Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What Shall We Bring (Part One)?

Now that we have the house rented, and our move out date - August 1st - is looming, I have started to think seriously about packing. "Packing" is a kind of vague, all inclusive term by which I mean sorting all of my earthly belongings and deciding what to throw away, what to give away, what to pack for storage, and what to bring with us.

The last time I moved, five years ago, I was moving out of a house in which I had lived for fifteen years. There was, as you can imagine, a great deal of accumulated stuff, and I dreaded to move it all. Luckily, we were not working under a deadline, and I had ample time to go slowly through the closets and drawers and move a few boxes at a time.

This time, we are working under a deadline, though not a close one. Somehow, we seem to have accumulated as much stuff in the five years we have lived here as I did in the previous fifteen. I blame my husband. He inherited the pack rat gene from his mother, whereas I look on moving as an excellent opportunity to get rid of half of what we own. In fact, I like the rule of thumb my own mother laid down - if there's a closed box, and you haven't opened it in a year, and you don't know what's in it, just throw it away unopened.

My husband is adamantly against such a policy, and in the interest of fairness I have to admit that five years ago, he was right. When I tried to toss several boxes unopened he snatched them away and put them in the truck and drove them up here, where he proceeded to put them in an old shed where they sat moldering for another three years. Then the shed fell down one winter, and we had to remove the debris.

"Let's for god's sake just toss these boxes now, please?" I said.

"No," he said, and carried them inside to go through one by one.

Among other, less important things, he found a box full of my best jewelry and - ahem - the deed to our house in Seattle. I still maintain that I wasn't actually missing the jewelry if I didn't even know it was there, and that we could have always got a replacement deed. But factually speaking, he won the argument and no boxes shall be thrown away unopened. Probably we will simply carry them unopened to the shop, where they will remain until we return and carry them, unopened, back into the house.

My mom, when overwhelmed by clutter, used to fantasize out loud about becoming a nun and living in a small empty cell. I completely relate. I have a definite monkish bent when it comes to material possessions (books excepted).  Fewer things means less work, right? Fewer dishes to wash, fewer clothes to wash and fold, less general upkeep. However, now that I am faced with something close to my fantasy becoming reality, I am finding it very difficult to figure out how to make it work.

I am not certain I have described our prospective living situation, so I'll do so now. First off, we'll be living in my mother-in-law's home. For a year. Yes, that's what I said. More about my feelings on that subject in another post; for now I will confine myself to a clinical description of the actual quarters. Abuelita (as we call Homero's mom) has a nice home. Homero and his three brothers built it from the ground up when Homero was a teenager.

It is a two story concrete home, laid out in a straight line. On the first floor is the living room, nearest the street, then the kitchen, and then two bedrooms, one after the other. As in most traditional Mexican homes, there is no communication from one room to another on the inside - in other words, no hall. You leave the house to move from one room to another. This doesn't mean going out on the street, because the entire property is enclosed within a tall wall. The rooms line one side of a rectangular courtyard, and to move from room to room you go through this central space. I hope that's clear.

One one end of this line of rooms there is a cast iron spiral staircase leading up to the second floor. Half of this upper area is a flat area open to the sky: this is where the dogs live. In the other half are three small bedrooms, laid out in a straight line. The upstairs rooms are not as wide as the downstairs rooms, which leaves room for a balcony that runs the length of the house. The doors of the bedrooms open on to this balcony.

We will have two of these upstairs bedrooms, together with the the balcony in front of them. The bedrooms are small, about ten by ten feet, and they do not have windows except for one window in the front wall, next to the door. The truth is, they are hot little concrete boxes, pretty much exactly like the monk's cells my mother used to fantasize about. Each has a double bed, which takes up most of the space, but is otherwise devoid of furniture.

Trying to create a plan for how to live in these rooms for a year, and trying to decide what we absolutely need and how - first of all - to bring it with us in a minivan that will be carrying four people and a dog, and how - second of all - to make it fit into our allotted space is mentally grueling.

I have a few absolutes. I insist, absurdly, on having a kitchen. Having been the mistress of my own domain for twenty-something years, and the matriarch of my family for ten, I know beyond a doubt that I will go stark staring raving mad if I do not have my own kitchen, be it ever so humble. I'm thinking of a folding card table and four chairs placed out on the balcony, with a beer-fridge and a hot plate. I can make coffee in the mornings for Homero and myself, and the children can sit at this table and do their homework in the afternoons. Homero will never understand this and thinks I am being difficult, but I know that this kitchen table is fundamental and integral to my sanity. It MUST exist.

Inside the bedrooms, we need a way to manage clothing. Being extremely lazy, I have for the past twenty years used a simple cedar chest for clean clothes, and a hamper for dirty ones. Pile of dirty; pile of clean. This system would work in Oaxaca as well, except that we have no way to bring our chests with us. For now, I'll assume we can buy some there. Additionally, in our bedroom, I'd like to install a few wall-mounted shelves for books and a lamp, and have a comfortable chair for reading. Perhaps a bedside table for water and such.

Homero will be bringing a selection of his mechanic's tools, which will take up most of the space in the minivan, even though he swears he is bringing a bare minimum. The girls and I will more or less have a generously sized suitcase apiece, and my suitcase will be partially filled with kitchen things (I can't leave my cast iron skillet behind, nor my best soup pot and a couple of good knives). The girls will have a couple of teddy bears. That's about it.

Oh, we are bringing our computer. That means I have to make space for it in our bedroom. All of this needs so much more thought, I feel like I need a blueprint. It's a sort of Tetris puzzle. How can four Americans and all their shit fit into a small part of a Mexican home? The answer is: they can't. Forget it. We can't live like Americans in Oaxaca.

Once again, I keep running into the same brick wall. We aren't going to live American lives, Aimee, wrap your head around it. We are going to live Mexican lives. You, Aimee, are not going to go on in the same manner, just in a different, exotic locale. You are going to go on in a different manner, a Mexican manner, a smaller more efficient manner. At first, a cramped and uncomfortable manner. But hopefully you will adapt gracefully and come to enjoy it.

You may even find, Aimee, that it is a fantasy come true.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Great Leap Forward

Scratch one major item off the to-do list: the house is rented.... or almost so.

Several weeks ago, I posted an ad on Craigslist. After some thought, I decided on a strategy to market our rather unorthodox rental as an adventure listing.  Here's the Craigslist ad in it's entirety:

Unique opportunity for a family or people interested in finding out if the farming/country life is for them. We are moving to Mexico for one year, starting in August, and are looking for a family to rent our farm on five acres outside of Ferndale. We will be gone for the entire school year and will write the lease to that effect - no worries about an interrupted school year. School district is Ferndale, Custer elementary, Horizon middle school. Spacious three bedroom/one bath with a gigantic wraparound deck that takes advantage of the sweeping view of the Canadian Cascades (yes, that is the actual view in the photo below). Pretty much wall-to-wall mountains. Hardwood floors, huge playroom, fenced dog yard, and many extras such as Rainbow "safest in the world" trampoline, and play structure. Three fenced pastures and two small barns ready to receive your animals - or, if you are interested, you could take over care of our small herd of Nubian dairy goats (if not interested, we will make other arrangements). If desired, house could be rented partially furnished (dining room and living room). Bedrooms have built-in dressers and enormous closets. Propane heat. 
ONE slightly unorthodox issue: the house has a completely self-sufficient mother-in-law apartment (separate entrance, kitchen) which will be occupied by our daughter, who attends WWU. Quiet and non-annoying. No shared facilities except laundry, 100% at your discretion. 
Rent $1025. We are looking for responsible, stable people who understand that this is a short term rental, one year only. Respond for more information, tons of photos. 

The photo I included was my favorite of the view to the north - the main view off the front porch, and the view on which all the windows in the living and dining rooms open. Many people answered my ad. Lots and lots of folks, it seems, are attracted by the idea of country living, without the risk and investment of actually purchasing real estate. A surprising number of folks are interested in goats - I included the language about goat care on the off-chance that I might not have to sell off my goats, not with much actual expectation.

We have spent much of the past three weeks showing the house and property to a stream of interested parties, only a small percentage of whom seemed to us like real prospects. There were hippies without obvious sources of income, and a few folks who seemed suspiciously like meth-addicts. Maybe we had set the rent too low?

But there were also serious prospects: a newly divorced dad looking for a place that his three kids could visit him; a woman searching desperately for a place she could bring her two horses. Strangely, I got a few e-mails from folks who lived far away. I hadn't thought about that possibility.  A man called from San Diego - his business was expanding into British Columbia and he was looking for a house near the border, he said. He was serious, and seemed legit enough that I asked him for references, but they didn't check out.

Another man wrote from Texas. He was from our area, he said, and wanted to move back because his father was old and frail. He had a job lined up (health care professional). His wife was a stay-at-home mom who specifically wanted to get into dairy goats. They have three children, seven, five, and three.
They asked a few pertinent questions, and requested more photos. Then they said "we want to commit," the first people to say so.

I told them I wasn't comfortable committing until they had "met" my daughter Rowan, so we set up a Skype date. She talked to them for an hour or so, and carried her laptop around the house, showing them all the rooms. Rowan gave them the thumbs up. They sent me their excellent references.  All of us got a good feeling from this family. We liked them, insofar as is possible to like people you have never actually met.

But Homero was still uneasy. To tell the truth, so was I.  Just as, in a relationship that starts over the computer or by letter, you cannot possibly know for certain if things will work out until you meet your inamorata in the flesh and smell their sweat - until you have tested the chemistry - we felt that it was impossible for a family to commit for certain to live a year in our house until they had actually entered our home.

Given that we must ourselves make a commitment - cross the rio grande, as it were - by purchasing plane tickets and making other non-negotiable arrangements, we decided to speak plainly. "We're worried," I said, "that you might change your mind. Surely you can understand that we can't take our home off the market and buy plane tickets without being certain. Are you and your wife absolutely sure you can sign a lease without having visited the house?"

They offered to pay a deposit, plus the first month's rent. They said "We are sure, and we give our word." Well, what can you say to that? Either you decide to only consider locals, or you accept their word. We decided to accept their word.

Tonight I will be writing up the lease. A first draft, anyway. I'll e-mail it to them, and then we'll get on the phone and go over it, tweaking it to our mutual satisfaction. When all sides are content, I'll fax them a hard copy, and they'll sign it and fax it back. They'll send us the deposit via Western Union, or perhaps Paypal. And then we will all pray - they that they will like the place and find it adequate to their needs, and we likewise.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Passports Accomplished

It took me three separate visits to the passport office, but I have finally turned in the applications for the children's passport renewals. If the government's estimate is correct, I can expect the passports to arrive in the mail by, oh, the end of July.

The first time I tried, about a month ago, I simply grabbed the children and their expired passports and raised downtown, thinking that I could fill out the applications, write a check, and be on my merry way. Shouldn't the old passports serve as proof of citizenship?

No, no, no, it isn't nearly that simple. For children under sixteen, each issue of a passport, whether first time issue or fourth time-renewal, has all of the same requirements. Those are (in case you are wondering):

- certified copy of birth certificate (not a photocopy)
- social security number
- presence of both parents or legal guardians, or death certificate for parent not present
- approved identification for said parents or guardians
- two identical photos, recent, conforming to size requirements that must apparently be measured by microscope.

Yeah, I don't know how I forgot about the photos, either.

Last thursday, I made a second attempt. I had everything on the list, except that I had forgotten that Homero had to be present. Oh, and I had forgotten the social security numbers. And that for Rowan, I only had a copy of her birth certificate, not the state certified original. Oh, right, and the photos I had had taken (for the rather exorbitant price of $34) were unacceptable.

You may, at this point, be justified in asking if I had read the list of requirements given to me on the previous visit. The answer is that yes, I had. Five seconds after the nice bureaucrat  lady handed it to me, I glanced at it and stuck it in my purse. Then a month went by and I said to myself "oh shit! I STILL haven't applied for passports! I better get right on that!" Then I seemingly stepped into a time loop wherein in I repeated everything I had done the month before, with exactly equal results.

Not quite. The second time, I DID bring the passport photos. I got them taken at Office Max, which has a sign that says "passport photos here" right on the front window. It took quite a few minutes to get the children to settle down and quit giggling - you are not supposed to be smiling in a passport photo. Tell a six year old not to smile and what you get is a child who spends the next ten minutes dissolved on the floor in a pile of mirth.

Finally the Office Max man gave me the photos. I said "aren't these too big? These look too big." He whipped out a ruler and measured the photos. "no," he said, "the face should be between 1' and 1 5/8" from chin to forehead. See?"

"Ok," I answered dubiously, "but look how much bigger these photos are than the old ones..."

"Those are the guidelines," he said.

So when I got to the passport office and the lady bureaucrat said "these are too big," I really wasn't surprised. Pissed off? Yes. The lady whipped out a little plastic frame and slapped it down over the photos. "See," she said, "the entire photo must be no larger than 2" x 2", and there must be white space showing above the crown of the head. These photos cut off the top of the head. They're no good."

Plus, of course, the humiliating list of the other ways in which I had failed to meet requirements. I don't think I met a single one. It was too late in the day to get new photos, order a certified copy of Rowan's birth certificate, and call Homero to get his butt downtown before the office closed, so I had to leave with my tail between my legs.

First I went to the health department and ordered a birth certificate for Rowan. $20. Then we all trooped back to Office Max where I gave the young photographer the rough side of my tongue. He retook the pictures at no charge, and this time there was no trouble about giggling. We were all hot, annoyed, and tired. These are some sad, droopy looking passport photos this time around. The first pictures were so much nicer, I told the kid, "I'm keeping the first ones." He started to say "I can't let you do that..." but I cut him to shreds with my best "do NOT fuck with mama" look and he subsided.

Friday morning I collared Homero and we made our third and final assault on the impregnable passport office. I had a gigantic file folder with all the necessary documents in it. I had the kids. I had my husband. I had my checkbook. A different lady bureaucrat  was behind the counter, and everything went smoothly. Even with everything filled out, ready, and in order, it took some thirty minutes for her to go over everything, staple everything int eh right order, and administer to us the oath that we weren't lying about our children being U.S. citizens and not cute little baby terrorists or something.

Then I wrote a check for the tidy and not at all ridiculous sum of $340, and that's where we are now.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Lesson From the Recent Past

I've been writing a lot about my apprehensions regarding next year. It's true, I have been finding it dreadfully easy to focus on my fears. To combat this, I have been working on actively imagining the expected benefits for myself and my family. I have written about these before - several times, in fact.No need to go over the same ground again. 

However, I thought it might be useful for me to go back and read about a time that I found difficult but which turned out to be extremely valuable. Two years ago, Homero surprised me by bringing home his relatives for an unannounced, extended stay over the Christmas holidays. And when I say extended, I mean, by American standards, REALLY extended. For six weeks, my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and her two children were our guests. For two of those weeks, we also hosted my brother-in-law and a friend of his. 

To say this was challenging for me would be an understatement. When they arrived (did I mention no notice?) I had been running the household alone for two weeks and was in the middle of major renovations and repairs of serious house issues. The holiday season was bearing down on me in the way that it bears down on the mothers of young children with high expectations, and I was already feeling at the end of my rope. Four surprise house guests for an unspecified length of time was .... challenging. 

Below are a few excerpts from the old blog about the visit. 

I am running the home place all by myself for a week or two. Yesterday evening, Homero flew off to Oaxaca to pick up our car from his mother's house and drive it home - a journey of some 4,000 miles. Our car is in Oaxaca because last summer, he drove the car down, left it at his mother's house, and flew home. He felt that we needed a car of our own on our two week vacation, and that this would be a wise action to take. Renting a car was apparently not an option. Don't ask. Symmetry. This trip is the mirror image of that trip, and hopefully once it is over we will once again have our lovely TDI Jetta and will never again have to argue bitterly about cars and Mexico. Which is something we have done a lot.
Those of you who know us personally are already all too familiar with the ongoing saga of Mexico and cars, and those who aren't - believe me, you don't want to know. All you need to know is that my husband left me for an undetermined amount of time - not less than seven days - with absolutely no notice ("Amor, I bought the plane ticket. I gotta go in three hours." Not kidding.). Oh also, you should know that these twin trips have cost a collective total of three thousand dollars (not counting lost wages); money which I felt was wholly wasted for no good reason at all. To be fair, Homero felt the money was spent in a good cause. He just couldn't articulate that cause to me in a way that made any sense....

My husband called from the road yesterday. He will be home late tonight, or possibly tomorrow early. He has a surprise for me! My mother-in-law and my sister-in-law, along with her two children, are all coming with him and staying through Christmas.
Whatever else you can say about Homero, being married to him is sure not boring!

(Note to self: this is an important point! When you were younger, you thought that the worst thing that could possibly befall you was to realize one day that you had gotten old and that you had lived a boring a life. In fact,. I think that would still be the worst thing to realize on my death-bed. Oh no! I forgot to have adventures! I forgot to have fun! I forgot to be wild and crazy! Well, my dear, you have lived enough now to know that that is one deathbed realization you don't have to fear.)

My relatives left this afternoon. I feel good about the visit, for all kinds of reasons - my kids have a closer relationship with their Abuelita (Grandma) and Tia (Auntie) and Primas (cousins). They have made a connection with their Mexican heritage that will last, even if they don't recognize it for years to come. They speak better Spanish now - it was wonderful to eavesdrop on the girls playing and hear Hope and Paloma speaking in full sentences, even negotiating and arguing in Spanish. And they just had an old fashioned good time over the holidays, playing in the snow, decorating the Christmas tree, and jumping on the trampoline. My nieces had never seen snow before, and so the six inches we got in the Thanksgiving storm was a real treat for them. It was a blast to watch the girls rolling around in the snow and playing with a delight and exuberance usually seen only in puppies experiencing their first snowfall.
I derived some real benefits as well - for years I have wanted to know my sister-in-law better. Since the first time I met her, I recognized that Temy is an extraordinary person. She is a doctor, having gone through medical school while also semi-raising her four younger brothers. She has an impressive array of talents, able to sew a wedding gown or fix a leaky faucet, able - according to my husband - to work like a man and also to be a tender mother and friend. Last year, Temy and I became Comadres when she agreed to stand as Godmother to Paloma at her baptism. Anglo-Saxons unfamiliar with Latino culture will not understand, but finally becoming a comadre was like entering into the family's inner circle at last (Compadre - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).

This visit was long enough for Temy and I to really enjoy each other's company; to get to know each other in a way we hadn't before, and to exchange life histories and practical skills. She taught me some rudimentary sewing skills; I taught her how to bake real bread and keep a sourdough culture alive. Temy also worked several long days helping Homero finish his shop and pitched in wholeheartedly in the general running of the household. It was a joy to spend time with my comadre and to get to know her lovely children better.
I have already mentioned that I also am gaining a very nice greenhouse, thanks to my brother-in-law and his friend. That will be a very present help come March. But the very best gift from this visit, the most important benefit, is that I hosted six house-guests for six weeks and retained my sanity and my good humor. That is not something I would have predicted. I'm not saying it was always easy - in fact, there were a couple of occasions when I totally broke down in wrenching sobs (thanks sis and mom for being there when I needed you), but on the whole, I bore up much better than I think anyone expected. After all, I was given less than 24 hours notice that I would be sharing my home with six other people for an unspecified amount of time - not a situation that most American girls are raised to anticipate, am I right? And Homero and I have a history, when it comes to family. I'm not going into detail, but let's just say it's a history that would lead him to believe I might not be up to the job of long-term hostess to his family.
Today after they left, my husband turned to me and said "I am so incredibly grateful, Amor, that you were so welcoming and kind and so patient with my family. I know it wasn't easy for you. I'm so proud of you and so happy. They all had a wonderful time. Thank you. You don't know how much your effort means to me."
Maybe not, but I know how much that little speech means to me. Those words were the greatest good that came out of this visit. Thank you, in-laws, for coming here for such a long visit, for putting me to the test and giving me a chance to rise to the occasion. Thank you, for everything you did while you were here - for the help with the house, for the cooking and cleaning and carpentry, for the sweet care of my children, for the friendship offered and the skills taught. But most of all, thank you for the opportunity to show the depth of my love, loyalty, and solidarity to my husband. Thank you for the chance to prove the same to myself.