Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Movin' to Mañanaland

By Mladen Baudrand

MARCH 13, 2000: 

On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel by Tony Cohan (Broadway Books), hardcover, $25

For years, citizens of the world have been escaping to Mexico in search of something intangible. Why have these people frequently abandoned their First World homelands in favor of a Third World country that traditionally has lacked many of the "necessities" that are synonymous with modern life? Did I mention that many of these individuals have been artists? No sane person would subject herself to murderous banditos, lefty lunatics, and macho maniacs, right? Wouldn't you have to be a little unstable to give up your sports-utility-vehicle-driving, cell-phone-wielding, drive-thru-for-a-greasy-burger, settle-in-for-a-night-of-Must-See-TV culture?

Actually, according to Los Angeles expatriate and writer Tony Cohan, you don't have to be crazy at all or even an artist to move to Mexico. The gentrification of his adopted 450-year-old hometown of San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato (a four-hour drive from Mexico City) points to the increasing popularity of Mexico as a relocation destination. Cohan writes that when he arrived in 1985 for a quick visit, the "few foreigners around were young transients, old retirees, aging bohemians. Now boomers arrive in droves, buying up the old houses, starting businesses. We have two Internet servers now, a dozen realty offices, boutiques, video stores. ... You can buy portobello and oyster mushrooms, Bulgarian yogurt, French brie." Clearly, Mexico is not just for hippies anymore. Or maybe the hippies have just changed.

In spite of the influx of foreigners and the waning "romance of the Other" that Cohan admits first attracted him and his wife, Masako, to San Miguel, he presents a pastiche of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that will make you want to sell the house and move south. Yet, this memoir is not an overly idealized narrative. Cohan speaks openly about many of the difficulties that he and Masako faced while establishing residence in San Miguel. One of the most harrowing experiences for them involved the purchasing and renovating of their new home. Charmed by the 18th-century building with its remarkable view overlooking town, they launched themselves passionately into their decision to leave L.A. They quickly found their enthusiasm challenged by the reality of Mexican life. At the time, Mexican law dictated that foreigners could lease through a bank but were not allowed to officially own property. This left them at the mercy of a system plagued by instability. With the uncertainty of the Mexican political and economic climate constantly looming, they could easily have lost their home. Nonetheless, they took the dive and unwittingly set the table for an even more challenging predicament: the house's renovation. Mexican sensibilities of time dictated the project, which fell weeks behind schedule and tested every bit of American patience (or lack of) that the gringos could muster.

There were other trials as well: Montezuma's revenge, the threat of water shortages, a scary medical story, an uprising of the Zapatistas, and more. Nonetheless, Cohan emphasizes that 15 years after leaving Los Angeles, he and Masako have no regrets. Instead, they've learned to understand that when someone says "quince dias" (fifteen days), it means you'll be chillin' for a while. They relish the simple pleasures in life such as going to open market or taking in a sunset from their balcony. They appreciate that when they're short some change at a local merchant's establishment, they're trusted to pay the difference at a later date. They love not needing to own a car and going long stretches without watching television. They find it ironic that their L.A. friends who own car alarms, attack dogs, and weapons should ask them if they feel safe living in Mexico. They revel at the frequent fiestas. In short, they love their life in Mexico in spite of the ways that it is different from their former life in Los Angeles, or perhaps because it is different -- more intimate, slower, less technological, more passionate, communal.

For anyone who has ever thought of relocating to Mexico, this is a must-read. Even if you have no intention of moving, Cohan offers a useful overview of daily life, politics, and history. One quick word to the wise: read this book with an English dictionary, an English-Spanish dictionary and a botanical guide nearby. Although Cohan has a tendency towards flowery language, he still carries a rhythm in his writing that will transport you to this culture. You'll feel time slow down. You might even feel tempted to turn off the cell phone and walk to work.

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