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A Stroll Through Downtown Mexico City And The Zocalo

Panorama: Zocalo in Mexico City
This past weekend I took a walk downtown to the Zocalo. Past the modern and the Art Deco buildings. Past all the nice cafés with open seating and small patios. Past the weekend market and Alameda Central Park. Past the castles, churches and mansions. And into the main town square.

The weekend crowd was large and bustling. The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral looms over the Zocalo the way most of the churches I’ve run into in Europe can’t seem to impose themselves upon their square. The structure is massive and covers an area at least as large as the huge open area in front of it. Imposing buildings flanked the square, one monolith per side, making the space feel entombing for its openness. And the church here seems to be the center of gravity and attention, with the majority of the action and vibrance drawn towards it and a lesser amount of action orbiting the outline of the square.

There was a stage set up in the square this weekend. The site is often used for political demonstrations and protests so this was no surprise. But this weekend the stage was occupied by dancers and pop music. As I got closer I heard the distinct Psy style. Gangnam Style. Closer still, I saw t-shirts and posters in Korean. The song shifted to Psy’s more recent song, Gentleman. After a minute or so, back to Gangnam Style. The songs swapped back and forth with the people on stage apparently learning the different dance moves for each. Eventually it came to an end and the crowd, mostly Chilangitas (young women from Mexico City), cheered loudly. I’m not sure what this was but it’s clear that there’s a great love of K-Pop in Mexico City.

I continued walking around near the church, through the crowd. And through the buskers with their wares spread on tarps, pushed in carts and hawked with calls about the quality and cost of what was on offer. Hungry and curious I tried a snack I’d seen others eating. Onto a crispy blue corn tortilla was smothered refried beans, cilantro, sautéed peppers, queso fresco and some picante sauce. You eat it by breaking the chip-like tortilla and scooping some of the topping into your mouth. Kind of like nachos you can hold in your hand!

After finishing the snack I went inside the main entrance of the Zocalo church. (The church has many side chapels which seem to be for specific purposes: confession, baptism, etc.) It is as large inside as you would expect. But another difference between it and Northern European churches struck me. This is a pragmatic place, set to be used not just toured. Chairs were set up around the popular altars; a portrait of the Pope who had visited many years ago was an active area; a mass was being conducted. I was a visitor, and even in this touristic area, I was the exception. So I stopped being in the way and walked back into the bright sunlight.

I leaned in the shade and checked where to go next. Quickly I was set upon by a group of teenage girls. Likely many of the same from the K-Pop show. The lead one asked me in Spanish if I spoke English and if I wouldn’t mind answering some questions. I didn’t. So a quick scripted and recorded interview later I was on my way. Kids practicing English often want to speak with a native speaker so it’s not out of the ordinary.

But I was stopped several other times for interviews. At one point there was a line of groups of kids waiting to interview me. They all seemed to be doing this for the same school (I asked several groups)band were all about the same age. I can imagine the giggles as every student realizes that they spoke with me. And the stifled chuckles of the professor imagining how I’d spent my day at the Zocalo speaking with his/her class about my favorite sports, my name, age, favorite Mexican food, and whether I’d like to come back to Mexico some time.

Of all the interviews I gave today one stand out. The boy was alone, except for his videographer mother, in contrast to the groups of girls as most were. He had his questions printed out and carried a pen, rather than written long hand as others. He wore thick glasses and looked like McLovin’s younger Mexican brother. He also asked the most intelligent questions and noted everything on his script as it was being documented. I have the feeling he is going to be either a scientist or a reporter and I wish him luck in either endeavor (or in whatever he chooses).

As the sun dipped below the clouds in the afternoon I walked away. I realized my skin stayed warm even in the shade and that brought back the realization that Mexico City was close to the equator and high in altitude, making sunburn virtually guaranteed on my unscreened skin. So staying in the shade I walked to find a little cafe overlooking the Alameda Central Park. It was hard to find because you have to go through the nine-story Sears to get there. But it was worth it for the view and the coffee frappe. Sitting there (in the shade) overlooking the park and the Architecture Museum while the sun set was beyond just pleasant. The drink was emptied too quickly, as was my energy.

I headed back to the hotel tired but full of appreciation for the things I’d seen and the experiences I’d had. I told all the kids that I had Liked Mexico and would return. That wasn’t just a nicety for their sake, I meant it. Mexico City is a vibrant metropolis with many different sides. It feels both Latin and European at times, which is not surprising given its geography and history. But the two work well together, matching culture and insanity the way a merengue mixes a gas into a liquid with the help of a little sugar and lime juice. A pleasant treat.

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Lafayette I Have Come

I’ve returned to Paris after 12 years. One of the formative trips of my travel style and of my life for that matter. So coming back here gives me the chance to revisit myself in a way, too. Like the military man of World War I, paying tribute to the Marquis de La Fayette who, during the American Revolution shaped our country, I have come to Paris.

There’s definitely some of the old snooty Paris I remember. Like when I sat down at a place, asked for a menu and was told it was not a restaurant indignantly in French and nearly shooed away. Maybe a cafe only I thought as I stood up to leave. Then noticed the “Restaurant Boulangerie” sign above the awning. It was this attitude to which my friend muttered “frog” under his breath last time I was here.

But that’s the exception and definitely not the rule. Most people here are very friendly to foreigners, once you engage them. Like the waitress where I ended up eating that night. She apologized for her poor English (in fairly good English) and helped me navigate the menu. When she wanted to describe her favorite dish – the daily special not on the menu – she dragged the sandwich board over and walked through what it was. Madagascar cuisine. Not particularly French (she also apologized for being a bad French and not having a French food as her favorite), but very hip nonetheless. And very tasty too.

Some things which must have been here but I didn’t notice. Like the North African market by my hotel. And all the other foreigners who are not here for vacation. The diversity of this city and this neighborhood is astounding with dozens of different cultures coming face to face. Lots of evidence of France’s colonial past and their hold over their former territories. Unlike the Spanish who tried to assimilate the cultures and genes. And unlike the English who tried to displace the native populations. France had a very laissez-faire attitude, preferring more of a partnership than a more heavy-handed rule.

Has it changed? Sure. There’s wifi, electric cars for rent by the hour, you pay in Euro instead of French Francs. But I don’t think I can get a good feeling for any changes that are deeper than that. My memory is too hazy and my observations too superficial with the time I have here. So sadly you’ll have to get that information from someone else.

And there are changes in myself. I’m less apt to visit a tourist site than just meander around. To practice cultural tourism at the street level – as it is now being defined, not how it was shaped in the past. I used to force myself to do the normal tourist route and try to see the famous sites and scenes, no matter how much they didn’t interest me. But I don’t any longer, for instance I didn’t see the Eiffel Tower or Champs Elysees this past trip.

And I don’t try as hard to act like a respectful tourist. Instead I’m just myself with deference to the unknown, like the language and mannerisms. Respecting the culture but not trying to eat it all at once like the proverbial elephant. And not as ready to assess an entire culture based on experiences from a limited exposure (despite my treatment in this post to try to categorize everything).

And I’ve learned to break myself of the habit of being too prepared. I used to pile everything I thought I might possibly use into my bag. But I quickly learned that made it impossibly large and heavy. For more on that, see my series on travel skills and packing tips.

But I do still love discovery and travel for its own sake. Meandering is something I used to space between doing what I thought I ought to do. My game was to get lost and then find myself when I got nervous. Now I don’t worry about nerves and just trust that I can either find my way or ask someone. Some of that has to do with the technology I travel with, but some of it is just confidence that everything will work itself out even if it takes a bit longer than I’m expecting. That attitude has served me well and gotten me to some great spots that most people never see or know about.

But there are changes that I don’t like. I’ve never thought twice about a several hour detour just to see something I wanted to. For me getting there really is the fun part. But those trips are much fewer and farther between now. That’s a shame because it’s almost as promising a prospect as it used to be. I just don’t make the opportunities like I used to. True, I travel a lot more now, but I’m not sure I’m not missing something here and there. Long road trips with good music and audiobooks used to be a favorite activity of mine. I miss those days, and maybe I can recapture the feeling of meaning and purpose some other way.

But what about the places I remember so fondly from my first time here? I’m sure you’re asking that question, as I was. I guess I was avoiding those places. I didn’t want to find that they were gone or that they weren’t the same. But even worse I didn’t want to find that they were the same but horrible, with my mind polishing them to a shine and setting them on the windowsill of my memory. For my last night in the city I went back to my old haunts.

Nuremberg; City of Brats and Beers

Nuremberg, or Nürnberg in German, is famous for their bratwurst. And rightly so. Several types of sausages are made in the Franconia region. And about 300 active breweries in the area! Gutmann Dunkel is a good one that you likely won’t find elsewhere. All the beers and wursts I tried were great.

The Bratwurstkuche lays claim to the title of oldest bratwurst restaurant in the world! They’ve supposedly been serving up sausages here since before Columbus’ parents were even born. And though I’d suspect the place has been improved and rebuilt a time or two, it still seems pretty authentic – low ceilings, exposed beams, bricks and stone, etc. The famous dish here is the grilled version of their sausages that come with a pretzel and some potatoes or cabbage. It’s wonderful.

If you’re in need of an Internet fix when you arrive be sure to stop into the little Internet cafe in the main train station. From coffee to beer to wine to Jägermeister, they can quench your thirst. And you can sit all day on their Internet, unlike many cafes.

All through St. Sebald church in Nürnberg are photos of the area before, during and after World War II. You can see how the place looked and how they rebuilt. Some poetry crudely translated from German adorns the placards. Some of it is funny. The place is certainly worth a look if you’re in the area.

As I was on the way out of town I saw they had some kind of booth set up in the train station with a wheel of fortune and a line with people waiting to spin it. I had some time to kill so of course I decided to hop in line. When it was my turn I spun the wheel and it landed on 10. They gave me 10 little coins. I asked what they were for and they said it was good for 0.50 Euro each in spending at the train station. Cool!

 

Baltimore for Halloween

Flew into Baltimore for the weekend. I’d never been there before, but figured it’d be a good place to go for Halloween. The forecast earlier in the week was for sunny and mild temperatures. But by the time I arrived it’d been downgraded to cold and rainy, with a chance of flurries. Damn. Oh well, try to make the best of it. I took some notes and some photos and here they are.

Max’s Empanadas in Little Italy is a small lively Argentine joint. Funky music, funky paintings, photos from around the world, and of course Argentine wine. The empanada is a dish I traditionally associate with Mexico, but it makes sense that there would be a broader use of the term. Certainly the dish isn’t local to Latin America – its fried dumplings or gnocchi or pirogi in other parts of the world. Here at Max’s it’s delicious. It seems like a great neighborhood spot and a hidden gem down a side street.

Fell’s Point is an eclectic area. The main street is called Broadway and it is a broad way. Lined with bars and storefronts, it’s a nice place for a stroll. This is THE place to be on Halloween in Baltimore. All the revelers come out in costume to see and be seen. The uniqueness of each costume made identifying the people much easier. So their behavior was made more apparent as they’d hop in one door, out another (many bars seem to have two doors), in again, out again. Like ants into and out of a mound, or like an episode of Benny Hill.

I visited a couple of restaurants in this area and both were good. Lebanese Taverna had a good Halloween party, with proceeds to benefit the Edgar Allan Poe House – a charity dedicated to preserving the legacy of the famous Baltimoron…Baltimorean…Baltemorite…whatever. The food was good, as was the specialty Raven beer, from a local brewery also participating in the event. Obrycki’s Seafood is a great place to get crabs. It’s been popularized by many TV shows and articles on the Internet.

On Sundays, there’s a Farmer’s Market & Bazaar that looks to have some of everything. I particularly enjoyed the Mexican crepes.

Vegetarian Month

For the last 30 days I stuck to a vegetarian-only diet. Just for a month, just because I could, just to see what it was like. I started thinking maybe I should postpone since there were several reasons I could think of not to do it, but ultimately I decided to just go for it.

Some people thought it was a weird experiment. The most frequently asked question I got was “who is she?” But it wasn’t motivated by anything other than, well, I don’t even know what motivated it really. I just thought it’d be cool to do something for 30 days, every 30 days, and the first thing that came to mind was to be a vegetarian. No time to wait, starting from that moment. Yeah OK maybe boredom had something to do with it.

I am here to say I lived through the experience, but it wasn’t easy. Tofu doesn’t cut it for me. Neither do veggie burgers. I don’t think anybody likes those things. It’s veggies forced to be something they’re not supposed to be. And it sucks. Let the veggies be themselves!

While most restaurants have some kind of veggie option, it’s rarely anything too good if it’s just the one thing. Like veggie burgers. And if you’ve ever tried to get a veggie option at a Burger King Burger Bar…well it’s not easy. There’s some weird combination of buttons they push then go tell the kitchen then you get your grilled cheese and fries. But it’s not that great.

There’s a restaurant in Atlanta called Soul Vegetarian. In fact, it’s vegan.  It’s interesting – I wouldn’t go out of my way as a meat eater, but as a vegetarian it’s pretty creative. Like the barbecued cauliflower. It seems it’s run by a religious group, but they dress more like a cult – all in flowing white clothes and white hats. Quirky but kinda cool.

Yesterday I had my first meat in over a month. First I had a Vortex burger. For those not in the know, the Vortex is one of the best burger joints in the country. It was delicious! The second meat meal I had was a Peruvian style roast chicken from Las Brasas. It also was delicious!

But neither of these meals tasted exceptionally special. It wasn’t like there was a moment of euphoria that came from eating meat after avoiding it for a month. Instead it made me realize that eating vegetarian just felt like something was missing. Many ingredients and whole sections of the menu were effectively off limits to me. I don’t think I’ve ever sought out meat dishes at restaurants, but meat is a staple in the kitchens and it pairs well with many other ingredients.

So the up shot of this is that I’ll probably eat more vegetarian dishes than previously. At least I’ll be unafraid of asking for them. But I won’t continue the vegetarian-only diet since it feels like it’s missing something. But I’m happy I did it and now I have a much better understanding of what vegetarians go through on a daily basis.

New Jersey’s Toxic Waste

I have my obligatory New Jersey toxic waste story now. I still feel A little ill from the fumes and thinking about the mess makes me nauseous. People kept telling me that Jersey was actually a decent place and that it wasn’t as bad as everyone said. But then I hit the Reo Diner.

It came recommended at the hotel, apparently people said it was pretty good. They didn’t have what I had. Now there are ways to serve rancid meat so that it’s not quite so bad. Luke warm and covered in gravy is not an effective way to do this.

I don’t know that it was the meat that made me ill. It could have been the eggplant dish which was very gritty. Either dish alone would have been cause for complaint. It must be said, however that the baked potato was the perfect thing to help buffer the reaction in my gut. That’s what helped me to limp back to the hotel without pulling over to the side of the road.

Good Places To Eat Near Rahway New Jersey

Since I posted my Toxic Waste story, I felt like I should mention some of the good places I ate.

I got some ice cream at the Colonia Dairy Maid and it was excellent. The line was out the door and around the building and stays that way.

Dimple’s Bombay Talk restaurant. Pav Bhaji – dipping bread with a sauce of pureèd tomatos, bell peppers, onions and other veggies. With lime you could squeeze into the dish for taste. I ordered a homemade Malai Kulfi for desert. It was like a small slab of hard ice cream cut into bite size pieces and served on a plate. The flavor was good, not overly sweet and with just a bit of savory.

Dada – The Restaurant

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In Riga there is a restaurant called “Dada” that is based on the surrealist art movement in the early part of the 1900s. Rene Magritte is my favorite Dada-esque artist. He’s the one who made famous the painting of a guy with an apple over his face and the painting of a pipe with the caption “This is not a pipe.” It is, in fact, a representation of a pipe. Dada is basically a movement to create chaos out of order and to do not just the opposite of the expected, but the totally unexpected. So anyway, that’s the backstory of the Dada movement in less than a nutshell. If Steven Hawking can put the Universe in there, I can at least fit the Dada movement in.

The restaurant is an odd duck. The waitresses all create their own uniforms, though this usually means a restaurant t-shirt with a sock taped to it – very un-Dada. When you order food, you order the sauce you want and then you go pick what ingredients you want to put in it. That’s a kind of a cool concept. But look out, they arrange the items from least to most expensive, hoping you’ll fill your bowl up before you cost them too much money. But at about $15 per meal, they can afford it.

So I went to the restaurant and sat down. I was brought a menu and had to ask how to order – nobody had yet explained the above paragraph to me. I ordered the tomato basil and a beer I’d never heard of. When the beer arrived I noticed that I’d accidentally asked for an alcohol-free beer. How very Dada of me. The beer was terrible but the concept was good. I was already spending too much money for the meal and the place wasn’t quite Dada enough for me so I decided to turn it into an experience rather than a dinner.

Then I took my ordering tray and went to get some food. But in typical Dada fashion, I went off the terrace and around the building to go inside. It was a good laugh for me, but I think the fancy pants patrons must have thought I was nuts. I decided to start at the end of the food line – the Dada thing to do – and didn’t have enough room for some of the cheaper stuff. Oh well.

I decided it would be a good idea for me to take notes about the experience so I wouldn’t leave anything out. I wrote in black ink on a black napkin. Very Dada. But now I can’t read it.

The bill arrived in a baby’s shoe. I paid with my largest note, but that was only a 20L (the bill was 8L or about $17 US). But they taught me a lesson about being so Dada. They took 20 or so minutes to come back with my change. When leaving I walked off the platform on the side. The regular entrance to the terrace was mostly blocked anyway so it was kind of necessary. But it was also very Dada.

I Just Flew In From San Francisco…

…and boy are my legs tired! Ah yes, San Francisco, that wonderful peninsula and surrounding area which has more than 50 hills within the city limits. From which the dot-com revolution had its equivalent of the cosmological inflationary period. The legendary Haight-Ashbury area, formerly home to beat poets and radical hippies, has been transformed in the same manner as the Die Hard series of movies: A once great institution now mostly only good for outrageous incongruence and mocking. The Castro district, a place Fidel would almost certainly avoid…not that there’s anything wrong with it.

Mark Twain said about the city “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Unfortunately, that’s not true this week as temperatures are hitting the mid 80s and low 90s. But then I’m in the middle of the city, not on the north side where the pacific breeze tends to keep the climate more moderate. Microclimates are plentiful in the city by the bay, and there can be a 10 degree (F) temperature swing just on the peninsula. Going inland can be more than twice that.

If you’ve never been out here, you could come for a month and not see it all. Becoming friends with a local will really help out with that. Alcatraz is cool and the Golden Gate bridge is pretty, but ditch the tourist trail as soon as you can and head out on your own to explore. Budget accommodations tend to be abundant in certain areas of the city, but be forewarned that you get what you pay for. Don’t expect to be pampered for under a couple of hundred bucks. On the mainland your luck is better for finding affordable places that are decent, and you can take BART back into the city.

I don’t have time to run down all of the great stuff that I’ve done here, but I want to highlight some cool things I’ve done here.

  • In the Haight, track down a sausage shop called Rosamunde’s and get one of their gourmet sausages cooked up and grab a beer at the Toronado next door while you’re waiting for your secret knock on the wall to tell you your sausage is ready.
  • Head out to Muir Woods (no relation) and hike through the redwoods. They are magnificent. Legend has it that there is a private biergarten somewhere that occasionally allows non-members in.
  • Wine tours in the local areas are a fantastic way to ruin your palate for the $10 special at the grocery store. No more Thunderbird after that. Make sure you have a designated driver, too. I recommend Coppola and Miner wineries.
  • Bay to Breakers annual run is awesome. What do you get when you take thousands of weirdos, dress them in costume, pump them full of alcohol, and tell them to run up and down hills for 7+ miles? QED, the answer is in the question. It is pure hilarity. Mix in some people in salmon costumes who start at the end of the course and swim upstream for added chaos.
  • Alcatraz night tour. It’s way better than the day tour – kind of spooky. Still touristy, but it’s got a fascinating history.

So anyway, that’s my quick list. Here are some additional notes about accommodations, places to eat, etc.

  • DeLessio cafe is a great place to grab breakfast or lunch.
  • The Metro Hotel has friendly and knowledgeable staff, a great location, and is cheap. I won’t promise anything more about it than that.
  • The Travelodge is a really cheap place to stay and they have parking onsite for an extra $10. Definitely better than getting ticketed or towed on the side streets.
  • The Independent is a decent place to see a show. I went and watched Johnny Lloyd Rollins, Ki Theory, Silver State, and South. Good bands, all.
  • Nick and I walked the Bay to Breakers course and back. A great time was had by all.

Indy

A quick update, as I’m getting ready to walk out the door to my next destination. Indianapolis has a cool little downtown area. It’s like you ripped out four city blocks from a major metropolitan area and set them down in the middle of a Midwest town. There’s a nice central roundabout like the famous one in London, but it has shops around it. They call this the Circle Center Mall. Then opposite that across a few hundred yards is the City Hall. There are tons of parking meters and decks, but a block or so in any direction and you’ll be able to park pretty much anywhere. It feels odd, but it’s a nice place.

I ate at a couple of places while there and by far the better of the two was St. Elmo’s Steakhouse. Their shrimp cocktail is awesome, as is their steak. They grind their own horseradish on premesis and it’s always fresh and fiery. It’s highly recommended, though it is on the pricey side — $15 for the shrimp and $35 for a steak.