Why Traveling to a Country so Far from God Makes More Sense Than Ever

Beaches and desert, that’s what comes to mind when most Americans think of Mexico, forgetting it’s a vast and diverse country. Beans and tortillas at every meal. Roaming mariachis. And the ever-present U.S. Department of State travel advisory.

            Nearly three times the size of the state of Texas, if Mexico were superimposed over Europe, it would extend from somewhere off the northeast coast of Ireland clear over to the Black Sea. Let’s look at some rankings:

  • Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.
  • It’s the 10th-most populated in the world.
  • It’s the 13th-largest country in the world by area.
  • After the United States and Brazil, it’s the third-most populated country in the Americas.
  • After the United States, it’s the second-most visited country in the Americas.
  • Worldwide, it’s the sixth-most (or better, depending upon who’s counting) visited country.
  • Mexico is one of the top five most megadiverse countries.

Yet so many educated, sophisticated people—some reading this magazine—dismiss travel to Mexico as cheap, low status, basic, unsophisticated, somehow not meriting the attention given to just about any European or Asian venue.

            Travel to Mexico doesn’t have to evoke tired and kitschy emblematic velvet sombreros, cacophonous banda and dueling mariachis, bullfights, and rainbow-hued serapes. Forget border-town Mexico. Forget the Mexico that you learned about in junior high school Spanish class when the focus was Pedro, his burro and their piñata.

            Forget what you thought was Mexican food and Cinco de Mayo. Chimichangas and preprandial tortilla chips are to Mexican cuisine what green beer and St. Patrick’s Day are to Ireland: something celebrated only north of the Rio Grande.

            Forget that notion that Mexico’s only about beaches. Or isn’t the place to visit in the summertime, which is actually the best time to see central Mexico and where most of Mexico lives. Texans, tabbing themselves sweatbirds, and others in the know have been enjoying refreshingly cool summers in the interior for years.

            Just as the United States isn’t all about seed corn caps, hip-hop, square dancing, and Elvis Presley, there’s a real, authentic Mexico lurking behind those icons.

The case for Mexico

About 20 years ago, the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism implemented a program called Pueblos Magicos. It spotlighted 132 small towns, many in rural areas, noted for history, culture, handicrafts and folklore, nature, and gastronomy. That was followed by Mexico City’s Barrios Magicos, some 21 enchanting and interesting neighborhoods in the world’s fifth-largest city.

            Traveling to Mexico makes more sense now than ever. Whether your idea of a great vacation is focused or serendipitous, there’s something for everyone in this country.

            “Poor Mexico, so far from God, and so close to the United States,” said President Porfirio Diaz, a wily dictator or one of the country’s greatest, depending upon your point of view, more than a century ago. Interpret the quote as you wish, but it does capture Mexico’s inextricable, love-hate relationship with the United States.

            Mexico is close, which means you can fly here in almost half the time it would take to reach any major European venue, leaving even a smaller carbon footprint, too. There’s no jet lag issue. Even though there are four time zones, most of the country is in the central time zone. Or you can drive, which is a terrific, if time-consuming and somewhat more challenging, way to see and enjoy the country.

            Mexico speaks American. Not just your language, but the language of energy, values, and attitudes. One time, driving the famously dangerous and sinuous Espinazo del Diablo (Devil’s Backbone) between Durango and Sinaloa, a sign advertising a roadside restaurant where English was spoken demanded that I stop. The proprietress, who’d lived there for ages, was from Mississippi.

            More Americans live in Mexico than in any other country outside of the United States. No matter where you go, you’ll run into someone who speaks your language. And no travel adapters are required.

            But it still is Mexico, another country not your own. It delivers value for the money. You can pay thousands of dollars a night for swank lodging, or you can pay $60 a night for middle-class but still respectable, clean, safe, and comfortable accommodations. The Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons, Waldorf Astoria, Rosewood, St. Regis, and One and Only chains have set up shop in major resort areas, and if you’re traveling on a less-lavish budget, there are even more independent properties you can afford.

            Consistently ranking among the world’s top 10 cuisines, Mexican cuisine isn’t all beans and tortillas. World-class Mexican restaurants serve up Mexican food, traditional and with worldly twists, without a single taco or enchilada. If Mexican food isn’t to your taste, international eateries abound, ranging from cutting-edge modern menus to P.F. Chang’s and Applebee’s. A meal at the fanciest restaurant in my town, featuring aged imported beef, costs about a quarter of what the same repast would go for at a Chicago steakhouse.

            No longer limited to the more-famous Baja California and the Parras Valley in Coahuila, Guanajuato and Queretaro have their own wine regions. And wine and cheese routes. The central highlands are the up-and-coming wine region, finally getting world-wide recognition.

What demands your attention

There are routes to explore the nation’s wars of independence and revolution, tequila, nature, marine life, the Copper Canyon and the Tarahumara towns, mole, convents and monasteries, Huasteca culture, Maya culture, and even hot springs and health. There’s fully as much to do as there is in Europe or Asia. More than just the Spanish settled this country, where waves of French, Italians, Middle Easterners, Germans, Asians, Mormons, and Mennonites have moved in and called the country home.

            Even after visiting the top archeological sites—Chichen Itza, Teotihuacán, Palenque, Cobá, the Templo Mayor, Monte Albán, El Tajín, Tulum, and Cholula—there are even more less-known but just as interesting ones that bear exploring. Indigenous villages, nature reserves, colonial cities and towns, markets, palaces, haciendas, castles, and even the country’s own version of Rodeo Drive beckon.

            Festivals? We’ve got them, ranging from the celebration of folk dance, mariachis, coffee, chocolate, wine, cheese, beer, carved radishes, lentils, pears, avocados, tacos, tamales, preserved foods, grilled meat, mezcal, tequila, blown glass ornaments, pottery, Catrinas, international and domestic film, international music, geraniums, Carnaval, Day of the Dead, molcajetes, mojigangas, burros, candles, wood carving, the patron saints of every burg and neighborhood, sexual diversity, storytelling, folklore, folk art, guitars, horror films, embroidery, peace, witchcraft, herbal medicine, and books.

            You name it, there’s a festival for it.

            Supposedly only Paris (or London, depending upon the source) has more museums than Mexico City, but who’s counting? Maybe it’s art that piques your interest. The Museo Soumaya is known for its knockout, over-the-top architecture as well as what’s inside. You’ll be hard pressed to spend more than $5 to visit world-class museums, a genuine bargain compared to comparable venues across the world.

Don’t believe everything you hear

Let’s pause unpaid promotion of Mexican tourism for a moment to address the elephant in the room, which has replaced, for the time being, warnings about drinking the water. There are drug cartels operating in this country.

            But the odds of the average, intelligent foreign tourist encountering or even recognizing them are slim. Most crime the usual tourist will encounter will be from the unorganized, thieving sector. But Mexico’s safer on a usual day than Mall of the Americas on a weekend. Arm yourself with common sense, leaving expensive items at home and steering clear of areas that appear hinky. There are places you just don’t venture off to in your own town, right?

            This isn’t a country to visit once and call it one and done. Mexico reveals itself like an onion, layer by layer, and one lifetime isn’t enough to figure it all out. The beauty is that the entire country is easily accessible—no tour guides or organized tourist activity are required. It’s the perfect place for the self-guided traveler.

A version of this article appeared in Experience (April/May 2022), a magazine published by the American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division.

Mexico City on $100 a Day

Compelled to read every account I come across about travel in Mexico’s capital city – pieces like 36 hours in Mexico City and Why You Should See Mexico City Like a Tourist – I’m always bemused that the authors’ touts aren’t mine. But then again if you ask the Aztecs, Mexico City is the umbilicus of the moon, and it would take lifetimes to explore this ever-expanding, never-ending megatropolis.

When you’re traveling to CDMX (aka Ciudad de Mexico), don’t forget to pack some flexibility. Be ready to abandon carefully laid plans at the drop of a peso, because you never know what’s around the corner. Massive marches and demonstrations wrecked last November’s weekend plans, so I pivoted and made other plans.

Supposedly only Paris (or London, depending upon the source) has more museums than Mexico City, but who’s counting? In addition to its standard-bearers, the National Anthropology Museum and the National Museum of History, better known as Chapultepec Castle, both of which merit repeat visits and allotting no less than four hours for each, there are a number of museums that don’t make the usual lists of places to visit. Here are some of my favorites:

Antique Toy Museum

Franz Mayer Museum

Shoe Museum Borceguí

Museum of Popular Art

Telegraph Museum

Postal Palace

Museum of the Mexican Army and Air Force

MODO, the Museum of the Object of the Object

Museum of the Tattoo

Museo Soumaya-Casa Guillermo Tovar de Teresa

Maybe it’s art that piques your interest.  The  Museo Soumaya is known for its knock-out, over-the-top architecture as well as what’s inside. Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo. Museo de Arte Moderno. The National Museum of Art. The Palace of Bellas Artes

Culture is a genuine bargain in this town. The only admission price I had to pay to visit the museums listed here came to $4. The rest were free to Mexicans over the age of 60.

And then there are the stores. In the Centro Historico, small specialty stores can be found for just about anything, many selling only one kind of ware –zippers, buttons, string bracelets with the hamsa or evil eye, men’s belts, the kinds of corsets that no one’s worn since 1964, fake police and military uniforms, quartzes, tiny charms and doodads wholesale and retail, religious supplies, incense and priestly garb. Yet another store sells only body parts of dolls. Be a flaneur and explore. When you’re in another country or out of town, even a block dedicated to prosthetics can be interesting in an odd way. Even if you’re not there to shop, take in the architecture, step back into 150 years past, and marvel at the quotidian.

Visiting Mexico City without dropping in on one of its many public markets would be like going to Paris and not noticing the Eiffel Tower. Are you up for a lion hamburger or iguana sausage along with a glass of wine? Or maybe you just want to gawk at the array of edible pre-Hispanic bugs, exotic meats, and gourmet produce from hither and yon.  Mercado San Juan is the place to be, and right across from this market is another three-story market dedicated to flowers and another selling only artesania and curiosities.

La Lagunilla is one of the city’s largest markets, but Sunday is the day to go for its famed antiques market. Even though this antiques market is frequented by some of the city’s famous and wealthy, you’re better off leaving the good clothes and fancy electronics at home, dressing down just a bit.

If you’re not inclined to make the pilgrimage to La Lagunilla, every weekend is an antiques flea market at Parque Dr. Ignacio Chávez, also known as Tianguis de Cuauhtémoc. Some of the vendors who sell at La Lagunilla also sell here.

Wherever I go, I have to have my Chinatown fix. There are actually two. Downtown, the more established and larger one is fully two blocks long, selling the kind of Chinese food you ate in the 1950s, stores stuffed with gewgaws made in China, always crowded and everyone having a great touristy time. And then there’s yet another one, down in the Viaducto Piedad middle class neighborhood, populated by a more recent wave of immigrants, many of whom speak neither Spanish nor English.

Enough with history, it’s time to head over to Antara Polanco, a pet-friendly mall so fancy that the dogs being walked likely have better pedigrees than their owners. It was the first mall I’ve ever visited that required its canine visitors to register for a credential. The three floors of Casa Palacio, an upscale home store, will require hours to thoroughly explore everything you didn’t know you wanted, saving you from spending even more money at Hamleys (the world’s oldest toy store), Coach, L’Occitane, Apple, Dyson (Even vacuum cleaners take on magic properties at a mall like this one.), Kiehl’s, and more.

GETTING AROUND. Mexico City is a great walking city, but even the fittest need a lift around town. While CDMX has an extensive public transportation system that’s practically free, I’m at the stage where it’s just not my thing. It’s safer and easier to use a ridesharing service or secure taxi.  And you, dear reader, should do the same. You’re not in your twenties, you’re not some harried commuter, and you’re spending discretionary income to travel.

 A dozen Uber trips during a 6-day stay cost me a whopping $70. Cabify is a Spanish Uber-like company operating in Latin America, and its app bears downloading just in case Uber is swamped.

WHERE TO EAT. Sure, there the places that are included in those lists of the 100 best restaurants in the world, places like Pujol and Quintonil,  but there are plenty of others that aren’t nearly as precious and just as good.

Gardela is my latest favorite splurge restaurant, an Argentine steakhouse in Roma Norte.

One of the pioneers of the slow food movement, Restaurante Nicos, cab ride, reservations necessary, but worth the effort.

El Cardenal, a white tablecloth chain with affordable prices, serves up Mexican food at its best.

Macelleria Roma is a mid-range Italian restaurant in Roma Norte.

Jing Teng Restaurant Estilo Hong Kong is perhaps the most authentic Chinese restaurant in Mexico City. Located in the Viaducto Piedad area, it’s clearly not expensive and always interesting.

El Moro is all about churros, hot and cold chocolate, and coffee.

A block from the American Embassy is Les Moustaches, an old-school, white-shoe French restaurant.

A trek from the city center but an unforgettable experience is El Arroyo, the largest Mexican restaurant in the world, seating over 2000 diners and providing parking for 600 cars. The cost of a cab ride there is more than offset by the modest menu prices. Hosting diners ranging from campesinos to politicians and titans of industry, people dressed in everything from schmattes to tuxedos, the restaurant offers up a happy cacophony of piñatas, mariachis, and bands, but it’s best visited with a team of your own, because a party of two risks getting lost in the crowd.

WHERE TO STAY. There was a time when where I stayed defined who I was, but I’ve given that up, at least now that I’m a Mexican visiting Mexico City, no longer able to afford to sleep in Polanco and fancy venues.

Now I mostly stay at Stanza Hotel, because Roma Norte has become my stomping ground. The area is hipster central, and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. You don’t have to worry about wearing the right eye makeup or good pearls. An upper-class Porfirian neighborhood in the early years of the last century, it later became middle-class, then dodgy, not becoming gentrified until this century. The movie Roma was filmed in Roma Sur, an adjoining, more residential neighborhood.

Fancier, more intimate, more expensive, and a favorite among English-speaking visitors is The Red Tree House in Condesa, a swank area adjoining Roma Norte, tabbed as a Magic Neighborhood for Tourists. 

Bordering Roma Norte on the north is the Zona Rosa, which is ground zero for the gay community and recent Korean immigrants.  The Hotel Geneve, a historical property was the first to offer lodging to unaccompanied women – and the first to serve a sandwich in Mexico – is the place to stay in the Zona Rosa.

And now about enjoying Mexico City for $100 a day. Last November, I spent six days in the town, staying at Stanza Hotel, wandering around, visiting museums and whatever piqued my interest, stopping in at Chinatown and Antara, and eating in my usual when-I’m-alone style of eating when I get hungry at wherever looks appealing. I did not eat at anyplace downscale, and I didn’t eat any street food. My splurge meal cost $40 at Gardela. For the first time, I actually kept track of my expenses, and the total – hotel, food, and transportation – came to a whopping $630.

Whether you’re inspired to visit Mexico City or just want to learn more about the most fascinating city in the world, take in these resources:

Jesus Chairez. His Facebook page operates as a blog for this expatriate Texas writer, artist, and man about town.

David Lida, First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century

Juan Villoro, Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico

Francisco Goldman, The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle

Ilan Stavans, Return to Centro Historico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots

Josh Barkan, Mexico: Stories

Daniel Hernandez, Down and Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century

Carlos Monsivais, Mexican Postcards

Jonathan Kandell, La Capital: The Biography of Mexico City

Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, I Speak of the City: Mexico City at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Celebrating Freestyle

I come from a tradition of no tradition. We were happiest when we gave up the forced merriment. Wishing “Merry Christmas” to others, we weren’t exactly nihilists. If buying local poinsettias counts, we decorate, making up for years with no Christmas tree by leaving the Evergleam tree up all year around in an odd niche between the kitchen and dining room, right along with Santiago Apostol on his horse and a gallery of Octavio Ocampo art.

Hanukkah gets celebrated by frying up something, most often buñuelos, on some night, seldom the right nights but still during Hanukkah season, laughing about the time someone completely forgot to light the menorah, setting out the gold-wrapped gelt, and gathering up gifts to be distributed between then and Day of the Kings.

One year I was invited to a Christmas posada by some friends who came from an even-by-Mexican-standards large family. I remarked how unnaturally well they all seemed to get along. My hostess quickly came back with “Inviting people who aren’t in the family keeps those in the family on their good behavior. And, of course, we have family that we’ve learned not to invite.”

The most memorable holidays were marked by doing something definitely not in the holiday rulebook:

Spending the day working at the hospital as a Candy Striper.

Christmas Eve in Florence at an over-the-top doll store, successfully scoring a simple black doll over my mother’s entreaties to opt for something fancier.

Christmas Eve at Alcatraz.

Christmas Day in Iowa City, dining at Denny’s after moving into an empty FIJI house. The bar review course would start the next day.

Aloft on a plane, fleeing flyover country for Lake Tahoe, Mazatlán, or Mexico City.

Christmas Eve and sushi in Buenos Aires, heralded by fireworks and a complete and total absence of traffic, not a taxi cab in sight. And walking from Recoleta to Palmero Viejo the next day.

Taking a recreational drive through the countryside, ending up at the mall, and buying an iPad.

Exploring the local cemetery on Christmas Day.

Cooking up spaghetti because Orizaba, the Old English Mastiff, ate the entire standing rib roast.

Attending or hosting a recalentado (a casual, unstructured celebration, usually on the 25th, of reheated leftovers, often supplemented by lasagna and a few freshly-prepared dishes).

None would be repeated, but each was memorable and enjoyable in its own way, just because those experiences were void of tradition-fueled expectations. Stepping away from tradition vastly decreases holiday tension and starring in Robert Earl Keene’s Merry Christmas from the Family.

Salad Days

Salad gets a bad rap. At best, it’s viewed as a perfunctory and pedestrian part of the meal, highlighted only during hot weather. Or as a course for dieters and dainty appetites. Go to a restaurant and order only a salad, maybe accompanied by an appetizer, maybe not. And you’ll get that look that says “Is that all you’re having?”

When was the last time someone asked for a second helping of salad?

Lettuce, tomato, maybe a slice of avocado, a touch of grated carrot doused in some glutinous slop masquerading as French, Italian, Ranch, or Thousand Island masquerading as dressing that just tasted like food-grade Drano, that’s the kind of salad my mother made every night, always served on the same wooden salad plates or bowls. Or chopped cabbage drowning in mayonnaise.

Could there be anything worse than Waldorf, a gooey mixture of apples, celery, grapes, and walnuts, in some kind of creamy mortar? Only Caesar gets that touch of theater.

There may be only 2,493 ways to make a meat loaf, but there are a gazillion ways to make a salad, none of them evoking sour, limp greens, dripping in oil.

Restaurants that would never think of serving tainted chicken or over-the-hill fish don’t give a second thought to charging customers for wilted greens, brown at the edges, ingredients better suited for the compost pile.

My favorite go-to restaurant serves up the best beef between here and Chicago, mastering creations of potato and conjuring up fabulous desserts, but it’s still serving the same three ho-hum salads since its opening a decade ago. Most restaurants just give salads short shrift.

And that’s why I took to making salads at home, lavishing the kind of attention that some might give to beef Wellington or a chocolate cake. Before long and before I started sharing the salad of the day on Facebook, I became known as the designated salad person, the one people would ask to bring a salad to any guest-sourced food gathering. What a score! You see, before then, any self-respecting potluck host would ask me to bring something store-bought instead of anything I might’ve made myself.

Netflix-famous cooking queen Samin Nosrat tells us that it’s all Salt Fat Acid Heat, but she doesn’t always get salad. She’s compelled to add cheese to nearly everything, which just ruins it for this cheese-hater. Don’t get me wrong: I still worship her. To the Samin’s holy quartet of salt, fat, acid, and heat, I’d add sweet, crunch, and surprise.

Start your salad by settling upon the two or three ingredients that will be the base of your salad. There isn’t an item on the produce aisle of the local supermarket or greengrocer that can’t find its way into a salad. Maybe shredded beef or chicken will be the salad’s focal point. Use vegetables not usually associated with salad: zucchini, okra, grilled peppers, roasted radishes, cooked winter squash and sweet potatoes, chayote, or raw corn. Berries, cherries, mango, melon, pineapple, and jicama are all fair game.

We all love carbs, and you can’t go keto or paleo all the time. Add a spoonful of bulgur, quinoa, farro, barley, Israeli couscous, wild rice, brown rice, garbanzos, white and other beans, roasted corn for a change of texture, to sate that carb craving, and to provide an interesting contrast.

Everyone knows that the probability of a pistachio, macadamia, or cashew ending up on your fork makes each bite of salad exciting. One thing that Samin never mentions is the importance of some sweet nugget in salad: hard candy in Xmas salad, praline pecans, raisins, dried fruit, candied ginger, silver dragées. A handful of pomegranate arils. Add something interesting and unexpected to salad – nasturtium seed pods can double as capers, green or unripe coriander or cilantro seeds, bougainvillea, marigold, rose petals, squash flowers.

Zhuzh it up with horseradish leaves, radish leaves, mint, fennel fronds, nasturtium flowers, or fresh pea tendrils. A few toasted pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, or sesame add excitement and crunch.

Let’s move on to the acid and fat. Be miserly with both.

Living in Dorothy Lynch country can drive a person to desperate measures, so about a half century ago, I became a fan of Girard’s Champagne Vinaigrette, thinking that it was a sign I’d arrived, given that it was just about the fanciest offered up on the shelves of Dahl’s in Des Moines. And then I realized I was paying $5 and more for canola and soy oil, water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and seasoning, all of which I could conjure up easily from my own pantry.

The fat doesn’t have to be EVOO or even poured out of a bottle. Nuts, bacon, cheese, tahini, avocado, anchovies, and tuna are all sources of fat. Keep that in mind when you reach for a bottle of oil. I prefer to spray or sprinkle the oil lightly and directly on the salad.

Acid doesn’t have to be vinegar. Citrus juice is acid. A splash of wine is acid, and so is pickle juice. Tomatoes, nopal, pickled ginger, and other vegetables are acid. So are honey, pomegranate molasses, crema balsámica, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, rose water, and dairy. You get the picture. You can drop the acid, or you can microdose. The decision is yours.

A little garnish always makes a salad special, whether it’s freshly zested citrus, gomashio (a Japanese seasoning of slowly-toasted sesame seeds ground with sea salt, sending forth a buttery, oily, salty sweet flavor), toasted nori, or even the crumbles and dust from the bottom of a bag of barbecue potato chips or Fritos.

Make your salads interesting and exciting, and become the person known for your salads. Experiment with your salad. Play with your food. Get creative. Make others crave your salads. And remember that you can also order in Chinese food or Domino’s if you fail.
But since all food pieces are supposed to include a recipe, here are three, each yielding enough salad dressing for a small army:

Pomegranate Molasses Vinaigrette

by Victoria Challancin

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons unflavored rice vinegar
1 tablespoon agave nectar or honey
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground sumac
Sea salt and fresh pepper to taste

Nora Ephron’s Really Good Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons mustard, either dijon or champagne
2 tablespoons good vinegar (I really like Noble’s Tonic No. 4)
1 small shallot, minced evenly
6 tablespoons olive oil

Villa Montana Salad Dressing

1 medium onion, diced
3 medium cloves garlic
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/8 tsp. pepper
3 tablespoon sugar
2 cups oil
3/4 cup apple or cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon celery, chopped

Put all ingredients in a blender and stir until well blended. Makes 1 quart.

Note: this recipe was created in the 1950s, when oil was oil, and vinegar was vinegar.

Same Place, Next Year

The urge to fill my passport with more stamps than the person standing in line next to me might have had at immigration is over. I’m done with seeking out new places to visit. The days of thinking others might be impressed by what’s on my passport or a recitation of the number of countries I’ve visited are long over.

While that may mean that I’ll never see Vietnam, China and New Zealand, there’s still plenty of desire and opportunity to go back to places I’ve been to before. And that’s just what I do, returning time and again to the same place.

No longer is there the need to venture to far-flung corners of the globe to buy shoes of Spanish leather and Middle Eastern cooking tools and ingredients. All of that’s readily available, even at 3 a.m., courtesy of the Internet. Even biber salçası, the Turkish red pepper paste, and Lipton Yellow Label tea are available from Mercado Libre, Mexico’s version of eBay and Amazon. The department store sells purses made in Italy, French-made bras and Czech tchotchkes. Lebanese halvah and Polish chocolates can be had at the grocery store.

It didn’t happen overnight. It might’ve started with circumscribing my travel world to places where the people looked like me. That ruled out most of Asia, most of Africa, and most of northern Europe. Then I’d narrow it down to countries where the people spoke Spanish. Or maybe it didn’t.

It might’ve happened because I like to conserve time, energy, and money, which are in increasingly short supply. It might’ve happened because the older I get, the more I like to cut to the chase.

But the real motivating factor was none of the above. I wanted to go deeper, learning more about my destinations than If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. I wanted to use what I’d learned from previous visits, avoiding vaunted attractions not worth my time, peeling back layers, and going beyond. I wanted to own that destination, if only in my own mind.

My world didn’t shrink. It just became more concentrated.

Each time you return, you’re upgraded, just like those people who keep returning to Las Vegas. The upgrade might be physical — to a suite from a standard room at a hotel or a better table than someone just walking in off the street for the first time might snag — but the upgrade can also be mental, just because you know your way around a little better the second, third or sixth time around. A few times around the block, you’re no longer at your first rodeo.

The deer in the headlights look of a tourist gives way to acting like you know where you’re going.

There is something about visiting the same museums over and over again, each time taking them in through a different lens. Of course, there are always those temporary exhibits, but it’s always refreshing to revisit what you’ve seen before in the permanent collection. Las Meninas, housed at Museo del Prado in Madrid, looks much different at the age of 60 than it did when you were in your thirties. I can’t get enough Fernando Botero, no matter where his work appears. Each time I return to gaze at a Diego Rivera mural at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, I see more and different details not evident the time before. And you never know what’s newly in stock at the museum store.  But then I’m also a huge fan of museum cafes and restaurants.

The vendors at the Sunday flea market in Usaquen, a Bogota neighborhood, recognize me. And so did hotel bell staff at Diez Hotel in Medellin. I’ve learned which vendors at La Lagunilla Sunday morning antiques market sell pukka and which sell factory-fresh family heirlooms.

Not more than an hour after settling in, I’m at a café, pretending that it’s my usual haunt. In my mind, I’m a local.

A decade or so ago, I would spend a few days in Uruguay, returning a year later. The first time left me baffled, because it wasn’t as expected, having sort of an old, forgotten feeling about it all, a general sameness, not unlike old and yellowed linen from someone’s grandmother’s closet. But all of that gnawing feeling would draw me back a year later, when I found myself enjoying it for what it wasn’t. The sepia landscape of the year before was still not the technicolor of Buenos Aires, but it was also an oasis of calm, Argentine pretense erased. This time around, it made sense.

“Why are you going to Mexico again? You’ve been there so many times before. Why not go to Hawaii or on a cruise?”

Are my odd habits really any different from those who’ll visit Disneyland or Disney World year after year or who return to that same old cabin on Golden Pond?

I bask in the familiarity of it all. And assurance that things will be the same. You return to Whole Foods and a favorite restaurant in your own town over and over again. You might go to Chicago three times a year, seeking out the same Greektown restaurant and revisiting the same steakhouse. Why, there are even people who’ve been known to watch Turandot multiple times.

Once you’ve traveled a fair amount, you realize that the world’s all the same, but different, and the oner of travel just isn’t worth it. Comfort supplants adventure.

Never having been to Hawaii, at least not until I was well-settled in Mexico, nor having been on a cruise since the time we crossed the Atlantic in search of America on MV Britannic in the 1950s, I would return to Mexico several times a year. Landing in Mexico City, staying at the Camino Real Polanco, I would have my hair done at George the Jordanian’s beauty shop like the fancy ladies. There was no need to get out a map or even ask directions to Liverpool and El Palacio de Hierro. And I already knew my way around Chapultepec Park.

An airline strike one winter sent me driving to Mexico, which then became habit, and before long, I would find myself spending ten days or so several times a year at the Hotel Villa Montaña in Morelia.

And before you knew it, one thing led to another, which made all those repeat trips to Mexico so very worth it: I get to live here.

Recovering big-time gonzo labor lawyer Jim Karger, a denizen of San Miguel de Allende for the two decades last past, sums it all up in his blog, Slouching into Oblivion:

Travel is overrated. Most people travel not to experience new places but to talk about their experiences, or what they wish their experiences had been. Travel is a status symbol like a Mercedes. No one cares what you drive and they also don’t care where you have been.

Previously published in Voice of Experience: June 2022, American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division.

Today is Guadalupe’s

And now begins the Guadalupe-Reyes Maraton, which I expanded a few years back to the El Buen Fin – Valentin Maraton. This post is recycled from 2017, but we need Guadalupe more than ever. Here’s to you, chica!

We Mexicans don’t often agree on a lot of things. We’re like Jews that way. Put six Mexicans or six Jews together, and you’ll have eleven opinions. Nothing — tacos, nopal, the tri-color of PRI, not even the eagle and the serpent — will put all Mexicans on the same page. But there is one dame whom every Mexican venerates, right down to the atheists and the evangelicals and the Mormons and even the testigos de Jehová, and she’s the Virgen of Guadalupe. No one brings us all together like she does.

The holiest day of the year, bigger than Christmas and Easter, is Dia de Guadalupe, the 12th of December.

You’re heard the saying that only 82% of all Mexicans are Catholic, but 120% of us are Guadalupanos. Being Mexican (or even living in Mexico) and not appreciating the Virgen would be sort of like being Episcopalian and eating shrimp cocktail with the salad fork. It’s one of those things that’s just not done. The Virgen’s not just a saint – she’s the mother of our country, the icon of Mexicanidad, and she knows no borders. There is no woman in all of the Americas more powerful and more venerated than she.

So, if you’re going to be a real Mexican, her visage will adorn more than few rooms in your abode. I’ve got her image on a shopping bag, and an enameled version of her accompanies my car keys at all times. Several more Virgens show up here and there, done up in glitter and ribbon, most likely purchased during Mes Patria. It was only natural that I’d pick up a giclee on canvas reproduction of Octavio Ocampo’s Virgen de Guadalupe about a decade ago.

And then we just couldn’t take our eyes off of Ocampo’s Virgen. There was a magic in this one, new details revealing themselves each time I looked at it: faces inside of roses, campesinos on her eyelids, angels on her robe, a man caressing her left cheek, the new Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and the old one on the left, a red brick gothic church that looked like it would be right at home in Germany on the right. And wait, it’s not just a painting, but a metapainting on a canvas being held up by an almond-eyed Juan Diego.

Image by Deb Winarski

Our research about the background of this work went off and on, since we’ll never be confused with serious researchers, much less art historians. Ocampo created this work, measuring some 1.70 meters in height, on commission in 2000 for St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Evanston for $60,000 USD. And it wasn’t just happenstance that brought Ocampo’s work to this church. The Saint Nicholas Parish had been a polyglot church longer than it hadn’t, its parishioners going from mostly speaking German to speaking mostly English to speaking enough Spanish that its website is now bilingual. Its Mexican parishioners were mostly drawn from Celaya and Salvatierra in the state of Guanajuato, Ocampo was born in Celaya, and everyone from the Bajio has a cousin in Chicago.

Images by Dale R. Granchalek

Dr. Fernando Vizcaíno Guerra of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México political science faculty does much better job of explaining the Ocampo Virgen and how it made its way from Celaya to Evanston in his article La Virgen de Guadalupe y la Identidad en una Parroquia en el Area de Chicago, which appears in La Frontera de las Identidades.

But we still couldn’t envision how this painting looked in living color, so we searched the church’s website until we came upon Dale R. Granchalek, who graciously went out of his way to provide the photos shown in this blog post, recruiting his colleague, Deb Winarski, to photograph the single image of the painting.

My little 12 x 18” pirated version of Ocampo’s Virgen seems paltry in comparison to the real thing, but it led me to the real thing and the story behind it, so that makes it important and valuable to me.

Meanwhile, my small, cheap reproduction now resides in a country house on the road to Guanajuato, Grace Slick having begged me to loan it to her, since her house lacked a proper rendition of the Virgen. So, I extracted a blood oath from her, a covenant to protect the Virgen, returning her unharmed to my house after she performs the necessary and appropriate miracles in her new location.

Bad Santas

Bad Santas seldom start off with evil intentions. At least, that’s how I’d like to think. But there are times when you really wonder whether the givers’ brains were on hiatus. Why not just settle for giving your loved ones a stick or a lump of coal and get it all over with? Or just nothing? It would have to be cheaper and kinder in the long run.

It’s so easy to fall into that trap of giving someone what we would want to receive. Or what would make the recipient what we’d like them to become.

Maybe I’m being too kind. We can write off gifting fails as acts of the clueless and the cheap bastards, and then there’s unadulterated malice.

There are funny gifts. There are gifts that can be genuinely appreciated only by the recipients. And then there are gifts that are just plain cruel.

The initiation fee on a golf club membership. Not only do I hate golf, I couldn’t afford to pay the monthly maintenance charges and had to let the membership go. The donor may have thought the membership would put me with a more desirable class of people, but it was money wasted.

Diet aids, exercise equipment, and self-help books. “But I was only trying to help.” In my family, this comes naturally. My grandmother gave my mother a three-month membership to Vic Tanny’s, good only during the last three months of her final pregnancy. My own mother couldn’t help herself when it came to throwing in cheap exercise equipment along with excesses of stuff I really wanted.

Clothing that is obviously too small or too large for the recipient. Now, no one expects every donor to know every recipient’s size, but it’s a fair bet that those who shop Eileen Fisher seldom come in size 4. And folks with size 7 feet rarely will grow into a 9.5.

Framed photos. I already know what you and your family look like, and I don’t need to be reminded. Do you really think I’m going to prop that up on my mantle? Since you adore those images of yourself so much, how about I blow up a really bad photo of you, put it in a cheap frame, and give it to you on your next birthday?

Holiday gift baskets, loaded with cylinders of dried meat that a rat wouldn’t even touch, cheese cultured from toe jam, stale crackers, and worse. Is there anyone who really is impressed by an assortment of sample-sized nut bars and a few lousy bananas? Why not just send over a sack of dry dog food and a couple of cans of Alpo? If you really know the recipient well, you can deliver the same thrill and for a lot less money by simply wrapping up a box of Kraft non-deluxe dinner and a can of SpaghettiOs.

Tuition at a science conference and a check made out to a math tutor. That kind of gift demands reciprocity of no less than a scholarship to Betty Ford.

A donation made in my name to your favorite charity. How fucking dumb do you think I am? I know you’re taking the tax deduction.

The free travel liquor valise with pictures of liquor bottles, umbrella, and other shit you got for buying office supplies. A family member once gave that to my mother. Wisely, she handed the gift right back as a going-away present no less than 24 hours later.

A yellow lace baby doll peignoir. When was the last time you saw me wearing anything like that?

A gift certificate that would barely pay the sales tax on the cheapest item available or the tip on the cheapest item on the menu. Really, do you think that anyone could use a $5 Zabar’s certificate or a $10 gift certificate good at Canyon Ranch? The only one benefitting from this certificate is the vendor who never has to redeem it.

Books that have absolutely no useful purpose in my life – not even as donations. How about the Children’s Favorite Fables of Utah? Or a coffee table book about the most interesting gas stations in the San Fernando Valley? Surely there’s something more interesting in the remainder pile.

A jeweled dog collar, signifying a promise to buy a poodle. Really, what is a college student going to do with an unsolicited dog?

Medical devices. Oh boy, just what I always wanted! A sleep apnea pillow. A box of Depends would be easier to wrap. Why not go all out and give someone a year’s pass to the local STD clinic?

Used tacky Christmas ornaments, particularly when given on Christmas Day.

Tickets to an event which was held yesterday. Even worse would be tickets to tomorrow night’s Morelia boys’ choir concert for someone living in Uganda.

A toilet brush.

A wood flute and a concertina. Someone could’ve saved a lot of money just by buying an LP of the Lennon Sisters singing the von Trapp Family favorites.

Gifts that the donor thinks may spark some new hobby interest. Like macramé or stamp collecting. People over the age of 9 are seldom spurred on to new avocations.

A stick in your stocking. Yes, this did happen in my family. Even if he may have deserved it, and even though he received everything else he wanted, it still cast an unpleasant pall to that Christmas. No wonder he remains frozen when it comes to giving Christmas presents: expect one of those crappy gift baskets from him.

Are you tempted this year to give someone a gift certificate for paternity testing? What gifts have you received that just made your want to sit down and cry? Or plot revenge by blogging about them?

Who Doesn’t Love Dogs Playing Poker?

While waiting for a repairman to arrive, I wisely invested my time searching for monkey paintings on eBay, which then caused me to search for renditions of Botero’s La Noche on MercadoLibre, which then made me think of the Franklin Mint, which reminded me that I’d written earlier about that. So, please enjoy this blast from the past, penned during the last year of the last Republican Administration.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

Some of us would be mortified if anyone found out what was on our iPods. Go ahead and admit it: if you’re reading this, you probably have some Herman’s Hermits and country western lurking on that tiny hard drive. Since I have no pride, I’ll tell you that I’ve got David Seville’s Witch Doctor on mine. (The 45 rpm record was the first one I ever bought with my own money, back in the summer of 1958.)

A generation ago, we decorated their squalid college apartments with black light posters (yes, black light poster I still possess some, stashed away in the bodega), lava lamps, and marijuana paraphernalia. A poster of Disney characters engaged in sex acts inspired me to write a law school piece about droit moral and Article 6bis of the Berne Convention, which ended up making me more money than I’d ever made in my entire life up until…

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Six Feet of Summer Socializing

Three arms’ length, two and a half baseball bats, two golf clubs, two shopping carts, two end-to-end Doberman Pinschers, the width of a Honda Accord, or half a parking space. That’s six feet, give or take a few inches. And that’s the current standard of social distancing, which still means something even if businesses have started to open again and protestors march in the streets.

It’s the 2020 version of the gym teacher, armed with a ruler, separating couples who were dancing too close at the junior high school dance. What we called cooties back in the fifties are back today as COVID-19.

Ball games, barbecues, picnics, outdoor concerts under the stars, libations around the fire pit. Those were yester summer’s fun, but COVID-19 changed the rhythm, setting, and style of socializing, creating New Rules, new normal, and new ways of entertaining ourselves in the company of others.

And now that the Boston Marathon, postponed to September 14, has been cancelled, what are you going to do? We all know how hard you had been training for that while you sheltered in place.

You can play board games and Animal Crossing: New Horizons only so long. You’ve become sick and tired of decorating focaccia and making sourdough. Even fermenting vegetables has become old. How can you get out of the house, socialize with other sentient beings, and remain in an acceptable risk zone? Surely, there has to be some way to have fun, socialize, and still maintain acceptable social distance. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, in “From Camping To Dining Out: Here’s How Experts Rate The Risks Of 14 Summer Activities” gives some useful guidance. You can still have fun while maintaining that safe, healthy, and social distance.

Manhattan Beach, California, lawyer Brian H. Cole, whose beach forbids setting up chairs, limiting activity only to “active” pursuits like swimming, surfing, and walking, has been having “driveway dinners,” both at home and at friends’ homes. Two or three couples gather, sitting at appropriate distances apart, and enjoy take-out from a nearby restaurant. Even friends with health challenges have been willing to engage in these driveway dinners, since everyone gathers in fresh air without getting too close.

A Seattle lawyer participates in Zoom cocktail parties with other lawyers, Zoom wine tastings, and even split a bottle of wine with a long-time, trusted friend, physically separated by at least eight feet on the deck of his house, overlooking a lake. For a real change of scenery, he ventures forth to his office, distancing himself from the sole other occupant, his secretary. And then there’s always Costco.

Practicing out of a high-rise condo in the Philadelphia city center for a dozen years, Miriam Jacobson’s not socializing in person at all, having no plans to do so for a long time, but that doesn’t mean she’s living the life of a hermit. The plays, movies, restaurants, and meetings which were part of her pre-COVID-19 life are no longer on her agenda, nor are the doctors’ appointments which had been part of her social life.  But she’s neither idle nor lonely, using Zoom as her lifeline, participating in tai chi, yoga, pranayama, and Qi Gong breath classes, attending bar association meetings in different locations in her living room and dining area, participating in a group that is trying to bridge the cultural difference between Jewish and Muslim women, and enjoying dinner with friends. She says her list of Netflix and Hulu offerings is probably longer than her life expectancy. Hot weather, crowds of unmasked people on narrow sidewalks, and protests have kept her from taking outdoor walks for now.

Jacobson senses that in some of the Zoom meetings, people are more willing to share intimately, adding that some the discussions have taken on more open and authentic dimensions, perhaps because the focus is upon the participant’s faces instead of the backs of their heads that we would see at in-person classroom settings.

So, what has this writer been doing? Life is not terribly dissimilar from pre-COVID-19 days, because there’s plenty around the house and yard to keep me occupied and entertained. I participate in competitive cooking with friends in North and South America, I garden and read, and I snidely complain to others about the indecency of the unmasked masses. I venture out to Costco, the beauty shop, and to my favorite steakhouse, which I’ll keep on doing.

This is the age of consent and establishing boundaries. Close friends have always had social codes of conduct. Some are just common sense, like not wearing white shoes after Labor Day or serving shrimp cocktails with salad forks at a Passover seder. Whether it’s a hike with friends, a dinner party, or coffee and dessert, establish ground rules for all participants. Just as there once were tacit agreements about smoking, over-drinking, using recreational drugs, and discussing taboo topics, the New Rules require an understanding of everyone’s tolerance level of masking, washing, disinfecting, sharing, and sane distancing. And those agreements can easily extend to a ban on bringing uninvited guests. What might’ve passed for faux pas or just bad manners last year are matters of life and death for many today.

Relax, and remain flexible. You may have set out enough supplies of hand sanitizer, tissues, disposable facemasks, spray cleaners, disinfectants, and trash receptacles to outfit a MASH unit, but no matter how careful everyone tries to be, sooner or later someone’s going to break the New Rules. Consider it today’s equivalent of spilled wine or a broken glass, break out the Clorox wipes, and move on. A breached bacterial barrier isn’t worth stressing over. Your hospitality zone would never be mistaken for an operating theater anyway.

Everyone’s risk aversion level is different. Try to understand their needs and concerns, accommodating them without compromising your own health standards. If someone insists upon wearing nitrile gloves and a plastic face shield, topped off with a foam pool noodle, at an in-person dinner party, don’t comment. After all, it’s not as if they were wearing black socks with sandals or eating with the wrong fork. If others require you to wear a full-on plastic face shield, play along in good faith. It’s only for an hour or so, and it can’t look any sillier than you were at that Halloween party back in 1999.

And if you can’t commune with other humans, you can still get close to nature. Go out for a hike, plant a garden, landscape the yard. Breathe in some fresh air, and let the sun restore that Vitamin D. Walk your dog, go horseback riding, maybe even take in a botanical garden or zoo.

Ten years ago, MOOCs (massive open online courses) were all the rage, fell into disuse, but COVID-19 has put Coursera, Udacity, and edX back in style again. Take a course with a few friends, just to make it a meaningful and safe social activity. The Johns Hopkins’ course, “COVID-19 Contact Tracing,” offered through Coursera might not lead to new career opportunities, but it will make you conversant about a new topic.

Sheltering in place, self-isolation, and quarantining don’t have to mean social exile. Keep in touch with friends – and even strangers – by phone, on social media, by e-mail, and even by old-fashioned snail mail. Staying socially connected is essential to remaining sane in interesting times.

Previously published in Voice of Experience: June 2020, American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division



Covid Tales


This morning at Banorte’s bank of ATMs, a tidy, well-dressed, bald, bare-faced customer works the machine, methodically wiping it down with a white disinfecting wipe, as if preparing it for surgery, inserting his card and extracting his money, and then wiping his fingers and the machine down afterward. There is another machine available, but I decide the one the bald man has wiped down is clean enough for me to use second-hand.

Paying attention to which digits I put into use, I note that only the tip of my left index finger touches the machine and its keypad, the same index finger and its adjoining thumb only put into use to pluck the card from my purse’s outer pocket, sliding it in and pulling it out, along with the cash. Perhaps as much as an eighth of a centimeter of my skin touched where others had gone before.

Stuffing my money and debit card back into my purse, I douse my hands with gel, making sure that I smear it all over the bottle for good measure as I walk back to my car. Maybe I was thinking that those viruses and spirochetes were in a mad race to my elbows.

But the story starts in my vestidor, before I took off for the bank, as I make up my face, opting for the good eye shadow, the good eyeliner, telling myself that it’s more necessary now than ever, that I don’t need to be stingy with makeup, because I can buy more when this is all over. Even if my face will be mostly covered and my eyes shaded by dark glasses, it’s important that I know what’s underneath. I draw the parallels with wearing the good underwear and slathering on the good body cream on an ordinary day. No one but me knows it’s there, and maybe that’s what makes it all the more important.


Will we all become super-aware of germs when this is over? The polio years left its mark on many of us. When I was 15, a girl who would go on to become a homecoming queen picked up my drink, supposedly by mistake, and I could not touch it after she had. God only knows what had been in her mouth the weekend before, and I wasn’t taking any chances. She and her pack of wannabees made fun of my germaphobia, and I lost rank that day.

In time, we would get over the ickiness of germs as we passed around joints, took hits from the same bong, and swilled from the same Almaden bottle being passed around. And if a McDonald’s coffee stirrer wasn’t available, a rolled-up Ben Franklin touched more than a few nostrils.

Will the next generation do that?


Masks do more than create a germ barrier, shutting out bad breath as well as emotions.  You can’t see another’s smile, their teeth, whether they’re baring their teeth, grimacing, or sticking their tongue out at you. What will happen to lipstick? And what about white teeth? Will masks be the death knell for porcelain veneers? Will orthodontists be put out of business? Will women stop bleaching their mustaches and plucking those pesky chin hairs? Will people stop trimming those nose hairs?

Earrings and masks don’t often work well together. And those nose rings and studs? Wasted efforts.

Will we start looking into others’ eyes more carefully for signs of life?

And when The Late Unpleasantness abates, will those of us who’ve come to resemble Botero people be back in style?

Or is it all a plot to get everyone into nijabs and burkas?


Back to the bald man with the disinfecting wipes. Assuming, he wasn’t wiping the ATM down with coronavirus, he was showing concern for the next user. Maybe it was just a public version of wiping off stray sprinkles on a toilet seat or putting it down after using it, but it was a gesture that didn’t go unnoticed. And that took me back to thinking about how the masks aren’t about protecting the wearer, but showing respect for others.  And that’s what I tell myself when I put on my eye makeup.




Gleaming Forever

Xmas ornament

Over on the Highway to Heaven, which just sounds better than Avenida Juan Pablo II, across from the Universidad Vasco de Quiroga, just on this side of the Gordon Bodenwein Benedictine Monasterio, which is a story for another day, stood a solid red Christmas tree just outside of a large assortment of trees imported from Canada, never mind that there’s a thriving Christmas tree industry right here in Mexico. Six days later, the glimpse still in my mind, I had to return to check out that tree. Never mind that I never bought a Christmas tree in my life. Or that I’d sprung just the day before for nine of the most beautiful fuschia nochebuenas over at the state forestry department Christmas bazaar.

And that solid red Christmas tree was even more beautiful than the first time I’d seen it. In close second place was an all-black frosted tree. I could be happy with either, but they just couldn’t compete with what I already have.

My Christmas tree came in a box, an original silver Evergleam, grown in the forests of the Aluminum Specialty Company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, during the second term of the Eisenhower Administration and the first and only term of the López Mateos, a golden and growing era for both countries. It’s so beautiful that we leave it up all year round, topped off with a Doberman angel, handcrafted by nimble Orvis elves. Hand-blown glass ornaments came from Tlalpujahua, some filled with filament, others with feathers. The only thing missing is that revolving color wheel light, which was more exciting to watch than any ordinary Christmas lights and no doubt set the stage for those hours we’d spend a decade later gazing at posters under a black light.

The Evergleam is an heirloom one, purchased by my grandmother during the one year she didn’t have the florist make up a Christmas tree in something like all-turquoise flocked pine with matching ornaments, which would all be hauled away after New Year’s to prevent her descendants from inheriting Christmas ornaments. My grandparents were always the first in town to have whatever was the newest and latest, so they used that tree once and hid it in a storage closet until more than two decades would elapse. By then, I’d opened my law office, and she suggested it might look good in the waiting room, instructing me that it should be decorated in ornaments of a single color, preferably blue, since that was her color. So, the tree got put up a time or two in the office, and then it found itself shipped to Mexico to my mother, who was living here at the time, who declared it too ugly for words, shoving it back into the bodega, where it would remain for another decade or so. In due time, I would move to Mexico, and in the years following, I would take it lovingly from the original box, carefully releasing the branches from the original paper sleeves, and erect it with red and pink ornaments. Friends who drop by are rendered speechless by the sight of this tree, but I know that deep down, they’re just envious. This tree has seen more holidays than my grandmother ever intended, but I think it’s beautiful in that 1959 pink Cadillac with fins kind of way.

This year, the Evergleam aluminum tree will be 60 years old. And it’s still emblematic of an era when the world was bright, filled with energy, when people of all stripes and faiths could cheerfully wish one another “Merry Christmas” and mean it. And that was the year when Santa Claus brought me double holster cap guns which I proudly wore over a red smocked dress with a red net petticoat underneath.

Melania may have had those stunning red Christmas trees last year, but what she’s missing is an Evergleam.

Intentional Tacos


Growing up, Saturday lunch was usually tacos, which my mother insisted were chalupas, since that’s what she’d eaten when she went to college in Texas, some time before Pearl Harbor. We didn’t know any better, never mind that we were only about 20 miles from Tijuana. We ate what we thought were tacos on Saturdays, because they were something the Indian (Native Americans weren’t around back then) maid, who shared a surname with the Mexican president known more for the eponymous laws that set off the Cristero Rebellion than any of his good deeds, could quickly make before leaving for the weekend. Fried corn tortillas, canned refried beans, hamburger cooked with chile powder, lettuce, onion, and tomato. My job was to slice the scallions. At least the tortillas weren’t those pre-fried taco shells.

Today I’ve become one of those people who treks all over town in search of the esoteric, organic, and delicious, hitting La Ruta Natural one Saturday, and 8 days (which for you Estadounidenses, is a week) later, the organic market at Paseo Altozano, occasionally faced with a double-header if the first-Saturday-of-the-Month Mercato DaVinci beckons. And then there’s the every-Wednesday-while-school-is-in-session Mercadito CEM, which now conflicts with my passion for ordering up groceries from El Arbol over on Av. Cuautla, now that I’ve learned the secret handshake.

And then all of this hunting and gathering leads me to Sundays playing cook in my kitchen, getting out my toys for a purpose other than making MorgenFood in the Instant Pot and agua de pepino with the mandolin, coming to the realization that a food stylist on staff could be useful and that I ought not give up my day job, as if I had one. I’ll get into one kind of food, and then I’ll run it into the ground. Verdolagas were last year’s cheap thrill. At the moment I’m into tacos. Not the kind we grew up with, of course, but the kind that would photograph well, since the only purpose in creating something attractive on your plate is to upload it to Facebook, right?

So now I present you with the tacos du jour: Instant Pot pulled pork, Las Tias mango habanero chutney, Thai basil, and tomatoes, all wrapped up in tortillas de flor de jamaica, courtesy of Roberto Gomez, purveyor of all things jamaica. Everything that went into this plate came from Michoacán. Lamentably, germinado jamaica (hibiscus sprout) wasn’t available, and that would’ve been so essential. Maybe by summer’s end I’ll get this designer taco thing perfected.


A rabbit from last Sunday’s Feria Alternativa de Urandén reposes in the freezer. Butter rabbit (murgh makhana) on blue corn tortillas, anyone?

Michael Warshauer, Q.E.P.D.

One of Patzcuaro’s icons had a major change of address two days ago.

Michael Warshauer, born in the sunset year of the Silent Generation in Brooklyn, died in Patzcuaro at the age of 76 years. He would call a lot of venues home – New Jersey; Montreal; some place in Ohio which might’ve actually been some place in Pennsylvania or maybe both; St. Louis; Columbia, Missouri; Overland Park; Mountain View and Little Rock, Arkansas – before settling in along the shores of Lake Patzcuaro in the fall of 2005.

An English major at Mizzou, he’d sell his textbooks to pay for caving, along the way meeting Susie, who’d picked up the spelunking habit in Wales and whom he’d go on to wed. And spend even more time exploring subterranean paradises. And sometime amid all of this, he found time to serve in the Army National Guard, keeping Missouri safe from the North Vietnamese.

Susie and baking came first in his life, followed in short order by the holy trinity of Apple, Costco, and Amazon.

Michael was panos@aristotle.net when we first met around 1997.  I thought I’d met him on Usenet, but he insisted it was on Mexconnect. Ni modo. He would go on to be known as Anonimo and Don Cuevas.

He could hold forth about what went into good cooking, the science and art of it all, and he could also acknowledge that sometimes things just went south, despite the best of efforts. He could analyze ingredients, and he could go into great detail about all kinds and grinds of flour, rising times, shapes of bread, oven heat, and baking times.

He would publish blogs at Surviving La Vida Buena and My Mexican Kitchen.

Pecan cinnamon rolls. Stracotto. Gingersnaps. Almond Danish. Gingerbread. Knishes. Health salad. Plum sauce. Kimchi. Brisket. Latkes. Dim sum. Chinese dumplings. Char Siu. Scallion cakes. Biscuits. Bear claws. Rugelach. Dressing. Fried chicken tenders. Stuff wrapped in hoja santa. Challah. Rye bread. Ginger beer. Pho. Vietnamese beef jerky. Gravlax. You name it, and he’d make it. Well, he did draw the line at hamantaschen, just because he claimed not to like them. Did I mention gingersnaps?

A gracious host, Michael could tell everyone to get the hell out of his kitchen when he needed to concentrate. And we gladly complied. And unlike so many foodies and cooks, he was a gracious guest, cheerfully downing whatever you offered in your home without suggesting how you could’ve avoided one of your usual culinary disasters. He knew when to politely keep his mouth shut, a talent rarely practiced by much of today’s society.

He had this native ability to ferret out treasures in the places you’d least suspect, and anything close to food became his mission. Only a year and a half or so ago, he raced ahead of us to Mercado Medellin in CDMX, wending and maneuvering his way through the aisles with the fine-tuned agility of a cutting horse.

In all the years that I knew Michael, I don’t think I ever saw him behind the wheel of any motor vehicle. I knew he knew how to drive, because, well, he did have a driver’s license. But always sitting shotgun as copiloto, he tabbed Susie as his chauffeur,

There wasn’t a food website he didn’t visit, and he loved to forward links to “Can you imagine how bad this must be?” items as well as stuff that actually did sound good. And the restaurants. Ten lifetimes wouldn’t be enough for Michael to visit all the restaurants he would’ve liked to. You might idly let it drop that you’d been to a good enough Chinese restaurant in Bogota, and he’d quickly let you know that it was only ranked 168 among 857 restaurants in the entire capital of Colombia. One of my last emails from him, not even a month ago, mentioned his desire to visit La Conspiracion de 1809 in Morelia, adding that they could go there by taxi. But by then, you just sort of know that he’d never make it there.

And then there were the puns. He could pop off puns at popcorn speed. Some were great, and some were real groaners, but that didn’t stop him. If Michael wasn’t making a pun about something, you just knew something had to be wrong.

And as he slowed down on his usual blogging activity, he became a YouTube enthusiast and a devotee of Mark Weins and Trevor James. And just when you’d had enough of some foodie praising the food of Pakistan, Michael would redeem himself by sending a 29-minute video of some guy cooking a steak, just because he knew that would captivate whomever was on the receiving end.

Michael Warshauer, you had style and class, and without question, you were extraordinary. You made all of our lives richer through your friendship, and you will be missed. Good night, Panos.

AMLO Cardenas

July 1, 2018

Today was the biggest election in Mexican history.

My thumb is inked, which means that I’ve cast my vote. So, I’m standing in line at the casilla at the public school three blocks from my house this morning, even before my morning coffee, thinking I’d walk over to OXXO and get a free cup for showing my thumb, joined by the rest of the neighborhood dressed in their Sunday best — Skechers and sweats– when an ignorant middle-class woman ahead of me in line asks if I’m Mexican. “Do you think I’d be standing waiting around here if I weren’t?” She chimes in with that usual “You don’t look Mexican,” never mind I look like half the people waiting in the schoolyard. I am so tempted to tell her “You don’t look like you can read,” but I don’t.

She leaves a few minutes later to go to the Sunday tianguis.

My line isn’t moving, even though the schoolroom is staffed with the election personnel. The vigilantes de los partidos – observers from each of the political parties – haven’t shown up yet, and the party can’t proceed until they’re all there. That always seems to happen in the P through Z line.

There are 25 people ahead of me in line, the head of which is marked by a woman in an orange headscarf and another with platinum-streaked hair. A couple one person ahead of me are passing the time playing pat-a-cake pat-a-cake baker’s man; the man directly ahead of me, dressed in black and white from his ball cap all the way to his Skechers, black Bermuda shorts, a white t-shirt under a black vest, checks his iPhone, clad in a black leather case; the girl behind me with neatly applied lipstick and good eye makeup is getting one call after another on her smartphone; and the reigning doyenne of the organic market is four people behind her, stylish in khaki slacks and a white blouse, which I’d say came from Palacio de Hierro. I have on purple Skechers (2017), black Adidas pants from Nordstrom Rack in Honolulu in 2006, a grey t-shirt from Nordstrom’s in San Mateo (2014), and a purple appliqued hoodie. And freshly dyed hair.

Finally, an elderly nun, her thick white hair neatly coiffed, a giant cross hanging from her neck, emerges, raising her inked thumb in victory, proclaiming “I was the first!” as she practically dances across the pavement. She was one of the happiest nuns I’ve seen in ages.

And before long, my turn at the polls arrives. I hand over my INE card, the election worker reads out my name but not before asking “What is your last name?” My surname appears in the same spot on the card that everyone else’s does, but it’s confusing, since my last name is all too often confused with the first. Still, since the card only reveals two names—a first and a last—you’d think he’d figure that much out. He reads off my name, five workers checking their rosters to mark my appearance, and one poll worker after another rips a ballot from their book. I enter the booth with a handful of ballots – one for each of the five races.

There may be tacos (multiple ballots folded together), but there will be no hanging chads. All of the voting is done with paper ballots, voters using the same ballot from Tijuana to Cancun.

And after marking each with an X in the same spot to cast my free and secret vote, I exit the voting area, folding my ballot to deposit in the box marked in a different color for each office. I go on to pick up my INE card, getting my right thumb indelibly inked. Just so I won’t vote twice.

And I stride, victoriously, from the school yard. It’s no secret that each of my votes went for the PRI candidates. That’s just how I’m wired.

August 5, 2018.

My candidate for president came in the third. It wasn’t all that surprising, even though I still maintain that he was the best-qualified for the job. During his concession appearance the evening of the election, he almost seemed relieved. His wife unquestionably had to have been relieved. And both will surely lead much saner, less complicated lives during the coming six years than the man who won.

It seemed a given, no matter whom you might’ve asked, that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, AMLO, would win. What rankled me more than anything were the attitudes of many voters, smugly declaring that it was time for revolution, that they were somehow the anointed ones for supporting him, and how much so many of them bore that same scent of those who had supported Hillary Clinton.

AMLO shouldered the victory with just as much class and style as José Antonio Meade Kuribreña handled defeat. At least publicly, hands reached across party lines for a show of unity and moving on.

There were no public meltdowns, no ninny snowflakes crying in their Kool-Aid, and life went on just as always. No one donned silly pink knitted hats. The peso became stronger. The sky didn’t fall.

Sure, there were burned ballots, and little frauds committed here and there, just as there is in every democracy, everywhere. But none of it was sufficient to change the final result.

Estadounidenses could take a few lessons from Mexicans about how a mature nation operates. A year and a half have now passed since Donald Trump was inaugurated, and Estadounidenses still can’t get their acts sufficiently together to realize that it’s about respecting the office as much as the one who occupies it. It’s dangerous to admit to Estadounidenses that you voted for Trump. Five years from now, AMLO’s visage may be on the Judases that we all blow up just before Easter and exposes will be published, but for now, he’s being treated as the second coming of Lázaro Cárdenas del Río (Mexico’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and that’s just fine. (I’d rather have seen the second coming of Adolfo López Mateos, but there’s always next time.)

May AMLO turn out to be a great president. He’s already exceeding my expectations.

Buscando Ocampo (Part 4)

Hardly anyone we asked knew of Ocampo. Our requests were often met with blank stares. Some pretended, telling me that he surely was a famous Patzcuarense artist. No, not even, I explained, telling them he was born in Celaya, now lives  in Tepoztlán, and is famous. Well, at least Ocampo’s famous among those who know his work.

An art dealer in his sixties dismisses our query with the excuse that “there are so many up and coming young artists that I just can’t keep track of them all.” We tell him that Octavio Ocampo was born in 1944.

“Oh, you mean Melchor Ocampo?”  Nope. Not hardly.

No, no, no, not Octavio Ocampo Córdova, the alcalde of Tuzantla.

Finally, I came upon F., who is clearly the most educated Patzcuarense we know when it comes to art. Yes, he remembered when the Ocampos and Boteros were sold on every street corner. But no one’s interested in them these days. He explains that Ocampo and Botero bought created giant paintings, which weren’t easily reproduced in easily portable and affordable sizes. And maybe the company that was cranking out those copies is no longer in business. I wasn’t ready to buy all of his explanation, but it came closer than any I’d heard all day.

At Starbucks, a man identifying himself as an artist whips out his iPhone to show us photos of his paintings, going on about how a woman in Los Angeles bought all of his paintings so that she could have a gallery of his work right in her house. I ask him about Octavio Ocampo. The name doesn’t register, and the iPhone-bearing artist says “Oh, I’ve spent most of my life in Mexico City, so I wouldn’t know some painter from Michoacán.” I tell him that Ocampo is important, prolific, and how he even painted a retrato of Jimmy Carter for then-President Lopez Portillo’s state gift to the then-President Carter. Another blank stare. We recite, once again, the salient details of Ocampo’s Wikipedia entry, explaining he’s no doubt well-acquainted with CDMX, and even though he’s surely visited Morelia and Patzcuaro, just like every Mexican citizen has, he’s no homeboy from Michoacán.

In Queretaro, we run into a man we’ll just call Emilio, an entrepreneur close to politicians and otherwise a fine, gregarious fellow, and we ask him about Ocampo. “Oh yeah, he’s a very good friend of mine” he tells us, reminiscing about how, back in his days as a television producer, he handled everything for Ocampo’s exhibition in France. Thrilled that we finally have caught up with someone who knows who we’re looking for, we chat about his work, Emilio telling us how he’s got a copy of the Mona Lisa in his house. But when we ask if he could contact Ocampo for us, or at least provide his contact information, suddenly his status as a very good friend shrivels to “Well, it’s been years since I’ve been in touch with him. Maybe even two decades.”


Showing anyone who’ll look photos of his work on my iPad isn’t yielding any results. I began to wonder whether a campaign to put his visage on milk cartons might work.


Buscando Ocampo (Part 3)

We Mexicans don’t often agree on a lot of things. We’re like Jews that way. Put six Mexicans or six Jews together, and you’ll have eleven opinions. Nothing — tacos, nopal, the tri-color of PRI, not even the eagle and the serpent — will put all Mexicans on the same page. But there is one dame whom every Mexican venerates, right down to the atheists and the evangelicals and the Mormons and even the testigos de Jehová, and she’s the Virgen of Guadalupe. No one brings us all together like she does.

The holiest day of the year, bigger than Christmas and Easter, is Dia de Guadalupe, the 12th of December.

You’re heard the saying that only 82% of all Mexicans are Catholic, but 120% of us are Guadalupanos. Being Mexican (or even living in Mexico) and not appreciating the Virgen would be sort of like being Episcopalian and eating shrimp cocktail with the salad fork. It’s one of those things that’s just not done. The Virgen’s not just a saint – she’s the mother of our country, the icon of Mexicanidad, and she knows no borders. There is no woman in all of the Americas more powerful and more venerated than she.

So, if you’re going to be a real Mexican, her visage will adorn more than few rooms in your abode. I’ve got her image on a shopping bag, and an enameled version of her accompanies my car keys at all times. Several more Virgens show up here and there, done up in glitter and ribbon, most likely purchased during Mes Patria. It was only natural that I’d pick up a giclee on canvas reproduction of Octavio Ocampo’s Virgen de Guadalupe about a decade ago.

And then we just couldn’t take our eyes off of Ocampo’s Virgen. There was a magic in this one, new details revealing themselves each time I looked at it: faces inside of roses, campesinos on her eyelids, angels on her robe, a man caressing her left cheek, the new Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and the old one on the left, a red brick gothic church that looked like it would be right at home in Germany on the right. And wait, it’s not just a painting, but a metapainting on a canvas being held up by an almond-eyed Juan Diego.

Image by Deb Winarski


Our research about the background of this work went off and on, since we’ll never be confused with serious researchers, much less art historians. Ocampo created this work, measuring some 1.70 meters in height, on commission in 2000 for St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church in Evanston for $60,000 USD. And it wasn’t just happenstance that brought Ocampo’s work to this church. The Saint Nicholas Parish had been a polyglot church longer than it hadn’t, its parishioners going from mostly speaking German to speaking mostly English to speaking enough Spanish that its website is now bilingual. Its Mexican parishioners were mostly drawn from Celaya and Salvatierra in the state of Guanajuato, Ocampo was born in Celaya, and everyone from the Bajio has a cousin in Chicago.


Images by Dale R. Granchalek



Dr. Fernando Vizcaíno Guerra of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México political science faculty does much better job of explaining the Ocampo Virgen and how it made its way from Celaya to Evanston in his article La Virgen de Guadalupe y la Identidad en una Parroquia en el Area de Chicago, which appears in La Frontera de las Identidades.

But we still couldn’t envision how this painting looked in living color, so we searched the church’s website until we came upon Dale R. Granchalek, who graciously went out of his way to provide the photos shown in this blog post, recruiting his colleague, Deb Winarski, to photograph the single image of the painting.

My little 12 x 18” pirated version of Ocampo’s Virgen seems paltry in comparison to the real thing, but it led me to the real thing and the story behind it, so that makes it important and valuable to me.

Meanwhile, my small, cheap reproduction now resides in a country house on the road to Guanajuato, Grace Slick having begged me to loan it to her, since her house lacked a proper rendition of the Virgen. So, I extracted a blood oath from her, a covenant to protect the Virgen, returning her unharmed to my house after she performs the necessary and appropriate miracles in her new location.





Buscando Ocampo (Part 2)

Giclee on canvas reproductions of Ocampo’s work, which we refer to simply as “Ocampos,” just as we’d call anything by Picasso “Picassos,” began to show up at the carnivals that accompanied the fiestas patronales honoring the patron saint of practically every typical Mexican burg. On the 15th day of August the La fiesta de la Asunción, Assumption Day for the rest of you, rolls around in my neighborhood, which means that the plaza and surrounding streets are filled with carnival rides that have been declared unsafe in places like Oklahoma, carnival games of chance promising valuable prizes, corn dogs, pink party cake, and a mole fest.

But if all that’s not enough to separate fiesta-goers from their money, there’s plenty of stuff to buy: pirated DVDs, bras, houseplants, and hand-made appliqued frilly toilet lid covers. And art. The giclee-on-canvas Ocampos may have been around for ages for all I know, but I didn’t first really pay much attention to them until 2004, when a long-term houseguest we’ll just call Kato bought a couple or three of them to decorate the casita, promising he’d leave them behind. He would leave, taking those Ocampos with him, and they now reside in Santa Fe.

Ocampos were suddenly all over the place: in front of the Basilica in Patzcuaro, on the side streets leading to the Basilica, and at the muelle. His work had to be the most-pirated work around, showing up in greater numbers than the Boteros of a few years earlier.

We’re sure that we read in some interview with the artist somewhere, sometime, where he was asked how he felt about seeing all of those unauthorized reproductions of his work where common folk could easily purchase them. His response seemed to be, if we remember correctly, was something about the futility of copyright, his compensation for the originals, and accessibility of his work to the kind of people who buy their art at carnivals. And so, we would go on to relate to others what we thought we’d read, only to hear those others remark about what a swell, practical kind of guy he must be. But then this may be myth for all we know, or maybe it was something we just dreamed up because it sounded good.

Ocampo may be Mexico’s most prolific artist you’ve never heard of. He’s one of those artists whose works everyone recognizes, but whom no one can connect a name.

Edgar Hoill, writing for Lowrider Arte Magazine, sat down with Ocampo, and he shares their exchange in “Octavio Ocampo – The Art of Metamorphosis.”

And we’ll share more of our search for Ocampo in coming installments.

Buscando Ocampo (Part 1)

We don’t know how this story is going to end, but it begins during the middle of the sexenio of Carlos Salinas de Gortari at Morelia’s Fiesta Camelinas, a shopping center at the corner of Camelinas and Venture Puente. An art supply and frame store had a few pictures displayed at its entrance, and one caught my eye. Well, truth be told, it caught my mother’s eye more than mine, and even though she had impeccable taste, she did tend toward artwork that coordinated with the furniture. She thought the piece would work well with the claret leather sofa in the gray-walled living room. I would return to the art supply and frame store later that day and buy the print. After all, it was already framed and matted, and you can’t go wrong with that.


And to this day it hangs in the living room, now painted dark green, sometimes switching places with a Jesus Escalera piece and my mother’s glamour portrait for display in the dining room, now covered with pale salmon walls, bookcases and a map of the world. Sometimes I hang it alongside the dour portraits of my great-grandparents, the only images of any relatives I’ve got anywhere in my house except for the few photos I drag out for the Dia de los Muertos ofrenda.


Ernesto Zedillo would occupy Los Pinos, and my mother’s passports would join my grandparents’ documents on the ofrenda. I would make Mexico my permanent home.


Not until the early years of Vicente Fox’s administration would I pay much attention to what was penciled in: 6/500 on the lower left-hand side and in the usual right-hand place the artist’s signature, O Ocampo. There wasn’t a lot about him on the web back then, his first Wikipedia entry in Spanish as well as English not showing up until Felipe Calderón’s presidency was well underway in 2007. All I really knew for sure was that there were 499 other prints just like mine circulating around the planet.


And then I began to wonder if everyone else already knew about Octavio Ocampo. Was his name a household word that somehow I’d missed along the way? Who is this guy?


Stayed tuned as some of the story unfolds, even if we don’t know how it’ll end. Or even when it’ll end.

All I Want is My Plastic Jesus

There’s still nothing quite like AutoZone, unless, of course, it’s Galerias el Triunfo to get in touch with your inner redneck. Red Shoes just loves it when urbane and sophisticated kinds get their redneck on at AutoZone, just like Don Cuevas at My Mexican Kitchen did.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

So, I’m at AutoZone the other day, one of Morelia’s three branches, an entirely new experience for me, and I’m enthralled by the choices: strobe and neon lights for under the dash and around the license plates, sparkling lights for the hubcaps, vinyl flames, and a vast array of amazing decals. But it was just too difficult choosing between the weeping Jesus and the Virgen de Guadalupe. And, since they were plumb out of locking gas caps, I left empty-handed. But when the new car smell fades, I may be back there in search of a Virgen of Guadalupe rose-scented air freshener to hang from the rear-view mirror. Sure, it’s naco, but those things are just hard to resist.

Oh, sure, we can dress ourselves up like we’re straight out of Las Niñas Bien orCompro, Luego Existo and make ourselves appear as if we stepped straight from Guadalupe…

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David Lida, One Life

Andrew Paxman

Esperanza Morales is a Tess of the d’Urbervilles for our times. Like Thomas Hardy’s tragic heroine, she is a good and beautiful woman, constrained by humble origins, preyed upon by men, and – so it appears – driven by desperation to murder. As the story of this undocumented immigrant opens, she faces the death penalty in unforgiving Louisiana for killing her baby. In Esperanza’s life, to recall the lot of another Hardy heroine, happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

For all this, One Life is not a depressing novel but a strangely uplifting one. It’s largely told from the viewpoint of a droll mitigation specialist, an expatriate loner called Richard, who guides us through the miseries of Mexican poverty and the injustices of the U.S. legal system with fascinating insight and through the disappointments of his own life with self-deprecating humour. It’s a story…

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San Miguel de Allende v. Patzcuaro

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

Chiles en nogada and tacos, that’s the difference between San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro as expat venues. Both have their strong points, and both have their shortcomings. Neither is Nirvana, although those who live there might claim otherwise.

San Miguel de Allende offers up more expat amenities like mail forwarding services, English-speaking Mexicans, gourmet stores with everything from Hamburger Helper to white balsamic vinegar on the shelves, AA in more flavors that you could ever begin to count, classes and support groups, charities and opportunities to perform good deeds, an Anglican church, Kabbalah study groups, rival animal rescue efforts, art walks, opportunities for the fey and chichi, a zillion good restaurants and a few bad ones, serious crime and scandal among the expats, the American consular agency, English-language libraries and bookstores, the Rosewood, Café Rama, the Longhorn Smokehouse, Via Organica, poseurs and pukka, organized tours and events, Zimbabwean drum…

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Rest Well, Virginia Rose

And today marks the vigintennial of your demise, Dear Mother.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon


17 years ago today, you left this plane, and 16 years ago on this date, your ashes found a final resting place at Lago de Zirahuén. Well, half of them did.

Remember that silver cigarette box you’d swiped from me the fall before you died? We filled it with your ashes, and what that wouldn’t hold went into a satin pouch. I took the cigarette box down to the lake. As I was negotiating the price of a launch, I broke down in tears, two bystanders immediately caught on to my plans, intervened with the boatman, and they ended up joining me as we headed toward Agua Verde. Damned if we couldn’t open up that box, which the heat of your ashes and scotch tape had hermetically sealed, and even though the thought did enter my mind to toss the entire box into the lake, I just couldn’t do that…

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Kissing Baby Jesus

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon

I will never be cool. I’ve never kissed a woman, other than in the most forced greeting, and even then I make great efforts to avoid doing so. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you, but it’s just not my style. But an effort to be polite, I bowed and kissed Baby Jesus. It was agonizing.

Not all Christmases are festive and joyous or even as picturesque as something Noman Rockwell could’ve dreamed up. Some are spent in lonely bars. Some are spent with odd lots of relatives and a police presence. Others are spent looking for Chinese restaurants. And some are simply awful.

There was Christmas Day in Iowa City, dining at Denny’s. The bar exam review course would start the next day, and for the next ten days I would be the sole occupant of the FIJI house with Mother Guy’s blessing. For at least a…

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The Gift

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon


My grandmother had the worst taste in the world, which meant that she was always fun and easy to shop for. Consequently, she always got the lion’s share of my gift-giving budget. She was the kind, in a certain age, who would’ve fit very well in Miami. She always decked herself out with too much makeup and jewelry, bright and gaudy colors, favoring the brightest blue eye shadow, so much that my mother would tell her that she looked like a streetwalker. She wore the loudest clothing she could get her hands on, and if it was lamé, all the better. Her over-the-top purses, always big enough to carry an entire carton of cigarettes, would be considered tacky in some circles, but that didn’t stop me from coveting one which bore multi-colored dead, stuffed birds nestled under clear plastic. I was thrilled when she gave that to me.

I thought she…

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