Been living in Rome 9 days now, and finally made a friend.
I intend to work this morning, but not until 4 loads of laundry are finished, some clothes and things are resorted in preparation for moving (again), and maybe a little trip to the market in there. It remains the case that whatever switch there is that turns off and on whatever creativity I can muster is in the off position. I wish I wasn’t so flaky about this, but I always have been, so get over it (as they say). My standard pretense of work is to make some sort of radical change in whatever there is of it already. In this case, there’s about 75,000 words of whatever it is. Sometimes I change the whole thing from a 3rd person narrator to a 1st person narrator, or vice versa, depending on what person it’s already in. Sometimes I change it all from past tense to present tense, or vice versa. That’s what I’m doing now — changing the thing from past to present. I end up with lots of versions, so ultimately I may be able to actually decide on the one I like best, the one best suited to the story being told.
Here’s a picture.
This is the view of the backside of the US Capitol building, taking standing in the middle of the street in front of the row house we’ve rented during our DC stay. We’re here two months, but almost half of that has passed … not enough, though. I would prefer to be in Rome already.
This is our street in Trastevere, our place on the right side of the street, near the fountain, which is at the bottom of Gianicolo hill. It is a bit dismaying looking at all those scooters and predicting the noise level.
This novel, which is continuing to be called “Erasing Rose,” could very well be the best thing I’ve written (for publication), although the main competition will always be my 2005 novel, “Possessed by Shadows.” It may also be the last novel I am able to complete in the narrowing span allotted to my living days. Dead days last much longer, so it is too bad you just can’t do anything productive with all that time. For that reason, as well as the usual ego demands, I am almost desperate to finish the book. I had expected … rather, intended, to finish it before we left Mexico. Didn’t happen. Then I thought I might finish it in DC, before leaving for Rome — unlikely. The problem is, I don’t know how to end it. I don’t know what to do with Rose, how much of her to erase.
But whatever happens to it, it does seem to feel better, more comfortable, in the present tense and 3rd person. (Oddly, while grammatically it is a 3rd person narrator, that voice sure seems happy sounding like it’s 1st at heart.
I hear and must heed the call of the laundry.
I don’t think I’ve been tagged before; if so, I must have missed it. Something about it feels odd, but also sort of flattering. Kate tagged me. Kate writes beautifully, and I do wish she did more of it publicly, or Internetly. I also wish she would keep her promises. She keeps promising to visit, but hasn’t shown up since leaving Buenos Aires a while back.
It’s called a blog hop, which also seems odd, don’t you think? Like a dance craze from the 50s. Do the blog hop, do dah. Kate was tagged by someone she knows named Rebecca Brooks, who has exceptionally nice hair. I am asked to tag some others, but actually, I don’t know any other writers, or at least none who wouldn’t think me crazy for “tagging” them, so I’ll skip that part. She proposes four questions, and here are my four answers.
What am I working on/writing? What I hope will be, if I can manage to figure out how to end it, my tenth novel. It’s called “Erasing Rose,” with Rose being, or discovering herself to have been, the child of one of the Disappeared from Argentina’s “Dirty War” between the late 70s and early 80s. She is in the story a self-destructing adult, unable to make a life going forward while brutally tethered to the reality of her history. It takes place about half and half in San Diego (where she escaped to from Buenos Aires) and Baja, Mexico, where she escapes to from the troubles of her life in southern California. About 75,000 words are good enough to keep, but I keep floundering around the end, after about two years work. Being right now in awkward transit between Mexico City and Rome, I’ve not been able to give this work the mental energy all writing demands. That’s about it. At my age, this could be my last novel, so I feel more than compelled to finish it, but to finish it well and good.
How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre? Well, let’s see. I don’t know that I write within a genre. My previous published novels are, with the exception of the first, which was called a psychological thriller (to my dismay), are usually categorized as literary fiction. Is that a genre? I can’t answer this question because I don’t really understand it.
Why do I write what I do? I write what I read. I mean, I write in something of the manner of the kind of novels I have always read, which are more or less referred to as literary fiction. I don’t think I have ever read a novel that fits squarely into one of the usual genres. I don’t read romances or spy stories or thrillers or detective mysteries … . Whatever else, I can’t think of. I do read travel non-fiction a bit, and a lot of political and historical works, especially essays. I like a limited range of memoirs. In other words, the short answer is that I write what I know from what I read and have read, in that style and that manner.
How does my writing process work? Um … I would answer that quite differently at different periods in my writing life, which has now been ongoing steadily for almost fifty years. There would be me as the novice in my late teens through mid-twenties, when the compulsion to write damn near all the time was strong; then the me of undergraduate and graduate school (in philosophy) who was overwhelmed by the necessities and parameters of serious academic writing; the me of Iowa years, when artsy-craftsy writing and writerly socializing dominated; then the me of the professor years (thankfully brief) when I hardly wrote a creative word because of the demands of professing on a daily basis; finally the aging me, post-50, settling into a natural work rhythm, with few mind-distractions, writing most days for as long as I felt like it, and with, at that time, already five or so published books, off the pressure-to-publish treadmill wheel, when I learned how to write entirely and exclusively for myself and my own desires and demands (which dramatically improved my work, while at the same time dramatically decreasing my ability to be published) so that I could indulge myself as a writer … and now, when I can go weeks without writing a creative word, not worrying too much about it, knowing there will be those fine days when it is nothing to come out with two or three thousand words in a morning. I do, by the way, only write in the mornings. I am a morning person, I relish the light hours and hibernate in darkness. I have never written anything much post-lunch.
There it is. Are you happy, Kate. (You are missed!)
Our two years in Mexico City came to an end a few days ago; we are for the month in Boulder, Colorado, then on to Washington, DC, for two months, and to Rome by the end of October. Maybe it is too soon for a distanced and dispassionate look back over the two years, but here are a few preliminary thoughts.
First, this construction fiasco (photo below) made it so much easier to leave; in fact, desperate to leave. When we moved into our Polanco flat, there was an abandoned two-story office building (that may have begun its life as a house) directly behind us, sandwiched between two high-rise condo buildings, low enough so from our 4th floor balcony we had a decent view of trees demarcating the eastern edge of Chapultapec Park. A month or so ago, a crew of guys wielding mostly hammers and picks began knocking it down. Then, a few weeks ago, a gaggle of big construction machinery arrived and began this:
The last two weeks we lived with constant construction noise, from early morning to sunset, that will last for more than a year, according to the sign on the construction fence. We escaped just in time.
This is what I am sure to miss:
The weather. Even though we left in the rainy season (and it has been an unusually rainy one), generally Mexico City has the best weather of anyplace we have ever lived, or visited. Pretty much eternal spring.
The frank friendliness of Mexicans, even to strangers. (Unless they are in car, when friendliness abruptly transforms into vicious madness). They are quick to smile, to offer a helping hand or advice, and go out of their way to help a stranger on the street.
I will miss the feeling of security. Yes! I never felt even a shred of threat in Mexico City, never had one encounter with crime, and never felt unsafe. Unlike Manhattan, or Los Angeles, or DC, for example, which seem to me to be virtually crime-ridden.
Having seen photos of our Rome apartment, I am certainly going to miss the clean, large, well-lighted place where we lived in Polanco. This is the dining room from the living room:
And this lavish, large office:
We are definitely going to miss our housekeeper, Tere, who came in and took over, in the most wonderful way. She also happened to be the best cook in Mexico, unarguably. She is a once in a lifetime person, and we will never again see her like.
All the trees and flowers and parks, not only in our colonia, but throughout the city.
Inexpensive and ubiquitous taxis, making it easy to get anywhere in the (massive) city without needing a car. (Only a masochistic idiot would drive a car in Mexico City.)
This is what I will not miss:
Food. I know it’s a surprise, but I found out that I don’t like much of the Mexican cuisine. To my taste, there is a certain underlying sameness, a similar flavor, in much of the food, no matter what. An underlying current of corn flavor, mainly. Although Poblano chiles dominate many flavors. I will probably never eat another taco again, ditto guacamole.
Bacteria-laden water. Not only can you not drink the water, but you cannot wash fruit and vegetables in it (unless you add a Clorox like solution to the water), cannot brush your teeth or rinse your mouth with it, and have to be careful not to open your mouth in the shower. (If Mexico City had clean, drinkable, useable water, the country would own the hemisphere.)
Traffic and the insanity of Mexicans in cars. (Maybe Rome traffic will necessitate a revision.)
A never-ending, no matter where you are, crush of people.
The nonsensical continual stream of protests, most of which are indeed for nonsensical reasons, that block major avenues for hours, and sometimes close access to the international airport. They are weekly occurrences. And they don’t make a bit of difference — except to the people simply trying to get from A to B on a bus or in a car.
The dubious skills of medical practitioners and the sometimes primitive hospital facilities.
So there it is –
Two years, it’s over, and I can’t imagine a circumstance that would bring me back to Mexico (or anywhere else in Latin America) again. It was better than I thought it would be, but I find very little to miss about it.
When I started “blogging,” some seven or eight years ago, like any new toy, I played with it to total distraction; also like a toy, I wore it out from overuse. It, blogging, seems a terribly self-indulgent activity, don’t you think? With the exception of writers (and others) who use blogging for restrictive and distinctive purposes — political journalism, for example, or to share one’s particular hobby or pastime with like-minded others — the rest of it seems like a written form of Selfies. Me! Read me! Look at me! Feel me! Let’s share me! We ought to be embarrassed. I often am.
For quite a while now, I have used this blog to post photographs that interested me, of places that interested me, and maybe a little of bit of “look where I went.”
We leave Mexico in less than three weeks, and after a lengthy holiday in the States, will move to Rome. Our apartment is in the west bank of the Tiber neighborhood of Trastevere, once the Bohemian quarter of Rome, but has lately been discovered. It is on this street, in the building on the right side of the street, near the end, with some greenery on the roof. Don’t you envy me? That’s what Selfie blogs are trying to get.
I’ve been thinking I should have a photo web site, and drop the pretense of this kind of thing, this pseudo literary blogging thing. I have noticed in the statistical page for this blog that to a great extent most of the readers who find this blog have Googled something about Buenos Aires or Mexico. An extraordinary and unusual number found it by Googling something to do with rain: rainy street, rainy day, etc. Because once a long time ago I wrote a post about how I was spending a rainy day (in a café, of course), decorated with a nice oil painting of a street market in the rain. Probably a dozen times a week someone comes to this blog because of that post. Yet most arrive looking for something about Buenos Aires, Patagonia, Argentina, Mexico City, Yucatan, Berlin, Slovakia, and the like.
So maybe I will come up with some sort of photo-based place blog. It would be less self-indulgent, at least.
If so, I’ll put a mention of it here.
Last week we traveled by bus (a rather luxurious one at that) from Mexico City to San Miguel de Allende, about four hours, the “we” being Holly and me and our long-time foreign service friend Dick, who is presently posted in Washington. We stayed three days, then bused over hill and dale to Guanajuato; both towns are world heritage sites. It was our second time in San Miguel; previously we were there in February and it was really, really cold. This time is was really, really rainy, but not cold. We also visited with another old friend, the writer Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street, et. al.), who has been living in San Miguel the past year or so. Sandra and I were both at Iowa, but a year apart, and quite a long time ago.
Photos will be blown up full-size by clicking on them.
This was the last holiday trip we will take while living in Mexico City. We leave at the end of July; first a month of home leave in Boulder, Colorado, then two months of this and that in Washington, before continuing to our next post — Rome. We should be there toward the end of October.
My plan (and hope) was to finish the novel I’ve been working on for the past two years, Erasing Rose, before leaving Mexico, but now I think that won’t happen. I thought the end was close, but it is not … it is far, far away. But then, what difference does it make? It’s not like I have a deadline (if advancing age doesn’t count as a deadline), or any publisher wanting it. Those days are over for me, but I admit it was a good run while it lasted. If I do finish this story, it will become my 11th novel.
When I was twelve years old, in a car with my mother driving me to school, she had asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. Without hesitation, I said I would be a writer … like Hemingway, some of whose stories I had read in magazines. Imagine the impact of Hemingway stories on a ten year old boy. That was now almost sixty years ago. My first novel (One Easy Piece / Coward-McCann) was published in 1982, when I was thirty-seven years old; I wasn’t ready much before that. It seemed to me that if I was to write “what you know,” it would help to know something first. So, although I was writing essentially everyday from my teenage years, it was just warming up, practicing the elements of craft … but mostly it was living: the Army, the vagabonding, working as a diver, then as captain of a charter fishing boat, then the years spent academically learning how to think (that’s why I worked my way through two degrees in philosophy — the only one of the intellectual disciplines with the sole purpose of learning how to think), writing three total failures while marrying and having children, trying to be a good person when it was so easy and compelling to be a bad one … then I was ready. More or less.
What is yore, anyway?
Doing computer housekeeping today, cleaning out an abundance of photos, putting them on a storage desk; I need to store about 10,000 photos somewhere, because they are bogging down the iPhoto program. Not making much progress because some photos have me drifting off on a nostalgia wave. Here some of those are.
In the category of things I used to do and cannot do anymore …
I lived in Coronado, California between 1983 and 1991. I finished my second and wrote three more novels there.
My wife, Holly, has dragged me (sometimes under great duress) all around the world — literally. Most of the time I’d just as soon stay wherever I am and write — novelists often have more vivid mental lives than physical ones. But she wouldn’t hear of it, so around the world we went, and around again. I don’t even know how many countries we’ve spent some time in (not counting ones we only passed through for a few days): twenty, thirty, forty? Here are a few of my favorites. (Slovakia, which is my favorite country on the planet, is not here, because it feels more like home than a place I’ve traveled to.)
Finally, some random pictures that induced significant waves of nostalgia.
I will be 70 years old next year, so figure I have only about another 30 or so years of life left. Where to next? What to write next? Who to meet? Only 30 more years! I need three times that. But it will be hard to compete with the last 70.
Today, 15 April, is the second birthday since my friend Edo transformed his substance into pure energy, leaving behind we substance-burdened, earth-bound creatures to wait our turn. We miss him as we wait. Edo was a fan of Mark Knopfler’s music, and especially liked this song: Shangri-La. Which, as much as any other place, is where he is now. Happy Birthday, Edo.
Like chewing gum left on the bedpost overnight, blogging just isn’t the same in the morning, especially if the night has lasted damn near ten years! I suppose this is also true about most things you get used to, which could be a good argument to avoid getting used to things that are actually important, like, say, your marriage. Although I cannot make much of a case that blogging is important in that way. But let’s blog again anyway. This one congealing a pot of thoughts on our time in Mexico City, and the leaving of same.
I have lived in Mexico City for the past 20 months, and am scheduled to leave (for Rome — yippee!) in less than four months. I was more or less happy to come here (after 3 ½ years in Buenos Aires) mainly for the food and the air travel proximity to places I go in the States from time to time. Proximity remains quite nice. Food? How could this happen? I am finished with Mexican food (although not quite yet the beer and tequila), and I hope to never see or have to eat another taco of any kind again. Ditto guacamole. I can’t even look at guacamole, much less eat it. Oh, and double ditto for Nopale cactus. The only way one should ingest a cactus is in liquid form (with or without a dead worm).
The air is filthy most of the time, and with lungs working overtime trying to get an oxygen dose at 8K+ feet altitude, being able to taste and feel the air going down the throat is not pleasant. That’s in DF, of course. It might not be so bad in small places or coastal places. But then, it is in Mexico City I live. Yes, long-timers are quick to point out how much better the air is than 10, or 15, or 20 years ago. But it is what it is, not what it was.
I am more often asked about crime. Crime is not much of a problem in Mexico City, at least not in the areas where I live or wander. Fact is, crime rates are far higher in a dozen major US cities than in Mexico City. I am not effected by crime here, so it is not something to like or dislike. You are safer in Mexico City, by far, than in Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Pittsburgh, and way safer than in crime-ridden Washington, DC.
You know, but that’s about all I really don’t like about Mexico City. The list of what I do like (some of which I am certainly going to miss) is much longer.
Weather. Mexico City has the most consistently fine weather of any place I’ve ever lived, and I’ve lived in lots and lots of places. Including San Diego, which claims to have the best weather in the continental US. It gets pretty damn cold in San Diego in the winter. It does not ever get anywhere near what I call cold here. It does not snow, there is no ice. From time to time I have worn a leather jacket. It also does not get hot. A really hot day here, mid-summer, might climb to the mid-to-upper 80s. I have not experienced it ever hitting 90 here. Basically, it is more or less an eternal spring. Weather here means the times when it rains most evenings and the times when it doesn’t rain at all. I am really going to miss that.
One of the best bookstore/cafes I have ever seen is here, not too far from where I live. It is called El Péndulo, and is one of a small chain of three in the city. Because I do most of my writing in cafes, finding this one dramatically enhanced my work day. I do not think El Péndulo is replaceable and I am going to miss is mightily.
Having this cafe has made Mexico City good for my writing. I started a novel here — it is called “Erasing Rose” — which I hope to finish the first draft of before we leave in a few months, that portends to be pretty damn good. I am an environmentally-affected writer, and what surrounds me when I work can often determine whether I can work at all. I almost never work at home, regardless of how fine the office space, and the one I have here is pretty nice. I can do non-creative work at home, like editing or rearranging things, or playing with fonts, things like that, but I almost never create from fresh at home. Most of that work is, and always has been, done in cafes.
Well, that’s enough. It’s lunch time … oh, that reminds me of something else I don’t like about Mexico — lunch time. Most restaurants here either do not open until 1:30 (and will be empty for at least an hour after that), or if they are open, serve breakfast until 1:30 before switching to lunch. I wake up early, usually around six o’clock, and eat breakfast then. By noon, I’m hungry. Here I have almost no choice but to have a second breakfast or wait until after 1:30 to get lunch, by which time I feel at the door of death by starvation. The few places where I can get lunch — especially at the brand new deli (called Deli & Vine) just up the street, which has lunch from Noon on — are where I eat 90% of the time. Not to mention being able to get a Ruben or a Pastrami on Rye, or brisket, instead of another fucking fish taco.
While being beach people along what is dumbly referred to as “The Mayan Riviera,” (see previous post), we spent one day visiting two ancient Mayan sites: Tulum and Coba. While not as famous as Chichen Itza, that works in their favor — fewer tourists (although not much fewer), and more direct accessibility. We booked a mini-tour out of Puerto Morelos, a van carrying 12 passengers, and drove south through a string of Las Vegas resorts (Mexican version), then along narrower roads where the ubiquitous vendors waited to pounce, and then a short walk into the city ruins. Tulum is a little more developed and a little more intact than Coba, which made Coba the more interesting.
Following is a series of photographs taken from Tulum and Coba, mid-January, 2014. Any photo can be enlarged by clicking on it.
It’s not that life is all that hard (for us) in Mexico City, but some of its consistencies do become tiring. So we took eight days in January and went to the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, to Puerto Morelos specifically. I made the odd discovery that I don’t always need a café for creative stimulation; when I was not simply staring at the view above, I found that my brain filled with ideas, and I came up with a grand solution to the problem in my current work, called “Erasing Rose,” that allowed me to finally move ahead from where I was stalled for a long time. Maybe relaxing is a good idea, although it is not one of my habits.
Puerto Morelos is a very small fishing village (with some tourists — most of whom seemed to be Mexicans from the area), on the coast a ways south of Cancun and a ways north of Playa del Carmen, both of which are far from being fishing villages these days and are packed to overflowing with tourists; maybe only tourists. We rented a nice condo — four levels with an apartment on each level, and we were on the bottom so could walk right out the door and onto that pure white flour-like sand. (If you’re interested in how to find such a beach condo in Puerto Morelos, we found this one on a website called Vrbo.)
We chose it partly because it was not in the village, and also the price was right (half or more of a hotel room, and we had three bedrooms and two baths). It was two kilometers north of the village center. We did not rent a car, so to get to the village with its restaurants and food shopping opportunities, we walked the beach. It took about 20-25 minutes, and the soft sand was fine exercise, although using new muscles required a masssage. Being away from the village and the big resorts — one of them for swinging nudists, and that was quite a show during our walks — it was quiet. The only sound we ever heard at night was the distant crashing of the surf a hundred meters or so off the shoreline, where it broke on the reef, the same reef so popular with divers in Belize to the south.
Following are a few more photos from the holiday.
And here’s an interesting titbit to close with. We took Interjet back to Mexico City from the Cancun airport — and Interjet is now our favorite Mexican airline — and one of the new features of this aircraft was outside video, showing the view from the cockpit. So we got to see what takeoff looked like from the pilot’s POV (it’s way fast), and then the approach into Mexico City. Here is what it looks like on final approach into Mexico City, from the pilot’s POV.
During this trip, we also visited to ancient Mayan sites: Cobu and Tulum. I’ll put up a few photos of that in a future post. Hope you enjoyed the show.
Home. Heimat. Domov. Hogar. Maison. Hem. Huis. Where is your home? A difficult, if not impossible, question for perpetual vagabonds. I usually say simply that it’s where my stuff is. So right now my hogar is in Mexico City. Before that, my hogar was Buenos Aires. Before that, my home was Georgetown. Before that, my heimat was Berlin. Before that, my huis was South Africa. Before that, my domov was Slovakia.
I was born and grew through the childhood years in the small southern Arkansas town of Magnolia, and left there never to return at the age of seventeen. After that, I lived all over the place for short periods of time. The longest any of these places could be called home was eight years in Coronado, California. Second place on the longevity scale are the seven years in Slovakia. Then comes about four and a half years in Berlin. Then almost four years in Buenos Aires. Possibly the next casa will be in Rome.
With a vagabond history like that, I suppose one ought to be able to pick a favorite and claim that piece of earth as home. So, I choose Bratislava, Slovakia.
I have no rational explanation for this. In the same way friends can look askance at one’s choice of a lover or a mate and whisper, “What does he see in her?” “He could have done so much better, look at the choices he had.” But you’re in love, and has anyone, from the poets to the philosophers, ever explained love? The emotion of love is as close as it gets to making any sense of the human need to create gods — reason falls mute in the face of feeling. Passion always outweighs reason; passion has won every battle it has ever had with reason, and always will. A passionate life may lead one into tragedy, but it is all that makes life vital. Who would want to live without it in his life?
For sixteen days this month, my wife and i returned to Bratislava to visit friends and, importantly, to take a European break after some six years living in Latin America. (It took two days before I got over the fear of drinking water from the tap and the joy of not rinsing fruits and vegetables in a mild Clorox solution. What a simple thrill to rinse my mouth from the tap after brushing my teeth.)
I was a university professor during our years in Slovakia, and during those seven years had probably a thousand students pass through my classrooms. Over the years since, I have become personally close to some of them. One of the best parts of this trip was seeing how they looked in their 30s instead of late teens, what professions they entered, who they married, who they divorced, children or not. I met most of them where we used to meet when I was their teacher — the pub.
We stayed in the home of our oldest friends — not only oldest Slovak friends, but oldest friends period. They have and are having a tragic year, and we wanted to make our love and our presence known in this time. That is the fundamental reason we chose Slovakia for this annual holiday. Sometimes what you need to do is just be there.
So much for the preamble. The rambling preamble, at that. Here are some of the pictures.
With Betty Masek, one of my smartest students, who got married, had babies, living a long time in the States, then returned to live in a house in a small town.
The anachronistic pub where I spent most days — very fast free WiFi, not to mention a luscious variety of whiskies — and where I met the few ex-students I could find.
Tomas Beno, who was one of the most creative students I ever taught, with his girlfriend, Tatiana … okay, okay, yes I know, she’s hot!
Along with Beno and his girlfriend, Tatiana, I’m with the smartest student I ever taught: Diana Urickova, who seems to be abandoning the business world for a life as a sailboat skipper off the Dalmatian Coast.
Mirka Nacinova, who was my most exciting and at the same time fragile student; now the mother of two, living in Prague, a photographer and screenwriter.
In the old town, where people have walked these cobbled lanes for nearly a thousand years. There used to be a dingy but interesting bar downstairs from the wall on the right, but it’s gone. At least they didn’t put another McDonalds there.
The main promenade leading from the coronation church to the National Theater, enjoying one of the most spectacular autumn days one can imagine, or hope for. The buildings on the right side house a number of embassies: German, Czech, and at the end, American.
By the window in the Julius Meinl Kaffee, where I went when it was coffee I needed more than whisky, watching a couple of girls trying to pick up a pig.
Besides watching the utterly silly parade of marching tourists passing by, this was another good reason for hanging out at the Julius Meinl Kaffee.
We did not stay in the city, but in a small village at the western edge, bumped up against the borders with Austria and Hungary. On my daily journey into the old town, on the good old #91 bus, this is the way I walked from the house to the highway to get the bus. It was a deliciously foggy autumn morning when I took this picture.
Sometimes I got off the bus one stop before the Novy Most (new bridge) and walked across the Danube into the old town. The oldest part of the city is to the left, just out of this picture. The Danube is rarely blue, by the way. Turgid and brown would have made a better title for Strauss.
One day, walking to the bridge, I noticed this little display where local junkies shoot up. Most interesting to me was the array of homemade needle injectors.
A study in contrast. In the main square of Bratislava.
Riding the good old number 91, heading from the village to the stop at Novy Most, which abuts old town. I think I see where I might have picked up the case of flu I came home with.
“I write because nobody listen.” The writer’s anthem. Although these days, what do you do when nobody reads?
This made me happy, being the symbolicky stary otec (symbolic grandfather) to this little girl, who lost both her grandfathers this year. Mia gave me the most smiles this holiday.
With my darling Paula, and reading “Year Zero: 1945″ which appealed to my curiosity, since I was born that year, and wondered if my life began at year zero.
If we did not suffer, how would we know joy? Dumb ass question. Suffering has no value. I lost my old friend Edo this year, Paula’s husband. I wrote about him in a previous blog post. I finally had a chance to share with him a glass of fine Mexican tequila, and toast our quarter-century of wonderful memories. RIP my old friend.
My girl. With Michael’s Gate in the background.
My girl again. Crossing the Danube on the new bridge, with castle hill in the background. Maria Teresa used to ride her horse up and down the stairs in that castle. She was crowned Empress of the Austro-Hungarian empire in St. Martin’s Cathedral, at the foot of this ugly as shit bridge.
Waiting at the Vienna airport for the sad and long flight back to Mexico.
Dovidenia, Paula. Stay happy and we’ll see you soon.
Halfway point of a two-year stay in Mexico City.
The aspects of life in Mexico City I liked almost from the beginning, I now like more. The things I disliked about life here, I now dislike less. A certain progress, I suppose. I’m wondering how much of the improvement in my impressions of Mexico City are comparative? I’ve now been to a few other places in central Mexico, including recently, Cuernavaca. It’s a dump. The best thing about Cuernavaca isn’t even in town, it’s a few miles away: the Hotel and Spa Hacienda de Cortes. We didn’t stay there, only went for Sunday Brunch and a walkabout; instead we were ripped off in a $200 a night room in a slum neighborhood that, excepting some nice elements in the facade, managed to barely reach Motel 6 quality. But that’s another story. I was probably dismayed because all I knew about Cuernavaca before came from the 1930s image of the place in Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano,” a brilliant novel.
I’m not getting “gastric distress” as often. I’ve learned to be a little more careful about what and where I eat. Generally that’s a good thing, but on the other hand, all the weight I lost (over 10% of my body weight) the first few months we were here, is now creeping back. The “Mexico Diet” is the only time in my adult life I have been able to lose a substantial amount of weight and, mostly, keep it off.
It’s impossible to avoid hearing and reading about crime and violence here, but I have had, fortunately, no personal experiences of it. I have felt much more threatened on certain streets in Los Angeles than I ever have here. Of course, we live in Polanco, which is something of a bubble compared with much of the rest of the city. I have been through some of these parts of the city — both in a taxi and on a bus — and one gets the hint that, well, you aren’t in Polanco anymore. Statistics may argue with my impressions, but I don’t think Mexico City is any more dangerous a city than Rome or London or New York. Up north … that’s another story altogether, and even residents of Mexico City fear going anywhere near the border with the US. It’s worth remembering that the Mexico/US border is more than 1000 miles from here.
This volcano is the source of what is the worst of Mexico City’s air pollution. I’m told by long-term residents that the air quality here has dramatically improved in the last decade, and there is ample evidence of the government’s struggle to continue that improvement. There are skyscrapers with facades completely covered with vegetation, some form of plant with enhanced smog-eating properties; city bicycle stands all over the place, almost every few blocks it seems, where you can hop on a bike, ride to wherever, and leave it in a stand there. They’re trying hard.
They may have some success cleaning the air, but getting clean water appears to be hopeless, and I don’t think the government even tries anymore. If Mexico City had water that could be drunk from the taps … the population would double, because more people from around the world would want to live here.
The weather in Mexico City is one of the best parts of living here. It really is eternal Spring. In the rainy season, it rains a lot. In the dry season, it essentially never rains. Regardless, the temperature range is small, and smack dab in the comfort zone for most people. We have a friend from Puerto Vallarta who thinks it’s cold here. I would find PV hot and muggy. Different strokes. During the rainy season, which generally stretches between June and September, it rains at some point, for a while, most days. Actually, most evenings, since the rain seldom starts before late afternoon, and seldom lasts long into the night. During the dry season, October through May, it is rare to see a cloud. I don’t know if these are the official distinctions of the rain and dry seasons, that’s just the months they were during our year here.
What I expected to like most about living in Mexico City — the food — has turned out to be one of the things I like least. I had thought, after more than three years of the bland cuisine of Argentina, I would be in foodie heaven here. Turns out, I actually don’t like most Mexican cuisine. But that’s just me. I have acquaintances who salivate with delight just looking at the word taco.
So, here’s the list. What I like and what I don’t like after one year living in Mexico City:
The urban parks. Some of the most beautiful, well-planned, and useful green spaces I have seen in any city in the world. We live beside the largest urban park in the Americas — Chapultapec, and its presence enhances life here enormously.
The weather. Spring and Autumn are my favorite seasons (I could happily skip Summer and Winter forever), and Mexico City skips heat and cold.
The flagrantly friendly people. The people of Mexico City, at least all the ones I’ve encountered, are exceptionally friendly and helpful, particularly with foreigners.
The abundance of cafés and restaurants. You can’t walk a block around here without coming across something to eat or drink.
The ancient culture, which Mexico supports and sustains better than most governments.
The overt support for the arts, the honoring of creative work — poets and writers, painters and sculptures are revered here.
The architectural style of Mexico City appeals to me — the old, not the new. The new look is pathetic.
The vibrant street scene. I am a fan of cities with a lively street life.
You really can’t drink the water.
Often the air is dirty, you can almost taste it sometimes.
Where crime exists, it is usually horribly and unusually vicious.
The traffic is so obscenely stupid that all one can do (as an onlooker, not a participant) is laugh at how ridiculously people drive here.
I’m not a fan of typical Mexican music, especially mariachis. I can live just fine without hearing another trumpet blaring mariachi tune roaring out of a car window.
Okay, it is a bit crowded.
There it is. The end of my one-year summary of life in Mexico City. I should say, my life in the bubble within Mexico City.
It’s been 10 months since we arrived, three seasons completed, and into the fourth — summer, which is the rainy season. Mexico City is not Mexico, as New York City is not the United States. It is its own world, at the head of but distinct from the body of its country. Many of the clichés widely known about this city have a clear basis in reality; many do not. This is what it feels like from the presence of one aging Gringo who has never been much interested in Latin America in the first place, but finds himself living in the premier example of it.
Everyone who’s been here for many years says the pollution levels are diminishing. Maybe so. I haven’t been here for years and have no means of comparison. I just know what it looks like outside right now. It looks like this most days.
The air (and the water) are seriously polluted in Mexico City. Apparently great efforts are underway to improve the air (while I think Mexican officials have officially given up ever having clean water), and these efforts should be applauded. Public transportation is expanding and improving on a consistent basis; cheap bicycle rental stands have mushroomed all over the city, often seeming to be on every corner. You see people riding these bicycles all over the place, and even designated bike lanes are starting to appear. I think it is a suicidal act to ride a bicycle in Mexico City’s notorious traffic, among some of the worst drivers in the world, but at least they’re trying. From the balcony of our apartment, which looks out over the eastern edge of the massive Chapultapec Park, I can see airliners on approach to the international airport, close enough to landing that the gear and flaps are down. Early in the morning, before the pollution haze rises, I can make out the logo on the tails, see the colors. By midday, these planes are only a gray movement, and by mid-afternoon, they are a shadow. The following photo of Air Force One approaching Mexico City’s international airport a few weeks ago was taken from my balcony mid-morning. The blue of the sky was gone by then, but at least it was still clear enough to see the plane’s colors.
I should digress here and confess that in all my life I have never been much interested in Latin America. I am, at heart, a European. My interests are there. Many people are frankly fascinated with the history, culture, and society of Latin America, and I know such people — they are blatantly in love with Mexico, without also being blind to the problems and faults. I can see the source of this affection, even though I do not share it. I understand it. There is much to love about Mexico. Typically, like people in most places I visit and live, I am constantly asked if I like Mexico and what I like about it. I think it is impolite in the extreme to tell residents of any country that you are not interested in their country and do not especially like it. My standard response to that question in Mexico is: Me gusta mucho México, en especial el tequila, la cerveza, la comida, el clima, y, por supuesto, las mujeres hermosas. That is not untrue. Well, the last category is too rarely encountered. (There are a lot of very short and very fat women wearing very tight clothes here.)
The standard clichés about not drinking the water and staying away from uncooked fruits and vegetables are true. I have come to fully appreciate the typical phrases “Montezuma’s Revenge,” and “The Aztec Two-Step.” In 10 months, I have had “gastric distress” on eight separate occasions, a couple of times lasting longer than a week. Trying to stay within two steps of a toilet for a week is not easy. I take probiotic pills daily. I don’t even rinse my toothbrush in tap water. I have never eaten street food. Yet … . These discomforting experiences have put me off my love of Mexican food. Although, living in Mexico, I have come to understand that the “Mexican food” I loved so much in the States, was not actually Mexican food. The Mexican food I love is the US version; it’s the one I became used to over the years. Actually “real” Mexican cuisine is vastly superior in quality, innovation, and flavor than the TexMex, or CalMex, version I am used to; it is just what I am used to.
There is a great café / bookstore in my neighborhood. I am an aficionado of café culture, and was happy to find it exists here. There are many places in the world, including the United States, where café culture does not exist, certainly not in the European sense. Mine is called El Péndulo (the Pendulum), and is the Polanco branch of a three, or four, chain called El Péndulo in Mexico City. It has a good, though typical, restaurant, a café section, and tons of books. On Saturdays and Sundays there is live music, usually chamber music or a classical duo. There are regular readings, lectures, and exhibitions. It is virtually a perfect example of what one desires in a café / bookstore. It looks like this, and this, and this, and this.
El Péndulo is where I write most every morning. It is my salvation.
In spite of the common reputation that Mexico is a violent country — and of course there is no denying that — I have found on a personal basis, Mexicans are some of the most friendly, most open and accepting, and least pretentious people I have lived among. (Virtually the opposite of Porteños, the people of Buenos Aires, where we lived before here.) This is not to say they will not blithely rip you off if you are a stranger, because street hustling and ripping people off anyway possible is as common here as dirty air. But once you are no longer a stranger, you are almost like a member of the family.
I do not feel threatened living here. I feel essentially safe, especially considering that this is one of the largest megalopolises on the planet. On the other hand, my lifestyle does not include hanging out in lowlife bars ’till four in the morning. My life outside is lived mostly in the daylight hours. Dinner out in evenings is usually somewhere in the neighborhood, which is comfortably wealthy and well-patrolled by both public and private police. This impression arises from a distinctly privileged position. I cannot speak for life in the notoriously rough colonias. I do believe that the violence for which Mexico has a bad reputation is concentrated along the northern border, and the rest of Mexico is no worse, and in many cases better, than any other part of Latin America. Mexico City’s murder rate is much lower than Detroit or Chicago.
We live a short stroll into Chapultapec from one of the finest anthropological museums in the world. This one.
One of our favorite restaurants, although it happens to be French.
Mexico has the second largest economy in Latin America, after Brazil, and one of the fastest growing Middle Classes. It is sad that as a country, a nation, it cannot resolve the horrific problems with narco-violence, and overcome a culture so accepting of rampant petty crime. It is not the crime itself, it is how openly criminal acts are simply accepted as normal. The chronic rip-offs, the petty thieving, seem to be inherent. Before Mexico realizes its full (and amazing) potential, some aspects of culture must be changed. An excellent and revealing source for these problems is found in Jorge Castañeda’s fine book: “Mañana Forever? — Mexico and the Mexicans.”
Meanwhile, we are just passing through. We are not going to make a home here. Ten months into a twenty-four month stay. And we have it easy. Our apartment is large and well-protected. We live beside the largest urban park in the Americas — Chapultapec, which is a pretty good air-cleaner, as well as a beautiful place to stroll in nature within a massive city. I enjoy Mexico City more than it may seem from what I’ve written about it here. If I had not had “gastric issues,” so often here, I believe I would like it even more. Montezuma’s Revenge handicaps one’s impressions.
I believe that if the water were drinkable and the Narcos disappeared, Mexico would probably own the hemisphere.
Finally, a statue of Abraham Lincoln in the park named for him in Polanco, across from my café .