More than tequila: exploring Mexico’s drinks

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Never mind the tacos, tlacoyos, tamales and other quintessential Mexican foods beginning with ‘t’ (tortas, tortillas…). To understand Mexico, you needn’t go much further than exploring its beverages.

That was my conclusion after visiting an enlightening exhibition called ‘Que te tomas? Las Bebidas Mexicanas’ (What are you having? Mexican Drinks) at MODO – the Museo del Objeto del Objeto (no, that is not a typo), in the leafy heart of Roma Norte here in Mexico City.

 
The most celebrated of Mexico’s pre-hispanic drinks is pulque, possibly enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, and in the first room at MODO I saw brightly coloured jicaras for drinking the strange milky, viscous stuff out of. They looked unfeasibly large to me, but then again pulque is not very alcoholic and if you go to a contemporary pulqueria you’ll often find yourself served a capacious jug for one. In the same room, what looked at first sight like a slaughtered pig was actually a cuero, a container made from hide that was used for transporting pulque.

 

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Jicaras

Meanwhile, a Jose Guadalupe Posada illustration in a satirical broadsheet showed a cheery sombrero-d man and was accompanied by Cancion del Pulquero – a pulque seller’s song. I’ll drink to that.

 
I also learned that bars, as we know them today, arrived in Mexico alongside the US troops who invaded the country in the 1840s. Cocktails followed hot on their heels.

 
Moving away from alcohol, the exhibition taught us about atole, that wholesome drink – typically made with corn dough, but also with rice flour or oatmeal – still popular with labourers needing to fill their stomachs before a long morning’s work building new apartment blocks. Like pulque, it is not a drink that has crossed the Atlantic to Europe. Hot chocolate, or chocolate full stop, is a very different story, as cocoa seeds are easy to transport. Very fortunate indeed for those of us who are addicted to the stuff.

 
Talking of addictions, few nations have a greater affinity with Coca-Cola and other sweet soft drinks than Mexico. Down in the MODO basement was a wall’s worth of shelving displaying old-style bottles of well-known brands alongside specimens of now-defunct sodas.

 
No tasting was possible, alas, but the shelves of old and not-so-old Mexican wines, and arrays of beer bottles sporting vintage labels – or everything, to be honest, including the tequilas – made me want to go off at once and let my tastebuds do some exploring. Definitely an inspirational exhibition.

Blogs without readers

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Happily, people do sometimes read my blogs (thank you, both of you).  But what if a post goes unread?

Hello?  Anyone around?  Is anyone reading this?

If it has no reader I wonder if this can even be called a blog post.  Technically, I suppose it classifies as a blog post.  It’s on WordPress.  But if I knew no one was going to read it, I could just as well tap out a random assortment of nonsense words.  Easy peasy.  At the very least, I needn’t wait around for that writerly sparkle that gets me putting words in a notebook and then onto a Word doc.  Nor need I bother pruning superfluous verbiage, or tackle the rough surfaces I usually like to smooth to give you, my reader, a comfortable reading journey.

If no human eyes alight on this post, no one would say it is not a post, and nor would they see any difference between, on the one hand, my little musings, and on the other, 300 words from the pen/keyboard of a Pulitzer Prize winner on a particularly inspired day.

Because no one will say anything about something they don’t know exists.

My unread post would be like the falling tree in the forest in that old philosophical question – the one about whether the tree can be said to have made a sound, if no one is around to hear it.

On a less conceptual, more sentimental level, if we assume the tree does creak and crash, isn’t it rather lonely and pointless if no one hears the death throes?

Thomas Gray knew a thing or two about the lonely and unloved.  Here he is in his ‘Elegy’, contemplating the anonymity of common folk’s lives:

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air”

I’m not for a moment claiming that my posts are sweet or excellent.  But posts crafted by many an unsung yet talented blogger certainly do merit such adjectives.

Amid the dismal wastes that make up so much of what passes for journalism and comment on the worldwide web, how many fine flowers are blooming unnoticed?

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Getting to know yourself

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It’s a pity in a way that The Spectator magazine doesn’t focus exclusively on culture.  As it is, the columns that muse so brilliantly on art or life, or the well-informed book reviews, are missed by those who are turned off by the political stuff: Brexit speculation, who’s vying to be the next Labour Party leader and so on and so forth.

Matthew Parris writes one such column.  In the Christmas issue he used it to reflect on how long it has taken him to get to know himself (he is 67) – to know that other Matthew in his mind, the Matthew who offers wise advice.

In giving an example of this advice, he draws on an experience in Peru while researching a travel book.

In short, he nearly turned down a lift in a lorry, worried about enduring the highly uncomfortable, crowded conditions for three days.  But his inner voice dispassionately told him that he would regret giving up the opportunity.

He stresses that this voice was, and is, neither judgmental nor exhortatory.  It ‘simply forecasts’.  He took heed of the forecast in Peru and decided to get in the lorry.

The result?  “That journey, and the peasants, prostitutes and chancers who became my comrades, formed the centrepiece and best chapters of Inca-Kola, still in print today”.

Now, I have read some philosophy.  I have read arguments about the question of consciousness, I have worn out my braincells trying to understand explanations of the so-called ‘problem’ of knowledge.  Yet Parris’ little insight is crystal clear, and punches well above its weight.

Yes, I’ve always known about good conscience, bad conscience – the angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other.  But Parris is talking about something different, about that voice inside us that is our ‘companion and adviser’.  It is the self whom we never know completely but get closer to as our youth shuffles off (that’s why the column’s heading is ‘The one thing that really gets better with age’).

I may be Jasper, but have I always trusted the voice of that inner Jasper, telling me what I should be doing?  I certainly didn’t in my twenties.  I did things that are not really ‘me’, because I was trying to be something I thought I was but was not, too readily allowing society or external forces push me into doing these things.

It’s not quite about listening to my instinct.  Rather, about listening to that inner wisdom and reasoning I sometimes choose to ignore.

People constantly say, ‘This sort of music isn’t really my thing’, or ‘I don’t know what I want’, or ‘I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep my cool’.  Our everyday utterances point to the truth that even as mature adults we are still getting to know ourselves.

A final point.  Not knowing yourself, not trusting yourself, not able to be yourself (which is hard, when you don’t yet know yourself) – it all sounds like the sources of anxiety that the existentialists identified.  If this disturbance fades with age, then that’s one consolation for grey hair and stiff limbs.

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What a way to make a living!

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Few job specs can be odder that of the 19th century Parisian Quatorziéme.

Mentioned in The Spectator’s ‘Dear Mary – Your Problems Solved’ column recently, a quatorziéme was a sophisticated and presentable gentleman dressed up and poised to drop in on someone’s salon as a last-minute dinner guest to avert the bad luck associated with a table set for 13.

This line of work seems to have gone the way of the capital’s horse-drawn trams and cholera outbreaks, but another strange gig that is still very much alive is that of professional mourner for the dead.

Traditionally found in Mediterranean and Eastern cultures, but certainly not unknown in modern, protestant Britain, moirologists earn their keep by lamenting theatrically or delivering a eulogy before a family’s loved one is laid to rest.  (They don’t always have to do much at all – just sit around looking sad and preparing their excuses for why and how they knew the deceased but not anyone else in the church.)

While dinner parties, perhaps sadly, are rare happenings now (they’re just ‘supper’), and dinner parties of more than eight people rarer still, funerals will always be with us and they are more than grim if there is only a scattering of attendees.

Naturally, “Hello, I’m a mourner/chocolate taster/chicken sexer” will always beat “I’m an accountant” as a conversation starter in bars, regardless of whether the job in question is one we’d like to do.  Even so, being paid to be at a social or family event isn’t a cushy source of income, of course.  I’m sure that the quatorziéme couldn’t just sit there eating escargots.  He would have had to help make lively conversation and be charming to the dull lady next to him.

Odd jobs are two a penny these days.  Given that conventional employment is not so easy to find, and no longer so secure, it makes sense that motley bands of serial entrepreneurs, career downshifters and redundant ex-office toilers – for whom self-employment is a necessity rather than a whim – come up with creative ideas for earning a living.

Odd will soon cease to be odd.

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(Photo credit: Piotr Siedlecki)

 

Smugness

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… and Hillary Clinton

The Washington elite were out-of-touch, the Democrats failed to communicate with ordinary voters, the party machine assumed she was the only possible contender for the nomination.

If I was asked for one word to sum up these deficiencies and explain why Hillary Clinton didn’t win the US presidential election, I would choose this one: smugness.

I think that’s why not enough people fancied voting for her.  They reckoned she was smug.

It’s quite an easy trap to fall into, smugness.  If you believe you are in the right, or you have done really well at something, you are going to be pleased with yourself.  It’s human nature.

In my case, when I’ve convinced myself that I’m right about something, I sometimes have that nice feeling of superiority over people who do not share my view.  So maybe I’m smug – but only about whatever it is that’s just made me smug.  I’m not a smug guy per se.  Indeed, in many areas of life I’m a kind of cautious novice anthropologist, observing but not judging.  I am fully open to altering my view.

Often, even where I strongly believe I am right, I leave the door ever so slightly open in to admit a doubt or two.  I entertain a healthy suspicion that I might not have thought things through quite as well as I should.  And as smugness often comes from a failure of empathy, I try my best to see things through the eyes of others.

Clinton could have rid herself of that air of ingrained aloof smugness that so irked many Americans, working-class ones especially, if she had simply but daringly said she was ready to start again, if she had expressed a desire to ‘disrupt’ – to borrow the IT start-up terminology – the Democratic status quo.

I’ll bet she’s not smug now.

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A gym in the park in Mexico

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In soggy Sussex, the thought of doing exercises outdoors in November makes me want to come down with some sudden illness. Anything, anything to avoid having to squelch and slip around on wet leaves while trying to do walking lunges with dumbbells.

The more distant the memories of dry and warm days, the more I wistfully reflect that it would be much easier to keep up a meaningful new exercise regime if I was still based in Mexico City.   The weather there is more predictable: I am now, as you might guess from my dispirited tone, in England.

In that megalopolis outdoor gyms have sprung up all over the place. Just knowing there was a free gym in the corner of my local park in colonia Nápoles made me satisfied, quite apart from using it. I’ll admit that I discovered the amenity rather late in the day and did not use it a huge number of times. But I did quite enjoy heaving away at the chest press, striding out on the cross trainer, working out arms and legs simultaneously on a rowing machine, or pogoing up and down in a rather fun way on a machine which somehow put me in mind of treading grapes in a winemaker’s tub.

While pushing and pulling on the bright yellow machines I could look at pedigree dogs and their owners passing by, listen to the shouts of the basketball players on the court beside me, and people-watch the other apparatus users. The brisk wind on my cheeks felt so much more wholesome than a windowless, sweaty indoor UK gym which you pay too much to use.

I soon left the monkey bars in my park-gym well alone, finding out that I’m a long way off being able to lift my own body weight. But I had plenty of other contraptions to be getting on with. Sometimes, the one I was eyeing was already taken by some guy who likes to do exercises wearing a smart shirt or hipster-tight jeans. So I would pedal a cycling machine and regard him out of the corner of my eye: perching on his seat, typing into a mobile and nonchalantly bobbing up and down as though proximity to equipment was enough to burn off calories.

At the other end of the enthusiasm scale, muscular youngsters who had signed up to some fitness programme managed impressive bodily feats on and around the monkey bars. Impressed by their example, I rowed a few extra yards.

But my point here is this: Britain’s weather does nothing to get you motivated for a work-out.

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Come sit on me: the gym in my local park, Mexico City

Coffee shop office

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It’s a busy mid-morning in Starbucks, but no weary shoppers are stopping by.

I look around me.  Two men in crisp shirts and ties sit facing each other, notepads and pens competing for table space with disposable cups.  A smartly-dressed woman sits alone in front of a slim Apple laptop. I imagine, based on no evidence, that she is drinking a skinny latte.  An older, suited man sits on a stool at the long bar table with two laptops in front of him.  Both are attached to power sockets, with one monitor displaying a complicated spreadsheet.

Welcome to a branch of Starbucks in Mexico City.  If it is full of professionals at work, then that is only fitting for a coffee chain with a devoted following among the better-off capitalinos.

I’ve noticed in other cafes, like the Mexican-owned rival Cielito Querido, that there is a culture of lingering.  You are not prodded into purchasing another drink.  You can enjoy an extended catch-up with an old friend, or work on your freelance project.  You can even have an English lesson.

Solid tables, comfortable sofas for your break-out sessions, wi-fi.

It’s an office space you can use for the price of a peppermint tea.

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A poor show by provincial cinemas

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Although I was only lucky enough to visit Mexico City’s Cineteca Nacional a handful of times this year, it’s given me a very good reason to pine for my days in ‘DF’ (as the city is popularly known).  Just five weeks back in Blighty is proving quite long enough to get depressed about the thrillers, kiddie films and generic fare hogging the UK’s screens.

The core aim of that Mexican cultural space is to promote outstanding international and national films and to support the development of cinematic culture.  For good measure, a spot of film restoration goes on in its vaults.

With its expansive, grassy grounds and airy modern architecture, it’s a pleasure to hang around before your film and perhaps sample the cafes and bookshops.  It certainly gives the short-stay tourist a reason other than Frida Kahlo’s house to trek southwards.

Its UK equivalent is the British Film Institute (BFI) on London’s Southbank, a big difference being the cost of tickets.  At the Cineteca, to see new or classic films in comfortable auditoriums will generally set you back just 50 pesos, or two pounds.  In London, rather more.

Like the Cineteca Nacional, The BFI exists (in part) ‘to promote access to and appreciation of the widest possible range of British and world cinema’.  And in preserving our film heritage and showcasing the best in international films, the BFI is justly recognised and respected.  But if the ‘British’ in its name is meant to signify a nationwide and not London-centric remit, I’m afraid it’s working well. The fault lies not with the BFI but with cinemas elsewhere in the country which signally fail to follow its lead in curating and nurturing quality films.  The ambitions of the small independent cinemas within reach of me in Kent and Sussex are flagging badly.  They now largely show the same commercial films as the multiplexes.

Why, I would ask them, can you not give us some choice?  Can’t we see the latest Bond and a recent French-language Cannes prize contender?  Why show the animated film Storks in virtually every time slot last weekend?

It’s not uncommon for me to see a review in the newspaper that piques my interest, and then scour the listings in the hope that the film is being shown within a 50 mile radius of me.  It seldom is.  The multiplexes cannot spare just one of their many popcorn-strewn rooms for a film with something different or original to say.  Or if they do, it will have a couple of screenings and then vanish. If you miss it, too bad.

If art galleries up and down the country showed exactly the same exhibitions, with their works duplicated, we would think this very strange and surely wrong.  Yet with the cinematic art form, beyond the major cities, it’s accepted.

So we should complain more.  Good films should not be the preserve of capitalinos.

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Cineteca Nacional (photo: ProtoplasmaKid)

Exploring new places, listening to the same old music

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These days it’s too easy to carry tablets, smartphones and other lightweight what-have-yous around the world.  So you end up doing the very same things in a foreign country that you do at home.  By ‘doing’, I actually have in mind something fairly passive.  In my case, in Mexico, lying on my bed with headphones in ears and tablet propped up on chest, listening to podcasts and watching YouTube music videos.

I learned more about British folkies Fairport Convention during an intense period of musical education this summer than I ever did in several years of living in my home country and getting into folk music.  The broadband in Mexico City is faster than we get in many parts of rural England, so it was new and exciting for me to watch glitch-free footage of Fairport’s dizzy turn at the 1971 Glastonbury Fayre or a Sandy Denny profile.

One afternoon I watched a 1980s performance in which fiddle genius Dave Swarbrick played and sang with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth.  The song ended and I discovered online that he had died the previous day (and that his poor health had been due in no small part to his smoking).  Eerie.

Why was I watching über-English bands?  Good question.  I was guilty too of listening to BBC Radio 4 podcasts, just as I do in East Sussex.  All this when I should have been absorbing myself in all things Latin American.

To be fair to myself, I did listen to the mellifluous Spanish voices on Radio UNAM and buy numerous Mexican newspapers.  It’s just that every minute devoted to listening to book discussions on Radio 4 or lapping up Steeleye Span’s performance at Penshurst Place was a minute I could have profitably spent investigating Mexican folk sounds such as son huasteco.

It’s the fault of the technological wizardry that makes it possible to watch or listen to anything you like, on whichever continent you’ve laid down your bags (even on a bus journey).  You just fall back on the comfortable habits of home.

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Fairport Convention (photo: Beeld en Geluidwiki)

Philosophers in the bedroom

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Unusual reading matter in my new lodgings in Mexico City…

Philosophy books were almost spilling out of the bookshelves.  The relevant sections of Foyles and other well-appointed stores in far-off London hold more titles: but not a vast amount more than here, in this back bedroom tucked away a small street hard by the multi-laned arterial road called Insurgentes Sur.

Putting down my bags, I looked at the spines of the books: Nietzche, Hegel, Kiergekaard.  I was momentarily rather excited by the idea that I was surrounded exclusively by existentialists.  How unforgettably weird!  But disappointingly, I spotted Descartes.

Even so, sharing a room with so many existentialists matched my overriding feeling at that early point in my Mexico stay: unease.  The sense that something could easily go wrong, or was soon to go wrong.  Out of place in a strange land, and strange not only in the sense of foreign or unfamiliar.

The world felt disorientating for me, abroad and with Spanish language skills too underdeveloped to grasp what was routinely being said around me.

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World Trade Center, not far from my home in Mexico City

Six weeks in, I felt ‘thrown into’ (to use an existentialist concept) this world of job seeking in a foreign city.  Somehow, I had no say in the matter.

Naturally, I had chosen to book my flight and pack my things.  But was I really in control of my decision making?  I suspected that fate was at least as responsible as my free will, but pondering it all only confused me more.  I needed some help from those philosophers.