A better choice for anyone who is trying to decide between San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro would be to consider Morelia. It has all that both these towns have – and more. And I’m going to tell you why.
Like me, it’s old shoe.
In Morelia, expats just are. There is critical mass, but they’re scattered throughout the city. Some are retirees, some teach and research, some work at home and on the outside, some spread the word of a Christian god, some are married to Mexicans, some are Mexicans by choice, and some are there only because a loved one found himself unwelcome in the Otro Lado.
The newly-landed go crazy taking photos of every fiesta, parade and barber’s gardener’s third cousin’s wedding, performing good and charitable works, and proclaiming themselves 90-day wonders. Those who’ve been here a while are content to shoot photos of their dogs, friends, and gardens. And food at restaurants, just because taking photos of food has replaced saying a blessing over the repast.
Physicians, Walmart workers, mechanics, and even bureaucrats speak English in this town, but they don’t make a point of bragging about it. They’re content to let a gringo make a muddled but honest effort to speak some Spanish before letting on that the conversation could continue in English. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses speak English in this town.
There once was a weekly gathering of English-speakers in Morelia, but as the numbers of English-speakers grew in this town, interest in the group dwindled to the point that a monthly meeting met their needs. But what do I know about that? After presiding over that group for two long years in the century last past, I never went back. I figure I’ve paid my dues.
It’s easy to go days without seeing another gringo, and that’s just fine with the expats who live here. Even those whose Spanish won’t win them any awards.
There’s no AA group branding itself as bilingual, but one can be created at the drop of a need.
Morelia’s the kind of town where the Costco manager will introduce himself, and in English, to customers, asking them how they’re being treated. It’s the kind of place where parking lot attendants remember you. Get yourself admitted to Star Medica in an emergency, and even if you’re speaking enough Spanish, someone in the emergency room will come up and speak English.
This is the kind of town where you can run into people you haven’t seen in a decade, and pick up the conversation right where you left off. There’s a steady, evenness to this town. Long before moving here, I asked Montgomery Budd, a long-time expat now long since expired, what the business of Morelia was. “Business is the business of Morelia” was his reply. Beyond being the home base for Cinepolis, an enterprise of the Organizacion Ramirez, which is the largest movie chain in Latin America and the fourth largest in the world, Morelia is government, education, and finance. It’s a clean city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the planned communities of Tres Marias and Altozano, great shopping and greater golf courses, but it’s also a homey kind of place. It’s the kind of place where you can easily go to the same dentist since 1985, go to the same beauty salon for more than a decade and a half, and where you can run into someone who spent a year at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines.
Beyond learning a few words of a language that’s not your native tongue, be prepared to gain some cultural literacy. We have no English-language newspaper published in this town, and copies of news printed in English are limited and expensive. But that’s what the Internet’s for, isn’t it?
You’ll be hard-pressed to find menus written in English in this town. But really, how hard is it to learn how to read a menu in Spanish?
I think that foreigners should be required to take periodic tests on their knowledge of Mexican history and culture. Hell, for all I care, those questions could be grabbed from SRE’s citizenship exam, starting with really easy ones.
A year or so back, I am having breakfast with two expats in San Miguel de Allende. Both have advanced degrees, committed respectable work back in the Old Country, and one is going on and on about some festival or workshop celebrating poetry, ukuleles, and empowered women. I bring up my exam idea, posing it as gently as I could when they asked what kind of questions might be asked.
For starters, can you name the state capital of the state in Mexico where you live? (Hint: it’s eponymous.) Uh, San Miguel de Allende? No.
Can you name the current president of Mexico? Is it Cardenas-somebody? No, and it’s not Porfirio Diaz either.
A successful Estadounidense businesswoman comes by to boast about how special and magic the town is. “Everyone’s so bright and special here,” she tells me. She assures me that something bright and special and magic will happen the very minute these people cross the Rio Bravo, and even to those who might sally up from Morelia. I ask her if I’ll become bright and special were I to move to San Miguel de Allende. She promises me that I will. I laugh in her face. I don’t think she appreciated that.
Morelia’s expats prize continuity and substantial investment in their community over excited flurries of novelty. In more ways than one, we mirror the conservatism of the Mexican community. Foreigners who live in Morelia – or anywhere in Michoacán for that matter – aren’t special, don’t feel the magic, and heck, we’re not even feeling particularly entitled. We just are. And that’s what makes Morelia the perfect, Goldilocks kind of place for me.