MEXICO CITY: Bittersweet

Day dawned and I continued to slumber. I simply could not bring myself to face the facts. This day was to be my last full day in Mexico City. The next day, horribly, I would be flying back to Iowa and return to reality. I don’t like reality all that much. I much prefer the decadent escapes that I send myself on, but you know that very well. 

Sunlight streamed through the windows above the door, making me almost uncomfortably warm — a rarity for a person who is always freezing to death. Sighing, I resigned myself to my circumstances and I endeavored to put a positive spin on matters. I still had over twenty-four hours of time to do whatever I fancied. I could go anywhere and I could do anything and I could eat everything. This, plus the arrival of Little Chiffon and Patron readied me for the day. I rationed out almost all that I had left of their treats — I quite believe that I kept the pet treat industry afloat in August of 2017 — bemoaning the fact that when the sachets were empty, it would be time to board the plane. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to stay in Mexico City forever. 

It pulled at me harder than anything ever had before. When I go to Paris, I know that I can’t afford to live there the way I want to. And whenever I go to Egypt I daydream of living there for the rest of my earthly days, I imagine the villa of my dreams on the West Bank of Luxor with camels and palm trees and covered in bougainvillea and beautiful lattice-covered windows, but I know that this fantasy will come true only during retirement or a worsening of my Multiple Sclerosis. Mexico City impacted me in a stranger way. I really could imagine myself living there, remaining for years in this chaotic and beautiful location. I took pictures on the Metro of job offers, I skimmed through the career suggestions in a brilliant book for expats that was in the apartment’s little library, I researched teaching English and how much I needed to earn to live comfortably.

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And still to this day, as I’m typing out this blog post half a year later, I am haunted by not living and working in that brilliant metropolis. This is the major reason that I booked such an extended trip back this summer. If I love it completely for the two months I am there as I did for the two weeks I learned to adore it, maybe I’m on to something. Just maybe. Life is far too short to live an uninteresting existence, you know?

But I could not waste the time I had left and I picked a place at random on my to-see list, the Palacio Nacional del Arte, a museum that houses a huge collection of paintings and sculpture, and reviews said that seeing the building alone was worth the admission, and as a ho for good architecture, I decided this was an honorable way to finish my trip. 

I gussied myself up and found the museum with very little trouble.

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It was much closer than I had imagined, and I marveled at how much there was left to see here, how much there was that I didn’t even know I was missing out on. And the building was gorgeous, but I wasn’t seeing anything decadent enough to write a rave review about yet.

This changed the second I passed through the entrance. Reader, it was utterly captivating.

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A grand staircase filled the lobby, and huge wings stretched out to the left and right. Massive windows let in copious amounts of sunshine, making the stones on the floor glow. I was entranced and then I was befuddled. For some reason, entrance to the museum was free that day, you only had to pay five pesos for permission to photograph anything in the museum. This was charming because you get a little receipt that is twisted into a ring that you wear on your finger. The guardians notice this and don’t mind if you are photographing the art. If you aren’t wearing one, they descend on you like vultures. It was fascinating. 

I had not the foggiest notion of what was in the museum, no great works of art I knew I had to admire like a pilgrim does at the Mona Lisa or The Starry Night. I felt liberated by this untethering from artistic history and just wandered as is my whim, so I followed the crowds into one of the first galleries. It was full of religious art, and I quite enjoyed that. Always do. All around me were decadent oil paintings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and the crucifixion and Christ rising from the dead, and all the usual scenes of saints beatifically beaming even though they have an axe in their skull or their head was chopped off or they looked like a fountain that swapped out blood for water. These images are strange, reader. I have never felt comfortable around them, but that’s probably the point that the artist was trying to make. I’m not saintly enough or close enough to some so-called salvation to happily accept my demise for the greater good of Christianity. 

Nope, that does not float my boat one bit. Like you know, because I muse on it with surely irritating regularity, if I could live forever, I would go out of my way to do so. I never felt the call of a higher power that steers my life. It would be remarkable if that was a real thing, and I suppose it might be for some, but I feel that I have steered myself through life using my own thoughts, instead of the divine guidance of a deity. Probably why I never became a monk, even though I’ve considered it with regularity. I think if there had been a few simple changes in my early life I would be living in a monastery right now, never experiencing the world, never learning about the great and glorious cultures that have risen and fallen and continue to grow, never setting foot on new continents, never eating grasshoppers or good French baguettes. And I get the hideous feeling in the back of my mind that were I a monk, I would be utterly and perfectly content. 

I keep trying to get myself to a monastery near the Mississippi River by the city of Dubuque. It is utterly gorgeous in its simplicity and the days are spent in meditative silence, interspersed with chanting in Latin, eating hearty and simple vegetarian meals, gardening, and building caskets. I have intended several many times to go for a long weekend or a week or whatever when I’m having spells where I don’t feel like myself. But I always pull back. I am afraid that I would never leave, that I would find the peace so utterly overwhelming that I’d never want to return to my world of jet setting, education, and decadence. And I would feel a fraud, I think, since my religious devotion is hardly present. I worship Martha Stewart and Beyoncé and Prince George…not Jesus or Buddha or Allah…and worship is the wrong word. Of all the traditional religions, Islam is the only one that doesn’t really turn me off, but just imagine the result of me becoming a Muslim cleric. I’ll never be president that way. 

Lost in a spiritualist revery, I wandered into another gallery that truly disturbed me. European history is what most schoolchildren are taught in North America. We hit on the Revolutionary War and Civil War and barely acknowledge slavery or the relocation of indigenous groups. We spend the majority of our time glorifying ourselves, diminishing others, and repeating facts that really aren’t based on truth. So what I saw here was something that I had only really heard of, never really knew much about — the Spanish Conquest of the Americas. The timeline is well established, but I am ashamed that I have never spent more time looking into this. 

All over the gallery were pictures of ironclad Spaniards triumphing over piles of massacred corpses, Cortes roasting the Aztec emperor over a roaring fire, cities decimated, gold piling up, and all over bodies. Bodies, bodies, and more dead bodies. 

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“Escenas de la Conquista” by Félix Parra.

It was so dark. And I have always known that this period was shameful and a frightening time in the human experience, but I have never really internalized it before. Where I live in the middle of Iowa, we don’t really see any examples of this kind of misery. There were many Native American groups before Europeans farmed the Hell out of Iowa, but you’d never know it. To my knowledge there are no monuments to these indigenous peoples, there are no history lessons, there are no holidays, there are no reservations near me, there is simply nothing, and I am just now beginning to realize how shameful this all is. Isn’t it a tragedy that the only true experiences I have with the native people of my state is at a casino? Something needs done about this, some kind of federal holiday perhaps. 

I’m always belittling Columbus Day. I think it is the height of ethnocentric idiocy to celebrate a clueless white guy who dimwittedly began the slaughter of the Taino people, a trend that continued to the execution and massacres of the Aztec and Inca and many tribes in what is now the United States. We must end that holiday, for it is a blight on our nation. When you elect me governor or president some day, I’ll get rid of it. Can I destroy a holiday with an executive order?  I hope so. 

Anyway, I wandered past horrifying images with startling regularity. And my disdain with white history grew stronger than it already had been for years. I don’t want to sound elitist and entitled and all that — and I surely will, which I apologize for, I truly don’t mean to — but I haven’t felt like a white person for years. I know my privilege, as a white male I look like the status quo and the people who have terrorized minorities since time immemorial. But that’s not how I feel inside. I suppose it’s because of all of my travels and being gay and all. I have always felt different than what I look like. Maybe it’s body dysmorphia, or something like that but in terms of social identity. Remember that lady a few years ago that lived her life as a black woman and led the local NAACP? But she was a white lady and when she was exposed as one, it led to a national fury. I understood the anger so many felt…but I also didn’t hate that woman, I understood her on a strange level. I don’t feel like what I look like, either. I don’t think I should carry on in this fashion, reader, I know it’s an unpopular and unbecoming sentiment. 

Soon the galleries changed back to religious art and stunning statuary, and I was lost in a rhapsody. The building really was a masterpiece. The many levels wrap around a massive stone courtyard, and the inside wall of the courtyard is covered on each level. This allows the visitor to sit and admire the intricate details of the stonework. It’s massive and lovely and I sighed repeatedly in delight. And for the first time I was in Mexico City, I wished that I was with somebody else so that they could take my picture in this sumptuous spot. I tried a few selfies, but they were all abysmal. Oh well.

Every gallery was a triumph, and I was just as content in this museum as I ever was in the Louvre. Again, and I promise for one of the last times, I’ll tell you how wonderful it was to find a place only hours from my home that made me feel the way Paris makes me feel. Do you know that Eartha Kitt song, “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” that I post far too often? If not listen:

and then watch this triumph:

and then this:

and then this masterpiece:

God I adore her. I stayed up until two o’clock last night watching all of her music videos from the 1980s. She was a queen and I wish that I could have seen her in concert just once. She’s one of my dream shows, along with Edith Piaf, Michael Jackson, and Amy Winehouse. But that’ll never happen because they all are dead. Sad.

But in the song that I was talking about originally, she talks about Paris in one of the only examples I have ever found that exactly expresses how I feel about Paris. She sings about taxis and the “chorus of their squeaky horns” being music to her hears. It’s so true. The noise of traffic in Paris, the chiming of bells, the wind blowing through the trees in the Jardin Tuileries and blooming patches of lavender, the cooing of pigeons, the chatter in the boulangeries…it’s all a grand symphony. And I crave for it constantly, my body aches to be in Paris every moment I’m conscious. 

And that’s how I felt in the museum. I lingered for as long as I could, revisiting some of the halls that I thought were tremendously lovely. And I knew that I would never be over Mexico City in the way that I’m never over Paris or Turin or Luxor. They all feel right to me, satisfying me with alarming totality. Here are some favorite pieces:

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“The Cathedral of Oaxaca” by José María Velasco.

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“The Prodigal Son” by Luis Monroy.

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Various sculptures.

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“Portrait of Francisco Torres” by José María Zepeda de Estrada.

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“Orphans Before the Sepulcher of the Mother” by Luis Monroy.

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“The Spiritists” by Juan Téllez.

I wandered through the gift shop for awhile, perusing the goods and trying to decide what I should take home with me. I knew it at once, it was a little sculpture of a skeletal woman in a pink dress wearing a fabulous hat. The head is connected to the body with a little piece of metal, so the skull bobs at the gentlest touch. It’s beautiful. I bought magnets and postcards and pencils and a print, and it was grand. 

The rest of the afternoon and evening I wandered, drinking in every vista, every detail. Close to my area I followed my nose down a street I had missed before and sighed with delight in front of Pastes Kiko’s. I happily got in line and waited patiently for two cheese and mushroom turnovers. They were as wonderful as ever, and I don’t know if it was possible to be any happier. I brushed the crumbled flakes of the delicate pastry off my face and wandered back down the street.

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There was an outpost of Cafe Bertico here, a place that I had wondered about many times, so I stopped in for a coffee. The place was bustling and I had a wonderful latte as I watched the people passing by and coming in, trying to decipher their rapid Spanish and wondering if it would ever make more sense to me. I could understand words and sentences, but I never was able to follow a full conversation. Remembering my French training, I was content that this knowledge would come in time. 

Outside the cafe, I perched on a bench to listen to a street performer that had acquired a respectable crowd. On a saxophone and flute and a keyboard, they covered popular songs, and I was happy to hear mariachi songs transformed by woodwinds. And then they played “Despacito,” and reader…that was LIT. It sounded good at the beginning and I was bopping, but then they turned it up a notch and it was crazy good, and I hurried forward to give them all my change. They deserved it more than anybody.

I lingered for hours in the streets until I could no longer justify being out and about and procrastinating the final touches on my packing. So with the sun long gone and darkness surrounding me, I went back. 

I turned on some quiet music, sipped the last of my tequila, entertained my feline guests, and carefully filled my bag with everything I had bought. The apartment felt sparse and empty without my Santa Muerte statuettes or skulls or postcards or nectarines. And with everything packed up, I finally felt like I was finished. My time in Mexico had come to an end. The first half had gone by so slowly, but as I fell more and more in love with the city, time sped up to match my passion. In the blink of an eye it was time to go back to Iowa. I had nothing to look forward to at that time. I would be starting my bachelor’s degree, which I was eager to complete (if not actually work on), and I would have my own cats back. And that would all be grand…but it wouldn’t be here. 

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I think I summed it up best on Instagram: It’s my last night here, so I’m going to gush. I came to Mexico City to escape. I have to get away every year for my mental health. That sounds privileged and elitist, and I suppose it is, but that’s hardly the point. Mexico was cheaper than Europe or Africa and it was different. So off I went. I knew I’d probably enjoy it, but I did not expect to fall completely in love. I have been shown the most gracious hospitality, been treated with exquisite kindness, done extraordinary things, and widened my worldview even more. And there are so many cats! I’m so happy that this magical nation is so near. I’ll be back again and again until I’m dead. 

And I will.

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