Thursday, April 17, 2014

When I pray for Ukraine, I am praying for Luba

Luba's house and garden in spring.
One of the most wonderful things about being assigned to Starobelsk, in far-eastern Ukraine, was living with Luba on Panfelova road.  Luba had a pretty house and a fabulous garden, both meticulously and lovingly maintained.  She worked long hours as an accountant at a gas station company, then came home and worked in her garden until dark.  She'd stop every now and then to check whatever she was cooking on the stove for dinner or for the next day or for the preservation of the food that she stored for winter in her basement (a never-ending process).  She'd pop in and out of the house with fresh herbs, tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, or bunches of strawberries and raspberries. She absolutely loved working in her garden best of all.  Я люблю его.

She was the best cook in Starobelsk! Fresh food, fresh produce, a variety of wonderful salads.  Egg salad, beet salad, carrot salad, potato salad.  She had chickens, so we had fresh eggs.  She made all kinds of what I called "salsas" (she laughed), mixtures of finely chopped and slow-cooked vegetables with tomatoes, onions, eggplant, carrots, and whatever else she picked from her garden. She blended them all together to create the best tasting condiments and relishes in the world.  Her soups were amazing, too, especially her Borscht.  I loved her vereneky.

She made Ukrainian Paska bread for Easter, nасха хлеб, and colored hard-boiled eggs dark red. She'd put them all into a nice basket, with a small bottle of vodka, and we walked to the church to have them blessed by the priest with willows and water. We had a great meal afterwards, I can tell you that.

Her table always looked lovely, with nice linen and china and fresh flowers. Luba was an extrovert, funny and.gregarious; she laughed easily.  She loved cooking for family and friends. She'd often get me out of bed at 9:00 or 10:00 pm and force me to join her friends for a late dinner and lots of toasts.

Oh no Luba, I can't do it.  Yes, you can,and you will.  Come on.  О нет, Люба. Я читаю. Я иду спать. Да вы можете и вы. Пойдем со мной сейчас.  It was always interesting, even if I couldn't join in the animated conversations.  Usually her dear friend Iryna was there, and Luda, Tonya, and neighbors and friends I met at the market or in town.  We tried to talk, with limited success and to her frustration, and mine. I always made the tea and brought out the cookies. чай и печенье  I was often uncomfortable,because of the language barrier, but these remain memorable moments.

One spring day I heard a scream from her garden.  Luba had gotten a phone call that changed her life forever, a tragedy involving a son.  I never got all the details, but I understood a mother's broken heart.  I heard her crying at night. A mother's grief.  I poured over the Russian-English dictionary to learn a few phrases of comfort.  It will be okay, Luba.  God is with you.  He will stay with you. He will give you strength. We all pray for you. Все будет хорошо, Люба. Бог с вами. Он останется с вами. Он даст вам силы. Мы все молимся за вас  I went to church with her.  She found solace in working in her garden, but even that took some time. Friends came and stayed with her.  A strong woman, Luba survived day by day, doing what she had to do.  She found some reason to keep going in her grandchildren, her friends, her cooking, the meals she loved to share.  She made me put on my winter clothes one cold day and prodded Iryna, her grandson and me outside to go sledding. She grabbed a colorful duster and the sled, and made it fun.  A part of her was always the exuberant Luba who loved life; a part of her was never the same.

I will always remember how she opened her home and her heart to a stranger. How she welcomed this Amerikanka on a journey into the unknown.  How she showed me around the town and helped me get from here to there.  How she shared her house, her food, her life, and made me part of her family and community. How she invited me on a joyous holiday with friends in Berdyansk on the beaches of the Azov sea.  How I wore my first bikini, which she insisted I must have.  How she helped me buy a bike and got me going (she was a whiz on hers).  How she made sure I looked okay when I walked out the door, covered my head in winter and wore skirts to meetings in the summer. How she fed me and regaled me with stories, whether I understood them or not.

It was hard to say goodbye. I will always remember. Прощай, дорогой друг. Я всегда буду помнить.
For me, Luba is eastern Ukraine.  When I pray for Ukraine, I am praying for Luba, and for all the wonderful people I met on my Peace Corps journey.
This is eastern Ukraine, the Starobelsk I remember: Luba's house and Panfelova road, upper and lower right; scenes from downtown, the library, the university,, the House of Culture (Christmas tree going up in front of it)  Lenin park and a little church nearby; interior of St. Nicolas cathedral. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Relic of the Past: Revanchism and Putin in Ukraine

AP story, April 13, 2014 (Yahoo). 
Yahoo images
The news coming out of eastern Ukraine gets worse and worse.  I asked my friend Yuliya, who is from Starobelsk, what she thought.  She worked with an outstanding Lugansk NGO when I was in Ukraine and is now studying in Boston, a lucky thing. “Looks like the Crimea scenario,” she said.  Russia will occupy, invade, and hold referendums to annex. There are armed men and thugs in government buildings, on rooftops, hoisting the Russian flag. Now there is violence and murder, and it will increase.    

I feel more and more hopeless, which is driving me to become more and more stoic, just like Ukrainians in the face of disaster.  What can you do?  The unrest is too deep.  The failures of the national government since independence in 1991 to serve the needs of the people too mired in corruption.  The intrusions, provocations and violence sponsored by Russia too damaging, insistent, and becoming entrenched. Russia has mastered the art of covert disruption and intervention and Putin’s 12-step program is working.  The Crimea Scenario.

The Civil War has begun, and there’s nothing anyone, any nation, can do about it.   Who wants another war? How can the EU impose the kinds of economic sanctions needed against Russia when they go against Europe’s own self-interest? How will US saber-rattling, such as re-positioning the navy, change anything? So western nations at the UN line up to condemn Putin's actions. So what? They finally see what's really going on, and can do nothing.   Putin knows this, delights in it, and will keep on implementing his 12-step program for the greater good of the Motherland. 

Russia will take over Ukraine bit by bit, town by town, oblast (county) by oblast.  My closest Ukrainian friends will be my new Russian friends.

That’s  how it looks now. The only positive thing to which I cling is that I don’t think the younger generations will stand for it forever.  But "forever" is a long time.

The Russian-induced and orchestrated crisis in Ukraine will play out, maybe past my time.  One day, some day, the dreams of a United Ukraine might emerge from the ashes of Russian imperialist intervention and the dustbin of Russian history.    

And it is the dustbin of Russian history that Putin is stirring up.  It’s odd. Putin’s language, posturing and behavior, his way of thinking, is from another time, another era. My sister Andy pointed this out.  Maybe a 19th century “law of the jungle” attitude, as German chancellor Angela Merkel put it.  Or a Post-World War II and 1950s Cold War mentality. All hail to Russia's "Sphere of Influence."  No matter that "spheres of influence" have changed and continue to change drastically in a super-interconnected, wired world dominated by economic inter-relationships. 

Even George W. Bush wondered about a man who made fun of his little dog and insisted his  dog was bigger, better and stronger, a stance, Bush said, that motivated his very fine portrait of Putin. "Mine is bigger than yours." 

Putin is just not “with it," not open or tolerant; not contemporary in his thinking and not wise in the ways of a changing world;  not fully cognizant of the role of technology in opening up and uniting the planet; unable to reform the economic system he created and that is failing;  incapable of seizing opportunities for economic growth, civil society, and modernization.    

Putin’s vision is dated, like that of the old apparatchiks  that now surround him and want to try Gorbachev for treason.  Putin’s vision stands on military might, not economic might for the 21st century, a concept that China grasps instinctively and that is powering its economic growth. 

Putin has an old and clouded vision, shrouded in ancient and past illusions, in perceived slights and historic offenses.  He wants some form of retaliation, revenge, redress for past wrongs.  Revanchism, as Robin Niblett called it in a special report to CNN (April 12, 2014). 

Putin is not a man of his times.  He’s a man from another time. Someone who has not grown in the largest meaning of the word.  A Luddite and naysayer.   A relic of the past.

No wonder a much younger president Obama, a man of the 21st century, doesn’t understand him.  

Meanwhile, the tragedy unfolds. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ukraine On Edge

"What we see from Russia is an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary," Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee . . . . Kerry called the demonstrations in eastern Ukraine a "contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea."

Jud's sunflower weeping
The mess in Ukraine today, with Crimea annexed and Russian troops on the eastern border, reflects in part the failure of Ukrainian governments, since 1991, to meet the needs of the people. 

The Yanokovich regime is the tip of the iceberg of corruption, injustice, lack of transparency, and lack of progress on the economic and social fronts.  Yanokovich ran off with billions of dollars he stole from the Ukrainian people; so did his son, and his justice minister, and his secretary of state, and most of his cronies. Billions. Money for roads, transportation, social services, jobs.   The will of the people and the Common Good be damned.

The Ukrainian people, across oblasts, west and east of the Dnieper, have had it.  They are sick of injustice.  They are sick of a bribery system of economic development, where, among other things, high taxes are imposed on small businesses, unless they can pay a bribe.  My friends Luba and Iryna in Starobelsk are victims of this system.  They are sick of top-down policies in which citizens have no say, and the Parliament is a joke.  Humor helps, but it drips with sarcasm. They are sick of the lack of jobs and opportunity. They are sick of human rights abuses.  They are sick of all these things, and the day-to-day struggle for survival, and especially in the face of rampant corruption whereby elected officials enrich themselves shamelessly at their expense.     It's been a long and painful transition since 1991, and it has gotten worse instead of better. 

This is why the Yanokovich government in Kyiv was toppled. 

Not because Nazis, fascists and super-right patriots caused trouble, but because the Ukrainian people themselves, ordinary people of all backgrounds and ages, acted on their pent-up rage and anger in the face of such obscene corruption.  

New York Times
The failure of Ukrainian social and economic policies (if they ever existed for the good of the many) created the unrest that led to protests in Kyiv’s Independence (Mayden) Square.   The EU issue was secondary, and became more so as protests grew. 

The Ukrainians are a patient people pushed over the top.   

Putin seized the opportunity.  He inserted himself onto the Ukrainian scene like some superman and made the situation worse.  In Kyiv, Russian-paid provocateurs, armed “special forces” and thugs deliberately provoked violence and whipped up the crowds.  It resulted in the deaths of over 20 protesters and many more injured.  At the same time, Putin moved into Crimea, implementing a stealth propaganda campaign, sending in unidentified armed forces and “security” people, ramping up nationalistic slogans and the emotions of Russian-speaking people, then invading and annexing through a trumped-up referendum.  It worked.  Many of us, with friends in Crimea, having experienced its beauty and special flavor, watched in horror.   

Putin is using the same strategies out of the same playbook in the rest of Ukraine, taking a bite out of the country bit by bit, as John Kerry and the Obama administration now realize.  

Sure there are some people born when Ukraine was a Soviet Socialist Republic, who might prefer the old days and the old ways. Babushkas. Grandparents and great-grandparents.  There is a generational divide, but it's not consistent. Mayden was full of older Ukrainians, people of all ages. But those with a nostalgic inclination toward returning to Russia are not the majority. Many of them remember the Holodomor, an enforced starvation, and the Stalin purges. Many have relatives or know of people sent to the gulags--writers, artists and intellectuals.  

Ukraine is a large and diverse country. It is beautiful, it’s plains and farmland, its fields and mountains.  Its industrial cities are a mix of ugly Soviet-style buildings and factories and historic architecture and parks.  It is full of art galleries and museums, theaters and opera houses. The smaller white homes with green or blue shutters that dot the Ukrainian landscape have beautiful and bountiful gardens.  Even among the Soviet apartment buildings, people plant lilac bushes and flowers. Newer shops, book stores, cafes, and gathering places add sparkle and an upbeat modern feeling. The Ukrainians I knew actually loved MacDonald's; it was a favorite meeting place. Of course there are plenty of indigenous restaurants and businesses, too, along with colorful markets where people sell fresh produce and crafts and everyday items.  I especially loved the markets, in every town I visited.

Ukraine is not a backwater, although it would certainly benefit by putting thousands of people to work building roads and strengthening infrastructure.  The money for these projects went into the pockets of the few, like Yanokovitch. Stolen. 

Most of the country is wired.  Everyone has cell phones.  More and more people have access to the internet, access to knowledge, access to what’s happening in the world. Even in small towns and villages. They google and research, read international news and newspapers.  The people are educated, talented, thoughtful, contemporary in their outlook.  They are not stupid puppets; they know about censorship; they are aware of media accessibility issues; they communicate online and are good at using social media.                 

The majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians understand that they are citizens of an evolving independent country with great potential.  They are aware of its problems, and gripe about it, but they are also aware of the possibilities. The people born in Ukraine since 1991, and 10-20 years before that, are emerging leaders in local communities across the country, and so are many of their parents. They lead NGOS, a new sector in post-Soviet societies.  The NGOs are serving the public interests and addressing many urgent social needs: poverty, HIV/Aids education and prevention, human rights abuses, elders and orphans, transparency in local government.  These are the NGOs that Putin has attacked as being "the shock troops" of fascist protests in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine. Many friends in Lugansk and in eastern Ukraine are in danger because of this.   I worry about stunning Odessa and the southern regions nearer Crimea, too.
The Amerikanka with friends on the street, in Starobelsk.

Maybe if the world saw Ukraine through a different lens, not defined by Putin or those he thrusts before cameras, but by the people themselves, there would be more interest in its well-being.   I lived in Ukraine for two years, in the east, near Lugansk, not far from Donetsk and Khargiv.  I know something of its greatness, its indigenous culture (always under attack), its complexity, its kind and generous people most of all.  That’s why I’ve been ranting about what’s happening in Ukraine since Mayden.  If only my brother Loren were here now, he would urge me on, rant with me. 

It’s a helpless feeling knowing that the country I came to love, and many friends, are in danger.   

It was heartbreaking to watch the Russian takeover of Crimea. 

It is heartbreaking to learn what is happening there now, thousands of people leaving everything behind and moving North. My friend Serdar left to finish medical school in Lviv. Crimean Tatars are leaving in fear, remembering their expulsion by Stalin, their shattered dream of returning to their homeland. Others are leaving because they want "to live as Ukrainians, in peace." This in itself is becoming a huge problem, a refugee problem, and it is slowly making the news, making the headlines. 

It's frustrating, because it takes a while for the media to catch up with the realities on the ground, realities which friends share everyday on facebook and emails, social media and skype. We know, some of us, and can do nothing.  

So I will continue to rant because it's all I can do. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Putin's 12-Step Program for Taking Over Another Country

yahoo image, www,
Vladimir Putin has created a 12-step program for modern conquerors, a step-by-step guide to invading, occupying and annexing another country or parts of it.   

This "Twelve Steps to Conquer" is a good starting point for any supermen out there who would like to flex their muscles, stop being pansies, and learn to love war.  

The main purpose is to get people to admit they are powerless over invasion, that their lives have become unmanageable, and that they should turn their will and their country over to the conqueror. 

The 12-steps:  
1) Take advantage of any signs of the yearning for self-determination. An example is the protests that took place in Kyiv's Mayden after the Yanukovich regime passed laws denying citizens' rights to protest,etcetcetc. This is your opportunity to exploit unrest, and make it worse. Have your eyes on a prize. Step right in.  Go for it. 

2) Send in provocateurs. These can be mercenaries, Cossacks, local motorcycle gangs, anyone who would welcome a fight, a shot of vodka, or a few rubles to go out and create disturbances in the street, pick fights, start violent confrontations, and the like. Give them lots of your country's flags and slogans (good to wave in front of cameras).  
3) Stifle the media, by intimidation, blocking TV outlets, shutting off contacts. Silence (your choice) a few journalists. Start in your own country; slowly escalate and expand.  Don't worry about the internet and social media. These 12 steps are designed to circumvent their influence.

4) Keep talking about fascists and Neo-Nazis taking over and destabilizing elected governments. It doesn't matter if these accusations are true or not. Just make them. If presidents and officials must flee their countries for their own safety, welcome them in yours. Make sure they bring their bilions with them. 
A mural in Simferopol, a fine example of good PR. 

5) This is a good time to ramp up the Newspeak: Neo-fascists force out good leaders; war is peace; invasion is safety; occupation is freedom. Keep at it. 

6) Send in the troops. Don't be too obvious at first. Initial contingents should have no insignias, no overt IDs. They are simply armed people with dark glasses, assault weapons, and preferably dark green uniforms. This will fool the media. They will report that "There are people here with weapons but we don't know who they are." Take it from me, this works. 

7) Keep sending in more troops, until you get up to about 30,000. In addition, welcome malcontents or gangs who like guns to patrol roads. They are undisciplined and unpredictable, which is a good scare tactic. Under this cloud of confusion, aided by the media, position your troops to block roads and access routes, cut off communications, and take over government buildings. Cruise neighborhoods where known opponents live. Don't shoot. Intimidate. Your aim is a peaceful (orchestrated) change. The media will note that the place is being taken over without a shot. By then it is too late. You're in. 

8) Take strong advantage as you implement these steps of the people who are for you. Again, the example is Crimea, where it was easy to whip up pro-Russian sentiment. Really wind them up. Encourage public demonstrations. Have those flags and slogans ready. It will look like a Beatles concert. 

9) Now is the time to take over the local government. Install a new president and parliament.  By this time, local officials see the writing on the wall, realize the support the invaders have in their own country, and do your bidding. Here's is where you script their invitation to invade their country.  

10) Now you are on a roll. The people are inviting you to come in and take over. How can you turn away? You have established a need and justification for the fait accompli, the occupation.  All this can take place in a matter of weeks, not months.
This is what a good vote looks like. 

 11) Okay. Good work.  Now you have these local puppets stage a referendum for annexation. That's right. You stage a vote. Your own Parliament approves this action, and helps design the ballot. The only option is "yes to annex." You can add another "yes" column to give the illusion of a democrative vote, if that makes you feel better. Meanwhile, ensure that only supporters vote. Intimidate opposition. Mark their houses. Remind them of "the power of the state" to retaliate and deport. In Crimea this worked well against the Tatars, as well as ethnic Ukrainians. Scare the hell out of them, and the press. This won't be hard if you've done a good job with the first 10 steps. 

12) You have engineered a 100% vote for annexation. Congratulations. The people have voted, and they "welcome you with flowers." The press will report that 100% of all the people voted for annexation, when in fact it was 100% of those who voted (you can always tweak the facts). Ignore threats from America and other countries, by the way, because their outrage is no match for your brilliant execution of these 12 steps. 

Now you are set to take over more territory, even a whole country, city by city by city. You can strengthen this goal by ensuring your Parliament passes a law that "authorizes" your country "to annex territories of countries where central authority has collapsed and the local population expresses a desire to secede."  The fact that you have orchestrated this outcome is what makes this 12-step program so successful. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Crimea Vote Reflects Orchestrated Takeover

My friend Suz said it best: What I don't get is why the media headlines are screamng "Crimeans Vote to Join Russia," when the rest of the articles go on to say that it's all fake and illegal.  So why bury the true story? Why don't the headlines say words to the effect: Crimea Vote is Fake, Vote to Annex to Russia Orchestrated Takeover, Crimea Vote Illegal.    

Jud's sunflower weeping. . 
Right.  What a farce.  This vote does not reflect the will of the people. It reflects the will of Putin.

The media once again gives a wrong impression.  They might get to the truth eventually, but why hide it in paragraph 3 or 4, or at the bottom of the story? Why bury the main story?  Most people read only the headlines, and then form strong opinions. Someone messaged me to more or less shut up: The people have voted. Get over it.

A "vote" at the barrel of a gun. 30,000 Russian troops, militia, and thugs.  A  fake "referendum" with only yes and yes options, followed by a well-organized propaganda celebration, at which the Russians excel.

What happens next? What will happen to the people of Crimea? To the Crimean Tatars. To the ethnic Ukrainians and others who oppose Russian occupation and annexation, but whose voices were silenced?

Putin has his eyes on Ukraine, and he is executing his successful plan in other places:  Take over Ukraine city by city by city, starting in the east and south.  And oh yeah, be sure the Russian Parliament passes a law saying it's necessary to  occupy and annex territories where local governments are in disarray and the people want to join Russia.  That's supposed to happen on 21 March.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

On the Eve of Russia's Enforced Annexation of Crimea

EuroMayden image
It's the eve of the Russian-imposed "referendum" in Crimea.  Beautiful, wonderful, fantastic Crimea. I feel like a character in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," like Vladimir and Estrogon, waiting without end, in vain, for God knows what. But an axe is about to drop, a bomb is about to explode, a tragedy is unfolding, and there's nothing we can do.  

Russia's language, action, and posturing about its take-over of Crimea, Ukraine, evokes anger and fear, memories of the mass Crimean Tatar deportation in the dead of one dark and terrifying night, and shades of surreal Cold War propaganda.   

So we have Vladimir Putin and his cronies talking about "self-determination" while sending some 30,000 troops to Crimea.  Russia has taken over Crimea's parliament, government buildings, army bases, towns, and neighborhoods; it has physically blocked Black Sea access, as well as communications and transportation into and out of the pennisula.  It is doing all of this in the name of freedom.  
"Strongman Putin Playing a "short game on Ukraine," AFP article by
Luc Perrot; photo of mural in SImferopol by Flippo Monteforte, 15 March 2014.

Russia is "allowing" Crimeans the option of voting yes or yes to join Russia.  It continues to block international monitors; meddle with the media; stifle dissent by force; and claim it is offering free elections, freedom of choice.  Putin is shamelessly using the language of democracy to justify invasion, occupation, and annexation.  

It's the Theatre of the Absurd but not on a stage, in real life. Playing with language, in a Joseph Heller "Catch 22"  and George Orwell "1984" sort of way. It turns the truth on its head, and calls it lies. It tells lies, and calls it truth.  It's "Newspeak."  It's ironic, sarcastic, ludicrous, outrageous.

The West of course is not immune to the same antics: Fighting wars for democracy when in reality we are fighting for oil, to take one example.  Putin is shoving it in our faces, rubbing it in, I think with glee.  I didn't realize how much he hated America and our current president, or how deep his vision of a Russian economic union. He's long had his eyes on Ukraine, his eyes on the prize.  And the opportunity presented itself, as it were. Putin's calculated invasion, his cold indifference to American and European opinion, his bold occupation, are having the effect he wants. He is not going to back down.   He is a master conductor. 
yahoo image.  Putin is not going to STOP.
He has brilliantly, one might say, created a situation in which violating the territorial integriy of Ukraine is justified. He invaded Ukraine in order to save it. Save it? Yes, save it from the "neo-Nazis" overunning Kyiv after Yanukovich fled to Russia. Putin the superhero is not invading anything or breaking international laws. He is saving Crimea and helping Ukraine. He doesn't say it, but Yanukovich made a mess of it.  On the other hand, Yanukovich also created the setting for Putin's latest absurdity.  Putin walked right into it, and made it his own.

Most nations, and of course most Ukrainians and Russians themselves, see right through this.  They say they won't recognize the results of a "referendum" Putin has orchestrated in Crimea, ensuring and enforcing its outcome at the point of many guns.  But Putin is playing this card for all it's worth.  And for him, it's a win. 

Crimea will turn itself over to him, in this scenario, and he will embrace it.  The consequences be damned.  
Jud's Ukrainian Sunflower made sadder.

Join this people power v. Putin campaign now! 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

San Miguel Memories

Colorful San Miguel.  Streets, shops, decorative arts, Katrina shop, an outdoor cafe,
Elissa and friend Gay; with Don Quijote; in new t-shirt; beautiful carvings, wall painting 
"I love the colors!"
"Oh, look, another VW bug.  I've never seen so many in one place."  Elissa started taking pix of the old cars, once made in Mexico, still chugging along the cobble-stoned streets.
"Wow, what beautiful doors."

It was daughter Elissa's first trip to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and she loved everything she saw and experienced, not to mention the perfect weather.  All the sights and sounds; the hilly ancient streets, the architecture, arts and crafts,shops and restaurants, and "the best margaritas, just like Aunt Andy said!"

The Parroquia
We walked every day from El Jardin de Don Quijote, our B&B near the famed Instituto de Allende, to or through the tree-shaded Jardin, the central public square.  The sight of the iconic Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, a pink sandstone neo-gothic church, bowled her over, as it did me and most every other visitor the first time we saw it, and ever since.  The church bells chimed, as if in appreciation.

Always aglow and striking, it towers over the Jardin and dominates the skyline. "Follow the Parroquia and you can't get lost," I assured her. "Well, I don't have to pay much attention to directions, with my good tour guide!"  But Elissa got the geography of the town down pretty well, almost as much as her menu instructions (no gluton, no dairy).

On the food front,where there could have been some misunderstanding, there was no trouble.  No wheat, no milk, no butter, no cheese, no dairy. She gave her list, in Spanish, and waiters were happy to oblige, talk to the cook, bring out the cook, explain the food.  "I have it down," she'd say, after her stream of excellent Spanish.  We had some great meals, at Hecho en Mexico, Cafe Jardin (with some nice jazz), Cafe Monet (where we heard fabulous pianist Alejandro Mora), and Mexifran (where we plied the guitarist with tequila and had some great fun!).  There's lots of ways to cook chicken, steak and fish, with corn torilla and quacamole, steamed veggies and various fruity sauces, Elissa found out.  Food and music! "Viva Mexico!"

Talavera pottery at the Artesenias Mercado.
"Great place to shop, too"  We stopped in just about every shop we passed as we strolled the town, many in gorgeous mansions that were once private haciendas, topped off with a trip to the Artesenias Mercado (Artisans Market).  The mercado teems with vendors' stalls selling everything from tin frames and mirrrors, to puppets and toys, jewelry, rugs, and ceramics (called Talavera), hand made and hand crafted.

We took in historic sites, went into churches, visited the Biblioteca, galleries, Bellas Artes and the Instituto. The art is exquisite, from pre-historic, to colonial, to contemporary. The murals are fantastic. At the Instituto, we happened upon a great textile exhibit by weaver Elizabeth Starcevic, as well as the works of one of Mexico's (and my) favorite artists, David Leonardo. We had a nice chat with David's agent, who explained the difference between "mamacita," which Elissa calls me, and "mamita," which he calls his mom.  I told her both were acceptable, one being a voluptuous sexy woman (ooh-la-la), and the other a beloved mama, Juan said.

We happened by a brand new exhibit of Polish posters, of all things, as we walked down Zacateros to Mesa Grande, the wifi cafe. The posters were collected by Dr. Martin Rosenberg, "the largest and most complete selection of pre-war and vintage Polish cultural posters in existence."  The Rosenberg Collection is huge; the posters are noted for their originality, artistry, brilliance.  "The exceptional Polish poster is...a work of art rather than a conventional advertising placard," notes Elena Miller, a retired Curator of Posters at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  Their bold designs and bright colors fit into San Miguel.

Polish graphic art posters
"Serendipity," Elissa the graphic artists noted, "to come across such a fabulous graphic art collection."  Dr. Rosenberg himself was there to greet us when we walked in, drawn in by the beauty and diversity of the posters.  In Poland, he noted, the graphic arts are honored.  Elissa liked hearing that. The subjects were fantastic too, theater, music, opera, jazz, the Circus, sports and travel, politics and dance.

"Why are the posters here? Why did you open a gallery in San Miguel? she asked him.  "Because I moved here after retiring, and brought them with me!" Thousands upon thousands of them. Lucky for San Miguel.

"You never know what you might find behind a San Miguel door," I told Elissa.  We peeked behind lots of them, and walked into many former homes turned into shops and galleries: complex columns, glorious courtyards and fountains, super high ceilings carved, tiled, curved and beamed, and extravagantly tiled walls, doorways and floors.  "We're not in the US anymore," Elissa smiled, as she embraced the beauty. "Definitely in Mexico!"

Elissa talked to lots of artisans and shopkeepers.  Among the most interesting was Juan at the Katrina gallery, which is packed with those colorful skeleton dolls associated with the Mexican "Day of the Dead." Mexicans have a special relationship with death, as with life; nowhere is death more openly acknowledged and celebrated as it is there.  Elissa selected a beautiful ceramic doll for her daughter Julia, and Juan regaled us with her history as he carefully wrapped her.  The history goes back to the late-nineteenth century in Europe and Spain and was popularized in Mexico by Diego Rivera's famous mural "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon along Central Alameda."  The mural beautified a large government building in central Mexico City, which was destroyed by a horrendous hurricane in 1985. It means something that the mural survived, but the building did not. From Rivera's perspective, the Katrina, as she is called in Mexico, is related to an Aztec tradition, in which she is "Keeper of Bones" in the underworld and presides over festivals honoring the dead.
Doors and decorations;  tapestry exhibit at  Instituto; Church of San Francisco; balloons and toys in Jardin, mountains in background; carving on a corner building. 
"Seems to me like the Mexicans took a tradition, blended its Spanish and indigenous heritage, and made it their own," I said to Elissa.  "Yes, just like they did with the Catholic religion and the Catholic church," she noted. "Made it their own."  That's San Miguel and Mexico in a nutshell, I thought.

"Anything else you want to see?" I asked on our last day.  "I just want to get an 'I Love Mexico' T-shirt," she said with a laugh.  And sure enough, that's what we did!