Why I Live in Morelia

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.

San Miguel de Allende v. Patzcuaro

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 concerts, summer camp for adults, Unitarians, an English-language town newspaper, Catholic mass in English, social x-rays, no less than 87 different kinds of cheese offered in a single storefront, beauty shops run by guys with French-ish names, imported wares from Europe and Morocco and Bali, ladies who lunch and men who golf, affluent hippies, and Chilangos on holiday. Nary a week goes by without one more glowing write-up touting the town as the world’s favorite Christmas venue, retirement spot, and safe place for women to visit. There’s an A-list, a B-list, a C-list, and those who aren’t on anyone’s list, sometimes by choice, often not. Gringos may not be as easily remembered, since they do all tend to resemble one another when there’s a critical mass.

Calling itself the “Not San Miguel,” Patzcuaro is a more DIY lifestyle. Sure, there are opportunities to perform community service and good deeds, a small English-language library, a monthly gringo cocktail party, a spay-neuter clinic, informal hiking groups, close circles of friends, a New Age and Buddhist store selling incense and amulets, Ivo’s bakery, a café the expats refer to as “The Office,” acrylic and cotton tablecloths, a Costco salvage store, piano concerts, imported wares from China, and Chilangos on holiday. Any write-up in the travel section will focus more upon local culture and artesania than the expats. Those expats looking for religion, classes, and AA had better be prepared to speak some Spanish. There’s really no A-list. It’s the kind of place where anyone wearing fancy socks is putting on airs. Scandal and innuendo can spread faster than an autumn wildfire fueled by Santa Ana winds, but serious crime among the expats is rare. Resident expats stick out more (which means that their good deeds, and bad, are also more likely to be remembered) in Patzcuaro.

If San Miguel de Allende is Berkeley-Sedona-Naples-Palm Springs, then Patzcuaro is the Hill Country. For me, both are The Hamptons, my getaways.

In Gangs of San Miguel, Rich Lander prepared canonical lists of what San Miguel’s expats wore – from the clown suits to the classic. A man could wear a tutu and flowered leggings in that town, and no one would give him a second look – unless, of course, he happened to be wearing Bass Weejuns. Patzcuaro’s fashion is the anti-fashion. Its gringos wear whatever they happen to have on. They’re comfortable with that. Tilley Endurables and L.L. Bean, well-worn, are about as fancy as it gets in that town.

San Miguel de Allende has its eponymous sandal, its denizens shod in something fashionable which can still navigate cobblestone streets. Patzcuaro is just old-shoe. San Miguel de Allende sports more year-round tans and veneered teeth than Patzcuaro, where the look is more Midwestern than manicured.

San Miguelenses have to drive to Celaya, an overgrown farm town, or Queretaro to satisfy their Costco, Home Depot, and Walmart jones. Patzcuarenses have to drive 36 miles to the state capital of Morelia to fill their shopping needs at Costco, Sam’s, Superama, seek advanced medical care, and eat a restaurant that doesn’t end a meal with chongos, flan, peaches in syrup or arroz con leche.

In San Miguel de Allende, finding someone to navigate ordinary shoals of life is a walk in the park. There are facilitators who’ll get fumbling foreigners their immigration status, driver’s license, and even old-age discount cards. A service will venture out to the wilds of Celaya’s Costco, shop and deliver. Patzcuaro’s expats are on their own, and they are ingenious about creating satisfactory solutions and workarounds which more than make up for the lack of services.

Foreigners in San Miguel de Allende are an activist lot, ready to organize, boycott, picket, and march at the drop of a hat, whether the cause du jour is Starbucks, disenfranchised Albanian dwarves, the Republican Party, or global warming. All Patzcuaro’s expats have to worry about are OXXO, Farmacia Guadalajara, and global warming.

Compliment a San Miguel expat on a duo of nattily-groomed, well-trained standard poodles, and the first thing you’ll hear is that the dogs were rescued. Say the same to some foreigner with street dog on a leash in Patzcuaro, and you’ll just get a nod.

Politically, the denizens of each venue cloak themselves in chadors of liberalism, heaping praise upon themselves for being politically correct and ever so aware. Conservatives, country club Republicans and libertarians lurk in both venues, but they’re a quiet sort, keeping to themselves for the most part. One time as I finished eating with four San Miguel expats at a restaurant in Buenos Aires, I decided to come out of the closet, disclosing to them that I voted for George Bush. You would’ve thought I’d told them I was Winnie Ruth Judd. They were incredulous, insisting that all expats were intelligent people, and ergo, liberal to the core. I thought they were really rather rude. The expats of Patzcuaro don’t pay much attention to political affiliations, and if they do, they’re generally polite about it.

San Miguel boasts more mansions and deluxe living situations than Patzcuaro, and, in general, housing is more expensive than in Patzcuaro. However, there are ways to spend a lot of money and a whole lot less money in both towns.

When I visit San Miguel de Allende, expats ask me when I’m going to move there, as if there were no other place to live in the entire republic. No one ever asks me that in Patzcuaro. No one even tries to sell me a house in Patzcuaro, for that matter.

Both towns are about the same distance from international airports. Both are served by deluxe bus lines.  Only 243 kilometers separate San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro. And yet both could not be farther apart.

There’s no end to literature that San Miguel’s expats have propounded about the town. Tony Cohan’s On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel is just one of the many. Patzcuaro’s expats read and write, but they somehow just don’t have the need to broadcast that they’ve been sprinkled with magic fairy dust. One delightful exception was the now-dead Charles Patterson’s Miscellaneous: An Artist’sNotebook, which took on the lake’s foreign community the same way Truman Capote did in Answered Prayers.

Am I biased? Sure, I am. I have the best of all worlds, because I get to live in Morelia. And that’s a story for another day.