GratiTuesday: A Gathering of Friends

Last Saturday, I attended a mini-reunion for my high school class. Since it wasn’t one of the big ones (those that end with a “0”), the event was low-key and casual. I almost didn’t go because the high school friends I maintain regular contact with (real contact, not occasional Facebook posts) were either out of town or had other plans for the evening. Since I’m not one of those who can walk into a crowd and instantly feel at ease, I questioned whether I’d enjoy myself. Our graduating class was large – around 600 – so (I told myself) the chances were pretty good that I wouldn’t remember many of the people.

After spending some time trying to talk myself out of going, I decided – with my husband’s encouragement – that I’d at least make an appearance. If after a short amount of time I wasn’t enjoying myself, I could leave. That’s one of the nice things about being an adult that I sometimes forget… I’m the boss of me.

When I entered the venue, my first reaction was that there were a bunch of old people there. Lots of grey hair and a few extra pounds padding quite a few mid-sections. Yikes! where were my classmates? Had I walked into the wrong event? After a moment’s hesitation, I convinced myself to take one lap around the room. If I didn’t see anyone I knew, I would keep on walking out the door and back to my car.

Fortunately, before I made a complete loop, I saw a familiar face… then another … then another. Those old people I saw at first? The years started to melt away and I began to see my high school friends. Sometimes I needed to glance several times at their name tags to be sure, but they were there.

Unlike past reunions, where there were a lot of “what do you do?” questions, followed by “how many kids do you have?” most of the conversations the other night centered around hobbies, travel, and day-to-day interests. Many of us had retired or were close and, for the most part, kids had grown and flown. The people I talked to were in relatively good health, they were active and engaged, and they were focused on enjoying life.

Not a great picture but the only one I have of the evening.

I heard the word grateful spoken many times that evening. Grateful for friendships that have lasted over many years, grateful for our families, grateful for our health, grateful for the experiences we’ve enjoyed since high school, and grateful that we decided to attend this gathering of our friends.

As is often done at reunions, a list of names of classmates no longer with us was read. Each time, the list grows longer, and, in this case, two names had been added very recently. It was a sobering reminder of how precious life is and how important it is to hold our friends and our loved ones close. After the names were read, the mood shifted just a bit. I think many of us found ourselves listening a little closer to our friends’ stories, hugging them a little harder, and, most of all, hoping that we will see everyone again at our next reunion.

GratiTuesday: I’d Do It Again

After thirteen years of “dating” (which included buying and remodeling a house together), my husband and I officially tied the knot in 2003. In a few days, we will celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary.

When we made our wedding plans, we both agreed that we didn’t want anything too formal. Neither of us are religious so a church wedding wasn’t even considered. We wanted our wedding to be a joyful gathering of friends… kind of a party during which two people happen to get married. When a neighbor offered his big, flat backyard, we knew that it would be the perfect venue.

When I look at our wedding photos, I am reminded of how much our wedding reflected our personalities… then and now. Our guests were encouraged to wear “casual, tropical attire” and our flowers, linens, and decorations were bright and colorful. Dancing began with a conga line recessional and continued into the evening to the tunes of the rocking blues band we hired.

Conga line recessional.

Many of our guests remarked that, if they were ever to get married again, this was how they would want their wedding to be. They shared that their weddings were as much (or more) about what their parents wanted as what they desired.

Me and my best friend.

Looking back on our wedding day, I am filled with gratitude. Most of all, I am grateful for the man I married. Our invitations read, “This day I will marry my friend… the one I laugh with, dream with, live for, and love.” That is just as true today as it was then. I am grateful for my memories of that glorious September day, filled with love, laughter, and dear friends. I am also grateful that, when I look back at that day, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d do it all again, just the same.

GratiTuesday: Post Labor Days

My husband and I went to a neighbor’s Labor Day party yesterday. There were about 25 people in attendance and, by my count, over half of us were no longer working at a regular, full-time job. Some of us are officially retired (as in no longer receiving a regular paycheck) and some are involved in a few part-time, money-making ventures out of want, not need (which still qualifies as “retired” in my book).

I remember when Labor Day felt like a final hurrah before summer bid adieu. Even though the weather might still say “summer,” school and work told us different. The Labor Day parties were always fun but bitter sweet. We enjoyed the company of our friends, but we also knew that it was probably the end of outdoor gatherings for a while.

Now that we are retired, Labor Day feels more like a beginning than an end. From now on, the roads will be a little less crowded, the beaches more accessible, and businesses less busy. Just like before, the weather will still say “summer” but there will be fewer people competing for space to enjoy it.

In addition to the joy of dwindling crowds where we live, we can also take advantage of fewer crowds when we travel. What are called “shoulder seasons” – typically spring and fall – are prime travel times for those of us who no longer live by someone else’s schedule. The weather is often still nice, but the crowds are lighter and the prices cheaper.

We still have a lot of summer left and the time to enjoy every moment.

Last night at the party, the conversations we had with our neighbors and fellow retirees were full of stories of how we spent our summer and how we were planning to embrace the months ahead. We talked excitedly about travel plans we’ve made and interests we wanted to pursue, about projects we planned to work on and events we hoped to attend. What there wasn’t was any talk about school schedules, work piling up, or the end of another summer… and I think we were all grateful for that.

GratiTuesday: Delightful Discoveries

When planning a trip, especially one where we will spend a decent amount of time in one location, I often do a search on Instagram. Although guidebooks and general internet sources are fine, Instagram can be a great tool to scout unique and interesting locations. That is how I discovered Casa de las Ranas and the Chapel of Jimmy Ray, and decided we had to go.

Located a few miles outside of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the house and gallery (which is really the entire property) is a fanciful, whimsical, and joyful celebration of color and creativity. The house, outbuildings, and grounds provide a canvas on which the fantastic mosaic and sculptural creations of owner/artist Anado McLauchlin are assembled and displayed.

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To call Anado’s and his husband Richard’s home merely colorful doesn’t do it justice. It really was more of an explosion of creativity, artistic talent, celebratory color, and love. From the moment Anado greeted us just inside his gate to when the tour ended inside their home (where we had the pleasure of meeting Richard, an art historian and professor) we were embraced by their kindness, welcoming spirit, and their joy of sharing this magical place.

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The property wasn’t easy to get to, but the trip was well worth the effort. Tours are by appointment only (anado@madebyanado.com) and not all cab drivers were aware of its existence. Once there, we arranged for the driver to come back after the tour (which lasted about two hours) since it would have been impossible to find another cab where they lived.

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During are stay in San Miguel we visited many of the locations that our Moon guidebook recommended and we very much enjoyed all that the beautiful colonial town has to offer. Sometimes, though, it was nice to get off the beaten path and be delighted by the unusual and unexpected. Casa de las Ranas and the Chapel of Jimmy Ray were a highlight of our trip and I am grateful to Anado and Richard for fully embracing their playful natures and for allowing us to explore their fantastical home.

Casa de las Ranas (House of the Frogs).
Richard welcoming us into his home.

GratiTuesday: Sharing the Joy

One of the many things my husband and I love about Mexico are the public celebrations. Religious celebrations, wedding celebrations, birthday celebrations, and who-the-heck-knows-why celebrations are often at least partially held where onlookers are welcome to share in the festivities.

Every weekend during our stay in San Miguel de Allende, a wedding (or three, or four) was held in the stunning Parroquia church. Once the wedding mass was over, the bridal party and guests would spill out into the courtyard and onto the street in front of the church. A fancy car or horse and carriage would often be waiting to take the newlyweds to their reception, but not before the invited guests – and anyone in the area at the time – were swept up in the joyful celebration.

The bride and groom waving goodbye before leaving for their reception.

On our way to dinner one evening, we stopped to watch an expat’s 70th birthday celebration. Along with her and her partner’s guests, lucky onlookers enjoyed the revelry, which included a mariachi band, dancing in the street, and the antics of the giant mojigangas (pronounced mo-he-gan-gas) that were decorated to look a bit like the couple.

Betty, celebrating her 70th birthday.
Dancing in the street with the giant mojigangas to the music of the mariachi band.

One event that is unique to San Miguel is Dia de Los Locos (day of the crazies), which is an annual celebration that takes place in June. Los Locos has deep religious roots but much of the festivities appear to be completely secular. Although the day begins with a mass at the San Antonio church (which was just a few blocks from our housesit), once the participants head out to the streets where the crowds are waiting, all vestiges of religion fall away.

As the flamboyant procession moves along the main avenue, onlookers are treated to wild (and often delightfully politically incorrect) costumes, loud music, dancing, and hard candy projectiles being tossed their way. Over 10,000 participants join in the parade costumed as cartoon characters, politicians, clowns (both friendly and scary), and fantasy figures, while an even larger crowd watches from the sidewalks that line the route.

Celebrations and festivals are an integral part of Mexican life. In San Miguel, barely a day goes by that does not commemorate a patron saint, a beloved chapel, or a revolutionary hero. And then, of course, are the personal celebrations like weddings, anniversaries, or birthdays. We were very grateful to not only be there when many of these celebrations occurred, but also grateful to be able to join in and share the joy.

GratiTuesday: Translation tools for lazy bones

Although my husband and I made attempts to improve our Spanish language skills on our recent trip to San Miguel de Allende, we fell pretty short of the mark. Fortunately and unfortunately, many of the Mexicans we met spoke at least some English. It was fortunate for obvious reasons, but unfortunate because, rather than practice our Spanish (and hopefully learn more), it was often easier to revert to English for expediency sake.

We came home a little disappointed in ourselves, and we wondered if our struggle to learn Spanish was worth it. First of all, we are old… and lazy… but also, with so many great translation tools available, is it really necessary? Beyond the basic words and phrases everyone should know when they visit a foreign country (please, thank you, how much is this, where is the bathroom, etc.), more complicated translations are now only as far away as your smartphone. A quick search on the googles will get you a list of the best translation apps available and Siri is always ready, willing, and able to come to the rescue in a pinch (she even has a pretty good accent).

Some things don’t require a literal translation to understand the message.
Another message that was pretty easy to translate without a tool (El Grito means “The Scream,” “The Shout,” or “The Cry”… any of which works).

Most apps support multiple languages, and many allow you to either speak the words or type the text you want to translate. Interested in having a conversation but neither party speaks the other’s language? When each person talks into the phone, their words are translated (more-or-less) perfectly. Having trouble reading a sign? Just type in the text and it will be translated at least well enough to get the general idea.

Of course, any translation tool is useless if you can’t read the words you want to translate… I got as far as “‘Life is like a cup of coffee’ It’s all in how…” I have no idea what those last two words are.

One of the easiest – and free – apps we used is Google Translate. In addition to translating multiple languages (multiple meaning over 100) by spoken word or by typing, we used our phones’ camera to “read” text. It isn’t perfect, but it helped us read menus, labels, and signs without having to type the unfamiliar words on the smartphone keypad.

Label on plate in Spanish.
Using Google Translate, my phone’s camera did a pretty good job translating the label.

I imagine that sometime in the future, we could have a chip installed in our brain which would instantly translate all the languages of the world. While that would certainly be convenient, I think much would be lost. Instead of hearing the beauty of different languages, all we would hear are the words in our own language instantly translated as the other person is speaking.

Even though I still believe it is best to at least try to speak the language of the country where you are traveling, I know that is not always possible. For those of us who struggle (and maybe are a little lazy), I am pleased that there are tools available. Although not perfect, if translation apps can help bridge the divides and help us better understand each other, I’m grateful for the assistance.

GratiTuesday: Walkable San Miguel de Allende

Tell someone that you are going to Mexico and often the first things they’ll picture are beautiful sandy beaches, warm ocean water, and sipping margaritas in a cantina. While I have nothing against any of these pursuits – and have happily done all three on past trips – that “Mexican experience” never felt very authentic to me.

Our five-week trip to the city of Oaxaca last year was the first time we visited an area of the country that wasn’t next to a large body of water… and we loved it. After that experience, we were anxious to explore other parts of Mexico’s interior, and San Miguel de Allende was high on our list of possibilities.

San Miguel de Allende is a small colonial town located in Mexico’s semi-arid central highlands. It is known for its charming atmosphere, historical architecture, vibrant culture, and artsy expatriate community. The region is also known as the cradle of the Mexican independence movement and San Miguel was the birthplace of many of its heroes, including the city’s namesake, Ignacio Allende.

According to local history, the self-taught draftsman who designed the facade based his design on a postcard depicting a French Gothic cathedral.

The most famous landmark in San Miguel is La Parroquia (which simply means parish church), a neo-gothic church whose pink sandstone facade, towering spires, and pointed arches preside over the lively town square.

One benefit of slow travel (staying in one place for an extended period) is being able to explore with a relaxed schedule. Many mornings, we just picked a direction and walked. We could hardly turn a corner without finding an interesting scene: a beautiful old church, an intriguingly narrow walkway, richly painted facades, or a street vendor selling everything from colorful trinkets and toys to straw hats and flowered hair pieces.

I bought a hat from him on the condition that I could take his picture.
Women in traditional dress sell their wares to tourists.
Templo de la Inmaculada Concepcion
A horse-drawn carriage transporting newlyweds to their reception.
Dos amigos enjoying a rest.
The Bellas Artes courtyard is the perfect spot to relax and cool off. 

It was hard not to be constantly looking around as we walked San Miguel’s streets, but it was also important to be aware of where we were stepping… the narrow sidewalks and cobblestone streets made turning an ankle or tripping a very real possibility.

It was important to watch where we were walking.

Much of what there is to do, see, eat, and experience in San Miguel can be accessed by foot. For anything outside of walking range, there are plenty of options such as the ubiquitous green taxis, Uber, and hired drivers. We enjoyed being car-free for the seven weeks we were there and, although I didn’t bring my Fitbit, I am confident that I easily met my daily goal of 10,000 steps… and then some.

We learned the importance of taking it slow and staying hydrated.
More stairs!
The evening’s golden hour paints a picture with light.
You can see the spires of the Parroquia peeking out from behind the dome.
An early morning balloon flight.
The Parroquia could be seen from all over the city.

My husband and I love to walk, and I am very grateful that we are fit enough to navigate the sometimes hilly terrain. San Miguel is a city best enjoyed by foot.