[I know how extraordinarily behind I am on these posts. I find it rather embarrassing. I decided to do a summary instead, just finish them off, but then the pandemic arrived. I had a trip to Europe planned and had COVID-19 not come up, I’d be leaving in just over a month. I’m no longer going this spring and it’s rather upsetting for me, but it’s so much smarter to stay home. I’m truly thriving and learning so much in self-isolation, but this is not the blog post for my profound and fascinating reflections. Lol. I don’t know when I’ll be traveling again. I can only hope that it will be soon, but who knows? So, I’ve decided to go back to writing these lengthy travel posts because I need to remember what it’s like to go places and do things. This unique moment is reminding me how important travel is to my health and mental well-being and that all sounds dramatic and dumb and immensely privelaged..but whatever. So, I’m staying home and you’d better stay home too because I want to get back to normal and be cruising down the Nile again.]
When I first devoted myself to Mexico, I never anticipated discovering extraordinary individuals who would thrill me to my core or resonate so profoundly with my own interests. Later on in this series of postings you will learn about an Iowan named Robert Brady. He’s dead. But he captivated me. I won’t dive into that now. Just know that I’m firmly convinced that I was him in a past life. There are too many similarities betwixt us. Another man that I never knew was Khalil Gibran; born in Lebanon, he later moved to the United States as a young man and became an author, a writer, a poet, an artist, a romantic, and something akin to a spiritualist guru. Still, he was greater than the sum of these individual characteristics, but that’s an analysis for later on in the post.
I woke late, as ever. I think I should get that sentence tattooed on me as I write it more than any other combination of words in the English language. I don’t know why I can’t be a morning person, but there is absolutely nothing about waking before nine o’clock to thrill me. I used to be in bed until the early hours of the afternoon if I could get away with it, but I’m no longer so devoted to sleeping in. Life has become more fun the older I get, and now I sometimes look forward to waking up and starting on my daily tasks. It was dreary before when I had to go to a low paying job or a class or a chore or some godforsaken personal task that ended up taking up the entire day for somebody else that needed my thankless assistance. Most of those things are in the past, and this evolution has made my life much more fun. I’m serious.
When I travel, I gravitate towards bakeries, cemeteries, and museums. They are the most emblematic features of culture. By examining these locations, I’m able to learn far more about a new place than I can with a guidebook. I’ve told you this before, which is something I’m going to take a quick diversion from the narrative and whine about.
I love to write, truly I do, but over the years I’ve discovered some of the annoyances of this art. One common issue that perturbs me is the constant need to return to the past for a reminder. To make narratives consistent and to give readers the background information they need, you must rehash the past and tell why you’re saying what you’re saying. When I write fiction, I have to talk about past events to make the narrative comprehensible to readers. I know that the people who come across my writing might never have seen a thing I’ve put together before, so I have to give them the basics. This bloats my writing, but I’m bloating too, so whatever.
This foray to Mexico City was meant to be a revery, an escape, an oasis kind of life. There was too much classwork to do to really live up to this goal, though for the most part, these were courses I throughly enjoyed. If I could live forever, I’ve realized that another of my callings is to be a linguist. I’m meant to be a teacher, a baker, an Egyptologist, a museum curator, an electrician, and a professor of linguistics. It’s cruel that life is so short. One hundred years is hardly enough time to make a dent on our interests. I know that there are some people who think that life is too long and depressing and awful, but I have always loved living. My study of history shows me how lucky I am to be here in this wild moment, but it also gives me clarity on how much more wonderful the world will be in the future. I love to ponder the future when 2020 is as distant as ancient Egypt is from me now. Won’t that be absolutely wild? I won’t know. I’ll be very dead.
Anyway, today’s mission was to visit the Museo Soumaya, which many people online had recommended as a site that had to be seen if you were in Mexico City. It was in a part of town I wasn’t familiar with, so I was worried about getting turned around, but I’d rather be lost in a foreign city than I would be hanging out anywhere else. After all, if I’m not going to wind up in the middle of Tepito, there are few more gorgeous places to be lost than Mexico City. There will always be a little taco shop or a park or a market or something.
The nearest Metro stop to the museum was a healthy journey from the destination, but it was a glorious day and nothing sounded lovelier than a stroll. I got turned around at least a dozen times, but the streets were so lovely that they were absolutely worth the unexpected perusal. Gorgeously dense foliage shaded the walkways, and ever so often there were these wonderful vitrines with dolls and icons of various saints that were in rather decrepit condition and vaguely illuminated with Christmas lights that flickered intermittently. It was really rather macabre and I was fascinated.
Back in the United States, displays of deep religious feeling aren’t easily found with such frequency. The only thing that seems equivalent is the weird assemblage of crosses you’ll see at the sites of violent car crashes. There’s one outside of my old place of work where a kid was hit by a car when I was in middle school. Crosses and flowers that never go away. I have never seen anybody maintain these makeshift altars in the United States, and I wonder who is behind the similar, if more grand, structures in Mexico City. Now I’m going to have to do a bunch of research and solve the mystery…bear with…
Okay it turns out that each of these altars is independent and the responsibility for maintenance is unique for each one of them. Some people take turns each week buying flowers at the market for the saints and some of the altars are a mystery to the entire community. I’m going to take a bunch of photos of them the next time I’m in Mexico City because they are one of my favorite features of the city to come across. They are not segregated by barrio nor economics. I’ve seen them in poor areas and in very wealthy spots besides international hotels and embassies in Polanco. They’re pretty. I’m off topic again.
The lengthy walk finally ended and I was stood in front of a stunning building that I struggle to describe. There are no straight lines anywhere. The building is a shape that looked reminiscent of a squashed square. It’s covered in reflective tiles that mirror the modern district around it. Some days it’s almost hard to see because the reflections camouflage the peculiar building.
To my shock and delight, the museum was massive and completely free. I felt like I was back in Paris and I was young and thing and getting into all the cultural centers for nothing. Good times. Now I have to pay full price for museum entrance. And even then, the coronavirus might shut them down for the forseeable future. This is a traged and it’s getting absurd. Back to Mexico, though.
The entrance to the museum is stark. Every surface is so surgically white that you struggle to tell where the walls end and the floor begins. It’s really rather extraordinary. There are only a few pieces on this main level, so all focus is directed to the crux of the collection, the owner’s passion for the bronze sculptures of Rodin.
The money behind the Museo Soumaya comes from an insanely rich Mexican billionaire named Carlos Slim who decided that it was his moral duty to share his art collection with people from all walks of life. He was, for a few years, the richest man in the world with over fifty-billion dollars to his name. I can’t even imagine having that much money. I already live like I’m wealthy, but that level of wealth is absolutely insane. The entrance to the museum costs nothing because Slim believes that even the poorest person should be able to stand admiringly in front of a painting by an old master. His largesse is impressive and I am always so intrigued by the wealthy who find a way to be rich but remain decent human beings. Carlos Slim seems to be one of these people who are better because they have money, though we know this doesn’t apply to everybody who has billions of dollars. I think we can all think of some examples.
It took me time to figure out what I thought of the museum. The first couple of floors didn’t thrill me. They have tons of coins and pieces of paper money and relics from colonial Mexican institutions. One thing thatc was rather curious is a collection of oil paintings of the indigenous people done by European artists. They are captured in a way that makes them look like they could have stepped onto a street in Barcelona or London instead of Mexico. In these images, the native people are shown in European costume but in their indigenous location. It’s a fascinating contradiction of cultural ideals.
Instead of having clearly delineated floors, the museum spirals upwards in an organic fashion. It’s one of the strangest places I’ve been in because it’s almost impossible to determine the outdoor architecture based on the interior. From the outside, the building is abstract but rather square, but the inside feels rounded all over. It’s absolutely bizarre.
I came face-to-face with something rather horrifying as I made my way up through the artistic treasures. Without warning, I was surrounded by ivory of all shapes and sizes. There were masterpieces of ivory carving everywhere I turned, and everywhere I looked was yet another elephant tusk that had been turned into an intricate piece of art. Each of the pieces is stunning, but I couldn’t get over the cruelty that was required to make it. I love art, but this is too much for me. Using leather for a book binding is abhorrent to me, but it’s hardly going to cause the extinction of an entire species. Ivory on the other hand, doesn’t even have the chance to be a useful piece of beauty like a book. Books can be full of information that broaden our horizons, ivory is just a desiccated tusk from a gorgeous and gentle animal that will be left to rot.
I was, admittedly distraught and relieved to go up the spiral walkway that tightened and narrowed and opened up to galleries full of fabulous paintings. I could go on for days in a rapture about some of the things that I saw. I could tell you about the unofficial Leonardo da Vinci, about the paintings of an artist I discovered in Turin, about the gorgeous drawings of rural France in the winter.
I could tell you about all the artistry that overwhelmed me, but that would take far too long. Instead, I have to allocate my typing strength to telling you all about the glories I found in the letters of Khalil Gibran.
I had never heard of Gibran before this trip, which is a surprise to me. He is celebrated for his aesthetic pursuits and his dedication to the arts. I have always been interested in these eccentric people from history like Oscar Wilde, Diana Vreeland, and Karl Lagerfeld. These people who are more caricatures than they are average people thrill me. You could never call them ordinary. Khalil Gibran was cut from the same cloth. He is probably best known for his immensely short and terribly important collection of poems, The Prophet. In it, Khalil shares the story of a sage who is far from home. He finally has the opportunity to return where he belongs, and he takes the opportunity. As he prepares for departure, though, he shares advice and stories about the human condition and all of the city mourns his impending absence. It’s a quick read and it’s something that makes you feel wise as you read it, though you aren’t left with anything truly profound.
I knew nothing of The Prophet back then. I suppose I had a vague knowledge that it existed but I had never sought it out and I had never considered reading a book of poetry. It’s not my usual thing, you know? And if I had known that Gibran was a poet, I surely would not have been so intrigued or enthralled or eventually enraptured by his papers. Instead of a collection of photographs or costumes or old sketches, the major focus was on a collection of letters Gibran had written at various times of his life. It was an incredibly intimate thing, and I admit that feeling a voyeuristic pleasure in the perusal of these documents. Khalil was madly in love with a woman named Gertrude and he would write the most achingly gorgeous letters to her. I was entranced by the way he formed his letters, his infant fluency in Arabic clear in his penmanship, but I was most taken aback by one letter in particular. It made me wonder if I was a reincarnated version of the man himself. I’m still not sure I’m not. Here’s what it said:
“And there are days when I want to be nothing but a shepherd somewhere on a far away mountain, or an unthought-of brother in an unknown convent, or an outcast in a lonely undiscovered island.”
This spoke to me in a way that no other person’s writing has never managed to do before. His feelings resonated with me profoundly and I felt an even stronger connection the more I read, but I kept coming back to this letter specifically.
I was attracted to it like a moth to a flame. If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably heard me mention something about Romanian hay farmers. Some primordial part of me longs to be so much more simple than I am right now. As I write this, the call to give everything up and become a hay farmer is not so strong as it used to be. My life is not as complex as it once was. It has become more fulfilling, more rewarding, more rich, but I have to tell you all that it did not use to be this way.
I have been rather stressed and pressured over last few years. I have had stress from college, obligations to my health, and a large role in a painful family drama that led to the passing of my father from advanced liver failure. All of these things alone were irksome, but in tandem they were an enormous weight on me. When the going got rough, I wanted to escape. I needed to flee. And for some reason, a reason that I have long since forgotten, I have felt an urgency to find simple work a million miles away. I wanted to be an unknown in an unknown place. I needed to be insignificant and left alone.
At first, I thought that I would become a grocery store checker in a quiet village somewhere along France’s Mediterranean coast. I would make my wage, spend my time quietly amongst strangers, and live a quiet and inconsequential life. But that fantasy never fully gelled in my mind. Instead, my urgent fantasy became the life of a Romanian hay farmer which suited me right down to the ground. I don’t particularly care for physical labor, mind you, but I am thrilled by the idea that I would have no responsibilities more urgent than passing my scythe through five acres of gorgeous Romanian grass. In the early afternoon, as the cut foliage began to dry, I would rake and scoop the grasses and flowers and herbs up into little mountains of hay to sustain my donkeys over the winter. That would be my only concern. That simplicity of thought calls to me in a way that I don’t know is healthy. I want very fine things out of life, reader, I’m sure you can tell this, but I also want the divine luxury of nothing at all. What can I say, I’m just a heap of elegant contradictions.
Khalil seemed to feel the same way. He was an everyman and yet he was always a stranger. He loved living for the thrill of living, and yet he luxuriated in moments of healthy self-absorption and solitude. He was, probably like I am now, most likely insufferable, but I can’t help finding myself captivated by him. Not a day has passed since that I haven’t reflected on the content of that letter and that feeling of having a kindred spirit somewhere out in the world. although he is long dead and I am so very young. YOUNG, I tell you. VERY YOUNG.
Nothing could really match the thrall that filled me after reading the letters, but I did my duty and finished the museum. The top level is a truly stunning sight that would have usually held me breathless and captivated. And it did at moments, but those damned letters began haunting me.
There are dozens of statues by Rodin that create circular pathways, herding you past the art like some kind of cattle processor, but for humans, and not for execution by the beef industry, but for the sake of beauty. Betwixt the Rodin masterpieces are other stunning sculptures done in marble, some of them are so expertly worked that the stone is nearly translucent. There was a carving of a fallen angel with wings so thin that I had a hard time accepting the possibility its existence. Another treat between the major sculptures were collections of other letters. Carlos Slim must have some kind of passion for personal correspondence because there are more examples found here than anywhere else I’ve ever been.
A letter that really intrigued me more than any others on this level was written by none other than Napoleon himself.
I found it wild to look at the cursive that flowed from the man’s own hand. I have a particular fascination for the way people shape their letters when they write, so I had to appreciate the opportunity to see so many examples of this art. Napoleon’s writing was intriguingly compact and spidery and it was a fascinating contrast to the flowing scrawl of Khalil Gibran a floor below.
It was time for the museum to start clearing out, so I wandered back down the circular ramp and made my way outside into the beautiful sunlight of a perfect Mexico City afternoon.