YL: When did you move to the Yucatan and from where did you move?
Benne': With my Scion fully packed, I drove out of Austin, Texas on August 20, 2011 and arrived in Merida on August 24th.
YL: Why did you move?
Benne': Since I was a child, I’ve always been in love with Mexico. I began traveling the country twenty-five years ago, and finally discovered the Yucatan four years ago.
YL: Why did you choose the city you now live in over other places in the world?
Benne': My family is from New Orleans, Louisiana. The section of Merida I live in, with cobblestone streets, Juliette balconies, and Spanish/French colonial architecture feels like home. What I have recently discovered is that it feels like New Orleans for some very significant reasons. Many families from Yucatan and Campeche settled in New Orleans. Merida and New Orleans are in an active sister city agreement!
YL: Did you buy a house right away or rent first? Do you think you made the right decision?
Benne': When I began visiting Yucatan, I rented a casita on the beach in Chelem. That is where I lived for the first nine months while waiting for my house in Merida to close and be remodeled. I have no regrets.
YL: Are you doing now what you intended to do when you moved here? If not, why not?
Benne': My overarching theme was to live here, work here, and give here. Now, that I have reached the one-year mark of this beautiful encore life, I can check all three boxes! My house is livable, I am one of the Working Gringos, and I hold Sunday Spanglish classes with some neighborhood children and my contractor's apprentice. Transitions have their own stages and rhythms, and with a huge life overhaul, I’m not surprised that I haven’t been able to pursue my other passions: organic gardening, returning to a studio practice, and playing music. No doubt those will be re-emerging at some point.
YL: What are the most interesting things about living here for you?
Benne': There are so many! One of my sculpture mediums is concrete so you can imagine how fascinating it has been to observe local craftsmens’ ways of shaping that product. I am also very interested in the process of pigment development used in Maya ruin murals. With some lengthy research, I’ve discovered that most of the compounds used to create Maya blue can still be found within the state. Having lived in New Orleans, San Francisco, and Austin, three cities focused on music and food, I’m devouring the local cuisine, and can’t wait to get my hands on a jacara, a specially adapted guitar played for bolero.
YL: What do you absolutely love about living here?
Benne': I have no need for a watch or alarm clock, as there is a sound for every part of living!
YL: What do you miss from your "former life"?
Benne': On a superficial level, the ease of familiarity is what I miss the most. On a deeper level, I miss my children and my friends. I consider myself to be a well-grounded person with a considerable resiliency skill set, but the touchstone for those qualities have been anchored in my family and friends. Sometimes, you just need a hug from someone you know that loves you.
YL: What don’t you miss from your "former life"?
Benne': A mortgage payment, junk mail, traffic, and cumulative stress.
YL: What is your favorite local food?
Benne': Garlic soup!
YL: What is your favorite time of year here and why?
Benne': So far, I would have to say that September was my favorite month. I took a drive about in the countryside, headed towards Motul, and was amazed to discover that Yucatan shares many of the same plants indigenous to Central Texas and Southern Louisiana.
YL: Where do you take guests who visit you here to show them something really special?
>Benne': The cenote at the Dizbilchaltun ruins. I dream about that cenote, and have plans to trick out a pool in that shape for my patio.
YL: The last time you went out to dinner, where did you go and why?
Benne': One of my girlfriends from the beach moved back to the States very suddenly. Since she didn’t have time to have a last supper with a few of us, she left $500 MXN so her gal pals could toast to her journey. We decided that Rescaldo’s was the perfect spot. Homemade pasta and a very good wine selection left us all feeling pretty happy.
YL: How is the city where you live different for residents than it is for tourists?
Benne': I can’t answer for Merida, as I have only been in my house for a little over a month. My beach experience has given me some insights as to why it was difficult to maintain bonds with people I met during my initial visit three years ago. Over the course of the nine months, I lived in the casita while the main house was mostly occupied, wtih many guests staying for three weeks to a month. It was a very peculiar feeling when I realized that the first couple I formed an attachment to would very likely never return to the area. As obvious as this should have been after having grown up in one of the major tourist cities in the United States, I really wasn’t prepared for the level of sadness I felt upon their departure. Of course, it was more than realizing I would never see this couple again. They came into my new life when it was necessary to have people that did not live here witness the awkward emotional ups and downs of adjusting. Though other expatriates would recognize the stages I’ve moved through as normal, nothing about those stages felt normal to me! We are very vulnerable when we first arrive, causing us to gloss over the fact that speaking English and being from the same country does not equate to holding the same values. My visiting strangers, were in that way, most precious to me.
YL: Do you have friends from the local community or do you pretty much hang with the expat crowd?
Benne': Manuel, my contractor, has turned out to be a very dear friend. Despite not sharing a common language, we have discovered a shared spiritual belief system, and a love of gardening. We use Google translator and email to convey our ideas. I have developed some very dear friendships with the women at the beach. I’ve not been in the city long enough to have made connections with many expats. I adore the women that work for Strategic Holdings, all Yucatecos and all bilingual. Lucky for me!
YL: If you are working or own a business, what is it like owning and running a business here or working here? How is it different from doing the same thing in your country of origin?
Benne': I am a trained clinical Art Therapist, as well as a visual artist. I owned a gallery and a private clinical practice, which allowed a merger of art and activism. I continue that work through News From A Broad, an online counseling service for expatriate women. My jobs are not focused on making a living to survive, or even to have a professional identity. Each is stimulating, and allows me to share my immigrant story. I love Mexico, and Mexico seems to be taking to me in ways I could not have imagined.
YL: Are your work habits different here?
Benne': I would say they are very similar. I enjoy new learning, meeting new people, hearing their stories, and sharing stories.
YL: Did you speak Spanish when you moved here? Where did you learn Spanish (if you did)? Is the language barrier a problem for you in your daily life?
Benne': Unfortunately, I do not speak Spanish, and I would say it is a barrier in that it limits my connections with my neighbors. I am fortunate to work with bilingual colleagues, who are unbelievably generous with handy information about living in Merida. As I mentioned earlier, the weekly Spanglish classes are very helpful. Every participant is comfortable with our mistakes, and corrections are gentle. I am taking formal classes beginning in September. As a competent adult in my former life, I find it very uncomfortable to be so dependent on the locals that have befriended me. I want to give back, and the most generous way to start would seem to be by learning their language.
YL: What interesting Spanish word or saying have you learned lately? What does it mean and how did you learn it?
Benne': I don’t really know what this expression means as the literal translation is a bit diluted: matrimonio y mortaja, solito del cielo baja. I’ve been told that it implies that there is no need to ever worry about finding love because it, like death, arrives unexpectedly. I like this because my encore life has a path that is not being directed by any manipulations. I am just following the easiest course and trusting that it will lead me to happiness.
YL: Are you a Mexican citizen? Do you plan to become one?
Benne': That is my desire and I am taking the steps to make that happen.
YL: Have you traveled much within Mexico? If so, where and what has been your favorite location to visit? What did you see there that you liked so much?
Benne': My travels in Mexico have taken me all over the country. I have yet to stay in a typical tourist destination, and have never stayed in an all-inclusive resort. My very favorite place has been Tenango del Aire, a small pueblo outside of Mexico City, near Amecameca. There, I developed a close friendship with Nahum Zenil, one of Mexico’s modernist painters.
YL: How are you treated by Mexicans? Do you feel resented or welcome?
Benne': I have felt more welcomed in Yucatan than any of the other states I’ve visited, and this could possibly be attributed to the state being a tourist destination, where locals are comfortable with foreigners. The romantic in me believes it is because the Yucatan was separate from Mexico, forming its own identity.
YL: What are your plans for the future here?
Benne': Perhaps, for the first time in my adult life, I don’t have to run my decisions through a consideration filter of others’ needs. My life is my own, and I intend to explore what that means. I am fairly service-oriented, and now that I live here and work here, I would like to give here more. So far, that is unfolding slowly. My neighbors and construction crew would like me to teach them English, as that would make all of our lives easier! Some of the children in my neighborhood have discovered that I am an artist, and want to make art with me. I am decidedly creating a life that will allow me to travel abroad, possibly taking advantage of an international home exchange program. I suspect that outside of work, I will mostly geek out! There is a richness of history in Mexico, and particularly in Yucatan, the epicenter of globalization via the Columbian exchange, that is vitally attractive to my nerd brain. From learning to raise Maya stingless bees, to recreating Maya Blue pigment, the adventure is endless.
YL: What is the one most important piece of advice you would give someone buying property and/or planning a move to the Yucatan?
Benne': Learn Spanish before you arrive, and if you can’t do so as soon as possible. There are many aspects of living here that will not require Spanish. You can grocery shop or order from a menu in a restaurant, but you will be limited in your ability to form connections with many local people if you do not make the effort.
YL: If you could say something to all the people of Mexico, what would you say?
Benne': Thank you for allowing me to live here, work here, and give here!