Another San Francisco Couple Exits the Scene

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I came to San Francisco in 1964.  My wife, Rhonda, arrived in the Bay Area in 1981.  Last month, after living here for more than a half-century, we sold our Potrero Hill condominium.  With five suitcases and a 120 pound German Shepherd, we hit the road, our destination:  San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.   We left behind one of the world’s most beautiful cities, one that suffers from a surfeit of riches: dynamic topography, unrivaled cultural institutions both mainstream and independent, a compelling history and a promising future.

Over the past five decades I’ve lived in numerous neighborhoods, including Haight-Ashbury, the Sunset and Noe Valley.  I started out in a rented room in Japantown, riding a bicycle to what was then San Francisco State College.  I later acquired a Volkswagen Bug, cramming my cello into the backseat on my way to the Conservatory of Music, then located ‘out in the avenues’.

In this City of perpetual new frontiers, melting pot of technological and artistic innovation, I applied my master of music degree to develop a new performance context for the String Quartet. In 1980, following the model of the European ‘music salon’, my quartet entertained in the homes of the rich and famous, politicians and captains of industry. At one reception at The Haas Lilienthal House, then Mayor Joe Alioto appears in a photograph playing first violin in our quartet. His request to ‘sit in’ was not unwelcomed.

During our packing for the move South, I came across a large manila folder that contained a three-inch paper stack of ‘thank- you’ correspondence bearing impressive company letterheads, a practice long since replaced with generic electronic communications. Then, there was no competition for a musical trailblazing endeavor like the one I took. Instead, there was a kind of stuffiness when playing classical music in more traditional settings; performing Mozart in the presence of booze at a party was considered a disgrace.  Now, the San Francisco Symphony has more than a half-dozen freelance ensembles available for hire. Having fun in a smaller ‘commercial sector’ has been discovered as appealing for many formally trained musicians. Indeed, through internet promotion and crowd sourcing, hosting local and traveling musical performers in living rooms has become ubiquitous in San Francisco.   

From my fledgling years playing at weddings and parties, my music-making evolved into running a full-service booking agency that promoted a wide spectrum of local aspiring artists. I made enough money to, at long last, acquire ‘a piece of the rock’, purchasing a Hill condominium in 1996.

Last January, Rhonda and I celebrated my 70th birthday by visited San Miguel de Allende, a town that emerged in the 17th century that’s now home to 100,000 residents.  In the space of a seven day vacation we realized that there might still be different places to enjoy.  Perhaps we could experience other adventures, vistas, and environments while our mental and physical faculties functioned optimally.  While the January vacation has closed some windows onto the bountiful vista that’s San Francisco, a new door has opened.

We’ve been fortunate to view the magnificence of the Golden Gate Bridge, seen from beach walking our dog at Crissy Field at sunset.  But, with age, and eventual impairment, our future has limits.   Said more poetically, “Old age is that period in life when more and more things happen for the last time and fewer and fewer things happen for the first time.”  It was in this context that Rhonda and I made the decision to start a new journey.  We’re either jumping onto a new horse, or, jumping off a cliff!

We’ve now learned that many Americans visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site over a period of three to four years, then rent for several months, and only after an extended trial period consider purchasing a permanent residence. Rhonda and I have been known to be ‘impulse shoppers,’ and reached such a conclusion after the vacation week was up. The decision wasn’t as hard is it might appear, given San Miguel’s unique attributes.

After World War II the town was a haven for soldiers on the GI Bill, who populated the local art schools. In the 1960s, a bohemian tribe of artists colonized what was then an out of the way undeveloped former silver mining town at 6000 feet in Central Mexico. With a constant 70 to 80 degree Fahrenheit, and a peso valuation that stretches dollars quite far, San Miguel has attracted a steady trickle of settlers ever since. The 10,000 American, Canadian, and European expatriates have brought with them improved telephone and internet service, cable television, courier mail deliveries, restaurants with international chefs, art fairs, and, of course, a burgeoning real estate market, which experienced two recent spikes: the re-election of President George Bush, when it tripled, and 9/11.

Mexico has the world’s 11th highest gross national product, according to the International Monetary Fund. The United Kingdom is 10th; Italy, 12th. The Western Hemisphere’s largest automobile plant is in Mexico. And yet the country is regarded by many Americans as a Third World nation dominated by drug cartels.

Others at this juncture in life contemplate different locations to set down new roots. But deeper analysis often reveals immediate drawbacks:  distance, language, economics, housing, and medical needs, to name a few. All of these challenges seem to be neatly reconciled in San Miguel, where the ubiquity of like-minded Westerners provides a cocoon of familiarity and high-quality professional services.  As has been stated elsewhere, “This is not like any place else. It’s very foreign but it has all the stuff that you know.”  The common link for expats is that we’ve all “left”: our professions, titles, social circles, location, and amenities.  This common denominator provides for a congenial environment.

After 20 years as the dean of students at an Ivy League university, one San Miguel immigrant indulged his deep fascination with stone work, and became a local brick layer.  There’s a profusion of local color: a film, jazz and chamber music festival; writers and art workshops of every description.  San Miguel is an inclusive place in which people can reinvent themselves. In New York there may be dozens of aspirants in any one category; in San Miguel just a few or none at all.

In San Miguel it’s inexpensive to engage the services of a housekeeper, gardener and cook, even a property manager to pay the bills, with the prevailing sentiment being that expats provide an important income source to townspeople.  Not a month passes without an elaborate ‘fiesta’, parades celebrating a saint, patriot or national holiday. During Holy Week, for example, there was a plethora of paper mache-sculpted characters and religious figures transported through the streets by the populace, young and old, dressed in indigenous costumes. 

Still, ex-patriots and non-native residents tend to cluster in specific areas of this small historic town.  Even though San Miguel may be an easy place to make friends and enjoy the many public festivities, we’ve been told that deeper relationships tend to be with members of one’s own tribe.

“I remember going back after a few years to California,” the author of San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart, writes.  “I walked into a supermarket and asked, ‘Where’s the water’. They said, aisle three. All of aisle three was water!’ “Being here removes you from that enough so that you see it as just ridiculous. The amount of food wasted in two supermarkets in LA would feed everybody who’s hungry in San Miguel. I find it hard to talk to people when I go back because they’re so driven, even if they look like they’re not driven.”

Today, at this time in our lives, Rhonda and I are driven to find a new home.  We’re not sure what happens after that.