Falling for San Miguel

In this charming Mexican city, one visit can change your life

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YOU RELAX AND FIND YOUR RHYTHM

The person you always wanted to be. Maybe it's the third day, or the fourth day, of your visit that this person begins to emerge: more relaxed, more aware of the surrounding world, more fun.

By now you've developed a rhythm. You know that the best way to explore is to set a destination in mind but understand that you will be diverted from it. Say, for example, you want to see the Oratorio de San Felipe Neri in part because you've heard the best tamales in town are found at a stand in front of it.

You start out, crossing leafy, tropical Parque Benito Juárez, but here are 50 women doing Zumba - a locally popular exercise regimen - to Christina Aguilera's "Candyman" and next to them, sometimes interrupting them, a pickup basketball game. So you watch for a while and then walk up Calle Jesús to expat Mary Marsh's excellent little bookstore, Libros El Tecolote, and then somehow find yourself at the escuela de Bellas Artes, sipping coffee in a courtyard that, in a city of fine courtyards, is finest of all. And you haven't even made it to the tamales. (You will later, and they will indeed be the best in the world.)

In the same indirect way, you begin to acquire some Spanish. You stumble over nouns and verbs the way you stumble over the cobblestones. But San Miguel is famous for its language schools, and its people are used to Americans mixing up jabón (soap) for jamón (ham). They smile, they nod, they understand that you do not in fact want to order eggs with soap.

And the language starts to flow. At first, only in the present tense. But that is fine: In San Miguel, you don't need to deal with past or future, just with now. La iglesia es muy bonita, you say at San Felipe Neri. The church is very pretty. And, Los tamales son muy ricos.

AND THEN YOU'RE OFFICIALLY IN LOVE

When does it hit you - the certainty that you will return to San Miguel? Maybe it's when you find yourself scanning the apartments-for-rent advertisements in Atención. Or at night when El Jardín turns into San Miguel's answer to the multiplex, with bands and dance troupes and people hawking roast corn, and you think, There's no way in the world I'll never come back here.

For me it was on the Sunday House & Garden Tour, a local institution that combines San Miguel's love for real estate, charity (proceeds go to the city library), and snooping. Each Sunday, you get to tour three homes that would be otherwise closed to you.

Fifty of us pile into school buses. Our first house is in the Fábrica La Aurora, a former textile factory now turned into stores, galleries, restaurants, and a few living spaces: more SoMa or SoHo than classic Mexico. Then House Number Two: a whimsical collection of casitas, each painted in Crayola colors, with folk art everywhere.

As we walked around admiring the houses, I thought, I could live here. In the first house, I'd wear severe suits and shout on the phone to New York. In the second, I'd become an expert on Mexican muralists.

Then the final house, a more traditional family home with, as it happens, the family on hand to greet us. We stroll through the cocina, the sala and end up in the courtyard - lush even by San Miguel standards and now occupied by the mother of the house and the family parrot. The parrot speaks many Spanish words, but his favorite is ¡Gordo! ¡Gordo! Fat! Fat!

By now my Spanish is good enough to talk to, and about, the parrot.

"Aquí está un loro," I say to the woman. Here is a parrot.
 "Sí."
 "¿Cuántos años tiene?" How old is he?
 "Veinte." Twenty.

I am worried now that the parrot will look at me and shriek, "¡Gordo!" Even so, I realize that I very much do not want to leave. I want to stay in the courtyard, acquiring new stories, listening to St. Michael and La Luz chime the hours, becoming the person I want to be.

I look the parrot in its beady eyes. Its owner looks at me, smiling but puzzled. Yo voy a volver, I tell him. I'm going to return. Pronto, pronto. Soon, soon.

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