Here’s the pitch: Two technology executives, living the good life in Portland, Oregon, their home with $1 million views of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens (insert gorgeous shots of the mountains. Do we have anything of the volcano erupting?) suddenly find themselves downsized (show couple at kitchen table looking over bills). They put their home on the market (big sign on lawn), pack up their aging Audi (make sure the car has lots of stuff on the roof), and head south, way south, to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where after a few glitches—nasty encounters with scorpions (show them crawling up the walls), numerous bouts of food poisoning (pushing the ick factor to show one of them hugging the porcelain throne?) and more than one encounter when their lack of Spanish leads to disaster (I’m sure we can find something here!)—they find paradise and happiness. Cue the violins!
Okay, it sounds like National Lampoon Goes to Mexico, a fictional account of a couple chucking it all for a totally new life. The story, however, is real, very real for Mark Saunders and his wife, Arlene Krasner, who left it all behind and started a new life in a new country. Mark details their adventures in his very humorous book, Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak, an apt title since he and his wife are still depending on those rote conversations they learned in junior high. Como estas? Muy bien, gracias. Donde esta la biblioteca?
The book is well timed since it taps into a trend on the rise: aging Baby Boomers, more active and adventurous than their parents, are looking to construct a retirement plan that is challenging, enriching, and fun. Pulling up roots to plant them in a fertile environment far from home no longer is so unusual or scary.
Mark and Arlene, however, were well ahead of the curve. “[Relocating to Mexico] was never on our retirement list,” said Mark, interviewed by phone from their home in San Miguel de Allende. “We didn’t really retire, because we were too young to retire. We basically dropped out. Our jobs were going away and we didn’t know what to do. Europe was in the top of our minds, but Europe’s a lot more expensive and it’s hard to get back to the states.”
Making this drastic move was out of character for the couple. “We never saw ourselves as great risk takers,” Mark said. “My brother and his wife did all these crazy things that I admired but I just didn’t have the guts to do. They went backpacking in Machu Picchu and things like that.”
Whether risky or brave, the relocation, after some fits and starts, has been successful. “It’s probably what you hear from somebody who started a business, made a film, and didn’t know how much work was involved,” he said. “In our case there were some complications, but on balance it was very favorable.” Describing San Miguel, he added: “It’s kind of corny to say someplace is magical, but that’s the word that comes to mind.”
Mark’s book, along with memoirs by travelers and expats (A Year in Provence and Eat Pray Love, for example), speaks to the adventurer in all of us. From the introduction:
Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak is a story about second chances and personal reinventions, speed bumps, and slippery streets, comfortable casitas and friendly tiendas. It’s about the sound of firecrackers going off at three in the morning, and as much about broken-down cars as it is about clear blue skies as it is about eating corn fungus. Ultimately, it’s a simple tale about trying something new.
After nearly two years abroad, the Mexican adventure began to lose its allure. Both Mark and Arlene lost members of their families, Mark became very ill and spent some time in the hospital, and both admitted they were homesick, missing their lives back in America. They had a contingency plan, three U.S. cities that were on their list as alternatives—Asheville, North Carolina, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Louisville, Kentucky. They decided on Asheville, yet even as their new home was being built, they decided that the humid weather was not for them. They moved back to Portland.
Their three years in Oregon gave them time to be with their families. After Mark’s mother died (they had been able to visit her regularly in Northern California), they decided to give Mexico another try. “The first time we came down here, we were definitely strangers in a strange land, but this time we feel almost like we are coming home,” he said. “There wasn’t any of the stranger in a strange land feeling.”
They decided to rent a house with a better location, a 20-minute walk to Centro, San Miguel’s historic district. (The entire city of San Miguel has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site). “The center of town really looks like 17th-century Spain,” said Mark, adding “if you discount the fact that they have a Starbucks.”
The Saunders live on a street named after Stirling Dickinson, a writer and artist also called San Miguel’s favorite expat. Dickinson founded the Institute Allende and fought to have veterans returning from World War II be able to use the G.I. Bill to study in San Miguel. The city’s reputation as a cultural center soon flourished.
Mark described his neighborhood as “mixed use.” A Mexican artist who makes rugs lives across the street from the Saunders. Next door is a “little Mexican lady” known for making “world-class tamales.” The rumor is that she once appeared in National Geographic. “I don’t know if that’s true,” Mark said, “but one day this man arrived, sweating and in a panic. It looked like he had just gotten off a plane and dropped his bags at the hotel. He stops me and asks `does that woman who sells those great tamales still live on this street?’” Mark said she did and pointed to her house.
Also on the street are service-oriented shops—a laundry, a carpenter. “It’s a very busy noisy street,” Mark said. “Late at night, it quiets down, but at 3 a.m. something that sounds like a snowplow comes down our street and I’m just too lazy to look out the window to see what it really is.”
San Miguel is located almost in the middle of Mexico at an elevation of 6,300 feet, the same as Lake Tahoe. April and May are usually hot, June is rainy but, after that, the weather, according to Mark, is perfect, earning San Miguel its nickname “the city of eternal spring.” The area is very agricultural. “The produce here is fantastic,” he said. Still, they are careful about food preparation. “Arlene will soak everything in an iodine solution for about 20 minutes or so,” Mark said. “And that’s probably not a bad habit for people in the states to do when you think about all the things that have happened in the past few years with cantaloupe and what not.”
Overall, Mark said that their lifestyle in San Miguel is healthier. “We just got back from a two-week trip in the states on the West Coast, a combination of medical, family and friends, and book tour stuff,” he said. “We were always in the car, while here we might get in our car maybe twice a week. We use maybe $20 worth of gas every six weeks.”
No doubt Mark’s sense of humor, displayed in the pages of his book, have helped him and Arlene survive their Mexican adventure. Mark once wrote jokes for comedians, including Jay Leno, and is a talented cartoonist. His drawings separate the chapters in the book and add another humorous note to his many anecdotes.
While the natives and expats in San Miguel often don’t understand his jokes (Mark confesses that, with his limited knowledge of the language, he avoids trying to be funny in Spanish, lest he offend), they love his book. He has done several readings and the local bookstores can’t keep Nobody Knows in stock. He also received a warm reception during his readings on the West Coast.
Despite how well Mark and Arlene have settled in, Mark confessed that even today, he feels like Martin Short’s character in The Three Amigos. “There’s a point where he realizes that they’re not making a movie, that the bad guys are actually shooting real bullets at them and they could die,” he said. “He screams out, `what are we doing in Mexico?’ And every now and then, that’s what I catch myself asking.”
Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak