Ten things I learned about Mexico City, myself, or both

1) I love this city. Before I came, I knew only what most people know about Mexico City: it’s crowded (20 million at last count), with terrible traffic and smog. What I didn’t know until I got here is that it is monumental, as in full of monuments, like Washington, DC, or Paris. It is sprawling with hundreds of distinct neighborhoods that seem to go on forever, like London. It has its own distinct food smell, like Taiwan. It’s got that particular urban intensity that one finds in, say, Times Square. And I haven’t seen a bit of smog.

2) Unlike the only other part of Mexico I’ve been to (Puerto Vallarta, which hardly counts, really), I spent most of a day wandering throughout the most touristed parts of the city and saw only a handful of people who looked like they came from the U.S.

mexicomap3) Mexico City is really far away. Take a look at a map sometime. It’s pretty far south and east of most places people I know go in Mexico. This may explain why hardly anyone seems to speak English here, even in the areas that seem to cater to out-of-towners.

4) I must learn Spanish. I’ve always insisted that it’s easy to get around in places like this because a) everyone speaks some English (but they don’t, duh) and b) I can usually pick out every second or third word in written Spanish. (Big difference from generating speech. Duh.) On my first morning in Mexico City I put together the most spoken words in Spanish than I ever have in my life: Buen dia. Por favor: habla Ingles?

IMG_29955) There’s constant noise, and it doesn’t seem to bother me. For one thing, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything by spending two or three hours knitting in my hotel room while the life of the city goes on around me, because I can hear it. Street preachers, vendors hawking tamales and tacos, police directing traffic with their whistles, groups of children squealing with delight, street performers drumming and singing…all of it is right outside my room. The sounds change only slightly as the sun goes down, leaving more and more of the Catedral out my window in shadow.

6) The guidebooks aren’t kidding when they say it gets cold after the sun goes down. This morning out my window I saw people in down jackets, hats and scarves. By the time I went out around eleven, it was warm on the sunny side of the street. By three, everyone was in t-shirts. By seven, when I ate dinner at a rooftop terrace restaurant, I wished I had a hat and gloves.

7) My French is much better than I thought. Three years of high school French forty years ago has stood me in good stead. The problem is, it comes out when I’m groping for a word in Spanish. Hardly ever helpful. I love it here, but maybe I’m overdue for a trip to Paris sometime before my memory goes. Or Italy. Seems I know how to say molto bene and it keeps coming out when I mean to say something else entirely.

8) It’s much more fun traveling in a non-English-speaking country when I’m with my husband. He knows how to say please, thank you, and beer in about fifty languages, and much more than that in Spanish, French, and German. And he’s generally into adventure and learning. I’m not.

9) When you’re me and you’re traveling alone in a country where you feel awkward and out of place because you can’t speak the language and because, unlike every Mexican woman under the age of 80 who is not a nun, you don’t dye your hair, it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate every little victory. Getting a new watch battery. Finding the best side street café. Finally getting up the nerve to order and eat a street taco (and learning the difference, once more between picante and caliente—the former refers to spiciness; the later to temperature). Like when I bought postcard stamps, making hand motions for how many I wanted and even messing up the hand motions so the clerk both started laughing. She typed numbers on a calculator, showed it to me and asked: Quatorze? Si, quatorze! Gracias.

10) When I arrived I wondered whether I’d made a mistake to plan a couple of days here alone before joining a group for an 8-day retreat in Cuernavaca. Did I really want to spend 48 hours feeling vulnerable and stressed in a this crazy-stimulating place when I’m in a wee bit of internal turmoil due to recent changes and losses in my own life? How would I do in a disorienting place when I am interiorly disoriented to begin with? Turns out it’s been the perfect place to unravel and then collect myself in the middle of this hot mess of a city and get grounded. I love this city.

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When my son was five, our family traveled around the United Kingdom for five weeks. I went on a knitting frenzy, wanting to find locally-spun yarn on each of the British Isles. I knit in the car, knit in every one of our B&Bs before breakfast and after supper, knit in pubs. Nathan desperately wanted me to teach him to knit. In a busy, crowded yarn shop in Oban, Scotland I picked up some child-sized needles and we sat down before dinner that night to have our first lesson. He sat patient and wide-eyed while I cast on enough for a little square, maybe 16 stitches. Soon he became distracted and I could tell he was fast losing interest.

“Don’t you want to learn to knit?” I asked.

“Yes. But I don’t want to make a square, Mommy. I want to make a sweater.”

Learning new things is hard. Really hard. It’s one thing to learn the correct pronunciation of someone’s name or where to find a great new restaurant or even how to use WordPress. It’s another thing to learn to make a sweater from nothing, to learn a language, to learn a whole….thing. To stick with it through thick and thin, through the rush of fantasy and the sludge of reality.

I’m trying to learn some new things. Not a new language, exactly, but kind of. And we all know that learning a language gets harder the older we get. A friend writes beautifully about the power of words, the cozy fabric we wordy types weave for ourselves and wrap around our shoulders to comfort us and warm us. The words we cook up into a hearty stew, stirring together flavors, textures, and smells mixing like so many metaphors.  Lovely, right? Now, imagine doing it in Chinese. Or Sanskrit. Or taking Intro to Anatomy at the age of 53. Or deciding to become a barista so you can make beautiful pictures in latte foam and learn that all that is actually about something entirely different: physics (that class you never took) and chemistry (that one you barely passed).

Sometimes I’m not so sure my menopausal 50-something brain can handle learning a whole lot of new things. Certainly not happily. Certainly not with the kind of comfort of dipping into a delicious new poet or a book recommended by a trusted friend. It’s a stretch, and who wants to stretch? Not I, said the Little Red Hen.

What about you? What are you learning? Where are you stretching?