Christmas Card from San Miguel

by Art Busse

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, AKA, Stone City - where everything you walk on, drive your car over, lean against, look at or take shelter in is made from stone. There are the little round stones they use to cobble the streets that make walking something akin to mountain climbing as your foot, at each fall, starts out at the bottom, works its way over the top, finishing at the bottom on the other side of the lone stone it has landed on. Then there are the stone and plaster walls of the houses, restaurants, shops and hotels that form a solid and continuous rampart on either side of the narrow streets with only a two foot wide stone sidewalk separating them from the street. From the streets you can enter through stone archways into stone courtyards, or follow the narrow stone stairways up to stone rooftop terraces where you'll have the best view of the clay tile and stone roofs all across the city. Another feature of the city is that it's all hills, some of them rather steep, allowing one to see all the stone from some very interesting angles.

Trees would help, but alas, are all too few and far between to amount to much. What does help are the people, and they help a lot, more than enough in fact to take what could have been a difficult town and turn it into a most charming and hospitable place. The people of San Miguel are some of the softest on the planet. Starting with their language, which is Spanish of course, but not the flamenco-heeled super-articulated version one hears in Spain, nor the machine gun mowing of Puerto Rican Spanish. No, this Spanish takes its time and invites you in while getting out of the way. It is a quiet language that has no desire to interrupt, argue a point, nor demand your attention. Best of all, it is delivered with warm eyes and endearing smiles.

With streets too narrow to drive on bordered by sidewalks too narrow to walk on, the traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, flows unexpectedly well, and one rarely hears honking horns nor angry shouts. Once again, let's hear it for the people of San Miguel, who, unlike their cousins from El Norte, don't pay much attention to what space is theirs and who's violating it, and are content with simply working their way around whatever is in their path.

With the people come the colors - soft, warm and vibrant. The browns, reds, and mustard yellows of the earth, the bright yellows and oranges of the sun, the many hues of blue and indigo of the sky, all faithfully represented on the walls, floors, clothes lines, courtyards and paintings of this historic town. Historic as in all the way back to the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the sixteenth century. That would explain all those stones.

One more thing that's essential to San Miguel is what happens just outside of town - one of the biggest beds of hot water anywhere. Not the kind that Tom Jones and Barry Manilow fans populated their bedrooms with in the Seventies, these are serious hot springs, all within twenty minutes of el Centro out in el campo. There are built up attractions with numerous pools, man made caves, and other types of structures with names like Escondido, Taboada, La Gruta, Xote, and Santa Veronica. Largely deserted and cheap. All you need is a car and you're set.

We arrived via a direct flight to Mexico City. From there we took a bus to Queretaro, the large town neighboring San Miguel where the people of the historic town could, with a 45 minute drive, find themselves shopping at Wal Mart, Costco, or Home Depot. The bus was a surprise - a Volvo super cruiser with reclining seats and a two hour movie and snacks. Hardly the peasant, pig and chicken packed bus ride I'd been preparing myself for. At the bus station in Queretaro we were met by one of Liz's legion of former lovers, Enrique, who in perfect allegiance to the rule of strange coincidence, was wearing the only other zip up plaid Pendelton shirt jacket in all of Mexico. The first one being the one I had on. He took us to a friend of a friend who had a cab and we were driven to San Miguel.

The weather was cold and rainy, pretty much exactly as we had left it in San Francisco. Liz's place was without hot water and heat, except for a fireplace that had no wood. We shivered through the first two days and nights. The lack of trees mentioned earlier lent itself to a lack of firewood which had to be imported from the surrounding campo by burro. Our turn came with a knock on the door the third afternoon. The door opened directly onto the street and in this instance onto a burro whose front half was thrust into the house while his back half, packed with mesquite wood, stayed on the street. He was one of three burros that the family of four was guiding through the streets offering door to door salvation to the town's freezing gringos and others. Thereafter it was fires a-go-go until the weather warmed. We were happy campers.

Along with the wood we had the hot springs to warm us and they became an instant daily ritual. The drive to the country, the long soaks, the laps swum in the olympic sized heated pool. Escondido was our favorite. It had a series of three interconnected buildings lined up end to end and stepping down one to the other. The upper most was circular and it led to the two rectangular ones below. They were all brick, including the beautiful barrel-vaulted, ceilings and the water within was wall to wall. No windows, but each chamber had a large skylight in the middle of its ceiling. The water poured into the upper circular chamber through a hole in the wall with a force that sent it nearly into the middle of the pool. They called this La Bomba for obvious reasons and we had almost as much fun with the word as with the water. From there it ran down over the steps in the narrow arched corridor that led to the next chamber and then again in like fashion to the third chamber. You entered at the end of the lowest chamber and worked your way up through the others, coming to rest in the circular room. The doorways and stairs were aligned on the center axis allowing you to look all the way through the contiguous spaces.

The simplicity and symmetry of the spaces felt ancient and old world - Roman, really. The journey in and up with no windows to reference the surrounding country took you out of time and place, sending you inward on a metaphoric journey through your own symbolic landscape, upstream to realms that seemed altogether deeper and higher and older. The water moving continually past you augmented the sense of journey and change and carried with it a subconscious cleansing. Quite a trip.

To make life even more interesting, San Miguel has a large international expatriate community sporting many painters, writers, artists and intellectuals, with a heavy tilt toward women in their forties, fifties, and sixties from the San Francisco area - sort of an Amazonian North Beach retirement center. Everything has a history here, including the expat artist community. Three generations of free thinking misfits from all over the world have made San Miguel their home, and the language and art institutos have grown up here to accommodate them. It's not a large town but every night of the week you can find art openings, poetry and literature readings, and music and dance performances.

On our second night here we shared a dinner out with a couple who had moved down from Berkeley two years ago. She was an author with a number of books to her credit with incredibly catchy titles like "If I'm So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single?' and 'How One of You Can Bring The Two of You Together' and 'The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book'. If you like these titles, look for her next one, 'Hot Kisses, Cold Feet' - something about men and their so-called commitment phobia. Let's call her Sue. Sue is awesome - a big hearted go-getter. One of the things she went and got after moving here was an organization that sponsors readings by local authors -which is why we were dining with her and her husband in the first place. Liz, by virtue of her house in San Miguel qualifies as a local author and starred in a literary event put on by Sue's group that happened two nights later. This dinner was Sue's chance to scope out Liz and vice versa. Her husband was the original pot throwing, back-to-the-country hippie turned entrepreneur whose personal history shared many venues and a few characters with mine. On top of which they were deep into having their dream house designed and built here by an architect couple from the San Francisco Bay Area named House. That's right, House, which was only fitting considering that Sue's last name was Page. We all hit it off swimmingly and closed the place down that night.

The next night we entertained Rita and Fred at Liz's house. Fred was a colleague of Liz's father, a theoretical physicist and professor at some school back east. They had taken to wintering in San Miguel and were staying at a hotel within walking distance.

Sometimes these intergenerational social hours don't work out so well, but this one did. I hadn't gotten far with the computational and lab aspects of physics in college, but being a big picture kind of guy, I had always been fascinated by the theories and the models used to described our world. Pure poetry as far as I was concerned, and I followed with great interest the periodic articles in the mass media about breakthroughs in cosmology, particle and plasma physics and the like. So Fred, who was used to lecturing to dreamy-eyed romantics like me, and I rolled up our sleeves, opened the wine, and proceeded to dismantle and reconfigure the universe a few times before we ran out of time, space, wine and the good will of our women.

The next night, our fourth in town, was Liz's event. It took place at the Hotel across from El Jardin, the park and plaza at the center of town, and was well attended by the local intelligencia. Being Liz, she won their hearts and minds in a hurry, beguiling them with readings from her poetry, her first novel, 'Speed of Light', and for the first time anywhere, her soon to be published second novel, 'Blue Nude'. She broke down both her own process as a writer and her experiences, some daunting, with the wonderful world of agents and publishers. All this over the occasional interruptions from the streets outside where the locals were engaging in their yearly Christmas Posadas - raucous parades featuring marching bands, mariachis and fireworks. She was great and deeply appreciated by all.

After the event a group of friends formed up and we did our own march a few blocks to the latest hot restaurant in town, 'Berlin', where we commandeered a back room and took on the disorientating task of reconciling prewar Germany's decadence laced escape from schnitzel with modern Mexico's ambivalence about Spanish colonial conquest while winking at the irony inherent in the choice of venues for toasting our celebrated local author's works, all of which drew heavily on the Holocaust. It could have made for a dark dinner, but instead came off bright and hilarious - a comedy of well-intentioned errors, questionable food and stiff drinks. And what a cast of characters with Liz, Sue and I holding the middle ground between gringo upstarts with dollar signs in their eyes and real estate on their minds, and beautiful flowering examples of local expat color - the fascinating Patrice, the relocated Berkeley feminist bookstore owner, and Marie Therese, her shamanic paramour looking like she had just descended from Machu Pichu with her shaved chihuahua in her arms; Jerry, the Godfather of west coast ceramics, who could center your world view and mold your outlook with a protracted hand shake; Devi, the goddess worshipping diva whose reign extended from the early days of the Haight all the way to Burning Man; Robert, her movie-making, Hana-dwelling consort, looking like a young, startled and reclusive Brando.

We were seated at two tables and the conversations got so lively that periodically throughout dinner someone at one table would suddenly pop up and run over to the other table unable to stand the thought of missing out on the definitive exchange. The topics and the talk surged from one side of the room to the other and back again carrying us with them like the luckless Ahab strapped to the ribs of his great white whale.

My favorite things about the place? The kitchen. It was upstairs, so every time we asked our waitress for something she had to sprint up the adjacent staircase and then sprint back down again. She was game and fast, so along with being served quickly and well, we had ringside seats for her athletic event. The restrooms. They were especially well-hidden in dark corners behind thick velvet curtains. This meant that the place was always full of ghost-like patrons drifting through the rooms not wanting to be noticed in search of something important that might never be found. I loved coming out of the men's room with a theatrical tossing aside of the heavy curtain. You could count on surprising someone eating near by.

And much, much more, but time has done that thing it always does, namely, run out. It's Christmas morning and this was intended as my Christmas present to you, so I'll end for now, knowing and hoping you know too that things never really end......especially here in San Miguel.

Feliz Navidad - Arturro
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