Southern Florida is a strange little universe in its own right. After spending a good nine days helping my mother move out of her house and tetris everything into a storage unit, I was ready to go back across the border to experience the lighter sides of life once again. More importantly, I was going back to reconnect with the side of me I had lost after living in Denmark for six years.
The intricacies of relationships up north and the pervasive undercurrent of “us vs. them” thinking really got under my skin when I was in Florida. The stigma behind wearing a mask, not wearing a mask, being as a person of color, and feeling oppressed by people of a different color are just a few topics that seem to cause a wee smidge of strife to say the least. These arguments feel so trite in most contexts, and often just create more issues rather than solutions.
On the flip side, there is not much of a PC movement in Mexico. If you are fat, they will nickname you fatty. If you are a gringo, they will call you a gringo. If you are tall with long hair and a beard like me, they will most certainly call you Jesus Christ and ask for a blessing on the dance floor. Mexicans wear their hearts on their sleeves, and there is no beating around the bush or sugar coating when it comes to the everyday. I find this endlessly refreshing in comparison to the constant tip-toeing we have to do up North.
This point hardened further as I waited for the train to the Miami airport. There was a young black man standing next to me, mumbling to himself in a language I did not recognize. Across the tracks, another black man seemed to recognize him, and called out from across the tracks. “Hey, what’s up man!” He waved. The man next to me clearly did not know this other man, and ignored him. “Hey man, we went to school together! What’s up man! Why you ignoring me?”
“I don’t know you, Yankee! I’m from Nigeria! You think just cause I’m black like you, I know you?” He stormed off walking around in circles, cursing to himself in his language, with the only intelligible part being “Fucking Yankees everywhere, man. 85% of people are white!” An oddly specific number, I felt, as I looked around and counted exactly 4 white faces on the tracks among people hailing from Haiti, The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Vietnam, and countless others watching the display of strange racial frustration on the tracks with me.
“Yo, why you so mad man?” Yelled the other man sincerely from across the tracks. “You smoke weed man?” This stopped the pacing Nigerian man in his tracks. He smiled and yelled back.
“Ya, I always got mine.”
“Bro! Get over here, let’s smoke up!”
The Nigerian man next to me instantly calmed down and ran across the tracks to convene with his new friend. A strange reality we live in indeed, in our little slice of paradise we call the United States.
My plane to Mexico was almost entirely filled by the 1% bubble of Mexico. Easy to recognize by their “European” features and flaunting of wealth. The 1% bubble of Mexico lives in a version of Mexico entirely different from everyone else. They are not familiar with the hardships of having to cross the border illegally or lose a family member to that journey. Many of them may have passports to European countries or may have even gone to school across the border in the US, and now run the family business and go around Mexico City with private security and on holiday to Miami. They are terrified of the real Mexico and thus are likely just as familiar with it as the average American who goes to Cancun to eat chilaquiles in a resort and never leave the compound .
My Uber driver into the city ranted, as many taxi drivers in Mexico will, about how good the food is in Mexico. If there is one combining identity trait that seemly every Mexican takes pride in, it is their cuisine. This driver happened to be lamenting how his two kids always want fast American food. They do not want to go out for tacos, they want to go to MacDonald’s. All he wants is to share his culinary traditions and history with his kids and take them out to his favorite spots, but they just want burgers and fries.
This time around in Mexico City, I opted to stay in Tlatelolco, a neighborhood just North of the center of Mexico City. With a decidedly residential and young-family feel, this felt like the perfect place to put my nose to the grindstone and do some real thinking. My room was on the ground floor, a simple cheap room with everything I needed for my flaneuristic needs. With a sliding door fitted with two strong heavy-duty padlocks, my room felt more like a container storage unit than an Airbnb, but it was all I needed. Close to the metro and close to the bus, this was the perfect place to call home for a week to indulge in the underbelly of Mexico City, and live out all of my self-indulgent flaneuristic fantasies. On top of that, the space allowed me the privacy to write, and think about my life now that I was freshly unemployed and looking to start a new life.
My goal for this week was to catch up on some writing and voice work for an animated video I was creating with a friend. Quickly, though, I slipped into the mentality of all flaneurs: I felt productive while achieving the bare minimum of work necessary, telling myself I was experiencing the local culture by going to coffee shops and self-indulgently sipping beers in pubs. In reality, I was doing nothing different than I would do at home, just enjoying the simple pleasures without actually engaging in anything new or fresh, or unique.
But for where I felt in my heart at this moment, this is the best thing I could do. Having just left Denmark after six years, saying goodbye to a wonderfully loving girlfriend of two years and a supportive community I had built over six years, I felt a little lost and a little heartbroken. Rather than allow myself to be distracted by the city or my phone, I would simply sit with my emotions. When I felt the wave coming, I let it land, and I cried along with it. The ability to just sit and experience my range of emotions without distraction was exactly what I needed at that moment, and to do so from my little storage containment unity of a room was a blessing indeed.
Every day I would go for a wander, sometimes down to the hip neighborhood of Roma to peruse the bookstores and cafes, other times to go out further afield to see some local color. Bookstores and markets are always some of the first places I must visit when going to a new country. To visit a bookstore is like seeing a window into the minds of the locals, and here in Roma, I learned that the locals read a lot about philosophy and history. They are deep thinkers, which I can clearly tell when talking to the folks around Roma, as they are all very well-informed and thoughtful. Further afield, I wandered around the Mercado Sonora, a huge market selling everything from puppies to herbs to tarot cards and love potions. It was all a bit overwhelming, so I opted to head back to the calm of Roma or the respite of my container hotel.
In Roma, I picked up a conversation with a homeless man and bought him a cup of coffee. Sometimes when I travel alone, I am strangely able to empathize with the homeless or vagabonds. People tend to look at me with a strange sideways glance as I wander aimlessly, simply sitting and observing. Always on the outside, never in on the fun of the city or in the relationships of the locals.
When I had some extra energy, I would go to the bouldering gym in Roma. I would go to a Vietnamese restaurant for a bowl of pho, a bit of nostalgia from when I would go climbing in Hong Kong and grab a bowl of pho afterward. On this first occasion, I sat down and a waiter with a lazy eye came up to me and gave me a menu, followed by an “oh, you’re really very handsome.” I told him thank you, and decided which bowl of soup to order.
When he came back to take my order, he repeated “No, but I’m serious. You are REALLY handsome!”
“Thank you so much, that really makes my day! I’ll have a number two please…” I replied back.
When he brought me my food, he asked for my number and where I was staying. “If you like, I can come and keep you some company.” Rarely am I hit on by gay men, but I guess it shows I know how to slurp my noodles.
When my flaneuristic pleasures needed to escape the city, I would take a little day trip to see the surroundings. One day, I took the bus to Teotihuacan, the famous megalithic pyramids outside of Mexico City and the seat of the former Mexica empire.
The largest pyramids on this diverse continent, and inconceivably gigantic in grandeur. I started my trip like I start every day in the Mexican sun, with a healthy slathering of five or six layers of the strongest sun screen this side of Saskatchewan. While I was hunched over like a filthy Hobbit, coating my creamy white Irish skin, I made eye contact with an attractive young tourist lady wandering around. To her, I was a pale little hunched-over lanky boy, but to me, she was a beautiful red-head who probably had some cool stories to share and whatever. I decided I was single and ready to mingle. However, I had completely forgotten how to be smooth after two years of loving relationship land.
We were in the general vicinity of each other for most of the morning, wandering around the gigantic pyramids, pretending to be interested in the information signs, taking photos, whatever tourists do. At one point, walking down the only road to the main pyramid, I saw my opportunity and decided to walk up to her and strike up a conversation. I told myself I would be smooth as butter on a hot Mississippi day.
I walked up to her and said in Spanish “Do you know which way we are supposed to go first?” Idiotic start. Like butter on a frozen day in Fargo.
“Pardon, I am sohry,” she replied back in the thickest French accent I have heard, “do you speak English?” Just my luck, French girls and I have a terrible track record. But the universe had given me the chance to come up with something more smooth to say to her. Instead, I decided to repeat the same dumb question in English.
“Oh I uh,” a bit flustered, “I was wondering if you knew which uh, which way we were going?” She looked at the single path in front of us, then back at me with the eyes one would look at a small chubby child in a kiddy pool, drawing a face on his belly to turn his flab into a face. “Mr. Tummy hungie.”
“Um…we are on zee only road.”
“Oh ya true!” I said, trying to play it cool. “You just walk with so much confidence I uh, thought you must be a guide or something.” I said with a smile, thinking I had saved myself.
I had not. She grimaced and realized she had to slow down to avoid walking next to me before I turned her into cat food. Seeing this, I wished her a good day and sped up the track. It wasn’t pretty, but you gotta get back on that donkey somehow.
The next day was filled with another little side adventure, down to the botanic gardens at the university in the South side of the city. To get there, I had to take a bus to the metro to the bus to the 20-minute walk. It would be a hike. At the first bus stop, a middle-aged woman named Mercedes noticed me and asked where I was from. We struck up a conversation, and after telling her I was going to Chiapas, she told me that was her home and that I could get in contact with her whenever I needed help. She gave me her number and got off the bus. I didn’t think much of it until an hour and a half later when she called me just to ask how I was doing. “Where are you? Are you having fun? That makes me happy. Have a lovely day!” She still calls me sometimes, on my Mexican number which no longer has enough credit to pick up her call. I hope you are well, Mercedes.
At the botanic gardens, I met with Fine’s boyfriend, Timo. Fine was back in Germany, but Timo was doing some help around the house before going up to California for morel mushroom season. A mycological writer by practice, Timo is the kind of guy who knows more about plants than anything else. A fascinating guy and wonderfully dedicated writer, having grown up in California as a French-Mexican national. His father worked for the Mexican consulate in the States, making his English accent decidedly Californian and his Spanish accent spiced with a hint of gringo. We walked around the botanic garden as I learned about plants and then instantly forgot about all of the facts he had just taught me. When we were planted out, we went back to his parent’s house to cook some lunch. A hodge-podge of sautéed mushrooms with local grain, some roasted veggies, and a salsa of tomatoes and petite sweet avocados. A simple yet delicious lunch, you can always trust a mycologist to perfectly cook a mushroom.
Timo’s father, Bernardo, is a master of connection. An old-school diplomat, he asked for my CV right away to send off to some friends of his. Their humble apartment was filled to the brim with books spanning all of Mexico’s history, quite the collection, stuffing every free space in their living room. We burned out throats with some Mezcal before I went on my way to finish up my time in Mexico City.
After a week of enjoying the flaneuristic pleasures of this beautiful and chaotic city, I decided it was time to move on. I had done my emotional workout time in my containment unit, pretending to be productive while doing nothing but drink coffee, beer, and scaring random French red-heads. I had seen the largest pyramids on this continent and had to lightly reject a waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant with a lazy eye. I could only go up from here. So now it was time to move on and see what else was out there in the Mundo Mexico, and continue down the road South to Puebla for a new city and the most chaotically emotional day I have experienced in my life.