On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel

On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel

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by Tony Cohan

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An American writer and his wife find a new home—and a new lease on life—in the charming sixteenth-century hill town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

When Los Angeles novelist Tony Cohan and his artist wife, Masako, visited central Mexico one winter they fell under the spell of a place where the pace of life is leisurely, the cobblestone streets and


An American writer and his wife find a new home—and a new lease on life—in the charming sixteenth-century hill town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

When Los Angeles novelist Tony Cohan and his artist wife, Masako, visited central Mexico one winter they fell under the spell of a place where the pace of life is leisurely, the cobblestone streets and sun-splashed plazas are enchanting, and the sights and sounds of daily fiestas fill the air. Awakened to needs they didn’t know they had, they returned to California, sold their house and cast off for a new life in San Miguel de Allende. On Mexican Time is Cohan's evocatively written memoir of how he and his wife absorb the town's sensual ambiance, eventually find and refurbish a crumbling 250-year-old house, and become entwined in the endless drama of Mexican life. Brimming with mystery, joy, and hilarity, On Mexican Time is a stirring, seductive celebration of another way of life—a tale of Americans who, finding a home in Mexico, find themselves anew.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1985, novelist and travel writer Cohan (Canary; Secular and Sacred) and his wife, Masako, traveled on a whim to the colorful Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende, where fireworks sputter from wooden towers on feast days, "mariachi singers' plangent howls" season the air, "cats roam the rooftops unimpeded" and "history, religion and ceremony soften the effects of change." Lured back for repeated visits, the Cohans finally made their home there. Casual yet studied in tone, this ode to Cohan's adopted town and nation devotes much space to San Miguel's legends, ancient and modern. The local nunnery's founder, who turned worms into butterflies, may be more fiction than fact. Cohan's acquaintance Ren , though, is real enough: the story of the murder that the locals believe he committed dominates a disturbing chapter called "The Man Who Was Killed Twice." Hospitality vies with inefficiency to make Cohan's Mexico a place of surprising ease and random hazards: "Mexican buses are reliable, cheap, and safe," but Mexican highway patrolmen demand bribes or worse; a friend of Cohan's dies when a hospital can't get her blood type. The Mexican day seems to last longer, and "nothing happens between two and four." Cohan also presents less serious downsides to his calmer Mexican lifestyle, explaining why it took him so long to get a verandah built on his 250-year-old house. The last few years have seen San Miguel become a destination for hip tourists: Cohan's pleasant account of its former obscurity may send his fans to further crowd its streets. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Novelist and essayist Cohan capably narrates his chronicle of life in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He and his wife, artist Masako Takahashi, first visit San Miguel to escape the rampant crime and cold capitalism flourishing in their hometown of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. Admittedly "na ve visitors," the two quickly fall in love with the leisurely, sensual pace of life lived "on Mexican time." Cohan, who always had an "aversion to supermarkets which bordered on the pathological," was drawn to the open air food markets and spicy cuisine of this small town in central Mexico. After returning home to their hectic L.A. lives, their longing for the peace and happiness they found in San Miguel soon drove them to sell their home and permanently relocate. As much a commentary on the transforming power of place as it is a travelog, Cohan's richly detailed memoir is recommended for all popular collections.--Beth Farrell, Portage Cty. Dist. Lib., OH Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
From the Publisher
?A seductive (but never sentimental) journey into a different way of life. Readers, pack your bags.?
--Entertainment Weekly

?Cohan describes life in Mexico as ?intimate, voluptuous, sense-driven,? a phrase that also describes On Mexican Time.?
--Boston Sunday Globe

?On Mexican Time is more than a travelogue, more than a vicarious journey for the reader. It is a gentle reminder to examine our lives and weed out the unnecessary, the chaotic, and the frivolous.?

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Twenty-One-Day Ticket

JANUARY 1985. THERE IS NO AIRPORT directly serving San Miguel de Allende. Boarding a midafternoon bus from Mexico City's north terminal, I watch the clotted capital become desolate factory outskirts, then dissolve into cultivated swaths of agave cactus, sorghum, bean. The air softens. Musica estereofonica raises sweet laments. A Virgin of Guadalupe pendant sways from the driver's mirror between decals of Che Guevara and Rambo. A tossing reverie must have become sleep, for when I next look out the shadows are long, the hills closing in. Along the roadside, farmworkers materialize out of the air, then recede back into dusky earth. Little roadside shrines whiz by, candles lit within. Old stone walls run to nowhere. Clusters of black birds wheel, then swerve toward the horizon like iron filings to a magnet. I look over at Masako, her head pressed to the window.

A sudden sharp descent causes me to grip my seat. A dying sun sets ablaze a little town nestled on a hillside. We debark in a dusty clearing among stray dogs. A half dozen scruffy kids vie to carry our luggage; I wave them off. A taxi driver in a clean white shirt offers to take us into town. Anxiously I counter his figure by half; nobody's going to rip me off. Shrugging, he agrees, as if to say: If it's that important to you.

We step through a canopy of bougainvillea into a cool, flower-flooded patio. I enter a hotel office where earlier I'd called to ask, "Do you have a room?" and been answered with "Maybe." I'd bridled at the insouciance, with its echoes of being put on hold; but as our luggage slumps onto a tile floor in a high stucco room overlooking a shady garden, I ease, forgive.

We walk through a dimly lit town of roseate Moorish walls. A tuneless band plays somewhere. Church bells stun the air. I see a ghost or a barefoot woman walk by smiling, a bucketful of calla lilies on her head. Through the open door of a church, I glimpse a wooden Jesus in a wine-colored velvet robe. Cobbles and narrow, raised sidewalks force me to notice where I place my feet, imposing a minuet with each passing person.

In a small, thronged plaza, we sit on an iron bench gazing up at a quirky pink church, its serrated spires embedded in a full complement of stars. These strolling, chatting, laughing citizens don't seem to realize the TV they're missing at home. I war with the evening's sweet lassitude, trying to keep it all outside, avoiding eyes. I feel repeatedly for my wallet, my passport. Vainly I fish for the summarizing blurb, the snapshot, the quick hit.

Drop it, something whispers. Just let it all go ...

Our Spanish-style house was in an area south of Hollywood known in real estate parlance as "Hancock Park adjacent," an attempt to bind it to the million-dollar neighborhood close by. We'd bought it with money made writing words and music, designing clothes, and making art. We were busy, successful, tired.

An uncharacteristically cold January, and we kept the heater on all day. A book of mine had just come out and I was trying to get a grip on the next one: a story about a dwarf writer in a South American prison and an American lawyer attempting to free him. I was spending afternoons at the Amnesty International office downtown, poring through prisoner files, reading about the dirty war in Argentina, atrocities in West Africa, slaughter in East Timor. I was bringing home books with names like Torture in the 1980s. Masako would look at me oddly. She herself was painting large, grim self-portraits, acrylic on canvas.

At dinners I listened politely to friends' conversation about the price of real estate, projects in development, notable recent crimes. After a cultural night out I lay in bed reviewing the drive there and back, the parking experience, where I put my keys—the event itself barely recalled. I left messages on machines; they were returned in kind. Surrounded by art, music, information, and food, I saw, heard, thought, and tasted little. A series of robberies and killings had erupted in our neighborhood: first the Bob's Big Boy murders, in which the victims were executed; then a robbery at a favorite restaurant two blocks away, the customers mugged and herded into a freezer; then a break-in at the house next door. In a moment of grave personal defeat, I installed a house alarm system with an "Armed Response" sign stabbed into our lawn, a blinking "command center," "perimeter defense," "panic button," and roving patrol cars. We were wired for apocalypse: Blade Runner was no longer a metaphor.

There were days when I'd find myself hurtling down freeways toward receding destinations of evaporating worth, suspended between the fantastic and the mundane, between wide acclaim and abject defeat. Somewhere, I'd missed a turnoff.

Cold, anxious, trapped inside our house, we'd taken to bed early one night to keep warm. Masako was leafing through an issue of Gourmet, a Christmas subscription from a friend. I was with Bruce Chatwin in Patagonia. The Gourmet magazine represented to me the very complacent consumerism we'd once scorned, now breaking through our "perimeter defenses." In youth we'd both traveled widely on shoestrings, lived in Europe, North Africa, India, Japan. Now we had the money but no time. Instead we read about it, recounted old experiences, festooned our dwellings with Third World artifacts, talismans of trips once taken.

"Look," Masako said, holding open a double-page color spread.

Warm rose-colored walls, azure sky, red bougainvillea. A scalloped fountain, a courtyard restaurant, a sandstone church spire.

"Isn't that where Mina and Paul go?"

We'd known them separately in Berkeley before we met, then again in Los Angeles together. Mina makes and teaches independent films; Paul is a painter best known for his surrealistic record cover paintings for avant-garde rock bands. Years earlier they'd fled bad marriages and run off together to Mexico. They still returned there every summer. When asked about it, they always grew vague.

"San Miguel de Allende," the caption said, "in the mountains of central Mexico."

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Tony Cohan is the author of the novels Canary, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Opium, a Literary Guild Selection. His essays, travel writings, and reviews have appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers, including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. His work as a lyricist with pianist and composer Chick Corea and others can be heard on a number of albums. He divides his time between Venice, California, and Mexico.

From the Hardcover edition.

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On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Cohan's descriptions of the people and places made me feel like I was meeting them and was present on the scene. He didn't duck the unpleasant parts of life there either. However they were outweighed by the pluses. The lush colors, the fiestas, the people were delightful. Reading this book makes me hopeful about life and the future.
Guest More than 1 year ago
On Mexican Time is a beautifully potent book that instantly transported me into the writer's lush world of San Miguel de Allende. I savored each page, devouring the descriptions and characters until I felt as if I knew the Calle Flor or El Caribe. Beautiful written, never overly sentimental, a lovely heart-felt tribute to modern Mexico and a town carved from history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have also feel in love with Mexico and this book really placed me back in that country. I had thought at one time that I would like to live there for awhile, but inertia set in. After reading this, I am seriously considering my own odessy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Having just returned from the town in Mexico described by the author, i really loved this book. The descriptions were right on and brought the place to life in print. What an adventure! Loved the part about wanting to be on the rooftop; so appropriate in regards to San Miguel!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book. There are parts of it that are as lyrical as poetry, and other sections that are "screen captures" of life in a Mexico town.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book covers fifteen years, and pretty much nothing happens. Entire chapters are devoted to a house remodelling job (probably the best chapter), a shopping drive through the area, the handyman's affair with the maid, a visit from a hung-up gringo, and a party. At times the author tries to wax poetic about the slow pace of life and the charming native whatever, but this is almost painful to read. Also, he keeps saying how free he is of the hectic pace and materialism of L.A., but he discusses possesions and acquisitions in detail. It seems really odd that this is all he can find to speak of concerning a fifteen year residence in San Miguel.