San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart – Expatriates Find Themselves Living in Mexico
By John Scherber
Outskirts Press, Inc., 2010
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback
I like to read about the daily lives of ordinary people, why they live where they do, what they do with their days, how place — sometimes new place — affects them, and how they think about their lives. This established tradition in literature is represented by books like Thoreau’s Walden (1854), Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa (1937), Louis Bromfield’s Pleasant Valley (1945) and Malabar Farm (1948), and more recently Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence (1989) and Francis Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun (1996). Closer to home — since I live in Mexico — we have Dane Chandos’ books about Ajijic, Village in the Sun (1945) and House in the Sun (1949), and more recently Karen Blue’s Midlife Mavericks: Women Reinventing Themselves in Mexico (2000) and Tony Cohan’s On Mexican Time: A New Life in Mexico (2000), which, incidentally and delightfully, is about making a new life in San Miguel de Allende and refurbishing a 250-year-old house.
John Scherber’s thoughtful and satisfying book, San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart (2010), is a collection of stories about North Americans “who live here full time, as I do.” San Miguel de Allende is their home. The idea of the book originated when Scherber, after living in San Miguel for only eight months, began asking himself questions like: “What had I given up to come here, and what had I gained? What was my new role in the community? Was I an exile? An expatriate in Mexico? Would I ever live in the States again? How did I react to Americans I saw here visiting? What had I done?”
Because the answers to many of these questions eluded Scherber, he began to ask others, and so he put together a book that is “personal and anecdotal,” that illustrates “for a number of different people what it really means to make a change like this, the feelings and emotions it evokes, the economic and social realities that come with it, the challenges to old identities or the blossoming of new ones that are inevitable in a different culture.” Although the stories are specific to San Miguel de Allende, much of the material applies to Mexico generally and the person contemplating a move to, say, Ajijic, will also find much of interest here.
This book is about dreams meeting reality, about reawakening to that ever-present reality, which, after all, must ultimately be our “home,” and this requires a lot of patience, tolerance, confidence, resilience, and acceptance until this new reality, this new place, becomes, as his subtitle suggests, “a place in the heart.”
In these twenty stories we meet people who have only recently arrived, like Kip Palmer and Marjann Shawler, “newcomers, absolute beginners,” their belongings in transit by ship from Hawaii and here only 18 days when Scherber did the first of his two-part conversation with them to follow them from chaos to something that five months later began to resemble order. Marjann tells us that she would have bought more quality sheets and towels in the States had they known “how hard it is to get that stuff here.”
We also meet old timers, people like Betty Kempe, now in her mid-eighties, who has lived in San Miguel for over fifty years. When Betty arrived, there were “fewer than a hundred non-Mexicans here” and “more burros than cars.” Betty speaks her mind. She is disgusted with the venerable Instituto Allende, so important to San Miguel in the past, and feels that “both the quality of instruction and the range of courses offered have stumbled badly over the years.”
Gil and Mary Rapp moved to San Miguel de Allende in 1990, “when the general population of expatriates was a little more intellectual than they are now.” Like Betty, Mary laments what has happened to the Instituto: “It’s been ruined… it’s been destroyed.” She also feels that “a large number of people are coming for second homes and are not as committed to full time living here. The homes they’re building are appalling to me, they’re so huge.”
Michael Grais was a successful Hollywood producer and screen writer, author of Poltergeist, his first big success, which was followed by nine more successful films. His wife Jennifer was a former back-up singer for Jackson Browne. Michael and Jennifer increasingly realized that Hollywood was “a beautiful cage” and so they began looking for a community that would “restore their lives.” Michael acknowledged he was “brainwashed by the American Dream.” He worked for years on the Emmy Award winning show Baretta, whose star Robert Blake later “stood trial himself on a murder charge.” Michael grimly adds, “About the only psychopath in Hollywood I haven’t worked for is O.J. Simpson.” In San Miguel, Michael has discovered “work ethic is the inverse of what it was in Los Angeles…. If you work too hard here, people wonder why? Coming to San Miguel was probably the first time in years that I didn’t carry a cell phone.”
In 2002, Marcia Loy visited three Mexican cities, “and I liked one, loved one, and I hated one. I went to Morelia, San Miguel, and Guanajuato. San Miguel was the one I hated.” San Miguel seemed “a little shabby, a little run down, most things in need of painting.” She arrived in Guanajuato, the one she loved, but lodging was difficult to come by because it was the time of the very popular Cervantino Festival and so she decided to settle temporarily in San Miguel, for six months. She’s been there now for more than three years, has made many friends and found lots of things to do, and she has no intention of leaving. “She writes the book column in Atencíon, the local bilingual paper, and volunteers at the library. She is serious about writing herself and has two book projects in the works.” Like most of the expatriates in this book, Marcia reflects on how she has changed by living here: “she immediately thinks of the ability to reinvent herself, to become someone she had always wanted to be, or didn’t know she wanted to be, because she never had the time to think about it.”
In 1960, Carl Selph, thirty years old at the time and teaching at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, took a bus to Mexico and to San Miguel, partly because he had seen a full page photo of San Miguel in Holiday Magazine. He stayed five months on that first trip, but it was not until 1990 that he decided to return to live in San Miguel permanently. Needing to make a living, he began building houses and now, with a partner, has completed 20 houses. After his permanent move to San Miguel, stimulated perhaps by his new life, his old interest in writing was resurfaced and Carl began to write and publish short stories and poems. He even became one of the editors of the San Miguel Review. Now seventy-seven years old, Carl worries that San Miguel de Allende “is in danger of becoming a Disney version of a Mexican town.” But at least for the time being, Carl believes it is still “a hick town in the country with an overlay of mostly gringo culture.” He declares, “I love the look of the place, the weather, the way that I can live here that I could not afford to in the States.” And sometimes he reflects, “I think there’s no place on earth I’d rather be than right here. I have that experience a lot of times.”
And so there you have it, a little sampler of what you will find between the covers of Scherber’s book, San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart. What do people of such variety have in common, Scherber asks in the “Conclusions”? Simply this: “they came here. Not much more.” Scherber could go on and on telling stories about the expatriates in San Miguel because “There as many stories here as there are people.” And he warns that for some, “it didn’t work, or mostly worked but not in some key ways. The place has its drawbacks, and it’s not for everyone.”
Scherber’s task in writing this book was simple: “to provide my reader, a person I imagined was planning to move to Mexico, or at least fantasizing about it, with a means of getting inside the heads of people who had done it.” He wanted to examine “the contrast between expectations and reality, and the personal changes that came about because of it.”
Just who is John Scherber? A Minnesota native, he made a permanent move to Mexico in 2007. He has authored the Paul Zacher mysteries (The Murder in Mexico series), all set in San Miguel de Allende. He has published the first two volumes of the Townshend Vampire Trilogy, as well as this thoughtful collection of stories about expatriates who have made the move to San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart.