Thursday, July 26, 2007

Fortifying ourselves for Mexico City with rooster soup for breakfast

Mexico City, in some ways, reminds me of other big cities I know, New York, Seoul, Los Angeles, and yet is unlike them in so many other ways. At 20 million people, it makes New York feel airy. Walking through the Centro Historico was like Times Square times 10, except with graceful old buildings, relatively few tourists, and no flashing lights. You could, however, still buy pornographic DVDs right on the street, next to hair barrettes and tracksuits. And it has the energy of New York, the feeling that anything could happen, and people outside Mexico City talk about “D.F.” or the “Distrito Federal” the way people outside New York talk about NY: “It’s another world.” The inhabitants of Mexico City can’t imagine living anywhere else, while Mexicans elsewhere can’t understand how anyone can live there.

But the biggest difference between Mexico City and New York City, at least to this tourist who was in Mexico City for 4 days, is that New York is a city of people ignoring each other, while everyone in Mexico City is trying to get your attention. People are constantly trying to sell you something, with more vigor than your most vigorous Senegalese seller of fake Rolexes in Chinatown. After living in relative obscurity for a month and a half in Oaxaca City, I was shocked to find how Erin and I were subjected to constant catcalls and whistles, including one man, who said in English with much careful deliberation, and in an accent eerily remniscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Wow-oo, you are so bee-you-ti-fool!” I have to admit, I was proud of myself the next day for understanding the declaration shouted at me in Spanish from a man who had been driving his van at our walking pace in Condesa: “I was just looking at your beautiful legs!” He had such a genial smile, I shouted back, “¡Gracias!” Sadly, the only men who ever compliment me are men in the street and tollbooth operators, but I’ll take my compliments where I can get them. I am also now aware exactly how short my red dress is.

Our first morning in Mexico City was also otherwise overwhelming. I had arrived at 7 am on Friday morning, after an overnight bus ride from Oaxaca, and found Erin almost bouncing off the hotel bed in her excitement to try some of the restaurants she had highlighted on her map. An hour later, we were wandering around La Merced, one of the largest markets in Mexico and possibly the world.

And the Cathedral in the Zocalo is the largest cathedral in the world, right next to Templo Mayor, an archeological site some electricians found right smack in the middle of the city. And of course, there are Diego Rivera murals all over the city, all bigger than life, and most spectacularly in the Palacio Nacional.

You can’t throw a stone without hitting something with Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera on it in Mexico City. Either they are truly are as emblematic of Mexico as foreigners think they are, or Mexico City has responded to tourist demand with a complete, almost-innocent enthusiasm. I don’t find the work of either artist particularly moving, but in Diego Rivera’s large murals, the triteness I sometimes see in his work gets absorbed into a larger earnestness that appeals to me and my fatigue with NY-cool. And I did love the kitchen in Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, with its large, glossy pottery and bright colors inexplicably balancing each other. Her home made Leon Trotsky’s poor little fortification, just blocks from hers, feel even more austere and Soviet.

Thankfully, for all the marching we did around Mexico City that first day, we had had a substantial breakfast of caldo de gallo, or soup made from rooster stock, near La Merced. Being Korean, I think nothing of eating rice and soup for breakfast, but I was impressed by the way Erin tucked into hers. All Mexican soups are essentially the same: simple, happily dependent on the rawness of the last-minute garnishes, and restorative.

Of course, nothing is restorative like caffeine, and I sucked down every drop my first “café de olla. “Olla” means clay pot, and a “café de olla” is made and served traditionally in a little clay pot and sweetened with cinnamon and piloncillo, a Mexican unrefined brown sugar. Strong and sweet, it gave me the strength to enjoy everything Mexico City could throw at me.

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