Marta's Journal

talk to me

10 august 2005

I have given in to the forces of easy technology, and started a blog. You can find it here: motherweary.  If I can figure out a way to load blog software onto this server I will continue with the journal. In the meantime, check me out at livejournal.

02 july 2005

We've been working like dogs for weeks, and our house is ready to show. I've prepared an Adobe Acrobat pdf slide show, but it's a biggish file -- I'll try to load in a web-worthy version later. I burned about twenty copies of this on CD and left them for the realtors, who are waltzing through today. We're too tired to be excited, but we are anyway.

By the way, what's this stuff about working like dogs? Our dogs never worked a lick in their lives, and the current canine resident, Spud, lies about glorying in his 17 years and grey muzzle, and rises with enthusiasm only for treats. If we worked like Spud, nothing would ever get done. Working like dogs, indeed.

19 july 2005

Ah, the dental stuff. Well, C needed to have a bridge replaced. Our U.S. dental insurance wouldn't cover it (of course) and the local dentist quoted over $10k to have the work done ... but we had heard that Mexican dentistry is top-notch and comparatively cheap. We asked around and were directed to Dr. Luis Magaña Ahedo in Morelia. Dr. Magaña speaks English and is a man of considerable expertise and talents, teaches internationally, invented a dental articulator to aid in the construction of dental appliances, is gifted and careful, and collects art so there’s always something nifty to look at. He and C ended up playing golf and hanging out together, and got on famously.

So one day in Dr. Magaña’s office, C met a U.S. expat who lives in the area, and who mentioned a development going up near Pátzcuaro. The day before we left, Dr. Magaña took us out for the day, we drove all over the place, saw wonderful stuff, and also toured the development. It’s called Corazón de Durazno, which means “Heart of the Peach” in Spanish – 34 homesites in a peach orchard, about three miles out of Pátzcuaro on a hillside overlooking the lake. The land itself is surrounded by meadows, and a mixed forest of pines and oaks. The elevation’s about 7,500 feet, so the weather is temperate. Pátzcuaro is 28 miles from Morelia, which itself is three hours from everything: Mexico City, Guadalajara, and the beach resort area of Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa. Corazón is peaceful and beautiful, and we fell in love with it.

We toured one of the houses – not a model, but a recently completed residence very like the one you can see by following the link (page 2, click on the floor-plans to get views of the rooms). The construction seems very well done, and the detail work is impressive. Over twenty-five of the lots have been sold and a number of houses are already up. The way it works is, you pick a lot, you pick a floor-plan, you sign a contract, they custom-build the house for you.

So we came home and fussed about it, and emailed back and forth with the American woman who owns the site and with the architect-contractor who is her partner in the venture. For some time now we’ve been talking about retiring to Mexico, both for economic reasons and, more importantly, for cultural ones, and after spending some days mincing around each other, looking sideways at the brochure and the internet site, and mumbling about funds, we decided that Corazón is what we have been looking for. There’s not a lot to lose here: real estate prices in the area are rising, so if we change our minds we can at a minimum get our money back. We can rent the house out, either long-term or as a vacation rental, until we are ready to move down ourselves (which is probably a number of years in the future). If we decide that we are not happy in the area, we can easily move on. For that matter, if we decide that we’re not happy in Mexico, we can easily move back.

So we sent them a deposit on a four-bedroom house on a single level, with an interior courtyard. We have put our Petaluma house on the market, in order to finance the construction in Mexico, to have some liquidity, and because the California real estate roller coaster is beginning to make us nervous and we would, we think, be happier off it. (To our mutual amazement, in turns out that we can rent for less than we are paying in mortgages. Go figure.)

I know that we’re going to miss the house (we’ve spent years tailoring the buildings and gardens to fit us) but we have signed the lease on a great older house at the top of one of Petaluma’s many hills, with a view from here to there, and a garden that needs lots of work (yay!) We’re scrubbing the old place, doing the petty little deferred-maintenance things that always accumulate, and packing box after box after box. We ache. We fuss. We lose our tempers and roll our eyes and stick our lower lips out and scour and paint and pack, and periodically we stop and grin like maniacs at each other.

We may be nuts, but whatever else this is, it is exciting.

The page is mightier than the swordMorelos smiting foes with paper.
14 june 2005

The girls left for home yesterday morning at dawn. I miss them, but we're still having a great time.

I've been keeping a weather eye on the traffic in Morelia, mostly in el Centro. Honestly, it's not as bad as I thought it would be, and certainly better than I thought it was the first week we were in town. There's a method to all that madness and when you start to see the pattern, it's actually all quite orderly and sensible. But those who hesitate are honked, no doubt about it. I don´t know if I'd be comfortable driving in Morelia yet, but C would be. Tell you one thing, though: driving hereabouts should cure anybody of the urge to use a cell-phone while driving.

Plaza Vasco de Quiroga
Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, Pátzcuaro

The girls and I took a side-trip to Patzcuaro last Saturday, while C was dealing with the dentist again (about which, more later). We took the tour through Baden-Powell because, although we could have found a cheaper alternative, they offered us a history student as a guide, and I´m a sucker for such things. We toured Perepechua ruins above Tzintzuntzan and the town itself (the name means hummingbird), Patzcuaro, Santa Clara del Cobre, and a bunch of places in between. Ricardo, our guide, works as a research assistant for one of the university´s history professors and therefore got us into all sorts of places where the public is not normally allowed to go. Patzcuaro is lovely -- the principal plaza reminded us of the plaza in the town of Sonoma back home, but without chickens, yuppies, or rich old people soured by life (okay, okay, personal opinion). It's a popular destination on the weekends. We sat at a restaurant called El Premier Piso (the first floor, which in Mexico is the second floor) and watched families eating ice-cream and kids riding ponies and Tarascan dancers doing the Dance of the Old Men, and musicians and stands selling fruta picada and other delicacies,  and the big statute of Fra. Vasco de Quiroga and fountains playing. The plaza is surrounded by restaurants, cafes, art galleries, artisan's shops, souvenir shops. Up the side-streets are huge colonial buildings now housing crafts shops and museums, stores selling religious artifacts, video shops, pet stores, shoe shops, clothing stores ... Gentlemen with brooms and push-barrels keep the streets and sidewalks pristine. During the week, there's nobody here.

Ricardo and some others have said that although the gringo presence in Patzcuaro is currently small, it has the potential to be the next San Miguel -- we did pass one real estate office with signs in English in the windows. I am not sure what I think about that.  It's easy to fall in love with this small city.

Back in Morelia, we shopped, and ate, and enjoyed fireworks over the Catederal del Morelia on Saturday night (we saw them from the stairs outside our apartment, so we couldn´t hear the accompanying classical music. This suited C just fine: fireworks and Norteño music is more his style). We`ve wandered through some of the museums in El Centro, enjoying the huge murals. As a writer, I especially liked the one in the Palace of Justice, of Morelos holding up paper like a torch of freedom, and his enemies being whacked into submission by flying pages.

Went to the local Sears store (pronounced Se-ARES) this afternoon and checked out the mall around it. We could have been back in the States, which must make it convenient for those who live here, but was not what we were looking for (they didn`t have what we were looking for, either, but we found that on the way home).

Either it´s getting cooler, or we are acclimating. Whatever: we are still both very happy to be here.

Baden-Powell roof patio

This is the roof patio at Baden-Powell. The girls' classroom is behind the umbrella, ours is to the left.

10 june 2005

We arrived in Morelia last Saturday in the wee small dead and whimpering hours of the morning (that is, three a.m.) to attend classes for two weeks at the Instituto Baden-Powell, as suggested by a friend on'line. Some observations follow.

Dear sweet lord but it´s hot. Everyone, absolutely everyone, assures me that this is uncommon, unexpected and unwelcome. Now, I´m used to bringing "unexpected" weather with me when I travel and having the locals assure me that what's happening is uncommon and unwelcome, but this time I believe them -- everybody is wilting. Some blame an El Niño year, others global warming (down here, if I suggest that it's George W. Bush's fault I always get a laugh), but whatever the reason, I keep reminding myself that it is not good to judge the city on the current temps. It should have been raining by now. Periodically the heavens spit a little water at us in the evenings, which cools things down for a little bit. (In the meantime, my spies tell me that back home it's raining with such enthusiasm that Northern California, whose summer climate is normally dry, is ready to sail away in a flood of rain. Go figure.)

Even the heat can't change the city's charm, or the kindness of the people. I´ve been in NYC during comparably unexpected weather, and watched taxi drivers eat pedestrians alive and waiters snarl imprecations in strange languages as they slammed plates on tables. Here, we grin at each other, shrug, move a little more slowly, share (for the most part) the shady side of the street.

The school, Instituto Baden-Powell, is great. How great is it? Well, our 20-year-old daughter K and her best friend V are with us for the first week, and came down to Mexico swearing that after an exhausting semester the last thing they wanted to do was go to school. They came to school with us on Monday, attended one class, and
by noon were clamoring to be signed up. Lessons are private: C and I are in a class by ourselves (well, yeah, that way too), the girls are in a different private class, and we whip through the curriculum guided by knowledgeable, friendly, casual, and interesting people. C and I are being marched through irregular verbs in the preterite right now. I don't know what the girls are doing, but I hear constant laughter from their classroom across the patio.

Gabriel Cortez, who owns the school along with his brother, is not only hard-working and courtly, but goes above and beyond. Case in point: Chris needed to have some fairly extensive restorative dental work done, unaffordable to us back in the States. Gabriel not only recommended an excellent dentist, on Monday he personally drove Chris to the dentist´s office and introduced them. (Chris is happy with the work and happy with the dentist -- yesterday they played golf (yes, in this heat. Golfers are nuts) and we expect the work to be completed before we leave).

I´m a fourth-generation Northern Californian and used to thinking of 100-year-old buildings as old, and 150+ year old buildings as ancient beyond the powers of human description. So wandering the streets of Morelia´s Centro is both educational and enchanting. It´s a UN World Heritage site, and it doesn´t take long to see why they gave it that designation. The buildings here are stone or brick, with thick walls and big barred windows, and they feel tremendously alive. This is a real city center, not a tourist zone.

Speaking of which, most of the tourists in Morelia are from in-country, apparently: we have heard English spoken at the Instituto and around the Best Western downtown but not elsewhere -- although a cab driver the other morning spoke Spanish, French, and Japanese, and is working on his English.

We are staying in an apartment owned by Señora Guadalupe Perez, on Calle Rayón in El Centro. The building is an old, thick-walled one-story house, narrow and deep, with two connecting courtyards. Our apartment (two bedrooms but very tiny) is above the back courtyard. At night, all is blissful silence except for the occasional canine chorus. And you can see the towers of the Catederal de Morelia from our front door.

Class is about to start. More later.

The Catederal

The view from the front door.

Casa de Don Mariano Michelena (Preparatoria No. 5)

Casa de Don Mariano Michelena (Preparatoria No. 5)
27 may 2005

It’s been a busy month. I turned 57, K turned 20, my son the Burly Woodsman tried out for Jeopardy! (didn’t make it, but wait ‘til next year!) and it finally stopped raining, so we were able to wade into the garden to do battle with the weeds. It’s been a lousy winter out there: storms have damaged the larger bushes and one particular rose was hard hit (Oranges & Lemons, a climber with striped flowers and a lovely citrus scent). Weeds are sprouting that have probably been dormant since the last Ice Age, so I’ve been tearing out three- and four-foot tall thistles, two-foot burning nettles, meadow grasses, bindweed, the other usual suspects, and weeds I’ve never seen before. The yard is looking better, but my skin is looking a lot worse.

There’s a character in One Hundred Years of Solitude who is lucky beyond being lucky – everything he owns multiplies. He likes to get drunk and roar at his fecund livestock, “Cease, cows! Life is short!” I have been standing on the back deck howling “Cease, weeds! Life is short!” but it doesn’t affect the weeds any more than it affected those Macondo cows.

Speaking of fecundity, I finished a short story called “The Dark Boy” and have sent it out. Finishing stories is not something that happens readily with me anymore. This one has been hanging fire for about three years; I have produced maybe six or seven drafts of it in that time, each one of which petered out after 20-some increasingly desperate pages. I knew the story, the characters, the events: I knew the beginning, middle, and ending, but simply couldn’t make the story move beyond the opening, which got longer and longer and longer and longer... Then a few months ago, of a Saturday morning, I woke up with the story happening in my head, grabbed notebook and pencil, and wrote it all down in one great lump. It both amazed and amused me to find that the story started at what I thought was the middle although it ended where I had planned it to end: everything I had spent all those 20-page starts working on, slid into a couple of paragraphs scattered through the story. The story clocked in at under 4,000 words. It’s been through maybe ten or so drafts since then, each one a little shorter and a little more simple, until it felt done.

So now it’s out there in the big world. Marketing has always been my least favorite aspect of being a writer. So, each time, you check the market reports, do your best to make an assessment about where the story might best fit, line up the markets in the order you choose, and start sending it out, each time with that little heart-leap of hope. Then you lounge about the mailbox (or the e-mail box) trying to appear casual. Writers are the only people I know who are sexually aroused by the sight of a mail truck.

I’ve distracted myself from Writer’s Mailbox Obsession by getting ready for Morelia (we leave in a week!), and migrating this website to a new server, after 8 years with the original one. Were it not for the glitches (which I know about, and am in the process of fixing) I would advertise myself as a TechoNerd, but I can’t, so I won’t.

For those who have expressed interest, let me point out an excellent website: Mexico Connect. The articles cover almost every section of the country and most subjects that an ex-pat in training would want to know, and the discussion forums are pretty lively. They do charge for full access, but I’ve found them more than worth the price (which is not high – about $5.00 /month or $30/year, I think).

¡Hasta pronto!

21 april 2005

Let's see, let's see. Tax season is over and C survived it in good shape. Our most recent visit with the MDs, earlier this week, confirmed that his recent blood work is "absolutely perfect." This is not good for him to hear, as it swells his head and makes him smug and insufferable, but I guess I can live with it. The really good news is that they will start tapering him off Prednisone. Apparently C is one of those who are affected by even small dosages, so this tapering business is very good news indeed.

I cleaned out some files earlier in the year and discovered my original passports, the ones issued when I was one and two years old, and we came from Mexico to the US to visit my dad's parents. These documents were issued by the Mexican government and they say that I'm a Mexican national. I looked them over while a great light dawned, so did some on-line research and discovered that I am, indeed, both a Mexican and a U.S. citizen, both by reason of birth. Hot diggety! Our Mexican associate at the law office very kindly helped me get a certified copy of my birth certificate from the archives in Mexico City, and I gathered copies of all sorts of other documents and took them to the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco, and I now have my Mexican passport, all snug in our safe deposit box. This  actually means a great deal to us: if we do retire to Mexico (which it seems that we are going to do), then by reason of my Mexican citizenship I can own and run a business, or be employed without restriction. I can also legally own property within the "restricted zone" around national borders or the coast, and etc. and etc. and etc.

We find all of this very exciting,  and it has made me even more determined to become fluent (and literate!) in Spanish, and to learn more about the history of Mexico.  I've been reading diligently, and will post (in the near future) a list of the books I have found interesting.



Jardin de las Rosas
6 february 2005

After the excursions and alarums of last year, January and February have been blessedly free of  horrible events. C continues to do tremendously well – we go into UCSF for visits at the transplant clinic and the doctors use words like “excellent” and “perfect,” which make the boy all puffed up with pride and egotism. I try to keep him deflated, but the truth is that he is excellent and his progress is perfect. He has gone into business with another local Enrolled Agent; they have opened offices in one of the old hatchery buildings downtown and are facing the new season with energy and confidence.

For quite a while now, we have been talking about enrolling in a total-immersion language school in Mexico. My own Spanish pretty much dried up when I started kindergarten in the U.S. – the teachers asked my American dad and Mexican mother to stop speaking Spanish in front of “Martha” because, they said, it would only confuse me. This kind of bunkum was believed back in the 1950s, and as a result my mother learned to speak very good English, but I lost my first language.  I want it back. I practice as much as I can and the Mexicans around where I work and live are patient and generous with me, but I know I can do better. I am also teaching myself to read Spanish by borrowing kids books in Spanish from the library.

So in June we will spend two weeks at the Baden-Powell Institute in Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacan. We are so hyped we can barely stand it.

Another thing: it is becoming more and more obvious that C and I will not be able to live in California after we retire – in fact, I figure the only places we could afford to live in the U.S. are Alabama or Iowa, neither of which appeals. Periodically the Social Security Administration sends me taunting letters telling me how little I’ll be getting when I’m eligible to collect (not enough per month to rent a one-bedroom apartment hereabouts, let alone pay for food or pharmaceuticals) and I am convinced that if this Administration succeeds in destroying the system for my kids and their kids, the Bushies will turn their piggy little eyes on us old farts too*.

Mexico seems like a sensible alternative: retired people of modest means can, I am told, live there comfortably on less than $2000/month; for a very reasonable amount you can buy into private health insurance programs or the one run by  the government; the quality of health care is good and  the cost of living is low. There are cities of great charm and beauty in the central Mexican highlands, high up enough so that the temperature is in the 80s year-round. We’re not interested in living in any of the expat enclaves, but there are a lot of cultured, mannered, beautiful cities to choose among. We’re ready to start exploring, and will start in Morelia, which looks terrific.

So: more news as events warrant.

* Have you seen the attack ads they’re running against the American Association of Retired Persons? We’re not talking about a liberal organization here, folks, but the Bushies are painting the AARP as soldier-hating proponents of gay marriage. If the neo-cons had any sense of shame to begin with, they lost it a long, long time ago.

copyright 2005 by Marta Randall


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