Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Blessing of Totato Soup

It's Thanksgiving Day, and our hearts and minds fly to friends and family who are gathering today to feast and celebrate. I love Thanksgiving; even with all of the food prep it is essentially a lazy day. There is no big agenda. The goal is to be. And to be together.

Of course, here in Mexico it's a regular day. The kids are at school and Kraig is giving exams. I went grocery shopping this morning and the laundry is running. It's hard to believe it is Thanksgiving when one looks out on green trees and grass. There's a nip in the air, but that's as close as it will get to cold. I'm glad it's not blatantly obvious what we're missing, but at the same time, I am thankful that we're looking forward to a gathering on Saturday with our friends from Ajijic. There will be turkey and green beans, and I'm bringing pumpkin pie. I found real whipping cream this morning, which I would say is the icing on the cake, but that's a misplaced idiom for this. It's the whipped cream for the pie--literally and figuratively.

Yesterday my sister Jessie who lives in Singapore wrote about the joy of being invited. Even though in some ways it's easy to forget these American holidays when one is in another country, there is still a longing. It is a longing for place and family, but it is also a longing for gathering, particularly with like-minded folks. We can always reach out and bring them into our homes, and as Jess put it, we do that. We were raised to do that. But when someone else turns and says, "Please come, " it means a ton. So we were warmed when Blair and Barb said, "Would you like to come? We don't make a big deal about Thanksgiving, but we like to have something with friends."

When I think of the blessing of gathering it is always associated with food. The best gatherings have food that brightens the eye as well as feeds the stomach. Good food encourages conversation. It can also be said that good food is best when shared. Every time I tell the kids I'm making a certain family favorite, there first question is, "Is someone coming for dinner?" They've already made the association. I wish I answered in the affirmative more often.

There was no question, though, that the first time I was able to make Totato Soup* here in Guadalajara we were going to have guests. For one thing, one pot of Totato Soup can feed a small army (or in this case, our family of five and our Ajijic friends who have four kids, three of them teenagers). For another, it is a melding of flavors that accomplishes everything I have stated good food should do. It is a pleasure to share it.

(yes, it really is that red)
I had to wait for our shipment to make the soup because my big pot was in the shipment. In the waiting time I scoped out stores to be sure I had all of the ingredients. Some items were easy to come by: a chicken, carrots, celery, onions, garlic and canned tomatoes. I had a rosemary plant and thyme, so no need to search for those herbs. Small white potatoes are a staple here; almost as flavorful as Yukon golds. Other ingredients were a little trickier to come by. Sausage here, chorizo, has little variation. In the States I use breakfast sausage with sage for the soup, but here there is basically one kind of sausage and it all has red coloring so cooks up to look rather fiery. It's flavor is not unpleasant, but it is distinctive. I found decent frozen corn at Costco (a lot of corn here is field corn, so tough). I haven't discovered chicken stock or broth in cartons (I expect if I did it would be too expensive), and I didn't have time to make some, so I went with dry bouillon which is available here by the bag.
powdered chicken bouillon

Once I got my pot it was a matter of putting the ingredients together and setting a date for the feast. I was a little apprehensive that it wouldn't taste right--I hadn't been able to find loose sage ahead of time, and I just wasn't sure whether the sausage would be right. But the magic of the recipe worked. The aroma of the bubbling soup filled the apartment and taste-tests freed me from anxiety. I shared some with Rosa our cleaning lady because I couldn't wait to spread its wealth. Our friends came and by the time they left the pot was lightened considerably. And best of all, it had been enjoyed along with good conversation.

I'm already plotting my next pot and am figuring out with whom we will share it. The blessing of Totato Soup has come to Guadalajara.
"papas blancas cambray"
*My Michigan friends can attest to the power of Totato Soup which originated, of course, with the Rabbit Room. They have tolerated my love of all things Rabbit because of blessings like Totato Soup. I can't take any credit for creating it. Hutchmoot chef, Lewis Graham, got the idea for it after reading the first book of The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson. Lewis made the soup, and knew it was made to be given to others, so he shared the recipe:

I cooked the chicken in my crockpot this time
One 3 to 5 lb. bag of the small Yukon gold potatoes, sometimes called butter potatoes.

Two boxes of Kitchen Basics chicken stock.

One package Jimmy Dean sausage with sage.

One whole chicken, already roasted at your local store (or baked at home).

Three ears fresh corn (or one bag frozen corn), two whole carrots, three stalks celery, two medium yellow onions.

One large can of whole, peeled tomatoes (or two small cans diced tomatoes).

Fresh garlic, dried thyme, sprig of fresh Rosemary, two dried bay leaves, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, and a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes.

Directions (in Lewis Graham's words):
1. Two or three glugs of good olive oil in Dutch oven. Make warm, add sausage. When the sausage is done, remove from pan but save the grease.

2. Cut potatoes in half, and rub well with sea salt (About one tablespoon is plenty for the batch). Heat the saved grease up in the pot, add potatoes. Let them sit awhile, frying the skins a little.

3. When potato skins have browned a little, add fresh veggies, chopped up of course. Cook them a little; when the onions are translucent and celery pliable, add chicken stock.

4. Add chicken, pulled from bones, sausage, tomatoes, and everything else.

5. Let that bad boy cook awhile. When it boils, reduce the heat and let it simmer.

Lewis concludes: "The rule with soup is the longer it sits, the better it gets. Mind it occasionally, stirring to keep anything from burning in the bottom. Fresh bread is always good. Be sure, absolutely sure, to do a little celebration dance after each taste, each seasoning."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Planning Ahead...Or Not

A few weeks ago I helped out in Evie's class. Her teacher has wanted to do something special for Thanksgiving and figured Evie and I could give some input there. Why yes! The class decided to do a feast, and I volunteered to make pumpkin pie--real, homemade pumpkin pie. I wanted them to know there was something more to life than the pies one buys at the supermarket.

Thankfully when I promised this I knew that it was possible to get canned pumpkin, though perhaps tricky and expensive. Friends who have lived here longer spoke of finding it at local Wal-Marts, or even finding whole pumpkins to make it that way. I hoped to go the canned pumpkin route. Unfortunately I didn't see canned pumpkin in the local markets, but thankfully our friends in Ajijic were able to go to one of the big ex-pat stores there and found three big cans for me. The price was worth it. I figured I'd do a big pie-baking bash next week before the kids had their feast and before we had a Thanksgiving dinner with church friends.

Yesterday when I picked up the kids I saw Ev's teacher. "I have the canned pumpkin!" I said. "Good!" she answered. "Our feast is tomorrow!"


I was sure I had heard wrong, but Ev assured me that they had parceled out different types of food to the kids in the class, and as I promised, I was assigned pumpkin pie.

This is not the first time something like this has happened at school. Jon's teachers are notorious for sending home sweet little notes asking for Jon to bring something in the next day. Things like "gel in a bag" and "napoles, cooked". Half the time I'm scratching my head as I try to figure out exactly what the item is, and then have to figure out how in the world we are supposed to find it before the next day. I thought at first that these last-minute requests were because Jon's teachers are fairly young and inexperienced, but apparently not. Clare hopped into the car one day after school and said, "I have to do a poster for tomorrow on a topic." A poster, as you know, requires poster board. I don't usually stock up on poster board. Thankfully, that particular time I had just bought three for another project I had wanted to do and hadn't gotten to yet. All this to say, I shouldn't have been surprised when I was asked to bring in pumpkin pie for two second grade classes (about 36 kids total) the following day.

There was no help for it. We needed evaporated milk, pie tins, and whipped topping of some sort. I knew evaporated milk was easy to come by, as were disposable pie tins. What I hadn't seen was any sort of whipped topping (Cool Whip is not a staple here). I also had faint hope of finding pre made pie crusts, so it looked like I was going to have to make those from scratch as well. I can make a decent pie crust, but they never look as nice as the prefab ones, and a bunch of second-graders weren't going to be concerned with the quality of the crust's flavor.

I hate driving out after school because that's when the traffic builds up, so the kids and I decided to walk down to the corner market, about a five minute walk. Sure enough, we found plenty of evaporated milk and pie tins, but no pre made crusts--sigh! As for whipped topping, I found something that said "whipped topping" in a freezer chest. The box looked like one that would have whipping cream in the States. My hope was that it would suffice. We trekked home and got to work on the pies. Clare put together the innards and Ev and Jon helped me with the crust. Unfortunately Ev didn't realize the water I'd put out for her had to be measured and she dumped it all in before we realized. My shortening was gone, and the crust was now unmanageable. I saved it--we'll see if I can make it work for a cobbler. My patience had about hit its limit, but thankfully Kraig arrived home just then and suggested hamburgers for dinner from a restaurant a stone's throw away. Wise man. He and the kids traipsed off for those while I made new pie crust...with pure butter.

The pies turned out beautifully, and the little bits of crust I tried melted in my mouth. I sent three in with Ev today and we kept one for us. I'm not about to give up all of that pie crust! The class had their feast this morning and the pies were a huge hit. The other teachers got to have some, too, so I think that makes the butter worth it. However I told Kraig last night that from now on I am going to plan for the unexpected. Because apparently that's what one must do here to survive.

How much canned pumpkin do you think I'm going to need?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Jon's dragon puppet for school
If anyone wants to break out in the "Hallelujah Chorus" now would be the perfect time for it. We have our shipment at last!!! The reality of this has not sunk in, nor have we really begun to unpack (barring a few items the kids discovered in one of the boxes). But over dinner joy was building. Clare mentioned a book she loves and I said, "Guess what! It's in the shipment. And the here!" That kept happening and we'd all look at each other and giggle. Yes, there was a lot of giggling this evening.

Kraig and I are wiped and the kids are out cold. It was a long day. It's been a long four months of waiting, for that matter. Last Friday I went in to the purchasing office again to follow up on things and found that as usual, nothing much was happening. Thankfully a staff member was there who has been able to mediate translation the past few times I've gone in. He hasn't been on the project, but it seemed that every time he was there, movement occurred. Friday was no different. In fact, by the end of the discussion Friday he took over the case--and suddenly things moved. We had word by the end of Friday that our entire family would have to go to the airport in order to retrieve the shipment, and we could go this week.

So this morning at 10 a.m. we met a university van and our staff member, Israel, and started off for the airport. The kids were thrilled to get out of school for the day, though we tried to warn them that waiting would be part of the events of the day. Little did we know....

First off, it rained last night. It's dry season now in Guadalajara, and we haven't had rain for a couple weeks. Apparently the weather decided it was time to make up for this, because not only did it rain during the night, but it kept up all day. When it rains, streets flood, and accidents occur. Today was no exception. We were only about seven kilometers from the airport when we got stuck in a traffic jam for at least half-an-hour. The kids played games and we inspected the ads on trucks and cars passing us.

When we reached the airport and the place where packages and shipments are stored until retrieved Kraig told the kids to leave their backpacks in the van. We didn't want them to have to cart them all over the place while we tracked down shipping questions. Once we got into the gatehouse (I can't think of a better name for the first building we entered) we discovered that no, the whole family was not needed, just the passports. In fact, kids weren't allowed into the shipment area because of all of the moving equipment. Kraig waved goodbye and he and Israel headed through creaking turnstiles while the kids and I commandeered two of the three seats available in the gatehouse.

And we waited. We probably arrived there at about 11:30. In the course of the next few hours we caught two glimpses of Kraig and Israel--once passing out of the main office, and once in the distance by the entrance of a warehouse. At two or so, Kraig came through the gate and grabbed all of the cash I had...and the next time we saw him was at about 5 when he and Israel came up from the street.

Can I just say, the kids were pretty amazing. It was probably the most boring day of their lives. We made do with Clare's tablet and my phone for a few games, but batteries ran low, and then it was a chapter of one of the Chronicles of Narnia (but not the one we're on as a family 'cause that was stuck in the van), and paper from a notebook I had. There was a game of Simon Says when they got antsy and on each others nerves (and mine), and they ran races down the chain link-lined walkway leading from the street to the gatehouse. Thankfully I packed a substantial lunch, so we had food, but that wore off toward the end. I also was thankful that while it seemed the kids weren't needed after all we had brought them, because if we hadn't they would have had no one to pick them up from school.

There were a few workers in the gatehouse--a man and a woman behind the check-in desk and a security lady who used her security wand to check all of the workers and visitors flowing in through the gate. They accepted my kids with smiles. At one point in the afternoon a young man with horn-rimmed glasses and blue rubber bands on his braces was checking out and chatted with us a bit. He'd spent a year in Minneapolis as an exchange student and wanted to know what had brought us here. We waved goodbye after the chat, but a few minutes later he returned with a simple wooden toy in hand for Jon (who was pretty cranky at that point). "I found this in my car," he said as he handed it to my now-grinning boy. "I remember playing this game many times when I was a kid. My dad was a physician and I had to wait without him a lot."

Kraig and Israel's final return was a huge relief, no question, and even more a joy when we saw that the van was packed with our fourteen trunks. All had been done! Israel headed back toward the apartment in that van while our family got in another that had been ordered since the trunks took up a lot of room. Kraig gave me the rundown of his adventures which involved a ton of standing and waiting and getting wet in the rain.

The biggest item that we'd been concerned about was the storage fee payment. The university was covering it, but there was no way to cut a check ahead of time since we didn't know the amount, and we didn't know how much cash we needed on hand (and weren't sure we could afford it even if we did know the amount). As it turned out, we couldn't retrieve cash there as the airport only uses one bank, which isn't ours. At first Kraig and Israel thought they'd have to leave to go get it from the university, but then Israel stepped up and personally pulled all of the money from his bank account. He'll be repaid by the university, but it was a huge thing that he did. Kraig and I are both a little overwhelmed by it. The cost of the late fees was equal to what it cost to ship our things here in the first place. Not only did this guy help us immensely this past week and today, he went above and beyond what was needed to give us an amazing gift. We might not have had time to retrieve everything today if he hadn't chipped in personally. He was so nonchalant about it, too, when we thanked him. His only request was that we call him when we needed a guide for some of the places in town as he loves to show people the city. To say the least, we'll be taking him up on this, but we're busy figuring out what more we can do for him.

And that was that. Our ride back to the apartment was amazingly traffic-free, and the trunks were unloaded in no time. Now they're scattered throughout the apartment waiting for their contents to be revealed. Everything was accepted by customs, so as far as we know, everything we packed is there. My fingers are itching to dig...but not tonight. Tonight, I'll just sing.

Ten of the fourteen trunks. The others were already transferred to other rooms.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Still Finding Home

And here we are and it's October 31. I've actually managed to write a post a day, and I certainly haven't exhausted topics that fit with my theme of Finding Home in Guadalajara. As I said a couple days ago, I do hope to continue posting regularly, but I sincerely doubt it will be every day. There is overkill after all...or maybe it's too much of a good thing :-) . See, I've been taking so much time writing that I haven't stopped to figure out little details like placing emoticons in my post.

We're still discovering our new home here, and it will be an ongoing process. I do feel, though, that these posts this month have helped me look more closely at things and I needed to do that. Writing always helps me see things more clearly. We've been learning how to navigate, physically and culturally. We've maintained routines and started new ones. We've explored new places and deepened new friendships. We've cried, and stressed, and learned, and hopefully we have grown. Sounds like normal living to me and like every home I've lived in.

The Plan
(Complete with Mom's blood, sweat and
tears. Oh wait, that's a stamp smudge.)
As we step into November, our family has a new project for the month--at least till Thanksgiving, but maybe all month. It's been hard to be thankful as certain stresses continue (shipment delays! Endless work for Kraig!), and it's been easy to complain. Days get busy, too, and when responsibilities aren't taken care of it adds to the stress. So we're creating some charts that hopefully will help us tackle these in a positive way.

First of all, we have our Give Thanks chart. Ev traced my writing and drew the owl; Clare drew the tree. The goal will be to take a sticky note and write one thing a day that we're thankful for throughout November and stick it onto the tree as "leaves" (our tree will be a Michigan Fall tree in reverse).

Secondly, we'll have a chart with Philippians 2:14-16 written out on it.
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life--in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not labor for nothing.
We still need to write out the verse, but Jon has already started decorating it with suns. The main goal with this one is to have it memorized by Thanksgiving (and Kraig and I have to memorize it along with the kids). The secondary goal is that this truth will start influencing our attitude.

Finally, we just have a plain old responsibilities check-off chart, but with a verse reminder about the relationship between kids and their parents. We did something like this a couple years ago when the kids were having a horrible time getting ready in time in the morning and for bed at night. It had a monetary incentive, which we're considering again, but it worked so well that after a year we didn't need the chart any more. Times being what they are, though, we need it again....

We'll see how it goes. I'm sure I'll be able to give an update down the road.

 Until then, ¡hasta luego! See you later!

Our Alternate Education Day

Since the kids didn't go to school today, we were able to take a few extra breaths before doing anything. Unfortunately Thursday is one of Kraig's busiest days, so he was off and running by eight. The kids and I finished breakfast, thought through a couple possible outings, and decided to get over to the children's museum that's about a fifteen-minute drive from us. We were there once just after we came to Guadalajara and had a great time, but we'd never taken the chance to go since. It seemed to be the perfect day to go, with the added bonus that it's free on Thursdays.

The museum glows with color and fun areas. It's not huge, but it has lots of open space. The outside space struck me when we went the first time. I'm used to museums in the north that have to be mostly internal. Here, weather isn't an issue, and so half of the property is area for outside exploration and three nice playgrounds. And that's after we've had fun outside of the entrance.

See-sawing in front of the museum on our first visit

Today's escapade

A Rodo Padilla sculpture doubles as a turning-toy


We haven't explored much in the entry building yet because both on our first visit and today we were immediately drawn outside to the central court which has a fountain and is surrounded by flowering trees.

Today the kids wanted to explore the exhibits in the back building first, so we headed into a large open room that is filled with all sorts of interactive science displays. What was fun this time was that I could read a lot more of the descriptions--apparently I am learning some Spanish!

Discovering the effect of sonic wave frequencies on water

A full-size pin board

Using geometric shapes to create pictures

Air balls and Bernoulli's Principle

I love coming to places like this while most kids are in school. We had the run of the place except for a few school tours. The kids could explore and experiment with a number of activities without my concern that they were hogging it from someone else.

Once we'd had our fill of the big room we headed out to the side of the building with the three playgrounds. These are geared to different age-levels, but once again, since there really weren't many people the kids could go where they wished. They spent a good hour pretending they were visiting each other's houses or restaurants, etc. Magic was involved. I'm sure there were bad guys. When they start playing like this, I love to step back and let them go. They certainly don't need me. It's wonderful, too, to see all three of them engaged. So often when Clare and Ev get playing, Jon is excluded. I understand why--he's only five and he's a boy so his play is different than the girls. But it makes me sad, and so I treasure these times when all three are a part of the game.

Consulting in the shade

Jon's house (today)

The day was beautiful, and the views were lovely. The museum rests on the verge of a hill that dives down into a valley. Across the valley are high rises and houses, but the valley is a flood plain and full of greenery. Cars and trucks trundle past on the road out front, but they are removed from us. We can hardly even smell their exhaust.

We'll have to go again. It's worth the visit. And after all, I've promised the kids that next time we'll take the train ride....

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Street Where We Live

I thought I'd throw a song reference into this title to spice things up a bit. To tell the truth, while I'm not running out of topics to cover this month, I am running out of energy from writing these every day. The writing process is happening later and later in the day, and so nothing else gets done once the kids are in bed. How do days fill up so quickly? I don't have half as much on my calendar as I did back in Michigan! I'm planning to keep up with more regular posts once we hit November, but not every day.

But I digress. I realized I haven't given you many glimpses of what our immediate surroundings look like, and I thought you might find them interesting.

Our apartment building sits a little back from a main road, directly across from the campus where Kraig is teaching. If you head east on the road, you'll end up in more congested areas. If you head west, you'll soon be traveling through cornfields separated by occasional gated communities, horse farms and the barracks of a nearby military base. Jon's greatest thrill are the army trucks and cars filled with camouflaged soldiers that regularly travel back and forth on our road.

When it rains, the part of the road directly in front of our building becomes a river for a few hours. There are no ditches or drains off of it, so everything sits until it gradually seeps into the ground on one side of the road or the other, or evaporates in the sun. When we lived in the front first floor, it was incredibly noisy with the splashing of vehicles heading back and forth. Last week I meant to take my camera out so I could get some pictures of the terrific potholes that had developed, but I missed my chance. On Tuesday a truck came by and some men patched up all the holes. The good news is that we no longer have to worry about breaking an axle on our van. The bad news is now you just have to imagine the road pitted with hazards.

Most of the day things aren't too busy, but from three and five in the afternoon the traffic can back up like this:

The crazy thing is that within minutes it can look like this:

It all depends on what is happening at the light of the intersection just a bit further east, or how many cars are trying to get out of the university parking lot (through that silver exit building in the right of the photo).

Each day I'm thankful that the kids and I are home before the traffic kicks in. And each day I am thankful that the length of Kraig's journey from his office to home is a walk across campus, through a gate, and across this street.

We're already thinking through what we where we would want to live if we ended up living here more than a year. We're strongly leaning toward finding a home in the gated community (coto) that's directly beside us. For twelve years Kraig studied and worked in Detroit, a good forty minute drive from home. Now, he's across the street. We're thoroughly spoiled. It's not a perfect street by any means, but we'll take it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Complicated Decisions: When to Accept or Reject Cultural Traditions

When we moved to Mexico, we knew that one of its main celebrations is Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It covers a few days, actually: Halloween on October 31, the Day of the Innocents (for children and infants who have died) on November 1, and the actual Day of the Dead on November 2 for adults who have died. You can get a good overview of it here in Wikipedia. The basic gist of the holiday is to honor those who have died, to remember them, and, for some, to create a way for the souls of those who have died to come visit.

Catrinas decorate buildings and a sculpture in Tlaquepaque
I've always been uncomfortable with the concept; I have vague childhood memories of All Soul's Day in the Philippines which involved people taking picnics to cemeteries on November 2, or even sleeping there. It is something very foreign to my biblical worldview, and in some ways it's repulsive. For me, the dead are gone. Those who were Christ-followers I believe I will see again someday. We honor them in stories we tell, and special things we have that belonged to them, but our stories and things we retain aren't held in order to try to bring them back. Rather, I am looking forward to a reunion. Because of this worldview, I don't believe souls return. However, also because of this worldview, I believe there are fallen angels, demons, who are alive and active and ready to deceive in whatever way works. That, to me, brings a dangerous element into honoring and celebrating the dead.

All that aside, one part of Día de Muertos we weren't familiar with or prepared for were the Altars de Muertos (altars for the dead). We learned about them a couple months ago when another American prof from the university was telling us about the wonderful altar displays that the university put up for the Day of the Dead, and how we would really love to go and see them all. "So elaborate and beautiful," she said. Altars? Kraig and I looked at each other puzzled. We asked a few questions, but didn't get much information. Then at the beginning of this month, Jon's kindergarten newsletter mentioned that his class would be making an altar for Día de Muertos. I thought at the time I should ask more about it, but I let it go until the other week when the teachers started to talk about the Halloween celebration and the altars. Suddenly it was something we had to really think about.

A sugar calavera
Talk about complicated. From what we can gather, the altars are shrines set up in honor of loved ones who have died, or famous people, or whomever. Ev's class is doing one dedicated to Walt Disney (which, to tell the truth, made me laugh since Disney was a proponent of cryogenics and didn't think he was really going to die permanently....). Some have these altars primarily to remember and honor someone. But the altars are also steeped in traditions that lend to a desire to bring souls of departed loved ones near. The altars are decorated with marigolds (cempasuchil) which are thought to welcome spirits. Sugar candy skulls, calaveras, are used for decorations, and a special bread is made that will help nourish the souls. While the school is totally secular, and the purpose of its altars is an excuse to party and learn about Mexico's cultural history, we realized that we had to figure out where our line between honoring and worshiping was--and quickly. The kids had notes sent home requesting different pieces for the altars, and parents were invited to come tour on Thursday.

Jon & Ev's skeletal creation today
Not only was there the question of how we honor the dead, we needed to know how we live with a biblical worldview in a postmodern world and in a country with heavy superstitions. What stand do we take, and how do we do it without offending the relationships we have started to build? I've grown to appreciate the teachers at the kids' school, and they are more and more welcoming of my help. I didn't want to throw a monkey wrench into the works by announcing that we couldn't in good conscience have the kids take part in the celebration. And what about the kids? Clare, in her true fashion, has eschewed the whole thing. She hates the skeletons with religious fervor--too zealous, as usual. We're constantly trying to help her understand the difference between standing up for what she believes while tempering it with love and grace. Evie and Jon ask questions, but they're more focused on what they will miss. Ev wants to see Ms. Mariana's surprise, and Jon has taken to drawing catrinas and skulls for his teachers. To him, it's an art project. What effect would all of this have on them?

Kraig has seen it more in black and white. An altar is an altar is an altar in his mind, and that means worship or sacrifice whether one believes it or not. We don't even have altars for God under the New Covenant. The fact that the root of these altars is the Aztec human sacrifices hasn't help the case either. We've gone back and forth on it. I don't like them, but I have been more torn by the question of how to bow out graciously without creating huge barriers. We were able to talk with other believers who have lived here a good bit longer than us, and they confirmed some of our concerns, which helped. I agreed I would talk with Ms. Mariana and see what parts of the celebration revolved around the altars so we would know what the kids would have to miss.

The good news is, I did get to talk to Ms. Mariana today and she was very understanding and gracious. She was also able to explain more of the details of the celebration to me, which solidified my resolve that this isn't the best holiday for our family to participate in. I want to learn more about it, but mostly because I hate to hold a view without fully understanding where another is coming from and I like to be able to discuss things. For now, though, we need to step back and watch from a distance. We'll see what more we learn in the coming year.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Rosa and Blanca

Home, Clean Home
Part of the culture of Mexico, something that's common in numerous parts of the world, is the concept of house-help. It's expected that you hire someone to come and clean for you at least once a week. It's kind of funny; women arrange get-togethers at their homes based on when the cleaning lady has come. "Friday is a great day because my cleaning lady comes on Thursday," they'll say. Having cleaning help is a good thing, too. Besides providing employment for people, it keeps houses clean that are constantly inundated with dust that comes in through open windows. Actually, when you think about it, it would make more sense if it were more of our U. S. culture. But we're so independent that if we have someone who cleans for us, than we are either rich snobs or obviously incompetent. I am guilty of never having had cleaning help except for shamelessly using my mother who loves to clean and doesn't mind tackling some of my crazy life. Okay, rant over.

So here we are living in an apartment complex that the university leases, and part of the deal is regular cleaning help. Our building has two women who tackle the eight apartments: Blanca does the front of the building, Rosa does the back. They sweep, mop floors, scrub down bathrooms and sometimes even clean the windows. They also take apartment-provided towels and sheets to be washed. It is marvelous. Particularly because the things they do are things that I've always let slide. I'm okay with staying on top of clothes laundry and the kitchen (which are two things they don't do), but floors and bathrooms are not my forte. As for windows, if I can see through them we're all good.

Jon and Rosa
We've gotten to know both Rosa and Blanca because we started out in the front of the building, then moved to the back after the first month. I'm thankful for this duel-knowledge; both women have come to be part of the fabric of our lives. They adore our kids--Jon in particular. It helps that every day when the kids come home from school, they look for the open apartment doors and call out "¡Hola!" and when one of the ladies appears, Jon tackles her with a hug. Jon has practiced more Spanish on Rosa and Blanca than anyone else. With them, he's perfectly happy to try out "¡Adios Amiga!" or other phrases. They eat it up.

For me, these women have been my sounding board for Spanish as well. Rosa knows a bit of English because she has a sister who lives in the U. S. and she spent time there years ago. Blanca doesn't know a word, but with a translate program on my iPad, we've had full conversations about herbs, gas-leaks, and why Americans take their shoes off at the front door. I always feel like we're communicating, even when we can't understand half or more of each other's words.

Clare shows Blanca a school project
(and we learn animal names in Spanish)
The women are a study in contrasts. Every time I see them I can't help but think of Mutt and Jeff, or VeggieTales' Larry and Bob. Blanca is tall and lean, with long hair usually pulled back loosely. She's laid back and a little sassy. Rosa, on the other hand, stands only a foot taller than Jon, if that. She's round all over with sparkling black eyes and hair pulled smooth and tight into a bun. Tiny gems sparkle in her ears, and one ear is slightly misshapen. Her work is thorough and efficient like she is. I realized the difference in cleaning styles immediately after we moved. Blanca tends to be looser about things.... But I've grown very fond of both of them. Every time I head off to get the kids Blanca tells me to drive con cuidado ("with care") and Rosa helped me learn how to say "I'm going for the children."

I hope someday that I'll be able to let them know how much they've helped all of us feel more at home here. And I hope that our lives will leave a positive imprint on theirs in a way that will have long-reaching results. It's impossible to know at this point. But I do know I am daily grateful for Rosa and Blanca.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Growing Community

I don't like to be anywhere long if I can't connect with people. Yes, FaceBook is marvelous, and email and Skype and FaceTime are incredible tools for keeping up with friends back home (and I am so, so grateful that I have these). But when it boils down to it, those would soon lose their savor if I didn't have flesh-and-blood connections in the place where I am. Immediate family helps--I have Kraig and the kids and they mean a lot. I'm getting to know some of the teachers and parents at the kids' school, and we've gotten together a bit with Kraig's fellow professors and their wives and families. But the deepest relationships come out of something deeper, and for us, they come through families in church who share our bond with Christ and see the world in similar ways. I need both parts--there are plenty of Christians whom I admire and respect, but we don't really connect because the way we approach things is very different. We've been blessed to find the latter so quickly here.

So yes, all that to say, I love it when those flesh-and-blood friendships start to develop. 

Our time in Ajijic yesterday was one of those growing times. We've gotten to know these folks a bit over the past few months through church and Bible study, and even FaceBook, but nothing can compare to quality time relaxing and sharing thoughts and life. Blair and Barb and their family are our friends from Ajijic who invited us and some others from church for a horseback riding venture, then food. Of course food. 

We were an eclectic bunch. Blair and Barb have lived all over Mexico for over ten years (barring a year stint in Argentina). They came to Ajijic just this past summer, so in a small way both of our families are newcomers. Their four kids range from Clare's age up, but each of them have connected with our kids in good ways. Steve and JoAnn are in ministry at the church, and JoAnn teaches, and yesterday we found our Pennsylvania connections. While JoAnn grew up in South Jersey and Steve is originally from Baltimore, they met at Philadelphia's Drexel University (well, it wasn't a university when they went) and Steve went to Westminster Seminary which is practically up the road from where my grandparents lived. I have a feeling we're only at the tip of the connections-iceberg there. Jorge and Rachel met and married in England where Rachel is from, and their three kids stair step along with ours. Their middle child, Naomi, and Evie are now "best friends" (It always amazes me how many best friends a kid can have. My children have numerous BFFs). The final addition to the mix was Johanna from Columbia who lives with Steve and JoAnn. She had come for the fun but had said she wouldn't go riding...but halfway through our ride, JoAnn and I turned back and there she was astride a horse! She had a blast.

The ride wasn't conducive to too much conversation, but it was one of those things that builds connection. My horse found the tail end of Barb's to be fascinating, while hers had a tendency to fart. Yes, I said it. That horse was a master at passing gas! It also liked to nip if any other horse got near its head. At the end of the ride I discovered from one of the caballeros (cowboys) that my horse was "Abuelo" (Grandfather) to Barb's horse. Maybe that's why he stuck so close to hers. He seemed to be the only horse hers would let get near.... At the end of the ride, the kids were raring to go on to more fun, while the adults creaked their way off their steeds and rubbed sore legs and bottoms. Unity, right there.

Blair and Barb's home is perfect for a crowd. One walks through the gate and garage into a courtyard and ahead is the house which keeps going back, all open to the air. Beside the garage is another few rooms that they use for homeschooling, and in the court is space for soccer, a jacuzzi and a grill. We all spread out; the kids took over the hot tub, then moved on to soccer and Monopoly and books. The adults ebbed and flowed in and out of conversations, telling our stories, laughing and digging deep. Kraig and I were able to ask questions about the upcoming Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) which is tied in closely with Halloween celebrations here and has us delving deep into what we think and believe and where we draw lines as to how much we participate. It's tricky and complicated, but we could ask these folks questions and know we could get sound advice. 

And food--of course there was food. We had grilled chicken wings in an adobo sauce, sizzling hot at first, crisp skin bursting with a bite. There was sharp cheese and French baguettes, veggies with bean dip, watermelon, mint tea and sweet tea. I'd brought my orzo pasta salad at Barb's request, and Rachel treated us to pumpkin pie and cheesecake. I had to laugh about the pumpkin pie. It just didn't seem to be pie season after a day in balmy breezes and sunshine; and yet it was the 25th of October! We grazed and feasted and talked and grazed some more.

Eventually it was time to say farewell. All good things on this earth will come to an end. But the community and friendships we are starting to grow will continue no matter where we go or what we do. And someday, we will not have to say goodbye.