Monday, September 01, 2014

crossing the cultures

Sunday was supposed to be a mixed travel day. 

You know the type.  You need to get from one place to another, but you want to spend as much time with your friends as you can before boarding your choice of transportation to a new chapter of your life.

Well, it was that.  But it was much more.

I have already told you my friend Dr. Bob is married to Fon, a Thai citizen.  As you probably suspected, there is much more to the relationship than that declarative sentence allows.

Bob and Fon spend half of their year in Thailand and half of it in Thailand -- with a large dose of world travel whipped into the mix.  (It was his retirement in Thailand where he met her.)  

Their life model may sound a bit familiar to Mexpatriate readers.  I was not going to pass up the opportunity to talk about the similarities and differences of our respective situations.

Bob has retained a bit more northern personality than I have when it comes to planning.  He spent some time yesterday morning planning on where we would go.  A castle.  A forest.  A Roman camp.

But he shares my sense of flexibility when plans crumble at their first application.  As they did.  We made it to the Roman camp.  And we had a pleasant drive near one of England’s most scenic little corners -- the Trough of Bowland.

The sights and history were very interesting.  However, the best part of the trip was swapping tales with Bob and Fon.  I was not the least bit surprised that the aspects of Thailand he finds invigorating and frustrating mirror almost exactly my own.  Both of us are the products of our cultures.  Rather regimented cultures.

We expect life to be orderly, logical, and efficient (at least, by our definitions).  Apparently, Thailand falls short of those northern standards in almost the same ways that Mexico does.

In turn, the cultures of both Thailand and Mexico are based far more on relationships with people.  Often to the extreme -- making situations seem inherently unfair or corrupt to we northerners.  And often they are.

Both Bob and I have learned to live with our golden nuggets and to, at least, start moving away from our anal responses.  Fon, of course, just as my neighbors, was more than willing to share how often she finds us outsiders to be almost unfathomably silly.  I rather enjoy the idea my antics can bring a smile to the faces of other people.

(Just before I left Melaque, I had a conversation with a northern expatriate.  When I told her how often I had heard from Mexicans that they think we are silly people, she became indignant.  While she was venting steam, I realized she was doing exactly what my neighbors find so humorous.)

I thought of my conversation with Bob and Fon while riding the rails from Preston to Oxford.  Sundays are always busy train days.  Even though I had a first class ticket, there were no seats available.

That is not quite true.  There were seats, but they were not going to be given up by a large family from Doha who had occupied about a third of the carriage.

A rather short-tempered Englishman tried to sit down on the seats occupied by the feet of two of the women.  Their husband jumped up and announced, in a voice as if he were auditioning for the role of Tevye: “It is forbidden for you to sit with my wives.”

The usual cross-cultural exchange ensued with the Englishman retreating to the authority of the conductor, who told him: “I am not getting involved in any religious dispute.  I have a job to protect.”  The Englishman wandered off muttering about writing a letter to The Times.

The whole thing could have been written during the “Writing in C
lichés” class in screenwriting school.  That is, until wisdom appeared in the persona of a soft-spoken man with skin the color of a fine latte.  He was looking for a seat for himself and his wife.

It took him no time to sum up the situation.  He walked over to the husband of the lounging ladies.  “Is this beautiful family yours?  Have you traveled far?”  That is how I knew they were from Doha.  The Arab husband was smiling.

The latte man also smiled.  “My wife and I have been traveling all day, and we are tired.  Would it be possible for you and your handsome son to sit with your wives and allow my wife and me to share in your comfort?”

It was like watching an intricate social ballet.  Both men knew they were manipulating one another, but both were receiving the benefits of the first rule of etiquette from each other -- respect.

The family re-arranged itself upon the husband’s barked commands.  When everyone was seated, the mood in the carriage changed.  One of the wives saw that I was still standing.  She ordered a daughter to move over with the rest of the children, and invited me to sit.  If she had had a bowl of figs, I am certain she would have offered me one.

For some reason, I thought about my neighbor Lupe.  She would have shared the same wisdom as the soft-spoken man -- as would have Fon.  Respect and formality would have trumped confrontation.  I know what the Englishman thought; I could hear his mutters. 

He considered the family from Doha to be rude and illogical.  And he was correct by English standards.  What he did not understand, or, at least, show, is that a bit of respect could (and did) resolve the issue.

Now, I am not naive.  There are evil and thoughtless people in the world.  Showing them the same respect will not budge the mountain to Mohammed.  Usually.  But they are not the norm.  Most people, when approached with respect within the context of their culture, will react positively.

It is a lesson I need to re-learn often.  I am glad Fon and Bob shared their experiences with me.  It was a perfect fit for my role as an audience member in the train-board passion play.

Even on a travel day, life continues to teach.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

a super day

Where but in England can you start your Saturday morning with a bicycle-riding group of rugby superheroes?

I guess I gave away the answer.  It is England.  Fleetwood, England to be exact.  A fishing port where my friend Dr. Bob grew up.

Because he did not fall far from the tree, Bob suggested that the three of us should take the short tram ride from Bispham to Fleetwood to spend part of our day.  We could then return to Blackpool to let me reacquaint myself with that peculiar tourist town whose reputation has returned from its basic ropiness to a somewhat respectable seaside holiday town for British families.

Part one went as planned.  We met up with a friend of Bob's, Stewart, at a Fleetwood pub -- where we encountered the boys in not-so-tights.  I have yet to meet an Englishman who could not hold forth in interesting conversation in the confines of a neighborhood pub.  And Stewart was no exception.

He had sent something like 50 years sailing out of Fleetwood to various parts of the world -- primarily as a navigator.  He now lives half of his year in Thailand.  That gave us some common ground to launch our conversation.  With a nice mixture of politics, weather, travel, and favorite authors, we whiled away our time until Stewart left for a local football match.

While we were sittig at the table, we noticed a sign that the Fleetwood Folk Music Festival was underway.  And, best of all, it was mainly free.  So, we decided to spend the rest our daylight hours in town going from public houses to hotels to experience some very good local music.

My favorite was the annual competition between Lancashire and Yorkshire to determine who had the best music.  Solo vocal music.  Instrumental music.  Poetry.  All in a folk style.  And all quite good.

The first performer up sang a song that could have come right from the pages of Tolkien.  His short height and sharp features added to his quasi-Hobbit performance.  But isn't that the reason we like Tolkien?  Because his songs speak with the tongue of the country?

As is true for all these venues, some performers were better than others.  A British band, who attempted to perform American folk and popular music, did not fall into the good category.  But they served a purpose; they sent us scurrying out of Fleetwood on the tram.

Sunset was our cue to head into Blackpool to see something I have never seen on my previous visits -- the illumations.  The local businesses have discovered they could extend the holiday season past the August bank holiday by dressing up the city light poles with lights, and lining the seashore with various electronic tabaleaux.

I started to call them cheesy.  But that would not be fair.  It would be giving in to a bit of snobbish churlishness that tries to masquerade as sophistication.

The illuminations celebrate the naivete of childhood -- in the same way Disneyland does.  They are often nothing but spinning lights.  But they let that child who lives in all of us to stand in awe at the magic of electricity.

Of course, the real purpose of all this activity is for me to spend as much time as I could with Bob and Fon.  And the fact that I was pleased to experience a bit of Lancashire folk music along with a slathering of Blackpool light magic was merely a bonus.

I would tell you what we are going to do today.  But I have no idea.  Other than catching a train in the afternoon to Oxford, all I know is that circumstances and necessity will guide us to another adventure.

And the three of us will have a great time.  We might even run into a new group of superheroes.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

we're not in mexico any more, toto

"I really must apologize for this weather."

It was my friend Dr. Bob allowing his English genes to run rampant -- apologizing for circumstances that were well out of his pay grade.  We were standing on the beach at Cleveleys just north of Blackpool.

If you have never been to Blackpool, I am not certain that any of my writing skills can convey the spirit of the place.  But I am safe for at least one more day because our trip yesterday took us north on the carbuncle of land on the west cheek of Lancashire that juts into the Irish Sea.  The same sea that Bill Bryson called "tobacco-colored" and James Joyce labeled "snot green."

That may be why the English are somewhat apologetic of its more turbulent moods.  And turbulent it was yesterday.  Blustery.  Cloud-covered.  Misty.  A 9 on the Steve Cotton scale of weather, where a 10 is 55 degrees, overcast, and drizzle. 

And there I was in my shorts, short-sleeved cotton shirt, and sandals, as if I were walking the sweaty streets of Melaque.  The difference being that I was comfortable in Cleveleys.  The few people who were out and about on that Friday afternoon, most likely locals, were bundled up as if they were going to accompany Roald Amundsen to the south pole.

But, just as I did not move to Mexico for the weather, I did not come north for the weather.  I am here to see friends of longstanding and to meet new ones.

I have known Bob and Hilary for almost 40 years.  We met on a trip to Spain and Morroco -- the same trip that spawned the myth of Steve Cotton on a camel.  Even though they divorced years ago, I never miss the opportunity to spend time with them whenever I am in England.

Both of them have remarried.  I met Hilary's husband Ernie and Bob's wife Fon for the first time on this trip.

Fon treated me to several Thai dishes upon my arrival -- some traditional, others of her invention.  I love Thai food, but my experience has been limited to restaurants.  Her cooking was far better.  It was so good, I had the remains for breakfast today.

Yesterday was a day to enjoy where rural England and the sea transition into one another.  Today will be a variation on that theme -- riding the tram along this portion of England's coast.

But, better than the scenery, is the opportunity to share it with old and new friends.  And that is why I am here.

No apologies required.  Enough said.  End of story.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

first things first

For some reason, I slipped into an Agatha Christie mode last night.  Not that 9 of the passengers in my cabin disappeared in seriatim as they wandered from their seats.  As far as I know, everyone who embarked disembarked.

My suspicion is that I knew I would soon be boarding a train that would speed me from London to The North through the paddocks and fields that create England's distinctive countryside.  The very landscape that fed Dame Agatha's thirst for bucolic mayhem.

And it does not strike me the least bit odd that I am able to dump whatever pops into my head directly onto your monitor.  Technology's advancement has come on us so quickly that it seems as if I have been able to do this forever.

What I have not done forever is fly first class internationally.  Due to my recent travels, I have saved up enough frequent flyer miles that I was able to book a first class ticket on British Airways out of Mexico City.  I won't even bother you with what the ticket would have cost if I had purchased it with pesos.  But I could easily pay my upcoming closing costs with it.

And what would I get for that type of money?  After all, everyone on the airplane gets there at the same time no matter where they sit.

There were four flight attendants who looked after the needs of about twelve of us.  Glasses seldom went dry.  And requests were often met even before the passenger asked. 

Some people lauded the food.  It certainly was better than in coach, but it was still warmed-up leftovers.  Very few of the dishes were prepared fresh -- leaving most of the food tasting like Denny's with pretensions.

What makes all of the difference on these overnight international flights is that seat you see at the top of this post.*  Not only would it adjust electronically to every contour of a body, it folded flat as a bed.  With the addition of a linen duvet, it is as comfortable as many a bed I have slept in.  And, of course, British Airways provided individually-sized pajamas to each passenger.

Arriving refreshed at the end of a trip is worth a lot to me.  But at the cost of losing the equivalent of income for two months?  I don't think so.

On the other hand, if I had not use my miles in such an extravagant fashion, how could I tell you about it?

* -- I apologize for the framing of the photograph.  It was a forced shot. 
Airlines have become very concerned about the privacy of passengers -- especially those in first class.  On my flight to Paris last spring, a flight attendant confiscated the camera of a coach passenger who had wandered into first class.  But he was attempting to photograph a "celebrity." 

A flight attendant asked me to put my camera away.  Apparently, one of the passengers was a former Mexican movie actress traveling with he family.  I had no idea who she was.  I still don't.

Setting aside all of that, running around with a camera in the first class cabin strikes me as being just a trifle gauche.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

still in the black

What do you do at an airport for 8 hours?  Especially, when you cannot check in for your flight until 3 hours before it leaves.

Those of you who pride yourself with your arithmetic skills are already taking me to task for that first sentence.  I can hear you all the way over here in England: "That means you only had 5 hours to kill."

I wish that were true.  But once I got rid of my luggage and got through security, I would still have had three hours just waiting to be strangled. 

And no matter how interesting some airports are (Mexico City's is not one of them), there are only so many Calvin Klein ties and questionable humor post cards a sane soul can take.  That is doubly true for me.  I tend to lose interest in almost everything after 20 minutes.

So, I surrendered.  The fellow sitting next to me on the flight from Manzanillo suggested I get a room at the airport hotel.  It sounded good to me.  After all, I could take a nap, use the internet at a proper desk, and read the current issue of National Review in the bathtub.

Of course, I could have done all of that (except the bathtub bit) in the first class lounge.  But it struck me as a capital idea.

Underline capital in that sentence.  The airport hotel is a Hilton.  I stayed here a couple of months ago.  It's nice enough if you like your style sterile.  And expensive. 

I told the desk clerk I needed the room for only a few hours.  She raised her eyebrow.  A few more details had her eye back in nonreactive clerk mode.

"$299," she said.  "US?," asked Steve.  She then added that phrase that serves as a coda to all check-ins: "Plus tax."

Killing time didn't need to cause collateral damage to my peso supply.  So, I did what any bargain hunter does.  I booked the same room through while standing at the desk -- for about one-half of her quoted price.

I don't think I made a friend. 

While the reservation was being processed, I headed downstairs to one of my favorite Mexico City restaurants: Bistrot Mosaico .  I told you about dinner at the original eatery in Condesa -- when I was last in Mexico City.  The airport version serves almost all of the same specialties.  Especially, my favorite: squid risotto prepared in the ink of the squid.  It is sinfully delicious.

It is listed as an appetizer.  But it always makes a full lunch for me.

But it is time to bring my stay with the good people at Hilton to a close.  In just under an hour, I will be on my way to London.  And, as you read this, I will be on the train to Blackpool.

That, however, is an entirely different story.  One that will most likely include a crime mystery writer, a Belgian sleuth,  a countess, a lapsed missionary, and a discharged chauffeur.

And we may even hear something about it.  Or not.

punching my ticket

The folklore is that if you try to do too many things in one day in Mexico, you will get nothing done.  Like most folklore, it is often wrong.

Take yesterday, as an example.  What type of guy starts the process of buying a house within four days of taking off on a long trip to Europe?

Well, we know the answer.  The type of guy who is Steve Cotton.  The combination of the house purchase and the trip meant I needed to do a lot on my last day in Mexico.  Starting with contacting my investment house to transfer money to my bank to transfer money to the "escrow" account as a 10% deposit on the house.  That turned out to be easier than I expected. 

A telephone call let me sell the shares.  In two days, the money will be on its way to the bank.  While riding the train to Blackpool on Thursday, I will then try the second step -- bank to escrow.  All of this, of course, is a dress rehearsal for the money transfer at closing.

Having discovered the time needed to do the transfer, I asked the realtors to move the closing a few days later.  The initial closing date would have been the first business day after I returned.  That wasn't going to work.  So, we drafted an addendum to the sales agreement.

I then found a friend who was heading north.  Instead, of using DHL or another courier service to deliver a request to disperse retirement funds, Bill will take my letter to Phoenix tomorrow, and drop it in the post.  I hope that a former fellow employee is correct.  90 days turns out to be more like 30 to get my money.

The next task was to get some information from my brother (including a copy of his passport information page) to get the bank trust process started.  Setting up the trust is one of the more expensive costs in this sale.  Well, the various transfer and VAT fees add up quickly, as well.

I also had a long conversation with the realtor about the closing process.  There were a few questions I had neglected to ask.  He thanked me for reminding him of a couple things; others were already happening.

Much to my surprise, I had most of my long list completed by noon.  That allowed me plenty of time to pack.  Too much time.  I dawdled around until well after midnight.

For some reason, I decided to check in for my flight online last night.  I usually do that at our small airport on the day of my fight.  But I am glad I started the process last night.

I could not find a confirmation code for my flight to Mexico City.  I had a seat number, but no code.

That wasn't a big problem.  I decided to simply call AeroMexico to get the code.  I am not certain how it happened, even with all of the information in my calendar, including a seat number, I had not booked a seat on that flight.  If I had not called, I would have been standing in the airport tomorrow waving good-bye to the plane.

That little mistake about doubled the cost of the ticket.  But why should I worry?  I am on my way to cloudy England to enjoy myself in the Old Country.

And I trust the internet will be sufficient to bring all of you along.  I hope you remembered to buy your tickets.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

at the altar

Well, it was bound to happen.

I have spent so much time whipping up dating analogies in my search for a home that I now feel a bit like Alfred P. Doolittle.  My offer to buy the house I told you about on Sunday was accepted on Monday afternoon.

That means I am getting hitched.  Tying the knot.  Jumping the broom.  Ashing up my little black book.

Early Wednesday morning, I start my flights that will eventually drop me off in London.  That gives me today to get packed, drop off the initial money for the notario (an office I really must tell you more about in the future), and arrange to have the 10% down payment transferred from its current resting point with my investment company to its new home in a New York City "escrow" account. 

I also need to search out one of the courier services we discussed on Saturday (bring me the pigeon).  One of the investments I intend to use as part of this sale is a tax-deferred retirement account. 

When I last talked with the very helpful woman at PERS, she told me it would take 90 days to see the money.  I hope that was simply bureaucratic caution.  Like when Scotty would tell Kirk that it would take 2 days to repair the Enterprise when he knew he could do it in 2 hours.

It is going to be a busy day.  But I am getting spiffed up for this wedding.  When I return from my overseas trip, I am ready to have my long-delayed wedding ceremony.

And then I can officially announce that Mexpatriate will be coming to you from a new corporate headquarters.