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.

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.