Colonia San Antonio, photography, Rants and raves, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

Hey, buster, who are you calling the ‘friendliest city in the world’?

News item: Conde Nast Traveler names San Miguel de Allende the “friendliest city in the world.” It beats out Dublin, Lisbon, Bangkok, Copenhagen, Mexico City, and Bruges among others. The media company previously named San Miguel the “best small city in the world.”

This can’t be good.

I was asked to respond to all this by an otherwise sharp and responsible newspaper colleague. And so …

All right, the next guy who says San Miguel de Allende is the friendliest city in the world gets a punch in the nose, see?

A city with a reputation like that could get itself hurt, see? A city could pick up a rep-u-tation with talk like that, and not the good kind, see?

Other cities start thinking it’s a patsy and start aping all that friendly stuff and the next thing you know, you’ve got a six-way tie for the friendliest city. 

And that ain’t good for nobody, see?

Why, if everybody is friendly, then what’s this world coming to?

Oh, god. I am so sorry. 

We watched “Lemon Drop Kid” last night and I’ve been channeling Damon Runyon ever since. Or am I aping Bob Hope?

Jessh.

Ok. San Miguel. 

Take my word for it, it is very friendly. Locals tend to make eye contact and when they do, they often break into a big smile and wish you a good day or good afternoon. Sometimes I think they just know what that kind of thing does to New Yorkers and Los Angelenos, and simply enjoy the fruits of their mischief. 

I forget the Mexican phrase for “He looked like a deer in the headlamps,” but it can apply.

If the city is considered friendly, it is the local people who deserved much of the credit. I have never seen people so open to engaging with strangers, so welcoming, so helpful.

And so celebratory.

A parade or religious procession can break out almost any day of the week, and often does. I sometimes think the Catholic Church throws celebrations of saints and holy events at the people with insane frequencies, just to keep them tired, so they won’t rebel and take back the church’s massive real estate and precious metal holdings.

Again.

As they have done before.

Fireworks are a big part of these celebrations, as are fabulous costumes, and towering puppets we call mojigangas.

When we moved back into our current home, the housekeeper at our former place brought her family and home-cooked dishes to the table so we could all celebrate. We got pizza for the kids. 

When we first moved into our home, our street was gutted – a two-foot deep channel that ran from the neighborhood church to the Ancha, our main drag. New sewer and water and gas pipes, and fiber-optic cables were laid and a fresh stone street was installed by hand. On the last day, all of our Mexican neighbors came out with tables, cakes, salads, sodas, enchiladas, tacos, and more for all the workers. We brought fried chicken.

It is just what happens here.

One thing that helps make San Miguel friendly, as it does in most Mexican towns and cities, is the public square. It is a gathering place of Mexicans and ex-pats, tourists and locals, mariachi bands, street food vendors, pickpockets, students practicing English, panhandlers, storytellers, promenaders, magicians, book readers, old men with fading memories, youngsters in love, honeymooners, Instagram posers, daytrippers, and dreamers.

It is a very democratic space.

I once sat on a bench next to an elderly and elegant – but a touch threadbare – gentleman who proceeded to give me the architectural history of the plaza. We even walked around so he could point out elements of the colonial style and baroque and sneaky modernism making its way into the centuries-old space. He was an architect from Mexico City who spends time studying our city. That’s all. He just wanted to share his love for the city with a complete stranger.

A place can be too friendly sometimes.

Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and sometimes Allen Ginsberg, would go on a bender down here. On the night of February 3, 1968, Neal Cassady left a cantina called La Cucaracha, The Cockroach, and walked west toward the railroad tracks. I’m told he passed through a small community where a wedding was being celebrated. He was invited in and drank pulque late into the night with the families.

Cassady lays down beside the rails and falls asleep.

When he was discovered, he was badly suffering from hypothermia. He died February 4.

Don’t mess with pulque.

La Cucaracha is still around, behind an unmarked door. I’ve seen it open only once in my nearly 4.5 years here. A friend who owns a shop next door says she thinks the bathroom hasn’t been cleaned since Feb. 4, 1968. She says she has stories of the debauchery that went on back in the day. I may get to hear them one day. I’ll keep you posted.

I had a similar experience on my last birthday, only it was Mezcal and my wife was able to wrangle a ride home, of which I have no recollection. Mezcal has rarely passed my lips since April 10. Rarely. Hardly ever. But on important occasions, maybe.

If friendships are often built around common interests, then San Miguel is the source code for that sort of thing. We enjoy an abundance of arts of every sort – painting, writing, theater, music, sculpture, jewelry, yoga, Pilates, New Ageism, pickleball, poetry, culinary arts, and fashion among them.

We are a place of re-invention. Photographer Jerry Rife is the one who told me, “If you aren’t an artist when you move here, you will become one.” People who spent lifetimes selling stock or life insurance or pharmaceuticals, teaching insolent eighth graders, working in hospitals, running for political office, driving trucks, unionizing, designing software … well, they come here and something happens.

Poof! You are an artist, you are a writer, you are a poet, you are a jewelry designer, you are a real estate agent you are a storyteller, you are a shaman, you are a philosopher, you are a rock star, you are a chef, you are an entrepreneur.

Not everyone should become an artist, but everyone has the right to pursue their muse. Here, all pursuits are welcome.

Some say it is a bedrock of crystals on which this city is built, a magical energy that unlocks your inner creativity. I myself was just published in an anthology of local writers and poets. That’s a kick. I have written film scripts for a friend. I have written stories for the local newspaper. OK, that last one isn’t much of a stretch.

For the most part, my creative juices are replenished by writing a blog that is mostly about San Miguel. Here’s the plug: sanmiguelmusesandmagic.com . I start with the premise that every day that I step out the front door, something magical will happen.

It could be a hot air balloon floating by, bumping into an old friend, a conversation with a stranger, finding a miniature china teacup among the cobblestones, discovering a new mural, an opera singer on a street corner, a wedding party dancing through a park, the guy walking 14 well-behaved dogs, peeking through an open door into a garden of Eden, a Mariachi band playing a rock song, the smell of street food, a quinceañera miss posing in her fairytale gown and tiara, a 50-peso bill blown against the curb, the lavender petals of jacaranda trees carpeting the cobblestones, a colorful piece of a costume that broke away, a five-dollar jacket (brand new) at the Tuesday market, an afternoon in the countryside with friends, when your favorite musicians come up to hug you before they play, when the Nativity and Menorahs go up in the parks, the sound of horse’s hooves passing the house, when the Locos and Muertos parades begin, finding first editions at the Biblioteca book sale. 

Something will always happen when you open your heart up to San Miguel.

And name your poison; you’ll find your people. Someone recently asked if there were any Republicans in San Miguel, a deliberately provocative question. But one respondent said, “Whatever it is, you can find your tribe here.” (For the record, Repubs & MAGAs hang out at a decent New Orleans-style bistro called Hanks.)

And that’s exactly right.

Some more-recent migrants tend to be political or economic refugees and I find them less interesting that the previous waves. They are more insecure, fearful of cartels (which don’t operate openly inside the city), suspicious of locals, and they openly miss Denny’s, Costco, Walmart, and CVS.

An exception to this is a new friend, Abby, who told me over coffee this morning, how she walked out of her hotel during her second day in the city and “something hit me, right here,” she said, placing her hand over her heart. Day three: She bought a house.

Abby was married to an Argentinian, speaks a fair amount of Spanish, worked in the LA movie industry,  and is all in on the arts scene in San Miguel. She will easily find her tribe.

Impulse buying happens a lot. Well, more than you would think.

Twice, I have taken the shuttle to the airport with women who bought houses during their first visits to San Miguel. One was pondering how she was going to tell her husband. The other was freshly divorced and looking to park some funds outside his reach. At the behest of a mutual friend, I counseled one couple to go slow, rent for a while, check out the neighborhoods, go slow, blah, blah, blah, go slow. Next day, they bought a beautiful home and are now among our dearest friends here.

The first wave of gringos to San Miguel goes back to the 1930s when a young artist/photographer/baseball player named Sterling Dickinson got off the train and walked into town. He co-founded the first Arts Institute in the converted nun’s convent now known as Belles Artes. They drew students from the U.S. and Canada, many who stayed and reconstructed old crumbling casas and haciendas into beautiful homes. 

When the first institute went to the ground, Dickinson joined with a couple of others to found Instituto Allende, a degree-granting art school affiliated with one of Mexico’s finest universities and several U.S. colleges that send students here.

After World War II, a lot of veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to fund their studies in San Miguel. You can still see some murals painted by ex-GIs around the town. They are haunting when compared to more modern murals which abound in several neighborhoods. Again, many foreign students became residents and citizens and entrepreneurs.

The other day, my friend Zara stopped by while I was having coffee with Pilates friends (See? Tribes and coffee, hand in hand.) She had just rescued two tiny puppies from the highway on her way to work. I took some photos of her with the puppies and posted them on Facebook pages, in hopes that somebody would adopt them for Christmas. Did it work? I don’t know yet — but that is how things work here: Friends help friends and neighbors whenever they can.

If one other person can be credited with the perception of San Miguel as a welcoming city, it is retired San Diego Union-Tribune photographer Jerry Rife (and of course, his wife, Jan). We were colleagues for 30 years and now friends for more than 40. Jerry’s photographs of everyday life in the city speak more than all the words written about San Miguel.

Jerry’s photos are unposed, unfiltered, honest, spontaneous captures of life on the streets. Everyone knows Jerry by his ragged straw hat, tall and lean frame, and camera dangling around his neck. People see his photos on Facebook and the next thing you know they are booking a flight to San Miguel. Happens all the time.

I hope Jerry chimes in. He and Jan have lived here off and on for 20 years and know this town much better than I do. He and Jan are among the biggest reasons that we now live here. Making others feel welcome comes naturally to them.

When Conde Nast mentions the 350 restaurants in this city, I don’t think it is including all of the coffee shops and rooftop/sidewalk cafes. I can count 20 within three blocks of my home, places where you can drop in for coffee and a pastry and talk it up with friends and strangers. That is no accident or lack of imagination on the part of shop owners. These places are filled with people. And in many, the coffee is actually quite good. The companionship and conversations are even better.

People here just like other people. It is that simple.

Are we the friendliest city in the world?

I doubt it.

There are probably 30 to 100 Mexican cities and towns just as friendly.

That is just the way of the Mexican people. 

_______________________________________________________________________

Put more magic in your life!

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5 thoughts on “Hey, buster, who are you calling the ‘friendliest city in the world’?

  1. Your masterful essay on San Miguel de Allende may backfire if you want it to appear less special…
    That was one of the most wonderful pieces on any topic I’ve read in a long time. I’ve long known San Miguel was extraordinary — my dear friend, Herb Lockwood, “Woody” of the humor writing award at SPJ in San Diego, lived there in the 1950s — but I have never read a more evocative, painterly vision of it like the one you have created, Bob. Wow. Just beautiful.

    Like

    • Wow! Thank you so much, Priscilla. By the way, I’m trying to convince a friend here in SMA to compile all of his hikes, beautiful photos, and well-crafted descriptions into a book like your “Take a Hike.” I’m going to buy him a copy for inspiration!

      Like

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