Eight Weeks in San Miguel de Allende

Feels like we’ve been living here for years. San Miguel is every bit as fabulous and addictive as Scott warned me. It’s cured my writer’s block, improved my Spanish, and kept throwing the most amazing people across my path, though none so wonderful as Silvia (the maid at our first rental house) and Alejandra (my Spanish teacher).

Since we arrived on the first of December I’ve written the entire first draft of my first sold novel (crikey!); read a novel in Spanish; discussed local politics (old mayor versus new mayor), Australia/USA and Mexico/USA relations (sadly the Mexico/Australia relations conversation is not a long one) and many other topics with Silvia and Alejandra; and met many writers, layabouts, journalists, cartoonists, teachers, adventurers and travellers (okay, only one cartoonist).

We’ve eaten at almost every restaurant in town: from your friendly hole in the wall to fancy pants high-end, where we’ve consumed sopa azteca, mole, guava mousse, hibisicus quesadillas, jicama, fresh fruit salads, devil eggs, mushrooms in garlic chilli sauce, dry soup, mango tacos, and guacamole and pastries until they’re coming out our ears. We’ve drunk (in order of volume) water (see, parents, we very good), the best tequilas I’ve tasted in my life, margaritas, red wine and piña coladas (yeah, yeah, whatever, but they’re yummy).

We’ve seen the insides of five San Miguel houses: from the two we’re renting here (cheap and small for the first two months; bigger for the last month when the guests arrive: Hey Gwenda! Hey Christopher! Hey Lloyd & Betty!) to a several centuries-old huge dark pile which has a plaque on the outside declaring that it was used during the Inquisition—I’m guessing not for making hibisicus quesadillas. Every one of them gorgeous with high ceilings, lots of light, gardens, patios, roof-top areas for watching the sun set, fountains, and best of all, no firm boundary between inside and outside.

What I love most about the houses here is that from street level you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to find inside. All you see is a door and occasional windows in a flat wall, not telling you a thing. In Sydney I can tell from the front of a Newtown terrace or cottage the exact layout inside, how many rooms, where the stairs will be, frequently how it will be decorated. New York City, too, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the outside of an apartment in each particular neighbourhood.

In San Miguel you can find almost anything behind those huge wooden doors with their beautiful brass handles. The five houses all have completely different layouts. I’ve opened the door and stepped into a huge courtyard with balconies from the surrounding rooms looking down. Or a large foyer with places to hang your coats, leave your umbrellas, tether your donkey, and then up an elegant winding staircase to the house proper with its persian carpets and grand piano. Another front door opens onto a hallway with two large guest rooms on either side. At the end of the hallway another door leads to an elaborate garden with a fountain, the rest of the house is on the other side. We peaked through the doorway of one place we pass all the time, only to discover that there’s no house there at all, just a huge garden, with what my Sydney eyes identify as Moreton Bay fig trees (could that be possible?).

We’ve started looking in real estate agent windows here, checking out the prices of houses, but failing a bigtime Hollywood movie option, they’re all out of our reach—not New York City or Sydney out of our reach, but still way too rich for our blood. Looking at houses is a sign of wondering what it would be like to live here for a year or more, not just three months. San Miguel is a sticky place. We keep meeting people who came here on a holiday five, ten, twenty years ago and somehow never quite managed to leave.

I’ve met Italians, English, French, Canadians, Australians, Moroccans and, of course, lots of USians who live here. I’ve heard that as much as ten per cent of the population is foreign born. Many of the Mexican (not to mention some of the foreign) population complain that the foreigners have made the prices of everything go through the roof, especially real estate. Many born-and-bred Sanmiguelenses can no longer afford to live in the centre (this is a sentiment I understand, harbouring similar feelings about North Shore types moving into the Inner West of Sydney). The foreigners have also, and I’m quoting Mexicans here, led to a cleaner town, better restaurants, more active charities, a much better library and the improvement of many other services from the internet to sanitation.

Other than real estate prices, the most common complaint I hear is about how many of the gringos (and it is largely the USians) arrogantly expect everyone to speak English—despite this being Mexico where English is not, in fact, one of the national languages. I have seen a USian woman at the artisan’s market trying to bargain a man down on the price of a small trinket. He was asking about AU50c and she wanted him to drop down to around AU30c (or pretty much free in USian money). She waved her jewel-encrusted hands about, hectoring the poor man in English of which he clearly understood not a word. To be fair, Silvia claims that it’s more tourists who are like that than residents.

I always speak Spanish first, but many times people respond in English and stay in English no matter how long I go on replying in Spanish. Alejandra says it’s because they’re so used to gringos demanding English and not because my Spanish sucks so much they can’t bear to hear me speak it. She is perhaps too kind; I don’t see that the two explanations are mutually exclusive.

The other unavoidable horror has been the weather. While New York City’s been tormented by snow, ice storms, and blizzards and the temperature’s dropped to 20 below zero, here in San Miguel we’ve also been suffering colder than usual weather. Several nights it’s gotten below zero (that’s below 32F for the celsius challenged) and there have been days where we had to wear more than a T-shirt and jeans. I have been very good and not entered into any bitter recriminations with Scott about keeping me away from another glorious Sydney summer (not to mention the cricket season). I haven’t even complained during the golden hour when we sit on the roof watching the sunset, with great flocks of birds flying overhead, sipping our beers doused in lime, eating jicama and sweet cheese pastries and I’m shivering despite the extra jumper (sweater, USians) and jacket.

San Miguel de Allende, 26 January 2004