MEXICO CITY: le flâneur

[We now return to a trip I took nearly two years ago, lol, thanks for your patience. There are still so many wonderful places and experiences to share with you!]

One of the best parts of living in the modern world is nearly instantaneous access to everything. I will admit that this has made us less intelligent as a species and more dependent on technology for survival, but I’m not sure I’d trade these weaknesses for the glories of modernity. When I was in pastry school, my favorite thing on a Monday was to grab the latest issue of Public at a Relay kiosk and spend a few days translating the gossip magazine word for word while I was on the Metro. This, I feel, more than anything, made me proficient in written French. I had to learn all of the most ridiculous slang and abbreviations that still perplex me over a decade later. When I left France, I have to admit that my magazines were what I missed most of all. It was impossible to get them delivered to this side of the Atlantic, and for so long, I mourned. The iPad revolution changed all of that, dear and darling reader, and now I have the latest issue downloaded on my iPad Pro every Monday morning. I continue the same tradition of reading it word for word and every Monday, I feel like I’m back on the Metro, and it’s simply the coziest kind of nostalgia.

I say this to say that the issue I was reading that morning — afternoon, really — had an article about Anna Wintour, a woman that I am obsessed with and need not expostulate on because if you know me or have read this website for any length of time, you know full well how fantastic she is and what impact fashion has made on me. The article on Anna said that she woke up every morning by 5:30, which is not at all a ridiculous time, but still far too early for me. I envy morning people though I’m never going to be one. On the day I’m currently writing about, I woke up at the early hour of 11:30. Vacations are no good for my circadian rhythms. It would have been easy to relax in the apartment the rest of the day, catching up on my reading, on my homework, on living decadently, but there was an entire wondrous city to explore, so I got myself up and out.

But before I could manage that, I found myself having a lengthy chat with the owner of the apartment as we sat around the courtyard. He’s an Irish expat who used to live in Brighton while studying law. That didn’t work out for him and after a trip to Mexico City, he decided he rather liked it there and so he stayed. He’s now working on a master’s in white collar criminology. His girlfriend is a lawyer and seems to be the brains of the operation. They’re both absolutely lovely people, and as the months passed, and now the years pass, I grow fonder of them both. They’re charming and kind and eccentric and have connections all over the city that have been invaluable.

My clothes were at the laundry, and I always enjoy chatting with the cleaners in our broken Spanglish, neither of us ever failing to learn a new word or phrase, so I headed there a little after pickup time. They said to come back around four, starting an infuriating but inconsequential irritating pattern of delay. It seemed that almost every single time I took my clothes to them, they came back later and later and later. They complimented my new shirts, though, so I forgave them, and it was really rather wonderful to hang out in such a place where a tourist would never come. I relish moments of normalcy in places that are not my normal, after all.

My plans for the day needed to be changed because of the laundry, so I decided to engage in my beloved pastime of wandering around the streets aimlessly. My destination was Maison Kayser so that I could grab some much needed tarts, assorted pastries, and breads. So, I leisurely made my way that direction.

As always, I loved the bakery and found myself in a state of rhapsody at the discovery of the last passion-fruit tart. I immediately ordered it and devoured it on the street outside, watching the hordes of people passing by. I could do that all day. One of the things I miss the most about Mexico City is the ability to truly relax. Things have changed a great deal since I meant to write this the first time around, but I still have a hard time with the idea of relaxation. It feels just wrong to be at home doing nothing when there are endless tasks that I could accomplish and quite a few that I really NEED to finish and stop procrastinating over.

Somebody once told me that I needed to change my personal definition of what relaxation is and can be. I thought this was stupid because I don’t like being told what to do ever, but the older I get, the more this makes sense. Relaxation doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re loafing on the sofa doing absolutely nothing. Relaxation might be engaging in an activity you love. If you love baking, bake. If you, for some reason I’ll never understand, love running, go for a run. If you love lounging on the sofa watching telenovelas, do this as soon as you possibly can. Relaxation is doing whatever you love and whatever brings you peace. When I’m away in places far from home, I find my relaxation to be mindless wandering or doing next to nothing. At this time in my life, I had things to do all the damn time. There was never a free moment, even on vacation, so my idea of luxurious relaxation was doing absolutely nothing. And so doing nothing by wandering around the Zócalo was the epitome of relaxing.

I found myself drawn into the Catedral Metropolitana as I do so often and slowly made my way through the chapels, sitting reflectively in the pews, admiring the art, imagining the history of the place, and just soaking up the decadent old world atmosphere.

I could easily have been in an old Parisian or Italian church, wiling the day away in quiet contemplation. I’ve said it a million times and I know I’ll say it a million more, but that feeling of Europe is one of the reasons that Mexico City has appealed so much to me. I was unaware of it, but it seems that there is more and more of the cathedral to experience. There are tours to the underground archaeological areas, there are tours into the rafters, and every once in a while other rooms of the church are opened for view for a nominal fee.

For ten pesos, the dressing room of the priests was available to see, and reader, they put every walk in closet to shame. The dressing room looks more like a banquet hall with stunning woodwork and oil paintings covering every surface. Drawers are filled with perfectly washed and pressed linens for the clergy to wear, and the room itself is the very definition of tranquility. I thoroughly enjoyed looking around the room and reminded myself that I simply have to go do the other available tours. It would be a thrill to go to the subterranean chambers!

I meandered through the cathedral and found a door to the outside that was on the very edge of the building. This didn’t lead to the street though, but rather a little fenced in area that faced the Templo Mayor. There were enormous wrought iron fences that kept the cathedral isolated from the rest of the chaotic public square, which was a gorgeous way to watch the cacophony happening in the plaza. People were dressed up in native Aztec costumes and dancing around while shaking instruments. Their feathered headdresses waved in the breeze and their energetic motions threatened to knock them off their heads though they never did. I was entranced by the scene.

I am not a dancer, reader, which is one of the great embarrassments of my life, and I could not figure out for the life of me how their synchronized dancing was choreographed. There didn’t seem to be a particular moment in the drum beat that would trigger an obvious movement, so I enjoyed creating theories about how the people were managing to remain in the same pattern. I came up with an untested hypothesis that I’m convinced is correct. I postulated that the dancers were acting a bit like a flock of birds or a school of fish. They follow the leader as they swim through the ocean or take to the sky. The animals near the leader copy that motion and then the animals near that follower mimic the motion and it all happens so quickly that it seems to be instantaneous and telepathic, but it isn’t like that at all, it’s just a speedy moment of synchronization. I stand convinced that I’m correct, though I don’t know how I’d test my hypothesis without spending a day dancing with the Aztecs…and that sounds like a me thing to do so that might be done on my next trip to Mexico City.

Anyway, while the dance was going on, shamans were wafting the smoke of fresh herbs on tourists and other revelers in the square. The smoke reminded me of something that I still can’t put my finger on, but it is enormously pleasant. People needing to be spiritually and physically cleansed had smoke spread around them. I have never done this, but it’s just a matter of time, kind of like how I was too afraid to get my shoes shined for a long time, but now I do so whenever I have the chance. It’s one of my favorite things in the world, if I’m honest with you. You’re going to get a good shine no matter where you go and it’s only twenty pesos, but if you aren’t in a hurry, I’d recommend looking for the shoeshiners that have a stack of papers for you to peruse while they’re working.

You’ll get the big newspapers sometimes or gossip magazines occasionally, but my grisly favorite is the local tabloids. Humanity has a hideous attraction to the cruelties we inflict on each other. This is nothing new and I’m deeply guilty of it myself. Londoners went wild for the murders done by the mysterious Jack the Ripper. Americans lost their minds over alleged Spanish interference in Cuba that was nothing more than a fan fiction sponsored by the immensely wealthy William Randall Hearst. I guess I’m just trying to justify my interest in the local tabloid that covers the darker things that happen in the city. It’s a gorgeous city, it’s very secure, you really have nothing to worry about unless you’re an idiot or deeply unlucky. Like all areas of any town, there are some spaces where you know you just don’t go. In Mexico City, you become aware of them and you just stay away and everybody is better for it. For the average tourist, there is no need to visit Tepito. I have my reasons but I still haven’t gone because I know that it just wouldn’t be wise. Cartels are very real, after all, and they operate in vicious ways in Tepito and other areas they control, so anyway, the tabloids talk about the hits done by cartels and it is endlessly awful, but absolutely fascinating. I find the whole world of cartels mesmerizing because of the power they are able to amass and the influence they are able to wield and the money they are able to spend. Some of them are like an underground government and I just find it absolutely wild. The tabloids are full of interesting stories in addition and I read them to better my Spanish slang and to know where to avoid.

Didn’t really mean to go off on one of my tangents, apologies, dear reader. After admiring the dance for longer than I realized, it was later than I realized, but I was hardly ready to go back to the apartment. I cast myself adrift on the streets again and began to wander.

I stumbled upon something so marvelous that I could hardly contain my glee: popcorn. Popcorn is one of the staples of my diet. I eat it all the time. For years, it was basically all I ate and I have no regrets. I will never be over popcorn. As a student in Paris, one of the most upsetting discoveries was that microwavable popcorn is not really a French thing. You don’t pop into the shops and grab a box of packaged popcorn, you rarely see it. If you go to the movies, you might be in luck and able to buy a small prepackaged box of popcorn but it will inevitably be coated in sugar. The French seem to think kettle corn is better than buttered popcorn, and with that, I take massive umbrage.

I didn’t have a microwave in Mexico City, so I didn’t have popcorn, and I was having a major craving, so when I walked past the Liverpool department store, I could have cried to see a window display full of gourmet, freshly popped popcorn that was popped with mushroom kernel popcorn. I’m not about to start a thesis on popcorn, but if you are going to make popcorn, be sure that you buy mushroom popcorn kernels. They have the most unfortunate name, but the eating experience is so elevated. They pop up into gorgeous puffs that have more surface volume than traditional kernels and have a unique chew all of their own. Whatever flavor agents you add are held onto by the crags and crackles of the popcorn and it is just superior in every single way.

But enough about popcorn. My laundry quickly became a comedy of errors. I arrived at the recommended time and then I was told come back in a half hour, so I wandered the street, found a fish taco restaurant to add to my to-do list, and then returned to the laundry. Come back in twenty minutes this time, they said, and I couldn’t help but chortle richly, pull out a book, and sit down to wait outside. I didn’t want to be rude, but I needed my clothes. You can’t really wander around Mexico City without clothing, after all, that seems to be frowned on in most major cities and even some smaller communities. I was glad to have my Kindle with me and I read and read and made brief conversation with the shopkeeper in my miserable Spanish.

I shouldn’t denigrate my linguistic skills so much, I simply didn’t know any of the vocabulary that had to do with laundry. It was all a grand mystery to me, which I found infuriating, which is probably why I abase my abilities. I can speak quite well in Spanish, and I can understand much more than I can manage to say, but there are some elements of a language that you don’t get a lot of exposure to. Like French, my most fluent abilities are in the culinary world because I learned so much while training at Le Cordon Bleu. My Spanish skills don’t come from laundry, they come from obsessively watching episodes of La Reina del Sur. If you want to talk about smuggling hashish to Spain from North Africa, I’m you guy. If you want to talk about the prison system, look no further. If you want to talk about the early hours of morning when the sunlight casts everything in a grey pall and it’s the moment that at some point in your life you’re sure you will pass on, well, I’m you guy. But if you want to talk about the different treatments for rayon….look elsewhere.

Finally my clothes were folded with something bordering on military precision, I paid my bill, and was on my way. It was so luxurious to put the clothes away and not have to do a single thing. I hate laundry. And I hate dishes. And I hate vacuuming which is why I’m glad to have my own washing machine and dishwasher and Roomba. God I love that Roomba almost as much as I love life itself.

By this point in the day, I was clearly famished. After all, I had kept myself alive on popcorn and pastries alone, which is a perfectly acceptable way to lead your life, but I was needing something more and new. I decided that I would be enormously brave and go to an Indian restaurant that I had spied earlier on my mindless walk. It was on the top floor of a building on one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares and I was enormously intrigued. Indian food is one of my favorites that I don’t have the chance to indulge in all that often.

The building had different Indian wares for sale on each level. On the ground floor you could get clothing, the second floor had handmade art for sale, and then there was more but my rumbling stomach put me on the elevator and shot me to the restaurant. I was there a bit early for dinner so I didn’t get the full spectacle, but I could tell immediately that the place was impressive. There was a round platform in the center of the space where a dancer would twirl and twirl and twirl. There were images of this event all over the restaurant, and I admit that I was disappointed that I couldn’t see that. I mentally added it to the list of things I wanted to do that I knew I would never get around to actually doing. Life is very short, after all, and it goes by in the most delicious blur.

I was unable to make up my mind, but the restaurateurs clearly knew this would be an issue for their patrons, so they were good enough to offer an item on the menu that was literally a sample of all their most popular dishes. I selected the vegetarian one and was immediately presented with a fresh mango lassi, which was divine.

I loved staring out the window at the street far below, staring at the bustle of the busy rush, wondering about all the people. Were they tourists, locals? Where they rushing off to meet friends or to work? Was there a murderer amongst them? Was there a celebrity? I get filled with this wonder every time I’m in a big city, which is where I truly feel the most alive. For whatever reason, I truly thrive in a big city. Even in cosmopolitan areas I don’t particularly gush over like New York City, I still love the thrill of the energy of the people. It’s probably because of my decades in the countryside. I love the country, too, don’t get me wrong, but the energy is different and I’m clearly attuned to this pulse of life.

Anyway, I was musing and then the meal arrived, and reader, it was spectacular. In front of me was a large metal tray filled with metal bowls. Each bowl was filled with a few bites of different curries and specialties. There were gorgeous breads of all kinds of textures and then more chutneys than I could dare to count. Some were cloyingly sweet and others so hot that I thought my face might melt off. And that might not sound like an enraptured review for the restaurant, but it is. Everything was wonderful. I had such a marvelous time trying all these new flavor combinations. I waddled back to my apartment.

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