I returned today from a 13-day trip, with my husband and three other couples, to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It’s an old colonial town northwest of Mexico City that’s attracted thousands of American, Canadian, and European expats for quite some time now. The climate is superb. Wonderful sounds, both instrumental and natural, fill the air and waft throughout the town. The cost of living is extremely reasonable, and the Mexicans who live there welcome outsiders on every narrow sideway and cobblestone street. The town, with not a single building over three stories, is architecturally stunning. And there’s the romance of the unfamiliar, as the Americans who guide the walking tours tell more than three stories: about the Spaniards who overthrew the indigenous people, about the early independence movement here, and about the politics that surrounded remarkable murals of Rivera, Orozco, and Siquieros.
Ah, but something else attracts visitors to San Miguel: shopping. Colorful fruit, food, and flower markets punctuate every street and alley. Clothing and home furnishings stores wedge themselves in between. And when all these tire for a moment, some other tempting specialty shop sets down roots. Having been to San Miguel five years before, I remembered the shopping cornucopia and resolved to be mindful about my own involvement with it.
In the act, however, I got caught up in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I found myself going into almost all the stores that I’d highlighted in my San Miguel shopping guide—some of them two or three times—”just to see what they had,” I told myself. It was an old feeling: very reminiscent of those years when I got a weekly report in the mail (that’s how long ago it was!) on the best sales and bargains in New York, and would compulsively take myself down to the garment center “just to see what they had.” (Wouldn’t, after all, want to miss a great bargain on something that “had my name” on it.) What a relief it was when I gave up my subscription to the S&B report! Happily, I never replaced it with subscriptions to online sales and bargains sites, but instead transformed my fascination with shopping and spending into a fascination with the study and treatment of compulsive buying.
Now, to return to the lapse I only seem to be evading. It wasn’t how much I bought. No, that was pretty reasonable. But the time and energy I invested in the fieldwork for my shopping forays—in considering what shops to visit, mapping their locations, researching some of their products, reconsidering some of these decisions—and then the time and energy spent actually going to the shops, being in them, and eventually coming back from them: “too much!” my mother used to say. Excessive. My husband, the consummate anti-shopper (unless it’s for something like tribal masks or Buddhist mandalas that come with some history and don’t wear out or go out of style), was annoyed about it and couldn’t fathom why I’d want to spend my time this way. I’d like to blame peer pressure, but I can’t: while two of my three girlfriends may have shopped as much as I did, I shopped mostly alone, the better to do my “research”; this way, I could linger or leave quickly, entirely as my interest urged. What I can say is that living with seven other people for almost two weeks, even the closest of friends, activated some old internal ghosts; perhaps it was these that I was trying to avoid by going to retail therapy instead.
So, if I had it to do over?
I’d throw out the San Miguel shopping guide and let myself be guided instead by something I saw in a window or a stall on the street.
I’d spend even more time in the afternoons outdoors, reading, exploring, swimming.
I’d take another Spanish lesson or two, or cook a meal with Maria Elena, who worked at the house every day and would’ve been happy to have me assist her.
I’d coax Jim into a salsa lesson or maybe do an afternoon of tutoring at one of the local schools (an option advertised at La Biblioteca, the town library, meeting place, and cultural center, and the hub of expat activity).
I’d be more aware and remind myself, as I want to remind you, that experiences trump things, every day, everywhere.