Dispatch: San Miguel de Allende

​​Stranger living in a strange land.


From time to time, The Times will feature dispatches from Islanders around the globe. This week, Lorraine Parish writes from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Parish is a clothing designer and writer who lived on the Island for more than 40 years. She recently moved to San Miguel de Allende, where she’s pursuing her interest in writing screenplays, essays, and novels.

Once, 45 years ago, I was a stranger living in a strange land. It was the year 1976. I distinctly remember for possibly one of the strangest reasons you could ever remember a year — a woman’s zaftig butt in Spain.

I was all of 24 years old, and living an international hippie’s fantasy life in the coolest place on Earth a hippie could find at the time — Ibiza, Spain. I was selling my handmade pirate shirts trimmed in antique embroidered ribbons (later, back in New York City, I sold them to Henri Bendel’s; they were that chic), along with imported antique American clothing. My “store” was located in an outdoor pine forest in the middle of the island, where every Wednesday we vendors, at the crack of dawn, scrambled to get the best tree locations.

One beautiful day, a very well-endowed Italian lady in a bikini strutted her stuff past my pine-tree-clothesline store. The bathing suit’s bottom, barely covering her generous behind, was stitched from a smallish American flag. Because of our country’s bicentennial, that summer in Spain, the American flag was the kitschiest thing going for worldly hippies to commercially abuse in every possible way. So, because of the image of that woman’s flag-covered keister, which is still burned in my brain, I know it was the summer of 1976.

I thought all of what I was seeing, all of what I was doing and experiencing on that incredible island, was intoxicating (I did quite a bit of that too). It was all so utterly beyond anything I had ever known in my young life; the colors; the architecture (I even went to Granada to see the Alhambra with an American architect friend); the language; the music; the clothing; the food; meeting people from all over the world. Just about everything (except some smells) was something I knew I wanted to experience again in the future. But not just to visit again — no — to one day live my life surrounded by this culture’s goosebumping imagery and sounds.

We all have our preferences; for dogs, art, music, literature, fashion — you name it. And ever since those Ibiza days, I have always had a propensity for Spanish-influenced cultures. Ibiza was a hybrid culture even back then, and still is. But there was lots of authenticity going on, too, and that authenticity was what I fell in love with.

Fast-forward — San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the year 2021.

Once again, I am a stranger living in a strange land. By choice, I am experiencing the self-fulling prophecy made when I was young — to spend my days in the culture I loved so many years ago. Yes, San Miguel de Allende is a hybrid culture too, but get over it — I have. San Miguel is a very internationally popular town, and it is truly unfortunate that becoming hybrid is what happens to fabulous places all over the world. But this intriguing place? It is new and exciting for me, and at this moment in time, that transcends all else.

Some might find the method I created for myself to transition from one life to the next peculiar, but it worked for me. I had planned this new chapter for a year, but what I could not do was visualize it every step of the way. I am an extremely visual person, but I had never experienced something of this magnitude, so how could I envision it? As each step in the process became real, I’d say, “OK, this particular step, this is how it looks and feels.” For example, after my good friend Kathryn and I picked up the Penske truck, which in a few days I would drive to Laredo, Texas, I turned to her and said, “This is the part of the story when I drive the truck for the first time.” She knew exactly what I meant. I had “written” the script (another new passion of mine — screenwriting), up to a point, and this mental script had become my roadmap to achieving my goal. That moment I shared with Kathryn was the introduction to Act Two — driving the truck.

I arrived in San Miguel (Act Three) in the late afternoon of Sept. 1, with my travel-weary poodle, Pearl. Months before our arrival, I had rented the two of us a charming penthouse apartment because I knew that after months of downsizing and packing, and a long, arduous trip, we would be exhausted, and deserved the best for a few days.

And even after all the detailed mental scriptwriting, it still took a few days for me to realize that this is my new reality. The very first morning, especially, felt unreal — out our rented window, which had an amazing view of the town, three hot air balloons emerged from the fog and floated over the city. In my dazed and slightly shell-shocked mind, those balloons said, “Welcome to San Miguel, Lorraine and Pearl!” And I will have you know that ever since that morning, there has been more magic and more encouragement from the woo-woo gods in San Miguel de Allende. By the way, there are lots of woo-woo gods in SMA; just ask any of the woo-woo people living here.

The script I had written abruptly ended as I walked over the threshold of my new home. This was intentional. I did not want or need a script any longer; this is what I had changed my life for — an unscripted existence of newness; unpredictable days where everything, every single thing in front of me, was nothing like my “former life.” OK, except a few things like emailing, phone calling, and texting my buddies in the States. I will never give that up, and I’ll admit to it. Everyone needs continuity and some anchoring in their existence, whether it be a new existence or an old one. Who really wants to feel like a ship forever out to sea, no matter how beautiful and serene the scenery may be? Not me, I have found out.

After closing on my house here in SMA on Sept. 6, I was wandering around my courtyard when suddenly I stopped in my tracks. I realized that this was not a vacation house I had rented; these beautiful trees and plants were mine, and I was now their caretaker. I immediately found the garden hose and watered the hell out of them, apologizing the entire time.

After that day of garden reckoning, I bought a small truckload of flowering plants and spent four days “bonding” with my garden and making it mine. Most days, while vegetating around my little exercise pool with Pearl in my lap, I zone out and watch butterflies and hummingbirds dart from flower to flower, and all this takes place in my courtyard. Yes, I have pinched myself many, many times.

It is still sinking in; the struggles I had are gone, at least for a while. And I say to my new friends, the four ladies in my neighborhood (we walk our assortment of dogs together most evenings), I am on my honeymoon, and will be, hopefully, for a while, so don’t tamper with it by letting me in on the unpleasant stuff that may go on here. They have respected that request. There will be times in the near future, especially as I learn the language, when things will irritate me. I am a typical human who can easily revert to complaining about stupid, insignificant things. But for now, let me bask in the carefree life I’ve earned.

The stars look different here. They seem to be not as round; they are more elliptically shaped to my eyes. I said this to my neighbor one night, and he just stared at me like — “Oh God no, I’ve got a nutty new neighbor living next door.” I just ignored it and figured he couldn’t see it because he was born and raised in SMA. A new friend across the street said she swore the moon looked different in Alaska when she visited that state, so it is possible.

Day by day, as the basic daily routines become more familiar, I feel less and less a stranger, and the country seems less and less a strange land. A few days ago, when I told my expat lady friends the subhead of this essay, the politically astute one with the labradoodle turned to me and said “Lorraine, Mexico is not the strange land — the strange land is the one you just moved from!” We all got a good laugh out of that.

Sadly though, it is not funny, and it breaks my heart, because it is true.

So I say to my new country — ¡Viva México!