I SPENT LAST Sunday in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, with a group of more than 500 Americans gawking at the designer homes of other Americans.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to learn about this particular tourist activity. Being away from home is unsettling enough, but being away on a Sunday and missing out on open-house tours is downright colon-blocking. What good is a weekend, after all, that does not include at least one voyeuristic jaunt into the home of a stranger? Why go to a stuffy museum or the bug-infested park when you can fondle people's countertops with impunity?
Americans know that open houses aren't just the new museums, they're the new church! The people of San Miguel de Allende know that too, because a lot of them are Americans. Nestled in the mountains of eastern Guanajuato state, San Miguel has a population of about 100,000, a sizable portion of which comes from the U.S. or Canada. To maneuver along the narrow cobblestone sidewalks of San Miguel is to hear purse-clutching English speakers rhapsodizing about a new deodorant or comparing a Jaguar parked on the street to the one they keep back in the States.
Because many of the property owners shuttle between San Miguel and their El Norte homelands, it's hard to tell exactly how big the gringo invasion is. When I arrived, my friend the B&B owner said it was 7% of the population. A few days later, a taxi driver told me 15%. When I got home, I checked Wikipedia, which says expatriates (mostly U.S. nationals) may be 40% to 50% of the population. A fourfold increase in less than a week! Now that's growth.
You can usually tell how well a place is doing by the way its citizens entertain themselves. If keno parlors and dive bars that double as pancake houses are hallmarks of dying towns, wealthier places can be discerned by the availability of paint-your-own-ceramic-pot studios and the enthusiasm people bring to the Sunday open house.
And because the only thing affluent San Miguel de Allende residents seem to love more than ceramics are designer homes in which they can display them, a bunch of smart full- and part-time expats got together and created the House and Garden Tour. It operates nearly every Sunday, and anyone with $15 (which benefits the public library) can pile into buses and be ferried around for a fix of high-end local color.
Everyone, even the property owners, wears name tags identifying home cities or states. I heard one Oregonian describe to another her half-price Mexican face-lift. Minnesotans talked wind chill with other Minnesotans. I found a guy from West Hollywood, and we rode together like an exclusive little clique, comparing different neighborhoods in L.A. and dishing Britney Spears.
The first house we visited was a sprawling, boxy, contemporary estate about 15 miles outside of town. It was owned by a ceramic artist and relationship-book author from the Bay Area. and was notable for, among other things, a master suite with an indoor/outdoor shower and a bathtub shaped exactly to the relationship-book author's proportions. There was a separate art studio, an infinity pool and a dog-washing bathroom.
The second house, a new colonial-style manse with papyrus waving in the garden, was in town on a street so narrow that we had to walk four blocks from the bus to reach it. As we marched through a park, children played nearby, a couple of actual Mexicans talked animatedly on their cellphones and a 1980s Wham! song played in the background — the one with George Michael singing the line "guilty feet have got no rhythm," only the melody was played by a pan flute to give it a kind of south-of-the-border flavor.
It was at this point that I realized that if I really wanted a taste of Mexico, I might as well go home to Echo Park. The tour wasn't so much a backstage pass to aspirational cultural immersion as it was an English-only how-to guide for getting away from it all without giving anything up. Each dwelling was mostly notable for just how thoroughly the householders had managed to bring the comforts of the north into the wilds of the south.
I also realized that there was a certain irrelevance, even tedium, to touring a house that wasn't for sale (as fun as it was to spy on someone's dog-washing bathroom). That's because no matter how unaffordable, impractical or downright awful a house may be, if it's for sale, it carries an unmistakable aura of possibility. It also makes us think about our values and tastes, our financial stability, our courage and our fears. We're forced, if even on an abstract level, to consider the bigger picture — property taxes, the school system, commute times to work. Or even potable water.
Getting inside a house that's for sale is kind of like dating someone who's single and available, whereas walking into a house just to admire its superior design (and the cash it took it implement it) is like mooning over a celebrity. It's a nice distraction for a while, but then you feel kind of stupid.
Maybe that's why I've been feeling a little dull since I returned home (or maybe it's that I still have the Wham! song in my head). Thank God tomorrow's Sunday. There are a couple houses with "for sale" signs on them that I can't wait to check out. I've also got this great idea for a new bathroom.