" The Expatriate Life "
Our Gonzo Journalist Strikes Again
By Bill Wheeler
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
January 11, 2006
Obviously, the Expatriate Life takes many forms. I'm going to speak of one; the one I know best. But first I will define that life in the negative. As much as I loved the writing of Hemingway, can we really compare ourselves to him? Can we imagine "Papa" without thinking of Ambulance Driving in Italy, bloody conflicts in Spain (in the Bullring and out), scribbling Notes at Le Dome while nursing a Vin Rouge, wagering his advance from the Toronto News on a horse at Neuilly, scarcely concealing his contempt for the Failings of Scott Fitzgerald or the Abercrombie & Fitch Faux Safari-ists in Africa, drinking too many Mojitos at La Floridita in Habana, dealing with Wife number Four, nimbly casting a Dry Fly into the cool, regenerative waters of a trout stream in the mountains behind Pamplona, or Blowing his Brains Out in Ketchum?
I don't think we need to emulate that quality of life to qualify as Expatriates, or in my case, half Expatriate! But, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that fantasy, those Unfulfilled Dreams, are still within reach. Certainly we can nurse a Vin Rouge at Le Dome. With a simple piece of paper and pen at our table and a Harris Tweed, we can appear to others as if we are writing the great American Novel, just like Hemingway, or perhaps our memoir of Clandestine Service in, say, Laos, dropping supplies to the Montanyards, dipping our wing to acknowledge the Colorfully Clad upward-gazing Tribesmen with their grateful Special Forces commander snapping a Wistful Salute as we fly on to release our Incendiaries over the Ho Chin Min Trail. "A busy day...but just doing our job, Ma'am".
Such things may still be possible, but unlikely. No, we, the class of '62 are a bit beyond all that. Nor am I speaking of the 40-year old technical whiz who dreams of getting the Hell Out Of Dodge and starting an Internet Café or an export business in Indigenous Artifacts in Tierra de Fuego, though that, too, may be a promising line. Nor do I include the low-rent Casanova, the Bar-Fly Hustler, chased out of Des Moines, who flees south to Margaritaville to feed upon the Willing Widows or to bilk the Native Innocents in a Ponzi Scheme, or to trade Arms or Cocaine. Yes, they are all part of the expatriate family; but I exclude us from that group, for we are generally beyond those Pursuits as well.
Instead, I speak of the Practical as well as the Spiritual Dimensions of living in a particular place, at a particular time; namely in San Miguel de Allende in the central highlands of Mexico as a retiree of a Certain Means. This I think is the category into which most of us would most comfortably fit.
San Miguel de Allende
To begin with, how do we recognize the Expatriate? Here I make two distinctions: the Old Guard and the New Waver. The Old Guard will be wearing Huicholi pants and Huarachis made from old car tires and a faded, once colorful Guatemalan shirt and will be traveling in the back of the plane. The New Waver's wife will be wearing well-tailored slacks of a neutral tone, a tasteful blouse in rose or celadon, and carrying a black reboza against the high altitude chill. Her husband will be wearing difficult to pin down gabardine trousers (Italian? French?), a tan merino wool sweater and a just stowed away soft, lightweight cashmere sports coat that can go anywhere. The New Wavers will be flying Mexicana, the overnight flight from Oakland to Leon where the driver will meet them at the airport for the drive to San Miguel. They will buy their upgrades to Clase Ejecutiva for cash at the counter or with their Frequente Viajero Card. The only disturbance in the routine will be the crowds of small people in the line with vast bundles containing TV's, high chairs, stereos, blanket and towels sets, cookies and food stuffs that are leaking badly. These bundles will explode from time to time as they are pushed along the line and he will remark to her that, given the ever growing size of the bundles, it will be amazing if the plane even gets off the ground. Still, they maintain their sangfroid. She has heard that comment before. They have been there before.
The plane arrives unharmed and soon the New Wavers have settled into the pleasant drive to San Miguel from Leon. They were out of the airport in two minutes; they carry no luggage since their home is fully equipped and in any case the customs man, Guido, waves them through with a Green Light. Alfredo, the driver, is as efficient as ever, and the sedan runs smoothly along the new asphalt. President Fox was previously Governor of the State of Guanajuato and much road improvement occurred during his administration. As they approach San Miguel, by some curious Behavioral Adaptation, they see only the Rose Colored Spires of its many churches, nunneries and the polychrome vibrancy of the historic city center. This is a pristine 17th and 18th century Spanish Colonial town tumbling gracefully down the mountainside. It is a mysteriously orchestrated kaleidoscope of terracotta, sienna, cobalt, and azure. Its palette is its own. It is Portofino and Positano transported to the high, arid desert. Because of their conditioning, the Expatriates do not see the plastic bags draping the cactuses although they are there. They do not see the unfinished brick walls with no plaster or the squalor of little shacks on the outskirts or the knot of hungry peones huddled around a charcoal fire. They see only what they want to see. They see history and beauty and that is the Necessary Gift of the Expatriate in this part of the world.
Coming back to the American wanderers of the 1940-60's, the Old Guard, some were motivated by the cheapness of everything needed to live a simple and charming life; some were challenged by a larger vision of collaborating with the aforementioned growing Mexican artist colony and the transforming San Miguel into an International Center of Art and Culture. By and large this dream has been fulfilled. Today there are certainly more art institutes, galleries, imaginative homes, interesting public spaces, restaurants and, of course, shopping experiences than any place of its size that I know. The Expatriate Community numbers about 3-5,000, depending on whom you talk to, in a City of, say, 120,000. Like Aspen or Santa Fe, the community expands and contacts with the seasons. Some are snowbirds: some year 'rounders.
Like the travelers described on the airplane, the Old Guard in their well-worn Huaraches and Huichoi pants live on the jobs they have created, while the New Wave bring wealth with them and live in glorious cocoons of opulence, often in "Privadas" behind gates. The Old Guard integrated themselves much more tightly into Mexican society, often taking Mexican spouses and raising hybrid families. They adopted the native San Miguel lifestyle, marching in the religious processions, joining in the continual round of Festivals and family activities, generally tuning themselves to the pace and nuance of traditional Mexican values. Many live in the Mexican barrios with lives indistinguishable from their neighbors. They shop at the corner hole-in-the-walls; they eat street food. They are woven into the merchant class and help keep many of the important Gringo institutions, like the Biblioteca and the English language newspaper, "Attencion," alive. Many are or were artists. They form an essential underpinning to the Expatriate Infrastructure. In contrast, the New Wave are empty-nesters who plays golf, travel, frequent the Spas and are rewarding themselves for a successful acquisitive life elsewhere. They have little contact with the Mexican Community.
Let me take you through the numbers from the New Waver's perspective. In the traditional Expatriate retirement communities of Portugal, Spain and the South of France, the rising Euro and persistent inflation have changed the game. You really must go to the Dalmatian Coast or North Africa to find a comparable life to San Miguel at equal cost. Here a housemaid costs US$50-60 per week. That's not your four hours once a week in-and-out cleaning lady in the States. Here the maid stays for five hours a day, six days a week and generally prepares one meal per day. Of course, a separate cook who will do the shopping and prepare all meals, enough for all the friends you will be entertaining, adds another $60-80 per week. A 'mozo" houseboy cum butler will run about the same. Unlike the Caribbean, servants are quite diligent: one plus two does generally equal three.
The cost of fine restaurants and bars has gone up, to maybe half to three-quarters of the prices in San Francisco. Operating a car is about the same. But the real savings are in the major house related items. Property tax on a three-bedroom house is $250-300 per year, perhaps one hundredth of Marin County. Since Tort Law as we know it doesn't exist in Mexico, insurance costs are non-existent or minimal. If someone trips in a hole in your floor, they feel they got just what they deserve.
Houses are built of concrete and brick with warm plaster finishes so they go on forever. In San Miguel older and renovated is often considered better. Repairs are simple. Water and sewer fees are insignificant, despite the depleting underground aquifers. Gas and Electric are comparable, but air-conditioning at 6,000 feet is generally thought unnecessary. May is the hottest month and fans work fine. December/January are the coldest months, and the Mexicans just add sweaters. Expats rely on expensive propane gas fireplaces.
For recreation, golf and tennis are adequately available. Initiation in the only country club is $4,000 so dues and membership charges are a fraction of a good club in the States. There are Pilates, Curves, Spinners and other forms of athletics. Great horse riding can be found, from dressage and jumping stylists to adventuresome range riding in the campo, through little villages and over the mountains and across the streambeds.
Anyone can pursue their artistic aspirations as participants in jewelry, print, weaving or tapestry making and all the fine arts, or as collectors. There are many worthwhile voluntary groups to relieve poverty, fight disease, neuter the stray dogs, embellish the landscape, save the orphans and unwedded girls and perform innumerable good works as well as providing a social context. For the more intellectually inclined, there are bridge games, frequent lecturers from the States, chess tournaments, musical events, plays, poetry readings, literary clubs, classic movies plus the usual daft psycho-babble and extrasensory laying on of hands. Mariachi bands play nightly in the Jardin.
For the hedonistic, life is good, with Spa, Body works, massage, Tango and Salsa lessons and all that may lead to, plastic surgeons, and good medical services, short of open heart or brain surgery, all at reduced prices. Cocktail parties are ubiquitous, and the residents are always interested in expanding their numbers.
The communications systems; television, cable and satellite, and internet broadband are the same we experience in Belvedere. So you can stay in equal contact with the world. But, consider this: there is the potential to miss the national excitement over the Michael Jackson and the Wendy's Finger-in-the-Chile Idiocies. You could miss a whole generation of half-baked Pop Celebrities, Hip Hop Studsters and anguished Professional Sports Icons. Billions of brain cells could be spared the shriveling death of Talk Shows, Sitcoms, the endless political harangues, Strutting and Posturing; even the entire Budgetary and Fiscal Crisis could be Finessed.
Bottom line: For the Old Guard, everything is changing rapidly out from under them. A decent apartment still can be rented for $60-100 per month, yet eating at their favorite good, but modest restaurant seems suddenly expensive. If they have cars, all the parking spaces have been taken and they feel little in common with the New Wavers.
For the well-to-do retiree class of '62, $500-800,000 gets a lovely four bedroom home overlooking all that is worthwhile in San Miguel. The Old Guard paid $25,000 thirty years ago, but their house is looking distinctly out of date. For the New Waver wanting to make a statement, $1.0-1.5 million buys a 6,000 square foot beauty, fully furnished in the Historic Center or a ten acre estate in the country with a pool, tennis court, riding stables, and perhaps even your own hot springs. $50-80,000 per year covers a staff of three and a frankly luxurious lifestyle, not too far short of Donald Trump. To that you might add the costs of a pied-a-terre back in your hometown so they don't forget you completely, airplane trips for your children and enough for a month or two in Europe to change the scene. I calculate the Lifestyle Multiplier is about 4:1, based on number of servants and square footage of your home. And the smart Expatriate remembers house exchanges. There's no reason you can't find somebody in Cape Cod, on the Mendocino Coast or Florence or Paris that wouldn't love to trade a month or two.
Casa Wheeler Redux
Are there challenges and frustrations? Of course! If your family and circle of friends in the States are your raison d'etre, forget it! If you don't speak Spanish, you can challenge your mind with lessons. I find language an interesting pursuit; like the violin, you can always get better. It certainly enriches the experience and may open the door to the Mexican community. But, there are Expats who speak rudimentary Spanish and don't seem disadvantaged.
Will this pleasant life go on forever? Or will the peasants rise again with their sticks and machetes hungering for a new target? Will there be a Political Crisis or Devaluation? There is still a vast disparity between the rich and poor, and the increasing grandeur of the New Wave makes the contrast ever more vivid. Where the Old Guard and the Mexican inhabitants were on a more equal financial footing-generally precarious, the overwhelming materiality of the current Expatriate Invasion leaves a yawning wealth chasm between the two cultures. The Mexicans are becoming a service element for the New Wavers and there is little or no real Social Bridging from one to another. This alters the Social Compact with unknown long-term effects.
For evidence of dramatic change, word has it that a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course is in the works, with 360 exclusive homesites being offered for $350,000, site only. This will be a Gated Community, a New Wave Only Enclave. Other Developers are sniffing the profits of a new Aspen and are prospecting fiercely. A Film Colony is under construction. Elaborate subdivisions with Arc'de Triomphes gatehouses sprouting Water Features and possibly Mayan Temples rise from the blasted plains. Hotel-Condo-Timeshare deals are being floated. Speculative land buying and house building, previously the hobbies of a few, are now reaching frenzied levels. San Franciscans and New Yorkers abound. The summer herds of Texans and others escaping the humidity of the Gulf States are mounting up in their Suburbans and their bellows are heard deafeningly in the better restaurants and bars in July and August. It is likely that more of the herd will hunker down here permanently and their mating cries will draw others. Then San Miguel will certainly Strangle from Congestion, from International Glamour and from its Own Bloated Success. Charm and Mystery are fragile things. Los Angeles once had them.
But for this golden moment, the life of an Expatriate of a Certain Means is pretty darn good.
Bill and Ingrid, Expatriate Duo
(Bill's e-mail address is email@example.com)
Move on to The Real San Miguel.