear is God chuckling.

It sounded great in theory. But, I left several things undone for this trip. The hotel room has given me the time to do them. And to sneak in my 5-mile walk this morning without ever once leaving the terminal. Mexico City's terminal 1 gets my second place award for best exercise track -- right after Bogota's.

So, I have not wandered out to see some of my favorite places in this glorious city. And that is a shame. It is a perfect day for strolling. Cloudy. 60 degrees. It could not be better for a walker.

Even though my day has not worked out as I had planned, I highly recommend the airport hotel option when flying. Today, when I get on my long flight, I will be napped out and scrubbed up. And ready to nestle into my little capsule in whichever 747 will be my home for a few hours while hurtling through the atmosphere just below the speed of sound.

I will be my own personal physics experiment.


* -- My apologies to Samuel Beckett.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

excess of seasons


New Yorkers, at least the ones who mattered, or thought they mattered, knew The Season had begun with the staging of Faust at the opera house.

Or so Edith Wharton told us.

If she had taken her refined ways to Melaque, she would have been hard pressed to find a single Mephistopholes or Marguerite. Well, at least, a Marguerite. We may not stage operas, but our Season certainly has started in our little villages. The Northern Tourist Season, that is.

I mentioned in the eye of the storm that Canadian Thanksgiving usually kicks off our social scene.

It is no accident that Canadian Thanksgiving would be the harbinger of things northern. Most northerners here are Canadian. And the first Monday in October is a good indicator when they start arriving.

I have heard estimates that 90 to 80 percent of northern visitors are Canadians. The number seems far too high. But, there is no arguing that the Canadian contingent outnumbers the American.

There were two dueling Canadian Thanksgivings last night. Almost, as if the Roosevelts had taken on the Vanderbilts. One in Barra de Navidad at Señor Froy's. The other at Papa Gallo's on the beach in San Patricio. I was at Papa Gallo's.

I am always impressed with these dinners. Probably because I have created and cooked enough of them to know that results are not always commensurate with effort.

But everything at Papa Gallo's was just right last night. The decorations were understated, and complemented the restaurant's natural setting.

And the food? Pleasant and plenty. What better compliment could a Thanksgiving dinner expect?

Those of you who know me are aware my personality regularly shifts between "pained introvert" and "Hey! Kids! Let's revive French farce." Last night, The Entertainer showed up.

That made the evening quite enjoyable. For me. I cannot build windows into men's funny bones. The rest will have to speak for themselves.

There is something a bit imperialistic, as my friend Doug would say, about these events. Celebrating home holidays on foreign soil. Like celebrating the Queen's Birthday at the British embassy in New Delhi.

But, I suspect, it is just as innocent as trying to take the boy out of his country, only to discover you cannot take the desire to remake the world out of the boy. Even though Rudyard Kipling and Mother Teresa would most likely have felt equally comfortable at our dinner. Which, I guess, is just another way of saying not.

Because I often forget which play I am in and which role I should be playing in life (the very premise that made The Actor's Nightmare such a hit), I started donning my white tie costume yesterday as if I were heading to the opera house.

Good sense prevailed while I was adjusting my waistcoat. Well, good sense and a steady stream of sweat. I switched to far cooler -- in every sense of the word -- apparel.

My white tie is not even accompanying me on my cruise. It will have to wait for Christmas or New Year's Eve dinner to get itself out of the closet.

And that will be the start of a completely different season.

Monday, October 09, 2017

not knowing which way is home


Thomas Wolfe and I must be stuck in one of those eternal grapples that pass themselves off as intellectual chitchat.

You know the model. Like Robert Brown's dual role in that Star Trek episode, "The Alternative Factor," where Lazarus and Anti-Lazarus are forever stuck between universes battling one another about -- well, that was never quite clear. But it gave us budding philosophers a classics illustrated introduction to Manichaeism -- with a bit of yin slathered on our yang.

For Wolfe and me, it is the conundrum of home. And I am facing it again.

A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to apply for Mexican citizenship. One of the requirements is that the applicant can travel outside of Mexico only a limited number of days during the two years preceding applying for citizenship. I would be in the middle of that internal exile period right now.

But, I have decided I am not yet ready to be a Mexican citizenship. For many reasons. One of them is that I want to travel as much as I can while I still am capable -- and before someone shoots me. (But I guess the modifier is a redundancy, isn't it?)

And travel I have. My clock started ticking in March 2016. Since then, I have been to Colombia, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, Nevada, California, Washington, and several other places I cannot immediately recall. And tomorrow I am heading off to London, Denmark, the Azores, Bermuda, and Florida.

Even though I will be boarding an airplane to Mexico City in less than 24 hours, I am reluctant to start packing. The reason is easy. The central garden of my house is so inviting, there is no place I would rather be right now, than sitting here enjoying the day and writing to you good folks out there in the darkness of the eternal ether.

The landscaping around my pool would please a minimalist. There is just enough to give the impression of greenery.

Two of the planters are filed with heliconia -- often confused with bird of paradise. They do not bloom all year, but, when, they do, their exhibitionism would shame both Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump. The stems are clown-bright, and they last for weeks.

Unfortunately, the lot will bloom for only those few weeks. And then they will be gone until next rainy season. Here, that will be next summer.

Sitting here in the shade on a warm summer (despite what the calendar says) day with a cooling breezes backed up by the heliconia showgirls, I am seriously tempted to tell Queen Marghrete she can do without me, and sit right here for the next month.

I may not have moved to Mexico for the weather, but I do live here for moments like this.

Stephen Sondheim says it best:

Let the moment goDon't forget it for a moment, thoughJust remembering you've had an "and"When you're back to "or"Makes the "or" mean moreThan it did before

Saturday, October 07, 2017

for whom the numbers toll


It was late and everyone had left the restaurant except for a young man who sat alone in the corner.

He could have been Puzo-written. Olive-skinned. Expensively groomed black hair. And the ubiquitous designer sunglasses.

In another place, he would have been a Gambino soldier. But not here. He was up to something quite different. He was there to deal.

Instead of coming to his table to take his order, the waitress sat down. She handed him several peso notes. He passed something to her.

Then it was the day manager's turn. He re-enacted the same tango. Sit. Money. Something passed.

Several explanations danced in my head -- not all of them licit. But the people involved did not fit those narratives.

What truly bothered me was it all seemed familiar. That I had somehow seen this before. What is worse, I was positive someone had explained the transaction. But, all telephone calls to my memory bank went unanswered.

So, I did what I do when I get lost in Mexican culture. I talked with my friend Julio.

I went to the right person. He is a regular participant in this pass-the-money game. It is called la contrata and is a financial mainstay of our little villages.

Here is how it works. The young man I saw in the restaurant acts as the banker. The banker and 10 other "savers" are assigned a number from 1 to 11. 


Each saver then deposits a certain amount of pesos each week. Usually, $500 (Mx). Each week a number comes up in sequence. The holder of that money then gets back the money he has deposited with the banker -- less the money the banker receives on his week. He contributes nothing other than being the guarantor if a participant does not fully contribute. (I suspect there may be some Gambino moments when that happens.)

The result? In 11 weeks the savers will have deposited $5,500 (Mx), and will receive $5,000 (Mx) when their name comes up.

During his recitation, I realized Julio's predecessor at the restaurant had described the same process. But he described it as a lottery. And that confused me because he said that everyone wins the lottery -- just like a politician describing health care.

But I do not think that was why I forgot the explanation. It simply did not make sense to me why someone would think it was a good deal to pay someone to hold their savings.

Of course, many international banks are now doing that with commercial accounts (and some are considering extending it to individual accounts). Economists call it negative interest. I call it a bad deal.

When I asked other contrata savers why they thought it was a good idea to pay someone to hold their savings, why they did not just put their weekly payment in a shoebox at home and keep all of their hard-earned wages, they answered unanimously. "If I do not save that way, I will spend all of it when I get it."

I understand that impulse. When I was their age, there was no tomorrow. There was only now. It took two changes for me to join the  Josiah Bounderby set. The first was the wisdom of age. Nothing focuses one's attention on the future like the clatter of death's carriage.

The second was money. As the years went by, I started earning more than even my voracious consumerism could gobble. I also worked at a company that encouraged its employees to join tax-deferred savings programs.

If either of those two changes had not occurred, I am not certain I could now play the role of Second Dutch Uncle in my little morality play where I cluck my tongue at contrata participants.

In a society where banks are not trusted (often for faulty reasons), free individuals will devise market systems that meet their perceived needs.

Last week I was talking with an expatriate friend. One of his chief concerns is people who come to Mexico and bring with them what he calls "cultural imperialism" -- the belief that Mexico would be a far better place if everything was done just as it is at home.

I chuckled when I thought about my reaction to la contrata. I fell right into the same trap.

Maybe I should do penance by taking a number this week.


Thursday, October 05, 2017

putting the boo in boutique


"I am looking forward to coming to Melaque at the end of the month for the Day of the Dead celebration. I have never seen it there. Only in Pátzcuaro."

Her name is Brenda. A frequent visitor to the highlands of Mexico, who started reading my pieces when I was scouting for a house in Pátzcuaro. In anticipation of her first visit to Melaque, she sent me an email to ask which cemetery in town would have the most decorations.

I have actually answered that -- or, at least, a similar -- question. Last year, about just this time (night of the dead -- the prequel), I was heading to Pátzcuaro
 this time last year when I summed up Melaque's take on night of the dead.
Our villages do not celebrate day and night of the dead with the same ritual solemnity practiced in certain parts of Mexico's highlands.
That does not mean we do not celebrate it here. When it is honored, it is usually in a far more subtle style. Whether at home or during brief visits to the cemetery.
I had given the impression in an earlier essay that Night of the Dead had not taken root amongst our peripatetic villagers when the government decided in the 1960s Night of the Dead would be imposed on places where it had never been celebrated. For Pátzcuaro, nothing much changed. But it was a stranger to northern Mexico. And, to a degree, in the little villages around our bay.

Hank, an occasional commenter, and Dora, the woman who helps me keep my house tidy, noted my earlier hyperbole. But the argument is still this same. If you want to see Night of the Dead at its peak, head to the highlands.

Here, the cemetery in the municipal seat comes as close to being an open celebration. Otherwise, we have the extreme of private ceremonies at home and somewhat overblown public exhibitions staged by high school students and local businesses.

This year, I will miss even that on my trip to Denmark.

From the merchandise at La Comer in Manzanillo on Wednesday, it looks as if Night of the Dead may be pushed aside a bit more by another American culture invasion -- Halloween.

The photograph shows only one rack of costumes. There were three rows of duds for fairies, princesses, vampires, and a rather-chilling Black Monk. Along with plastic jack-o-lanterns to collect all of the trick or treat goodies the neighborhood may offer. That would not be my neighborhood.

At least, they were not these day-glo jack-o-lanterns I have seen displayed along the road around Morelia during October. But it is the first truck load I have noticed here. Mind you, I usually am not looking for such paraphernalia while I am driving.




If you are interested in Night of the Dead at its best, take Dan Patman's tour to Michoacan. And, if you are looking for evidence of the ceremony here, stop by the jardin in San Patricio.

The students always do a creditable (if eccentric) job of celebrating lives past.  


Tuesday, October 03, 2017

it's hard to siesta if you work all day


Some essays on Mexpatriate almost write themselves.

The current edition of The Economist reports on an extended national vacation declared by the South Korean government in an attempt to pry workers from their desks. Koreans have a well-deserved reputation for being chronic workaholics.

South Koreans, that is. North Korean leaders have an entirely different reputation. Their people cannot afford to have their own reputation.

The following sentence slammed on my reading brakes. "Workers in South Korea toil for more hours each year than those in any other member of the OECD [the 35 richest countries] except for Mexico."

It was the "except for Mexico" that yanked me away from the article to search the OECD website.

It is true. South Korea is third on the list I found, with Costa Rica as number two. But, there it was in blue and white -- in 2016 the "average annual hours worked" by a Mexican worker was 2,255. More than any other OECD nation.

That is about 43 hours a week. But it includes averages for full and part time workers.

To put that number in perspective, American workers (long famed for their workaholic ways) are in 15th place at 1783 hours. Canadians are in 22nd place at 1713 hours.

Now, it is possible to get picky with these studies. I usually do. The most obvious target for skepticism is the definition of "worker." But, for a person who is working, an average of 43 hours (not taking into account vacation days) is a lot of hours when it comes week after week.

I have several northern and European friends who scoff when I point out that Mexico is a world-class economic power. Its membership in the OECD is just an example -- along with the fact that its GDP is the 15th largest in the world.

Even though most of them would deny it, when they hear "Mexican," they think of a sombreroed campesino, wrapped in a serape, napping in the shade of a cactus while his burro waits patiently nearby. Our local shops sell refrigerator magnets and planters of that very image. After all, 20 pesos is 20 pesos.

Between the overtime worker and the siesta king, those of us who have lived any time in Mexico know which vision is the more accurate.

And that is why Mexico's lead in the hours worked chart should not have surprised me. When I head out on my dawn walk, construction workers are arriving on site, and they do not leave until I pass by again in the evening as the sun is setting.

The same goes for the garbage guys. Or the shop owners. They always seem to be on duty. No matter the time of day. For the shops, that usually means staying open until a lot of us old northerners have slipped between the sheets.

That hours worked number carries its own warning. For a lot of Mexicans it is a matter of necessity. The hourly wages here are not high. And, if anyone wants to get ahead economically, the path is working more hours.

But I am not scandalized by that theory, either. I was raised in a household where our family motto easily could have been laborare est orare -- to work is to pray. Work gives us a psychological sense of who we are in this world. And it certifies our self-worth.

I suppose that is one reason I so admire my neighbors. They are a people who know the value of work -- and they do it well.

Good job, Mexico. Keep up the work.


Monday, October 02, 2017

stringing us along


Sometimes, I think I have lived here too long.

I followed this taxi for about two miles before it even occurred to me to pull out my camera to share the sight with you.  You do not see a taxi topped with a white bass fiddle every day of the week.

Of course, around here, you do see practical solutions to transportation problems almost every day. My favorite is the full-grown bull or horse in the back of a small pickup truck.

But this was my first bass fiddle sighting. Usually, musical instruments are transported around town as God intended them -- in the hands of roving musicians whose need for financial support far outweighs their musical talent. Whenever tourists are in town, groups of minstrels are almost everywhere. Especially, on the beach.

I assume that the owner of the bass fiddle needed to be somewhere not within foot power. Of course, it would be almost as easy to imagine it being carried on the back of one of those small motorcycles that transport a large group of friends or family members.

But Mexico is not the only place I have seen images like this. I have run across instrument cases on top of cabs in New York City. Mattresses on top of cabs in Barcelona. Chairs on top of cabs in Cairo.

Those solutions make perfect sense. If you do not have access to a truck and you need to move a large object. taxis seems to be the practical solution. And Mexicans certainly are a practical people.

It makes me wonder whether Uber provides similar services. Having thought of it, I imagine it does. Even though my Uber experience has usually been in vehicles smaller than that bass fiddle.

For some reason, that photograph seemed to be a good way to start the month. After all, the Denmark trip is quickly slipping up on me.


Saturday, September 30, 2017

the eye of the storm


"But, you don't have any seasons down there? How do you know if you are alive without surviving a winter?"

It was my friend Rod in Portland. He has never understood my decision to move to Mexico. So, he pulled the seasons card.

But he was wrong. We do have seasons in our little tourist village by the sea. And I do not mean the three seasons of hot, hotter still, and so hot you might as well live in the Congo.

True, the three hots do exist. But the more obvious seasonal indicator is the ebb and flow of tourists visiting our lovely Eden -- complete with serpents and other things that go bump in the night.

The calendar does not help a lot. But we can use months as reference points.

We are now just coming out of the tourist doldrums of August and September. Why don't we start there?

These two months tend to be the most difficult for businesses that rely on the tourist trade. Mexicans visit on the weekends, but not in large groups. And there are some northerners here in August visiting their Mexican relatives.  There is enough English spoken on the Barra malecon that it is possible to believe you are in Santa Monica. By the start of September, that stream dries up.

In September, the beaches are almost deserted. As you can see in the photograph.

October starts a different cycle. The northerners (mainly Canadians) start arriving for long-term stays. The omnipresence of Canadian Thanksgiving dinners on 9 October is the official kickoff of the northern season. It will run until about March or so with its high point of six weeks that span January and February.

There are two large surges of Mexican tourism that coincide with the northern visitors. The first is approximately two weeks around Christmas when Mexico puts down its tools and rests -- with almost endless fiestas. Some vacationers are clever enough to combine their Christmas vacation with the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico's patron saint) on 10 December.

San Patricio has its own patron saint. Coincidentally enough, San Patricio. Or, Saint Patrick -- for you Irish. His feast day is 17 March, and it is wildly celebrated for well over a week, even though it falls within Lent.

Speaking of Lent, Mexico's big holiday is semana santa -- what we northerners would call Easter week and was once a school holiday, now supplanted by the soulless spring break.

The week before Easter and the week after bring the largest groups of Mexican tourists to our area. The beach seems to be the place to be. Traditionally, the tourists have come by bus. But, more and more, middle class Mexican families arrive in their SUVs with their 2.1 children. And, often, a large dog. All wearing designer clothes. Well, except for the dog.

Most northerners have pulled up stakes by the time semana santa arrives. And once the Easter festivities are over, the town slips into a bit of tourist hibernation. Weekends are busy. But weekdays are slower.

Until the arrival of summer vacation. About six weeks in June and July. Once again, the beaches are filled with Mexican families. And, unlike up north, young people seem to enjoy spending vacations with their full extended clan. Though, smart phones are whittling away at that dynamic.

Then comes August, and the cycle repeats itself.

Mexicans and expatriates who live here full time have their favorite parts of the tourist cycle. I like them all. It is almost like watching a kaleidoscope of humanity. Each month -- each week -- each day -- is different in its own way.

So, no Doug, we may not have winters here, but our seasons are every bit as interesting as watching the leaves change colors in the park blocks of Portland in September.

Maybe more so.


Friday, September 29, 2017

man down


When I returned to Barra de Navidad from Oregon in August, a storm had just passed through our little tourist village.

I got a new umbrella out of it. Others were not so fortunate.

Part of my daily walks is along one of our main streets -- Puerto de la Navidad. It could easily be confused with a slice of suburbia in Wichita. Wide avenue. Straight sidewalks. Tidy homes.

That is why I was a little surprised last month to find half of a ficus collapsed across the sidewalk. I tried to move the branch, but it was too heavy. So, I let it be. My experience is that fallen trees are quickly cleaned up around here.

But, not this time. Each day I took that route, I had to detour around the branch. That went on for a couple of weeks. It was still there when I flew north for my high school reunion. When I returned, someone had cleared the sidewalk and tidied up the scarred tree.

I tell you that tale because it was such an anomaly. When hurricane Patricia crashed through here two years ago, crews were out immediately clearing away fallen trees. The hurricane had blocked the road out of the village with enough wood to build a Grimm Brothers set. Within a day, the road was open.

I thought of those two battling models when I noticed this telephone pole taking a siesta in the middle of the main road into Barra. I could not tell if the pole had collapsed from old age (wood tends to have the life span of a May fly here), had been sheared by a distracted motorist or a combination.

The woman in the pharmacy on the corner had no information on whether the driver was distracted, but she knew it was a car that had toppled the pole and shattered the street light.

It was still there when I walked past an hour later. But, by the time I took my evening walk to dinner, everything had been cleaned up.

And I would have anticipated that. With the ficus exception, Mexico is very good about whisking away the detritus of nature and accidents. And, I suspect the ficus took so long because the tree was in front of a vacant lot. The owner may not have been informed.

That brings us to the fact that my I am writing this essay from the comfort of my house. Telmex finally showed up yesterday. It turned out my telephone line was operating. The same could not be said for either my telephone, the filter on the line, or my modem. I now have a full new set. And Mexpatriate is back in full force.

Every good essay deserves a moral. But I do not have one today. That may say something about the quality of the essay itself.

Maybe all I have to say is that life here is good. And that is good enough for a fine Friday morning.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

offering a hand


In Mañana Forever?, Jorge Castañeda bemoaned the lack of civic associations in Mexico. Mexicans join charitable, educational, religious, and communitarian associations at a far lower rate than other Latin American nations.

Mexicans may not be joiners, but what 
Castañeda ignores is that Mexicans are more than willing to lend a helping hand to their neighbors in time of crisis.

The 1985 Mexico City earthquake is a perfect example. With a good portion of the city in ruins, the government slipped into denial and withheld the services of the army, the police, and firemen in rescue efforts. The police were eventually employed -- but to hold back the throngs of volunteers who thronged to help their neighbors.

Ironically, the rescue efforts were led by groups formed out of the 1968 student revolt. Along with unrelated individuals, they joined forces to help salvage what could have been a far worse tragedy.

We saw that same humanitarian expression again this month. When Mexico City and the surrounding area suffered another large earthquake, the first people on the scene were neighbors and passersby who ran to clear rubble and save survivors.

Barra de Navidad is 560 miles from Mexico City. But our little community organized to help the earthquake victims. Our local message boards have been filled with people offering assistance.

Last night, a group of Mexicans, expatriates, and tourists gathered to do even more. The gathering place was one of our more popular eateries -- Se
ñor Froy's. (Yes. Yes. I know. You intellectual property experts can just calm down.)



Froy offered up his restaurant to provide food for the mob that gathered and to provide a portion of his proceeds to the pot that was quickly filling up. The big event was a silent auction where the usual fare of restaurant certificates and lodging were on offer.

In the spirit of the evening, people also brought in personal items to auction. Paintings. Jewelry. Dinnerware. Beauty products. Baked goods. Anything that could be sold to raise funds. I saw a taxi arriving filled with bags of clothing to be shipped to Mexico City.




We will not know the total amount raised until later in the week. Money is still flowing in from up north -- and locally.

Some people are averse to these public displays of charity. I must confess that I prefer a more subtle approach.

But my preference for more anonymity ignores a crucial point. One that was inherent in Castañeda's criticism of the lack of civic associations in Mexico.


There is something powerful when people gather and act as a group to help others who have suffered a disaster. Last night's gathering was certainly stronger than each of us as individuals. It was the equivalent of an old-fashioned barn-raising. And I was happy to feel all that empathy.




The total amount raised will be an interesting piece of data. But it is probably the least important aspect of the evening.

The more important result is that a group of strangers saw their fellow humans in distress and joined together to do something about it.

And that is miracle enough for me on this fine morning in Mexico.

  

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

drawing the line


Walking is a blessing and a curse.

The blessing part is obvious. What else could get me out in my neighborhood while giving me the exercise I need?

But there is a downside. And it came home to me in spades yesterday morning.

Part of my walk through Barra de Navidad includes walking to the end of our jetty that juts into the bay. It is the half-way point of my 5-mile walk.

The jetty always has something of interest. People fishing for dinner -- or fun. Pelicans picking off the fish missed by the hooks and lines. Scuttling crabs. And the star attraction: the morphing ocean.

Yesterday, there was something new. Being smart readers, you have already seen what caught my eye.

I first noticed several fish swimming along the surf line on the beach. Close enough that it looked as if one or two would be stranded. None were.

When I traced the line of fish along the jetty, it ended in a bait ball. Not just a school, but a bait ball. Eels could have not entwined any closer.

I am not a fisherman. And, unless a specimen is in a tank with a label, I am just as likely to identify a rainbow trout as a sea bass.

So, there is my confession of ignorance. I know that some of you fish. Do you have any idea, from the behavior, what my discovery might be?

Unfortunately, the definition of the photograph when increased will not help you much. At best in that resolution, they could be an abstract expressionist's concept of a fish.

The curse portion of my walking?

Because I felt compelled to maintain my walking pace, I snapped this photograph and kept on walking when I could have stopped for just a moment to enjoy another of Mexico's ever-changing attractions.

There may be a moral buried in that bait ball.

   

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

the infernal city


On one of my recent forays north, I thumbed through a stack of photographs from my last visit to Rome.

Everything was there that makes Rome Rome. Piazzas. Sunshine. Fountains.

It occurred to me that I do not need to fly to Rome to experience the Roman experience. I have it right here in Barra de Navidad.

Through my screen, I can see the eyes rolling now. Sun? Certainly. Piazzas? To a degree. But, Steve, fountains? Really?

For those who doubt our little tourist village has fountains, just wait until it rains. Admittedly, it takes a heavy rain. Like the ones we have had over the past two weeks. But fountains we have.

Some of our infrastructure here is a bit dodgy. Including the sewers. During the best of times (when the pumps are running and the sand has been dredged out of the pipes and it is not raining and visitors do not clog the pipes with wads of toilet paper flushed down the toilet), our sewers work. Most of the time.

But, 
change any of those circumstances, and we have trouble.

Not that it matters in practice, but we have two separate sewer systems in Barra de Navidad. One serves the housing development known as the fraccioniamento. That system is supposed to be run by a now-moribund housing association. It works through voluntary fees and volunteer help.

The rest of Barra, including my house in the barrio, is served by a sewer system operated by the county.

I say that the division does not matter in practice because both systems feed into one another. When one has a problem, so does the other.

And those problems are most visible during heavy rains. We do not have a division between storm and sewage systems. Most of the rain water attempts to drain into the sewage system -- until it is overwhelmed.

That is when we get our fountains. Water burbles up through the manholes. Water that is a mixture of rain and sewage. And when it burbles, the only-slightly diluted sewage water runs down our streets toward the lagoon.

At least 24 hours after the rain stopped, the manholes were still geysering.

Then the sun came out. The combination of the heat and the pervasive methane made me wonder if I had started with the wrong analogy. Barra is far more Venice -- with its canals and smells -- than it is Rome.

And what is being done about it? For about thirty years, the local politicians have been kicking the can down the road -- much as did the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations with North Korea. The good news is that our sewer system will not result in a nuclear explosion. I hope.

No hay remedio seems to be our sewage motto.

If so, we can enjoy the beauty of our small Trevis.


Sunday, September 24, 2017

dressing down sex


So, there I was walking through Ross Dress for Less in Salem looking for a black linen unstructured jacket.

My friend Nancy swears that great bargains are nestled amongst the dross. I have yet to find any. But I often find great photographs.

Just like this one.

The sign on the wall quite clearly declared I was standing in the boys section. But I was surrounded by frilly dresses, patterned pants-top outfits, and garishly-colored boots.

Before I could catch myself, I asked: "What self-respecting boy would wear something like this?" Fortunately, I did not say it out loud. One never knows where the thought police lurk.

I will gladly confess I am a card-carrying purveyor of the cisgendered heresy. That, of course, would put paid to my dream of entering Reed College. If I ever had one.

Reed, if you did not know, is known as being one of America's more liberal and studious campuses. If you have a great Wittgenstein pun, this is the place to exercise it. As long as you do it with caution.

Reed is under siege. Not from the right. Why would they bother? But from the left. For going on two years, a small group of radical Reed students have been shouting down or closing lectures attended by their fellow students.

The crime? Humanity courses are "eurocentric." A poetry course, taught by a multi-race lesbian, because she was a "race traitor," "anti-black," "a sex crime ableist," and "a gaslighter." She now claims to suffer from post trauma stress disorder and doubts she can teach the course again.

This is all old news. It is the type of self-indulgent behavior that rich countries exhibit when they no longer have true daily problems.

Mexico does not have time for that nonsense. This is a country where a young woman can call her best friend "La Gorda" because she is fat or a man can call his chum "El Chaparro" because he is of diminished stature.

And they do. No one cries or ends up in therapy. (Mind you, I would be careful not to use certain appellations in the company of drunk men of any nationality.)

But there is a similarity to Mexico. I suspect the sign at Ross did not get changed because the store needed additional space for girls' clothing. And no one bothered to change the "boys" sign.

And the same can (and does) happen in Mexico. It is not unusual, at the Manzanillo Walmart, to find cases of beer stacked under the sign for automotive supplies.

Come to think of it, that may not be a mistake. 


Saturday, September 23, 2017

booking the odds


I am buying books these days.

Text books. High school text books.

No, I am not going through reversion therapy as a result of my high school reunion -- longing for the smell of a long-neglected hall locker on a hot spring day.

I have volunteered to help a friend successfully get through high school. His name is Omar -- and I will introduce you to him in the near future. He is one of those young people you meet now and then who you know has a good future ahead of him. If some topes can be flattened out.

One of those speed bumps is money. He just started preparatoria -- the equivalent of senior high school up north. Grades 10, 11, and 12. Or, for those of us who refuse to be drafted into the politically correct crowd: sophomore, junior, senior.

His is in Melaque, run by the University of Guadalajara. The short name is "prepa." And that is just what it is -- a prep school. Just like Groton. Sorta. Complete with uniforms and an interesting curriculum.

The photograph is of the textbooks for his courses during a portion of this semester. Communication skills. Physics. Mathematics. Art appreciation. Health. English. The type of courses I took when I was his age.

The cost of those six books was just under $1,000 (Mx) (about $57 (US)). That seemed reasonable to me. But that is only one packet. If I understood correctly, there are four packets each year.

An annual cost of just over $200 (US) for books is not startling to me. I make check book balancing errors in that range. But, this is a kid who works as a waiter as many days a week as he can while attending school. Four thousand pesos is a lot of money to him.

His goal? He wants to do well enough in prepa that he can qualify to attend one of Mexico's  dental schools. It was that ambition and drive that caught my attention. Anyone who is willing to help himself that much to better his station in life deserves a bit of help.

And, so, I will do what I can. I will also keep you posted on Omar's progress. Even if he decides that dentistry is not his ultimate dream, it will be something else. But he will succeed.

He is that type of guy. You can book on it.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

coleopterist wanted


Nope. It is not what you are thinking. I don't need anyone probing my colon.

What I would like is a bit of assistance in identifying today's guest insect. Because of my limited access to internet, I have not been able to take advantage of the archival treasures of Google.

Just by looking at this specimen, I know it is an insect (the six legs are a give away), and it is a beetle (the hard wing coverings). But past that, I am at a loss.

It is a beauty -- almost five inches long and hefty. I found its carcass on the upstairs terrace after one of our rains. I suspect it was pummeled from the sky.

Its mouth parts are what make it interesting to me -- similar to those rams on the front of Roman trimenes. Think Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur.

I may have encountered one on my nightly walks. Three weeks ago, I had almost made it to my front door when something substantial hit my forehead. I thought I had been stung by a wasp. But, when I looked in the mirror, there were two abrasions. Wasps are not blessed with double stingers.

So, here is your chance to get that extra credit in your post-graduate biology course. What is the name of this beetle?

Who knows? A prize may await the first correct answer.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

someone's got my goat


Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed something is awry in the photographs I posted about our recent rainstorms.

One of the more interesting attributes of living in my neighborhood is the Noah's ark of farm animals that live nearby. Chickens. Fighting cocks. Ducks. Turkeys. Donkeys. Horses. We have them all.

For the three years I have lived here, goats  have been my neighbors on the vacant lot across the street. I call it Goat Island. It is not an island. And the goats? They are no more.

During its lifetime, the herd ranged from one to five. But the cycle has been the same. The goats arrived young, fattened up on grass and weeds, and were whisked away to meet their destiny as birria -- a popular Jalisco stew with a spicy kick.

The last two goats were a nanny and her new-born kid (just kidding -- this time). The owners shipped the goats off to simmer camp in late April. Since then, we have been goatless in Barra. At least, my part of Barra. There is still a large herd that is driven from lot to lot in my neighborhood.

And because the lot is tropical, without the goats, the grass is well over my head. The goats did a great job of keeping it mowed at ankle level.

They did a far better job than the neighbor boys who showed up in their campesino outfits -- complete with hats and machetes -- around noon. At 12:05, they had wisely retreated from the day's heat. Even the goats would have been searching for shade on a day like this.

Me? I am sitting under my new umbrella in the storm path of a floor plan while waiting for the Telmex technician to show up. He was supposed to be here between 9 and 1. It is now 2. That means another call. And another frustrating wait.

For now, though, the pool sounds like a far better idea.

Goats or no goats.

 Note -- I wrote this essay yesterday. The Telmex guy never showed up. And I now know why.

I am part of a much larger problem. For at least a radius of 5 blocks around my house (if not more), no one has telephone or internet service. That has been true since last Wednesday.

When I told a neighbor we should get a discount, he laughed hysterically. As Lily Tomlin would say: "We don't care. We don't have to. 
We're the telephone company. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

dead a la modem


There is a reason Mexpatriate has gone dark for a couple of days -- and may remain so for a few more.

I flew back to Manzanillo on Saturday afternoon. The flight went well, but my arrival had two surprises. When I returned from Oregon a month ago, I was welcomed by a shredded umbrella. On Saturday, it was the sound of silence.

To be more precise, it was the sound of silence of my telephone and modem.

When my friend Ruette picked me up at the airport, she told me we had experienced an enormous thunderstorm in Barra de Navidad earlier in the week. A lightning strike had taken out her modem.

She was not alone. When I tried to link with my wifi, I found nothing. A little troubleshooting indicated the modem was not connecting with the internet. And my telephone had no signal.

I have been here before. When I lived in Villa Obregon, I lost all of my electronics that were hooked to my telephone line. The culprit was lightning.

So, I knew the drill. I had to get a Telmex customer service representative on the telephone. She would then ask me to take a series of actions -- turn the modem power off and on, reset the modem, remove all of the connections and restore them -- to determine if I needed a modem or not.

I did all of that. The fact that the modem smelled of smoke was not encouraging.

First thing this morning, I called the Telmex 800 number on my cell phone, and waited 42 minutes for an answer. When the customer service representative came on line, we struggled with my Spanish for about 15 minutes. Things were going well until we came to an action I could not translate.

I wanted to avoid talking with an English-speaking representative. But I finally surrendered and requested one. The phone rang twice, then it switched to a busy signal. I was disconnected.

I called again, but hung up after waiting for 32 minutes. Next time, I will have an assistant on my quest.

As for the telephone, I bought a cheap unit to be certain my line is still working. If it is not, I will need to schedule a visit from the Telmex man.

The reason I am telling you this tale of woes is that until my line is restored, Mexpatriate will be on vacation. I am writing this through the good graces of Rooster's. But that is not going to be my final solution.

Instead of writing, I will catch up on my reading and cool my heels in the pool.

Going dark is not necessarily all bad.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

nostalgiathon


OK. I give up.


Thomas Wolfe is correct. You never can go home again.


And I know why. Because, while you were not looking, home moved away.

That Columbus moment came to me while I was getting in my steps yesterday morning. Highway 99 once was the main north-south corridor in Oregon before I-5 was built.

My family lived two country blocks west of the highway's commercial district, and I lived a good deal of my life in those few blocks. My memories are still there, but most of the places I grew up with fifty years ago are gone. Or have been, to use the trendy abomination, repurposed.

Take First State Bank. Well, Key Bank did just that long ago. But, in 1960, the bank manager, Dick Jones, needed someone to weed the landscaping. My dad had just the man for the job -- his eleven-year old son he had named Steve.

My dad was a big believer that work not only built character; it was the very essence of character, the reason we exist. He would have been a friend of Aristotle. He early taught me that a good citizen could find fulfillment only as a giver, and not as a taker.

The bank once had rows of landscaping. It has now given way to minimalism after being assaulted by waves of asphalt. As you can see in the photograph at the top, the weeding job would now be a snap.

But that was not my only job on the highway. During the summer of 1967, while waiting for college to begin, I started my first legitimate job where taxes and social security were withheld from my paycheck. (I have been a conservative ever since.) At McDonald's.

Between the bank job and filtering soft drinks through trapped flies and bees, I earned money as a newspaper delivery boy, a mower and tender of lawns, and a newspaper shagger (don't ask). All are what we would now call part of the informal economy.

But in June 1967, I was hired by McDonald's -- a new employer in our area. I loved everything about that experience. My pal Rod Behrens joined me in the work. We had great fun last night reminiscing about how much fun it was. And what we learned about work.

Today? It is this.


The golden arches have been pawned. All That Glitters. One of several pawn shops in my old neighborhood. The presence of pawn shops is never a harbinger that areas are on the upswing. The place ceased to be a McDonald's seventeen years ago.


A block away is another food shrine. The Imperial Garden introduced me to Chinese food that had zing. Until then, my family had eaten only in Chinese restaurants that trafficed in Cantonese -- the equivalent of oriental rest home food.

The Imperial Garden served spicy food. A culinary affectation I still champion.

Before the Imperial Garden moved in, the building housed Sambo's restaurant -- complete with paintings of an Indian boy, tigers, butter, and pancakes. (If you know the child's book of a similar name, you understand the imagery.)

The name could not withstand the advances in racial awreness of the 1960s and 1970s. It was apparent the restaurant would not survive. And, it didn't. Instead of a pancake house with south Asian iconography, we received a palace of Chinese  flavors. It was a fair trade.

And it is still there.

What is not still there was the company that introduced me to pizza. Shakey's. It was just across the street from the Imperial Garden.

My high school friend (and co-playwright) Jay Myers introduced me to Portuguese linguica. I had never tasted it before. And I now never order pizza without it -- along with pepperoni, kalamatas, and anchovies.


Like McDonald's, Shakey's is long gone. But the building is still there. In the guise of one of the restaurant-bars that try to serve a bit of this and that.


I suspect I was introduced to Mexican food at home. You may have been as well. Through one of those taco kits with the hard shells.

But I learned to enjoy Jalisco cuisine at El Tapatio, tucked between McDonald's and Shakey's in a small strip mall. Colette and I enjoyed many a meal there. And it is still where I left it when I moved away from Milwaukike in 1991.


But my favorite eatery on Highway 99 (or McLoughlin Boulevard, as we knew it) was Lew's Long Coney Islands. It was a favorite teen hangout -- complete with a cigarette machine.

A diner, it was not. The original operation was effectively a shack housing the kitchen with a couple of uncovered picnic tables. Most people would grab their meals and drive home. Mine was always the same: chip steak sandwich, crinkle fries, and a cherry ice cream soda.

All of that changed when Lew decided to build a proper restaurant to serve his food. It was never the same. Far too fancy for what came out of the kitchen. Informality was the charm of the original place.

Before long, Lew retired. I seriously considered buying the restaurant. Instead, one of my clients did. I ended up merely writing the contract.

Over time, the restaurant changed hands. Candidate Obama stopped buy to eat a weiner. But every time I visited, the food declined.

Even knowing that, I still looked forward yesterday to lunching on a coney island (the chip steak sandwiches had disappeared decades ago). When I rounded the corner onto McLoughlin, it was gone. Not just Lew's. The entire building.

In its place was a shiny new pizza place. I didn't bother stopping. Nor did I snap a shot. What was the point? Lew's was gone. Another part of my youth run over by the steamroller of time.

At my reunion last night, most of our conversations centered around the years we had shared together. Some of us, all the way from grade school through high school.

Our high school graduating class had less than 200 members. My friend Janis had prepared a memorial of our classmates who have died. Twenty-eight.

I have no idea if that is average or not. But it is sobering. Twenty-eight people with whom I shared memories are gone. Just like McDonald's and Lew's. And, before long, that list will include all of the names that once graced our grauation program.

But that day is not today. I am on my way back to Barra de Navidad -- having been refreshed by an evening recalling that our shared past still survives.

And Thomas Wolfe is ahead on points.