Saturday, February 28, 2015

Of dragons and goats and memories

For some 10 years straight we've been celebrating Chinese New Year one way or the other. First because, well, we were in China for so long! I mean, how NOT to celebrate, right? Sure, at the beginning it was sort of funny. But with the years, it became as or even more important than the "western" new year.  Then, after leaving China for Canada, we definitely missed that special time, so we made sure we'd gather friends (even those who had no experience with Chinese culture) and go have hearty Chinese food and lots of dumplings and celebrate.

This was my first time in Mexico. Sadly, the huz was away. Happily, the motek wasn't away too and joined me and a small group of friends I gathered (like back in Canada!). Unfortunately, the dumplings were really subpar. But what matters is the company, they say? Which was way above par! Plus, before all this, I got to see a dragon dance and, frankly, if anything compensated the food and made my Chinese New Year, it was this:

We're around the middle of the celebrations (this is the ninth day, time for prayers to the Jade Emperor!), six more days for the last day, the Lantern festival! And, though it is indeed a bit late for these greetings, Happy Spring Festival! 羊年大吉!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

San Miguel de Allende

So, last weekend the motek decided to take me along for a relaxed couple of days at one of Mexico's prettiest towns, in the state of Guanajuato - San Miguel de Allende. By the way, and just as an interesting detail, this was the first municipality to declare independence from Spain at the start of Mexico's war of independence!

But, back to the trip. The three hour drive from Mexico City (it should be a lot less, but getting out of the city is quite the ordeal!) was very interesting for me. This was the first time I was on the road since I came back, and the views and landscapes seemed so intriguing to me. After all, all my road trips in the last 5 years had been in very northern latitudes. This part of Mexico (called El Bajío) seemed strangely arid... an abundance of cacti of different sorts and the diffuse soft light gave it an incredibly different aspect than any of my previous trips. I'm still not sure whether I found it beautiful... it was so unlike anything I had seen in the recent past! 

The good life

Last time I was in San Miguel de Allende was over 12 years ago. I had gone there with the huz to have a most deserved rest from work. And we did nothing but walk around town, eat, rest, and be together. This time it wasn't much different. Among other things we simply enjoyed coffee (with a bit of Arak, an idea from a good friend who lived in beirut at the same time as the huz and me) and watching the birds and the trees and countless lavender flowers in a crispy morning; we enjoyed organic gorditas (sort of a fried Mexican version of Israeli falafel) at the local organic market; watched TV (or, more accurately, American Horror Story 3); and I enjoyed one of the best pastas I might have had in a really really long time (fusilli with braised greens, walnuts, roasted garlic and fennel-tomato sauce; very simple, yet the flavours played with each other in an impossibly delicious and delicate way) at a place simply called The Restaurant. 

Surprise... art!

San Miguel has changed a lot since I last visited. Like, incredibly so. Back then it was already popular with foreigners retiring there, as well as artists and the like. But it was also still a rather quiet place. But this trend really took off and the inflow of foreign and out-of-town residents and tourists has caused business, especially art-related business, to flourish. And to levels I could have never imagined! Like, we walked into this art gallery place called La Aurora, a former factory, right? 

At la Aurora there were antiques, furniture, paintings, you name it. Very nice, but nothing out of the ordinary at an art place. But then we came across this one gallery with lots of nice pieces. Then we spotted what seemed some M. C. Escher reproductions. Then we looked closely. Hmmm, why did they look so... non-reproduction-ish? And then the attendant came by, and quite nonchalantly confirmed - these were originals! All of them! But then, if these were originals... then that Dali-esque elephant... that was not Dali-esque, that was a Dali! And the four Warhols were, indeed, original Andy Warhol works!? All of this, on sale, in this one space??? We asked the prices, but I can't remember any - I was too dumbfounded by finding all of this, just like that, in a San Miguel de Allende gallery! 

We saw plenty of nice stuff afterwards. But quite frankly, after you've seen this, the rest seemed a bit... underwhelming? LOL  

What you came for

Of course, what San Miguel is famous for is its very well preserved historic architecture. And deservedly so - it really is very pretty, it's very well preserved, and it's a delight to wander around the streets. Particularly beautiful, and especially interesting, is the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, in the main square. And what's so special about it? That its façade is Gothic. And more than authentically Gothic, it's a re-interpretation - by a local architect - of Gothic churches from postcards! And don't you love the colours?

And what you didn't know you came for

There's another reason people go to San Miguel. And it's something that is not in San Miguel proper - the World Heritage site of the Santuario de Atotonilco, in the town of (surprise!) Atotonilco - a small, sleepy place just a few minutes from San Miguel.  

Granted, Atotonilco does offer a few photographic opportunities. But you wouldn't come here were if it were not for the sanctuary. And you definitely want to come for this! It's not really old (18th century), but the building is graceful on the outside. It's simple, it's solid, and it seemed very peaceful to me. Which contrasts radically with what you find inside: almost every available surface (bar, obviously, the floor, and the very lower parts of walls) is covered in mural work and sculpture. If you want a prime example of Baroque, this is it! There is a (religious) story behind every image, of course, but the sheer number of figures and designs is enough to render most attempts at interpretation a very difficult affair (unless you're an expert).  

And all the rest

I left San Miguel not only refreshed, but with a number of notes about random things like Fangoria (the band), Yva Las Vegass (a Venezuelan singer), L'Élegance du Hérisson (the book), strange sentences heard at a gallery ("his family is practically Hebrew"), the 2nd movement of Shostakovitch's String Quartet No. 8, and Anna Wintour's accent. Getting away from the hustle and bustle does wonders, eh?

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Last weekend the motek¹ took it upon himself to give me one very special surprise. My only information and curt instruction: pack a small bag for a night.  Me, being who I am, enquired no more - I can't emphasize enough how I love surprises and mystery.

WARNING: This post is both more serious and more playful than previous ones. Bear with me. Or not, and wait for the next, more usual food or travel type of post. Plus, it has notes at the bottom! [my advice: do read them] How weird is this all?

One of the greatest things about being in an open honest relationship (is it polyamory? am I monogam-ish? is this ethical non-monogamy? is the name important?) - well, there's a ton of downsides, but I won't get into that now - is not that you get to receive and get more love. Yes, that's absolutely amazing, but there's a less obvious yet equally as profound benefit: you get to see life differently. I mean, when you meet a partner (say, the huz, in my case), life changes whether you want it or not: you're exposed to another individual that existed and exists independently from you, who looks at the world through their own eyes which are not yours, who sees you through a completely different angle than you could ever look at yourself from. That is bound to change you and, if who you're with is a good, decent, loving person (like the huz!), you'll change for good.

So, what happens when you are in an additional relationship with another interesting, caring, decent human being (like the motek!)? You get yet another intimate glance at life from someone else's viewpoint! I don't know how to express how amazing and important this is for me. Like, I get to understand the world and myself and my relationships to others not just from inside my - sometimes deluded and misinformed - head, but through two different world-views? And on top of that there's the extra loving and caring? Why isn't everybody practising polyamory!? [lots of reasons, no need to ruin the mood by getting into that now]

OK, huge digression, eh? Back to the post's subject! So, in my relationship to the huz, I'm the surpriser, he's the surprisee. That's how it works, that's how I absolutely love it, that's how I'm happy, and I've derived ridiculous amounts of pleasure from this. But this weekend there was this strange role reversal, with me being the surprisee thanks to the motek's rad efforts...

Recipe for a khul baaretz² surprise 

1. Tell the significant autre³ [that's me!] to walk towards the nearest big avenue, as if you were to pick them⁴ up by car. Meet them on the street and give them one single flower (no plastic wrap, please) with the longest of stems. Unusual colours and flowers work best. Like orange tulips.

2. Suggest the significant autre you go for a drink first, before dinner. Mention the bar at a nearby hotel is very good. The tulip will probably have set the significant autre on a very docile and merry mood. That means they'll most probably follow your suggestion. Lead them to the "bar" on one of the upper floors, get off the lift, walking confidently towards the "bar". Enjoy the priceless look of amazement in your significant autre's eyes when they realize you've pulled out a key and are opening the door to the suite for the night. Enjoy the second look of amazement when they see the bottle of sparkling wine on ice and the fresh berries on the table (or whatever nibbles best suit the idiosyncrasies of your significant autre).

3. Don't forget to toast to the city and to the moon before you. From your own private terrace. Then, follow Dan Savage's advice for couples who want to go out for dinner and celebrate. Dan Savage's podcast is one fantastic program, so I'll leave it up to your curiosity to find out what on earth his advice is. Hint: look for Valentine Day's episodes. Warning: Not a podcast for prudes.

4. Take the significant autre to bars and nightclubs. The more scenes you cover, the better, like a kinky bar, a bears bar, a working class bar... Party until you can no more. This step hinges critically on your having followed step 3, by the way.

5. Number five is very hard to pull off. It relies on the stars aligning and that sort of thing. You have to come across, by pure chance, a place that caters to some of your significant other's more difficult quirks. Say, vegan portobello mushroom burgers with mezcal.

6. Never forget - views, whether exterior or interior, are of the essence. Brownie points if followed by a spa experience. Extra brownie points if your significant autre gets a compliment on how hot they look in their swimming gear in the form of a curt "cover yourself with a bathrobe!" from staff.

7. Art is also good for romancing a significant autre. Take them to a contemporary art fair, like Mexico City's Material City. Possibilities are endless - they might find something to buy, or might assist you select something for yourself or, worst case scenario, you can both bond by criticizing this year's artistic selection! Do note that such fairs are magnets for hipsters so, if your significant autre used to have a hipster trait to die for and doesn't anymore (say, they used to sport a long, thick, rich beard which is no more), be aware they'll see plenty of reminders of their newly acquired unhipsterness.

8. Share. Share. Share. Especially the things you love. Like, say, your favourite Polish food place, with an impossibly cold and delicious glass of Żubrówka vodka. Filled to the rim. 

A remarkable weekend, planned by a remarkable person, to make über-odd me happy. A weekend that leaves me with a more complete view of myself from being looked at through the motek's very different, peculiar, very loving eyes. A weekend that leaves me a hopefully more loving, understanding person not just in relationship to him, but to the huz⁵. A weekend that left me feeling one lucky loved man. L'chaim (cheers, na zdrowie, santé, you get the idea..) to the motek.       


¹ motek - Sweetheart in Hebrew. I like this word, it brings good memories, and it's less embarrassing and traditional than boyfriend, so there.
² khul baaretz - A Hebrew play on words, from khutz laaretz, abbreviated as khul, which means outside the country, and baaretz, inside the country. Sort of like "outside the country within the country", or a "staycation".
³ significant autre - Much more romantic sounding than - and still as gender neutral as - "significant other", in my humble opinion.
⁴ them - In the spirit of gender neutrality/inclusivity, I'm adopting they/them/their to refer to a single individual of any gender, instead of exclusively using he/him/his or she/her, or switching back and forth between forms. 
the huz - Make no mistake, me and the huz are going on strong and loving - hence the gazillion posts about us two doing stuff together for almost 14 years. It's the robustness of our love that allows me to welcome into my life a sweet, good, giving person like the motek (and accumulate posts about our stuff too! yay!). Are we clear?   

Monday, February 09, 2015

Our Lady of the Candelaria

As if our Tlatelolco visit had not been enough, the huz took me next day (last Sunday) to yet another intense cultural experience, to the Town of (our Lady of) the Candelaria, known in Spanish as Pueblo de la Candelaria. Now, in the past it was a town indeed, but the city's grown exponentially and now this "town" is firmly within city limits, in the southern side of Mexico City.

Anyhow, why there and then? Because February 2nd is the day of Our Lady of the Candelaria, a a Catholic celebration that commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. And where else to see a colourful celebration than at the town that bears her name?

I was about to write that you should make an effort to see this. But then I realized there are tons of religious and pagan festivities all over the country all the time, so I guess the recommendation is try and get to see any? And here's why you should:


After walking a bit through narrow streets to the centre of the town, where the Church of Our Lady of the Candelaria stands, the very first thing we encountered was... a band! a loud, big, fun band! It was a big surprise, and most definitely set me in the mood for exploring this alternate world of ritual, tradition, sound and colour!


No Mexican celebration could be called that unless there is an abundance of colour! (OK, maybe there are some that don't use colour, or use somber ones, but I've never heard or seen such)  And oddly reminding us of Tibetan sand Mandalas, the patio of the church was covered with bright patterns made of painted sawdust!  And again reminding me of Tibetan prayer flags (I can't help having Tibetan traditions as my reference for all these religious things, I've lived 7 years in China!) there were numerous of these beautiful white and blue papel picado (perforated paper) ones fluttering above us against a gorgeous blue sky!  

The peculiar

So, this commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, right? Well, so, what do people do? They bring their Jesus dolls to be blessed! Everybody was carrying Jesus dolls dressed all sorts of ways to take inside the church (itself adorned with countless blue, white and pink flowers) for spraying with blessed water, and then to touch and pray to Our Lady of the Candelaria. It's enthralling to watch, really.  

The food

Of course, where there's celebration, there's food, right? Funnily, though it's tradition in most of the city to eat tamales on February 2nd, we saw all types of food, but I didn't spot a single tamal! (yes, the singular for tamales is tamal, in Spanish). But what I did see and have was absolutely perfect!

First, this ginormous thing, called a tlayuda. It's originally from Oaxaca, but it's become very popular in the centre of Mexico too. It's a huge tortilla (in this case from blue corn) that is baked (not fried), and on which you shmear refried beans, and top it with nopales (cactus), cilantro, onion and salsa (and also cream and cheese, but obviously I prefer mine without!). Huge. Good. Nom nom. 

And afterwards (dessert?) a gigantic pink and blue cotton candy! And since I had read somewhere that the caloric count of these things is actually very small, I guiltlessly got one and happily proceeded to eat it all up. With some help from the huz, of course. 

It's a shame I had breakfast that day, 'cause there were countless snacks and yummy things to try! Alas, my breakfast, the tlayuda and the cotton candy (by the way, that's called sugar cotton, or algodón de azúcar, here) were all I could handle.

The other stories

I'm not sure what the rationale behind their presence here was, but at some point a group of people dressed in indigenous-inspired attire arrived. What were they doing here at such a Catholic event? Was this the place of an ancient Aztec town or temple? Is Our Lady of the Candelaria associated with some Aztec deity? I mean, that wouldn't be rare, and when the Spaniards brought their Catholic beliefs it was very common for the native population to identify saints and virgins and stories with their own belief system... Whatever this was, it was unexpected, and very interesting! 

So. What a big surprise! When the huz says "let's go see/do", I better listen, eh?

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

three cultures at the little hill of land

Sunday the huz decided he wanted to go to Tlatelolco.  I hadn't been there in some 15 years, and I really wasn't that crazy about touring the area - it's not the prettiest part of town, and it's famous for a very sad chapter in Mexico's history which I'll mention later. But I trust the huz, and if he says he wants to go visit something, that something must surely be of interest, right? Well, how unsurprising, he was totally right!

So, first of all, names. Tlatelolco is a Nahuatl word that means land (tlalli) + little hill (telolli) + place (co), that is, the place of the little hill of land. But this place is also called the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Square of the Three Cultures), as pre-Hispanic Aztec, Colonial Spanish, and Mexican Mestizo cultures are all saliently visible - through their architecture - right here, as you can see in my first photo above.

From the side we came - a rather derelict part of the city, walking from the Tlatelolco subway station - we had the opportunity of going all around the square before entering the archaeological area.  And our first stop was the Templo de Santiago (Santiago Temple). Though this building is from the 17th century, this is one of the oldest Catholic sites in Mexico, with the original building dating from the 16th century, soon after the conquest of the Aztec capital by the Spaniards.

Unfortunately, there is little to see inside the church, as it was ransacked in the 19th century during the Reform War, one of the numerous episodes of the conflict between liberals and conservatives in Mexico's history. 

We kept walking past the church (which, obviously, symbolizes one of the three cultures, the Colonial one) and got fantastic views of the place.  Plus, the skies were blue and it was a quiet, relaxed Sunday. And from this angle the mix of modern Mexico - with its concrete towers - and Aztec Mexico - with cities made from stone and tezontle, a kind of porous, reddish, volcanic stone - was also very striking...

But from this corner of the square you also get to the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which now functions as a museum - alas, it was closed. But on one of the sides of the building you get a reminder of that sad chapter I had talked about: the Massacre of Tlatelolco. There are books and films about this, so I'll try to be brief (as wise people do when facing very complex subjects they themselves are no masters of).  1968 was the year the Olympics were held in Mexico City. While insane amounts of money were spent - as is usually the case in these opulent OIC events - Mexico was not only going through social tensions but, due to the government's interest in presenting a peaceful and protest free city, through severe government repression, which included the storming of public schools and detention of students. 

October 2nd, 1968, some ten thousand people, many of them students but also people from all walks of life, gathered in Tlatelolco to protest peacefully and listen to speeches. Government forces were present. In the evening, unofficial government snipers shot into the crowd, thus giving the official government forces an excuse to repress the demonstration. It was brutal, it was heavy-handed, and 10 days before the Olympics between 30 and 300 peaceful demonstrators were massacred and over 1000 detained. 

It took 30 years for a congressional authorization to be allowed on this most shameful and tragic event.

After such a sobering reminder of the square's history, we finally reached the entrance to the archaeological site.

Now, the ruins. This is the site of the ancient Aztec city of Tlatelolco, which was founded in 1338, just 13 years after Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Actually, Mexico City has at least a couple of places like this, with Aztec ruins emerging right in the middle of the modern city. But this one here is fantastic, as the remains are pretty well preserved and are of just the right size to be fully appreciated by us small humans . 

Among the many things to see here there is, for example, a calendar temple, with symbols for days and months carved on the sides:

There was also a small but really nice botanical garden with a number of beautiful desertic climate plants:

And of course, there was the main temple of the city, or Templo Mayor.  Aztecs (and other Mesoamerican cultures) had a very deep respect for the place where the energy of their gods resided. So, when it was time to make a bigger temple, you wouldn't destroy the old one - you'd build on top of it. Think matryoshka dolls. And at this site the different layers that were piled on top of the original temple are super clear. Plus, one of the layers used dots and spirals and circles as decoration, something you don't see that often at other ruins either.

Of course, modern Tlatelolco was also a site for good things, like the Treaty of Tlatelolco from 1967, which made all of Latin America and the Caribbean nuclear-weapon free. And the Aztecs and Spaniards were no strangers to violence, either. Plenty of ritual human sacrifices (including babies) were found here, and I don't need mention the cruelty and brutality the native population of Mexico was subjected to in the hands of the Spaniards.

Wow, I had no idea I'd end up writing so much. But this is one deeply historic place with - sadly- a number of reminders about tragedy. And yet, ironically, greatly enjoyable. Can'twait to show it to visiting friends!