1963…..When I was seven years old, my father was sent to work in Mexico City. We were to travel by train from Rye, New York. My main travel concern at that point was my pet turtle, Tootsie. I put Tootsie in a peanut butter jar and poked holes in the top. It was summer and as we reached the border at Laredo, Texas, it must have been at least 100 degrees. The air conditioning went out just as we crossed over into Mexico and everybody was told to get off the train for customs inspection. Tootsie was in my mother’s carry-on bag under some other things and sat on top of a table in the middle of the cavernous customs house. The uniformed official walked up and down and around this table eyeing the luggage. He briefly looked as if he was going to inspect the carry-on. We all held our breath. However, at age seven I managed to successfully smuggle a live turtle across the border undetected by customs. When we reached Mexico City, I spent the entire day looking over my shoulder expecting to be nabbed for my illegal import. They never caught up with me and Tootsie lived a full turtle life.
Not too long after we got there, my father was off on a business trip and my mother and I were alone in the house with the maids. All of a sudden they became very upset and came to my mother’s room to tell her something. We did not speak Spanish yet and could not understand what they were saying. They kept saying Kennedy! Kennedy! , and then pretended to shoot a gun. We gathered that the president had been shot but we could not determine if he was dead or not. Later in the day, another expat wife was kind enough to phone my mother and fill her in that our president, John F. Kennedy, was dead.
In Mexico City, I had a choice of going to the American School that was very large and, well, American, and Greengates, the British school, which was much smaller. One of my brothers and I chose the British school, while my eldest brother went to the American School. Unfortunately because I was behind in certain areas due to the fact that I was coming from a different system, they put me in the first grade again. It was my third first grade. Before we were asked to leave Burma, I had just started first grade there. In New York, I went to public school and completed first grade. Now I was there again, feeling awful. I studied and studied and worried and studied; then halfway through the year they put me in second grade. I was so obsessed with doing well, I ended second grade at the top of my class and even received an award. I didn’t want to be the dumb foreign kid – not fitting in again. I was top of my class until the fourth grade and for a year, I woke up every morning with a stomach ache. My mother took me to all kinds of doctors but nobody knew why I had a stomach ache. Finally, they realized it was nerves and said I had the beginning of an ulcer and that I should learn to relax. I was nine years old.
Even though I was diagnosed with “nerves”, I really did like Greengates. We had to wear a uniform which was good because I never had to decide what to wear or worry about competing with anybody in that department – not that I was much interested in clothes anyway. When I was in the second grade, Prince Philip came to visit our school and speak to us at assembly. A friend of mine and I went to watch him play polo and afterward, we went up to him, shook his hand and introduced ourselves. We were very excited, giggly seven year olds, curtsying as best we could in our jeans.
After spending six months in an outer suburb in temporary housing, we moved closer to town in the neighborhood known as Las Lomas. “Lomas” translates as “hills”. Across the street from us was a “barranca” which is like a huge ditch but I guess the correct word is “ravine”. We lived in a big, fairly modern, two-story house that had four bedrooms, all with en-suite bathrooms, two living rooms, a large veranda and an interior garden as well as dining room, breakfast room, kitchen, laundry room, and servants’ quarters. This was a fairly upscale area and we had some neighbors who had estates and some were famous. Across the way was where the owner of a big Mexican brewery lived and we could see swans swimming in his little lake. The famous comedian Cantinflas lived up the street from us and I even saw him a couple of times, whizzing by in his car.
We shared a walled-in compound with our landlady who lived in an identical house. Dona Isabel, the landlady, always kept dogs – mainly for security reasons and she had a weakness for collies. Because the only thing that separated us was a hedge, the dogs spent most of their time at our house because we gave them lots of attention while she basically ignored them. The dogs were always barking their heads off if anybody approached the gates, though, so she didn’t mind if we enjoyed them as pets. My father never allowed us to have actual pets when we lived in the city. Since he had grown up on a farm, he was adamant that animals belonged outside. Except for my turtle, of course.
Our next-door neighbors, were a Mexican family with eight children. We had a chain-link fence between us covered with ivy but there was one section we could see through and we would hang out and talk through the fence. They invited me on family outings with them. The whole family were nuts for playing dominoes so I would go over to their house and play dominoes for hours.
Every summer we ran out of water. July was the dry season and we would go for a week or two where nothing came out of the water tap. We had a big tank under our stairway outside that would also run dry. This usually happened when we had people visiting from the U.S. My mother loved it because it showed them that our life wasn’t as glamorous as everyone assumed it was. Fortunately, there was a water station not too far from our house, so we could go down there with buckets and haul water to fill up the tank.
Josefina, our cook, stayed with us the entire time we lived in Mexico. She taught me how to cook quesadillas and cajeta (known now in the U.S. as dulce de leche) and she always had a fresh stack of tortillas in the refrigerator that she would heat over a gas burner and smear with butter for a snack. We would watch TV together at night when my parents were out. After she had been with us for a few years, she told my mother she had a son who was living in her village and wanted to know if he could come and visit her. My mother was taken aback. In Asia (and in Africa too) the children of the household help often lived with them on the compound. Josefina’s son Jaime came to live with us when he was seven or eight.
My mother was never very good at learning languages and she always struggled to communicate in Spanish. At one point we had an older maid, Inez, who was fresh from her village and had never lived in the city before. She laughed at my mother’s Spanish. We soon found that she could not read. So my mother sent her to school to learn to read. After a few weeks of that, she went to my mother and apologized for laughing at her. Now she knew how hard it was to learn something new.
On the weekends, if the weather was good, we would go out to the Reforma Club in the suburbs, past Satellite City. It had an Olympic size swimming pool and many clay tennis courts, squash courts and a playing field and lawn-bowling greens (very British). It also had a nice restaurant and ballroom for parties. I had learned to swim in Burma and I loved to swim and dive. I could spend the whole day in the water.
I loved going over to my best friend’s house because it was always full of chocolate and sweets. Her parents were Polish immigrants to the U.S. but she had been born in Connecticut. She was more American than the Americans. She had every board game and the very latest Barbie dolls with all the accessories. She had an Easy-bake oven that we could make real cakes in, a Creepy Crawler kit that had molds for making plastic creatures, and every Beatles album, fad and gadget. Whenever her father had to travel to the U.S., he would bring home the latest consumer items. The things they had crammed into their closets always fascinated me.
Thoughts on the TCK version of home…
Years later, I ran into her when her parents had been posted to Paris. I was in boarding school in Switzerland at the time and in love with Europe. She hated living in Paris and wanted to be back in New York. She ended up back in the States, finishing high school, living with a friend’s family. I never understood how she could give up Paris for some suburban U.S. high school. I guess having all that stuff in Mexico prepared her for better assimilation into American society. While all the American gadgets and “conveniences” were cool, they were never anything I longed for. I always found plenty to interest me in whatever culture I landed in.
One survival skill I learned as an expat child was the ability to feel like everyplace I lived was home. Even hotel rooms often were referred to as “home”. It didn’t really matter. My family talked about how, no matter where we were, or what the circumstances, everyplace was “home” as long as we were together and had a pack of cards. A good card game could get us through anything. Some of my fondest memories are of blackouts during torrential rainstorms playing cards by candlelight.
To this day, Mexico is one of my favorite places. I liked living there. I learned the language quickly and worked at getting to know people. I spent time with the maids watching their soap operas on TV. Even now, a suggested practice for leaning Spanish is to watch those ever-present “Telenovelas”.
There was a large expat community in Mexico City including business people, diplomats, scientists, scholars, retirees and all kinds of people. Many activities centered on the American School. They had Little League baseball, Girl Scouts, and big celebrations on major U.S. holidays such as 4th of July picnics. I don’t remember participating in any of those things.
The British school was small and didn’t have much in the way of facilities but we were all very resourceful and pretty adventurous and came from 27 different nationalities. We usually travelled in packs and spoke a mixture of Spanish and English. Many kids spoke a third language at home. When we spoke to each other we would use the words that first popped into our head or that were the most appropriate for their meaning, it didn’t matter which language they were. My closest friends were Italian, Mexican, Ghanaian, British and American.
Travels and Tourism in Mexico
I saw the sights of Mexico City and environs a million times or so it seemed. All our American friends and family came and visited us there. I enjoyed going to the pyramids at Teotihuacán. It was amazing to see how much that place changed over the years. When we first started going, the only pyramid uncovered was the Sun and a few smaller ones surrounding it. Then they uncovered the Moon and a few more, smaller pyramids. They discovered several galleries – the butterfly building with butterflies painted on its walls – a winding pathway with creatures’ heads sticking out from the walls – a prison cell where sacrifice victims were kept until it was their “time”. In the span of a few years, an entire city emerged before our eyes.
Every time I went there, I learned something new about the people and saw things from a different angle or height. I climbed the Sun Pyramid a couple of times but after they uncovered the Moon Pyramid, I stuck to climbing that one. Not only was it about half the size of the Sun Pyramid, but the Sun Pyramid gave me the creeps because when I was on top of it, I would always imagine the priests ripping the hearts out of young virgins as the sun came up over the horizon to ensure another sunrise.
We traveled extensively around Mexico. We picnicked at the base camp of Popocatepetl and waved goodbye to the people on their way up to the top. Popo was one of the snow-capped volcanoes that you could sometimes see from Mexico City and still erupted from time to time. There was another mountain nearby called Ixtaccihuatl, which means White Lady.
There was an Aztec legend about these volcanoes that had many variations. The gist of the story was that Popo and Ixta fell in love, but she was a princess and he was a commoner. Her father said the only way they could get married was if he went to war and came back victorious. Off he went. One of his enemies reported back to Ixta that Popo had died in battle and she died of sorrow. When Popo returned victorious to find her dead, he carried her into the mountains and laid her to rest where he watches over her to this day.
Taxco was a small tourist city built on the side of a mountain. Besides having a few interesting churches, it was mainly known for its silver and had shop after shop of silver jewelry. We would go there for a weekend and walk the steep, narrow streets. The hotel we stayed in had a back patio where cockfights took place after dark. The cocks screamed in anger and pain as they killed each other or maybe it was just the crowd I heard screaming. I thought the whole thing was disgusting. My brother, Tom, loved it. He would spend hours on the patio, cheering the victorious rooster.
On Sunday afternoons we would drive over the mountains to Cuernavaca which was at a lower altitude and thus, often hot and sunny. We would stop at the Benedictine Monastery to see what they had for sale and then head for Las Mañanitas. Las Mañanitas was a quintessential Mexican hotel and restaurant. At the back there was a lawn with chairs and tables set up where people had drinks and appetizers while looking at the menus presented on chalkboards. Peacocks and parrots wandered freely around the yard. There was a small fountain at one side.
The only food I remember having was a fancy chopped beef thing that was the closest I could get to a hamburger. But I remember going with a friend of ours one time who actually ordered and ate eels. I sat there shocked and amazed while watching him devour shiny eels with their eyes staring out at me. We always had a small glass of crème de cacao with a layer of cream on top for dessert. It was their trademark. I remember we used to practice balancing the cream on top of the liqueur at home. Not an easy task.
One year we took a trip to Veracruz and Fortin de las Flores. We stopped on the beach at Veracruz for a lunch of fresh fish and I went for a swim. I was happily swimming away enjoying myself when some guy way out in the water started to swim in yelling “tiburón! tiburón!”. I knew to immediately get out of the water! Sharks are no fun.
In Fortin we stayed at a hotel that filled the swimming pool every morning with fresh gardenias. They really perfumed the swimming area but they were obstacles that got in the way of my vigorous swimming. On the way back to Mexico City, we stopped in a resort that had the biggest swimming pool I had ever seen. Hacienda Vista Hermosa had first opened to the public in 1947 and was reconstructed from an old hacienda that had been destroyed during the revolution. The pool had fountains and arches.
My brother, Tom, decided to go to college in Tucson, Arizona. After we dropped him off there we took a trip down the west coast of Mexico stopping in Mazatlan and Guymas. At that time Mazatlan was just a big fishing village. Now it is a popular tourist resort. There was nothing there but a large, pristine beach. In Guymas we stopped at a restaurant and in the bathroom the floor was covered wall to wall with crickets. From then on we had a cricket in the car with us and listened to him all the way back home.
One winter we were invited out to a hacienda in the Mexican countryside. We had a tour of the farm and afterwards we were invited to have lunch with the family (the mid-day meal is always the largest in Mexico). The owner’s son was a friend of my father’s and that made my father the guest of honor so he sat to the right of the head of the household, Don Alvaro. I think my father’s friend was the only one who spoke English and I have no idea who all the people were at the table but there were a lot of them.
The main thing I remember eating that day was ‘cabrito’ for the first time. Cabrito is baby goat meat and it is delicious. I think we must have had soup first and then they brought out the main course. A woman came out and placed a plate in front of my father. Because he was the guest of honor he received the goat’s head – skull with eyes and brains in it. I just sat there and watched, wondering what he would do.
He sat in silence for a few minutes looking at the thing and then he turned to Don Alvaro and said “I thank you very much for this honor but I am sure that you would appreciate this delicacy more than I” and handed over the plate. Of course Don Alvaro was thrilled and devoured the whole thing with gusto. I was amazed, but that’s the kind of guy my dad was. Always able to cope with any situation with grace and style.
One of the down sides to living in Mexico City was the frequent earthquakes. It seemed like the temblores usually came at night or in the morning. I would wake up suddenly to see the ceiling light swaying. People came to visit and did not know what to do. Usually people would sit in bed trying to decide if they should get up and stand in the doorway or get under something, but by the time they had decided, the earthquake was over.
We had one big earthquake when we were in Mexico. I was sitting at the breakfast table and the room started to shake. My father immediately got up and ran out into the yard. My mother was climbing the stairs and didn’t feel a thing. I sat mesmerized by the water in my glass swaying back and forth. Like monsoons, blizzards and other natural extremes, one does become blasé about such things when they are ever present. I think it is probably the only way one can live in a place where they happen so often they are normal, not unusual.
Mexico City was originally built on top of a lake. Many of the older buildings frequently sank into the soft soil. One such building was the Palacio de las Bellas Artes. It was a fabulous Art Deco building that sank about 13 feet. It housed famous murals and had a big theater. It was the home of the Mexican Ballet Folklorico, which celebrated the diverse Mexican culture through dance. If we got there early we could see the Tiffany glass curtain that portrayed the two volcanoes Popo and Ixta. The whole time I lived in Mexico I took ballet lessons and every year the Russian Bolshoi Ballet would come to town and perform at the Bellas Artes Theater. I was lucky enough to go more than once. When I lived in Moscow many years later, it was a very special experience to go to the actual Bolshoi Theater.
While we were living in Mexico, the National Museum of Anthropology opened. It was a huge deal. My mother took me, my friends’ mothers took me, my school took me, and visiting houseguests took me. I have to admit it was a very cool museum. I saw the real Aztec calendar and learned all kinds of things about the history of the area. It was a large museum and required many visits to see it all.
(This is an excerpt from my book, Expat Alien My Global Adventures)