Fifty Ways to Leave Your Country
Photo by Alan Goodin
by Linda Martin
Several years ago Linda Martin started an interesting and amusing project about what ex-pats brought, missed, wished they could obtain, etc., etc. when they moved to Oaxaca. Questionaires were handed out. Below are some of her questions and the answers she got to them.
What did you bring to Oaxaca of sentimental value?
Liz Bell answered, “My children.” Some brought a handful of photos of dead relatives for their Day of the Dead altars. Jae Warren brought the complete works of Nabakov, her meditation pillow, two big stuffed antique Chinese dolls and a set of paper dolls called Jill and Bill like the ones she had had when she was 7 or 8 that she had recently bought on E Bay. One brought a decorative broken tile she pilfered once from a junk heap next to a monastery on a Greek island.
What did you bring of practical value?
Joan Harmon listed kitchen stuff, knives, pots and pans and her favorite measuring spoons. Dave Rooney listed Swiss Army knife, water colors, my best attitude, my sense of adventure, my love of meeting new people, and most importantly, my adaptability.
What did you sell or give away that you now miss?
Paul Stanley answered “Nothing.” One missed her washer and dryer which were more costly to replace here. Jae Warren misses her vintage Martini shaker with matching glasses and stirrers, her chefs’ knives and rice cooker. Patty Jungk misses her books.
What did you ship here but then never use?
One woman wrote, “My husband.” Another: My winter coat. Many declared “Nothing.”
What do you ask friends to bring you from abroad?
Topping the list was Earl Gray Tea, moisturizers and products from the Body Shop and crossword puzzle books. Jae Warren asks for plastic lemons full of real lemon juice, chili powder, tahini and ingredients for Indian, Chinese and Japanese food. Also pined for were tootsie rolls and mail ordered underpants, shoes and catnip. Some salivate over the arrival of requested eletronic gagets.
What did you buy here to replace things you gave up
and how did the prices compare?
Rustic furniture is cheaper here. Knives are cheaper but not as good. A TV was 200 USD more. Beds were cheaper by about $200. Small appliances and a washing machine cost much more here. One couple replaced the TV, CD player and some furniture. The replacement cost was less than the cost to ship it. Don Jungk wrote, “We set aside a few thousand dollars to replace things. By far the most difficult to replace was the language. We went to Spanish school until the budget money was used up.”
When outside Mexico, what do you bring back?
Roberta Christie answered: CDs and DVDs, of opera, mostly. I miss access to live performances.” Of course that was written in 2008. Now we have Live from the Met on high definition big screen at the Opera House.
What kitchen gadgets or clothes or drug store items could you not find here?
Ibuprophin in quart jars. A decent pepper grinder that does not break. Bill Pumphrey rememered when he got here in 2002 that there were many things he could not find here. “But everyday I see a wider selection of goods. There is not anything for the house which I cannot find here now, although I may have to go to Puebla to Costco”.
How did you ship your things to Mexico?
What was the cost?
Many expats never shipped. Just brought down things in suitcases on various trips. Paul and Janet Stanley brought only what fit in their car. They shipped nothing. They furnished their charming Oaxaca home with all things Mexican. On the other end of the scale, Bill and Billy paid $6000 US to ship all their possessions here. Bill’s dream house of glass walls and steel beams, new to Oaxaca builders, never became habitable. The whole rainy season was spent mopping up puddles under the glass walls, and watching birds fly into the unfamiliar glass walls and kill themselves. Billy had to wear sunglasses in her own living room to cut the glare. Before long, Bill’s health required they move to sea level, and again, thousands of dollars was spent shipping things back to the States. Not all expat’s dreams come true.
What do new friends in Mexico want to see from your past? Old famiy photos? Momentos from your career? Perhaps your bank balance?
An almost unanimous answer to this was “Nothing.” Roberta Christie saw this as a good thing. “People judge you on what you are now, not what you might have been, your positon, or past status.” One aging gringa said her younger Zapotec lover would periodically ask to see photos of her in her prime.
What do you look forward to the most when you visit the States or Canada?
Joan Harmon answered, “Shopping, visiting friends, and family, not in that order (well, maybe in that order). Gloria Asbel looks forward to flushing toilet paper and using tap water. David Rom listed scenery. Dave Rooney: seeing his grandson. And one confessed what she looks forward to the most is “coming back to Oaxaca.”
What aspects of the way of life in your home country are you glad to leave behind?
Although this quetionaire has focused mainly on things—buying, shipping, and missing things, most expats are thrilled to leave the enormous consumption. Geri Anderson wrote, “Everybody in the U.S. seems to need to buy, buy, buy.” Jae Warren gladly left the retail therapy she was falling into. David Romm left the yuppie money culture. Roberta Christie wrote, “Here non-accumulation is more the norm, even among most ex-pats that I know.” Bill Pumphrey was glad to leave the stress, high cost of living, politics, extreme seasons, and American superiority behind. Joan Harmon listed “the hustle and bustle, NY metro area, old friends (they were getting a little boring), work, and weather, for sure.” Harsh winters was reason enough for many to come South. Don Jungk remembers people who were angry and rushed all the time. And one listed “Loneliness. I had to phone my best friend a week in advance and make an appointment to hang out.”
What do you like about living in Oaxaca?
Jae Warren said, “The pace. It suits me. I thrive on manana time”. Many appreciated not needing a car, thriving on being able to walk everywhere. Climate was tops for many. And the people. Many have friendships with Zapotec and Mixtes and find them very kind and loveable. Others love the arts and all the cultural events going on. The festive street life. The music in the Zocalo. Many love living in a restored Colonial City. “It’s like going back in time. And because earthquakes prohibit them from building sky scrapers, from my porch I can see the sun setting gorgeously behind Monte Alban.” One expat mentioned the cultural differences, the fun of figuring out where to find things, the new friends—gringos and Mexicanos alike. This was the closest anyone came to saying “adventure”.
Perhaps the most famous expat to have ever stayed in Oaxaca was Malcolm Lowry. He stayed for long periods of time in room 40 of the Hotel Francia on the 20th of November. Paid for by his rich daddy, and only half a block from the Farolito Bar, where he did his two favorite things: drink and write. His best seller, Under the Volcano, was made into a movie starring Albert Finney as the Brit who came to Oaxaca and drank himself to death on Day of the Dead. Ten years later, back in England, Malcolm died at the age of 47. On the coroner’s report: “Death by Misadventure.”
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