Saturday, January 15, 2011

Leaving San Miguel: Taco Memories

At sunset, the light softens on the spires and church domes across town. The evening sky from the rooftop is washed and chalked with soft clouds. Life in the barrio grows quiet in the brief interval between the workaday afternoon and the social nighttime. Church bells begin to toll across the roofs, some anonymous verger switches on the illuminated cross atop La Parroquia and it is officially eventide. 

On some obscure signal, the first strand of birds appears, strung out across the sky, looping westward to roost in the Presa, the reservoir at the edge of town. Behind them another ribbon of birds, furling and folding in on itself as if blown along on a high breeze, hundreds of white-faced ibis flapping along the sky in loose ranks. Each morning they make the same short flight eastward over the town, over the hilltop in the middle distance, to some unseen feeding ground, and back the same way each evening, ribbon on ribbon of ibis. By May they will be nesting in wetlands in Colorado and Wyoming and Montana.

White-faced Ibis

Oblivious to all of this, the long-tailed grackles on the roof across the street are guarding from some insistent kingbirds a puddle of water that has collected atop a water tank; other kingbirds are harrassing a solitary woodpecker in a nearby tree, the woodpecker uncharacteristically minding his own business for once. Everyone, it seems, has a job to do and no one capable of doing it without a mild ruckus.

On the last evening in San Miguel, I walked the three blocks through the darkened backstreets to the bright lights and conviviality of Tacos Diana. Tacos Diana is one of those frequent outposts of the informal economy of Mexico, a small lunch counter on wheels that disappears each day and reappears each evening lit up like a Polish church in the doorway of the ferreteria, the hardware store on Orizaba. Ranged along the counter beneath an awning are some stools, some earthenware bowls of lime wedges and jars of salsas rojo y verde. The offerings are basic - tacos, tortas, gringos and something called a 'volcanes', a crisp corn tostada piled with either chopped beef or chorizo beneath a glaze of melted cheese. Healthy stuff served with pride. The vegetable courses consist of a fine chop of onion and cilantro, bowls of pickled cucumber and carrot slices, and grilled jalapenos.

The chef is a large congenial fellow who works beneath a thick shock of black hair. His wife and helpmeet stands at his side working the grill, which is basically a round platter over a gas flame with an outer trough around a raised middle. The meat and onions are cooked down in the trough where the grease from previous courses has collected, then drained and kept warm on the raised center. When a customer orders, say, three tacos, the proprietor of the establishment sets corn tacos out on a plate, garnishes them with onion and cilantro, sets the meat on a round wooden block hollowed with use into a shallow bowl, and with a knife of venerable provenance and a deep-curved blade that exactly fits the bowl of the chopping block, he chops it fine and assembles the tacos. Some lime, some salsa, a couple of whole jalapenos, and Bob, as they say in Mexico, is your uncle (Bob son tu tio").

This does not begin to capture the ambience of Tacos Diana, the anchor, icon and masthead of which is the stolid wife of the owner. She is in her own right the atmosphere of the place, every bit as substantial as her husband and with a kind of natural glower, all business and clearly no nonsense where he is all cordiality and blessings. Diana, for whom the business is named, is the daughter who stands at her father's right hand, setting up plates, collecting money and dispensing change when she is not seated on the steps of the nearby tienda in congress with her friends and their friends and a good portion of the neighborhood who prefer to bundle themselves against the chill and stand around in lighted spots chatting, trying out their English on the customers ("Jalapeno not too spicy for you?"), eating ice cream from the bright little storefront and generally cutting up like human beings with social business to transact.

But I am loyal to Tacos Diana, and for this reason: on my final evening in San Miguel, when my face, familiar by now, appeared within the ring of light, the mistress of the place looked up at me and - faintly, but definitely - smiled at me. It was the moon peering slyly from behind a cloud. I must return to San Miguel.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Biking San Miguel, or Skinning Your Cat

Every street in San Miguel is roughly the width of a single conveyance, is expertly and generously paved in cobbles, intersects nothing but a hazard of blind corners, and either terminates in an abrupt and terrifying uphill or commences in an abrupt and (even more) terrifying downhill. The last skateboarder (probably an urban legend) reportedly perished on the cobbled downhill from Calle Hospicio into El Correo when the vibrating projectile he clung to intersected a bus simultaneously in three places. This urban terrain is extreme.

Bicycling is possible in San Miguel, given that bicycles have the advantages of tires and brakes, with all their damping and modulating possibilities. But the accommodations required for riding the notorious 'pave' in the Tour of Flanders are as nothing to those required to navigate the narrow tracks of San Miguel. First, be prepared to dismount and walk your bicycle up the hillsides on the east side of town.There is no escaping this - even the fabled Cippolini was heard to mutter an unbecoming Latinate noun while attempting the hellish slope of Calle de Huertas in a gentleman's wager.

The cobbles do not suit the uncompromising frame of the typical road bike. High pressure tires are impossible. The only bikes that really succeed here are old steel-framed, mostly rigid mountain bikes, tires maintained at a pressure some purists might deem flabby. That old nostrum of bicycling magazines, "vertically stiff yet laterally compliant," will not work in San Miguel - these streets will eat the bike and the proud old fool who dares too much. Even the native San Miguelenses, experts (if there are such) in navigating these cobbles on two wheels, vibrate themselves by in a kind of ethereal blur as though they are mere auras passing in the street. The local cycling confrerie dresses in a manner calculated to preserve as carefully as possible the integrity of each rider's foreordained allotment of hide. Heavy cotton and denim trousers are de rigeur, the absence of lycra shorts and $90 PrimalWear jerseys is both palpable and uplifting.

The serviceable working machine - the cargo bike, the velocab, the delivery cycle - are as uncommon around town as the expensive road bike. Two wheels here are, much as in the United States, a fate reserved for the exigent and the sinner. This specimen of a working bike (below) is the only example of its kind I've spotted in nearly a month, and always with the mysterious roll of rattan roped to the rack. (I'm not actually certain of its function, nor that it's actually rattan, but my only other guesses are pork rinds or a large mat for rolling sushi.)

One other thing I should mention that is paramount to survival. San Miguel is, like much of the surrounding country, a dusty place. A fine film of dust collects on the streets. The cobbled and flagged streets are in some instances older than the century, worn smooth by years of rubber tires and a lapidary film of oil. Each morning the housewives and cleaning ladies of San Miguel sweep a cascade of soapy water from every rooftop and sidewalk onto the pavement, making a treacherous paste of soap, fine dust and oil across flags and cobbles already polished with the traffic of the ages. Even by the standards of a professional downhiller, it is a white knuckle ride from the Salida de Queretano down into El Centro on one of those polished, soap-slick tracks, and no guarantee that you'll still be wearing the skin you left home in at the bottom.

Three Magics Day

Yesterday, I went shopping, it being a Mexican Holiday and I having vowed to observe as many of those as do not pass my notice. Cec and I, having lunched on some superb fish tacos, were walking along January 20th Street (Calle de 20 Enero) about eight steps from turning the corner into our own street, when a small, dapper and extremely affable young man bounced out of the doorway at number 24 and into our path on the sidewalk, like a refugee from some PlayStation screen. He was already in full voice, “I want to show you please come in I make I want to show you my shop I make jewelry I want you to see it please come in . . . .” The sign at the doorway buried on this obscure sidestreet read “Joyeria Eclipse,” which seemed somehow better to me, I recall thinking to myself, than “Joyeria Acme.” Cec was already got the better of and was headed through the door announcing her intention not to buy anything. You can already see where this is going. “No no you don’t buy anything I want only to show you my jewelry I make.”

The shop was the size of a large appliance crate and contained a tiny glass-topped counter with various cardboard fingers and bustiers for the display of rings, necklaces and the more modest lines of jewelry. He began immediately with a disembodied cardboard finger, slipping a ring from one onto Cec’s finger. You are off on the wrong foot, young fellow, I thought, never afraid to mix a metaphor in an extremity, if you see what I mean. Cec would as soon wear a ring in her nose as on her finger, not being one for adorning hands or wrists. Still, the pieces on display were disarmingly simple, pleasing to the eye, easy on the taste, and clearly handmade by this young man who had found neither surcease nor respite in his conversation. Another ring, too large this time, Cec steadily praising his work while firmly demurring to purchase any. 

From merely showing and describing his handiwork, the fellow made a devastating first gambit: he glibly introduced the Tradition of the Christian Nativity, to wit: “Today is a Mexican Holiday, el Dios de Los Tres Reyes Magos – the feast of the Three Magics who came to bring gifts to the Nińo Jesus.” It was not the reminder of timeworn tradition that so enchanted me as the idea which suddenly materialized, in his apt translation, of three ‘magics’ – a perfect gloss on the always puzzling word ‘magi.’ That hard terminal ‘c’ that bathes our Anglo-Saxon tongue in glottal substantiality and emotional closure seemed to me, just then, to finish the word to perfection and bear its whole meaning. I imagined the three magics, no more just three hapless, better-late-than-never tourists arriving for the quickly cooling festivities, after dark and past Someone’s bedtime, bearing a cut-glass cheese plate and duplicate toasters (“Oy, Melchizidek, was danken zu?”). No, these were ‘magics,’ wise men learned in astronomy and astrology, in metes and bounds, in surveying and navigation, who could measure out the heavens and follow any star to the very point on the earth directly beneath it (which I freely confess I’ve never mastered, the buggers keep moving off the faster I drive.)

Then, a second gambit: the young jeweller quietly cited the Moral Exemplar Within the Gospel Tradition: “The Magics gave the gifts to the little Jesus because they loved him.” And with blinding speed the clincher, the genuine kayo punch, the Moral Drawn From Holy Writ: “And so today is a day in Mexico to give some gifts to someone you love.” Cec, left to her own devices, would have let me out of this pretty easily.  I spotted the obvious equivocation, the too facile logical move from ‘Someone’ to ‘someone.’ Still, I felt outmanned, outnumbered, outgunned. There were three of them, not even counting the jewelry maker; and even if they all dressed like Bette Davis in a dressing trailer on an MGM backlot, they had more than gone out of their way to bring along stuff that sounded to me like it was going to be re-gifted as soon as they were back on the one-lane camel track to Lebanon, Missouri. 

I spied a green agate stone in a plain sterling setting. It was simplicity itself, integrity of design, beauty of workmanship and modest taste in the pairing of materials. What about that one? Cec gave me the what-are-you-thinking look. My hand was by then in my pocket, thumbing the wallet, riffling the careworn edges of bills. I merely shrugged: “I love this guy.” Cec laughed, German giggled, not unbecomingly. Then he hit me again, harder this time: “This ring I charge two hundred pesos in El Jardin they ask five hundred pesos for something like it but only today it is a holiday one-hundred-fifty pesos.” He was asking all of eighteen dollars American, without a fight, for lovely materials, his own careful craft, plain good taste and honest sweat. I was undone. I handed him a two-hundred peso note.

He was delighted, then nonplussed. No, I had no fifty-peso note, he would have to go out of the shop and get some change. He rushed out, leaving Cec and me just enough time to pilfer his entire stock and get around the corner for home. We sat quietly in the corner on a low automobile seat requisitioned for customer service until he returned with the change and sent us on our way with his sincerest benedictions and best wishes for a blessed Feast Day of the Three Magics.  I am nearly certain ours was his only sale of the day. 

German is the rare artisan whose work reflects exactly what he is himself – ‘simple’ in the best sense, as in ‘not susceptible of further refinement.’

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

At Death's Door, Pending Autopsy

An old joke goes, "He was at death's door, and they still managed to pull him through." I've been pulled every which way in the last week, through death's door both ways as far as I can tell, having lain in the grip of 'la gripa' for over a week. It isn't what you're thinking - it's been a perfectly dry and orderly siezure of the respiratory function with no graphic, projectile or otherwise ill-mannered results than my emergence from this trial bleary-eyed, far more surly than is my usual wont, wishing for a not undignified end and wondering why in the name of all that's reasonable and civilized I traveled to this distant outpost of sunny hospitality to fall into such a state of misery.

The course of this protracted indisposition has not been unrelieved by other compensations. More than one friend has sent to my notice the same YouTube clip of a weather-induced fracas in my hometown (a nameless spot in the darkening middle of the cultural spectrum somewhere to the north). A young man was standing on the moderate slope of a suburban street freshly greased in light snow, recording with his cell phone a series of slow motion collisions as they developed - eventually about 20 cars in a single pileup, stacked like a shoal of frozen carp along one curb, collecting one casualty after another as it slid down the street frontways, sideways, backwards, providing the while a delightfully artless, charmingly naive, benignly profane and gleeful commentary on the proceedings. His delight increased with each addition to the heap, heightened each moment by his having been on the scene and filming from the start. He was both cameraman and color commentator and (with due attention to his current breadth of adjectives) he may have a future in broadcasting (which is the old-fashioned word for "media").

These scenes undeniably warm the lonely days of those who have escaped the ravages of the northern winters for more hospitable places. How else account for the popularity of the Weather Channel? Its largest audience and the backbone of its considerable revenues rests in the retired classes who have gone south for the rest of their lives and who, as a bit of perverse nostalgia, watch the weather to see how their hapless and less fortunate acquaintances are suffering this season. Of course, those patterns are less reliable than they used to be in the palmy days before climate change (or "climate change," depending on your preferred school or "school" of thought). Winters in Mamaroneck or Port Jervis can be fairly benign in an off year, while the hurricanes season in your newly-adopted abode can be an awning shredder for the record books.

As I said, I am not certain which way I went through death's door, whether I was pulled through by my feet or headfirst. I must have gone through it however, since I know what hell will be. Those who go to Hell will find themselves lying with a pounding headache in a dimly lit room just above a street in a Mexican town, hearing the same car alarm go off seven successive times in ten minutes just below their open windows. 

In fact, as I write just now in my upper story room, a car alarm is going off below in the very street where I have taken temporary refuge and where I hope to regain my shattered health. There is no escaping the car alarm in this country, of that I am now certain. In fact, the very notion that it is an alarm is an alien idea here. It is rather a welcome sign that one's car is in at least partial working order. It is a signal to a proud and grateful owner: "Your car is ready for your entry." Or, upon arrival, "You have successfully exited your car." And depending upon the level of assurance any particular car owner requires, the alarm can be turned off now, upon a leisurely arrival at one's doorstep, or in the morning. It doesn't really matter, because it's not really meant to alarm anyone about anything.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Hell is Other People's Latest (First) Novel

Describing his expatriated compatriots washed up in Calais (which, as any Chinese schoolchild can tell you, a traveller must have gone through off the Channel packet in her way from 19th-century London to Paris), Charles Dickens writes, "He met new groups of his countrymen, who had all a straggling air of having one time overblown themselves, like certain uncomfortable kinds of flowers, and of being now mere weeds. They had all an air, too, of lounging out a limited round, day after day . . . ."

There is a tranquil air in San Miguel, as in Calais, of Dickensian expats trying to fill in the blanks -  elderly gentlemen sporting stringy ponytails, one spotted astride a $30,000 Harley, another driving through El Centro in a red '66 Mustang, convertible top down, two accountants in search of a character. One gets the impression that this is a place in which the preprandial cocktail hour creeps daily nearer the diurnal meridian in continual small increments.

What prompted this turn of mind was a snatch of conversation I heard on the street earlier that day. A pair of Americans came out of the midtown Starbucks and passed me on the sidewalk, the man advising the woman in impeccable Texas English, "Well, you can't kill 'em all off in the first book." Setting aside the prospect that he was speaking in tongues or metaphor, it was one of those vignettes that invites the normally healthy imagination to fill in the blanks, much like those schoolroom exercises in which we were given a picture and asked to write a story about it. The context is easy to imagine. 

Are any words more dreaded on the afternoon cocktail circuit than, "I'm working on my first novel"?  An authoress manque, a writer of mysteries (he did imply both that this was her first novel and that it will not be her last), arrived in an exotic locale for inspiration, local color, the invention that novelty and diminished inhibitions bring with it. After all, why not? Hemingway sitting in the Clos des Lilas writing For Whom the Bell Tolls has probably inspired more legions of the quasi-talented, the nearly-inspirable, the average, to attempt something similar in whatever dusty outpost is still remote enough to have just one Starbucks. I was in college with a fellow my own age who had in a previous incarnation taken up boxing, a la Hemingway and Norman Mailer, and gone off to a garret apartment in Paris to write a novel. The novel never appeared so far as I know, but one of the neighbors ate his cat, thereby giving him a brief tale to tell. Where would a novelist be without the neighbors, after all?

For Whom the Bell Tolls is all well and good, more than recompense for all those dishes of cafe a la creme and Pernods and Lord knows what else Hemingway drank in the extended act of creation. But I foresee, in San Miguel, the unheralded and largely unwanted emergence of an amateur Mexican sleuth of mysterious but undoubtedly aristocratic extraction, with a stable of thoroughbreds, a garage full of Hispano-Suizas, Alfa-Romeos and other suitably hyphenated pre-war autos, a cellar full of Clos de Veugeots '28 and Hermitages '37 (each bottle rescued from the chateaux of ex-Vichy collaborateurs), a humidor full of pre-Revolucion vintage Habanas, a bespoken five-star chef in residence at the hacienda, a vintage mahogany Chris-Craft runabout berthed at the marina - in short, all of the appurtenances requisite to the man of taste who wears his wealth lightly and never as a burden.

I could go on. Were I to go on, I'd have to write the whole bloody thing up and there would be another first novel. . .

. . . more to follow.

Happy or Not, It's Here

An unaccustomed calm over San Miguel this morning. The sun shines across the rooftops, the streets are disarmingly quiet, the usual prevailing racket of some infernal foundry eerily silent - no one hammering on a piece of sheet metal, no one's auto alarm going off, the fireworks spent, only the occasional buzz of a passing motorbike, the toll of a bell and the voice of the dove is heard in the land. Even the municipal dogs are asleep, mirabile dictu. And little wonder, since the entire populace was in the streets all night. They take Feliz Ano Nuevo seriously in Mexico.  Even the toddlers were out at three a.m.

I don't think I've been awake and upright to usher in the new year in two decades, jaded as I am of resolutions, excessive noise, contrived expectancy and fresh starts. But San Miguel from a rooftop on New Year's Eve, looking out towards La Parroquia and waiting for the fireworks to commence at midnight is sufficient to remove the dust from the weary traveler, thirst from the parched soul, mist from the rheumy eye, and to raise the gout-ridden from his solitary cot of woe. The old parish church is lit in its own surreal pink glow, a wierdly elaborated candle shining across the entire city. As the church bells begin slowly to boom away the old calendar year, its wild roccoco belfries are lit again in sudden blooms of incandescence. Firework blossoms in green, red, and blue flare upwards from the pavements around the steeple on glittering stalks of light, the illuminated cross at its finial engulfed in wreathing smoke, all the surrounding colonias looming about like a city under siege - sparkling, smoky, crackling with small arms fire and the boom of heavier ordnance, all the incendiary commotion carried along by the diapason of the bell tolling midnight. 

The custom of the country, as the bell sounds the new year, is to eat a single grape for each toll of the bell, and to make a wish as each grape goes down. After wishing for world peace, I wished for a pony, to be able to play Kachadourian's "Fire Dance" on the piano, to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth, to be able to memorize the entire table of the elements and Martin Luther's 95 Theses . . . and then I just couldn't think of any more wishes. I suppose, all things considered, not being able to think of anything else isn't a bad start to the new year.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hell is Other People's Stuff

How many currencies come immediately to mind that bear the picture of a dead donkey? The quiniento (500) peso note issued by the Bank of Mexico, for one. A small military tableau appears on its obverse, the donkey depicted from its least flattering angle, lying flat on its side like an abandoned bicycle. A soldier in mid-nineteenth century military kit is lifting a fallen comrade from beneath the animal, which juxtaposition goes a long way in explaining why the soldier looks very much like the donkey in the encounter. 

The fracas depicted there in miniature is the Battle of Puebla in which Ignacio Zaragoza (depicted on the note just to the right of the donkey) defeated invading French forces in the barley fields of Puebla on May 5, 1862, in a single stroke inventing Mexico's first national holiday and the cerveza with which it is celebrated. Here is a photo of Ignacio, the sort of portrait which might have been taken by a proud parent after a weekly piano lesson.

The French, during the Second Empire, had invoked Mexico's international debt as a pretext for this invasion, passively abetted by Spain and Great Britain who withdrew their own forces from Mexico so as not to upset France's colonial aspirations. Fortunately we live in a world now civilized by the warm glow of global commerce, a world in which every national self-interest necessarily encompasses and buttresses the interests of every other. China's generosity in purchasing national debt and continuing selflessly to adjust its balance of trade with poorer nations such as the United States is merely a case in point. Rest assured, China is no France, sir.

We participated in the global economy ourselves today, and I was able to divest myself of at least part of that 500-peso note in the interests of international amity and the delicate geopolitical understandings that further the universal bonhomie of a civilized globe. We took a city bus to the weekly market, known amongst the cognoscenti as "the Tuesday Market," It is basically a flea market on steroids, convening just outside of San Miguel on one of the industrial ring roads. The passengers waiting at the downtown stop for the market bus were officiously shepherded aboard by a young man wearing a cap blazoned with the logo of a dead scorpion, carrying what appeared to be a well-used guitar. Upon departing the bus stop, I discerned that this is not the official municipal transit workers' uniform - the fellow stood in the aisle, cast his eyes towards the roof of the bus, and from his first chord (his only chord, it proved) promptly disabused the entire busload of any notion that his guitar was well-used. His tempo varied to suit whatever song he took up, and he had, besides that one chord, a flat reedy timbre falling somewhere between Irish tenor and falsetto. The songs were of unrequited love - I caught the words "tristessa" and "Durango," which is pretty much the capital of unrequited love. His delivery was workmanlike and given added piquancy by a furrowed brow.

The market proved a plein aire universe of goods - tables piled with surplus WalMart clothing, antique pipe wrenches, vise grips, sheep shears, kitchen knives and machetes; someone (the same person) selling old tools and lengths of fresh sugar cane; piles of hammers and scraps of lumber, pieces of electronic equipment, computer cables, cell phones and cell phone batteries, odd used auto parts and used parts of used auto parts; tables of kitchenware plastic, wood and metal; glass blender jars without the business end of the blender, caps of all sorts, from baseball caps to flannel caps lined with acrylic fur and earmuffs that would nicely top off a Canadian or a North Korean; nearly invisible specimens of ladies intimate apparel, new jeans with sparkly pocket flourishes, t-shirts covered in logos and legends and more sparkly things; heaps of peanuts and unshelled pecans, meats, fruits, vegetables, and dry goods of every sort. The vendors hawked their wares with a certain energetic elan, walking among the aisles with hands full of samples, many of them abetted by commercial colleagues on competing public address systems. 

It was all just too much. The timid come away only with mesh bags of assorted fruits and vegetable. We were among he faint of heart on this maiden foray - we merely ate some gorditas and came home nearly emptyhanded. But I have higher ambitions: someday, amongst the bananas and the papaya I will bear home with a manly glow a paper sack of assorted miscellaneous carburetor jets - or manifold bolts.

Post-Santa Tristesse

It's the day after Christmas. I'm all alone in the apartment here on Calle de Rosales. The sun is shining outside, the morn balmy, the faithful in the streets making their way to one or other of the neighboring churches. Even Cec decided to attend the Unitarian service this morning, hoping to meet some Americans and get a better sense of the place. She left me sunning myself on the roof, carefully padlocked the grate across the front entry, and walked briskly off with the only housekey. Aqui soy.

The streets in San Miguel are intimate lanes - narrow, cobbled alleys with housefronts abutting the pavement, making narrow canyons of stone and concrete. Along one such narrow way on this dark Christmas eve, a passing group of young criminals ignited a cherry bomb immediately behind my cousin and me as we strolled, deep in amiable conversation, and the concussion ricocheting along the bricks and stones nearly made our clothing uninhabitable. Next door to my bespoken abode of tears is a modest single-story building indistinguishable from its neighbors with a large paved courtyard within the front gate. The courtyard is roofed in well-seasoned sheets of corrugated steel. This quiet Sunday morning, without warning, the sound of jubilant congregational singing accompanied by guitars, drums and keyboard obtrudes itself into the soft matinal air. The galvanized roof panels rattle with Christian fervor like a soundbox. The very houses and stony streets echo back the joyful noise. To my mild consternation, I find I have settled next to an impromptu church, una iglesias evangelicas, and no housekey within reach. The hours pass, cantatory, hortatory, oracular, the irony nearly insupportable.

Otherwise, the general Christmas spirit on exhibit in the streets is subtle. The jubilation of the season has been muted, which (lacking the gene for triumphalism) better suits my DNA. The local shops have not seemed crammed, either with more shoppers or more "gift items" than ordinary (when gifts became "gift items" and "gifting" became a verb was another among lexicography's frequent dark days). The hottest holiday item on the streets, in fact, is fireworks of all sorts, but especially the pernicious and nerve-frazzling cherry bomb, as I think I mentioned. On Christmas day many of the local merchants were open for business, seated in the shadows of their little back street tiendas, dimly lit by the reflected glitter of mylar packaging. The restaurants around the main plaza were packed, the streets were awash in people, the bands in the bars played to full houses until five a.m. The Nativity here seems to elicit a certain frolicsomeness, as do the Day of the Dead and the feast days of any number of the saints. Mexico is not, I remind myself, a Protesant nation with the odd moral repressions one often finds to the north. Its populace is prone to a degree of friskiness at unexpected seasons.

Revolution is apparently no longer one of those occasions. The Bicentenario of the Mexican Revolution, now winding down with the old year, has been a measured and grave affair, occasion for exhibitions of art, panel discussions, political seminars, short haircuts and highway dedications. The Mexican tricolor does not fly from every unhypothecated flagstaff - in fact, though patriotism is by no means dead here, an empy flagstaff seems neither a reproach on its owner nor an invitation to run up another "Old Gloria." It is no more seen as a declaration of antinationalism (or a "war on the flag") than not shopping, or saying "happy holiday," is considered another salvo in a "war on Christmas." Underneath the high-profile poltical and social difficulties the country currently faces, everyone tries to get along. There is no taste for trumped-up disputes where the larger national difficulties are genuine. In Mexico, "Fox" is not news, he's just an ex-president.

Business 101: Truculence as a Marketing Strategy

In the United States there are scarcely any capitalists. The Fortune 500 (or 1000, pick any number) is an esoteric and rarefied club, its members secluded in Westchester or Westwood, jealously exclusive, militantly anonymous, never seen on the street. Most of us can count, even on the hand that’s missing fingers, the capitalists within the remotest purview of our acquaintance. The average citizen, the overwhelming American majority, is a wage laborer, well enough paid but with little share in the corporate profits and none in the company. The means of production are not for those of humble means. Even capitalism on a small scale is being hoovered up daily and hourly by the paint and carpet departments, the lawn and garden centers, the hardware and power tool and light bulb aisles of Wal Mart or Target or Home Depot. Lest this sound suspiciously like Marx’s “Economic Manuscripts” (1844), let me explain.

In San Miguel, you run into capitalists on the street, sometimes two in a minute –  I mean literally run into them. The city is a bustling commercial center, a thriving exchange, each one of its huddled masses a paragon of enterprise, individual initiative, creative and energetic marketing. San Miguel is, in spite of its undeniable charm, a critical nexus for goods trucked into its depots from as far away as the Chiclets factory in Salamanca. Its most notable merchant class is not the sleek banker in his Armani suit, nor the honest and industrious keeper of the abbarote or the neighborhood farmacia.

I speak of enterprise, intiative, creativity, energy, all virtues found together only in the gangs of chicleteros roaming the busy thoroughfares of Mexico on a level somewhere below the knees of the average adult, suddenly looming into one’s consciousness as a little buzzcut head jogging along doggedly in your front, looking you directly in the eye, head craned at an angle 88 degrees to the perpendicular, demanding noisily that you buy a Chiclet, a keyring, a Chinese handcuff, a balloon, one of those accursed yellow smiley faces, an orange dog leash, or a plastic bag of indeterminate stuff that looks like something between florists' moss and moldy packing material but never like anything you'd care to smoke. It is direct sales in its most direct, unvarnished, simplest manifestation. It is not brusque, it is bellicose. It is, in a word, capitalism au naturel.

Direct sales is a disappearing cultural phenomenon, unlamented, diminished by its detractors, overshadowed by the “distributed marketing” enabled by the internet and new social networks. By contrast, in San Miguel direct marketing is not merely flourishing, it is a significant outlet for the creative impulse, the primally human challenge to sell the unsellable, the undesirable, the unnecesary and the impossible. The 'chicletero' is the hero of primitive capitalism. The name itself is certain to enter the vernacular and ultimately take its rightful place in the lexicon of commerce, as it delineates not only a distinct, albeit unheralded, commercial class but also defines a unique approach to informal personal marketing, with its own quasi-ritualistic technique. 

The first technique of the chicletero is brashness of an order usually reserved for something weighing about eight times the gross weight avoirdupois of any one of these miniscule dervishes. "Hey" (pronounced 'ay') is the standard introit or prolepsis for a potential sale, followed immediately by the imperative voice - "you buy . . . ." whatever happens to be on offer (see list above). If this fails, as it unfailingly does, the second technique is truculence - the chicletero scampers further into your path, screws his gaze to meet yours, repeats the same offer louder this time, and with a certain edge which was not apparent in the initial stock offering. Failing a second time, he drifts off port or starboard and repeats the offer, the third time in a markedly sulky tone. He does not tarry for answer but immediately accosts the pedestrian in your wake.

The chicletero is made, not born. His technique has come to him through generations of forebears. His manner betrays the careful example of a father, a favorite uncle, an older cousin, who doubtless crouched before him in his earliest nonage, fixed the innocent gaze in their own sterner countenance, and showed him how it's done.  It is not an avocation for females – there are no chicleteras, only chicleteros. It is not for the timid, not for the halt nor faint of heart. Capitalism eats its own.

Careful What You Wish For

Arriving on vacation in a pleasant spot, careless of the world, it seems almost too easy to pull up stakes at home and move one's domestic machinery to whatever the place. It's natural to look around at a good prospect with a view to staying on - if life on vacation is pleasant here (one naturally reasons) why could not life simpliciter be pleasant here? People have ended up in the Bahamas, Mexico, Cuba ante la Revolucion, Majorca, on little pretext and less forethought. For that matter, plenty of people have moved to San Miguel, too – and some of them have left. It's only natural to want to make permanent a pleasant change of prospect, even in the teeth of better wisdom. But it is also a fixture of human nature that people can't keep a secret to save their souls. If they like a place, particularly an undiscovered, undespoilt, undeveloped and remote place, the first thing they do is tell every one of their friends to a man, advise them to buy property before the secret is out, and before the month is out those unpeopled beaches or colonial avenues or palmy vistas or shoals of endearing seals and otters are featured in every slick travel magazine as one of "Ten Secret [sic] Best Getaways." 

San Miguel is not like that - the city hasn't been anyone's secret for something like 550 years (since the Spaniards accidently decapitated the San Miguelenses whilst baptizing them) and its Instituto has been the recipient of more GI Bill tuition dollars than any comparable academy (should there be such) in the expatriate world. The American and European community here is still large though apparently not so flourishing as in recent years. But it is a city of artists (or 'artistes') of all breeds and seems a place where a sizeble portion of the baby boom has come to regroup after a life of prosperous employment and too much sauce veloute on the meatloaf. Those who have gone native no longer leave the house with a Wal Mart photography department hung around their necks, but you can generally spot them by the holstered cell phone precariously perched at the vestigial waist. The Baby Boom has long since crested, washed up and bubbled away in the sand, on this shore as in every place else.

But if there has never, for more than half a milennium, been any secret about San Miguel, it still has its enablers - the Newcomer's Club that meets weekly (naturally the club meets, with the utmost inconsideration, in a delightfully undiscovered little cafe that Cec and I discovered by ourselves on a main street just off the alley from our house). What better way to learn about prospects here, asked Cec excitedly. We can make lots of new friends. Only by ignoring my instinctive shudder could she eject me from the refuge of a closet and trundle me up the street to face my fellow uninitiates - a gathering (I quickly surmised) each one carrying a large purse and washing down cubes of vinyl cheese with a timid glass of warm white wine. At the end of the alley Cec made an unexpected turn away from the cafe and we marched on up the street to a pleasant restaurant in the courtyard of the old stone Instituto, where across the intervening city roofs we could see the large old parish church perched on its eminence (not on His Eminence) with its illuminated cross on the main steeple.
She expressed momentary puzzlement about not having noticed, on our way, the little cafe of the warm white wine. I remained demure. Nevertheless, making our way back down the avenue towards our alleyway, Cec bolted for the site and I followed dutifully, imprecating the social instincts in general and in particular. Cec stopped in the doorway and closely regarded a long table heaped with large purses and pale glasses of wine. It was as I had speculated, a menagerie of ill use. We left for home.

Gee, I Coulda Gone to Taos

The internet connection at the house in Colonia de San Antonio, a 'connection' only by straining courtesy, is not functioning, so I'm sitting in a Starbucks on Canal Street, a main thoroughfare in the center of a colonial town much older than any comparable bit of civilization in Los Estados Unidos. That is San Miguel as succinctly as I can say it (never having been here before).  The streets that are not cobbled are flagged. When the flags are repaired, gangs of men in old clothes and straw cowboy hats sit clustered in the middle of the street with sledges and chisels, digging up the pavement, carefully chiseling old mortar from the flags, and resetting them in fresh mortar. When they leave work for the day, the street is piled with all the unset flags - no barricades, no flashing lights, no yellow "Cuidado" signs, just an obstacle course for any little car or scooter that might blunder through, which they generally do unscathed. I surmise that the ordinary person hasn't yet learned the immense advantages of assiduous personal litigation.

San Miguel is a city with plenty of parks and green spaces, but it is a city so the landscape is distant. The road from Guanajuato runs through that peculiar Mexican mountainscape of small but abrupt hills and bluffs, small plots of maize tilled between the mesquite, the nopales and groves of small trees with thorny leaves like giant holly. Since it's winter, corn shocks are sitting in the fields, piled everywhere on the verges of tilled land, being hauled away on little ricks or wains pulled by burros. The bus has to slow down to a crawl until some unperturbed son of the soil pulls his ancient tractor aside to let the traffic pass. I spotted a small accipiter hunting over an empty field - a sharp-shinned hawk, I think. We've done a little rooftop birding and have taken binoculars to Parque Benito Juarez - the best siting there was a Bell's vireo grazing off the leaves (all the trees are as green as summer right now). But there are woodpeckers everywhere, ladderbacks and golden-fronted woodpeckers with their clown laugh, Mexican robins, boat tailed grackles that make a racket like parrots. The white-winged doves call from before sunup until dark. And vermilion flycatchers, best of all. The day before Chrismas, the local English-language paper advertised an Audobon-sponsored bird walk along the river outside of town, but when we called the phone number for information, a nice American lady told us unapologetically that it's been cancelled, "Bob is on vacation." Apparently even permanent vacationers require respite from whatever their current vail of tears.

San Miguel is a colonial city (1542 or thereabouts, not long after someone sailed the ocean blue). That means the streets are a maze of narrow cobbled trails up and down abrupt hillsides, all higgledy-piggledy and entirely at odds with rational geometry, but wisely rationing the flow of taxis and aged pickup trucks that can nearly compete in sheer numbers with the glossy Lincoln Navigators and Tahoes that wander in with their cargo of blondes in expensive sunglasses from Texas and California. The residents mostly intermingle regardless of income, nationality, levels of education, rank, creed, wrinkles - apart from some obviously stylish new 'privadas' built to replicate the old stone-and-stuccoed barrios that prevail with their easy promiscuity, pressing their housefronts right to the curb, bustling with little abbarotes and tiendas and restaurantes and ferrienderas and servicio automovil and lavanderias and all the necessities of simple civilization. We've already taken a taxi (25 p., no more) to buy some supplies at the 'MEGA', the supermarket just on the edge of town - it has everything you could want - todo el mondo y mas. It can hold its own with any Starbucks in cleanliness, convenience, ambience and sheer modernity. We shop more locally in general, but I blush to confess that it's a comfort just knowing the MEGA is there.

San Miguel is a city but it's manageable, it's in Mexico but could easily be in the south of France or Calabria or Piemonte, it's crowded at the center but it's navigable, there are Americans nearly everywhere but they're still outnumbered and seem to be well-enough behaved, if still odd, for the most part.  They are generally identifiable for wielding expensive cameras at inopportune moments.