# 15: A House Becoming a Home

12 August 2015

            The other morning Abby called me while she was on her walk to work and caught me as I was walking Qalba and logging the morning bird count up on the ridges. She asked me “Now that you’ve unloaded and unpacked the stuff you had shipped down from the States, is there any one thing that you were particularly glad to see? That makes you feel like you’re home?”

            Good question. I told her I’d have to think about it. And I told her about how our friend Judith, who had come over to help sort out the boxes to the proper rooms, had said how happy she was to have sold all of her “things” when they sold their house up north after decades of years. They didn’t even take pictures of their favorite things to bring with them to Oaxaca.

            So I thought about Abby’s question. For the next couple of days. Things as triggers for feelings. What part of “home” is related to the “things” in it?

            Our friends in the expat communities in Santa Cruz and the nearby Etlas all left “homes” out there somewhere and have built or are building lives down here. We all have that in common, but beyond that we defy simple generalizations. That said, let me generalize.

            While a fair number of countries of origin are represented here, most hail from the USA. While most have come as couples of one gender or another or both, a few came here as singles, or have somewhat recently become so. Some have partners who are Mexican citizens. Some, maybe a third, keep a foot planted in two (or in some cases three) countries, spending large chunks of the year in each. Most have retired, at least from salaried positions, though the majority keep working at one thing or another. With regard to chronological age, think sharply-sloped bell curve. There are a handful of folks out in the right tail at 75+; a handful in the left tail at 60-; and a humongous bunch of us in between, children whose cultural mores were formed in the 1960s and ‘70s, and who share a belief that chronological age is irrelevant except, perhaps, insofar as it affects social security and entitles the third-agers to free entrance at Monte Albán and half price fare on Mexican buses.  

            Unlike the north-flowing half of the population exchange that has been going on for a while between our two countries, most of us did not come to the Etlas for a career opportunity, or to begin the process of building a life. Most of us – even those of us with a foot on both sides of our personal borders—do not seem to view our current living in the Etlas as an interim stage in our lives. This is end game. We are here for the duration, with the expectation that that “duration” will be a long time indeed.

            Moving here at this stage in our lives involves some interesting choices, and one of them has to do with housing. Rent or buy? If rent: furnished or unfurnished? If buy: a piece of land or a land with a house already on it? Local conditions somewhat limit the choices. Short-term rental property around here, like the houses that Linda and I rented for the first couple of winters we spent here in the Etlas, almost always come totally furnished. Full kitchen, with cooking implements and basic supplies of foods, with the expectation that the renters will replace what they use. Full sets of linens and towels. Complete bathroom supplies. Books on the shelves, CDs on the racks, DVDs under the tube. Long-term rentals also tend to be fully equipped, as is the house that Judith and Tom are renting in perpetuity. Many of the larger houses in these hills have been built by relatively wealthy, often young city folks (Oaxaca or Mexico City) who plan in some distant future to retire to them and have enjoyed equipping them to their taste. In the meantime, if they can rent them for ten or fifteen or twenty years, well, the property is still theirs and it is still increasing in value, and if something happens a few years down the road ....? Well, that can be dealt with then.

            So, not only is there no incentive for renters to bring any of their stuff with them, there is generally no place for them to put it if they did.

            Curiously, most of the houses for sale also come completely furnished. Many belonged to expats who, for some reason or other, one day changed their minds about continuing to live in Mexico.  Some belonged to Mexicans whose plans have likewise been altered by unforeseen changes in the trajectories of their lives.

            Most of the expat friends we have written about during these last few years, then, whether they rent or bought their houses, are living with the accumulated artifacts of other peoples’ lives. Some, particularly those who have bought a fully equipped house, gradually sell or give some of the in situ things away and replace them with things that reflect their own personal aesthetic sense or evoke meaningful moments of their own recent lives. Most who have purchased equipped houses eventually do some remodeling: they move a wall, enlarge a bath, improve wiring and plumbing, or rationalize the kitchen. Some long-term house renters do this too, sometimes even with the permission of the distant, absentee owners.

            Few in-flowing expats actually build from scratch. We know of maybe five, scattered across the Etla hills. A couple of them, as we have done, have shipped down a few things from the States. But also they have mostly equipped their new houses locally, as we have done. Most have either bought the bulk of their furniture off the rack or—again like ourselves—have had it made locally to their specifications. The valleys of Oaxaca are a world hotspot for artists and artisans, which is one of the many reasons why people flock here, so most people we know have decorated with art they have collected locally.

            But Abby’s question—“of the few things Linda and I actually shipped down, which made us feel most at home?”—kept resonating.

            Until Friday I couldn’t name a single thing. But Friday night we were having guests, and Friday noon I started making some braided, whole-wheat peasant bread. I had my bread bowls! I didn’t have to limit quantity to what would fit in the pot from our slow-cooker. I set the bowl on the counter and scooped out flour from the old repurposed  glass pickle-jar that we bought in an auction in Nebraska. I kneaded the dough on the countertop, punched it down and

returned it to another a second buttered bread bowl acquired in a garage sale near Cooperstown, NY. To make strips for braiding, I rolled out the dough with our old maple rolling pin —from my mother’s kitchen? Just like home! No, not “just like.”




            I haven’t called Abby yet, but this afternoon, Sunday, I came up with a second thing to tell her. I unpacked the boxes of tools in the garden shed (la bodega de jardinería). For the last 18 months we’ve made do with one screwdriver, one hammer, and one pair of pliers. Couldn’t drill a hole in a wall. Couldn’t repair a weakening chair. Couldn’t bang together a nice little base to put a ceramic statue on.


            Yesterday I went down to Asunción on the International Highway and bought some planks, some thin boards, screws, some concrete drills – a bunch of stuff – and spent all day today outfitting my shop. Drilling holes in the concrete walls of the bodega to attach things to hang tools from. Garden implements on the wall by the door. Screwdrivers, wrenches, hammers, etc. on the tool board. Cleaning supplies on the cleaning rack that I designed as I was building. Nine hours, with a half-hour break for lunch around 3:00. I don’t recall singing as I was working, but Linda swears that she heard me. The freedom to build something (small and simple somethings, of course) without having to go down and unlock the gate to invite in the professionals.

            This is the first time since we’ve been living in the casa that we’ve gone a whole day without unlocking the gate.


            Puttering in my own shop. Making bread in my own bowls. We’re home.