Lazens Abroad

Kickin’ it Old School in San Miguel de Allende


The Mexican Economy

Very few people understand that the Mexican economy is sack-based.I

In this picture, we see the sack wholesaler delivering sacks filled with more sacks to his many sack distributors. His sacks also contain both demo and training sacks.

There was a little girl…

I have to show you some pictures of our friends’ daughter.

Oh. My. God. Have you ever seen anything so cherubic? She is a personality of a million watts. And we love her.

So why is this interesting?

I just wanted to point out that if you get on the wrong side of this little angel…

She will TAKE YOU DOWN. She will will wade into your breakables and snackfood like a Kamikaze. She will hurl herself violently upon you with the abandon of a hollywood stuntman coming down from the saloon balcony in a western. She will come at you with teeth and weapons, and goddamnit, you better be taking it seriously, because it is deathmatch, and it is now! That crazed midget will send you to the hospital.

Unfortunately, I’ve never caught her alter ego on film. Probably for the same reason that you can’t see a vampire in a mirror. Or because it’s hard to take pictures when you’re running for your life.

Fashion Don’t

Umm. I don’t think you want to emphasize that.”

Intro to Stoned Surfers

We went to Troncones and the boys took surfing lessons.

Once they got out in the water, they found it was challenging.

The instructor was laughing the whole time, and Max found this pretty irritating. Wasn’t the experience frustrating enough without having your instructor laugh at you?

Then Cate explained to Max–he’s not laughing at you. He’s just stoned.

“Oh,” said Max. “Ok then.”

See? Can you see that smile?…

…And look at Jacob go!

Dog Clothes

Out on a stroll with Ernesto, we stopped into a dog clothing shop to get him a tiny faux leather jacket. The proprietress, busy at her sewing machine, smiled in greeting.

The inventory was primarily novelty outfits–a circus or halloween supply shop. But on one wall hung the kind of chocolate-brown, shiny vinyl jackets that Shaft once sported, and that a dog could wear with dignity.

“They’re too small,” I said.

“No they’re not,” said Cate.

She squeezed one of Ernie’s legs through a sleeve, then stretched and pulled to force the other leg home. She put him down. He sat like a statue, immobilized by the fabric’s tension, his forelegs splayed and rigid. He looked like an ottoman.

“Why?” his eyes seemed to say. “Why?”

“See?,” said Cate. “Fits.”

“He can’t move.”

“Yes he can.”

“He looks miserable.”

“He always looks like that.” She clapped her hands to her knees. “C’mon, Ernie! C’mon!”

Ernie tried to wobble forward, pivoting from one paralyzed forelimb to the other.

“It doesn’t fit,” said Cate.

We pried the jacket off.

All the while this was happening, the dog-jacket maker watched benignly, wordlessly, reams of dog-jacket fabric spread across her lap, tape measure hanging around her neck.

In an alternate reality, she scurried over to take our dog’s measurements. We discussed and eventually agreed upon a payment method and price,  just so much for a deposit, such-and-such day to pick up the product. In this alternate reality, Ernie would one day scamper toasty-warm though New Jersey’s bitter winter, stylishly clad in a Shaft costume. In this alternate reality, the lady’s business thrived, expanding to take over the space next door now occupied by the podiatrist whose entryway is adorned with poster-sized photographs of the most nightmare-worthy things that can happen to Mexican feet.

But in real reality, the dog-jacket lady just smiled with that helpless expression we’ve come to know so well here. The resigned look that says there is absolutely, positively NOTHING than can be done to make this work. And isn’t that just too bad? Isn’t life hard?

“Esa es la mas grande,” I asked?

“Si”, she replied. And we left.

Hey–let’s go for a drive

Imagine the worst, most pot-holed, primitive driveway you’ve ever driven on. The kind of driveway, that when you drive on it, you say to yourself “I don’t think I’m supposed to be operating a motor vehicle here…”

OK. Now imagine that, try as you might, you could never seem to get past that driveway. That no matter how far you drove or which way you turned, you were still on it.

Congratulations! You’re driving in San Miguel!

Let’s go for a sample ride, shall we?

Whose Stuff is Your Stuff?

News reports in the U.S. create the impression that Mexico has descended into anarchy.

This is absurd, if for no other reason than it implies that Mexico ever rose out of anarchy in the first place.

Here, in the high central plateau, we know that in places as close as Celaya–an hour away–if you see an ice chest on the side of the road, you probably don’t want to peek into it. Those stains on the outside are not ketchup, but rather cabeza drippings.

But in San Miguel, violent crime–at least for gringos–is rare. Perhaps this tranquility can be attributed to the numerous signs that implore the locals to “be nice to tourists.” The signs are in Spanish of course, and shout from the sides of buildings and bus stops with all the subtlety of two Italian waiters discussing your girlfriend’s ass in their native tongue while they clear your table.

The subtext of the signs is “Yes, white people and wealthy aristocrats from Mexico are irritating. We all know that. But we can get our hands on a lot more of their money by smiling and saying “thank you” than by hitting them over the head.”

So, as long as you exercise the modicum of common sense that God gave geese, you can roam as you please.

But keep your eyes on your bags.

Remember the old Saturday Night Live skit about crime in New York? The gist was, “well, you went outside–what did you expect?”

Now multiply by 10.

Each neighborhood here is administered by the local los cholos, or gangs. It’s a vast bureaucracy staffed by children as young as five, mobs of teenagers, and ranks of ne’er-do-well adults.

You are wise to assume that you are being surveilled at all times. Certainly, any items not bolted down and outside of your present field of vision disappear instantaneously, regardless of whether they have any value.

There is little sense that this ubiquitous thievery is immoral. After all, you, Mr. American, are appallingly wealthy. (And you are.) It is only reasonable to assume that any camera you aren’t at this moment clutching in your hands, any computer you’re not typing on, or any cash in your pocket beyond the amount you will need to pay for these tacos, is something you don’t need, have forgotten about, and will never use again anyway.

Why should it be allowed to go to waste?

There is also perhaps a collectivist undercurrent to the thinking–the last faint cultural vestige of the otherwise failed populist revolution. From this perspective, yes, your valuables are locked in your house. And yes, your house is within your walls. But your walls are are contained within the wider colonia. And as we all know the colonia is the domain of its people, ably represented by those four dubious looking teenagers sharing a forty of Sol on the curb across the street and the army of urchins they command.

By this thinking, everything in your house is theirs to dispose of. And if you are still using it, it is only because they have not yet dropped by to pick it up.

Our clan has been spared a major break-in so far, only because of our unpredictable comings and goings, my work-at-home habits, and the astonishing ruckus that we–a mere family of five–manage to produce. We are like an small platoon of soldiers that, bivouacked for the night, lights one thousand camp fires.

Or maybe they are in terror of our ferocious guard dog.

He will rip your face off. (Image scale: life size!)

In the meantime, an all-seeing but unseen army of Artful Dodgers labors tirelessly and for meager reward to teach you not to leave your shit lying around, for Chrissakes. And what an exasperating exercise in futility it is. Because you never seem to learn, do you?

But their patience is infinite. The first night after we brought home our used VW and parked it in our courtyard, they reminded us of the importance of locking our car at all times by scaling the wall and relieving it of its radio while we were out to dinner.

We appreciated the reminder.

Evelyn and her friend Walker knit and paint small crafts which they peddle for centavos. One day they set their box of crafts and coins down beside Walker’s front door and surrendered it by looking away. We could tell by Evelyn’s choking sobs how grateful she was to learn for the first time that people are essentially bad and will always break your heart and then laugh in your face.

To reinforce this lesson, the same local sneak-thieves hung a dead cat from the wall of the empty lot where Evelyn and Walker like to play. Note that nothing was stolen in this instance. This lesson in the way of the world was complimentary–like the extra donut in a bakers’ dozen.

Note also: In America, hanging a dead cat in a child’s play area might seem threatening–like Luca Brasi’s dead fish. However in Mexico, this sort of thing is quite hilarious.

The climax of our petty theft experience (so far) came last week. I had driven across the neighborhood to pick up Max from a friend’s, and realized I had a flat tire when I pulled up at the house. As I wrestled to fit the spare, a youth stopped on his bicycle to watch and help.

Max came outside with his blue sketch book-diary and a plastic bag with a bottle of olive oil his friend’s mother had bought for us. When he saw I was engaged and in a foul tire-changing lather, he put these items down and went back to play. I (O foolish human!) did not think to move them when I went in to wash up, and sure enough, when I came back out 90 seconds later they were gone.

Panic. The sketch book is precious, for it contains an unbroken record of Max’s Mexico experience. And Max was in terror, for he had misplaced it once before, and his mother’s had had popped off her shoulders in “disappointment.”

We went home, resigned to the loss. But Catherine was in no mood to concede. Back across the colonia she drove with Max in tow.

“Where,” she asked of Max’s friend and his mother, “do those bad kids hang out?”

Both urged her to let the matter drop. She refused. Finally, the boy agreed to show her the gang’s lair, so long as he need only point from across the street.

Catherine took Max and marched several blocks and into San Juan de Dios, where gringos really ought not be, and then into a walled lot where lounged male riff-raff from the ages of eight to 48. Strutting around the open space, los Cholos exchanged the elaborate handshakes that enable them to determine who will soon be cutting who, like dogs sniffing each others’ butts.

“My son has lost some things. I am a proud mother. I want to find them and I will give 100 pesos to whoever can help me.”

One of the kids had a sudden recollection. He had seen just such a blue sketch book. And a bottle that–wait just one second!–might have contained some sort of cooking oil. He rode off on his bike to investigate.

Catherine waited, ignored by the idle gangsters until the young man returned, the items in hand. Payment was rendered, concluding the transaction.

We are learning so much here.


Mourn ya til we join ya.

Waiting for Bobby Fischer?

Max has become obsessed with chess. He’ll play as often as he can find a partner. He’s beating everyone at school, has pushed his brilliant father to the brink, and is evenly matched with his brother.

Their inter-sibling rivalry is problematic, frequently devolving into insults and tears.

“Boys,” I explain to them, “the reason you play each other is so you can grow strong, and go out into the world and beat the pants off of people from other families, so that they–not you–will feel impotent and valueless.”

I discovered that there’s a chess club that meets at la biblioteca once a week. I took Max there to find someone he could learn from.

Four men in their fifties and sixties sat around a table in the courtyard engrossed in their matches. The level of play was considerably higher than anything I have ever managed. A fifth arrived, clearly a regular, and I told him mi hijo was looking for a game.

“Does he know how to play?” he asked.

“He’s good,” I said.

They set up the pieces and began.

Max was quiet. I wondered if he would be intimidated playing with an older man. Someone clearly skilled. A stranger.

They moved deliberately with little talking except for an occasional warning from the man. “Are you sure you want to do that?”

Max would nod.

I sat some distance away, browsing a book, giving Max room to have his moment, resisting the urge to tell him to stop wiggling his chair back and forth.

The man steadily ratcheted up the pressure on Max. Except for a single rook deep in his opponent’s territory, Max was on the defensive.

Then Max drove his queen the length of the board so she was facing down the man’s own rook, unprotected. I watched, thinking that Max had decided to commit suicide to escape the pressure of the situation.

The man pointed out the danger. “You know that your queen is your most important piece?”

Max said yes, he knew.

The man took Max’s queen.

Max pushed his own rook into the row the man had just vacated, where the man’s king was pinned in behind a fence of pawns.

“Checkmate,” said Max.

The look on the man’s face was priceless. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the moment when people realize that they like my children. But I’ve never witnessed such an obvious and precipitous elevation of respect.

Go Max.

Mommy, Where Does Half & Half Come From?

I was commiserating with some other ex-pats about how difficult it is to find certain items here.

For instance, you cannot obtain cornmeal here, this in a country where even the meat is made of corn. Sponges are only sold on the black market. And something called lemonade is everywhere. But God help you if you need a lemon.

Oddest of all is the dubious quality of products that ought to originate in Latin America. Like chocolate. And coffee.

It was desperation for a decent sample of the latter that drove me at last into the Starbucks next to the Jardin.

A journey of 500 miles across the Texas border would not have taken me to a more distant world than that one step over Starbucks’ threshold.

All was as it would be in any branch of the franchise, whether in New York or Oshkosh. The lowslung comfy chairs. The faux hipsters. The brand-managed music. And the over-roasted, over-packaged, over-priced coffee. Which never in its history tasted as good as it did at that moment.

“And you know what?”, I marveled to the friend with whom I spoke, “they had half & half there! They must ship it in! I’ve been looking for it everywhere.”

My friend stared for a long time. I could see her recalibrating every nuance of her previous estimation of me.

“Perhaps,” she said, “they make it themselves.”

You can not imagine the shattering impact of the dawning that occurred that moment in my psyche.

It’s called half & half for a reason. It does not come from special cows.

Ah, Mexico, land of ingenuity. Here, they make half & half one half at a time.

From scratch.