Casa Del Maya B&B

Thursday, July 10, 2014

5 Is The New 1

We got five things done today.  FIVE!  That’s a new Mexico record for us.

When Steve and I arrived in Merida, one of the first things we noticed was that life moves at a slower pace here.  And that was exactly what I was looking for.  I was never very good at multi-tasking – I’m a linear thinker and can only work on one thing at a time.  When I was teaching and working on something while the class worked on their own project, if a student walked up to me and asked me a question it would take me a moment or two to break away from what I was doing and turn my attention to focus on the student.  They usually had to repeat their question.  I guess they thought Mr. Hines was a bit slow.

But life in Mexico has really agreed with me.  I move from task to task, working at my own pace, and have learned to slow down in some areas of my life. (Not walking, however…I still walk like there’s a fire behind me.)  So the fact that you can usually get only one thing accomplished each day has actually been a way for me to force myself to slow down.  If I can go to the bank and pay the electric bill, that’s a good day.  Shopping for new shoes?  Takes a day.  Buying groceries: a good afternoon when you add in the bus rides to and from Mega. 

There are other projects, such as sealing the roof, painting the metal staircase, or cleaning the air conditioning filters that allow more leeway.  I can finish three or four of THOSE each day.  The problem is whenever I leave the house.  Anything you must do that involves other people, just plan on completing one project each day and consider yourself fortunate.  And get used to standing in line.  It’s just a way of life, here.  I've stood in so many lines in the past 2 years that now I am drawn to them like the proverbial moth to a flame.  If I don't have anything to purchase when I leave a store, I break out in a cold sweat and my upper lip trembles as I by-pass the checkout lines.  

So, one project per day is the norm.  Still, there are projects that take even longer.  Take renewing your visa, for example.  The first day we went to immigration we were given the forms to fill out and the list of other items we must bring with us when we returned.  The second trip we turned in the documents.  We were told to look online for our appointment date.  Three weeks later our third visit resulted in us leaving with documents to take to a bank to pay our fees.  The fourth trip was to turn in the payment vouchers.  The fifth trip was to turn in our photos (they would not take the photos from us until we had paid the fee).  The sixth trip I was certain we would receive our renewed visas.  Our seventh trip was to have all documents stamped “approved” by someone somewhere in D.F.  The eighth trip we walked out with our visas good for another 3 years.  Yay!

So except for that fast-walking thing, I’ve adjusted pretty well to the slower paced life.  So color me hyper-excited because today I actually got FIVE things done. 

It all started with an appointment with our attorney, who needed some documents from us to file some annual something about our whatever.  From there we headed to Home Depot to pick up a couple of items – we walked out with a dozen in three bags.  Then we walked across Prolongacion and down a side street to catch a bus on Technologico to Costco.  Did our weekly shopping for the B&B, then hopped a taxi stuffed with 4 cases of water and sundry other items, and dropped Steve off at Hacienda to pay our June taxes.  I know, I know…I hear you.  We cheated because while Steve stood in line at Hacienda, I continued home, put away all our purchases, and walked to a copy shop down the street to make more copies of a map we give our guests.  But I DON’T CARE!  We bucked the system – We looked death in the eye – We fought the law and the (Uh!), law LOST!


A new world record, ladies and gentlemen! 

And I still have time to watch an episode of Modern Family.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The View From There - Chapter 24

Chapter 24


Steve has known Rick since their seminary days.  Don’t try cleaning your ears, I said SEMINARY.
Whereas Steve decided there was no future for him in the Baptist Church – professionally, at least- Rick stayed on and earned his Ph.D.  There have been many years when we have not communicated with Rick, but when we do we just pick up right where we left off.  Rick is a professor at a small, private college in Kentucky, so his proximity to Louisville, my hometown and where Steve also lived for a while, has been the impetus for us to get together over the years.
While we were staying with our friend, Diana, in Chicago, Steve wrote Rick to catch up.  Rick wrote back that he envied our “adventure” (we just saw it as a failure – Rick always sees the positive side of things) and that he had a great suggestion for us that he would talk about when we got together.
So we got together.
Steve and I drove to see Rick and at dinner he said that the college had a program and campus in the town of Mérida, in Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula.  Seems Rick had run the program two different years, so he was pretty well versed on the town. Rick highly recommended the city as a great place to live; he missed living there, himself.
Mexico?  Really??  MEXICO???
We had been studying many exotic locales: Hawaii, several islands in the Caribbean, countries in South America, such as Ecuador, and many warm climes in the U.S.  I certainly did not see Mexico as a viable choice.  I mean, people go there to lose their heads, right?
A look at some websites about Mérida and the Yucatan touted many positive aspects of the peninsula.  There were beaches, cenotes (what’s a cenote?), Mayan ruins (what’s a Mayan and why do they live in ruins?), a growing economy, tourism (so they said), and a quality of life that was said to be healthier and happier. 
Steve and I had made a checklist of what we wanted our next B&B attempt to have:  a warm climate (Mérida, check), a good economy (check), a growing tourism industry (check), affordable (double-check), a government more welcoming to entrepreneurs (check), an international airport, good healthcare, excellent educational opportunities (check, check, check), plenty of culture and a local population who would be glad to see us arrive.
On paper – or on the Internet I guess I should say- Mérida was right on target.  In fact, we were hard-pressed to check off even half the number of our “wants” when we looked at other places around the world, and I’m not certain we quite believed all the great things we were hearing about Mérida.  But it begged a visit, at the very least, so when Rick offered to accompany us on a week-long investigative trip to the colonial town, we all made plans to fly to the Yucatan and give it a once-over.
We all arrived in Mérida the second week of January, 2012.  Steve had made reservations at a few B&Bs in town.  We wanted to experience as many of the existing accommodation venues as possible so as to see what was available and also to help form our idea of what a great B&B should be.
The first place at which we stayed had been open in Mérida for 20 years.  The owners have run the place the entire 20 years and are beginning to look towards retirement.  20 years in the B&B business is like 150 human years; statistically, most B&B operators suffer burnout in 5.  Each of the 8 rooms at this place are decorated in an old-world style, highlighting a famous Mexican artist.  Staircases wind their way up and around to the various rooms, and until you learn the layout you get lost exploring the many nooks and crannies.  We stayed in a room on the ground floor dedicated to the very famous and much loved Frida Kahlo.  There was a double bed with a single bed in a loft overhead.  It was a bit dark for our taste, but interesting.  It showed its age; we stayed three nights. 
The owner is a real character, what we used to call a “Key West character”, and at breakfast one morning we learned that he had actually lived in Key West many years ago.
The second night in town we ate at a very popular restaurant.  Expats, particularly, love it.  We each ordered our own plates, of course, and when Rick offered a taste of his crabcakes, Steve took him up on it.  I did not.  As we were going out the door after our meal, both Steve and Rick were complaining of an oily taste in their mouths.  I did not.  On the way back to our room, the oily tastes in their mouths moved southward and they mentioned a bloated feeling in their stomachs.  I did... yeah, okay, I was spared. 
About 2:00 AM in the morning, I awoke to hear Steve in the bathroom, obviously in distress.  His entire gastrointestinal system had been compromised.  From the loft I heard Rick ask if Steve was sick.
“Yeah, sounds like something is definitely disagreeing with him”, I said.
“Me, too.”
By morning both Steve and Rick were in deep trouble, and without being too graphic, suffice it to say their new best friend was a gleaming porcelain entity that never fails to offer us all comfort in times of distress. 
Everybody sing!:  
“When I find myself in times of trouble,
Porcelain Fairy comfort me,
Seeking stomach freedom
Let me be.”
Fortunately the B&B owners had a doctor in their Rolodex who makes housecalls. (If you know what a Rolodex is we can be great friends.) 
Dr. Castro arrived to our room in less than 30 minutes, quickly and assuredly diagnosed the problem, went to the pharmacy, and returned with antibiotic shots for both our suffering hombres.  This was another check on our list – a doctor who makes house calls.  How great is that?!  Nevertheless, we all spent the next two days cooped up in our room, and even moved to our second B&B on the third day.  Steve and Rick were still recovering when we checked into Los Arcos B&B. We love Los Arcos, and David is a great guy and very talented artist.  He has only three rooms, but he is always full as he knows how to treat guests.  All guests gathered for breakfast each morning at his dining table.  We enjoyed it, but thought that we would probably offer separate tables for guests; that way they can join in the conversation or keep to themselves.
When the guys finally recovered from their bouts, I was chomping at the bit to get out and see Mérida.  And see Mérida, we did.  We walked and walked that town, which I loved.  One of my favorite things in the world to do is walk and hike.  Steve, too.  Whenever we travel we look for hiking opportunities.
We got a fairly good sense of the layout of the town and liked what we saw very much.  Beautiful parks every few blocks with cocina economicas (inexpensive kitchen), fruit and vegetable markets, museums both large and small, historic and modern, restaurants to appease all tastes and preferences, all kinds of Mom and Pop stores selling everything from hardware and paint to appliance parts, piňatas, paper goods, electronics, furniture, candy, food – in short, everything one would require on a daily basis for life in a colonial city. 

At breakfast the next morning our host, David, hooked us up with his friend and realtor, Jim.  Jim showed us several properties that were very interesting.  However, none of them spoke to us that they could be our B&B. 
From Los Arcos we next moved to Medio Mundo, another great B&B in Mérida.  We enjoyed their use of color on the property and knew that was the direction we wanted to go, should we be able to open our own place.  The owners have run this B&B for about 12 years, and it was beginning to show.  We didn’t see much of them.  However, they run a very nice place: clean, comfortable, inviting, with a good staff and a continental breakfast that, if not completely filling, sufficed until lunch.  However, this is where we decided that at our B&B we would offer a full breakfast to our guests and start them on their day ready for anything.
Another thing we liked about Medio Mundo is their gift shop.  They have items from all over Latin America, which is a nice idea and one that we definitely want to include in our own venture.

Our week was over in a flash, but we felt we had a good idea of the city.  On our last day walking around town, Rick asked where we might like to eat dinner.  Since we were so new to the city, we had been letting Rick guide us and make most of these kinds of decisions.  But now he seemed at odds about it.  He stopped and said something about us not liking Mérida and that he was sorry it didn’t work out.
Didn’t work out?  We loved Mérida.
I guess we were so focused on discovering the town that we hadn’t been very animated about it all.  Rick had interpreted our focus and concentration as dislike of the city. 
But we liked just about everything we saw, heard, and did, and had already decided that Mérida would be our next attempt at a B&B.
Back in Chicago we made plans to return to Mérida in March to see if we could find a property that would suit our needs.  We met with Jim again, and he showed us a lot of properties – probably 15 – 20 – I lost count.  After Jim showed them to us in the mornings, we spent the afternoons walking from the Zocalo to each one.  But, still, none of them fit the bill.  One was too far from the Zocalo, another too small to have 6 guestrooms (the minimum number of rooms we had decided upon), some would cost too much to renovate, some flooded during rainy season, some too expensive, etc., etc., etc.  We could tell Jim was a bit frustrated with our rejection of every property and probably thought we were not serious buyers.  But if this was going to be the place we spent the rest of our working lives, it had to be right.  I guess it was too much to walk into the first property and fall in love, like we had in Italy.
On the last day we again saw a few properties and again they were not right.  The last property of the day was in Santa Ana.  We were walking to the property from the car when we ran into the property’s owner.  Jim told him we were about to look at his house.  But the man said the house already had been sold and the realtor had neglected to remove the listing from the website.  We were a bit depressed and started to form plans to return to Mérida again in a few months to look at properties.  But that would prolong our feeling of being in life-limbo.
Then the owner of the house that was already sold said he had another property for sale.  It was just around the corner and he said he had just lowered the price.
Jim looked at us and said we had to see it.  He knew the property, but had forgotten it was for sale as it was not listed on all the real estate websites; it was only listed on the website of the real estate company that the owner worked with.  So the man took us to the property.  It was in Santa Ana, three blocks from the park and four from Paseo de Montejo. 
The front of the place was not very special – just a double door and a window.  Through the front door we entered into the living room.  It was a dull grey color, with grey pasta tiles that had probably been laid in the 1970’s, judging from their pattern.
There was a staircase to the right that led to a second floor, we surmised.  Beyond the living room were a small kitchen on the left that led to the back door, and a dining room on the right that led to another room beyond.  That room was being used as another living room and there was beautiful, old pasta tiles on the floor.  They were probably as old as the house – maybe 100 years.  It had a bathroom off it that was shared with a bedroom beyond.  You could pass from the second living room to the bedroom by crossing through the bathroom.  The bedroom had bright pink past tiles on the floor.  Could we work with these?  There were also two exterior doors to both these rooms off a small vestibule outside.
Beyond the back kitchen door ran a long walkway next to the living room and bedroom to the right.  Beyond that was a patio and then a small garden.  An old cement above-ground cistern was located on the right side, and a small laundry room past that.  The rest of the yard was dirt, save for two medium-size trees and a small square of plantings – mostly succulents. 
The property was narrow – just 7 meters in the front, and narrowed to just under 6 in the rear, but it was long: 69 meters.
The second floor had one large room and a terrace overlooking the street.  There was a very small bath, but we immediately felt we could live in that room, if we had to.
Well, Steve and I both got that excited feeling we had had with Coppo 7.  We felt the property was about as good as we were going to get for the price.  We felt we could afford to renovate it into 6 rooms: the two existing rooms on either side of the first-floor bathroom.  With a little creativity on Steve’s part, we could manage to build four more rooms and put in our requisite pool.
As we had with the other properties we had seen, we again walked from the Zocalo to the house on Calle 66.  Some of the routes weren’t the greatest of walks, but if we guided our guests three blocks up Calle 47 to Calle 60, then they would arrive at the perfect place to either turn right and head South to the Zocalo, cross the street to Santa Ana park, or walk one more block to Paseo de Montejo with its mansions, museums, and monuments.
The street the house sat on is a mix of old and new, pretty much like the rest of Mérida Centro.  Every other property seems to be in the process of renovation.  Three had already been renovated and another was in the process of a first-class upgrade.  Seemed like a great place to locate a business.  Plus, cross the street and you can hop a bus down to Centro and the main market for 6 pesos (A bus ride has since risen to an outrageous 7 pesos).
We snapped photo after photo of the place, made drawings, and already made plans in our minds for renovations.  Suffice it to say we liked the place.
      As all realtors like to do, Jim told us there was another offer coming in on the property and that if we didn’t “jump on it” we would lose it.  Well, we don’t pay any attention to that kind of stuff, but we had already decided that this was the property for us, so we wrote a contract that afternoon.
The owner accepted the offer and we made plans to close by proxy from Chicago.
And so in three short months we had gone from homeless, living off the kindness of our good friend, Diana, to budding B&B owners.  All we had to do was more than double the living space on the property, squeeze in a pool and breakfast terrace, and include a laundry and maintenance space. 
That next phase would prove to be the most challenging, yet. 

Front of house
Living room and stairs leading to second floor
Dining room with second living room beyond
Second living room 
Walkway out back door
First-floor bedroom

Cistern and laundry building

Back Yard

Second-floor room

Second living room

Dining room

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ode to a Fossa Septica

Ode to a Fossa Septica

O, wondrous tanks I see
Work your magic when I pee
Hidden under limey loam
Grey, ivory, plastic, foam

Trio of tapas cover all
No need to lift until the Fall
We can’t see your inner world
None wish to see the innards curl’d

Now my lucky fingers cross
The cost won’t feel a total loss
Praying all will flow and go
As it all swirls down the bowl

So let the people do their best
The soft’ner, washer, all the rest
Send it down the deep, deep hole

And free me from my weekly dole

Monday, May 12, 2014

What I'm Doing On My Summer Vacation

What I'm Doing On My Summer Vacation

     Watching "Law and Order" and endless repeats of Mother's Day movies on "The Hallmark Channel".
     Washing my mother's hair.  (you heard me...don't make me say it again.)
     Waiting for Wednesday.
     Eating - you get the idea.

     May is a slow month in Merida - or so we're told; we've never tested that rumor.  But I do know it is hot.  In fact, May is the hottest month in the Yucatan, and if the three weeks leading up to May were early indications, we are in for a long, hot summer.  So May is when we choose to close Casa Del May for a month for maintenance and upgrades (new doors, new paint, and even - now hold on to your seat - a new, larger septic tank!).  But May is also the month we fit in a trip to the U.S. to visit family.  And for the most part, and for many years, this has been an enjoyable visit that I looked forward to.  But things are changing, and have changed.  I am finally in that time of life when parental obligations are taking hold.  They have already taken hold for my two brothers and sister-in-law and nephew.  But living away from Louisville has spared me some of the stress and strain of my mother's slow decline into elder-hood.  And this visit is proving that this is going to be a quicker and more rapid process in the near future.

     My mother is 88 and by all indications is healthy, both physically and mentally.  But she is, and always has been, something of a hypochondriac.  Mom has a touch of COPD from being a smoker for about 20 years.  Thankfully she quit smoking in her 40's, so she has spared herself a lot of the effects that I have seen evidenced in other people over the years.  But she does have that COPD.  And when I say she has a touch, I mean a touch.  Her breathing is barely strained.  Don't get me wrong, it is strained, but ever so slightly and I think she has chosen to make much more of it than she should.  But it is what it is, and she has convinced herself she needs to be on oxygen 24/7.  This one decision is driving all other decisions in her life.  And because she chooses to be tethered to a steel tank and plastic tubing, she has found it difficult - not difficult, bothersome - she has found it bothersome to perform many of the everyday things we all take for granted.  Because she feels she cannot be off the oxygen for even 10 minutes, she has stopped taking showers and "bathes" at the sink.  Because she is afraid of too much heat near her oxygen tube she does not cook meals and eats much more "junk" food than she should.  Because taking that portable oxygen tank with her out of doors is cumbersome she has stopped leaving the house.  Many members of our extended family meet at a local restaurant every Friday night, and for years Mom attended.  She has not been to that dinner in over 8 months.  She is not even dressing, but sits in her recliner all day in her nightgown.

     We are all flummoxed about what to do.  This is partly because this is so unlike my mother.  She has always been fairly active.  For 35 years she walked to and from her job at A&P.  And except for one, brief stay in the hospital after my sister, Tina, was born, she has never suffered from much more than a cold.  And it is partly because she digs in her heels whenever we try to discuss what she needs to do to keep her quality of life high.  

     For Mother's Day I prepared a breakfast for Mom.  She, my two brothers, my sister-in-law, and I ate at Mom's dining room table and had a nice time.  But Mom refused to dress for the occasion.  I almost insisted she dress, but she flatly refused.  

     So now I'm trying to figure out what is the problem, and what to do about it.  Is she depressed?  Does she feel physically bad all the time?  Does she not perceive any reason to live?  I cannot figure it out, and she won't talk about it - just says she cannot do this or that because of the oxygen, or because she is not feeling well, or because her back hurts.  But she has been to the doctor and she has ruled out all these reasons, but cannot help us further.  

     So I think we are about to make some decisions for Mom that she may not like.  Or maybe she will, who knows?  We are about to hire someone to come in 3 times per week to help take care of her.  We'll see where that leads - and how I feel about things in a few months.

     This puts me, and my family, in different shoes.  We are now becoming the parents, as so often happens.  But when it happens to you it seems much more daunting and foreign.  How do I now turn to my mother and tell her how things are going to be?  I have to tell her that if she does not do certain things to take care of herself that we will step in and take over her life.  We will decide when she goes to the doctor.  We will decide who comes to her condo to help take care of her.  We will take over her finances, which will be such a turn of events for Mom that it is hard to imagine how she might react; Mom has ALWAYS been the family accountant.  My father had no clue how to even make a withdrawl from the bank.  And we will decide, when we must, when and where she will live, next.  

     I guess I knew all my life that this time would come - that the children must become the parents.  And now that that time is here, I am very uncomfortable with it.  It feels like a betrayal.  I can certainly rationalize it - I know that the changes my brothers, sister, and I will force upon Mom are for her own good - but we will probably never feel good about it.

     In the meantime, I'm spending my summer vacation in Louisville, Kentucky, getting a taste of what it might be like when - and if - I'm 88, and vowing not to follow my mother's lead on this one.  

     I want to be like other 88 year olds: Bob Barker, my 92 year old friend Raul, who is embarking on yet another 2-week walking tour of an Asian country, or even Betty White, who has given us all a new outlook on growing old.  It's going to happen to us all, if we are lucky.  I just hope I handle it well.  

     But right now I'm getting in a lot of doughnut time.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The View From There - Part IV, Chapter 23

Chapter 23
Onward and Upward

      In the Fall of 2011 Italy began descending into its own recession.  Banks we approached for loans laughed us out their doors.  Without work visas and without funds to renovate the property into a B&B, it was clear we would be forced to leave our Italian home, and our dream, sitting on that incredible hillside.  And so we began to make plans for selling the house and contemplating what we might do, and where we might go, next.  It seemed impossible to us that we would leave Cingoli.  We had made so many new friends, discovered much about ourselves, and loved every minute we spent at Coppo 7.  How would we ever leave it? 
It seemed natural to approach the same people who helped us find this property to help us sell it.
Ciro works with Lorenza and runs the Cingoli office of their real estate company, and so it was Ciro with whom we worked to list Coppo 7.  Ciro is a big guy, with a shock of blonde hair running across the top of his head.  He gave us a price range at which he thought the place would sell.  We took his suggestion and listed our dream, and all our hard work, for sale.
It was sad, really.  The past 15 months had been spectacular – the best 15 months of my life, that was for sure.  But reality had set in and it appeared we would have to find our next dream.
Only two weeks later Ciro called to say he had a family that wanted to look at the property.  He said they would be at Coppo 7 in one hour.  So we quickly straightened up the place, put on our hiking boots, and took a walk down Coppo.  We figured they needed about a half hour, which meant we could walk down the hill to Torre, and back.
As we were walking back up Coppo we could see our house from the road, looking across the fields.  It already looked a bit lonely, nestled on its little plateau.  We saw Ciro and two men still looking over the property, so we turned and walked through some fields that took us below our property to the other side.  There is another road on the opposite side that also winds its way down to Torre, so we crossed over and walked down that road to give the prospective buyers more time to look at our property. 
About 45 minutes later we were again walking up Coppo, thinking that they would be gone for sure by that time, but again we could see that the house was still being perused.  This time we walked the fields below our property but stayed within shouting distance, watching for when Ciro and his clients were finally finished looking at the property.
It was another half hour before we watched them get into their cars and we were able to return home.  We surmised they liked the property, spending all that time looking at it.  It reminded us of the first time we saw the property those 5 years earlier.  We stayed a long time, as well, and even returned on our own the same afternoon.
The next day Ciro called to say the two men that looked at the property were very interested in it.  They were father and son and looking for a summer home for their family.  And two days later we had an offer on the table.
So, it was really happening.  We would leave Italy.  Yes, it was sad, but not exactly a tragedy.  We vowed we would retire in Italy, some day.
And with that we began researching the Internet where to go, next.  We still wanted to open a Bed & Breakfast, and now we had the opportunity to choose almost wherever we wanted.  Well, money would be a factor, as it always is in life, but we had a huge portion of the globe from which to choose.
We began a list of “wants” for our next adventure:  a warm place (no more cold showers!), near an international airport (so we could visit family more easily), a growing tourism market (need to support ourselves), affordable (in other words, no more than we would get for selling Coppo 7), an up-and-coming area (don’t want to be on the tail-end of someone’s economy), lots to see and do (so our guests wouldn’t have to just sit around our B&B with nothing to do), and, most importantly, a place with a welcoming government.
One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that you can research just about any city and country in the world.  With a few clicks we could Google Earth our way through Ecuador and actually see the little beach-bar and B&B that was listed for sale.  We loved Hawaii – that 4-room B&B for sale was half-way up a volcano – but proved to be too expensive.  We liked Arizona, but weren’t certain the state government was going in the direction to serve small business.  I would have loved to have a place near the Grand Canyon, but (there’s almost always a but, isn’t there?), again, the area proved to be more than our budget could manage.  St. Thomas?  Too restrictive.  St. John?  Too difficult to get to – we didn’t really want to cater to elites. 
So began our search for where to go after Italy.  Would any place else stack up to those rolling fields?  Would we be able to embrace our next home like we had Cingoli?  Would we be able to find a country more welcoming to American entrepreneurs?  We looked at every country in North America, South America, Europe, and even Africa.  We kept notes, downloaded photos, and looked for properties for sale in order to get a sense of pricing.  
Meanwhile, Ciro accepted the offer from the family from Verona to purchase our home.  Our home.  Soon not to be our home. 
Actually, we were pleased with the offer, and the family even purchased every piece of furniture and artwork in the house.  We would leave Italy with only our clothes and a few pieces of artwork we had for over 25 years. 
I’ve stated before that Steve is very good at researching travel.  And so it was no surprise – okay, it was a bit of a surprise – when he told me he had found a transatlantic cruise from Rome to Ft. Lauderdale for less than a plane ticket.  Seems it was a re-positioning cruise – a cruise the company offers at a low price in order to fill it with passengers to pay for taking the ship to South Florida to cruise the Caribbean for the winter. 
When we told the Cingoli choir that we were leaving Cingoli and moving back to the U.S. (temporarily, at least), they threw us a going-away dinner at Il Ragno.  It was a great evening and we had one of the best times ever.  The wine flowed and pizzas kept arriving at the 12-foot long table all evening.  Some choir members gave us cookies, one brought a cake, and still others gave us little going-away gifts, including a Cingoli photograph and photos of us performing with the choir.  It was all I could do not to run out the next morning and find a house to rent and just say, “to hell with a B&B, I’m staying in Italy!”
But, alas, we packed four suitcases and drove to Rome to catch our cruiseship back to “reality”.  Leaving Cingoli was just as surrealistic as arriving – it was as if we were moving in outer-space – time dragged out and when people spoke it was as if a 78 RPM record was playing at 33 RPM. (If you understand that analogy, I totally love you.)  I saw their mouths open and close with painful slowness as if they were over-enunciating.
We found the port just north of Rome and the drop-off location for our ship.  Steve stayed with our luggage while I returned the car a few blocks away and walked back to the docks.
A bus picked up groups of us and shuttled us to the ship.  This was because the entire dock area was being renovated, with rerouted roads and new buildings being erected.  We could only drive within 4 blocks of the ship.
I don’t remember getting on the ship – it was fairly dull just waiting in line for our turn to board.
The ship was one of those huge floating cities, with a disco, two theatres, a casino, 8 restaurants, an ice rink, miniature golf, a running track, 6 pools, umpteen bars, and even a “Main Street” of shops and restaurants running down the middle. 
Our room actually overlooked Main Street, so we immediately closed the curtains and they remained closed the entire journey.
Our itinerary showed stops in Aix en Provence, Barcelona, Cartegena, and the Azores before barreling across the Atlantic towards Florida.  But a Mediterranean hurricane, the first in almost 40 years, they said, was messing with our trip. 
We made it to Aix en Provence, where we took one of their excursions to the town for the day.  It is a wonderfully picturesque city, full of history (as is most of Europe), art, and people who know how to live. We each bought a leather jacket.
The next day we were in Barcelona.  We ended up staying in Barcelona overnight as the aforementioned hurricane forced us to keep out of the Mediterranean.  So we had plenty of time to explore La Rambla, a tree-lined boulevard popular with locals and tourists.  It was very busy both days we were there, with restaurants, bars, discos, and shops of all kinds lining the boulevard.  We had dinner at a restaurant which had tables in the median, then walked the street from one end to the other. 
The architecture in Barcelona is world-famous, and did not disappoint.  Although I enjoyed Sagrada Familia, created by Gaudi, perhaps my favorite was his smaller structure, Casa Batllo. 
It is a mixture of medieval and very modern elements and looks to me as if the original building had melted and re-solidified into its current form.
Our third stop, Cartegena, was my favorite. I enjoyed the smaller-town feel of the place and the people seemed more relaxed than in Barcelona.  We walked the town all day, with the Roman Theatre and the Town Hall being highlights.
Because we spent that extra night in Barcelona, our stop in the Azores was cancelled, so after Cartegena we headed out to sea and towards the United States. 
We were still feeling the effects of that hurricane, which meant that we had rough seas the first few days at sea.  All ship swimming pools were closed, and it was too cold to spend very long on the open decks.  That meant that we got to experience all the top-rated entertainment of a typical cruise ship! 
Actually (and this is being cruel, I know), watching ice skating performers trying to stay on their feet on a ship that is listing violently back and forth is pretty entertaining.  Like on “The Carol Burnett Show” when when Tim Conway would crack up his fellow co-stars.  I want REAL moments in life, not fake ones.
Speaking of real moments…
If you want to experience human beings at their best, be first in line at the buffet.
I don’t know about all cruises, but on the ship we were on there were several meal choices.  You could go to the huge buffet for each meal, go to the main dining room for a sit-down meal, or make a reservation at either the Italian Restaurant or Steak House on board.  We generally ate at the buffet because it is quick and easy and affords lots of choices.  Too many, actually.  But being first in line, as we were a couple of times, affords you the opportunity to have already way-too-enormous people stampede their way to the buffet line.  I was standing in line with my plate in my hand, waiting for the line to move, when I heard a commotion behind me.  I turned to see a wild-eyed woman and her teenage son barreling straight for me.  They ran up to the stack of plates and grabbed some like they were life-saving devices. This was the first time I experienced my entire life flashing before me.
 They moved in right behind me and I learned new meaning for the word “frottage”.  Steve and I just stood aside and invited them to go ahead of us.  We were pretty sure there would still be food available when we reached the buffet.
The sad thing is that we saw this situation occur many times during our cruise - by many different people.  It made you want to give up eating altogether.
We tried the sit-down restaurant on the last night of the cruise, and it was only then we realized we could have had much more pleasant eating experiences if we had only taken advantage of the table they kept for us each meal.  Oh, well…live and learn.
About the third day out to sea the weather began to calm down.  The clouds broke and we were able to enjoy the out-of-doors once again.  It was then that I began to really get a sense of the vastness of an ocean.  Logically, I knew the size of the Earth’s waters as compared to its land area, but to experience that much water first hand brings it home in a way I had never experienced.  If you could drive a car from the Rock of Gibraltor to Ft. Lauderdale at a speed of 60 miles-per-hour, it would take 3 days, or 71 hours, to cover the distance.  That’s a lot of water.
A cruise ship was a nice way to move back to the U.S., but I think I’m now done with cruises – at least for a while. 
We flew from Ft. Lauderdale to Norfolk, Virginia, then took a bus to Steve’s hometown in Maryland.  We spent a week with his family, then I flew to Louisville to see mine.  We met in Chicago a week later and spent the next three months with a friend of ours who insisted we stay with her while we figured out what to do next.  It was difficult because we were still feeling the loss of living in Italy.  I kept thinking about that fantastic property we left behind, and what a great B&B it would have made.  Ah, so what.  We were young and healthy – well, we were healthy – and now had the world at our feet.  It was just up to us to decide where in the world to go.  That’s where our friend, Rick, came in.

Friday, April 18, 2014

I Did It!

                I finally did it.

                Two years in Mexico and I finally did it.

                It took me a while to buck up my courage, but I reached way deep down and said to myself, “Self, you know you gotta’ do this.  If you truly want to call yourself a Yucateco… Yucateca?...  Yucatecan?... ah hell, if you truly want to call yourself a Mexicano…Mexicana…shit. 
Just gotta’ do this.”

                I’ve been avoiding this since we moved to Merida.  I would walk to the market…the one in Santa Ana Park or Santiago Park…or even the main one (Lucas Galvez?), I would walk in and see the hanging corpses, the split open flesh dripping red over the table and then snaking its way to the closest hole in the floor.  Entrails piled in the corner and in barrels waiting to be picked up by – whom?  And the stench!  My God, the smell makes you want to hurl.  And yet, I’m supposed to purchase some of these dead corpses and turn them into some type of dish that won’t make Bobby Flay run for a toilet.

                So yesterday was the day I was going to take the plunge.  

               All during my walk to Santiago Park I kept making like Jack Handy and trying to calm myself with my own DeepThoughts.  And it kinda’ worked.  By the time I approached the back side of Santiago Park I was feeling that finally buying one of those (fresh?) chickens in the market was going to work out just fine.
                As I turned the final corner on Calle 70, which runs behind the Park, I was feeling positively elated at the big step I was about to take.  I almost skipped around the corner and headed South and there, right in front of me, was a man suffering from exactly what I feared I might be in the not-too-distant future.  He was bent over, one hand on a light pole, the other on his knee as he projectile vomited onto the sidewalk.
                Oh yeah!  This is a GREAT omen!

                I quickly crossed the street and almost ran past the spot where the man stood heaving in a herculean effort (if I do say so myself) to avoid looking at and – please God – smelling the results of his liquid gift to the city. 

                I began searching my mind for a better thought to push out the vision my imagination was trying to cram into my brain.  But like always, this only backfired and my thoughts were filled with the image that I always use to punish myself.  Suffice it to say that seeing your parents in flagrante delicto when you are 17 is one of those images you can return to again and again in your life when your mind forces you to a dark place.

                I drug myself into the little market area inside Parque Santiago.  I began first in the fruit and vegetable section.  I made my purchases of a pineapple, papaya, cantaloupe, and bananas, then turned to face the dreaded meat room.

                I walked down the little walkway and turned into the room, noticing a band saw on my left that looked like it MAY have been cleaned at the turn of the century – the 20th century, I think.

                A few feet further was one last poultry seller still open at the late hour of 1:30 PM.  The room was hot and smelly, and I was terrified of contracting some animal-borne disease just by being in the room, let alone eating anything that had been hanging out in it. 

                I approached and one of the two women behind the counter left her lunch to assist me.  She looked up at me and knew right away the kind of Gringo she was dealing with.


                After what seemed an eternity I managed a little, “Si”.  Was that me that said that?  It sounded like a 9-year-old little girl who was about to cry.

                I looked down on the counter to see a chicken languishing on the table, already sliced in half.  Each half had a breast, thigh, leg, and more flies hovering about than I’ve seen in the bottom of a very recently used septic tank (but that’s a story for another time).

                The chicken had a nice amount of meat on it, so that was a positive.  The flesh was shiny, not dried out.  I noticed all the fat was still on the specimen as my eyes pored down the breast, past the thigh and down to the legs with…their feet! 

                I tried to be non-chalant about the whole thing – like this was something I’d done a million times before.  I said to the young woman, “I’ll take it all”, then remembered where I was and tried to use my oh-so-excellent Spanish. 


                “My God, this chicken has feet”, I thought.  “What am I supposed to do with feet?”

                Now look, my uncle was a farmer and I spent a couple weeks with him and my aunt each summer when I was a teen, so I learned a lot about farming and milking cows and slaughtering hogs and I know chicken have feet.  But, my God, this chicken had feet!

                The woman seemed to sense my distress about what to do about the feet, so she picked up a cleaver and cleanly chopped them off with a quick 1-2.   It didn’t make me feel much better, but at least I wouldn’t have to deal with chicken feet.  I mean, I know you can make soup with them or even fry them, but I am NOT about to each chicken feet.  You know they walk in their own poop, don’t you?

                The woman plopped the chicken pieces into a plastic bag and nimbly tied it as they seem to do with all plastic bags, here.  The bag was clearly wet and slimy from chicken guts, and I started looking at my own recyclable cloth bag I had brought with me to carry home my purchases for where to put this bag of chicken without making a stinking, sticky mess before I got home.  But then I looked up to see the woman place the first bag into another, stronger bag with handles for carrying.  Guess I underestimated her.

                I paid for the chicken – 70 pesos – not bad at all – thanked her and headed out the opposite door of the meat room and started my trek back home.  I kept my right eye closed as I hugged the walls next to the very narrow sidewalk opposite Mr. Vomit in an effort to keep from seeing that horror scene again, but I only managed to fill my brain with that horrible image of 85-year-old Mrs. Probst on her front porch in a lovely house dress – and nothing else – sitting with her legs spread wide open for all the world – and teenage boys - to see.

                I think I need help.

                Upon arriving home I immediately stuffed the chicken pieces into a pot, filled it with water, and got it cooking as soon as possible.  I probably over-cooked it out of my irrational fear of poisoning Steve and myself, but it made for a nice, rubbery addition to a chicken-broccoli-rice casserole we ate on for a couple of meals.  And guess what?  I’m still here!  All my body parts still work – well, if you don’t count the knees – and we don’t, yet, feel any repercussions.

                So I did it!  I made that great leap from the grocery store and its scrawny, over-yellowed, shrink-wrapped, perfectly cut pieces of chicken (with no feet), to just about the freshest, juiciest, plumpest natural chicken you can find anywhere.  Next week: fried chicken, chicken panuchos, and even chicken salad!

                Who knows, I just might fit in around here after all.  

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The View From There - Chapter 22

One Perfect Summer

I’ve written about how the Italians know how to live.  We kept hoping some of that would rub off on us.  Their way of life seems much more civilized.  Italians take their vacations every year - usually August, when most of the country shuts down.  They eat long, leisurely dinners, they take passegiati every night, they talk, they dance, they sing, and they work hard.  It’s a life-balance that I envy and hope one day I can achieve.  And as it became apparent this summer would be our only one in Cingoli, we did try to adopt that way of life.
On Saturday mornings, almost without fail, Steve and I would walk or drive to Cingoli for a cappuccino and a pastry from one of the two bakeries in town.  As the snows melted and spring slowly crept in, our Saturday jaunts up the hill became ever more pleasant.  The largest and most popular bakery in Cingoli is Panificio Alberto e Massimiliano Piccinini, but we just called it the panificio.
To say that Italians know how to make pastries is like saying Van Cliburn could play the piano.  They are true virtuosos.  Cream filled horns, Pasticiotto, which is a miniature cream pie, Taralli, or crispy, round donut-shaped cookies, and God the Canolis!  We tried to make ourselves try some of their many different offerings, but once we had the cream-filled bombola, nothing else existed.  First, they know how to make a great bread: light and airy with just a bit of an exterior crunch, and very buttery.  Then they cram it full of the best vanilla cream filling I ever tasted.  It was rich, but I could never get my fill; I just wanted more and more.  I am not certain, but I believe the amount of cream inside the bombola far exceeded the volume of the bread.  Don’t know how they do it, but it seemed never-ending.  Great gobs of the cream squish out the sides of the light, airy bread, and your mouth, as you attempt to take just a small bite.  After one bombola, I was done for the morning.  Great food completely satisfies and satiates.  Those Saturdays became our little ritual and I thought all week about them.  I tried to be non-chalant with Steve about going to the bakery each Saturday.
Me: “So, you wanna’ go to the bakery this morning?”
Steve: “Oh, I don’t know.  What do you think?”
Me: “Well, I’ll go if you really want to.”
Steve: “Well, I don’t have to.”
Me: “Well, okay, maybe we should just skip...what, are you CRAZY?!  I’m starving for one of those pastries!  I gotta’ have one, I tell you!  Get up...GET UP!”
Steve just smirked at me while putting on his walking boots.
We would sit at one of the three tables inside the bakery, savoring the incredible flavors as the line of customers grew and grew.  Every bite was as surprisingly good as the very first bite I had had back in September.  Falling into a pattern of Saturday breakfast in the panificio was as easy as falling off a log. 
The passegiato I had a bit more trouble getting used to.  I mean, who walks in the U.S.?  If God wanted us to walk he wouldn’t have invented drive-thrus. 
But in Italy, in every town we visited, there was a passegiato walkway.  In Lucca it was on top of the city’s stone wall.  In Venice it runs along the Grand Canal.  All of Rome is one big passegiato.  And in Cingoli it stretches along the west side of town and snakes its way alongside the road leading to the many small towns east and south of Mount Cingulum.  The walk is lined with old oaks, with park benches set every 100 or so meters on the cobblestone walkway. 
We have walked the passegiato in the daytime and at night, and it is almost always in use by the locals.  By day women walk arm-in-arm, talking.  Mothers push baby strollers.  Runners pass by with a whizz. At night entire families stroll along the walk before heading to a local pizzeria for dinner.  We tried several times to add this little ritual to our daily routine, but we just couldn’t do it.  We figured that just walking up the hill to Cingoli was passegiato enough for us.  Besides, I get bored easily.  I had a better time walking down Via Coppo, through Torre, and beyond.  I made that walk four or five times each week.  But we did spend a good amount of time walking Cingoli’s passegiato.
I don’t know about all of Italy, but in our area around Cingoli there is a traveling market. 
Vendors have trailers that open up to display their wares, and they travel from town to town on a weekly set schedule.  Cingoli’s day was Saturday.  So after we had our pastry and cappuccino we would walk the closed streets that contained the market.  Here you could purchase almost everything imaginable, from clothing and shoes to the latest kitchen gadget “As Seen On TV”, to linens and towels, tools, and more.  I often wondered how the local shopkeepers felt about this weekly invasion into their market, but everyone seemed to do alright. 
A man and his wife sold fresh cut, cooked porchetta sandwiches.  They cut thick slices of meat off a freshly cooked pig and served it up on hearty buns with mayonnaise, if you so desired.  So after our tour of the market we had to stop for lunch and grab one of those incredible pork sandwiches.   
In Italy, dinner is another matter entirely.  I cannot tell you how many hours we spent at long, leisurely dinners in Cingoli.  When you eat at a restaurant in Italy you are supposed to make it an event.  There is no busboy waiting to pounce on your table to turn it around for a waiting customer.  You sit, and sit, and eat, and drink, and sit, and have dessert and after-dinner drinks, and sit, and talk, and then, just maybe then the waiter will bring your check. 
The best time we ever had was when we had dinner with the Cingoli chorus.  We ate at Il Ragno (The Spider), a very popular pizzeria restaurant in town.  It is down the street from the Porta Pia, the rear gate into/out of Cingoli.  Ilda, the chorus director, ordered all kinds of different pizzas, and the waiters brought them to our table as they were ready.  She also ordered stuffed, fried olives, called Ascolana.  They were like little balls of heaven: tender on the inside, crispy on the outside, with a delicate meat wrapped around a green olive, dipped in batter and fried golden.  We would return to Il Ragno many times and order only Ascolani and wine.
As we left March behind and entered April it was time to put out our vegetable garden.  This is something I had wanted to do for a long, long time, but never quite found the time or inspiration.  But sitting on that hill overlooking the Marche valley was all the inspiration I needed.  Every day I saw farmers preparing fields for their crops, usually sunflowers.  And everyone has at least a small garden next to their house.  So we got out pencil and paper and drew out our garden plan.  It was to be 30 by 10 feet, with rows of peas, green beans, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes of course, potatoes, carrots, onions, and herbs: oregano and rosemary.
We found a garden center about 8 kilometers down the road to Macerata and bought our seeds and bulbs, along with fertilizer and some equipment.  The next day we began removing the grass from the garden plot and Cathy lent us their tiller, which made plowing the plot a breeze. 

I had the best time working in that garden every day.  I wasn’t sure I would stick to it, but I found it incredibly rewarding to see the little seedlings grow to mature plants that, by June, began bearing fruit, er, vegetables.  The first to come up were the onions, and they were fantastic.  But that was nothing.  By June’s end we began harvesting potatoes and a few tomatoes, and added to the harvest each week.  We ate all summer out of that garden.  We had so many tomatoes that we began canning them.  Fresh peas are to die for, and a just-pulled carrot has a sweet flavor that gets lost sitting in a store.  The green beans all seemed to come in at once, so we ate a lot of beans for a couple of weeks.  I roasted vegetables in the oven many times, topped with our fresh oregano and rosemary, and we ate all kinds of potato dishes.  When we had to leave Cingoli I remember thinking how much I was going to miss that little plot of land that was our garden.
Also in the spring we saw the various fruit trees, bushes, and vines on our property begin to produce.  There were three cherry trees, each a different kind.  We were over-zealous when the first tree sprouted thousands of cherries; we picked them all and canned 50 jars of cherries and froze another 10 pounds worth.  Steve’s sister and brother-in-law visited in June and Kurt could not stop popping the cherries in his mouth.  He said they were “like candy”.  Indeed they were.

We also had three fig trees on our property which produced the sweetest, juiciest figs.  We made about 25 jars of fig jam and enjoyed it all summer on toast or crackers for breakfast, or anytime for a great snack.  There were grape vines, of course, but they had been buried under 20 years of neglect, so they did not produce much that summer.  But we harvested tons and tons of elderberries and made jam from them, too.  I had always thought elderberries were only in Kentucky.
We had persimmons, blackberries, and one tree produced a fruit that looked like a pale tomato.  We asked and asked what they could be but no one seemed to understand our description of them.  We got several answers about what they were and never could settle on a definitive one. 
On day in May – that dangerous month – we were walking down the hill from Cingoli.  We passed through a street that cut down a different way than we normally went and came across a landing at the bottom of some steps that was covered with chestnuts.  We wondered why no one had bothered to pick up all these little treats and roast them at home.  Knowing for certain that that would be the case very soon, we quickly walked home, grabbed some plastic bags, and drove the car back up to town.  We loaded up the bags with our secret treasures and quickly threw them in the back of the car, all the while looking around to be certain no one saw us.  After all, we were newbies in town; surely local residents had first dibs on these little gems.
Back at home we split the brown nuggets and roasted them in the oven.  About an hour later out came the first batch, steaming hot and looking quite alluring.  I took a few into the living room and Steve and I popped them open and dug out the meat and popped it in our mouths.
“Kind of bitter, don’t you think?”, Steve said.
They were more than bitter, they were terrible.
“Yeah, not what I expected.  Maybe we got bad ones.”
We each ate another, but the result was the same: a biting, very bitter taste so strong that you just wanted to spit them out.
“What’s wrong with these things?”
“Did you roast them correctly?”
“Can’t really go wrong with that…you just put them in the oven.”
Something was not right, and so I turned to our modern information source, the Internet.  I looked up chestnuts and looked at the photos to compare them with ours.  They were close, but there was a subtle difference.  And as I read about chestnuts I came across a little line that said something about not confusing chestnuts with buckeyes, which are non-edible to humans and, in fact, poisonous.
Alarmed, I grabbed the plate of buckeyes I had roasted and took them to the kitchen.  Should I tell Steve?  Or should I just wait and see what happens?  If he died I’d never have to admit my stupidity.
“Uh, have some news for you.  Pretty funny, really.”
Steve just looked at me with that look of “what did you do NOW?!”
Seems these are not chestnuts, but buckeyes.  They’re kind of poisonous.
We actually had not eaten enough of the buckeye meat to make us sick.  It was so awful tasting that we spit most of it out.  But what a couple of dolts! 
The next Saturday market day we bought some roasted chestnuts from a vendor. 
“Oh, so THAT’S what they are supposed to taste like.”
Spring also brought all kinds of outdoor events.  The festivals had continued all winter, but now there were other kinds of events to attend.  In March we drove to Fermo, about 20 kilometers from Cingoli, for “Tippicitta”, set in an industrial area outside Fermo.  There were vendors and marketers pushing travel, selling or giving away samples of their products, and generally promoting Les Marche. 
We picked up a lot of literature for our future B&B guests about things to do in the area and also purchased some sausage and a great pecorino cheese, along with some interesting jellies made from onions, peppers, and other odd base ingredients.
Also in March was the Energy Show in Villa Potenza, just outside Macerata.  It showcased the latest in energy-saving technology, such as solar and wind, as well as improved appliances and other home devices. 
In April was the annual Cingoli bike races, which saw participants arrive in Cingoli from all over Italy and Europe.  The main race must have had 500 bikers.

Easter in Italy is, as you might expect, huge.  The shops and bars are full of plastic and fabric easter eggs filled with candy and gifts.  One was so large that it covered one of the tables in Patty’s Place. 
Also in June was the aforementioned Mongelfiere, or balloon festival.  The balloon staging area was the open field just on the other side of the road to Cingoli.  As the balloons filled with helium we were treated to the sight of all of them rising into the air at the same time.  They then slowly drifted over our house and down into the valley below.  About 2 hours later we watched as they each found an open field to land in, their chase vehicles finding a road to where they finally landed.

There were many more festivals, gatherings, and day-trips.  As summer came to a close we faced the fact that the Italian government was not going to issue us work visas, which we would need to operate the B&B.  We spent a lot of time at the immigration office trying to find the person that would say “yes”, but to no avail.  In September we made our sad plans to return to the U.S.  But first we had to sell our dream – if we could.