Kissing Baby Jesus

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 couple of decades, she was housemother to the fraternity of every important male at the University of Iowa.

More than a few Christmas spent aloft on a plane, fleeing flyover country.

Christmas Eve at the Villa Montana, more than any place else during my adult life.

Christmas Day volunteering as a Candy Striper.

A Christmas Day drive to the countryside beyond San Miguel del Monte and ending up at Paseo Altozano.

Christmas in Buenos Aires, heralded by fireworks and a complete and total absence of traffic, not a taxi cab in sight.

Christmas Eve in Florence, successfully scoring a simple black doll over my mother’s entreaties to opt for something fancier.

The awful ones have their place, if for no reason other than to be memorialized in blogs like this. And here’s mine, which is far more dreadful than the Czar of Tzurumutaro could ever contemplate.

A few days before Christmas, more than a decade back, I found myself an unwilling guest at a neighbor’s Christmas Eve dinner. I’d armed myself ahead of time with a tale of other plans, but the sly old lady, whose own kids had the foresight to leave town, was a step ahead of me, telling me that the rest of my family, which amounted only to a sister and her husband, had already accepted. I did not know at the time that she’d already pulled that trick on them. We were trapped.

Christmas Eve started off with mass at 9 p.m., seemingly quicker and more cheerful than usual, with the padre starting off with a hearty “Buenas Noches” and ending with aguinaldos of cookies and candies for everyone.

We came armed with a Costco pecan pie and Ensalada Navideña, and it was a good thing we did. The culinary offerings awaiting us amounted to macaroni with ham and pineapple and a single pollo rostizado. And this was not a poor family.

The holiday feast over, we were invited to admire the nativity scene which extended along the entire side of the room and around the corner, replete with giraffes and elephants and zebras. Maybe even dinosaurs and a statue of Benito Juarez. As the clock struck midnight, and with great ceremony, the hostess presented the infant Jesus surrounded by candy, not for a bris, given that eight days had yet to pass after his birth, but for adoration and besos. He travels around the table from one guest to another, which didn’t take long, given that there was a total of six humans at the table. I am last, my sib and sib-in-law rolling their eyes and laughing under their breath, but I have not a clue of what awaits. And then he’s handed over to me. Never mind that I had not the first clue what to do with him. “You’re the madrina, and you’re supposed to place him in the nacimiento,” I was instructed. Oh.

Not only am I supposed to kiss Baby Jesus, I’ve been tapped to lovingly place him in the cradle.

Now, I know it’s a tradition, but it struck me then, and it still does today, as just downright creepy. Not the idea of blessing their Christ child, but asking me to do the honors. What were these people thinking?

Meanwhile, gunfire pierced the night air, and we casually tried to identify the kind of weapon used. Mostly .22s, we figured. I would’ve gladly placed myself directly in the line of fire if it would’ve meant avoiding that episode of kissing baby Jesus. Walking home, some of the other neighbors were sitting outside warming themselves in the fogatas in the street, inviting us to join them for a tequilito. I could’ve used several before what will always be remembered as the saddest, most horrific Christmas Eve in my life.

Lesson learned: even if you have zero plans, make up some. And engrave them in stone.

From Ferragamo to Flexi

It’s no secret that Red Shoes are Better than Bacon likes her shoes. Cool shoes always held a fascination for her. From Cinderella’s glass slippers to her mother’s yellow satin wedding shoes to the pair of shoes she’d select for that one school day each week when she would wear the non-corrective kind, shoes were magic. Red polka-dotted patent leather flats, shocking pink cowboy boots, black velvet rhinestone-trimmed Mary Janes, kitten heels, French heels, Spanish heels, Cuban heels, blue suede shoes.

She would take measure of another’s worth by shoes and teeth. The wrong shoes or malocclusion were deal-killers.

She would go on to water buffalo sandals, fringed Indian moccasins, Earth shoes, platform shoes, Jack Rogers sandals, high heeled boots, Charles Jourdan pumps, and Gucci loafers (a spare pair still unworn in the original box). One day in 1989, a cast on her leg and in search of Mephistos, she happened upon Frost Brothers’ going-out-of-business sale in San Antonio, spending an extra day en route to Mexico and stockpiling endless treasures which included multiple pairs of the most beautiful shoes in the world in lace-trimmed gold and silver, which still repose unworn.

Finally, she settled upon Ferragamo Vara (priced then at $145 USD) in practically every color and fabric ever manufactured and Mephistos, which she first learned about through J. Peterman, who sold them for $180. By 2013, the same Ferragamos which once sold for under $150 had skyrocketed to just under $500 USD, and Mephistos, once made in France, were now made in China and leaped over the $300 mark.

She had spent years snickering at the Mexican-made sensible shoes which looked like they were made for schoolchildren, old people and lesbians, not that there’s anything wrong with those people, mind you, but she was neither a schoolchild, nor old, nor a lesbian. And then one day, impelled by nothing more than curiosity and time on her hands, she dropped by a Flexi store. And life would change. Not the least of it was being able to find shoes to fit size 9.5 or 10 feet. These shoes were pure, natural leather, inside and out, well-made, light, and rubber-soled.

She bought a pair of what were marketed as School Shoes, simple round-toed, solid, good-quality black pumps. They were instantly as comfortable as old shoes, and she wore them all day long, almost forgetting to take them off before going to bed. And they cost less than $50 USD. She could never imagine that inexpensive shoes could feel so good. She would move on to sandalias pata de gallo (“Rooster feet sandals” sounds much better than thongs.) in three colors, plain and jeweled. She found a favorite pair of bronze ultra-lights that carried her through three continents. Fearful they might be discontinued, she stockpiled an extra pair.

 

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Now, there is a real problem with Flexis. They never wear out. Walk over cobblestones and adoquined streets, walk through puddles in the rain, drive in them, wear them to the market and to a fancy restaurant, subject them to abuse that would have Ferragamos crying for mercy, and they just kept on going. Flexis are the Everready Bunny and Timex of shoes.

Once a week at the mall in Morelia, she would walk past a Mexican version of Michigan Ave.’s Hanig’s Footwear, a store selling fine shoes from Spain: Pikolinos, Hispanitas, El Naturalista. And she would admire the glove-soft leather, gawk over the constant markdowns, almost always coming to the hard realization those shoes seldom came in sizes that would match their price. And she would walk to the next block of the mall, stopping in at the Flexi store just to see what was new.

She would marvel at quality of Flexis, even if most did come in a color palette designed by Henry Ford. “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” But then there were suede moccasins in purple, bright pink, cobalt and red. There just weren’t a lot of styles in bright colors. This is a conservative shoe, after all. High quality at an affordable prices does have its limits.

Grupo Flexi is a genuine Mexican success story. In 1935, 18-year old Roberto Plasencia Gutiérrez started up a small workshop with very little money to make children’s shoes under the name “César,” changing the moniker along the way to “Duende.” In a decade’s time, production increased to 300 pairs of leather shoes a day, and by 1965, the company came to be known as Flexi. The nearly 300,000 pairs of Flexis produced each week in factories employing over 4,300 people in Leon, Dolores Hidalgo, San Luis de la Paz, and San Diego de la Union are not only sold in Mexico but exported to the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Japan. And the company’s still headed up the founder’s own son, Roberto Plasencia Saldaña.

Flexi has 335 stores, and, if those are not enough, Flexis are sold online through its U.S. and Mexican sites.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon bids farewell to Ferragamo and Mephisto for now. But she really, really wishes that Flexi would come up with red school shoes for her. Maybe she’ll just write the company president and ask.

 

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Eyes Wide Open

Your nephew is not at the bus station. Not in Guadalajara, and not in Dallas. And Bill Gates isn’t going to send you $100. Don’t volunteer information to callers.  If your troubled nephew’s really calling, he’ll tell you his name right off the bat.

Pay the extra $12 MXN for an unlisted phone number. Who looks up friends in the phone book anyway these days? Telmex charges practically nothing to change your old number.

Get rid of that bilingual or English-only recording on your phone’s answering machine. Everyone who would deign to still leave a voice message already knows the drill.

Particularly in San Miguel de Allende but also in other expat havens, gringos love to name their houses, often revealing their own names or their children’s. It’s quaint, and it’s cute, but it’s a really bad idea. Take your name off your house.  “Casa Newton” may sound perfectly fine on your house back on the Jersey Shore, but it’s not a good idea in Mexico – no matter how proud you may be of your abode.  You don’t need to broadcast “Gringo lives here.” Don’t waste that pretty tile plaque on strangers; put it in the inside where you can enjoy it.

You’re not the only soul on the block who speaks English, and you’re not Travelers Aid. Give up your Good Samaritan dreams – or spend them on someone deserving. Someone who runs up to you on the bike trail or parking lot or even approaches your home with that “Do you speak English?” is rarely looking for a conversation class. Let the pros do their work. Hand out their phone number – 066 – with reckless abandon. An operator’s always standing by to take a call from the troubled.

Leave your home address off any cards you may have printed. You’re not in retail these days. Sure, that may mean giving up bragging rights to that genuinely awesome vacation rental on a swank street in a place like San Miguel de Allende, but it’s also an advertisement that you don’t need to make.

Whether you’re approaching your house on foot or by car, if there’s someone hanging around the door that doesn’t belong there, move on. Take a spin around the block rather than chance a potentially dicey situation.

At the grocery store, don’t leave your purse or parcels unattended in your cart, not even for a minute while you answer some stranger’s question. Keep your purse attached to your body, even if it means strapping it cross-chest Arab-style.

Don’t take Mi Casa es tu Casa so literally. There is a huge temptation to show off your house to new-found friends you just met on the plaza and to welcome friends of friends to parties and gatherings. Be careful. That friend may be as trustworthy as an Eagle Scout, but what about that friend of a friend?

Citizenship and fluency in whatever your native tongue might be are absolutely not harbingers of security. We tend all too often to place misguided trust in landsmen. Crooked Irish people hung around Ellis Island waiting to take advantage of good, honest newly-landed Irish, and the descendants of those scam artists are still in operation in Mexico. Yes, you read that right: more than a few criminals share citizenship with their victims.

Leaving town? Don’t leave your house unattended. Keep the lights on, a radio on, and have someone check up on things at random hours. Better yet, have someone stay in the house. If you can afford to leave town, you can afford to guard what you’ve left behind.

Estadounidenses seem to have a deep-seated need to be liked, to appear friendly, to engage, and perhaps even more so when they’re abroad. And so many of them feel so darn sorry for what they encounter in Mexico that they’ll go overboard, checking their common sense.  Observe how Mexicans of your station act, and take your cues from them. You don’t need to open the door to everyone who knocks, hearing out their tale, and you don’t need to explain anything. You’re under zero obligation to provide answers to anyone.

And that talkative cab driver, the guy you met for the first time when he opened the car door? He may only be bored, but that’s no reason for you to tell him your life story, including how and why you live in Mexico.  Really, would you share that much information with a random taxi driver in Chicago?  Talk about the weather, if you simply must talk.

Criminals don’t always look like thugs. Some of them even wear genuine Lacoste, not even pirated, because they can afford to, all the better to blend in. Some of them even look like you and me. Appearance is no guarantee of morality. Take a look at Bernie Madoff.

‘Tis better to be considered rude than robbed.  Why should you be concerned about offending someone who’s out to offend you?

Learn to look straight ahead, and learn to be deaf to those pleas. Pretend that you’re French or Spanish or Israeli or one of those nationalities not known for taking on Estadounidense attributes.

What you know, as in conocer, is not dangerous, but what you don’t know is.

¡Mami, mami, ayúdame!

¡Mami, mami, ayúdame! Soy tu hija. The caller was crying. Noticing the area code was in the D.F., I hung up. Five minutes later, she called again, and noticing it’s the same number and hearing voices in the background, I’m prepared to take her call. Lowering my voice, I ask

Policia preventiva, en qué puedo servirle?

She hung up on me. The nerve!

It’s scamming time again in our old country. Even though crime knows no season, El Buen Fin, aguinaldos and charitable spirit make for easy pickings.

Two gringos walking around Morelia’s Paseo Altozano met up with a young man racing toward them, agitated and waving his jacket, imploring them with “Do you speak English?” His English sounded perfect to them. They stopped to hear his tale about coming from Puebla, picking up a taxi at the bus station, and being robbed of all he had by the taxi driver. He was supposed to meet a friend at the mall, but somehow had missed the connection. Could they help him out? He pulled $15 in Estadounidense currency out of his pocket, which they exchanged for Mexican pesos, wondering what was going on. And then they caught on that something just might’ve been amiss. They told him to go on his way, suggesting he might find help at Walmart. They were lucky.

A local who’d lived her entire life in my neighborhood was a victim just last Thursday, right in the middle of the day. She encountered the man on the otherwise sleepy residential street, claiming to be a curandero from Uruapan, offering up his services in reading palms, predicting the future, and performing limpias to chase away the evil spirits which harbor in everyone’s house from time to time. She waved him away, telling him she didn’t have any money. He followed her around the block to her house, and as she entered, he forced his way in, telling her not to scream and calling her names. He wouldn’t leave until she’d forked over some of her stashed-away cash. That’s only money, and it’s nothing compared to the psychological crisis he’s inflicted upon her. Location: one block from my house. Native Mexicana.

Then there’s the pigeon drop, which happened only last year to a foreigner living in Patzcuaro. An indigenous woman, looking all sweet and innocent, approaches the woman, saying she can’t read and showing a letter from her employer. She is supposed to locate a person in Patzcuaro to pick up her lottery winnings, which the employer will lay claim to. A confederate  steps in, claiming to be a psychologist, answering in the affirmative when the foreigner asks if he works at a local school, and the scam is in place.  You know where this is headed: all three head to the lottery office, the foreigner puts up the requested property to assure all of her honest and good intentions, and the victim’s left high and dry.

Another phone call, this time to a foreigner living in the next town over. It’s his nephew Jason, who he hasn’t heard from in ages, calling from jail, begging for discretion and assistance.  Never mind that the foreigner supplied the nephew’s name for the caller. And down the road to Guadalajara the man called uncle drives, but not before he’s put together a fair amount of cash to help out his new-found nephew.

A plumber shows up.  “Your husband didn’t tell you that he’d called me?” he says. “I’m here to fix the hot water heater. Gaining access to the house, he’s shown the way to the hot water heater, and left to ply his trade – which was sifting through the homeowner’s belongings.  Two blocks down the street from me. Native Mexicana.

“We’re la senora’s cousins from Salamanca,” the well-dressed duo who’d alighted from a late-model car told the housekeeper who answered the door while her patrona was in Centro. Shuffling them off to the den to wait while she made them tea, she called her patrona, who reported that she had no cousins.  The housekeeper kept the couple waiting for the police to arrive.  Four blocks from my house. Native Mexicana.

And here’s my favorite: the dead baby. A young lady rings at my gate, asking for money for her dead baby. I cut her off. A month passes, and the dead baby lady returns. I give her the same treatment. Month three comes around, and here she is again. You’d think she’d learn by now.  This time I answer the gate, and I ask her if she’s carrying around the same dead baby as before or if she has a baby die on her each month. I tell her that, whatever the case may be, she’s really got a problem which only DIF can help her with. Sputtering obscenities, she takes off running down the street.

We’ll take a look at some ways to spot scamsters,  snollygosters, and criminals and what steps you can take to keep them at bay in our next blog post, but until then, what scams have you seen put into action in Mexico or wherever you may be?