Visiting the Shrine

When we still lived in the States, we made an annual visit to South Bend, Indiana, where the majority of my relatives live. I often described these visits as a “pilgrimage to the shrine,” since we always stopped at the University of Note Dame to take in the beautiful campus, tour the athletic facilities, and buy fan memorabilia at the bookstore.

On one hand, my fanatic support for the Fighting Irish (Notre Dame’s football team) is easily explained. I grew up in the 1960/70’s when the team was dominant, I lived about 3 miles (as the Leprechaun flies) from the Golden Dome, I was Irish Catholic by background, and the local nuns taught us to root for “our team.” Being a Notre Dame fan was an essential, positive part of my childhood.

Well, the connection went deeper than the obvious links. Being a Notre Dame fan was part of rooting for the underdog who overcomes the odds, backing the side that does things the right way, being part of some shared belief in good triumphing over evil.  Even when “the breaks went against the boys” in Rockne’s immortalized line, that too was a lesson that sometimes even Good comes up short.

But we all grow up, and leave behind childish things, don’t we? Yes, I went off to school and the Army, marriage and children, career and travel. I realized that other teams weren’t always evil, and some of the Irish players I formerly idolized were, shall we say, a wee bit unsavory. I ran into opposing fans who could not understand my devotion to a school I never attended, or harbored some deep resentment at a loss to the Irish. I even had to get used to not winning all the time, which seemed as remote a possibility as the actor who played the Gipper becoming President. While my passion for the Irish waxed and waned over the decades, it never failed to gel come late August, building to a fever pitch by the end of November.

So I find myself back on campus this year, but the feeling is very different. I muster little excitement for the impending season. The team is talented but underperforming, unable to put-away inferior opponents and easily overmatched by those more talented. The coach has the remarkable ability to turn purple at critical moments, and is unequaled at sharing the blame with others. The program is under the cloud of an academic cheating scandal. The stadium is ever-larger,

What’s that growth on the stadium?

as if size really did matter. Classroom and leisure facilities are built onto the stadium on three sides, ostensibly connoting a commitment to academics merged with athletics, but instead literally propping up the luxury suites. The overall architectural effect recalls a Communist planner given too many monuments and not enough plaza. The field is synthetic, since grass is apparently a non-native species in northern Indiana. A Jumbotron hovers over the House that Rockne Built; I am sure it will instruct Irish fans when to “get loud.”  Piped in inspirational music and smoke effects complete the scene. It looks like every other Ginormous State University stadium … except it isn’t.

The stadium does look good on the inside, but how long before they are hawking used cars on the ‘Tron?

Which is the point, after all. Change is inevitable, but the changes need to be consistent with something original, something organic, something profound. Notre Dame today presents an updated, Disneyfied college football experience. The emphasis is on appearances, which do not amplify an underlying reality so much as merchandize an existing, fading brand.

Concession tables set up inside the luxury boxes

Don’t get me wrong: I will always be a fan.  I will watch games this year, and probably get way-too-involved. But it is much harder to be passionate about a performance by the University of Notre Disney Competitive Generics. Just give me back the Fighting Irish.

The luxury suites rival Touchdown Jesus, which is never a good idea. How did that tower in Babel turn out?

Friends & Family

If you are going to live the expat life, you’ll be away from family and friends for months at a time. This is one of the negative aspects, but it also means you’ll on occasion travel back to visit. We are on one of those visits right now, after six months setting up our casa in Mexico. Is there anything better than seeing old friends, or getting together with your family, especially your grandkids?

The BrewDogs strike a pose

We recently spent a long weekend renewing friendships at a small reunion with my old “college classmates”. I use that term only the your familiarity, because I did not go to college, I went to West Point, which has a passing similarity to college, in the same way that a Sunday drive in the country is similar to the Indy 500. I like to say we did not matriculate, we were institutionalized.  Anyway, the Long Gray Line has a way of instilling lifelong friendships, so it was great to get together and share stories, learn of life’s twists and turns, and just talk. Because of our shared experiences, we all feel very comfortable around each other and easily fall back into an openness which belies the years apart.

Tunnels & Hills aplenty

As enjoyable as old, lifelong friends can be, nothing bests family, especially grandkids. Lately I have spent mornings constructing an awesome rollercoaster, taking a canoe trip down the Little Miami river, and having an epic water gun fight, all with my oldest grandson, Ian.

It is a simple joy, but simple pleasures are most often the best. It is hard to pack missed months together into a week or two, but we plan to take advantage of our newfound leisure time to visit more frequently. We are blessed in that Ian’s other set of grandparents live nearby, so even if we miss him, he does not lack for grandparental attention!

Next up, a mini-family reunion and a visit to “the Shrine.”

Tlaquepaque and Tonalá

Most everyone who visits Guadalajara finds their way to two famous shopping locales called Tlaquepaque and Tonalá. Both were once small towns near Guadalajara, but as Mexico’s second largest city sprawled out, it subsumed them. Each retains some of its original character, but seem now to be just neighborhoods in Metro Guadalajara.

Tonalá  (“Tone-ah-LAH”) was traditionally an authentic artisan location, full of small shops and factories making unique arts and crafts. Tlaquepaque (“Tah-lock-ee-pock-ee”) was similar, but slightly more upscale, with more recognized artists, restaurants, and retail stores. Over the years, many of the artisan shops in Tonalá have moved, some to Tlaquepaque and some elsewhere in the region; they have been replaced by a potpourri of small shops selling a mixture of just about anything.

Stalls in Tonalá

Tonalá has no organization: you’ll find a ceramics store next to a religious figurines place across from a glassware shop, and then the same odd mixture on the next cross street. The streets remain open to traffic, so one need be cautious in window

More stalls

shopping. Some streets and the area near the plaza have stalls selling their wares, creating a tianguis or market atmosphere.  Tlaquepaque has a pedestrian zone lined with upscale restaurants, galleries, and numerous boutiques for high-end jewelry, couture, or objet d’art. If you wander off the more touristy path, there are still remnants of the original artisan workshops.


Pedestrian area in Tlaquepaque

Our good friend Lorraine showed us around on visits to both “towns” as we sought some authentic Mexican dinnerware. One thing she mentioned time and again was how much each place has changed: both are more commercial, more touristy, and less authentic than in the past. We eventually found a real ceramic factory (Ceramica el Palomar) off the beaten path in Tlaquepaque. The owners literally “turned on the lights” in their showroom for us; they weren’t expecting any walk-in traffic.  After we exchanged pleasantries and explained what we were looking for, they offered to take us on a tour of the factory behind the showroom. We found a nice set of dishes, each individually signed on the back (with a symbol) by the artist who made them.

Factory tour pics…

Our pattern: you can see the artists “fish” symbol on the mug

If the name Tlaquepaque seems oddly familiar, it might be because you have visited Sedona, Arizona.  On a trip there last year, we found an upscale arts-n-crafts mall called by the same name. Life imitating art imitating life, as it were.

If I had to choose between Tonalá and Tlaquepaque, I would spend the time and money in Tlaquepaque. If you want to have a real Mexican market experience, you should go to the Mercado Libertad, but that is the subject of another post, another day!

it’s not a trip without a restaurant visit: Judy & Lorraine

Where in the world…?

So if you are an expat, occasionally you will have the opportunity to “return home” to the US of A.  For us, that involved a drive from Ajijic to the border, which we just accomplished. While “all’s well that ends well” is certainly the case, the trip was not uneventful.

The drive from Ajijic to the border at Laredo is about 11 hours, so you might end up driving at night (or at least dusk) in Mexico if you try to do it all in one day.  Nighttime driving is a big no-no south of the border, just because livestock graze along the highways, and nothing says “stop” like coming across a cow looking for better grass in the middle of the cuota (toll road)!

So we drove to Monterrey and staged there for the next day’s assault on the wall, err, I mean the border. Tip for Lakesiders: the City Express Hotel Norte next to the airport in Monterrey is a great choice: under $50 US, clean, next to the main road north to Laredo, with a few adjacent restaurants. Our first day’s drive was uneventful, with the exception of a severe rainstorm we eventually outran.

Our second day went differently. We made it to Laredo by 10:00, but there was a 90 minute back up at the border.  Even our Waze app (highly recommended) abandoned us, as it tried to take us across a closed bridge. Judy was driving the first vehicle in our convoy, and of course she got the border patrol officer who wanted to do a full car search, uncovering her “stash” of contraband, which you and I would call bottles of Limoncello made by Benedictine nuns. Fortunately, she just had to pay import duty, and we went on our way.

We made it to US highway 59 outside Laredo.  If you like driving, you owe yourself a trip to Texas just to drive on this take-off/landing strip which pretends to be a highway.  Several hundred miles of two-lane pavement (with ample shoulders) with regular passing lanes.  Flat and straight as an arrow. 75 miles-per-hour, and the only people in uniform you will see are US Border Patrol. Oh, and this part of Texas has plenty of nowhere, as in you might not see anything beside the road beside scrub brush.

Things were going well but running late as we approached Houston. Texas had not properly welcomed us yet, so it chose this time to do so.  We saw some ominous clouds, and then as we were just an hour outside Houston, we met a literal wall of water: a true Texas-style storm.  It was like driving through a waterfall, or driving inside a carwash.  This caused the native Texans to slow to almost 60 mph, and yours truly played along.  I always say seeing is overrated when it comes to driving!

Judy kept up in the chase car, although all she could see at times was my emergency blinkers disappearing in the mist. We eventually made it to the CarMax in Houston. They processed my Toyota FJ in about ninety minutes. Car-selling tip: check out CarMax even if you are not trading in, but take along an “instant offer” which you can get online from Kelly’s Blue Book. This ensures you get a fair price.  Since my car is sought after, they made me an offer AND did their own double check on Kelly’s, then said they would match the Kelly’s price, which was greater than their offer or my original Kelly’s estimate.

Adios, Amigo!

An hour of Houston rush hour traffic later, we made it to our hotel in Baytown (east of Houston on I-10).  We were one car lighter, had some US change in our pocket, and were safely across the border. Now I just have to stop saying “Buenos Dias” to everyone.