ON MY LAST morning in this beautiful colonial city, I am sitting outside on the patio. It rained last night and the air is crisp and cool. The sounds I hear are those of a nearby wall-mounted fountain, which, despite its size, produces a mighty rippling soothing sound that could become addictive.
There’s an occasional bird, a steady coo-coo of a dove, and every half-hour or so, the sonorous gong of the towering pink Parroquia, a few blocks away, and the clanging peals of other nearby churches. It’s past 8 and I’m sure the city is wide-awake and going about its business, but there is no traffic noise from the adjacent narrow cobblestoned street. There are probably cars and trucks moving up and down the streets, but their sound doesn’t penetrate the thick walls of this house. It’s so quiet, you can pretend you’re somewhere out in the countryside. This morning, shortly after I woke up around 5:30, I heard for the first time a train whistle blowing in the distance. Like the fountain, it too was a soothing noise.
I’m staying in a huge house in the Centro, the central part of the San Miguel de Allende that surrounds the Jardín, a small park in front of the Parroquia, a beautiful church that dominates the skyline like a massive pink and orange jewel. The house has four or five bedrooms but it’s part of a building that includes other apartments, so it’s huge. Yet, anyone walking on the street would have no idea that such a beautiful and immense residence hides behind the pink wall that faces the street. Unlike Americans, who invest greatly in making the parts of their houses facing the streets into a showcase, Mexicans (and the thousands of North Americans who also call this city home), would rather spend their money on what’s hidden behind the walls.
There are many houses like this in San Miguel, owned by Mexicans and foreigners, who spend a few weeks or months here then go back home and let strangers rent out their homes. Many of the renters come from the United States and other countries, but many of them are Mexicans from Mexico City, although I’ve heard several homeowners who say they refuse to rent to Chilangos, as Mexico City residents are called, because too many of them have no respect for the properties and treat their household staffs like dirt.
Of course, rude, crude behavior is not limited to Chilangos. Ugly Americans (and ugly other foreigners) also can be found in San Miguel. A few minutes ago I gave María, the woman who takes care of this house (and whips up some mighty tasty breakfasts), a small gift of appreciation and saw tears form in her eyes as she said she’ll miss our group. “Not many groups treat me as you all have,” she said. “You have been wonderful to me.”
I am lucky that I am with a group of people who are considerate and loving toward all the people with whom they come in contact in San Miguel. I don’t think I would have stuck around the entire week had any of them behaved otherwise.
I HAVE BEEN to San Miguel twice before and I really thought I would not be coming back, even though I am in love with this city, for the simple reason that there is so much more of this country that I have yet to see. But my host, a dear friend, insisted and persisted until I found it impossible to say no. I’m so glad I didn’t.
Each time I come here, local expats, as the Americans and other foreigners who live here call themselves, inevitably ask if I would consider moving here. I always reply that of course I would. Who wouldn’t want to live in paradise? And each time I do give it serious thought and even pore over real estate newspaper ads and websites, but inevitably inertia and apathy and fear and all the other forces of nature settle in and I forget about moving here.
But, as I get older and I become less patient with Houston’s humid summer heat and I think more and more about getting rid of shit and simplifying my life, I may be giving it more serious thought. The good thing about San Miguel is that it’s not just for rich Americans. I have two friends who live here. One survives strictly on her Social Security check and the other one whatever money she earns teaching tango lessons. One rents a studio in a nice neighborhood for $500 (which pays for utilities, cable, phone, internet access, etc.). The other one rents a room in a house for less than that. They are both happy as hell and could never consider moving away, especially to the United States.
And why would they? There is so much going on here, so many opportunities to get involved, to get out and meet people. In my short time here I went to a poetry reading, a performance by an American string quartet and (for free), a concert by a local string quartet. There are museums and private galleries everywhere. Fine restaurants can be found on every street, and for every fine restaurant there are many more inexpensive establishments that offer great food.
And for people who love to cook, the mercados offer fresh fruits, vegetable, spices and meats at ridiculously low prices.
The climate is perfect. Cool in the evenings and early mornings but warm (not hot) during the afternoon. Hardly anyone has air conditioning; a good fan is all that’s needed.
Because there are so many rich foreigners here, there are a lot of excellent doctors and some great hospitals here. For those who can’t afford to pay for this first-rate care, there are good alternatives. My friend who lives on Social Security says she pays $54 a year for free medical care, including medicines.
Whenever I talk about San Miguel back home, inevitably I get this yeah-but from others: “Yeah, but do you really want to live in a city that is overrun by Americans?” San Miguel, these people claim, has been ruined by foreigners. (Some of these critics have never been here.)
Listening to these people, you’d think you can’t go anywhere here without risking being trampled by hordes of Americans. That is far from the case. True, you see Americans everywhere, but you see Americans in almost every other popular Mexican city. Foreigners have not taken over this city. You can still walk around in San Miguel and be among Mexicans.
And foreigners have contributed a lot to this city and its economy and way of life. Most expats are involved in volunteer efforts and they raise money for various causes. Many salaries are paid by the expat community, so even if the locals were to resent such a large expat presence, they tolerate los gringos – kind of like how Houston tolerates refineries.
SO THERE’S A lot to be said for this beautiful city, and a lot to be said for how it’s evolved as a haven for expats. Will I ever be one of them? I don’t know. But I’ll continue to dream about it.