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.

Monday, August 25, 2014

check mate

I should use this as essay material for tomorrow, but I hope to have other news for you then.  More important news.

One of my tasks this morning was to deposit the Tricare check in my Mexican checking account.  I stopped at Rooster's, my usual breakfast haunt right across the street from the bank, and placed my order.  While it was cooking, I decided to walk over to the bank and deposit the check. 

After all, what could take much time?  The check was in pesos.  The greatest variable was how many people would be in line on a Monday morning.  Usually, a lot.

But, not today.  I walked right up to the cashier window and presented the check (along with my account information) to the teller.  He looked at it as if it was a piece of trash I had found in the street.

I told him I would like to deposit it in my account.  Same look.

He called over another teller who usually deals with customer service matters.  Same look.  She then told me I would need the manager's approval before she could process the check.

No problem.  I know Gregorio well.  He was one of the first people I met when I moved down in 2009.  But he was busy with another customer.

One lesson I learned long ago was that everything has a sequence.  In this case, I needed to return to Rooster's to eat my egg sandwich.  Once that was done, I headed back to the bank.

I mistakenly believed getting Gregorio's approval meant his initials on the corner of the check, and that would be that.  But not so.

Mexico is still very much a cash society.  The fact that I call my bank account a checking account would be a matter of amusement to most Mexicans.  It is more like a non-interest savings account.  The bank has never bothered to send me checks.  Why should it?  No one in town accepts checks for payments.  Thus, there is a great deal of mistrust when a check is presented for payment.

Gregorio was in the vault when I returned.  The teller took the check to him.  I did not look at my telephone, but she must have been gone for close to ten minutes.  When she returned, she asked me to have a seat -- telling me that the process would take at least 30 minutes.

It did.  Actually, it took almost 45 minutes. 

I am not certain what she did during that time.  Maybe she contacted the other bank to ensure the funds were there.  After all, the United States government is know to be quite the debtor. 

A darker version of that tale would go like this.  She actually deposited the check on my first encounter with her.  All of the rest was merely street theater to see how any tricks she could get the old Gringo dog to perform.

What struck me as odd was that she never asked for my passport, something the tellers have done with every prior deposit or withdrawal.  And she did not require me to sign the back of the check.

But this is Mexico.  Banking regulations are a lot different than the habits I learned up north.  In this case, I am not certain one process is better than the other.  I simply know one better, but I am learning this new one.

The good news is that the funds are now in the bank, and I had an adventure (plus a great breakfast sandwich) to start my day.

And I now know something new.  I am going to request all future Tricare checks be denominated in dollars.  That way, I can deposit them using my telephone.  That is, of course, until the regulators in Washington discover another practical bit of life to spike.

drugs and dollars

I owe someone an apology.  And because I am an American, I will apologize for almost anything -- even if I have had no personal responsibility for whatever trendy fad cries out for an apology.

And then there are other times.  When I really am responsible.  This is one of those times.  Well, in part.

Last May, while I was gesticulating madly atop my moral high horse in opposition to extending Medicare's bureaucracy to Mexico's American expatriates, I told you about a crazy example imposed by my military retirement medical insurance -- Tricare.  I had just filled out a claim form requesting reimbursement for my rather expensive prescription medication.

Tricare will reimburse 75% of my out-of-pocket expenses less my deductible, co-pay, and other deductions that seem to fall in the "sleeping with the window shut" fees.  After sending in my May claim form, I noticed a rather unsettling warning:

Prescription claims require the name of the patient; the name, strength, date filled, days supply, quantity dispensed, and price of each drug; NDC for each drug if available; the prescription number of each drug; the name and address of the pharmacy; and the name and address of the prescribing physician. Billing statements showing only total charges, or canceled checks, or cash register and similar type receipts are not acceptable as itemized statements, unless the receipt provides detailed information required above.
I thought I would never see a penny of drug reimbursement.  Drugs are not dispensed with that type of detail here.  Until I requested it, my local pharmacy didn't even provide a receipt.  There is no cash register.  We are talking small town here.

My discussion caused distress from other Tricare patients in Mexico.  Like me, they had not been submitting documentation even close to the requirement for prescription claims.

About a month after I wrote that essay, Tricare sent my claim form back to me.  I was not surprised to see it in my postal box.  But I was surprised at the contents of the letter I received.

Tricare noted that I had not included the address and telephone number of the pharmacy.  It actually was on the hand-written receipt I had submitted.  But, never mind.  I could easily write both on the letter.  Back the form went to Tricare with heightened hopes that I may actually see some bucks.

And two reimbursement checks showed up here early this month.  I told you about them in my piece about using my mobile telephone to make bank deposits -- dialing for dollars.  From submission to payment took about three months.  Not really a stellar response time.  But it is the government.

Then, Saturday morning, I had a real shock.  There was another Tricare envelope in my postal box.  Since I had just asked a friend, a week ago, to mule my most recent claim form north, I was shocked to see such a short turnaround.  In fact, I was about to laud Tricare for its administrative professionalism.

But that would have been premature.  The envelope did contain a check (denominated in pesos) -- but for services in June.  Still, that was just a two month turnaround.

Thus my half apology.  It turns out that Tricare is far more flexible in its reimbursement process than its form would indicate.  And that is good.  I suspect Mexico is not the only country where detailed receipts are rare.  Sheedy's Rexall in Powers during the 1950s probably fell into that same category.

So, I will continue to pay for my drugs out of my pocket knowing that I will eventually get some reimbursement.  At some point.

It is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp crocodile.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

on the rebound

We all know him.  The guy whose relationship goes down in flames.  He then shows up the next week with a young beauty claiming: "She's the one."

Well, I am that guy.

Just over two weeks ago in i bought a house, I told you the tragic tale of losing a negotiating battle on a Mary Poppins house -- practically perfect in every way.  It would have made a great house for my extended family.

It was the second short-end-of-the-sick experience I have had within the last year.  For whatever reason, it appeared that I was not going to find happiness as a home owner in Barra de Navidad.

But I had not taken into account the effect of true love.  During my search for a house, I had noticed a house that had extremely interesting lines.  But, for some reason, I had bypassed it.  At four bedrooms, I thought it was too large for our needs.  As illogical as that now sounds.

Four bedrooms would be perfect for us.  One for each of our groupings -- with an additional guest room.

The area where most expatriates (and a lot of middle class Mexicans) buy is called Pueblo Neuvo ("New Town").  With its equally platted lots, it resembles a suburb of Miami.  With a Mexican twist.

The new house is not in the expatriate area.  It is located in an area where most of Barra's permanent Mexican residents live.  A neighborhood where expensive and simple homes can reside side by side without any obvious judgment being made.  For those of you who live in Mexico, you understand the mix.  You undoubtedly live somewhere similar.

The moment I looked at the place, I had an emotional connection with it.  And I did not understand why.

Certainly the place is very functional.  Its lines are almost Bauhaus -- with a bit of Mexican modernism thrown in.  Very little ornamentation. 

The relationship between the first and second levels is evidence of its provenance.  A neo-classical design would create a golden ratio between the first and second stories.  The architect-owner opted for a more functional equalization of the stories.  The effect pulls the second story lines downward, putting the visual emphasis of the construction on the inner courtyard.

The courtyard is the visual center of the house with its geometric pool and entertainment area.  The house itself is built around the perimeter of a double lot.  A bedroom in each corner, and the living room and kitchen on opposite axes from each other.

As I was leaving, I realized why this house had such an immediate impact on me.  When I was helping my mother move to Bend from her house in Gladstone, I found the basic outine of a house I had designed in the sixth grade.  A house built around a central atrium with each of the rooms opening onto it.  I was in a Roman Empire phase.

I have fallen in love with my junior high sweetheart.  And far enough in love that I signed an offer to buy the house yesterday afternoon.

Once again, I will wait to see if my bride leaves me waiting at the altar -- fiddling with that ring in my pocket.