Almost everyone meets Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings in a 101 appreciation class, but the first time the opposite colors on the color wheel really impacted me was while traveling in Switzerland in the early 60s. I had actually seen some of the originals, because I had lived a few years before within cycling distance from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and once had happened upon a ‘show’ in London.
But today – Walking through a sunlit dining room in a hotel overlooking Lago Maggiore, a combination of color, light and juxtaposition stopped me in my tracks.
The rustic stuccoed room was painted white, that shocking blue-tinged white that almost hurts your eyes, and there on a ledge was a blue and white hand-painted vase full of sunflowers. It took my breath away, and I hated for the moment to pass — but, in reality, it has not passed, for I remember it often and I fill my life with elements of that same scene.
These photos are from the breakfast service at Hotel Casa Mexilio, Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.
Living in the same room where I lived as an adolescent and high school boy, the same view, the same grass to mow, should have thrilled me and pushed me toward integrating into this community again. Truth is: I grew up and found a more accepting and diverse world, away from this bigoted and racist backwater.
The view is the same, and even though the laws have changed, the hearts and minds of the people have stayed the same, especially people of my age, the ones who grew up, lived, and were the products of the segregated society.
I never knew a black person on a personal or intimate level until many years after my escape. I was the product of the segregated school system, the Methodist Church, and a Southern Gothic social network, but with me, the racism of my village “didn’t take”. Who knows why? Perhaps because I was lucky enough to have escaped this view the summer I was nineteen and never returned until I was fifty.
It is here that the “city fathers” bulldozed down the sites of some of my fondest memories – the Adel swimming pool, where we spent the summers splashing and doing the shag to a jukebox selection in the adjoining social hall. After the Civil Right’s Act became law, the big machinery saw to it that the town’s Black citizens never enjoyed the municipal swimming pool.
The same went for the only Picture Show. They tore that down, too.
After this year’s Christmas and New Year’s tourist season at Casa Mexilio, we took a different direction, deciding to close the hotel to guests for a few months, and to use this approaching Spring to do, to see, and to accomplish some items on ‘the bucket list’. During the month of February we have prepared: to see the daffodils bloom at the mountain cabin the first week in March, and to drive through Virginia’s southern Appalachian foothills, to join a march in Washington later that month, and to visit Monet’s Garden in Giverny, again, at the end of May.
The southern United States can be beautiful, but it is fouled by Republicans and religious bigots, and is mainly populated by racists and homophobes.
Macon County, NC, has a unique racial makeup for a place in the ‘deep south’. And I suspect that, apart from the physical beauty of the mountains, it is one of the reasons my parents migrated there. The other being, mother’s maiden name is Jones, so she bought a place on Jones Creek Road, beside Jones Creek. And the other side of her family were Scottish immigrants from the Isle of Skye who came to the valley in the early 1800s.
Located a half mile from my home and dating from the 1880s. Beautiful, any time of year, it now serves as a community center for the valley people. I once asked if I could buy a cemetery lot, only to be told that “We’re gettin’ sort of crowded.”
As I leave the city limits of Asheville, on my drive through conservative North Carolina and Virginia, passing through the counties which Romney won, I’ll fold my rainbow flag until I reach the steps of the Supreme Court Building.
This house in not in Merida. I wish it were. I’d buy it.
Gringos many times cannot grasp that that “animal” we refer to as the “real estate agent” is a self-appointed and self-anointed business person who functions and operates in Mexico, entirely without, and outside of government regulation.
You, too – tourist, can be a real estate person in Mexico if you are savvy, have a web site, an auto for squiring clients around, and a Mexican notary for a friend.
I know Merida realtors who don’t even speak Spanish !
The system in Mexico is different – but it works. Here are three true stories of real estate purchases that I have made — and I’ve been happy with all three of them. And, no, I have never been cheated.
My house: I parked on the street in front of the building, looked up at a hand-painted se vende sign and copied the number down. Later, I called the number and the owner’s aged cousin answered in Merida. The next morning he showed us the house. It had been raining torrentially and he proudly showed – “No leaks !” I called the owner in Mexico City. She spoke English perfectly. The house had been abandoned for more than 8 years with only the Merida cousin opening it from time to time. We agreed, over the phone. I paid the asking price – no negotiations – and she agreed to accept the payment in 3 equal payments. I carried the first payment (a check) to her notary a few blocks away and he gave me a receipt. A few weeks later she flew to Merida and received the second payment (again, a check) in her notary’s office. She signed the bill of sale. The third check was sent through the mail to her address in Mexico City. When it arrived, she called me and asked if it was in dollars. I said “Yes”, and she told me that she was going to fly to Miami or Texas, or somewhere and deposit it in her account. So, I had a house and it was totally paid for, with checks! But, I didn’t have a fideicomiso with the bank. But, I had a friend at the bank , and so he began. And because the property was in two parts (as many city-center colonial properties in Merida are – Part A the main house and Part B the garage) it took the minions in Mexico City 16 months to understand that it was really the garage attached to a house. In those years it was not allowed for a foreigner to own more than one property in a trust. Remember, this was pre-internet and email and pre-cel phone. Transferring money and communication took time. It eventually occurred – and that is were I have lived for the past 29 years.
The Ranch on the Caribbean: I missed the ferry to Holbox, twice, because it took the beer truck or the Coca Cola truck to the island instead of my car. Angered, I turned southeast and ended up on a beach road south of the bridge at Boca Paila. My VW lurched over a primitive traffic bump and died in front of a thatched-roof cabaña. To my right, immediately outside my car window, was a man sitting mending a plastic fishing net. He helped me push the car into the sand beside his house. And that began my friendship with Victor. And that is how I “bought” the seaside ranch (copra plantation) of Xamach. I paid cash for land that was ejidal land. I was ignorant of the Mexican agrarian reforms, product of the Mexican Revolution. But I self-educated myself. It took twelve years before my efforts paid off, first getting the titles of the ranch for the Mayan farmers who had occupied it since the 1930s, and then subdividing it into 5 parts, and then getting “my part”, but putting it into the name of a friend. Twenty years later, we sold it for almost a half million dollars, and with a part of the money bought a large and beautiful home in Merida.
My second home: She was my good friend for twenty-five years. We were both musicians and we sometimes performed together. She heard that I was looking for a house in the neighborhood and motioned to me with her hand from her front window. Saying: “Why don’t you buy this house ?” I knew I couldn’t afford it, but she waited and made it easy for me. I paid her asking price – paying cash (sometimes dollars and sometimes pesos) in fits and starts. But on the day that we signed the minuta de compra/venta, she took me to her lawyer’s office where her friend, the lawyer , had prepared a document, with a few clauses (giving the owner time to move, while waiting for her new and smaller house to be built, with funds from the monies which I was paying for the original house ). I paid the deposit money, approximately 10% directly into her hand — and she almost didn’t accept it, as it was more dollars than she had ever seen.! Her lawyer counted it out for her and she then went to Banamex and deposited her dollars into a new account. It worked. I enjoy the house and its garden today.
Today, they are omnipresent, hanging signs on buildings around town. But the truth is that: there is no such thing as a real estate license or the taking, or passing, of a real estate test. It’s a bit like being a shaman. You just are one, because you said you are. And because you walk, talk, and act like one.
And there is no such thing as an escrow account ! Don’t let them fool you.
It was the truth when I said to one of my professors; that I was still stuck on “Russian Romanticism”. That was in my freshman year at Oxford College.
I had attended two extraordinary performances that Fall — a solo recital by Artur Rubenstein, at which I sat on the stage within 10 feet of the master, and a solo recital by Maria Callas with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — and now was well on my way to an unusually high level of music appreciation. It was 1959.
The Russians, and I refer to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, didn’t last into the sophomore year. When I fell for J.S. Bach, I fell hard. The love affair continues to this day, but in those early years, he caused me to leave vacant niches in my musical education. I ignored most other composers. After all, I was an organist, an activity which paid my way through college by working as a church musician on Sundays. But the greatest God was Bach.
By the time I discovered César Franck, I had studied in Harlem, Holland, taught music to school kids in The Hague, lived in New York City represented by my own agent, and to have sat on the organ bench of at least fifty or sixty churches around the world, for pay. So, at the age of 45, Cesar Franck became my new master. Who knows why his lyrical chromaticism grabbed me at such an advanced age. The Trois Chorals still pull me strongly toward God. And it was before Franck’s tomb in the Montparnasse Cemetery, that I made the pact with myself which endures today.
. . . but while dealing with local hometown officials, elected and unelected, I find errors, mistakes, a society dependent on “the Good Lord” , rather than their own reason, science and human intellect.
My hometown in South Georgia has a communal Sarah Palenesque mindset, with some of my nearest neighbors actually home schooling their children and denying global warming, even though the azaleas were early, basically skipping Spring and throwing the land from Winter to Summer, and the bugs have eaten up our lawn and the trees are dying from the invading species, and the fire ants are marching north, and they don’t believe in evolution . . .
In the lower left side of the Google street map appears a small sub-division built by my father in the 1940s and named for our family. It has only three streets, named for his three children, but through the years some idiot secretary or ” good ole’ boy” has taken it upon himself to rename the three streets — all, incorrectly. The populace is mainly Republican. They don’t own passports and they don’t want them.
The local high school devotes most of its budget and enthusiasm to sports.
Who needs science or language arts, when we have Cornerstone Church ?
Monet planted them along the walkway at his house in Giverny. Here they are running riot in the main garden.
Monet’s relation with nasturtium begins in the year 1872, during the first ‘’Impressionists exhibition’’ in Nadar’s work-shop, situated ‘’boulevard… des Capucines’’ (Nasturtium’s boulevard) ! This orange corolla standing out against a light green foliage has then become one of the artist’s preferred flowers, who offered it a predominant situation in the central lane of the ‘’Clos Normand’’. In his book « Giverny along the seasons », Vivian Russell supposes he so wanted to cover the gravely surface which was flouting at him when he had lunch at the veranda.… For this author: « circular leaves of nasturtiumwere echoing, in advance, tonympheas’ ones. ». Some witnesses also related that the painter was making bamboo stakes in order to grow ‘’climbers Nasturtium’’ in the whole garden.
And here, the last of the September garden at Jones Creek. My mother has planted nasturtiums at every home and in every garden she has ever owned.
These crutches have been part of my Christmas decorations every December for the past two decades. These are not the original muletas. The first ones were also handmade and with a patina hard to recreate, and they obviously were made with care, love and the experience of an expert joiner.
But I had to leave them abandoned in the street.
The first pair I purchased were found in “An Olde Curiosity Shoppe” (A.K.A Muebles Usados) on 65th Street. For me, they provided the maximum icon or symbol for the holiday season. I left them standing in strategic corners of the hotel for guests to find. With the brief iconic message of Tiny Tim attached.
To date, almost twenty years later, not a single person has commented on the crutches.
The original pair which I left on the sidewalk, came with a curse. Because shortly after bringing them into the building, I started to complain about my legs. The leg pain increased as their usefulness diminished that Christmas Season.
A person, after observing my distress, commented that perhaps something evil had entered the house with the crutches. Another person, a mystic and weird relative of Jorge, who sometimes practiced voodoo, told me that the old crutches were affecting my legs and that I should get rid of them immediately.
They were taken to the nearest street corner and left against a post where they disappeared.
But — the next Christmas, on cue, I found another pair of child’s hand-made crutches in the very same curiosity shop — and I brought them home. They are not as well made or lovingly made as the first ones, but they represent for me, my childhood and the Dicken’s story, which was part of my elementary education.
Happy with the anticipation of being there within the week, and packing the hooded jacket and flannel nightwear, I move toward the first, cold test of my stamina, to the remote cabin which is to be my ‘retirement home’. The weather report shows rain and snow flurries even tonight. I hope reconnecting the pipes to the spring head will not be too difficult.
At last year’s Cartoogechaye Community Club meeting which Mom and I held at the Old Watt’s Cabin, a surprise guest appeared. The oldest daughter of ol’ Joe Watts was visiting from her home in Oregon, and when I asked her if she remembers being cold, here, as a child, she answered, “I don’t remember that part of it”. Well, the life of a child, one of seven, growing up in a wilderness, mountain valley, in a cabin with only three rooms and two fireplaces would have made an impression on me. She chose not to remember the hardships of that life.
And when she could, she married and escaped to Oregon, because “that’s where the jobs were”.
These chilies grow in front of a house on the street where I was born. It’s an ethnic neighborhood now – thrown away, unkempt and sad. With little pride in the old buildings or the street, this scene is only two blocks from the town center. It’s not the immigrants’ fault. This town is not proud of itself.
A southern racist farm town whose “city fathers” bulldozed down the City Swimming Pool and dance pavilion, and the town’s only movie theater, in the 60s, to keep the blacks out. I mentioned the Civil Rights Act recently in a gathering of blue bloods, just in passing – and heads turned and the room hushed. My home town is still shabby, unlovely, and filled with religion based bigotry.