by / Eric Lindquist. | leadertelegram.com
Four years ago, Barry Weiss took a step few Eau Claire residents could imagine: He sold all of his belongings and moved to another country.
At age 70, the artist said adios to Eau Claire and hola to San Miguel de Allende, a colonial town of about 170,000 people in the mountains of central Mexico.
Since his life-changing decision to become an expatriate, Weiss has never looked back.
“It’s going great. This is a wonderful world down here,” Weiss said last week in a telephone interview from San Miguel. “It’s about 70 degrees today, and you can’t beat that. But it’s not only the weather. The quality of life and the opportunity to learn about Mexican culture has been an eye-opening, soul-searching experience.”
Mexicans, he said, love to have a good time. As a result, there is always an excuse to have a community celebration. The festive atmosphere often includes parades, outdoor concerts, dancing, fireworks and ringing church bells — a sensory explosion he finds exhilarating.
“More importantly, it’s just a thrill to be able to reinvent my life at my age,” said Weiss, now 74, who was a high school and college band director, real estate agent and production company owner before operating Hummingbird Pottery out of a home studio in Eau Claire.
With change a constant for Weiss since migrating south to Mexico, he is a living, breathing reminder that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks.
Beyond the expected challenges — overcoming the language barrier, making new friends and adjusting to a new culture — Weiss also has changed careers and gotten divorced from his wife, musician Lorelei Capell, since the pair made the big move together.
A career change was never part of the plan, but Weiss said he quickly learned after settling in San Miguel that his technique of using high-fired porcelain was impractical in his new home because of the cost of energy and limited availability of the necessary raw materials.
Besides, he said, the region has a plethora of indigenous potters using a low-fire technique whose work is “absolutely gorgeous.” Weiss wasn’t ready to dive into a whole new style of potting, so he decided to try his hand at photography instead.
“I had always done some photography, so I started experimenting and shooting and not necessarily tying it into a vocation,” he said. “Well, one thing led to another, and now I teach photography, print for other photographers, work with tourists who want prints made and have become the major go-to photographer for events in the city. That’s how I make my living now.”
Eau Claire artist Terry Meyer, who calls Weiss his best friend and still exchanges emails with him about twice a month, said he has always been impressed by Weiss’ ability and willingness to remake himself as needed.
“That’s one of the things I admire most about him,” said Meyer, who loved San Miguel when he visited Weiss a couple of years ago. “He never did one thing his whole life. I always think that’s his best trait.”
Such adaptability shouldn’t come as a surprise for Weiss, who along with Capell moved from Chicago to Eau Claire around 2002 because they had lived for years in a high-rise condominium and wanted to see what it was like living closer to the ground. Capell didn’t respond to emails seeking comment about her experience living in Mexico.
Home and away
Living abroad might be more common than many Americans think, however, as the State Department estimates that 8 million Americans are living and working in more than 160 countries. That means U.S. expats account for the equivalent of the combined populations of Chicago, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Mexico and Canada are believed to have the largest populations of U.S. expats, while Israel, the United Kingdom, France and Germany are among the other leading host nations, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.
While San Miguel is home to an estimated 12,000 American expats and even has gated expat communities with homes worth millions of dollars, Weiss lives in a diverse colonia, or neighborhood, that includes a mix of Mexicans and expats from the United States, Canada and other countries. He enjoys the neighborhood where common sights include mothers selling tacos out of doorways to make a few extra pesos and tortilla vendors chanting as they walk down the street balancing buckets of tortillas.
He said he has developed strong friendships with several Mexican natives, including some who moved to the U.S. illegally and were separated from their families after being deported.
Weiss, who said he has learned a functional amount of Spanish, is thankful for the affordability that allows him to pay $290 a month in rent for a two-bedroom apartment with kitchen, dining and living rooms, a fireplace and two terraces.
“Financially, I’m so much better off here at this stage of my life,” Weiss said. “I can afford to live a real high quality of life here, something I couldn’t afford to do in the States without working my tail off.”
Regarding safety, Weiss said the drug violence besieging parts of Mexico is mostly focused quite a ways north of San Miguel. As far as he knows, the drug cartels don’t operate in the city and haven’t affected the safety of his neighborhood.
Health care is another key concern friends have raised. Weiss, who has obtained permanent resident status in Mexico, has access to the country’s free national health system, which he described as providing “bare bones” care, or has the option of paying for high-end care at private hospitals.
Surprisingly, Weiss said the Mexican people he interacts with don’t spend much time talking or worrying about U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s promises to crack down on illegal immigration and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We don’t get involved in politics to the extent we would back in Wisconsin,” Weiss said. “People here have a different way of thinking about life and what’s important: What will be will be.”
San Miguel, located about 165 miles northeast of Mexico City, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for cultural and architectural wealth reflecting the Mexican Baroque period and its key role in the Mexican struggle for independence, according to VisitMexico.com. The tourism site calls San Miguel, known for its cobblestone streets, “arguably the prettiest town in Mexico.”
Weiss, who acknowledged emigrating was easier for Capell and him than many people because they didn’t have children or other financial commitments tying them down, credited his new hometown itself in part for his successful transition. He also has two dogs and a cat to keep him company.
“People come down to San Miguel not to die, but to live longer,” he said. “There is so much energy, so much culture, so many things for your brain to see and do. You can be whatever you want to be. That brings a new level of youthfulness to people and allows you to do the things you’ve always wanted to do in your life.”
Still, Meyer doesn’t hesitate emailing Weiss messages to remind him of the life he left behind. Meyer chuckled when he described sending Weiss photos this fall of Eau Claire’s first snowfall to show him of what he is escaping and photos of fall colors to remind him of what he is missing.
For his part, Weiss admitted he misses his Eau Claire friends but said he addresses that by visiting the Chippewa Valley once or twice a year. But he has no plans to return to his native country.
“I miss it, but at the same time I don’t,” he said. “You move on and just try to grab all the gusto you can out of life.”