Tag Archives: lifestyle

Long Day, Soft Landing to Oaxaca, Mexico — City Mouse, Country Mouse

Life is bimodal. I’m a city mouse in Durham, North Carolina, and a country mouse in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. Federico says I’m an honorary Zapoteca although I can only say hello and raise a toast in his native language. For the time being, I travel back and forth, with roots in both places with small spaces.

Durham condo life in a restored tobacco warehouse downtown

This is my second day back at the casita in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico. It was perfect timing to return. North Carolina was becoming so hot and sultry that it was impossible for me to walk just a mile to the downtown from my loft condo and live without air conditioning. I’ve only lived in the South for 30 years, unlike my native Tar Heel friend Hettie who can’t stand any temperature under 72 degrees F.

Country mouse comes home to Teotitlan del Valle

For the last two nights here, I’ve been sleeping with windows open, fresh air, cool breezes, temps in the mid-70’s. Close to heaven, so to speak.

Tia and Mamacita, always happy to walk with me

The three dogs didn’t skip a beat after my being absent for three months. I was greeted with licks and nudges for petting. Yesterday, I spent most of the time taking photos and nesting in the terrace hammock looking at views, pinching myself.

First limes ever this season, rooftop garden

My house sitter and dog caretaker Janie surprised me with an amazing cactus garden she designed and planted in front of the casita, and vases everywhere filled with fresh flowers. Quite a homecoming!

Fresh flowers everywhere, a welcome home gift from Janie

This is my thirteenth year here. For some reason, I expected culture disconnect but I eased right back into being here. I took the dogs for a two-mile walk out to the far reaches of the village borderlands.

Toros resting in the shade, walk through the campo

Today, after an hour stroll around our daily morning farmer’s market, I set to work in the kitchen making Korean kimchi, adapting the recipe to locally available ingredients.

In the country surrounded by green mountains, fertile valleys

I am far from the craziness of US politics but BuzzFeed keeps buzzing and the New York Times online is within reach. There will be a march here in Oaxaca on Thursday, July 5, 2018 at 2 p.m. at the US Consular Agency to protest government zero tolerance policies that ban Latino immigrants and separate families — starting at IAGO. I’ll be there.

Efficient city kitchen, Durham, NC — Mexico touches everywhere

Country kitchen clutter, Oaxaca, Mexico — US touches everywhere

I wondered when I entered Mexico through Immigration on Thursday night if I might be treated differently, more disdainfully and with suspicion because of these US policies. But, Mexicans are kinder and gentler and I was welcomed back, again.

South Bend, Indiana friends of more than 30 years

This past week was a time of reconnecting with long-time friends in South Bend, Indiana, some of whom I haven’t seen in 30 years. It’s where I lived, raised my family and started my university career.

In the Teotitlan market, $2 USD for a dozen roses

After taking a bus and then taxi from South Bend to Chicago O’Hare, I boarded Aeromexico to connect in Mexico City and take the last flight of the day to Oaxaca. This was a smooth and easy way to get from the US to Mexico. Thankfully, there were no hurricanes.

Mex dogs chilling on the patio. In Durham, outdoor life is on the streets.

My only advice in Mexico City is get to Gate 75 early and watch/listen for the boarding announcements. Most commuter flights within Mexico leave from this gate. They board and depart faster than you can say Buenas Noches.

Janie helps Juanita make fresh beet, carrot, pineapple juice cocktail, 30 pesitos

At the South Bend Farmers Market, breakfast for $4.95 … still

Want to Live in Mexico? Advice from a Wisecracker!

Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak is a zany memoir by Mark Saunders (Fuze Publishing, LLC, McLean, VA, ISBN 978-0-9841412-8-9), who, with his wife Arlene Krasner, moved to San Miguel de Allende (SMA) shortly after falling in love with the place.  The book’s tag line is “Drop out.  Sell everything. Move to Mexico. Sounded like a good plan.”  Not!

Saunders’ writing is tongue-in-cheek witty, with a sprinkle of irreverent, brash, and self-deprecating thrown in for good measure.  Overall, it is an entertaining and fast read.  The book could be a primer for Baby Boomers on the eve of retirement who believe that relocating to Mexico is the answer to a less-than-adequate retirement income.   Saunders’ sardonic underlying message is a “don’t do what we did” warning to greenhorns who think they can move to Mexico on a wing and a prayer (or maybe in a 10-year old high-performance Audi Quattro) without adequate preparation (or an expert, specialized mechanic in tow).

Saunders’ memoir focuses on the couple’s experience moving from Portland, Oregon, to SMA, with their standard poodle and cat. (He’s originally from Sacramento, California, and she grew up in New York City.)  Wooed by blue skies and balmy days, bolstered by a vigorous ex-pat community, their story will resonate with anyone considering living anywhere in Mexico as an alternative to the northern part of North America.  Anecdotes and vignettes of mishaps, miscommunication, and missives fill the pages.

And, Saunders is unabashed while dissecting the realities of living in Mexico for uninitiated American and Canadian expats:  constant dust, barking dogs, lack of central heat and air, long queues to pay bills (which must be done in person) and at banks, past due utility bills and interrupted utility services, cars in need of repair, bodies in need of repair, the meaning of “manana,” and the ubiquitous language barrier.

Most importantly, Saunders raises important questions underlying the humorous pokes at himself, at “gringolandia” [a place where a lot of expats live in Mexico], and his situation.

Subtextual Questions — Self-examination BEFORE you move:

  • What are your primary reasons for the move?
  • What is your experience living in another culture?
  • How adaptable are you?
  • How dedicated will you be to learn or improve your Spanish?   How much patience do you have?
  • Do you need the same conveniences and lifestyle (food, entertainment, shopping, etc.) in Mexico as you had living in the U.S.?
  • Do you expect to live among English speakers?
  • How well can you negotiate through problems?
  • What special health care issues do you have that may require medical attention?

The book is sprinkled with Saunders’ own drawings and cartoons depicting daily gringo/a challenges and misadventures.  The ending is pure redemption  and I won’t give it away!  And remember, a sense of humor will take you a long way.

Here are my 9 Tips for Living in Mexico.

If you are an expat living in Mexico, will you share your advice with us for making the transition smoothly?  If you are a Mexican who wants to add your suggestions about ways to make the landing softer, please do so!

Norma Hawthorne’s 9 Tips for Living in Mexico Successfully (Mas o Menos)

Norma Hawthorne’s 9 Tips for Living in Mexico Successfully (choose your own priority order):
  1. Speak the language. Learn to speak the language. Try to learn to speak the language. Keep trying.  Hire a tutor.  Take a class.  Don’t give up and expect Spanish-speakers to understand you!  Otherwise, you will stay isolated within the gringo community.
  2. Before driving to Mexico, sell your high-performance vehicle in the U.S. and buy something simple that Mexican mechanics know how to repair, like a Ford, a Nissan, or a Honda.  I recently sold my 10-year old Saab 900s and bought a 2003 Honda CRV in preparation for my Oaxaca move.
  3. Visit many times (at least three or four) for at least several weeks at a time before you make the commitment to even rent in a particular location.  Stay with friends.  Talk to people.  Get the “lay of the land.”  Don’t let the romantic notion of living in Mexico — where it is warm, friendly and inexpensive — turn your head too quickly.
  4. Rent, don’t buy or build immediately.  Start out with several weeks in the winter.  Then, come in the off-season – during the rains or in the hot and dusty months.  Know what you are getting into regarding the climate.   It’s not pure blue sky and balmy days year ‘round.
  5. Create a base of friends and a support system before you make the move.  Get connected with local cultural organizations or volunteer groups.  For example, expats gather at the Oaxaca Lending Library for educational infrastructure, connection, and doing good in the world of Oaxaca.
  6. Expand your multicultural lifestyle and friendship circles – get to know the locals to appreciate and share history, culture, wisdom.  Understand that you are a guest in someone else’s country.  Treat all with respect and kindness.
  7. Understand that cultural competency means accepting things the way they are rather than trying to change them or make things “better” (in our own image of what is right).  Mexicans know what is best for them in their country — they have been living this way for thousands of years.  There is a lot we can learn from them without trying to “fix” it to suit U.S. standards.
  8. Stay open to adventure, to change, to the unpredictability of what each day might bring, to opportunity and who you might meet, what unusual delicacy you might taste, an impromptu invitation.
  9. Relax and enjoy yourself.  Saving money should not be your primary motivation for moving to Mexico.  It should be to expand your cultural competency, improve your language skills, and to stretch yourself through exploration and discovery.

Want to add your tips in the Comment section?

Saying Goodbye and Time for Oaxaca

I suspect that there will be coming posts from me like this one that will express feelings rather than reportage about Oaxaca as I separate from my life’s work in four universities and look to the future.  Please bear with me!  This is the home stretch.  My last official salaried paycheck will be mailed to me on December 22, 2011.  I’m very close to being untethered and on my own.  This is both exhilarating and scary.  I am dealing with a roller coaster of emotions ranging from the excitement of spending more time in Oaxaca and the sadness of leaving people I have worked with over the past 10 years and care for immensely —  staff, deans, donors and faculty.

Last week began a whirlwind of goodbye parties starting with a surprise dinner given by the School of Nursing Foundation Board of Directors.  At the close of the board meeting on the following day they gave me the ultimate parting gift of thanks: an all expense paid trip to Peru.  This was NOT a trip to Peru, Indiana, as I had joked in disbelief after a dear alumna, donor and friend handed me the envelope. She organized this incredible gift that includes a week at a Peruvian resort (I get my choice from one of three locations) to be used whenever I wish.  It was accompanied by a large cashiers check to cover expenses!  I am still speechless and in shock.  My hope is to spend time planning the trip so as to savor the experience and take in all the appreciation that it represents.  This is the most difficult part for me — accepting all the outpouring of gratitude I am receiving now.

Yesterday, my school gave me a goodbye party, attended by three wonderful deans — our current dean, immediate past dean, and the dean who preceded her.  All of our three living deans!  My dear colleague Anne gave the roast and brought me to tears. She testified to how I don’t like or follow rules, bending them when needed so that we are people-centric.  How I have supported her to be flexible in her role as high-performance development officer, mom, and wife.  I hope she will be my successor and I am secure in knowing that the future of the advancement office is in good hands during this transition.

It is important, I have discovered, to know when to leave.  To let the next generation step up to the role they deserve and have worked hard for.   I notice people hanging on well-beyond the time they should have retired (early or not).  They may stay because of the money or because they don’t know what else to do with their lives or because they are committed to a purpose that may no longer be relevant or effective.  For many the fire is gone from their bellies.  Their career peak may have been years earlier.

It is important to know when to leave.  I have examined my own motivations and effectiveness.  I have reassessed how I want to live a creative and meaningful life.  I also know that I have worked hard and achieved much for myself and others.  I have added value to the world and made it a better place.  I am leaving UNC Chapel Hill School of Nursing in good hands and with the promise of a strong future after raising $23+ million.  I feel good about that.

Now, it is time for Oaxaca …. and Peru.

One Way Ticket to Paradise–Oaxaca, Mexico

Four years in the planning and my dream is becoming reality — a one-way ticket to paradise: Oaxaca, Mexico.  This is not the Lawrence Welk boring,  Dave Loggins choral doo-wap version of A One-way Ticket to Paradise but a raucous, edgy “not knowing what the future will bring” hard-rocking style put out there by the Italian band Hungryheart and their “One Ticket to Paradise.  Listen to this and you will know how I feel! In fact, listen to the entire album.  It’s an amazing lyrical adventure of how dreams, aspirations, and desires can translate into energy, and ultimately, reality.

My one-way ticket to Oaxaca (arriving on December 28) represents the ultimate freedom for me to savor, explore, and immerse myself in a place I love.  I am leaving my return date to the U.S. open, to be determined.  There is something so metaphorical about this for me.  My one-way ticket is about stepping into an unknown future where nothing is predictable and there are no absolutes –no schedules to keep, no appointments to be made, no deadlines, no annual reports or performance reviews, or measurable goals and objectives to be reviewed and approved.

The vast landscape of southern Mexico is filled with high mountain peaks, deep valleys, clear blue sky, the scent of musky soil just tilled and ready to plant with seeds of indigenous corn.  Life is warm, slow, satisfying, elemental.  I imagine myself in the hammock or walking along the path lined by bed spring fences. This experience will be my personal stretch to see what will materialize each moment.

For the first time in my adult life, I will be able to take more than two or three-weeks away from responsibilities.   I will be mobile and unfettered.  I will communicate from anywhere there is Wi-Fi.

I’m not exactly clear what this will “look like.”  This experience is like starting to write a story and not yet knowing how the main character will develop.   I remember when friends graduated from college and traveled through Europe for a while.  Instead, I went right to work and life happened, often unintentionally.

My commentary to family, friends and beloved husband is that ultimately, all we have is time and our health — both are finite resources to be used wisely with intention.  My intention is to be home in Oaxaca and North Carolina.

Bienvenidos a Oaxaca.  Regresso a Carolina del Norte.  Cuando quiero.