Greetings from The Heart of Mexico

When my wife and I woke up Saturday — our last day of vacation in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico — outside our window the birds were chirping, children were playing and the sun smiled from a robin's-egg blue sky, caressing us with a gentle 71 degrees.

When we woke up the next morning in Ashland, snow blanketed our house, our yard and the streets beyond, under a sunless sky with teeth-chattering temperatures in the low 30s. Nothing says culture-shock quite so forcefully as that.

We spent a glorious week in the colonial city 6,000 feet above sea level in the central Mexican highlands about 45 minutes southeast of Guanajuato and 31/2 hours west of Mexico City.

San Miguel was home to my stepmother. My wife and I visited her there 12 years ago. She no longer lives there, and her house has been sold, but I was pleased to find that the memories and most of the scenery had held up after all of those intervening years.

There is something profoundly engaging about a culture whose people daily great one another — and total strangers — with "Good day," "Good afternoon," and "Good evening." Reminds me a bit of the good folks on Lopez Island in Washington's San Juan Islands who wave "hello" at passersby from their cars.

San Miguel wears many faces. One moment it looks and feels like Europe. It is, after all, a Spanish colonial city. Tall cypresses and poplars convince you that you're in Italy. The two Italian restaurants where we ate were each run by an Italian woman who spoke to us in that musically accented English that says Italy.

There were vignettes that reminded me of my two years in Japan as a child. Tiny, family-run shops, small cars plying narrow cobblestone streets, blue-enameled house numbers on the stucco walls.

The Mexicans call San Miguel "El Corazón de México," "The Heart of Mexico." This is due in part to its central geographic location. But this "heart" of Mexico has earned its name from the spirit of its people and its love of the country's rich cultural heritage.

This is the town whose namesake was among five generals who fought against the Spanish occupation. Art galleries, museums and theaters are as omnipresent as bougainvilleas. The weather is a considerate mid- to low- 70 degrees or so most of the year.

When a group of us went out for lunch, I sat next to an artist from New England named Peter. While we were waiting for our meal to arrive he was happily working on an exquisite little watercolor of the adjoining gardens and fountain. Just as I had done at similar restaurants 12 years ago.

You can't help it. You're sitting outside at your table in a colonnaded courtyard, bougainvilleas pour down from lofty flower boxes all around you, a flower-like fountain quietly sends its water into its bowl. Overhead a few puffs of white swim in the pastel-blue sky.

When we were here 12 years ago, my wife and I attended a concert of classical Spanish guitar. We did so again this time. We stopped by the Belles Artes to admire the paintings and murals. Post cards, posters and shopping bags featuring the face and paintings of Mexican artist and folk hero, Frida Kahlo, are everywhere. A benefit auction for a local painter and sculptor about to undergo treatment for leukemia featured donated work from more than 40 of the area's top artists.

We shopped at the marketplace where local artisans had their wares for sale. We saw a play, put on by a theater company made up mostly of actors from the United States. The company has been producing plays at the theater in the public library for 26 years. The space also is used for lectures, films and presentations from touring opera companies.

We popped our heads into a restaurant, drawn by the sounds of a great jazz band featuring trumpet, violin, guitar, bass and drum. The trumpeter was Doc Severinsen who used to lead the band on the Johnny Carson show. He has teamed up with Gil Gutierrez and Pedro Cartas, musicians from Oaxaca and Cuba, to perform throughout Mexico. Down the street the guitar and violin duo of Willie and Lobo were performing.

Add to this the almost daily sounds of church bells, mariachi bands and mini parades and you can't help but be in a festival mood. It's enough to warm your heart — right through the winter.

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