Saturday, February 8, 2014

Is the Honeymoon Over?

It is said that retirement can be one of the major stressors in life, toward the bottom of the list behind such catastrophes as death of a spouse, divorce, and jail time. I would probably include moving to a foreign country in the top ten. Everyone, of course, sees this as an amazing adventure which creates joy and a sense of freedom.  It does do that, but such a major change can wreak havoc with one's health. Soon after arriving in Mérida, Alan came down with a head cold which turned into cough and congestion that lingered for weeks. Shortly after that, I contracted a very annoying gastrointestinal bug which stayed with me for more than a week, necessitating a course of antibiotics. A few weeks ago Alan had an infected finger which stubbornly required two courses of antibiotics. We have yet to figure out how or why that happened and can only suppose that his digging in the garden played a roll. Then it was my turn for the head cold which, thankfully, lasted only a few days. All this to say, if you are in the process of such a move or even contemplating a major life change, be prepared. Your body will, most likely, resist such change with a (hopefully) small catastrophe of its own.

I believe that most of the expats who find themselves in the Yucatán, and Mérida in particular, come here with star-studded eyes, lured by the slightly European feel of the city and the lasting intrigue that Mexico offers. But what happens when the stars fade, leaving the harsh reality of crumbling sidewalks littered with carelessly tossed trash or the contents of a neighbor's garbage bag strewn about by a starving cat looking for an elusive meal?  Or the harsher reality of a city and culture not enamored with dogs and the glares received when seen walking your dog? In Mérida, or so it seems, dogs are to be sequestered in the home, not walked or exercised, and definitely not socialized. This has been a stressor, not for our two dogs, but for their sensitive owners who want more than anything to not be seen as rude or arrogant extranjeros. We occasionally see another expat walking their animals and I wonder if they feel the same tenseness at what was once a relaxing exercise for both dog and owner. Because there are no green spaces in our neighborhood (or our back yard), we go out armed, not only with our little plastic poop bags, but also a squirt bottle full of water for rinsing off the light pole or the sidewalk. For now, this is all that we can do. Still, a part of me wants to meet that glare with a smile and a statement. Esta es mi ciudad ahora, también! This is my city now, also.

Are we disillusioned, wondering what could we have possibly thought moving to Mérida? We certainly visited the city enough times to know that it is not the paradise that some chorus. What drew us here was an opportunity to experience and integrate into a fascinating and sometimes enigmatic culture. Understanding it all doesn't happen overnight and sometimes requires stepping into unfamiliar situations and even making mistakes. We will never feel integrated if we hide ourselves inside the confines of an expat enclave. That doesn't mean that we will avoid friendships with other expats. As newcomers to this country we need the advice and friendship of fellow expats to help us navigate through the sometimes frustrating bureaucracies, and perhaps along the way we will forge lasting friendships with a few.

The honeymoon might be ending soon but, hopefully,  the relationship will continue to grow and blossom.


  1. Hi John, please be patient with yourself during the transition period. In my first year in Mérida it seems that I did nothing but sprain ankles and bash knees. I suddenly became uncoordinated due, I think, to the good-bad stress of the change plus my simple unfamiliarity with my surroundings. It's also likely that dogs are less problematic outside the dense centro histórico. For example, in my neighborhood there's a tree-lined boulevard that seems to be the local dog-walking route. There's very little traffic and a wide, grassy, shaded median that makes it easy to avoid private property entirely. I see people walking dogs there regularly, much more often than I saw them in the centro. My house and those of my neighbors also have big, grassy back yards, and judging by the barking, there are a ton of pet dogs around. So please don't think that the tension you're noticing is 100% cultural; it could also just come from the stress of sharing a dense, urban place with lots of feral dogs as well as pets, and if you explore another neighborhood, you might find more smiles.

  2. Cathy, thanks for your comment. I think you are correct in that the centro creates a huge problem for dogs and their owners. Mostly the owners, because the dogs could care less about what people think! I believe that part of our problem is that our German Shepherd and Pit Bull are perceived as "trained killers" which is, of course, not true. We usually try to take a wide swath around people on the street so that they don't feel threatened. We've thought of looking outside the centro for a better dog friendly environment, although we really do like living here.
    The thought of another move is not really very pleasant, so we will give ourselves some more time. I do remember your posts about all the sprained ankles and knees. Major transitions are just simply stressful for a period before things calm down.

  3. We used to get up early and walk Mr. Dog down Paseo Montejo at 7am. Also some people take their dogs to the Agua Park to walk.
    I think that most people go through a rose colored glasses phase followed by a oh my gawd what did I do? phase and then either accept that they live in Mexico or move either to the next romantic country or back home. Usually if an expat lasts 3 years they are here to stay. Of course snow birds are a different story with a different attitude.

    1. Theresa, I wish we were a bit closer to Paseo Montejo, where the streets are wider and there is a bit of grass. I also wish the parks were closer. We do walk them early, before the streets become crowded, but also have to go back out around 5PM. These guys, sadly, won't be around that many more years. I think our next dogs might be a smaller breed!

  4. Mexicans are in general extremely polite. So if I found myself in your position, here's a trick I'd try. Just smile and say buenos días or buenas tardes as appropriate. It'll be the very rare Mexican who won't feel compelled to respond in kind, and then you'll have broken the ice. You could also add, los perros son amables; no muerden.

    Part of the cultural background that you're seeing is that most dogs that belong to Mexicans are not very nice, and often will bite. This is VERY rare in the USA, and mostly in situations where the danger is reasonably evident, i.e., with guard dogs, dogs who live in very tough neighborhoods, etc. Mexicans do not pet strange dogs the way that people do in the USA. And I've personally been bitten by Mexican dogs while trying to do so. Fortunately, it was pretty much a "warning nip," but I got the message and left.

    So what you're seeing is an expression of fear, and if you show that you are friendly, and state that your dogs are friendly, I think you'll find that people warm up to you. It also couldn't hurt to make your dogs sit when someone passes by. This will also show that you are in control of them.

    As someone who semi-retired two years ago, I can assure you, it takes a while (maybe a couple of years) before you stop feeling weird about not showing up every day to a job.


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where our cats don't strike fear into people's hearts, though sometimes we wish they did.

    1. Kim, all very good advice. I think that a lot of our discomfort is in the fear of how we are being perceived by some of the neighbors in our colonia. Hopefully, over time, they will see that we are responsible pet owners and pretty nice people to boot.

      Thanks, once again, for your comment.

  5. Hello John,

    Having lived in a half dozen countries or so, let me assure you that what you are feeling is natural. Most people who move to a new country feel somewhat nervous and exhilarated for the first couple of months and then reality sets in and they experience varying degrees of culture shock. Those who make it through this period usually emerge with a new appreciation of the country they've chosen. Others decide it's not for them and pack it in and go home. I've seen this time and time again. Stick it out for the long term and you will be just fine.

    As for walking in the dogs in Centro, I was surprised to see a man walking two German Shepherds and I bet some of the looks you are getting are ones of surprise too.


    1. So very true, Michael. Thanks so much for sharing that. We definitely are in this for the long term and actually verbalizing my feelings have helped me to rethink many of my assumptions.