The end of my first stay in Mexico City brought to mind what I’ve come to call the Momus Test:
When I visit a place, fantasies of living there start to tug at the edges of my imagination. How would I survive economically here? Which area would I pick to live in? How would I decorate my new apartment? How much rent would I have to pay? Would I ride a bike? How would I dress? Which cafes and clubs would I begin to haunt? Who would become my new friends?
Since this is a game of fantasy, it would be easy to imagineer oneself into some chintzy turreted mansion in a rich, flashy neighbourhood. Dreaming costs nothing, so why dream small, right? But fantasy doesn’t work like that, for me, anyway. The most evocative fantasy is one with only the thinnest membrane between itself and reality; it gets its power from being eminently possible. From being a plan. So actually, my imagination thrives on rather austere, impoverished scenarios. I like to project myself into rather stark, cheap, working class districts, and imagine some kind of free vie de boheme unfolding in them.
(Past Marketplace of Ideas guest) Momus wrote this post about whether he could live in Osaka. Now he lives in Osaka. I’ll visit Osaka myself almost exactly a year from now, and when I do, I’ll ask myself if I could live in Osaka. But could I live in Mexico City?
I wrote earlier of my impression that, if I couldn’t live in Los Angeles, I would live in Mexico City. This remains true, although bear in mind that I’m choosing only from the major cities I’ve spent real time in. The list doesn’t include New York, and everyone tells me I’d bow down in devotion to New York if only I gave it a try. But for a guy like me, wouldn’t living in New York strike you as somewhat… obvious?
Here, to continue the Momus-blockquoting, is the thing about cities like New York:
Increasingly, my outlook has Berlinified, by which I mean I regard expensive cities like New York, London and Tokyo as unsuited to subculture. They’re essentially uncreative because creative people living there have to put too much of their time and effort into the meaningless hackwork which allows them to meet the city’s high rents and prices. So disciplines like graphic design and television thrive, but more interesting types of art are throttled in the cradle.
For all the wealth of its wealthier neighborhoods, Mexico City still seems quite suited indeed to subculture. (Big, fast, delicious meals for two for the equivalent of five bucks, remember, though whether you can attain big, fast, delicious, and healthy for five bucks I haven’t determined.) I don’t know how much longer this will last — fifteen years? Twenty? — but it ranks high in the roundup of qualities with which el D.F. attracts me. Others include:
- The “commercial spirit” which causes the city to bristle with businesses of all scales and levels of formality (or, especially, of informality)
- The near-complete lack of the English language and Anglo-type people in public life (if travel teaches me one important lesson about myself, it teaches me that I prefer being an extranjero)
- The fast, far-reaching subway (L.A.’s metro system may feel “nicer,” but right now it runs only about half the number trains the city needs, for half the distance they need to go)
- The bold, triumphalist, slightly futuristic, but still worn and askew aesthetic of the built environment
- The fascination of an international metropolis as filtered through a very particular Latin American sensibility
- The all-pervasive food culture, the well-curated reading culture, and the still-scrappy gallery culture
These qualities, I suspect, would wear me down over time:
- The seeming inability to provide uninterrupted power (not so important) and water (hell of important)
- The relative lack of Asian cultural influence (you find Korean and Japanese people here, for example, but they seem only to run restaurants, not supermarkets or bookstores)
- The ceaseless hard sell of ambulatory vendors and the employees of certain eateries (“Amigo? Amigo? Amigo? Amigo? Amigo?“)
- The unusually fraught act of street-crossing
Realistically, though, I wouldn’t completely give up my footing in L.A. for one in Mexico City — not this decade, anyway. The optimal solution strikes me as living in L.A. for half the year or more, and then spending a decent chunk to half of the rest of the year living in a place like Mexico City. Peter Greenaway’s onetime composer Michael Nyman does this with el D.F. and London; until very recently, Donald Keen did it for a decades with New York and Tokyo. This way of playing it strongly appeals to me, since it allows you to maintain a fresh pair of eyes on your surroundings at all times. Some people react to the idea of living in two places as a real Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous move, but I’m talking about pulling it off in as frugal a manner as possible. Given the money I’ll save by not raising kids — assuming I, uh, start making money at some point — I suspect this lays closer to reach than it seems.
I’ve left plenty of water in the Mexico City pump (when it, ahem, pumps at all) for next time. My tally of places I meant to experience but didn’t manage to this time out include the Cineteca Nacional (shockingly), Vips (a sort of Mexican Denny’s), galleries like Kurimanzutto and OMR, and the yoga classes that have apparently started up in the still-stained-by-fake-Total Recall-blood Chacabano subway station.
But we did get to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and few things, to my mind, represent my impression of Mexico better than this sweeping, audacious statement of mid-seventies cement modernism brimming with the grimly solemn-faced devout who nevertheless dress in the oddest possible clothing: NASCAR jerseys, off-pink track uniforms, revived leisure suits. (If you want a quick shot of Mexico City’s general “vibe,” Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven delivers it more accurately than anything else I’ve seen.)
But at the Basilica, I found my specific Mexico City envoy of choice: a six-year-old kid in an oversized anime t-shirt, big grin on his face, reflexively imitating the adults around him shuffling on their knees toward the Virgin, holding aloft a churro.