I slept and slept the next morning. Nothing could persuade me to get out of bed; I was so comfortable in my Mexico City loft. It was wonderful to listen to the sounds of the city reverberating through the apartment. I could hear barking dogs, snippets of rapid fire Spanish, I swear somebody was singing ‘Despacito,’ the neighbors splashing about in the well, and the gentle hum of the cars driving by.
Slowly I rose and decided to tackle the coffeemaker. I have a fairly embarrassing thing to admit to you all. I don’t know how to use the standard coffee machine. You know, the drip coffee type that is in everybody’s kitchen? I never have had to use one. I’ve always owned espresso machines or Moka pots or French presses. I’m a European at heart, you know? I’ve never owned a coffeemaker like that in my life. Yes, I’ve had like five espresso machines, but that’s different. So, I stared at the device with remarkable trepidation wondering if I had added too much ground coffee or too much water. Would it be like coffee bean tea or would it be ambrosia?
Warily, I watched the machine come to life and steam and heard a whirring and dripping and soon coffee was pouring out. I was ecstatic and felt like Paris Hilton on The Simple Life when she successfully made a grilled cheese sandwich using a couple of clothing irons. It was damned good coffee, too. Came from Colombia.
I tidied myself up and threw the doors open onto the courtyard, the light was bright and the sun was intense. Heavenly. Blanca was out doing laundry, but the owner of my apartment didn’t pay the monthly fee to use the well so he sent his cleaning out to be done. I was willing to do this, but on my first full day in the city, I had no idea where to take it, so I filled the sink up with hot water and washed my clothes by hand. It was incredibly primitive. I absolutely hated it. Still, the clothes were clean. Straining my barely existent biceps, I wrung out as much of the sudsy water as possible and hung them on the clothesline outside the front of my apartment.
This, apparently, is something the people who rent this apartment never do. The other people in the courtyard — who I later found out where all maids employed by various occupants of the building — found this hilarious. And I suppose I was a bit of an absurd spectacle out there, a crazy gringo washing his own clothing and chatting with the staff in poor Spanish. I enjoyed it. And I got to meet the maid that operates the household across from mine. It’s a massive two level and completely filled with colonial style designs. I was deeply envious. I wanted a colonial apartment in the center of Mexico City. Can’t you picture me there today, elegantly sipping a coffee as I stare dreamily down the road on my balcony? I can.
I was exceedingly pleased and then immediately concerned when one of the maids brought out a cage that housed a monstrously large rabbit. I have never seen one that big! He was white and had ears the size of my size 12 feet. I loved him. I was in the middle of telling the rabbit that I worshipped it and that I adored it and that I wanted to be his best friend when the same neighbor’s scruffy dog started barking like mad at me. He was never my friend all the time I stayed there. All the other animals — and I was thrilled that there were loads — were my pals, but that dog barked at everything.
As I shook the wrinkles out of my shirts, I began to worry about the rabbit. Was he a meal? He seemed fairly well taken care of if he was going to be made into a stew, so I decided he was safe. Many days passed, though, before I saw him again, and in that time, reader, I grew gravely concerned. You can hardly imagine the rapturous delight I felt when, about a week later, one of the maids brought him out to sit in the sun. I hurried over to pet him and tell him how thrilled I was to see him again. At this point the maids no longer found me odd, but that dog always barked. Oh well, you can’t win them all, you know?
I had no food. That was a concern. On my rapturous walk through the Centro Histórico the previous night, I had failed to procure much more than water and these divine mint chocolate treats. I’m so enamored of them. They’re basically inverse M&Ms with a creamy mint filling instead of chocolate and chocolate instead of a candy coating. I ate them by the fistful.
My reflections went on at length on my last post, so I didn’t tell you about my trip to OXXO. This, like absolutely everything else that I did on the first day (and very nearly every day), enthralled me. OXXO is a convenience store, I think we might have them in America, but I doubt they are as good. I mean, they aren’t even that great in Mexico City either, but for whatever reason, I loved absolutely everything in that blissful town. At the OXXO I stopped at, I encountered one of my very favorite things in the world: a kindly old woman. She was behind the counter each time I visited and was very good to me and my horrible Spanish. On each visit, she attempted to give me a vocabulary word that was useful when shopping. That first night, she taught me “bolsita,” a small bag. This was indeed very useful, and she smiled radiantly when I used it properly. This is much the same as that marvelous old woman in Paris at Miss Manon bakery on the rue Saint-Antoine. She taught me to say “pavot,” the French word for poppy seeds. With this word locked in my brain, I was able to order one of my favorite flavors wherever I went.
I say all of that to say this: when you travel to a foreign land, do your best to learn a few words. Be able to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘I would like’ and ‘you’re very handsome’ and anything else that might be helpful to you on your explorations abroad. In my personal experience, when you try to communicate in the tongue of the native people, even when you know you’ll never understand what they’re saying back, they will treat you with inordinate kindness and offer you respect. And you will be all the happier whilst you’re away. Unless you’re out at some kind of all-inclusive resort, the point of travel is to learn about the world, not perpetuate your provincial and ethnocentric point of view around the world. You can do yourself no greater disservice than fail to attempt to appreciate the glorious world around us.
Anyway, I learned how to say ‘sack.’
The owner of the apartment had left behind a list of different shops to try out, and I was intrigued by the Mercado San Juan, a gourmet food market that had a bit of everything. I checked it out online, and you really could get anything including alligator meat, allegedly there was tiger steak which I was appalled by, fruits and breads, cheeses and wines, and absolutely everything in between. This suited me down to the ground, so off I went into the less touristic parts of Mexico City. I was so eager and curious about what I would find.
The market was a different direction from the parts of the city I had explored yesterday. I sketched out my route and hurried into the streets. It was a riot of activity and colors and sounds. It was utterly fabulous. Hundreds of people walked down the sidewalks, which were half clogged with vendors selling absolutely everything. I was enchanted by the smells of frying foods and the sounds of people ordering their lunches. I don’t know if I can accurately convey the scene to you, but I will do my best.
The wide street was cracked and pitted. Debris covered parts of the road. I felt like a giant in comparison to the people who were standing around the vendors who sold every kind of taco and torta ever conceived. The people of Mexico aren’t very tall, I’ve discovered, so I always had a good view. I’m a vegetarian, but even I found the smells of all the cooking meats intoxicating. I never did stray from my dietary beliefs while I was away, which I thought would have been much harder to do than it was. (Actually that’s a lie, but that’s one hell of a story for later.) But back to the image I’m trying to paint you. As you make your way, you have to be constantly sure of your footing and ready to make abrupt turns to avoid crashing into other people who move with the elegant natural instincts of a flock of birds in the sky.
At the end of the street, I found myself in a small park with a derelict fountain that feebly pumped water into a rust-stained basin. A statue of somebody stood proudly on top, gazing pridefully on the sad park around him. I, as I so often find, was beyond delighted at the condition. I don’t like the world so pristine. It needs grit and it needs to show that it has been lived in and this little park was packed full of people who were eating, gossiping, or if you were a man in his late twenties, you might be shirtless and doing pull-ups using the monkey bars of the children’s play area. I frequently found myself here, sitting in the sunshine and reading or admiring the view…
The Mercado San Juan is just up the street from here, and it was something that I have never experienced in my life. It reminded me at once of the videos that I have seen of the food markets of Les Halles in Paris. At the Mercado, vendors packed the building and it took me many visits to experience the totality of it. Looking back on my wandering, I am nearly certain that there are many places I failed to visit. I’ll just have to do it on my return!
I was immediately overwhelmed, but in the most wondrous way. There were so many interesting things to buy, so many new fruits and vegetables and cheeses and breads! A vendor selling perfectly ripe fruit became a fixture in my life over the course of my visit. On this first time, he pressed the most delicious nectarines, mangoes, and grapes into my hands, insisting that I try a bit of everything before committing to a purchase. He was so kind, and his nectarines were the epitome of perfection. I went back so frequently that whenever he saw me towards the end of my stay, he would start bagging up nectarines before I even asked. He was a wonder.
I was also deeply impressed by the honesty of the vendors. I adore bread, so I went to one that looked particularly good. I stumbled through my request and I was kind of delighted when he told me that today’s bread was no good. It was already stale, he said, and that I shouldn’t bother with it until tomorrow. Instead, he recommended another supplier across the hall. I could hardly believe it. And he was completely correct in his suggestion, the bread that I bought was delicious. I so appreciated what he said that I made sure to buy his bread every single time I went to the Mercado.
As I wandered through the stalls I accepted a sample of Manchego cheese that was so delicious that I had to get a chunk. And then on the far wall, a stall was selling various agua frescas. I have had these before in Perry, but I have never seen so many different flavor combinations. I was immediately sold on a tall glass of jamaica, a hibiscus tea that is reminiscent of Egyptian karkade. This is one of my favorite things in all the world. It is endlessly refreshing. I bought it nearly every time it was offered, but don’t get me started. I’m probably going to do what seems like an entire post on Jamaica at some point. I’m beyond obsessed. I hope to make a macaron version someday soon. In fact, I want to do an entire series of macarons based on the new flavors I learned to love in Mexico. There would be Jamaica and tamarind and guava and mango and plantain. I think a guava macaron would be heavenly. Would anybody buy a tamarind macaron here? White people don’t seem to be fond of this flavor, which is simply cannot understand. It’s a delight.
With all my purchases in hand, I made my way back to the apartment, relishing in the scene that flew past me. I won’t tell you how enchanted I was every single time I left my rooms, I promise, but I wish that I could. Each experience was wondrous. As I grew more familiar with the city, and especially my part of the town, I became accustomed to the shops and the vendors and the animals and the friendly faces. I loved it utterly. But I’ll tell you those things separately as they come up. At this time, my views of Mexico City were still a decadent haze.
In my apartment, I washed the fruits, ate chunks of cheese, smiled in ecstasy after devouring a nectarine…and then another.
I really didn’t think I could get any happier, reader, but then something absolutely wondrous happened. I had left the door open that looked onto the courtyard. Something entered that wasn’t golden light or a warm breeze. It was a cat.
Reader, it was the most gorgeous cat I had seen in a while. He was friendly, but still timid. In time I would persuade him to love me, but on that first encounter, he was good enough to walk up to me and allow me to scratch his ears. He was given the name Patron, and I don’t remember why. He didn’t want to be held or sit with me, but he did enjoy a good chin rubbing. I couldn’t keep him with me for too long, as he was a very independent young man, so I determined then and there that I was desperately in need of cat treats.
As soon as he left me, I hurried over to my iPad to look up the nearest pet store. As I was googling, I discovered something I should have known but did not expect: you can go to Walmart in Mexico! I am sure I knew this, but I didn’t think there would be one in the city, and I didn’t think there would be one so near to me! Something that I absolutely adore is exploring big box stores in international destinations. In England, Walmart owns ASDA, which is a delightful place to go shopping for canned gin and tonics. I couldn’t wait to go to a Mexican Walmart. Nothing sounded more delightful! I could buy more food and cat treats and go for a long walk! Perfect.
I decided on a particularly lengthy route so that I could see more. I started off where my fancies had started last night in the Zócalo. I wanted to see this magical place by the light of day. Getting there was every bit as dreamy as it had been the night before. It was mid afternoon now, so the nightlife hadn’t begun, but still, the streets were packed. The street perpendicular to mine, the Calle de Simón Bolívar, houses an inordinate number of shops that sold DJ supplies. I can’t imagine why there needed to be so many options, but I suppose there are plenty of DJs in one of the world’s largest cities. Each storefront was filled with keyboards, strobe lights, fog machines, drum kits, a huge assortment of ukuleles, and headphones. Many of these had staff DJs that were mixing beats and trying to lure people in. In all honesty, it was one of the most peculiar places I have ever been. Each one felt like a nightclub.
I left this street and carried on to the Zócalo, and by the light of day, the Cathedral Metropolitan was no less impressive or imposing. Under the brilliant Mexican sun every detail of the intricate architecture was apparent. I loathed the structure because of its history, but I couldn’t fault it for its beauty. You see, when the Spanish came to conquer the New World, one of their main drives was converting the natives to Christianity. This wasn’t done kindly, really, the conquistadors tried conversion by force. It was effective, I’ll give them that, but it was a cruel and culturally devastating method. Instead of talking to the people about what they believed, they called them heathens and tore down their temples. There was a great Aztec temple on the site of the Cathedral, but the Spanish razed it to the ground and replaced it with the largest church in North America. But enough history lessons for now.
Inside, I was gobsmacked by the gorgeous altars, columns, and layout. It was a cavernous church and made Notre Dame look like a runt in comparison. A massive altar covered in gold was quite resplendent as it twinkled from the light that filtered in from high windows. I sat in contemplative silence for quite some time, drinking in the details around me. A service was going on in one of the many areas and I tried to understand a bit of what I heard. I did. Religious texts are quite formulaic and since Spanish is a Romance language, it’s not impossible to discern what I heard.
On the way out, I stopped at a stand by the door that was selling rosaries, plaques, pictures, crosses, postcards, and books. I found a little brass carving of Jesus. It was some kind of good luck charm, and I put it in my pocket to keep me safe on my journey through the unknown to Walmart.
Look, reader, I get that what I’m about to say about Walmart is ridiculous. A store should really not have delighted me as much as it did, especially since it was hardly tremendously different from the locations that I can go to about fifteen minutes from my house. But there was magic there in that place.
The walk was long, but hardly arduous, and I was delighted by the sites that I sauntered past. The Palacio de Bellas Artes is stunning. I meant to go in at some point, but I never did, so I will have to go back to Mexico City again. Beyond this is a gorgeous park that was filled with people selling sodas and chips and in a gazebo people were doing a salsa dance. The atmosphere was absolutely intoxicating. I couldn’t get over the vibrancy. It didn’t feel foreign to me, either, even though it should have. It felt right and proper and good.
And then my chin hit the ground. Standing before me was a perfect facsimile of the entrance to the Parisian Métro. It looked for all the world like the one that I took every morning to Le Cordon Bleu in 2009. It was almost unsettling how much fun I was having and how delightful all this was.
I carried on, watching everything whirling around me. My Apple Watch was a great blessing as it vibrated each time I needed to turn to find my way to Walmart. I know that I’ve told you about my love for this device, but I am always so delighted by the future. I mean, it’s utterly awful, global warming and ugly politics and disease…but then great and good things still manage to exist. I could go almost anywhere on this glorious planet and as long as I had a cellular connection — which is proving less and less difficult — I can get absolutely anywhere. In Luxor last year, my Watch was able to take me to almost every destination I asked it to. Thrilling, really, to have the world on your wrist. I was very unenthusiastic about this device when it was released, but it has become a vital part of my life, really almost an extension of myself.
Enough prattling about watches, though.
I was soon off of the busy avenues and boulevards and in a more residential part of town. I was quite delighted because literally every building was painted in a different purple hue. Purple is my least favorite color, admittedly, but there was something inexplicably cheery about these buildings. Taco vendors and little tiendas became prolific and I wanted everything. I didn’t see any vegetarian options, so I didn’t stop, but I admired every cart.
Soaring above me was a water tower and on that water tower was the Walmart logo. I had found it. Reader, this place was a wonder and a monstrosity. It was probably bigger than a city block and it took me several visits to explore every corner of it. There was everything and more. I wandered, awestruck by the variety, grabbing things I didn’t need but certainly wanted. I was charmed by a tortilla shop in the back of the grocery department that was churning out fresh and delicious tortillas. (I ate far too many.)
I observed the people in the huge bakery for a while before going in. Back home, Walmart bakeries are garbage, but the goods on display looked divine. I grabbed a large silver platter and a pair of tongs and veritably assaulted the loaves and pastries. You take your tray, laden with delights, up to the counter, and a kindly woman smiles at you, weighs everything, and slaps a price on it. They barely cost anything.
I only had two concerns about the experience. The first was that there was no cheddar cheese anywhere. I live on cheddar, reader, so this was a ghastly blow. Instead I ate my body weight in queso fresco and Manchego. The other issue was a worrying lack of cheap red wine. I found some, but reader, it was disgusting. I didn’t even finish the bottle.
I found the pet section and bought a packet of treats for my new darling friends. I couldn’t wait to charm them and be their best friend. Wandering throughout the store, I was enchanted by the tiny refrigerators and ice makers for sale. I wanted them and I began to daydream about living here. I was serious about it, too. I love that city.
The checkout was another inordinate delight. The lines are massive, absolutely huge, and you wait forever, but in the meantime you can eavesdrop on people, try to read gossip magazines, pick out five different candies to try, and just thrive. I certainly did. The thing that thrilled me the most unexpectedly, though, was the person bagging the groceries. Instead of the cashier doing it like in America, there is a person old enough to be your grandparent slowly organizing your purchases into bags. They are slow, but they are friendly and charming. They smile at you and are quite happy to chat. I didn’t understand half of what I was saying to them, but we were all having a riotous time. And this was hardly a one-time event, this happened every time I went to Walmart. I loved them.
The walk back to the apartment was perfect. I felt safe and secure and welcomed and I had a bag of hot churros to munch on. Everything was divine and I could hardly wait to do it all over again the next day.