Zocolo, Xochimilco, UNAM, Frida and Diego

Zocolo means pedestal.  One was installed for a statue that never arrived, but the name stuck and that’s what this huge and ancient plaza is called today.  This is the original site  of the Mexica city Tenochtitlan.  The Spaniards conquered the Aztecs in 1521 and  killed their last king, Cuauhtemoc.  They named the area where the Temple sat Plaza Mayor.  Now the plaza is bordered by the Cathedral Metropolitano begun in 1573.

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Some of the original temple was uncovered in the 70’s when workers were laying cable lines.  There is an on-site museum displaying the foundation of the temple and architectural materials salvaged during the digging.  The Spaniards drained the lake on which the city was built and today it is sinking.

On the east side of the plaza you’ll see the Palacio Nacional which houses the office of the President and shelters a bonanza of Diego Rivera’s brilliant mural tracking the history of Mexico and dropping in Rivera’s biographical and political observations for good measure.

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In one panel you’ll get a whiff of what Rivera thought about the Spaniards.  Here is Hernan Cortes paying a slave trader.  Hiding behind him is his consort Malinche with their child on her back.  The child looks at you with his startling blue eyes.  “See,” says Rivera, “here is the first mestizo.”

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Rivera paints two of his three wives and his son who died in Russia. He places Frida Kahlo at the top.

He and his wife Guadalupe Marin each had numerous affairs.  To get even with her Rivera paints her as a prostitute.  A high caste warrior is offering her an arm recently separated from its owner as payment for her favors.

You pass through a gate on the side of the Palacio and walk into a lovely courtyard and then through these arches.  The Rivera mural is inside this interior portion of the building at the top of a lovely grand staircase.

You can see how big the lake was.  Mexico City was once a group of islands which the Mexica enlarged building bridges that allowed passage to and fro. The city was founded in 1321.  At one time farmers fed a population of 200,000.

 

UNAM

I’ve never been a tour person but this one was fun. Our tour group was two women, aunt and niece, from the mid-west, a couple from Cancun, and a pediatric pharmacist from Oakland.  Our guide, Scarlett, is a student at the UNAM, Universidad Nacional Autonomo de Mexico.

“Johansson, I asked?”

“No, my mother read Gone with The Wind.”

We all piped up doing our best Rhett Butler,  “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn!”

She looked bemused. Perhaps she hadn’t read the book!

She is one of 350,000 students at this largest and most prestigious university in the country.  You need a score of 100% on your entrance exam to get in.  Oh, by the way, tuition is free!

This is the Biblioteca Central designed and decorated by Juan O’Gorman.  The mosaic tiles are made from indigenous material.  The library hosts over 1 million titles.

Xochimilco

It’s great fun floating on the water.  You can eat, listen to mariachi, and buy all kinds of souvenirs.  A non-profit was recently founded to ensure the water is unpolluted and a wildlife refuge is supported.

Casa Azul

Our last stop was in the Colonia Coyocan where Frida’s Casa Azul is visited by 200 visitors every half hour.  We were fortunate to go to the front of the line.  Selma Hayek’s film Frida really put the artist on the map.  It’s a lovely home.

We headed back at this point.  I had a great time.  I’d do it again!

 

 

 

 

 

Did you say French food?

 

I threw caution to the winds last night and ordered a Caesar Salad at Le Moustache a French restaurant across Avenida Reforma on Rio Sena.  (So far, so good.)img_3871 Sometimes I want a break from very inexpensive Mexican food which has been my custom.  This is my second fancy meal since arriving eight days ago.  The restaurant is housed in a beautiful two-story room, the tables are lit by candlelight, very well trained waiters provide excellent service and classic French food is on the menu. It appears Le Moustache has won medals galore. I’d had a full day on a guided tour and needed a quiet place to veg.

I was surprised to see that even in this environment the ubiquitous mobiles prevail.

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I had una copa de champagne, Moet, and ordered the salad, and Sole Meuniere Almondine.  img_3868Very well presented and tasty.  I concluded with chocolate mousse and tea.  But the best part was the pianist and violinist.  The piano was located upstairs near the balcony and the violinist played in the dining room. They included Albaniz’  Tango in D, and  Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain which I love. They did not overwhelm conversation or wander around looking for a tip.  This extravagance set me back just under $100 but considering I had spent very little on food prior, it was money well spent.  I walked home observing the Angel de La Independencia amidst the lights of the racing traffic.

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Jumex, Soumaya, and Museo de Antropologia

I am a museum nerd.  When I’m kinda tired, overwhelmed, and don’t really know what I’m doing a museum is just the place for me.  And if I’m alone, so much the better.  No one to urge me to hurry up.  No one to judge my choices.  No one to insist it’s time to 1.  eat, 2. leave 3. find the bathroom 4. chatter about and comment on the nature of my current object of fascination.  It’s really best if you just leave me alone and arrange for a time and place to meet later in the day.

I have this dandy little book published by Phaidon and authored by Wallpaper’s City Guide series on Mexico City.  It’s a guide that is very carefully curated and makes no attempt to be a comprehensive guide to the city.  It’s only interested in places and sites that are laudatory.  The introduction is most complimentary of the city of today: “Mexico City no longer begs a visit.  It demands one.”

Being slightly brain dead, I took a taxi–Yes, a taxi.  I know there’s a great metro.–to Museo Jumex and it’s neighbor across the tracks, Museo Soumaya both in Nuevo Polanco.  The austere design of the Jumex is clothed in sand colored travertine blocks and topped with an unusual sawtooth roof.  Cutting edge modern work occupies three floors.  There is a cafe that offers simple but good food at reasonable prices.  The 50P entry fee is waived for mature visitors.  Very kind indeed!

I started at the third floor showing an exhibit on the impact of TV on modern culture.  The piece I most enjoyed was a video which I took to be a commentary on the Mexican soaps which are notorious for their dramatic plots and divas.  The video featured a cast of individuals ranging from a 9-year old boy to several good looking men and women.  Every single actor cried, wept, sobbed, and struggled to control trembling lips, and leaking eyes.  They hugged and sighed and threw themselves on couches, chairs, and beds throughout the video.  It was well done and amusing.  I don’t know how the actors were able to produce so many tears.

Next Museo Soumaya.  I saw the train tracks when I arrived but was surprised that they were functional. As I was exiting, a long train rumbled along the space between the two properties .

The Soumaya is a breathtaking design.  The exterior is covered in scale-like metallic tiles which mold to the sensuous structure.

Entering, the first piece I was drawn to was a large mural by Diego Riviera “Bano de Tehuantepec” or “Rio Juchitan” 1953-1956.

A scene of women bathing in the river and a man with his son who doesn’t want to have a bath.  It is composed of glass Venetian mosaics.  It is vibrant and beautiful.  (I just photographed the ends.)

The interior stairway circles up the 4 floors each dedicated to artifacts ranging from coins to furniture to paintings of Mexican history and life.  It is an interesting collection.  My favorites were a collection of folding screens that are remarkable and in superb condition.

Even more noteworthy was the behavior of the numerous elementary and middle school  students who stood quietly and respectfully listening to the docent.  I found it amazing.  It caused me to reflect on the children I taught when I was a teacher in California many years ago half of whom were Mexican American.  They too were absolutely respectful and polite.

I had a light lunch and realized I needed to rest.  I almost took advantage of the floor mats scattered about for napping art patrons.

Instead I taxied back to the hotel and slept for 12 hours!

The next morning I headed out to the highly touted Museo Nacional de Antropologia located in Chapultepec park.

On Sundays major streets are closed to traffic and people on foot, bikes, pushing strollers and walking dogs fill them.

There is only one entrance open to the park on Sunday and getting there takes much longer since the taxi has to circle the entire “forest” depending on the direction you are coming from.  Nevertheless, I arrived and entered.  There are ticket kiosks which I recommend using as the lines at the ticket windows are long.  The entry fee is 75P about $4.00.

I would guess that the majority of the visitors were Mexican families.  No strollers.  Children either walked or were carried.  A sea of multi-generational families  Many of the kids had workbooks they were writing in as they gazed at exhibits.  I gathered schools assign their students to go to the museum.  And why not!  It is amazing.

Lots of the exhibits are replicas–clearly the Pyramid of the Serpent no longer exists–but the replica is fabulous and huge conveying some of the dimension and splendor of the original.

The building is a U-shape two story modern building which begins at ancient history and anthropology and concludes at modern times.  The tall fountain in the courtyard is a wonderful way to cool off.

The first floor circuit took me 2 hours. 

The second floor which I almost passed on–I was tired and hungry–I liked the best.  It is focused on the indigenous people of Mexico stretching to the Chaco in New Mexico and Anasazi of Mesa Verde in Colorado.

The statue below is a member of Los Raramuri “Niki raramuri ju.” I am a raramuri. I have light feet.

I was amazed.  I watched all the very well done and informative videos and left hungering for more.  I told you I’m a nerd!

One of the nicest features of the museum allows visitors to exit the exhibit rooms to relax outside and enjoy the gorgeous gardens and the pleasant weather.

The entire property is enclosed making this possible.  I spent two more hours but it was time for my comida–3 o’clock the big mid-day meal.

I read that there was a restaurant and headed toward it.  I had very low expectations.  Boy! was I surprised!

Sala Gastronomica “Sabores Mexicanos” was perfect. It offers a menu that celebrates regional favorites using ingredients sourced locally.

I hadn’t had a proper meal since I arrived. I ordered a glass of vino tinto, agua minerale, pollo de Oxaca and mole poblana con arroz. This was my first mole poblana a sauce made of ground seeds and nuts, chilis, spices, masa and Mexican chocolate–it will not be my last.  It is delicious!

For dessert I chose a sampler of Mexican dulces which varied from tamarinda dulce and tamarinda con chili (didn’t like) to marzipan and coconut dulces, but my favorite was a lime split and filled with juice soaked shredded coconut.  A superb espresso made with beans from Chiapas concluded the feast.  The wait staff are excellent. The open patio and banquettes where I sat are divine.  This dinner set me back $50 plus a 20% tip.

Back I went to the hotel totally satisfecha!

 

Deja Vu All Over Again (thanks Yogi)

The first time I visited Mexico I was 17 years old.  That time I was an exchange student to Los Mochis, Sinaloa.  That was a transformative event in my life.  I learned that I could do all kinds of things: speak fluently in another language, understand course lectures in Spanish, dance the way the kids there danced, and handle myself in another family–none of whom spoke English.

The second time I visited Mexico I flew Aeronaves de Mexico’s champagne flight and felt like a celebrity.  I was 18 then and was visiting the most stunning young man I knew.  He lived in CDMX with his well educated Catalan family. That was also a wonderful experience.  Then I visited once again in the 70’s touring about the very hip Zona Rosa and Coyocan seeing Frida’s Blue House before most Americans knew who Frida Kahlo was.

This trip is a very expansive one–six weeks–two in CDMX–Ciudad de Mexico, or DF (deh effe)– Districto Federal– and a month in San Miguel de Allende a colonial silver town in the state of Guanajuato where I’ll be staying at Casita San Miguel owned by my friend– known to some as River Song Jewels–and her husband Luis Romero.  I’ll be attending the writers conference held there annually.  I greatly look forward to this.  All of this!

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Mexico City (CDMX)  has a population of about 9 million. Just about the same as that of New York City.  CDMX has the second largest metro system in the world. (New York City’s is the largest.)  It’s a good thing because the traffic is really bad and so is the air quality.  It took me two days to adjust my eyes to the air quality, and my heart and my body to the altitude.  CDMX ‘s altitude is about that of Mt. St. Helens.  I’m accustomed to sea level!

I shot the picture from the airplane just before landing.  The one above is a 16th C folding screen.   This beautiful rendering shows the city as it once was: a group of islands in a river.  Over time the water was drained and the land filled in and the view from the air today shows nary a glimpse of water.

I’m staying in a grand old hotel–not so grand now–in the Zona Rosa which is no longer hip.  The Hotel Geneve opened in 1907. It has wisely retained its glorious lobby and various salons, barber shop, patio, garden room and bar.  The rooms are comfortable but mold is a problem in the bath rooms. There is no AC–the windows open–but the staff is extremely accommodating and strive to please you at every opportunity.  It is listed on the internet as a 5 star hotel–I don’t think it deserves that many stars.  The food is mediocre but inexpensive as are the rooms.  Mine is $77/night.  I am also a short walk from the Metro.

The downside for this location for a single woman is night life in this area.  I still don’t really know my way around either. There is a lot of activity on the street at night and I don’t feel comfortable walking past dives, parlors offering various kinds of services–“happy ending here–” and bars.  It’s fine during the day and on the weekends its full of working class Mexicans and their families just out to shop and stroll and eat out.

There are a few good restaurants, I’m told, nearby but at night take a taxi there and back.  An authorized taxi.  Gypsy cabs abound but they don’t have meters.  If you know your way around and know the going rate for your ride, go ahead but I don’t and I’m sure I was over-charged more than once before I caught on.  Anyone who has traveled in big cities all over the world knows this is not unusual.

Some friends have been a little surprised at my choice to come here. Some have even suggested that my personal safety might be compromised. Sadly the drip, drip, drip of negative talk about Mexicans has had an impact.  I have never had a negative experience with a Mexican—American born or otherwise.  I find Mexicans to be polite, accommodating, friendly, hard working and very generous–often when they have very little to share.  Numerous individuals seated near me in a restaurant when leaving smile and say “buen provecho”  –enjoy your dinner–.   When’s the last time a stranger has said that to you?  They unfailingly wish you a good day whenever you have an interaction be it commercial or just going about your business.  So that’s where I stand.  Just so you know.

 

Eating Alone in Italy

This is a story that grew out of the Writers Workshop I attended in Montalcino, Italy in May 2018.  

Is it possible for a single woman to find happiness dining alone in Italy?  Sometimes.

Several days in Rome was an exciting prelude to a travel writing workshop in Montalcino, a Tuscan hill town. I had been to Rome two other times always with my partner.  Wandering around on my own, taking as long as I wish to visit museums, writing and musing about the day’s tramp ranks high on my list of great things to do.  Along with exciting exploration, the company of others to debrief over drinks and dinner ranks high.  I have traveled a lot for business and for vacations but this was my first foreign adventure as a single.  I would be eating alone in a culture devoted to long, noisy dinners with friends and family.  I was a little nervous about managing my feelings.  Would it be depressing to eat all my meals alone?  Would I be a target for unwanted attention?  How would a woman sola fare?

I deliberately selected a small, well situated hotel I had stayed in before because I knew it has a wonderful staff and a very welcoming atmosphere. I chose a hotel over an Air B&B because it would be less isolating.   I was a little anxious about Rome alone–but not a lot.  I knew the hotel staff were friendly and helpful.  They would look out for me–and I could do a good job taking care of myself.  I knew that for sure.

Rome mid-May. Some rain, some sun, not too hot.  My room was dark and monkish.  The sole window dressed in sheer white cotton curtains presents a view of the neighboring stucco wall. The crib-sized bed would probably preclude athletic sex should that opportunity arise.  I slept like a log and was awakened at dawn by a sea gull convention. The bathroom was tiny—the shower would accommodate me as long as I didn’t gain weight.

The good news was breakfast on the roof, cornetti and cappuccino and views of tile roof tops and cupolas in every direction. WIFI included.

The first day I visited favorite places dodging intermittent rain. I was getting tired but trying to fend jet lag off.  I was getting cold and damp too and my thoughts turned to dinner in a pretty restaurant with a glass of prosecco to celebrate my return to Italy.  I knew I had to hold out until at least 7:30 for dinner. The concierge suggested a good restaurant a short walk away.  I’ve learned to be cautious about relying too heavily on concierge suggestions as they may be getting comps from those restaurants for sending customers.

At 7:15 I left the hotel and walked the short distance to the restaurant.  It was exactly 7:30 when I arrived.  I was the first customer.  The woman who ushered me into the dining room asked “Sola?”  “Si.”  I replied.  She made a sour face telegraphing her disdain for my status.  I followed her into the first small room.  She seated me at one of  two small tables separated by about 3”.   These tables lined the path leading to the larger grander dining room.  They would not be anyone’s first choice.  That’s where she put me.  I didn’t have the gumption to complain.  I was very intimidated by her.

I sat alone for over 15 minutes contemplating the lineup of stemware ranging from water to wine on my table.  Customers began arriving and I noticed as they paraded before me that most were not Italian.  Larger parties were taken into the main dining room. Finally I flagged down a waiter who had been busy adjusting his waistcoat and asked for a glass of prosecco.  He seemed pleased at my choice and in about ten minutes returned with a bottle of prosecco and poured me a glass.  Another ten minutes elapsed; a waiter came by with the menu.  There were a lot of waiters and still a lot of empty tables but they were in no hurry to feed me.

Since I had eaten almost nothing all day and had trudged around for hours in the rain, I was hungry.  The waiter returned a few minutes later to take my order of squash blossoms for my first course and the roast lamb with oven-browned potatoes for my main dish.  The squash arrived in the form of four very large deep fat fried lumps about the size of a pair of socks rolled up in your sock drawer.  The barely visible blossoms were filled with mozzarella.  I was daunted by the presentation but very hungry.  I ate them and they were good.  Another long period elapsed and the waiter arrived with a plate of potatoes keeping company with a slab of glistening yellow fat.  If there was lamb involved in that mess I couldn’t see it.  I pried a corner of the fat up and saw what may have been meat but my appetite had vanished.  I pushed the plate away to the edge of my table.

At the waiter’s next pass he stopped and exclaimed “Mama mia!”

“Si,” I said “Mama mia!  Take this away and bring me my check.”

He did, pointing out that there was no charge for the lamb.  A wise decision.  I handed him my credit card.  Important lesson: austere dining rooms with no Italians in them should be avoided at all cost.

My next dining adventure was at a nearby locanda.  The door opened into a simple room crowded with chairs and tables without table cloths.  The walls were adorned with madonnas and other assorted saints, as well as climbing vines.  The fireplace was blazing.  More importantly, the room was full of happy, laughing, gesturing Italians.  The rain continued.  The tented space outside the restaurant’s open window was full of smokers huddled under it to escape the weather.  It was 8 o’clock or so and while the room was crowded there were still several empty tables.  I stood at the entry.  The waiter at the door noticed me but said nothing.

“I’d like to have dinner, please.”

“Si, signora.  Sola?”

“Si sola.”

With great consternation and much sotto voce conversation with other staff members he looked around the room at the available two tops.  I heard them muttering about Bruno who I gathered was the manager who evidently disapproved of seating unaccompanied woman–or at least seating one at a two-top during prime time.  Finally they pulled a small table into an alcove by the open window.  The curtains on the window blew the cigarette-smoke-infused breeze right at me.  I think  seating me at that table went against the natural gallantry of Italian men–the waiters seemed embarrassed–but that’s where they put me.

The bread basket descended.  The waiter stood with pad in hand.

“Vino tinto, un insalata misto, e spaghetti Bolognese, piacere.” I said.

“Bello!” he said with a big smile.

Within minutes the salad was on the table.  Fresh and generous in size—it could have been a meal in itself.  Shortly thereafter the Bolognese arrived.  Hot and good.  No wine made it to the table.  Perhaps that might induce me to linger?  “Il conto, piacere,” I said.  The bill arrived, I paid.  I left. I was happy. I squeezed by the moist customers standing outside the door in a long line.  I’ll bet no one was seated at my table.  OK.   Things are looking up, I thought.  Go with the Italians.  If your Italian is good, or marginally good, you will improve your chances of pleasant service.  But probably not a great table.

One sunny afternoon I was walking down Via dell’Orso and saw a wide-open door and a sign–Cipasso.  There was a chalkboard with a greeting written in English and Italian.  “If you like wine, come in.”  The open airy space is flanked by a wall lined in bottles ranging from big Brunellos to spritely Proseccos.  The bar stool–height tables are arranged in clusters easily moved to accommodate groups of two or larger.

There are vines ambling down the old brick wall behind the bar arrayed with delicious bites: bruschetta, a cheese board, salamis, mortadella and all kinds of other delectable morsels.  I knew I was home.

I went back to Cipasso every day.  Sometimes I ordered meat balls, sometimes lasagna, once bread pudding.  Tiramisu appears in the cold case if it’s your lucky day.  Oleg Grossu, the owner, speaks excellent English.  He and a small staff, including his mother, do the cooking.  (Since I was there, they have hired a chef.)  The front of the house is handled by Oleg when he’s not in the kitchen and his partner, Aurica Danalachi. They know wines, and more to the point, how to welcome customers and make them feel happy and appreciated.  They spent time with me.  They described the ingredients in each small plate.  They suggested appropriate wines.  They checked back frequently.  Both Oleg and Aurica are attractive, friendly, and interesting.  Cipasso, opened in May. It is a two-year old dream realized.   My last day in Rome I stopped to say good bye.  We shared prosecco and toasted each other and Cipasso.  I felt I was leaving good friends behind.

So, yes, a woman dining alone can find happiness at an Italian restaurant.  Save the fancy white linen restaurants for those times when you have a companion.  If you are alone, patronize small, intimate places that thrive on hospitality and satisfy their clients both emotionally and nutritionally.

If Oleg and Aurica invite me to their wedding.  I’ll definitely accept.