Hooray! I found an invoice!

Moving to a new country is always a challenge as you have to build up a new routine. One of the things that surprised me the most upon our arrival in Mexico, is the way you are supposed to pay your bills.

For years, we had been making payments online. Quick and efficient. Here, nothing seems quick and efficient which is a good way to train your patience muscle.

Our house didn’t have a letter box, so we went and bought one. It looks pretty, and I sometimes pat it a little so it doesn’t feel lonely, because nobody ever uses it. The bills are due to arrive around the 8th of each month. If they arrive. Then you should check various locations: the door handles on your car are the first spot to look for invoices. If you happen to be out while the postman makes his round, he will probably stick the letter to a cactus or, if he is a king-size postman, he might attach it to a tree branch. But if he is in a hurry, he will just leave the envelope somewhere on the grounds between the street and your house which is big fun on a gusty day. It adds some cheerful atmosphere to a quiet street. I will leave it to your imagination how much fun it is on a rainy day. And yes, we have those.

So as you can imagine, around the 8th of each month, you see people everywhere searching the grounds and the trees for invoices. When you find your bill, you take it to the next kiosk where you can pay the amount in cash. That’s very easy. But it only works before the 10th of each month, since after that, the kiosk won’t accept your payment anymore but you have to drive to the respective offices.

Paying your electricity bill is easy, they even have a drive-thru option. Needless to say, that those machines only take cash. So last week I went to pay our electricity bill at the drive-thru station and it got a little Mr. Beanish for when I stuck out my hand to reach for the receipt, it blew away in a flurry. However, as I was so close to the machine, I couldn’t open my door. Instead, I had to move the car which made the receipt flutter away. And there I was, crouching on the ground looking for the receipt until I found it, of course, under the car, so I had to almost lie down to reach for it, and the guys on the other side of the street apparently liked my performance as they cheered me on. Such a glamorous life.

But well, got the electricity bill paid. For paying the water bill, you have to queue up in front of the office together with many other people. That mind sound boring, but I like to watch people, and I always admire the Mexicans’ waiting skills. Unlike us, they do not show any impatience, but they simply keep standing there. The babies are all sound asleep, not a single child is whining. The adults are standing or sitting almost motionless, and some even manage to fall asleep as well. It is a beautiful picture of peacefulness, and almost (but only almost) it is a shame when it is your turn to pay and you have to tear yourself away from the tranquility.

And then there is the phone company. Like the electricity company, they also offer a drive-thru service. Unfortunately, the drive-thru is always closed, and you can only catch of glimpse of what you are missing out on through a metal fence. So instead, either you queue up inside or you pay at the machine that unfortunately is very particular when it comes to peso notes but which might give you an opportunity to bond with other people while asking them for some change.

I always love the moment when my husband gets home and asks me “So what have you been up to today?” and I can answer “I paid all our bills!” And I ask myself, what the heck was I doing with all that free time back in Seattle???

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The Miracles of Mexican Transportation

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Now we all know that while there are certainly very rich people in Mexico, the majority is poor. Alongside the carretera that leads from Cancun to Tulum, you can see plenty of houses without windows or doors, some without walls, … Continue reading

So when are you coming home??? (Or: Maintaining Social Contacts)

I just got off the phone to my almost 98year old grandmother and as always, I have this terribly guilty feeling that I don’t call often enough.

Of course, there is the time difference that makes everything a little more complicated. I cannot just decide to call her at 3pm, because for her, that would be 10pm – not the best time to chat up an old lady. Calling friends and family has become complicated. If I feel like talking to someone in the evening, I can call the speaking clock. Now while that is a very friendly voice, I never get my say in those conversations. Not a good solution.

Most people like to talk in the evenings after their work is done. (By this I am ignoring all shift workers, my apologies.) But what is evening for people in Europe is midday for me. Gone are the days of spontaneous phone calls, nowadays we make phone or Skype dates. Where is the fun in that?

I have to admit that I am not a telephone person. When I finally pick up the phone to call someone, I can be sure that it doesn’t take long for the person on the other end to ask: “So when are you coming home again?” I always feel tempted to ask back: “So when are you coming to Mexico?” Let’s be honest, how many visitors we get abroad depends on our location. Somebody living in NY who thinks that people actually come to visit HIM (or HER) is floating along in a happy bubble that will finally burst once he (or she – not that I get sued here) gets relocated to Winnipeg… (Because people underestimate the beauty of Winnipeg, I might add for the sensitive reader in Winnipeg.)

Apparently, Seattle was not on the holiday wishlist of Europeans. (Yes, and I feel pity for them as I feel for everybody who has never walked the streets of the Emerald City.) Someone even suggested we might rather meet in L.A. What kind of a dumb idea is that? It is like me wanting to see my friend in Amsterdam, but since I know Amsterdam already I suggest meeting her in Greece. What the heck?

When we fly home, we do it solely to see friends and family, because – and that may come as a surprise – we already know our home town. I would expect it the other way around, too. But instead, being an expat for many people means that you and you only are responsible for maintaining social contacts (unless you live in NY, see above): If you don’t come home we won’t see each other at all. So get your butt over here, will you.

Of course, that is a spiteful generalization. There are those dear friends and family members who will always, always (if time and money are not an issue) stop by no matter where you live. Because they are interested in your new life. Because they want to spend time with you. Those are the people who are always more than welcome. The other ones I don’t care for too much, I have to say.

And this is one of the advantages of being an expat: You are able to separate the wheat from the chaff, and then you know to whom you are REALLY close.

Creative Driving Skills

I told you I would get back to that seemingly dry subject of driving in Mexico. So here we go. Now the Germans might have invented fast driving and Autobahns, but the Mexicans I daresay invented creative driving – and that is so much more fun!

If you want to drive like a Mexican, you have to have guts. And some dinero in your pockets in case the police doesn’t approve of your new driving skills. Then the road is yours! A three-lane road and you are in a hurry? Make it a four-lane road! Just don’t use your mirrors, or better: just close your eyes, ignore the other drivers and GO!

A red traffic light and you don’t feel like stopping? Well, then don’t! Reduce your speed and then slowly and carefully continue crawling along. Honestly, the others will happily brake for you and hardly anyone ever honks. If you by all means have to stop at a crossroad, be smart. Practice your eagle eye vision, carefully observe the traffic lights and after a couple of weeks you might feel it: Any moment now the signal will switch and give you the go-ahead. So don’t be a cissy, show the others that you are a traffic light connoisseur and slowly start driving until you are in the middle of that crossroad… Then when you see the other cars starting, step hard on the accelerator – and you will be the winner!

Nevertheless, there are some rough guidelines you should follow: You can use your indicators if you must. Just not for indicating a direction change, please. You can use them to confuse other drivers (it only works with newly arrived expats or tourists, though). Or you just switch on the warning lights at all times which is also a great tool to confuse tourists and it might give you a little more space on the road.

Speaking of space, if you let more than 5 inches come between you and the next car, you can be sure there will be at least three cars squeezing in in front of you. So keep close!

Speed limits are good. We like the signs, they add some colour to the boring road and we appreciate the effort somebody made to propose an appropriate speed. But you can always add at least 15 mph, you don’t want to slow things down, do you?

Only if you see a speed control, you should indeed slow down. It so happened to me one day that I got stopped by the police. Of course, I knew that by making a little contribution to the next office party, you can get away with almost anything – but how to do that? And in Spanish!

I have a soft spot for Mexican policemen I have to say, they are so friendly and they look cute in their uniforms! So quickly, I was surrounded by five cuties, they all had to bend down a little since I was driving a mini, my first rental car here. And all five kept telling me that I had been going to fast! Oh dear. Would I please hand them over my papers and I could pick them up at the nearest police station upon paying my fine. Nah, that wasn’t what I had expected. So how do you bribe? Why hadn’t anybody ever told me how to properly buy my way out of an uncomfortable situation like this? Would I have to wink? Bat my eyelashes? Wave some pesos notes?

Luckily, the boss arrived and off they went, those other five. El jefe shook my hand which I took for a promising start. I tried the eyelash batting and asked whether there was any chance I could pay that fine right now, right here, in cash? Well… What can I say? I got a 50% discount, el jefe was happy, I was happy and when I was driving away all the policemen were waving their good-byes. And I felt it: Now I was a proper Mexican driver!

 

 

Living the expat life – dream or nightmare? Thoughts about homesickness.

A lot of people ask me how I deal with homesickness. Well, that’s not an easy topic.

I remember back then when we had moved from Europe to Seattle, I was feeling terribly depressed for some time. I had given up a good job for a prestigious cosmetics company to follow my husband, I had left friends and family behind, and all of a sudden I got this terrible feeling of emptiness. Without my job, I had no idea what to talk about anymore, for years I hadn’t persued any hobbies, and while watching my husband leaving for work every morning and the day stretching out ahead of me, I feared I had done everything wrong.

I missed my colleagues’ company, my childhood friend  that had always, always been my rock, my family and our dog, the economy had hit rockbottom and I had no idea what to do. And then I remember this sunny afternoon on Bainbridge Island, a small island just a short ferry ride from Seattle. There I was sitting in the sun under blooming cherry trees feeling lonely and miserable. And then it hit me: Everything I had wished for, had come true. I had found the love of my life, I had got married, and by quitting my job I finally had all this time that I always had longed for. So why couldn’t I be happy? I had turned my world upside down, I had this enormous chance to re-model my whole life – what right did I have to be miserable? And I realized, the world wouldn’t change for me, I had to change my view of the world!

And I started some mindwork. Whenever I felt sadness or anger or annoyance or frustration creeping up on me, I took a step back and changed my perspective. Yes, my friends were out of reach, but real friends are always with you, no matter how many miles might lie between you. Yes, I didn’t have a fancy job anymore, but hadn’t my former fancy job left me with nothing but stress and pressure? Finally, I had the opportunity to find out what made me ME. And in this process, I found out that we do not change who we are. I still like to do the same things that I liked to do when I was little. I like to paint, I like to write, I like to watch the clouds drift along and meanwhile munch away on an ice-cream.

But still, of course, there were days when I felt homesick. There still are. So I sat down and thought about homesickness. And I came to the conclusion, that what we feel as being homesick is really more a longing for old times. I sometimes miss places of my childhood, but when I go there, nothing is as I remember it. And that is because the people are not there, circumstances have changed. Going back to our old holiday cottage doesn’t work, because my brother doesn’t sit on the terrace working on some model airplane, my mum is not in the kitchen preparing a scrumptious cake, and my dad is not cutting the bushes. When I visit my hometown, I hardly can resist the urge to go to my favourite restaurant. But when I go there, and the owner is not there, and I don’t meet my old friends, it is not the same and it leaves me feeling empty and sad. So basically, we sometimes feel we want to go back to the old places when really we want to go back in time and re-live our memories.

Having realized that, homesickness isn’t that vicious anymore. Yes, it sometimes squeezes my heart, but then I think how lucky I am to have those things to remember! And after all, we carry our friends and families and memories all in our hearts anyway, so it doesn’t REALLY matter where we live, right?

Nopales – Today we will eat a cactus!

Living in foreign countries sure broadens your horizon. For me, being a passionate cook, one of the most interesting adventures in the beginning is a trip to the supermarket (or better: farmers’ market, but there is none in Playa del Carmen).

One of my favourite vegetables are nopales, segments of the prickly pear. They have the form of bunny ears and are roughly the size of a man’s hand. You can buy them at the supermarkets where they are already peeled, their spines removed. When you cut them into pieces, they release a clear slime – similar to okras. If you don’t like that, the best thing is to throw them into boiling water and strain them. If you, like me, somehow do like the slime, then you can just cook them in a pan with a little oil and salt.

Nopales have a very subtle taste, slightly sour and they have a nice and chewy texture. My favourite dish with Nopales is a salad made of lentils, tomatillos, cucumber, avocado, cilantro and chili with a dressing out of lime juice, garlic, olive oil, brown sugar, salt and pepper and some curd cheese (quark). The salad tastes best when you let it stand quite a while, so either prepare it in the morning for dinner or you can even prepare it a day ahead.

Bienvenidos a Mexico!

So there we were. Ripped out of our cozy lives back in Seattle and thrown into the colourful, exotic, and seemingly chaotic Mexican world.

I have to admit: Never in my life had I ever felt the urge to visit Mexico. So far, Mexico had been nothing but a country on a map. For me, Mexico that was drugs, beans, and Frida Kahlo. And whatever I had read in the papers about this country, it had never included beans and / or Frida Kahlo. Of that much I was certain.

Of course, we all have cliches in our heads. All of us. At any time. And I mean, I love cliches. They make traveling fun, no jokes without cliches and as long as you don’t go anywhere, you don’t even have to think them over. Right?

So stranded here with 2 suitcases, a husband and a head filled with cliches, the adventure began. Thank goodness, we have the www. Wisely, we had googled “Playa del Carmen” and “Riviera Maya” only to find out that apparently, safety was not an issue here in this part of Mexico. Big relief! So I left my bulletproof vest at home. More space for bikini and sunscreen.

And what can I say? Never ever have we experienced any dangerous situation. I admit, we live in a double fenced-in community, but I suspect them of shameless window dressing. Yes, there are a lot of policemen on the streets and they carry very impressive weapons around, yet or maybe because of that nothing has ever happened to us or to people we know. Touch wood. Yes, there may be pick-pockets around, but aren’t they everywhere? A little caution and common sense, and no harm is done.

What about the other cliches? What about the beans? Yes, we can get beans here, hooray for that! But we get a lot of other stuff, too. The yucatan cuisine is all about fresh seafood, cilantro, mint, limes, ginger – scrumptious! What about Frida Kahlo? Well, her work is everywhere, of course – which is nice. After all, what would Amsterdam be without VanGogh? And then what about the everyday life? Yes, it is as slow as I had imagined it. Maybe a little slower. But ok, we can deal with that… most of the time. Bureaucracy? Terrible. And hey, what about driving here? Oh dear, yes, we will get to that some other time…

So what do we learn from this? Cliches are fun, they help us to sort out the big world in our little heads. But you really have to go and see it to really KNOW. Right?