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The Irrevocable Condition

March 23, 2020

Some people live in the same town, even the same house, for decades. The idea of home, for them, is presumably a clear-cut one.

I never managed that. A divorce, and the desire to live closer to work and friends, meant I left the suburbs that I’d never much liked, and came closer to the centre of Toronto, the city where I lived most of my life. As a single adult, I stayed in one apartment there for 14 years, and that was my longest spell under one roof.

But Mexico was a thing for me from the age of perhaps four. I liked a BBC TV cartoon featuring a soulless Mexican villain and the occasional, intriguing saguaro cactus. (It’d never make it to the screen today, but this was over sixty years ago). Something important seemed for me to be in that rudimentary landscape.

Carnegiea_gigantea_in_Saguaro_National_Park_near_Tucson,_Arizona_during_November_(58).jpg

Saguaro cacti, which captivated me as a pre-schooler.

As a young adult, I lived with people who’d spent time on the Yucatan coast, and my fascination for the country deepened. It was hardly an obsession, but Mexico was there in the background over the years. My friend Lucero, whom I met in Toronto in the 1990s, and who owns the house I live in now, got me to visit fifteen years ago, and when my job evaporated after the 2008 economic meltdown, I moved here. I did go back, to earn some more cash and pay off the small house I’d built (currently rented), but at the end of 2018, I reversed that move. A vacation visit in 2017 showed me I’d been remembered here, and I felt there was a welcome waiting.

Is this home? I often feel it isn’t. I struggle with Spanish verbs and local expressions, and sometimes simply with people’s accents. I miss foods I’m used to, or the presence of browsable bookstores. Yet I don’t feel homesick, and I can’t identify another actual home for myself. This village, Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl is imperfect, but I can live here.

Perhaps, I could have gone back to England, where I was born, found a little cottage and grown roses. But I’ve been gone so long, the country feels foreign to me. I’ve missed a half-dozen prime ministers, Thatcherisation, the Tony Blair years, austerity and Brexit. I can’t read the place.

With the current threat of an epidemic, and the option to run back to Toronto where I have some badly missed family and friends, I chose to stay here in my Mexican village, and I’m trying to grasp exactly why. On the rational side, I do think I’m a little safer here; or, maybe, there’s less worry in the air, and if the worst happens in the coming weeks, it’s a nicer, easier place to go through a bad time. I can’t explain that to people who don’t live here, who often think all of Mexico is an unsafe place. But other expats share the sentiment. I’d trust strangers to help me if I was desperate, in a way I wouldn’t and couldn’t in Canada.

The epidemic also seems to have opened some doors. In the absence of robust social and medical services, people are more conscious of their neighbours, and I’m having more spontaneous encounters with people in the community.

Still, I’m an outsider, and always will be. In reality, I scarcely touch the essence of this community, and I’m always careful not to cause offence.

It’s likely my outsider status fits in with my long-term sense that I have no home. As an immigrant, I felt only partly Canadian (whatever that might mean), though a huge percentage of Canadians are also first-generation immigrants, and I still own being Canadian as my nationality. Here, I’m not even partly Mexican, yet somehow the place has gotten into me.

While I won’t disconnect from Toronto, and I stay in touch with family in the UK, somehow ‘home’ and Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl are fused for me. This crisis has made me realise I’ve made a commitment.

James Baldwin has the famous line in Giovanni’s Room, “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” I’m not entirely sure I understand it, and it’s about a feeling for a person, not a place. But he seems to be saying that ‘home’ is a state of being, of safety, and embrace.

I’m here. That’s not to say I always love it, or even like it. But it’s where I was drawn to live. And I know it’s a shocking thought to some people, but with the wave of disease coming, and thoughts hitting the de profundis level, I would not be upset to know that here life might end.

 

 

 

Featured

The Worry Game

March 23, 2020

Pepe has sold flowers from his corner close to the San Miguel church as long as I’ve lived here. I had visitors coming for part of last weekend, and one was an older woman who likes roses, so I went to buy some to put in the house.

My guess is, he was offering unsold flowers from the day before, since he was pulling off dead outer petals when I found him. The government had finally asked people not to do unnecessary things, so no-one was going to visit grandma and show up with a bunch of flowers. He was almost surprised to have a customer, but relieved as well. His profit on a dozen roses is perhaps half what a  waitress, for example, might make in a day. The town lives off visitors, and while we’re not in quarantine or a lockdown situation, people are starting to avoid a lot of things they’d normally do.

You’re probably wondering why I was allowing visitors at home, but this had been pre-agreed. One of the women, a close friend for many years, was having her birthday, and there was a small fiesta planned for here in the village. She and I had had, to borrow a phrase from the field of diplomacy, “a full and frank exchange of the issues,” but a scaled-down event was finally decided on. For the eight of us there, it was probably our last social get-together for weeks to come.

As it turned out, two of the other guests were heading back to Mexico City that night, and offered my friends a ride, which they accepted. Thus, I was home alone by 8:30 when the doorbell rang.

Now, this is Mexico. You don’t usually answer the door after dark, unless you recognise who’s knocking or ringing. I leaned out the window, and found it was some young people working for the national census, which is being held this month.

I went and answered their questions, and remarked to the senior of them that it was perhaps a little odd to be going door to door, talking to huge numbers of people, during a nascent epidemic. He shrugged and nodded slightly.

“We need these jobs, señor,” he said.

And that’s the problem here. Pepe probably has a tiny pension that would scarcely feed him, so in his seventies, he still sells flowers on a street corner. This town has maybe forty hotels and posadas, and a greater number of restaurants. Between them, they employ hundreds of people, maybe even a figure in the low thousands. They don’t have access to lines of credit, or cash advances on their credit cards. Many don’t even have credit cards.

This morning Lindsey, our local organic baker, moaned to me that he wanted to close, because all day he handles money and breathes other people’s breath. But he has someone who helps him, and minds the store while he’s making deliveries, and to lay him off would mean the man has no income. He doesn’t know how to tell his employee “Sorry, but you’ll have to starve for a few weeks, since this business is too small for me to continue paying you.”

And even the gangs are having a tough time. A lot of fake goods, plus the ingredients for the fentanyl they produce, come from China, and they’re running out of supplies. Viruses are very democratic in this way.

I’m reasonably philosophical about what could happen in the next few weeks. I’ve laid in some supplies, including extra dogfood. I’m currently alone in the house, so I’m appropriately isolated. My next door neighbour and I are looking out for each other, and a bunch of us expats have made ourselves available to each other if one or more get infected, and there’s a need to deliver food or water. Also, as a Canadian on a pension, my own income is guaranteed at a time when the peso has lost 20 per cent of its value against the loonie.

I also have a close family member who got the virus, but not seriously, so I’m hoping we have immune system abilities in common. He’s recovering okay after a week at home, though he can’t go outside for a while, as he might still be infectious.

But Mexico will be very hard hit as the economy starts to sink. GM and Volkswagen have closed their plants for now, and schools are also shut. People are holding it together for now, but they have either few options or none if they’re forced to stay home and not work. So while I’m not very worried about the disease, I’m seriously concerned about how this society will handle the next months, as recession sets in.