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Archive for the ‘San Miguel de Allende’ Category

You don’t know John. Neither did we, really. We were the fortunate couple that bought the San Miguel Mexico home of John and Elaine McLeod 6 years ago. Ours was the last home they built here. And naturally, we think it’s the best: the culmination of 24 years of designing and building homes in our lovely colonial mountain town. They had been drawn to San Miguel from Sarasota Florida, where they had lived, we presume, as a happily married “second time” around couple. She is an artist and a beautiful woman, who had adorned her home with a “painterly” eye. One of the first gifts that I bought for my husband Ben was one of her large oil paintings that was hanging beside the downstairs fireplace when we were shown the house.  I thought it belonged right where it was, and made a secret deal with John to keep it from being loaded on the truck headed to Taos New Mexico.  When guests admire our home, I acknowledge Elaine for the paint colours & furniture we inherited: to John goes the credit for the gracious, well proportioned design.

We spoke briefly and cordially with them for the first couple of years. While we were waiting for the house to close, John generously oversaw the construction of our lap pool with an admirable attention to detail. He came in on time and on budget,  treating us like real clients, sending us photos of the work in progress every Friday morning.  I think that he just liked to build things. And he likely knew that this might be his last project.
Have you ever wondered what the sellers do with “your” money on closing: we were happy to learn that the McLeods had returned to the boating world, investing in an ocean going luxury power cruiser that roared down the Atlantic coast. He had been a sailor, like Ben, but the demands of that sport began to weigh. I imagine him standing tall behind the console, hand on the controls, eye on the horizon, sporting his trademark ear to ear grin as he pushed the throttle forward.
On our first day back this July, we learned that John McLeod had died. A heart attack but the cancer had returned. It put a pall on our evening and dampened our usual pleasure in our return to our special Mexican home. We recovered some the next day, and I am sure that tomorrow will be brighter still. We will remember him through the elegant proportions of the outdoor sala, the exquisite detail around the ceilings and the grand cantera fireplace in our living room. A fitting and much loved memorial for a kind and talented man.

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Last week, Ben and I traveled to Mexico City for  a 6 day vacation from San Miguel.  As one long time resident said to me the first year we wintered here:  “San Miguel is like an island:  every so often,  you have to get off!

We have both visited Mexico City a few times in our past, for business and pleasure, but never before as a couple.  Only 3 hours away by car, Mexico City, (or D.F. as it is called by residents),  has a population equivalent to our country of  Canada. It is as dynamic as New York, as cosmopolitan as Paris and as historic as London.  And in large pockets, such as Polanco, Condessa and Roma,  as liveable as any of those fine cities.

But how does one get around in such an incredibly large metropolis, where there are acknowledged threats to your body and your purse? We don’t want to exaggerate the risk,  but we are not naive either:  those security patrols and body guards are everywhere for a reason.  The Metro is cheap and navigable, but we wanted to buy things at the mercado, at the wine store, and at the art fair to bring home to SMA.

We had tried to find a service but nothing met our criteria:  a bilingual driver, available quickly, who would take us from our condo to destinations, day and night, in reasonable comfort and safety. Nothing big or ostentatious.

Our answer was Uber. A friend is an Uber driver in Toronto, and she explained to us how it worked.  I know lots of folks who use it,  but I was worried about managing with my feeble Spanish.   But bilingual navigation skills were not necessary:   it’s all done on the Uber app on your smart phone. A wifi connection is necessary, but that’s the only barrier.

The real revelation was just how polite, no, how accommodating, all of the drivers were.

We entered the car and bottles of water were immediately offered.   I sneezed, and a box of tissues was appeared. The driver was attentive to the road, not to his cell phone or a dispatcher.  Heat or cold was adjusted with just a word or gesture.  It was just like having a private driver, at prices much lower than taxis and with nicer cars.

And then there was the “Rate your Driver” survey that appeared on my cell phone after the ride.  You rate them, and as we knew from our Uber driving friend, they rate you.

It brought to mind an ancient economics lecture on how incentives can work to impact behaviour.   If you provide immediate feedback on the right behaviour with consequences for the wrong behaviour (as in, no one will answer your ping), you are more likely to get the behaviour you want. (Works with dogs too!)

Where else did we experience that immediate and effective feedback loop?  With Air BnB.  Immediately after our stay, we received a survey to rate our hosts, the location and the property itself.  That is expected on say, a Trip Advisor or VRBO rental.

 But our hosts also answered a survey on the quality of Ben and me as guests. And,  I say modestly, we were rated as “perfect”.

What would have been the consequences of discarded stained towels on the bathroom floor, leaving the fridge door open all night, or littering the counter with take out cartons?

The answer is clear:  if you cannot behave like civilized people, respecting other people’s property and basically treating it like you would want yours to be treated, you won’t get the opportunity to rent this place again, or likely any other on Air BnB.   

Ben often says that if you are not happy with something,  you simply vote with your wallet and don’t buy it again.  But in this age of instant gratification, we can go beyond simply walking away. We have the opportunity to express our dissatisfaction  almost as it happens.

But what if all of the providers did it too?  In an earlier time, all kinds of businesses would gently or not so gently discourage certain demanding, ungracious or boorish customers.  So imagine a time where we are all openly rated as customers say by our stylists, our mechanics, or by our care givers.  Imagine how civilizing that would be. (Or you could argue that it might inhibit honest feedback:  you can read “ The Circle” by David Eggers, to see how that would ultimately play out.) 

On a less serious note (thank goodness) here are some of the photos of our fabulous condo in Polanco, owned by the equally fabulous and very nice Canadian couple, Sergio and Renny:

 

We also wandered through the upmarket retail stores that an affluent neighbourhood like Polanco offers.

 

And of course, we ate!  Our most memorable meal was at a little tapas bar, where I was immediately transported back to Barcelona with one whiff of the gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlicky chilli oil). Not a coincidence that the attractive female owner was from that city! And this was the most reasonably priced meal we had during our 6 day stay.

We also ventured to a few cultural icons:  The Cathedral in the Zocola, Belles Artes, The Grand Hotel, and the Museo Soumaya (named for Carlos Slim’s late wife).  This Museo, which is free to all, has been criticized by some for being the questionable product of too little taste and too much money. Most of the paintings still have the Sotheby’s sticker with the estimated hammer price on the back, so yes, that critique may be valid. But as I read later, many private collections are simply amassed over time,(“Ohh look Carlos, another Rodin,  I simply must have it!”) and so have that quality of being  unfocused, not “curated” as the critics would say, no doubt with a dismissing sniff.

And as you can see from the photos below, I have an affection for  Salvador Dali’s  bronzes, even if some of those same critics judge them to be whimsical trifles created at the turn of the century for those of bourgeois taste. Piffle, I say.

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Finally, we have returned to our other, and possibly favourite home, in San Miguel de Allende. We were preparing ourselves, mentally (lots of wine in the garage) and physically (lots of de-icer also in the garage) for a winter in Ontario, but fortunately, the good doctor gave us dispensation to travel outside the country, as long as my husband Ben returned  every 21 day for his immune therapy treatments.  Hell yes!

So on our first Saturday afternoon in SMA,  after a late riotous Friday night with many of our friends at The Fat Mermaid, one of our favourite haunts :   the paintings speak for themselves …..

 

So on that Saturday afternoon, we were finally vertical and strolling, shopping bags in hand, heading to the weekly Organic Market, where asking for a plastic bag marks you out as a probable climate change denier.  As three young Mexican men walked past us, drinks from the night before in hand,  their leader said in well articulated and droll English:  “Good Morning, Old People”.  We laughed at the time, still smile when I think of it, and all of our friends that we have told this story to have had a good belly laugh as well. (It’s only a few weeks after Christmas, so there is lots of belly to go around.)

I think we laughed mostly because yes, we are significantly older than those lads, but also humour is best when it cuts closest to the truth.  And yet,  we don’t feel at all old.  Why would we, in this paradise for expats from the United States, Canada and Europe?  I have heard folks describe San Miguel is a Disneyland for adults and some don’t mean that as a compliment.

But in the past week since that Saturday, we have enjoyed 1 original play, an intimate live musical performance at a Canadian crooners home, (we were told that Brian Adams is staying a few doors down, but no sightings as yet),  had a lively book club meeting, graced 2 local bars for nightcaps, dined out 3 times with friends at good restaurants at a fraction of the cost of Toronto, enjoyed a fabulous Golden Globes party, went to colourful flea market (where I scored training shirts for just under $25 for 2), and worked out hard at a well equipped new gym 5 times.  That’s just in 7 days! This week, we will hold a pool party, attend a tapas evening, go to a lecture on Wild Flowers of San Miguel de Allende, dance to a live salsa band,  and oh yes, go to the gym faithfully Monday to Friday.

If you were of a different frame of mind, (less eating and drinking specifically)  you could attend any number of yoga classes, (to help access your major Archetypes don’t ya know), take life coaching & spiritual counselling, attend empowerment seminars to help yourself and/or the planet, and conspire with folks who believe that all of the wrongs of the world can be righted by simply ridding the world of capitalism and capitalists.    Mmmh I wonder what deserted island they would banish Ben and I to?

There are over 100 NGO’s here as well, and almost 100% of them are headed by retired Americans of good will, devoted to worthy causes that range from rescuing strays to feeding the hungry  to building homes in the campo for the poor.  That’s an awful lot of energy dedicated to the good people of San Miguel and they are appreciative of it. (Although they don’t really understand it:  if you don’t have to work, why can’t you just relax?)

Ben says that if you retire to SMA, you must have a business card that says either writer or artist.  Or you can challenge your competitive energy into games like bridge or golf or poker.  There is another group that monopolizes the bar stools at their nearest local and rarely sees the sun, tottering out only after happy hour is over.

Certainly there are issues here:  from petty crime and vandalism to  drug related drive by shootings, to the larger social, economic and environmental issues that are present throughout Mexico.  But for the most part, it is a safe, secure, and extremely beautiful place to be.   And did I mention warm?

My point is that here,  you can be what ever you choose, redefine yourself if you want to, and find happiness with friends that will accept you for what you bring to the table now, at this age, despite or in acceptance of your orientation, finances, politics or world view.

Walt had it right: ”Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age and dreams are forever.”

Post-Script:  I have taken on a writing venture, which most of you will already know about, but in the off chance you have not been engaged, I am requesting the participation of women, (40-75) in The Friendship Project.  My intent is to gather input over the next 4 months via a survey, sent by email, and then put the results into some kind of meaningful context and  self publish or take it into social media.Or a combination of all of those.

The purpose is to find stories and anecdotes from women that can help other women deal with the challenges that face us making friends as we move through this stage of our lives.  It sounds sort of sincere and serious, and some of it will be. But I also want us to have some fun with it too. If you want to play, please email me lonsdale.19@hotmail.com.  

 

 

 

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Everyone has special places that they feel incredibly comfortable in:  for Ben & I, it’s Nota Bene Italian restaurant in downtown Toronto.  It’s the dining equivalent of slipping into a fine Italian cashmere sweater:  always elegant, light but warm and makes you look better than you really do. (All of that flattering lighting of course.) And the food is a wonderful exploration of refined Italian flavours that never  make you feel full, just satiated, and sighing with satisfaction.  (And yes, upon reflection, that last line sounds a lot like our other favourite activity that involves satiation.  Ah well, food is love.)

In San Miguel de Allende, where we spend the winters, our special place is The Restaurant, where the chef is Donnie Masterton.  Although there are other fine restaurants in our adopted city, we observe every special occasion at The Restaurant.  None of our out-of-town guests leave without enjoying at least one meal in their gorgeous courtyard, under the Moorish arches, the stone fountain filled with rose petals.   I could wax rhapsodic about the tender tandoori thicken tacos, the delectably sticky Asian glazed pork riblets, or  seared tuna tostadas,  and of course, the burnt carmel ice cream with marshmallow sauce and with its salty counterpoint, Spanish peanuts.  It is one of the first places we go to when we return to San Miguel in the fall. And it helps that it is the “cafeteria” for one of our favourite people in San Miguel, Joanie Barcal of Allende Realtors.  I can taste those riblets now.  Yummy. (A highly technical culinary term.)

So we were delighted during one of our last visits to The Restaurant when Donnie told us that he was coming to Toronto to do a special one evening guest appearance at the incredibly hip, The Drake.

 It is the  “The iconically hip Toronto brand”  TORONTO LIFE,…”among the hottest venues in the city for all things cultural”, WHERE“The Drake Hotel is a nexus of culture in Queen West… Drake keeps the bohemian vibe alive in the gallery district.”  NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER,”Anchoring Toronto’s trend-setting West Queen West district, the multi-talented Drake Hotel sails way ahead of the city’s other boutique properties”. FODOR’S 100 HOTEL AWARD and finally “The lightning rod for global hipsters” NATIONAL POST

We are, by our own admission,  not hip at all.  But Ben has a son and a daughter in law who can make the grade:  plenty of tattoos, possible  piercings (best not to ask on what part of the body) and they are the hardworking proprietors of a downtown bar/restaurant themselves.   We brought them along to help us give us the necessary “cred”, and of course, to give them a break from caring for their patrons at the Football Factory and their 2 young boys.

I called for reservations about 10 days before, eager to show support our favourite chef and get our preferred time (early to bed grandsons, so early reservation).  Whoops…..  no room at 6pm.  No tables at 9:30 either. I was a little shocked for the moment actually, but should not have been surprised.  Toronto is currently undergoing a wave of Mexican food fascination, with hot spot tacquerias springing up downtown almost overnight.  Combine the latest food trend and the trendiest place in town, well, you can expect to sell out!

I was stymied, but Ben said, “Why not ask Joanie if she has Donnie’s personal email?”  So we emailed our good friend and she emailed another friend in San Miguel real estate, who emailed her contact, who emailed the entrepreneur and visionary founder of The Drake,  Jeff Stober,  who responded with the magic words, “I am out-of-town right now, but when I get back, I will contact the GM of the restaurant, and we will work something out”.  And he made it so. I cannot tell you if I was more impressed with his response time (same day) or his staff’s responsiveness (same hour).

Incredibly relieved (we had after all, already promised the kids a special night out with our special chef from San Miguel) we got tarted up (me in my sparkly Manolos and Ben with a purple silk poof in his black cashmere blazer:  we cannot do hip, but we can do swanky ) and headed to Toronto.  When we pulled up to The Drake, we realized, horrors, that we were at the wrong address! Drake One Fifty is at 150 Adelaide, not Queen West! We were mildly embarrassed at having been proven “uncool”, but were some what vindicated that even Pat and Chrissy, who live just off Queen West, had not realized that there was another location.

So, what does one say about Drake One Fifty?

The downtown extension of the Drake Hotel is an updated Parisian brasserie, with leather banquettes an elaborate trellis, and an oval bar that seems to be a hunting ground for cougars. TORONTO LIFE

It certainly reminded me of  days working in the financial district, when the after work crowd of  expense account financiers,  sitting at the bar at Canoe or Far Neinte downstairs, would swing around as one to quickly assess the incoming guests and then swing back with an almost audible sniff of dismissal. (How very uncool.)

Needless to say, our little band barely rated a second glance.   But who cares:  we got a big warm welcoming hug from the star of the evening, Donnie Masterton.  He came out to meet Pat and Chrissy, and later, we met our hero of the evening, Jeff Stober.  Donnie’s girlfriend Angela was there, looking stunning as usual.  Donnie mentioned eating at some of Toronto’s most interesting eateries:  Beast, The County General, Susur Lee’s latest, Bent.     I think that he was very impressed with the culinary scene in our city, and as much as I would have liked to ask him what were his favourite’s places,  what he thought of our food purveyors and product availability, and lastly,  what influences he was coming away with, I am hoping that we will see the results of this whirl wind tour of   Toronto on the menu in San Miguel.  He looked like a man inspired and was just taking it all in, absorbing and processing.

The food on Monday night was  wonderful:  I marvelled at how he coaxed that much flavour and tenderness out of the beef short ribs, and the Thai “pork carnitas” salad was just as good as in San Miguel.

 

And he is going to come back!   A special event, timing TBD,  is being planned for Jeff’s newest venue: The Drake Devonshire in Wellington Ontario.

An urban oasis in the country… will draw from the county’s richest traditions when it opens and provide a cultural hotspot just as accessible to the locals as to vacationers looking for a good time.” – GLOBE & MAIL

We don’t know when Donnie is returning, but trust me, when we do, we will reserve at least a month in advance!

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