San Miguel de Allende was a jewel on the map of my childhood. Many times circled, marked with a push-pin. Coming here always felt like coming home. I loved the smell of old stone courtyards, the sound of water splashing onto cobblestones as people cleaned the streets in front of their big-doored colonial houses, and the chorus of blackbirds in the Zocalo as the sun set behind the enormous pink Cathedral, which looked like something made up by a little girl with an overactive imagination.
As a little girl with an overactive imagination myself, San Miguel was a paradise for daydreaming: Monasteries like castles, the French park like an emperor’s private garden, the wrought iron grates that guarded dark stone rooms where one could imagine the rustle of long skirts and the hush of Spanish fans.
And then there were the people who storied the establishments. Wandering around San Miguel was like visiting Mr. Rogers’ land of Make-Believe: Someone you know was bound to pop out of the woodwork with appropriate eccentric flare. At the shady Zocalo in the center of town, we inevitably ran into at least one person we knew—perhaps David, an artist with a pate like Charlie brown, a whimsical sense of humor, and an apparently invincible belief in his own genius. Or maybe Frank–whose ham pink face, bushy grey beard, and gravely voice made him seem an unlikely candidate for the polyamorous life he was always espousing. Or possibly Virginia, who ran a restaurant and a rug factory and still had the energy of a small battalion.
My parents’ friends were living the dream. They lived in beautiful houses with courtyards and maids. They wore turquoise jewelry and large sunglasses and hand-woven kaftans. They painted and played in flamenco bands and threw fashion shows, and they drank at bars like La Cucaracha and La Fragua, where I would crouch under the large wooden tables and listen to them tell stories late into the night.
To me the heart of San Miguel was always la Casa, which appealed to my childhood fancy because from the outside it looked so plain: A very old door in a very old wall on a street that was barely more than an alley. You pulled a string that rang the doorbell, and the maid would answer, and then you walked through a stone hallway and beneath the bower of an immense old bougainvillaea, dreamlike fuchsia in the afternoon light. A winding outdoor path connected the other parts of the house, which were all separate buildings: a ramada-style dining room, a grotto of a kitchen that smelled like cold water and tiles; there was even a tower. Tropical flowers and succulents grew everywhere, and a jacaranda tree littered the path with purple blossoms.
The queen of la Casa was Diana, a loquacious Texan with honey-colored hair and a delightful laugh. She was married to Napoleon, a Mexican lawyer who had the distinguished grace of a very large cat, perhaps a panther. Together they had three sons, Alejandro, Damian, and Adan. The boys and I played in the courtyard as small children. When we grew a bit older, Alejandro and I would climb up the bougainvillaea to the rooftop to spy on Adan and his girlfriend, flirting shyly in their school uniforms. When we were older still we had the run of the streets and we’d get ice cream floats at the corner store and hang out in the video arcades with a pack of expat kids, including my friend Theron, who knew all the best ways to get into trouble.
My family’s stays in San Miguel varied in time: Sometimes a couple of weeks, occasionally a couple of months. Sometimes we camped at the edge of town, other times we house sat. Over the years, I attended several different schools in San Miguel. But the consistent factor remained: San Miguel was a definite stop on our annual trip; it didn’t just feel like a home away from home—it felt like home.
Then I turned into a teenager and stopped traveling to Mexico every year with my parents. When I was eighteen, Diana died of a heart attack. As the years passed, several other old friends from San Miguel passed away and many more drifted away, back to the states, down to the coast, further south. Because I wasn’t making my annual migration to San Miguel every year, not only did I miss out on really mourning these deaths, but I also missed out on the organic process of making new connections to replenish those that had disappeared or atrophied.
When I returned to San Miguel at age 21, the town had changed. It was even wealthier and a lot more polished. Many of the funky touches were gone. That said, the place still had its magic: My heart trilled as I wandered down the winding cobblestone streets at night. There was the Parrocchia, massive against the starry sky, there the glimmering lights of Mama Mia’s. But where was everyone I knew?
My sainted mother now lives outside of San Miguel and I return here whenever possible. I sit at the Zocalo and watch residents stroll and gossip and exclaim as they spot cohorts. I watch groups congregate, laughing, in the bars. We still have a couple of dear family friends here, but for the most part I feel like I’m revisiting the set of a movie that used to be about my life, but isn’t anymore. Or as Pavement put it: “You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation / Of the sequel to your life.” As I nurse a cold Victoria at la Cucarracha, I can’t help but wish I had what my parents had: A fabulous cast of characters to keep me company here in this most dreamlike of towns.
Should you feel sorry for me? Uh, no. I’m hanging out in a beautiful colonial city in Mexico. Really, I’m just spoiled because I’m fortunate enough to have a glittering network of friends that extends through many locales and I’m not really used to lurking at the edges of a set anymore. Maybe it’s good for me. It does make me think. It makes me think how utterly dependent upon people I am. It makes me think about how towns are layered: lost world upon lost world upon lost world. What would San Miguel de Allende be without all the beautiful ghosts?