Retiring down Mexico way

Annemarie and Gary Slipper, a Canadian couple, built their own spectacular home on a hillside overlooking the idyllic Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. But would you have the guts to make such a dramatic move?

Like so many of us, our Canadian winter finally got the better of the Slippers. And for them, there was a special reason to flee our dismal winters: they’re artists-he’s a painter, she’s a ceramic sculptor-and the special light in San Miguel was irresistible.

First they over wintered there. Then, in 1987, they sold their semi-detached midtown Toronto house and moved south for good.

Dream come true
“It’s cool here this morning – about 50 F,” Annemarie said when we called her one morning in late January (in Toronto, the wind chill was -25 C or F???). “Most mornings this time of year it’s 60. We have breakfast with all the windows open.”

Their lives in the lovely little town in the mountains about three-and-a-half hours north of Mexico City, a favourite with many Canadians, sounds like a dream come true. However, it’s a dream with a price.

Because they live outside Canada year round, they’re not covered by Canada’s dicare system. In fact, Gary, 67, and Annemarie, 69, have no medical insurance at all.

“The only real drawback (of living here),” says Annemarie, “is that medical standards are not up to par.” There’s a hospital about an hour away, but it wouldn’t be considered up to Canadian or U.S. standards.

What about illness?
What happens if serious illness strikes? A couple of years ago, they found out, when Gary contracted throat cancer. “We have very good friends living here from Little Rock, Arkansas,” says Annemarie. Incredibly, their friends-major supporters of a hospital in Little Rock-arranged for Gary to receive care free of charge and even put the Slippers up at their home in Little Rock for the duration of his treatment.

“They live for today,” is how a friend describes the Slippers. “They’ll go off to Europe and spend all their money. Then, when they come back, Gary will do another painting.”

Gary’s fantasy paintings, showing a strong South American and Roman Catholic influence, are sold locally and through a New York gallery.

No Canada Pension
On a more matter-of-fact level, Annemarie says they receive their old age security from Canada (minus a 25 per cent withholding tax) but no Canada Pension (“What’s that?” she asked), and pay taxes in Mexico.

“We’re working people,” she says. “We plan to continue working.”

And many would envy their working conditions. “I have a lovely garden and hired help,” says Annemarie, whose father was head of the botanical gardens in Montreal.

Pale blue plumbagos twine around the pillars on the terrace, and orchids, enormous cacti and flowering shrubs line the path down to her self-contained studio. If things get too tight, she tells friends, she could always live in the studio and rent out the house.

Many attractions
The attraction of San Miguel? “There are so many activities,” says Annemarie. “There’s a fiesta nearly every week – we even celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. And we have a wonderful library with Spanish and English books. You can get just about any book you want.”

Language, she says, isn’t a problem. “You can get by without speaking Spanish, but you miss a lot.”

They manage with a 20-year-old van they brought with them from Canada (“Mexicans can fix anything”) and, if they feel the need, can shop at a Costco or Wal-Mart in a town about 45 minutes away. 

Don’t rush in
She says she misses her family and friends in Canada, but in recent years they bought a computer and are now in regular contact via e-mail. The Slippers return to Canada for about 10 days every year. “But I could never face the cold again,” says Annemarie.

Her advice for people considering living abroad? “Don’t rush into it. I see people coming down here for the winter (from Canada and the U.S.) and buying a house, all within a few days. Then they change their minds. Most often, it’s the lack of medical facilities that makes newcomers nervous. But for us, all the rest makes up for that anxiety.”