San Miguel de Allende: Settling In

(Continued from “Arriving”)

Why do an estimated 10,000 expatriates call San Miguel de Allende (SMA) home? Part of the answer is the opportunity to meet and identify with people from all over the world. This is a sophisticated expat crowd; over the decades they’ve built a rich cultural infrastructure designed to carve out a new lifestyle away from friends, family and familiar culture.

The communication center is the SMA Internet mail list, which has thousands of subscribers and hundreds of active users living in San Miguel. Want to know where the best lap pool is located? Send a post and within hours you’ll have your answer. We found our apartment by posting on this list. We also discovered Alejandro’s popular yoga class, temporarily located in the Arthur Murray Dance Studio across the street from Belles Artes on Hernandez Macias. 
 
 Knowing Bellas Artes’ history is important to understand the artistic currents in this city. Stirling Dickinson, an amateur painter, found his way to San Miguel de Allende in the 1930s and shortly after began work at Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes in a former convent. Following WWII, in which Dickinson served with U.S. Naval Intelligence in Washington, he returned to San Miguel and recruited GIs to his fledgling art school with the help of GI Bill benefits.

“Stirling Dickinson is without doubt the person most responsible for San Miguel de Allende becoming an international art center,” says John Virtue, author of Model American Abroad, a biography of Dickinson.

Our first Tuesday morning yoga class found us in a long line with fellow gringos at 9:30, one more opportunity for introductions, story sharing, recommendations, must-dos, and friendly welcomes to San Miguel. Once inside, we signed up for a 10-class block and rarely missed attending the Monday, Tuesday, Thursday 90-minute classes.

To get an idea of the pace of the city, yoga was followed by a stop at a small bakery a few doors away for muffins, bread or treats, then the half-mile walk back to our house with a stop at the city market for fruits and vegetables. The market is located in a large block-long, metal-roofed building filled with vendors offering fresh fruits and vegetables, small restaurants mostly frequented by locals, clothing, silver items, and local crafts. From the first day we loyally purchased our produce from Dominga, a small aging Mexican woman with a warm face and the look of wisdom gained from hard work over many years. On some days she would add a mango or two or an avocado to our bag as a token of thanks and later friendship. Una mujer cálida y amable.

Dominga’s over-sized fruit cup became a staple. For roughly 80 cents it was jammed with a variety of melon, papaya, mango, and usually half an orange. As is custom she would ask if we wanted picante, which made the fruit cup a delicacy. Dominga would unwrap the plastic cover, shake chili powder over the fruit and then squeeze limon over it all. There were two variations, hot or mild. We would purchase our produce while marveling at the quality and cost and practicing our Spanish, make the two-block walk home arriving at 11:30 or so, and then dive into fresh spicy fruit. We fell in love with those mornings.

Our first week in SMA was typical for many newcomers. We structured yoga and Spanish lessons from a private tutor (found on the SMA mail list) into a set schedule, attended a play at the cultural social center in SMA, the Biblioteca, and went to a play reading of the Sunshine Boys. That reading group in one form or another has a history in San Miguel going back decades.

Theater in Bibliotheca

Prior to the reading of the Sunshine Boys, we sat down in an area filled with gringos and let it happen. Introductions were made but it was hard to keep track of the many names. Some people had “business” cards with personal contact points. This automatic kinship was something neither of us had experienced before.

Always came more leads, more stories, lots of suggested travel destinations in and around SMA and Mexico, with everyone effusing their love of the city. Asking how long we planned to stay was common; our response of three months was greeted with an appreciative look as if to say it was enough time to fall in love. When asked where do you plan to go from here, we honestly responded “not sure,” and then inevitably, people would say, “you’ll be back.”

To our initial surprise most people we met said they kept social calendars to keep track of their many activities. Within days, we took their cue and set up a calendar with yoga, Spanish lessons, upcoming events, and excursions. It was just too difficult otherwise. Plus as we were adding activities daily, it became almost impossible to leave the house without meeting someone new at a restaurant, el Jardin, a shop, or the market. Gringos stood out and we talked, looking for commonalities and possible friendships. In the U.S., sitting next to people in a restaurant rarely is an invitation to talk, but in SMA most meals meant a conversation with someone new.

It’s not only expats that provided the homey feeling of the city. About a week after arriving in SMA, we decided on dinner at Olé Olé and sat down next to a table with four Mexican men and ordered. I noticed a bottle of Patrón tequila (empty) and a new bottle arriving. It seems we had crashed a birthday party. Introductions were made and a shot of tequila shared with a hearty Feliz Cumpleaños! The party never missed a beat as we were swept into the festivities. We ate, we drank, we talked, we laughed — with some of the latter being directed at our Spanish. More shots of tequila. During the ‘conversation’ we learned that one of the men was a bullfighter of some stature and they pointed out his picture hanging on the wall. Also at the table, were the owner of the restaurant, an engineer, and an architect.

The party moved into a new gear, and I soon learned that an empty shot glass is an invitation, an obligation to be filled. As the glass was being filled, the hearty refrain, “otra mi amigo” (another, my friend) rang out. There is almost no pause between the emptying of the tequila and the refrain, which is more a command than a question. This went on for some time as the bottle emptied and the bar banter continued. These four were obviously amigos bueno, it was an honor to be included in their party. At some point it was time to go, it was late, the tequila emptied. Luckily we lived only a few blocks from the restaurant because it wasn’t an easy walk.

The next day started slowly. By four we were ready for our scheduled Spanish lesson. Betsy had volunteered to teach English to the children in our teacher’s pilot program, and I spent that time before our lesson talking with the teacher. We were almost locals. It’s happened for decades.

Settled.

Next up: Living in San Miguel de Allende

Betsy and Mark Blondin have traveled and lived in diverse places in Latin America and Europe during the last six years, meeting expats with wonderful stories that inspired their latest book: At Home Abroad: Today’s Expats Tell Their Stories. They have three grown children and enjoy the slow-travel lifestyle. Betsy is a freelance editor who enjoys helping others publish their work, and Mark is a data storage consultant. Join them at TodaysExpats.com or on Facebook at At Home Abroad for more about the book and its remarkable authors.

We hope you visit Blondins Assignment: America for insights into that journey and keep in mind the site was built as we traveled using Microsoft’s Front Page and that we have left it vintage for historical and sentimental reasons.