The Woman in Gold

Last Tuesday evening – mainly to escape the heat – Jorge and I went to the Altabrisa Mall. We looked at the shops, ate a delicious Dolphy ice cream cone, and then meandered over to the Cineplex. The Woman in Gold was about to start and so we bought tickets, climbed up to “Row J”, and plunked down in our seats. Now, four days later, I just can’t stop thinking about that film.

The British-American drama starring Helen Mirren is based on the real-life story of the late Maria Altmann, an Austrian-born Jewish woman, from a wealthy, artistic family. In 1939, the Nazis barged into their Vienna home and confiscated fine paintings, jewelry, crystal, furniture, and even her father’s Stradavarius cello. The entire family was then put under house arrest.

Maria and her husband knew that the Nazis would not allow them to remain at home for long.  Her elderly parents insisted on staying behind when the young couple fled. They made their way to California and eventually settled close to Maria’s sister who had moved there some time earlier. The two young women grieved terribly when they learned that their mother and father had been murdered at the Treblinka death camp.

They buried their pain, but decades later, after her husband and sister’s deaths, Maria found documents  that seemed to prove she was the rightful owner of Guztav Klimt’s, The Woman in Gold.

Her Aunt Adele had been the model for the portrait, often called, “the Mona Lisa of Austria”. Since the end of the war, it had graced a central gallery of the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. When new laws opened the previously sealed records of provenance, Maria’s suppressed hurt and outrage could not be held in check any longer. With the help of a young lawyer – whose grandparents had also been killed at Treblinka – a legal battle against the government of Austria ensued.

The Woman in Gold tells the story of their fight for retribution. But for me, the film was really about families who were forcefully separated during WWII. They never overcame the pain. Those who lost parents, siblings, aunts and uncles to the “Final Solution” still thirst for justice.

I can relate. My aunt hid her Jewish friends throughout the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. My father and five of my uncles fought for six years with the Canadian Armed Forces in Europe. It is a miracle that they all lived through the horror.

As The Woman in Gold points out, that war scarred my parent’s generation in ways they could never talk about. And worse yet, it seems to me our planet is in an even more dire situation than before the conflict.

Writing From Merida has been reviewed as “an entertaining regional blog”. No one reads it looking for solutions to world peace.

Yet, in Merida, there are those who tutor students in need of help with English homework, rescue stray animals, knit hats for kids with cancer, cook meals at a shelter, wash hair and polish nails at a nursing home, and hold children who have no parents to love them. These acts of kindness are not written up in the newspaper – they don’t seem grand enough to change the course of our society.

However, I believe if everyone spent some of their time this way, a more generous mindset would grow and contribute to positive change. Some people would move on to larger causes, become activists and speak out. And it would snowball from there.

Am I idealistic? Definitely. But “every journey begins with a first step.” I hope a few readers will remember this post when a stranger on the sidewalk begs a few coins – a waiter serves your table – a strolling guitar player looks hopefully in your direction – a young man juggles plastic balls at an intersection – or an older gentleman packs your bags at the grocery store.

new year wish




The Need to Write

Looking back, I realize that I started writing out of necessity. In 1976, I met Jorge, and after virtually no consideration of the ramifications, I moved to Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. This was long before the internet and long distance calling plans. To stay in touch with my family and friends in Canada, I wrote letters – hundreds of them – in longhand, on aerograms. How many of you remember those flimsy, pale-blue sheets?

aeorogram 01The foldable, piece of light-weight paper was designed for sending letters via airmail, the fastest most reliable postal service in those days. One full side of the aerogram was used for the actual writing of the letter, and the other was the address side. There were gummed flaps that folded over and formed the envelope that flew away to distant lands, at a preferential rate.

I learned to organize and economize my thoughts into language that described my life in Mexico. The aerogram could not handle rewrites. Rubbing the eraser over the tissue-thin paper caused it to rip. If I misspelled words or expressed myself clumsily – this is how the letter would be sent.

When Mom passed away in 2004, I found about one hundred aerograms that she had saved. After skimming through them, I soon returned every one back to the Eatons Department Store shoe box where she’d kept them for so many years. I had many happy times during my early years in Mexico, and I know I wrote about them. But none of those letters scored a spot in the shoebox. I wonder why she kept the ones, written by the much younger me, where I poured out my longings and the pain I carried in my heart because I lived so far away from her.

Hemmingway once said something like, “Think about what hurts most, then write about it.” I guess that’s what I did, but truly I can’t remember committing all that raw emotion to paper.  I guess I could only trust Mom with those secrets.

She never threw the aerograms away, and so neither can I. One day maybe I’ll be able to reread them with more distance. Perhaps I’ll be able to figure out why Mom kept my laments, and let my joyful missives go.

Making a Life

When I arrived in Merida in 1976, I found few of the services I was used to.  The selection at the outdoor markets did not include food items that were not needed in Yucatecan recipes. I remember asking the owner of the Kontiki Restaurant where I could get celery to use in the stuffing for my Christmas turkey. He shook his head – “There is none,” he said, “I bring mine from Mexico City.” Seeing my face crumple, he held up his index finger and told me to wait a minute, and then he brought 10 stalks from the kitchen. “Merry Christmas,” he said. I felt grateful.

Letter writing back and forth with my mother, other family and friends in Canada was my only contact with the life I’d previously known. Jorge and I did not even own a phone until 1980, but every year on my birthday, my family would call me at the house of my parents-in-law. A 12 minute call cost $100.00 – a princely sum back then.

In most bathrooms in Mexico today, we see a discrete sign that exhorts us to place used paper in the receptacle beside the toilet. When I first came here, soiled tissue was usually tossed down on the floor. It grossed me out so much that I learned to “hold it” until I got home.

The radio did not play many English-language Top 40 tunes – and I learned to appreciate the music here. At theaters, the movies were often in English, but the volume would be turned down because “the noise” distracted people reading the Spanish subtitles.

I could go on and on. Mexico has changed greatly in the past four decades. The malls, superstores and other retail outlets provide nearly every product I’ve ever heard of. Communication is instant and most of the time, virtually free. Turbo toilets make all waste whoosh quickly away, and entertainment, in any language lies – literally – in the palm of the hand.

In the late 1980s when Merida was “discovered”, most of the new arrivals from the USA and Canada wanted to live here “forever” – and many of them did so. Their numbers steadily increased through the 1990s, and the first decade of the 21st century.

The International Women’s Club, NAFTA cocktail parties, and the Merida English Library are where the community met one another. But now at the midway mark of the second decade, so many people have moved to Merida, and it seems I hardly know the majority of the expat community.

Today, the city’s expatriates have chosen this place for “the lifestyle”. Many own restaurants, bed and breakfasts, graphic design studios, shops, art galleries and schools. Aging hippies who wanted to stay off the grid, archaeology enthusiasts and sun worshiping retirees used to make up most of the international roster — the new younger arrivals say they aim to make a life here..

This is a good thing – and I hope that life includes socializing with their Mexican neighbors, not just other expats. I hope they will shop in local stores and markets, as well as Costco. I hope they’ll drink at local bars and make cool friends here. I hope they will learn to habla español. I hope they take the time to read about this area’s fascinating past. I hope their hearts will open to Merida’s less fortunate – and move them  smile broadly, and act generously with the old timer packing their bags at Mega, or the one offering to “guard” their car while they dine.

My reasons for making the move from Vancouver to Merida were far different than those of most of the new residents in town. I made a life that includes friends from Yucatan and different parts of Mexico, other Latin countries, Europe, Asia, the USA and Canada, My friends are married, single, old and young. They too walk the road less traveled

It isn’t always easy. The other day, the erudite M.B., sent me this –

I took the road less traveled and now I don’t know where the F _ _ _ I am!

I had to laugh – who hasn’t felt this way –

You have to keep on keepin’ on!

Who is Yaya?

Yaya has lived in the streets of Merida since the early 1980s. The radius of her world is one square block between Calles 57 and 59, 58 and 60. She is about 4 foot 6, bowlegged, toothless and scruffy. She does not speak or hear. I am not a psychiatrist, but I would guess that she is schizophrenic.

She is cared for by the people who live and work near the home-plate she occupies. A shopkeeper provides her with “employment.”  Daily she hands out his flyers along the four streets that define her world. If anyone walks past her without accepting one, she usually sneaks up behind and bops them on the head. I have seen more than one person whip around and stare incredulously at Yaya. But she does not back down. She will not be intimidated – not on her own turf.

No one can get near her stash of cardboard boxes with who-knows-what inside – Coca Cola bottles filled with water – and tattered blankets. Over the years, a few well-meaning souls have tried to move her and her belongings to a safer spot, but she has responded with shrill shrieks and flying fists. Yaya knows where she belongs and that is where she will stay. Muchas gracias.

No one knows where she comes from. No one has ever claimed her as their own. She lives a solitary existence amid the crowds. Another shop keeper in the pedestrian mall sees that she eats every day, and when she gets ill, he buys her medicine. From time to time, other neighbors give her clothes and blankets. She bathes and performs her bodily functions in secreted spots. There must be someone who lays out soap, a towel and leaves a water hose available to her.

The government has tried to assist Yaya, as have groups of religious women –  but it’s been a no-go. Yaya has chosen her life and will not consider any other.

But she’s getting old, and the years of hand-to-mouth living have taken their toll. Last night, after dining with friends, Jorge and I passed Yaya on the way back to our car. I wished I could do something to help her.

I am sympathetic to Yaya’s wishes to be left alone. But I have to wonder what brought her to this point? It seems she has always been deaf-mute. Where was her family and the medical community when she was a child? Where were they when she turned her back on a “normal” life – whatever that is.

Update on the wee white kitten

Last Sunday, I woke up to the sound of mewing. I followed the frightened-sounding squeaks to the garage, and there, huddled under the Ecosport, was a wee white kitten This was not the first time that an unwanted animal had been tossed over the wall during the night. A year and a half ago, someone threw over a black & white kitty, and we kept him. We called him “Bandit” because he has a black “mask” above his eyes.

We couldn’t take in this new arrival too. So I posted the photo of the little guy on Facebook – four people offered to adopt him. We chose a family who has children. We thought that the kitten would like having someone to play with. Obviously, the brother and sister LOVED the little white ball of fluff.

There was a catch though, the family would be going to Grandma’s 80th birthday party in Mexico City the next day – could I keep the kitten until Friday? I agreed, and that was a huge mistake, because I am now attached to him. In fact I have never seen a cuter baby animal. Our corgi, Andrés, likes the baby cat – he licks him and nuzzles his nose into the kitty’s soft fur. but the earlier-adopted “Bandit” is not amused at all to see another cat – even a very tiny one – horn in on his turf.

Our family knew we were smitten for good when we named him. My son started calling him “Frozen” (like the movie character) We all took turns helping him eat and then decided to visit to the vet. We worried that he wasn’t drinking enough milk. We could not send the kitten to a new home if he was not in good health and able to eat on his own.

Dr. Salvador pronounced that our “Frozen” is not a “he” as we had assumed.  She is about 5 weeks old, has parasites and an eye infection. Oh Dear! I bought the medicine and have been treating her. She has responded very well; I swear she has grown in the few days she’s been with us. She chases bits of yarn and dust bunnies. She is terrified of her own reflection and will not walk anywhere near the pool.

Are we going to be able to part with Princess Frozen? I guess we’ll have to but it won’t be easy.

Writing and Intercultural Living…


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