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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
When Los Angeles-based novelist Tony Cohan and his artist wife, Masako, first visited the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende in 1985, the closest they could get by plane was Mexico City. From there, they had to take an unpleasant 170-mile bus trip to the dusty turnaround in the middle of the city. Now it is quite different, as I discovered when I traveled to San Miguel last year -- visitors can fly into Léon International Airport and take a quick bus ride to the new concrete bus terminal about a mile from San Miguel. When I arrived, I was greeted by friendly taxi drivers ready to take me to what may be the cleanest and tidiest city in all of Mexico.
San Miguel de Allende rests at an elevation of more than a mile in the mountains northwest of Mexico City. The Spanish may have found silver among those hills, but upon their arrival, Tony Cohan and his wife found much more. Who wouldn't want to vacation, much less live, in a place that enchants all the senses? While I was reading On Mexican Time, I was not surprised when Cohan and Masako decided to give up their fast-paced lives in Los Angeles and settle in colorful San Miguel, among walls that were standing when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
On Mexican Time, Cohan's evocative portrait of San Miguel, is a totally sensual experience. From the sounds of the 15 bell towers, whose chimes overlap in chaotic harmony, to the tastes of the street vendors' boiled corn in the jardin, the main town square, San Miguel is a place where everything has a voice. Days there are languid, and time is marked by little things, such as the gentle knock of shy young girls selling squash blossoms for soup. Early on, Cohan realizes that he can become lost "staring at the exfoliating pentimenti of an eroding wall." He understands that these layers of paint mirror the layers of time and existence that flake away and are added to continuously. While Cohan seems to find an intangible lesson in every breath of San Miguel's air, his wife furthers the "Mexicanization" of the couple by indulging her appreciation for folk art and the local cuisine, filling their 250-year-old stone house with the colors, textures, smells, and tastes of San Miguel. Masako's fascination with the festival celebrating the Day of the Dead brings us to accept, as she does, the normalcy of eating chocolates shaped like skulls.
Cohan's words become the reader's eyes and ears, as he takes you through the market and fills his bolsas with fresh vegetables, sauces, and flowers. In one particularly vivid passage, describing a dinner party lit by candles because the notoriously unreliable electricity was knocked out by a storm, I felt as though I was a guest at his table. Surrounded by locals and foreigners, listening to the rain, Cohan captures the dramatic local lore of San Miguel. Relating a true story of a "re-killing," a murder that took two attempts, Cohan leaves readers perplexed and intrigued by Mexican law, which in this case seems based more on passion than on morality or justice.
I particularly enjoyed Cohan's description of the nightly parade in the jardin, which conjures up images of innocent chaperoned love and budding sexuality. Under the watchful façade of La Parroquia, the city's cathedral, whose sandstone evolves daily from a soft to a deep pink under the close sun, the "ridiculously romantic" young lovers pass each other and exchange glances that foreshadow futures and children together. Families congregate here nightly, entertained by mariachi bands around the square's edge and a brass band in the center. When I was relaxing in the square, I recall the children running with balloons and smiles while eating their unnaturally colored cotton candy, just like the parish fairs of my childhood in Louisiana. Cohan provides us with the soundtrack of this nightly festival celebrating the good things in life.
In fact, On Mexican Time is one of those good things. Instead of a simple "how to move to Mexico" book, Tony Cohan gives us a "how to know life in Mexico" book. After reading On Mexican Time, everyone will want to know life there. I am fortunate enough to have experienced this beautiful, eccentric city -- but for those who haven't, there is Cohan's excellent book.
Fred Jordan lives in New Orleans and travels frequently throughout Mexico and Belize.