Now and Then, Here and There

When I was really young, only a toddler, my dad had this dream of becoming a dairy farmer. So he leased 80 acres of Louisiana piney woods, parked an Airstream trailer on it,  and bought some heifer calves.  Since baby calves take three or four years to grow into milk cows, he needed a job to sustain the place and the family until then, so he drove back and forth to Westlake every day to work and in the evenings and on the weekends he worked clearing the trees and plowing up the ground to uproot the pine knots. He started building a barn out of pine poles and rough lumber and covered it with rolled roofing.

My sister and I were growing fast, and my mom must have been stir-crazy in the trailer, because one day while my dad was gone to work, she moved us and everything else into the barn.

It was a tiny barn. There was a hayloft with wings on either side. The partitions and floor were rough boards that didn’t fit closely.  The area beneath the stairs became the kitchen, with the stove and sink and refrigerator and my great-grandmother’s washstand allowing maybe a square yard of space to walk in. The other side of the bottom floor was our living room. The loft became our sleeping space: my sister and me on one side of the stairs, and my mom and dad on the other side. I slept on the top bunk, and the branches of the pine trees and the clouds and the sky outside the gable window is one of the pictures I see in my earliest memories.

Fast-forward a few years, and I find myself in Mexico, working as a teacher in a private bilingual school. Now and then a group of us foreigners go on tours with a local woman who shares the history of the city with us. On our most recent tour, she took me back home to the barn of my childhood.

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Well, actually, it is the owner-built home and studio of a local artist-architect and it’s in the Mexican desert, but I was stunned by how similar it was to that barn I grew up in.

The street door, or the gate, looked as if it were original to the property. The garden, with citrus trees and beds and pots of desert plants, ran rampant and neglected and delightful, with piles of salvaged tiles sorted by color.  Dogs lounged on the stoop.

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The bare stone walls are against building codes–they’re supposed to be covered with plaster–but this owner/builder likes to see the character and flaws and fossils in the stones. He contested the codes and, after a legal battle, obtained an exception.

The entire upper floor is a studio. Canvases and frames leaned against the walls. Everything was covered with dust. The windows are rectangular openings without screens or glass, some filled in with soda or beer bottles.

The third level is the roof, with more bits of tiles and other building materials waiting to be re-purposed.

In the kitchen under the stairs, a big pan with good-smelling things in it was being tended by our host.

He is a man who can turn his hand to almost anything, apparently; not only does he paint and build houses, he made the quilt on the bed from his old pants, the curtains on the windows downstairs from cotton sacks, and the paella.

I might have been at a relative’s house in Beauregard Parish, or a friend’s house in Lake Charles. The companionship and the food and the hospitality of our host swirled and blended into the kind of refreshment that fills empty spaces in the heart as well as those in the stomach and that is not selective about locale. We stayed at the table for a long time, talking and eating and drinking, and I wasn’t ready to go when the meal ended.

It seems that memories can be evoked by staggeringly unexpected events and places. This artist’s home in this desert town couldn’t be more different architecturally from that rough-sided barn in the Louisiana piney woods, yet it felt profoundly familiar to me. It was as though time and place didn’t exist; as if I were reliving a chapter of my past with a slightly different backdrop.

Paseo Colon

IMG_4641Every Sunday morning Clazada Cristobal Colón, one of the main avenues of the town center (el centro), is closed to motor traffic for about eight blocks and opened to pedestrians, skaters, and babies in strollers.  Starting at 9 a.m., there are art exhibits, music events, car shows, and an antiques market. There are kids’ basketball games and opportunities to participate in arts and crafts events. The restaurants are open for breakfast. There’s a market just for women to sell crafts, food items and other products.

I knew about this event for months before I finally went, in February. I went on this particular day because our school was hosting an event for World Read-Aloud Day, and teachers were invited to participate. It turns out that “any age, any genre” meant any reading level or genre of children’s books, and since I had brought Cold Mountain and Charlotte’s Web, I read the chapter in which Wilbur meets Charlotte to my student language partner, and then she and I just walked around.

IMG-20170212-WA0002 (2)We strolled through the side street with all the junk dealers.

We saw a photo exhibit of the work of a local artist in the center of the avenue. (The following week, I became Facebook  friends with him and then a month or so later, met him at a school event where his work was on exhibit.) In the women’s market, we looked at knit and crochet items, bakery goods, and health products, and bought a glasses of aqua fresca with cucumber and mint. There was a massage therapist in the middle of the avenue with her folding table offering pain relief to passersby.

IMG-20170212-WA0013The sun was getting hot, and the participants began to pack up. We went to have some lunch. The restaurants were mostly empty by that time, since most people had apparently eaten before walking around. It didn’t take long to get our food. She had a hamburger, I had a salad; a typical American-style lunch.

This event takes place every Sunday. There are many other events in El Centro to be found now that I know where to look. I feel comfortable going alone and I am also meeting local people to go with.

I feel like I’m settling in.

 

 

La Plaza Mayor

“La Plaza Mayor” just means the main square of the town. The one in Madrid is one hectare (10,000 square meters) big. The tourism website for Torreón describes this main plaza as 12,000 square meters. I didn’t measure it, but I guess it is about like a square city block. It was finished in 1914.

The first time I went to El Centro (downtown), was back in September. I hadn’t been anywhere up to that point besides school and the supermarkets. There is a monthly event, called “Moreleando” and I wanted to check it out.

I went early, by Mexican standards. At seven o’clock, the sun had gone down behind the buildings surrounding the plaza and a few (mostly young; but I suppose that’s a relative term) people were strolling along the avenue and in the plaza itself. Nothing else seemed to be happening. I walked around the plaza, taking photos.

And wandered up Avenida Morelos.

I went with coworkers to a concert in La Plaza Mayor for Independence day, and I went again for El Dia de los Muertes.

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There was a car show one night; Mustangs. I was sitting on the balcony of Cafe Tumbao when they roared out of the plaza and into the street below me.

The city hall (la Presidencia Municipal), which you can see from the balcony of the cafe, is, according to the government website, one of the most modern in Coahuila. On the opposite side is the federal building where we go to apply for and receive our work visas. It is being completely remodeled from the inside out.

Maybe La Plaza Mayor isn’t as historically significant as La Plaza de Armas but, in my opinion, it’s prettier. There are plenty of places to eat and drink close by and Teatro Isauro Martinez is adjoining (I’ll show you that in another post). The people sitting in the park seem friendly and I feel comfortable walking alone there.

And this Plaza has hollyhocks.

 

Evening Storm

In Louisiana, it rains a lot.  In El Norte, not much. In fact, from November to February, there was one evening shower at my house.

But one evening, I was caught in a storm.

As I was getting ready to close the kitchen for the night, I realized that I didn’t have enough coffee for the morning. So I set out for the supermarket.

AlSuper is about three blocks away. I can walk there in less than five minutes.

When I went out of the house, I saw a little lightning. By the time I was in the parking lot of the store, the wind was throwing up a little dirt.

When I came out five minutes later, there was a haze from the street to the sky, pale yellow in the street light. Waves of dust and dirt were swirling in the wind.

There was no point trying to get a ride home. Walking, I’d be there in less time than it would take to get into a taxi. I walked fast, through the dirt and dust.

I wasn’t thinking about taking photos.

This was the second time I’d been caught in a dust storm. The first time was only a few days after I arrived. Since then, I’d been fortunate enough to be at home when these little events took place.

When you are out in it, the dust and dirt filter through the eyelashes and into the eyes. It sifts down into the hair, pushes into the weave of the clothes.

By the time I got home, and the wind had picked up even more. There was thunder and lightning.

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And then, rain.

Rain,  in the desert, with thunder and lightning . . . in the evening.

What could be more heavenly?

A warm shower to wash away the dust was the only thing to add.

 

Sunrise

The morning after the karaoke party, having been awake since three o’clock, I was ready for breakfast by seven. And I was out of eggs. So I got dressed and went to 7-Eleven.

When I stepped out into the street, I could feel the sea.

It was like being next to a beach.

Of course I know that all the water covering the planet is mixed together, but how can you feel the sea in the air in the middle of a desert? Yet, on this cloudy, breezy morning, I could feel it.

The sun rose over the roofs . . .

. . . and shot over the neighborhood to the mountains, turning them gold.

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Pigeons and grackles bustled around in the street. Everything touched by the light glowed with warmth. The sea began to recede.

I purchased the eggs and started back toward home. The bakery was open. On the opposite corner, a business owner was starting her day, setting up her umbrellas to shield her breakfast preparations from the sun, pausing to take her own photos of the mountains.

Most days at sunrise, I am just arriving at school. I go through the  line to clock in, climb the stairs and unlock my classroom door, sit down and wake up my computer. Now and then I look out the window. On this Sunday morning, though, being out in the street at sunrise, with time and quiet to hear and see and feel all the parts of this time of day, was a treat. It wasn’t more than twenty minutes, but in that time I felt a connection to earth and sky, a refreshing of my mind and spirit, and a comforting reminder of the oneness of creation.

 

 

 

Tamales

On a Sunday morning, my landlady opened the foyer door and called out, “Miss?”

She does this sometimes because it’s easier than tapping on the door and waiting from me to run downstairs and unlock it.

Usually, she is bringing me food.

On this particular weekend, she and the family had been to a party to celebrate one of the grandchildren’s first communion. I had waved goodbye that evening when they left for church. Still, the possibility that there might be leftovers didn’t cross my mind . . .

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. . . until she showed up the next morning with a plate of three–THREE!–kinds of tamales: green, red, and sweet.

I didn’t know about sweet tamales!

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They were filled with dates, I think, and pecans, and some spice–cinnamon, probably. My landlady said a little coffee would go with it perfectly. She was right. It was scrumptious.

When I was little, my daddy would come home once in a blue moon with “hot tamales.” Those were Louisiana tamales. (What? How?? I’ll need to go to Natchitoches*, probably, to get to the bottom of that enigma.) They were too hot for little girls, even if we hadn’t been the pickiest eaters on the planet. But I remember my dad’s delight over the newspaper-wrapped package and his relish while eating and his pain from the heat of the spices.

Tamales could be found in cans on supermarket shelves in the 1970s. (They still are, in some places.) I don’t think we ever had any of those.

In the late 1980s, I went to work in a Tex-Mex restaurant, the first of several for me. I ate beans and tacos and nachos and guacamole.  Later, much later, while working at another restaurant, I discovered tamales.

I loved them.

But here!

Oh, my goodness, here, in Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico! I’m in tamale heaven.

I bought some at the Christmas market that were really big, wrapped in banana leaves, containing a piece of chicken with the bones! They were delicious. And the ones that my landlady shares with me, the ones her sister makes, well . . . I have no words.

Here in Torreón, there’s no Mardi Gras or Carnival celebration. If you “got the baby” from the King Cake (here known as Rosca de Reyes) on El Dia de Reyes (12th Night), you bring tamales on February 2 for Candlemas.

I missed that, but I’m going to ask my landlady to ask her sister if she will make tamales for me to eat on Fat Tuesday. I’m thinking they may be just what I need to take the place of the crawfish I won’t be having.

 

 

*For my friends outside Louisiana: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natchitoches,_Louisiana

Not my photo. Copied from Google Images.

 

 

Sleep Schedules

The karaoke party started at three a.m.

Maybe it’s my Northern European genes, but my body thinks–nay, truly believes–that it should be resting when it’s dark outside.  I go to bed too early and wake up too early for a part of the continent where people don’t eat dinner until ten o’clock at night.

So it’s a Sunday morning, and even the rain noise in my earphones can’t drown out the racket coming from across the street.

I’ve heard some bad karaoke in my lifetime. I have sung many a song, myself. But this is truly terrible. Some kind of Latin folk music. With tubas. At top volume. At three in the morning. On Sunday.

I wanted to sleep in. At least until  seven.

This isn’t the first time they’ve had this kind of shindig over there.

I have fantasies. What would James Bond do? He’d have some handy-dandy gadget to sabotage the electric power to the house. What about Batman? He’d dash across the rooftops and shoot the speaker with his mini-crossbow.

Unfortunately, I have neither James Bond’s nor Batman’s number, so at four o’clock I concede and get up to make coffee. I decide to watch Netflix for awhile and maybe by the time the movie is finished the revelers will have run out of steam.

I can’t concentrate on the movie. Kate H. and Matt McC. can’t hold my attention over the pounding and yelling I hear even with earphones in.

A few minutes after six, I hear a couple of honks from a siren and then a couple more. The sound reverberates sharply off the walls. I’m slightly amazed; someone has called the cops. (Not me.) The voices carry on, off-key, discordant, loud. Mr. Security turns on the siren and wakes anyone in the neighborhood who might be sleeping through the caterwauling. A few minutes pass and then a shadow appears at the gate. It stands there for a few minutes, talking with the policeman, and then goes back into the house. The music stops, and a voice speaks over the microphone. I don’t understand it, but it is clearly an announcement. Shortly, a young man comes out into the street, wearing a suit and tie, and has a long chat with the policeman. I am on my balcony, listening, but I can’t follow the conversation. Finally the cop leaves, and the young man goes back inside.

There’s another half-hour of loud conversation in the house and goodbyes in the street, and then at last, quiet.

I’ve been thinking that I should learn how to nap.

Today may be the day to begin.