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Diario de Ciudad de México IX

I came to Mexico City with many priorities, and Cuban ice cream without the promise to buy ranked high among them. We showed up to Mercado Medellín looking for it, but I nearly broke into a flop sweat upon seeing that that, for whatever reason — too late? Some sort of holiday? — most of its shops had shuttered themselves for the day. (And by “shuttered themselves,” I mean “covered themselves with sheets of burlap.”) But the moment I even suspected I’d come upon the right place, I asked, in what Spanish I could muster, if this was where you eat Cuban ice cream. “It’s not Cuban ice cream,” the fellow responded in, as usual, much better Spanish than mine. Just when the confused disappointment started rising, he added, “It’s ice cream as they eat it in Cuba. To be Cuban ice cream, we would need to be in Cuba, so this is not Cuban ice cream.” I immediately ordered a couple scoops of the flavors whose names I didn’t recognize — my standard dessert-ordering practice in Mexico — and apologized for my bad Spanish. The Cuban ice cream man assured me that he understood, and told me that if you want to learn a language, all you need is space. I told him I’d remember it.

Despite my near-certainty that we wouldn’t do anything as touristy as visiting ruins, a chance encounter presented us with the opportunity to spend a day visiting Teotihuacán, the pre-Aztec city “where men become gods.” Today, it’s the place where men become whistle-sellers. Most of the wandering vendors there (whose trinkets our guide strenuously instructed us not to buy) push a sort of kazoo which, as they repeatedly demonstrate, produces eagle and jaguar noises. Madelaine suspects fraud; she thinks those guys just make the animal sounds with their voices, that the instruments do nothing. Me, I want to interview a couple of ’em to find out exactly what it feels like to blow whistles at blank-faced tourists for ten hours a day.

I met a middle-aged Peruvian couple in the van to Teotihuacan who, sensing my eagerness to practice Spanish, took every opportunity to engage me in conversation. They did a fine job of pitching Lima to me as a destination, although I’d visit any South American city that has such a rich mixture of British, German, French, Jewish, Chinese, and Japanese for a population. Despite struggling at times to understand their somewhat Italianate accent — another common cultural influence there, I take it — I learned much about their suspicion that South America might turn communist. Wondering aloud later about why every South American I meet seems to hate and/or fear both their local and regional political figures, a Chilean girl gave me a stern explanation that I think I mostly pretty much grasped. Kind of.

Checking out the lights at the Templo Mayor at night, we suddenly decided to take a few group pictures. Standard problem: since one of the group always has to take the picture, one of the group’s always missing from the picture. A potential solution presented itself in the form of a vanful of Korean Christians making a prayer stop nearby. While each and every one of my friends around had me out-Spanished, out-Japanesed, or both, only I could claim any knowledge of Korean. But when I tried to summon the words to ask these Koreans if one of them could take our picture, I came up absolutely dry. Engaged in a weeks-long struggle with Spanish and Japanese, I had inadvertently pushed Korean so far to the back of my mind that I could hardly dig out “안녕하세요.” Embarrassing? Oh yes. But ten minutes back in L.A. should set this right.

Looking for an anthology of pieces to get you in the Mexico City mindset? I recommend Rubén Gallo’s The Mexico City Reader, which I should thank right now for introducing me to the invaluable D.F. chroniclers Carlos Monsiváis and Jorge Ibargüengoitia. (I tried to buy a whole volume of Ibargüengoitia’s writings from an alleyway bookseller, but he just wouldn’t budge from 50 pesos, and I wouldn’t sacrifice my manhood by shelling out.) Gallo writes in his introduction:

I decided to select only nonfiction essays and to focus on crónicas — short texts that are a cross between literary essay and urban reportage, and usually read like journal entries about a writer’s experience of the city. Although there are many novels — like Luis Zapata’s El vamprio de la colonia Roma — and poems — like Efraín Huerta’s Circuito interior — about life in post-1968 Mexico City, I focused on crónicas to make the book more original for North American readers: most Mexican poems and works of fiction are eventually translated into English, but crónicas rarely make it across the border, apparently because they constitute a hybrid genre which most publishers are afraid to touch. And it is precisely this hybrid quality that makes crónicas a perfect genre for writing about a city where everything — from architectural styles to social classes — is jumbled, chaotic, and falls in between traditional categories.

Literary essay? Urban reportage? Hybrid genre? Sounds like the form for me. I do wonder what about crónicas I can import and adapt into writing about other cities, but first I’ll need to pump up my Spanish reading level more than a bit. As incentives to do so, I scoured the bookstores of Donceles street and came away with Tiempo mexicano, Carlos Fuentes’ book of crónicas — why not start at the height of the augustness, I say — Cantar de ciegos, one of Fuentes’ short story collections, the non-Mexican Julio Cortázar’s Bestiario, and the D.F.-born, hook-hand-wielding Mario Bellatin’s La jornada de la mona y el paciente. Madelaine picked up a couple by J.M. Servin, an as-yet never translated Mexico City memoirist-novelist whom I sense would make a fine interview indeed for my next podcasting/broadcasting project.

(By way of full disclosure, I also dropped the pesos on a slick new Latin American edition of Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart. As if to balance out that expense, I happened to find a Korean-language guide to Spain laying around, which I choose to interpret as a sign from the universe to get my speaking skills in shape before I run into a Christian van there, too.)

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