Moving to San Miguel de Allende: Chapter 4: Bellas Artes & Quirky Expatriates

Chapter 4: Bellas Artes & Quirky Expatriates

Our Wednesday began as do most of our mornings in San Miguel: with the bells tolling in their dignified way, the furious clanging of the basura man’s makeshift cymbals, the dogs barking at one another and the endless stream of rooster vocalizations, ranging from a strident “cockle-doodle-doo” to a low “gurgle-cluck.”

Bug

One of our delightful insect friends (center) enjoys a meal on the terrace.


Las lluvias continued last night, accompanied by illuminating flashes of lightening. The greening of San Miguel has been quick and enchanting. The Sierra Madres are not like their jagged, foreboding, snow-covered cousins further north; here they are graceful outlines against the sky, verdant and undulating, like emerald-green waves eternally fixed at their crest.

Our breakfast nook, surrounded by three large, arched picture windows, is a wonderful place to birdwatch. As we consumed mangoes, papaya, piña and pan dulce, we punctuated our sounds of savory delight with squeals of excitement.

“Look! A petitroja! Get the binocs!” Petiroja is the euphonious name Mexicans have given to the vermilion flycatcher, a darting scarlet flash of feathers.

“What the heck is that?! Quick, get the bird guide. Maybe it’s a…”

It is also a great place to bug-watch, and the bugs here can be just as colorful, exotic and fantastic as the birds. One of our favorite unidentified bug species is about 2 x 1 inches (5 x 2.5 cm) in size, with antennae measuring about one inch (2.5 cm) in length. They are black with gold-ish iridescent wings, and orange and yellow designs on their bodies, as intricate as those painstakingly painted on expensive porcelain. They move their six long legs slowly and methodically; like robots cautiously feeling for samples in a harsh Martian terrain. We often mistake these flying fascinations for hummingbirds traveling from plant to plant.

From our research so far, we have induced that they eat and drink using their proboscises, which look somewhat like hypodermic needles. They insert this useful utensil into their favorite foods (usually the most succulent plants) and stay completely still, absorbed in their meal, for quite some time. We have rescued many of these delightful creatures from the streets and set them free in our courtyard, where they seem to thrive, and where we see many contentedly buzzing to and fro, sucking plant juices through their built-in straws and shining like gold nuggets in the sun.

Bellas Artes

Bellas Artes.

We enjoyed this lovely morning, reading National Geographic and The Story of Philosophy, conversing in Spanish and writing. After a delicious lunch of frijoles, arroz a la Mexicana y nopalitos, we headed for Bellas Artes, one of the various art schools and our home away from home. We practice the piano here, sit in the cafe by the fountain for hours on end visiting with the various artists, and share our “galletitas” with the fat, friendly pigeons.

We walked past the bustling, noisy Jardin and on several busy streets before reaching Bellas Artes. The entrance is open to the street, but almost magically, the innumerable sounds of boisterous San Miguel fade away as you enter this cool, quiet sanctuary. The entire building is built around a beautifully designed, lush courtyard. Verdant foliage flourishes as a backdrop for bougainvillea of all shades, tall bamboo trees, covered in delicate yellow-tinted leaves, sway gracefully with every whisper of the breeze, and orange trees, their fruit glistening like gems, fill the air with a sweet, tantalizing fragrance. Birds sing and chirp as they flit from tree to blossom and on to the colonial fountain that sits pleasantly gurgling in the center of this sunny haven. Once you have had the chance to drink in the serene beauty and calm of the gardens, you work your calf muscles by climbing the many old stairs to the cloister. Every person you pass has a smile on his face and a warm greeting on his lips. And what a cast of characters it is!

Javier, the wonderful janitor, always greets us with a joyous “¡Hola guapas!” and a kiss on the cheek. Victor, another friend, whose unaccented English is fully deceptive, always asks us with genuine concern, “How do you feel today? Are you happy?”

The empanada lady, laden with baskets full of delectable pastries, calls us all “muñecitas” (dolls) or “gueritas” (blondies) and also engages in the delightful custom of a kiss on the cheek every time we meet. When we purchase some of her “empanadas dulces” to stem our hunger, she goes to great lengths to make sure everyone gets the flavor they requested: membrillo in the green napkins, piña in the yellow, fresa in the pink. Yet, despite her methodical color-coding system, everyone inevitably bites into a pastry filled with a tasty fruit they didn’t anticipate. I find the tangy sweetness of membrillo (a fruit similar to crabapple) best titillates my palate, but I’m always happy with anything I happen to end up with.

Paco, a fellow piano student at Bellas Artes, greets us with his wide, brilliant smile and his infectious laughter as Annie and Laurie call out “¡Hola Pavo!” They have called him “turkey” ever since they were first introduced, and it has stuck. He and Javier both have great senses of humor, and every time we meet it takes only a few minutes for us all to be laughing.

We also have some gringo buddies at Bellas Artes. Wendy, one of “the weavers,” is a lovely native-born Brit whose accent still hovers around the edges of her speech. We’ve kept up with the progress she has made on her rug, a pattern of serpents and sacrificial hearts in red, gold and black. We have a picture of us with the finished product, and it’s magnificent. She told us that one of these days, she’ll teach us how to write some Mayan hieroglyphs and I think I’ll design my rug using those!

Rugs

Leigh and I eventually did take up weaving classes at Bellas Artes and here we are, displaying the results of our efforts in the purple villa’s living room.

Another weaver, a German man, is making a wonderfully detailed rug with animals he saw on his recent trip to India. Every time we see him, there’s a new peacock fanning its brilliant tail, or an ornately decorated elephant plodding across the wool, or a tiger creeping stealthily through the jungle.

Another friend, Christina, is a tall, slim Argentinean who is taking painting classes at Bellas Artes. She is one of Annie and Laurie’s discoveries – one of the many they’ve come across on their forays through the cloister. She’s a very interesting person to talk to, a fellow animal lover and “out-of-the-box” thinker.

Another painter we’ve met teaches watercolor and is enchanted with Annie’s face – she wants to paint her as an angel. Annie certainly has an angelic look about her – though as she and Laurie race around the gardens, an unruly young ostrich comes more to mind.

After we greeted and conversed with our friends, we went to practice our pieces for the recital. We wound it up by practicing the duets we’re working on: two are very modern and had to grow on us, and the other is a sweet berceuse by Faure. The recital is on Friday, and Javier has informed us that he intends to hurl rotten zapotes at us if we hit a wrong note – Mom is bringing the tomatoes! We will be playing on a nine-foot Steinway that is rumoured to have once belonged to none other than Adolph Hitler.

After Bellas Artes, I went directly to meet with my chamber music group. We meet every week at the extension office of the University of Guanajuato. There is an enormous jacaranda tree in the garden that dwarfs the other colorful bushes and foliage. The room we play in looks onto the garden, and Jose Luis always opens the door for “un poco de aire libre” (a little fresh air).

Chamber Group


An unexpected publicity photo for the chamber music group’s charity performance – unfortunately, Russ wasn’t there that day.

Jose Luis is a very talented musician. He is a violinist who is now teaching himself the cello so he can fill out the quartet. His son, Manuel, is a fantastic violinist and violist who looks like Itzak Perlmann with his dark curly hair and absolute lack of a neck. Manuel’s brother, Luis, and his sister, Blanca, both join us at times. Everyone plays several instruments here, I guess it has never occurred to them not to. The goddess of specialization hasn’t hindered their desire or ability.

The only other person not in this same family is Russ Archibald, an elderly, sweet American violinist who has lived all over the world and retired to San Miguel six years ago. He is quite good and delights in our weekly sessions. He reminds me very much of a tortoise as he plays, his face resting placidly on the violin and his lens-enlarged eyes rolling with the music.

Another one of our “regulars” is also named Manuel, and I think he is Jose Luis’s brother. Because my Spanish comprehension is not yet up to the speed of my fellow musicians’ conversation, I usually manage to get the gist of what’s being discussed, but not the details. Manuel wasn’t there today – he went to “Mexico,” which is how everyone refers to Mexico City. This can be quite baffling since I’ve been assuming we’re all in Mexico. He too is a superb violinist and of course, violist, cellist, flutist, oboist; he helps me out of any ruts I encounter on my way through the music.

Once everyone feels ready to start, it begins rather suddenly. A quick tune-up, a brief suggestion as to which quartet to play and “seis, siete, ocho…” and Mozart’s music fills and expands through the room, like air fills the lungs in a deep, inhaling breath. First violin, second violin, viola, cello, every part complements and completes the other, like pieces of a euphonious jigsaw puzzle. We all soar on the wings of Mozart’s music for two hours, pausing only to grin at each other and set the tempo for the next movement. Eventually we are compelled to stop by other commitments, though I think the Mexicans would continue for hours more; it is always either Russ or me who has other appointments to attend to.

By this time, my shoulders and triceps are burning, and I always have a bright red mark under my chin where the violin’s chin-rest sits. But we are all exhilarated by the music and anxious for our next meeting.

Alcocer

The group Evelyn gathered to go to Hacienda Alcocer. The Clydesdale behind us is about to try to steal my purse.

I packed up my music and wandered up Calle Beneficiencia to meet Mom in the Jardin. The humid air was cool as we made our way up to the purple villa, watching clouds form and melt from one shape to another.

We finally arrived, panting and sticky, even though it was not hot. We were due to be picked up in half an hour so everyone was hurriedly donning jeans, hiking boots and hats when our ride pulled up honking in her purple van. At first I thought it was a flock of geese, but when I peeked out the window I realized it was only one: Evelyn. She knocked vigorously on the door – even though she was 20 minutes early. We let her in; her faded hair was in complete disarray and she was dressed in something that “even the poor wouldn’t want.” She brought to mind a rarely preened pigeon as she strutted into our house, flushed with excitement and ready to pile us into her car.

As we backed down our street, bumping and jolting, she rattled on about where we were going. But despite her rambling attempts at an explanation, when we arrived at her house we still had no idea where we were going, how we were going to get there and what we were going to do once we did get there. She haphazardly introduced us to the other people she had collected for this excursion: an American family who were renting one of her antiquated pieces of real estate and a perplexed trio of Mexicans.

Evelyn scurried off to haggle with a taxi driver and left all 10 of us to sort out the puzzle of who was who. We eventually figured out we were being joined by a woman named Leonor from Houston, her daughter Sue from Austin, Sue’s two sons, Greg and Scott and Evelyn’s long-suffering maid Soccorro and her two hapless kids, Consuelo and Rafael. Then came the topic of what adventure we were about to embark on.

“Does anyone have any idea where we’re going?” asked Mom, with a nervous laugh.

“No! I thought you might!” answered Leonor. There was a pause, and then everyone tried to explain their connection to the irrepressible Evelyn, though nothing was resolved before the topic of conversation swept back into the room.

She herded all the adults into the taxi and left the kids to find a place to squeeze into in the old purple van. The boys squished into the one set of back seats and the girls piled into the trunk. As soon as we rumbled to a start, Evelyn turned on a very poor recording of some very loud Spanish music. As we lurched, bumped and jolted through town, Leigh, Annie, Laurie, Consuelo and I were constantly thrown up against the booming speakers.

Bellas Artes

Dad, Annie and Laurie stand in the lush courtyard of Bellas Artes during one of Dad’s two visits to San Miguel.

We passed Fraccionamiento La Malcontenta (“The Discontented Neighborhood”) and kept heading into the looming mountains. Occasionally we would manage to pop our heads up to see the horses and the Sierra Madres before being forced down again by a series of speed bumps – like swimmers fighting a mighty oceanic undertow. Evelyn finally came to a rather abrupt stop near an old hacienda, El Alcocer. The first to greet us was the ubiquitous pack of motley mutts. While we were petting the many dogs, a tall dark man with a large hooked nose and a commanding presence emerged from the house. Evelyn greeted him with her painfully bad Spanish:

Hola, Seenyor Murkadilo. ¿Kay ai day nuwayvo?

I could immediately tell this naturally reserved man was not particularly charmed by Evelyn’s overtures. He quietly answered her shrill question and then led us to some stables in a garden with an old well. Señor Mercadillo went to talk with someone while Evelyn corralled everyone for a “candid” picture.

Once free from the tableaux to explore on our own, we noticed a lovely mare with her newborn colt lying on the ground near her feet. While we watched, the colt decided to struggle to its feet. It made several unsuccessful attempts to rise, lifting its velvety face off the ground and looking at us with big, melting eyes. It finally roused up a surge of energy and rose shakily onto its spindly legs. It was like watching a toddler’s first few tentative steps as the colt stumbled towards its mother. It was awe-inspiring to think it would be cantering around the corral in just a few hours. I think Leigh was like that…

We wandered toward a wrought iron gate at the end of the garden and peered in at a crumbling stone church, which was being vehemently guarded by a mutt who barked ferociously at these suspicious strangers. Next to it rose an offering in the shape of a cross. No one seemed to know what it was made of or to whom it was addressed, but I marveled at how it stood sturdily, despite its apparent fragility, against the elements. Maybe the gods were appreciative of this impressive offering…

Señor Mercadillo led us past the corrals and into what appeared to be a library, flanked by large wooden bookcases full of intriguing volumes in both Spanish and English. His plan is to start a trade school where people can learn some of the traditional Mexican trades, which he is afraid are dying out, such as horse-shoeing and carriage building. A huge bull’s head was sitting in the corner of the room next to a cape and a glittering embroidered jacket. Apparently Señor Mercadillo was once a world-renowned matador. After being inundated with questions as to his profession, he took up the colorful cape and physically demonstrated what could not be explained verbally. He swirled the cape around his elegant form and gracefully evaded an imaginary bull. It reminded me of a beautiful, passionate pas de deux, one that, sadly, ends in gore and death.

After his mesmerizing performance, he quietly explained how a matador makes “a good kill.” A sickening feeling seized my stomach, and I knew I could never understand this violent, yet deeply treasured, sport. Despite his arguments that bulls are bred for this and therefore can justifiably be killed, and his laments at losing a friend in Barcelona in a corrida, I felt anger at the former and a smug satisfaction at the latter. But, I must say, the beauty of the pageantry and the matador’s cruel dance drew me for a short time into a completely foreign world.

We followed Señor Mercadillo out of the room, impressed in spite of ourselves by the memorabilia of his career that lined the walls. He took us to the kitchen and we all eagerly accepted cups of delicious homemade goat’s milk ice cream, in both chocolate and vanilla.

Because of some ominous clouds looming over us and some telltale spurts of rain, we couldn’t ride any of the horses, though he did invite us to come back anytime. We did stand in front of one particularly amiable Clydesdale for a photo. As I waited to smile on the count of three, I felt something pulling my purse behind me, definitely trying to pinch it. I whirled around, and to my astonishment, found the culprit to be the horse! He seemed to know he had been caught red-hoofed, as it were, and let me easily extract my well-worn purse from his mouth. We all chuckled at this attempted robbery, and the horse, apparently not suffering any mortification, allowed us to pet his sweet, velvety nose.

Nighttime

Bellas Artes at night.

After the pictures were finally taken and the many “gracias” exchanged, the kids reluctantly climbed back in the old van, which was wall-to-wall flies because Evelyn had forgotten to close the windows. Señor Mercadillo and his 5-year-old, American-looking daughter, Kayla, insisted on driving the rest of the clan back to town. Our tailbone-bruising, head-thumping ride was once again accompanied by ear-splitting music and this time, the drone of a flock of flies.

Once in town, Evelyn lurched to a sudden stop next to the sidewalk and announced,

“I’ll drop you all off here! Hop out!”

We followed orders, somewhat bewildered, and got out of the car. I was actually surprised she came to a stop at all! The older kids took charge of the younger ones, and we managed to set off in the direction of their house. We saw the adult members of the party coming towards us, some understandable concern on their faces. Mom later told me that when they saw us standing, Evelyn-less, on the curb, Leonor had exclaimed,

“God, that woman!”

I think that appropriately sums up most people’s reaction to Evelyn.

We recovered from our strange, though interesting adventure by sitting on our terrace, eating papaya, gazing at La Parroquia as it seemed to hold the pink clouds on its spires and watching the sun set in a blaze of orange and yellow behind the darkening mountains.