Archive for January, 2008
Sadly, I don’t need a haircut right now; but if I did, how could I not choose to get one done here?
I was in a Sears department store yesterday, trying and failing to buy a pair of trousers – and trying and failing to not get accosted by a perfume promoter woman (Hugo Boss perfume smells horrible). Anyway, they have one of the prettiest floor-plan maps I’ve seen.
This is Xochimilco, a place which has taken me about three days to remember how to pronounce even vaguely correctly (a bit like so-chi-milk-oh with a kinda German-ish “sz” sound at the start). Protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, it’s basically a bunch of canals that were used, back in the day, by flower traders and the like. Now it’s, well, it’s quite nice. There’s not a huge amount of gorgeous scenery to look at; the occasional flower nursery, a bunch of back gardens, and some wasteland. But it’s a very nice afternoon out.
One of the good things about already knowing someone in a foreign city is being able to tag along with their mates, and that’s what happened when I went to Xochimilco. There were eleven of us on one of these little boats, getting drunk on beer and tequila, eating lovely food prepared by dudes in smaller boats who’d pull up alongside ours and cook the stuff.
And for me and the other Englishman on our boat, we had the joy of watching a bunch of Mexicans all singing along and dancing to what is apparently called ranchero music; songs that everyone knows, but also find a bit funny. I guess the German equivalent might be schlager, but I can’t think of a British equivalent. Basically, it’s folk music; but how many of us Brits can jump up and sing along to traditional British songs? The conclusion the other Englishman and I came to was our equivalent would be Tiger Feet.
While we’re on the subject of all things Mexican, I thought it might be the right time for a little show and tell. Late last year, ELLEgirl magazine in Japan asked me to do a little animation that they could give away via email to readers’ cellular phones. The brief was that it had to include the word ‘love’ and be quite minimal in file size and number of animation frames. The actual version was, naturally, cell phone-sized; but I present it here for you nice and big, but short and sweet.
It’s the Torre Latinoamericana, it’s 183 metres high, and it opened in 1956.
Quite a nice building, nothing spectacular by tall building standards, I think; but the view is mighty fine.
If I’d have thought about it when I was up there I’d have taken better photos that would’ve made a nice glued-together panorama thingy; but I didn’t think about that, so here’s a bunch of photos that kinda show the view of most of Mexico City.
I grew a moustache. Don’t worry, I’ll get bored of drawing a face on my finger soon, but for the meantime, I still find it mildly amusing.
I’m gonna put these online now, because if I don’t I’ll get obsessed with taking photos of every nice house number I see for the rest of my time here, and the eventual post would need about eight metres worth of scrolling.
I like spicy food. I like jalapeños a lot, and I’ll happily scoff down a vindaloo. But then there’s the habanero chili. This seems to be in a different league all together. Looking at their hotness on the Scoville scale, you’ll see they are pretty damned hot. Jalapeños are a maximum of 8,000 thingies; habaneros are a minimum of 100,000. That’s, at the very least, 12.5 times hotter.
Purely for scientific reasons, I wanted to try one. So when I was in a market at the weekend, I bought some habanero chilis. Having seen a teenage boy eat on on YouTube and make all sorts of gruesome faces that looked a bit fake, I was very very curious.
So I ate (half of) one.
And, rather unsurprisingly, it was really really hot. And, in a slightly masochistic way, pleasantly so.
I did something I thought I’d never ever do yesterday: I went to a bullfight.
Being a fruity, European liberal chap, I don’t approve of such things. Fox hunting, badger baiting, cock fights, bullfights: all the same thing in my book. And while I have no desire to go and see a dog fight or a fox hunt, there is something about bullfighting that piqued my curiosity. Maybe it’s because it’s a big event, rather than some sleazy, in-a-dirty-warehouse event.
I can’t really explain why I wanted to go, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes. It still freaks me out that I did go. And it has been on my mind constantly since. Frankly, it’s fucked up.
Firstly, the stadium is pretty impressive. Plaza de toros México is the largest bullfighting stadium in the world. The cheap seats are up at the top, on the side which gets the full glare of the sun. That cost 55 pesos, roughly £2.50.
It’s all well and good up to this point, because I’m just drinking beer in the sunshine, enjoying the friendliness of the folks sat around, who all say hello when they take their seats. And on the, err, pitch(?) the matadors come out to a trumpety fanfare, and look quite wonderful in their fancy kits. I mean, who doesn’t like pink socks, right?
Then we get down to business. A bull is released into the arena, and a bunch of matadors hide behind little walls, each taking turns to come out and flap their pink things to attract the bull’s attention. When the bull gets close, they slink off behind the wall like pussies.
I’m not sure of the rhyme or reason behind who it is that comes out, but one of the matadors encroaches further and further into the ring, and it seems like this is his fight; the others are just there to help wear the bull down a bit. Once again, I find myself thinking that this is unfair. The bull gets very little chance to get in a proper fight, cos the moment he gets close, there’s suddenly all the other matadors running around trying to distract him.
Then some dude comes into the middle with these two pointy sticks and tempts the bull to charge him, before trying to ram the sticks into his neck. This is the point when my liberal conscience really kicks in. Blood is pissing out of the bull’s neck, and he’s still being goaded into fighting with a matador.
Then comes the real problem for my brain. I hate this. A bull being needlessly tortured and ground down, but I couldn’t help but be a little bit impressed at the gracefulness of the duel between the solo matador and the bull. It’s horrible and beautiful.
(In a couple of photo’s time, you’re going to see a dead bull, so stop scrolling now if you don’t want to see that.)
Slowly, the bull is being exhausted of all energy to keep fighting. He puts up a valiant effort to keep going, he’ll slip and get back up to give it another go, but eventually he succumbs to his injuries and tiredness. Then he falls and doesn’t get up. It’s a shocking moment. I’ve been wracking my brain to think of another time, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mammal die before. It knocked the wind out of my sails. It was disgusting.
A couple of horses are pranced into the ring, and they swiftly drag the bull away while the matador absorbs the cheers of the crowd.
If the matador had done a particular good show, lots of hats and flowers are thrown into the ring. If the judges decide he’s been good, an ear of the bull is cut off and given to the victor.
We learned this from this guy below, Paco. He explained that the ear is the trophy for a good matador. The better the matador, the “better” the trophy. Some get ears, some get the tail. An exceptional performance gets you the feet, something that Paco said occurred rarely; every two or three years.
The one saving grace of being at the bullfight was the friendliness of Paco. He’s the same age as me, and has been going every week for twenty years. He took time and pleasure in explaining things to us. He was well aware that the man from Inglaterra comes from a country that frowns upon bullfighting and tried to explain or justify the spectacle by telling us that the breeders of the bulls work hard to breed a good fighter, just as horse breeders try to train horses to be fast or jump well. I’m not really buying that.
But he was a lovely fellow. Lending us his binoculars to look at specific things he was explaining, talking us through the bulls and matadors, and best of all letting us drink his booze and eat bits of the food that he and his friends bring along. It’s not allowed to bring food or drink, but each of his gang bring a small part of a picnic. One will have some chicken hidden in his sock, another will have a can of jalapeños, another some tortillas.
And the booze is superb. They have these leather flasks, the kind I’ve only ever seen in western movies. Each person’s flask is full of their preferred cocktail. The one Paco shared with us was red wine, mineral water, sangria, and rum. It was really very delicious, once I’d got the hang of squirting it into my mouth rather than all over my glasses and nose.
It was nice distraction from the action in the ring, and by the end, I was quite drunk.
Still, I won’t be going again. I’m glad I’ve seen a bullfight. I still think it should be stopped. But, the friendliness of Paco and his pals made for a pleasant afternoon, despite the horrors going on down below.
You might have noticed that the title of the last couple of posts have been in Spanish. I must apologise for being an English-speaking twat who thinks that being a bit “local” is in some way charming.
It was quite a productive first day in Mexico City. I’m staying with my friend Naomi, and she and I went to Coyoacán for breakfast. Huevos rancheros. Fried eggs on a tortilla with super spicy green and red tomato sauces, with a splodge of refried beans with some sort of cheese crumbs on the top.
And it seems quite fitting that one of the first touristy things I did here was go to the Museo Frida Kahlo, on a street called London and near a street called Berlin.
No photos allowed inside Frida’s gaff, only in the garden/courtyard bit. And quite a nice place it is, too. Exactly the sort of place I’d want to be living if I was as ill as she was. Especially if, when she lived there, there was no cafe or toilets in the courtyard.
A short walk away is where yer man Leon Trotsky lived. This is the office where, as the Stranglers so memorable pointed out, “he got an ice pick, that made his ears burn.”
A lizard on Leon’s wall.
And some rubble which, I assume, was left over from Trotsky’s unfinished patio.
Here’s some more random stuff from my wanderings yesterday, including the obligatory arty pics of walls and typefaces.
Mmmm, I love this house.
And, who knows, maybe this photo is showing a future Rafael Marquez or Hugo Sanchez…
This is just the chair-thingy that my friends John and Sarah in London used when bathing their delightful daughter. It made a funny face when it was lying sideways in the bath.
Despite beginning with a two hour delay, sat around getting impatient at Heathrow, it was a good flight. Especially now that British Airways have a TiVo-esque system for watching the in-flight entertainment. Nearly 12 hours in the sky meant a lot of movies: Interview (quite good), The Darjeeling Limited (better than I was expecting), The Simpsons Movie (some good jokes), Run, Fat Boy, Run (meh).
The best entertainment, though, was the view out of the window over Greenland.
This is me on the flight.
And this is the view somewhere over Wisconsin or Iowa.
A bit further south, with some lovely clouds obscuring the land.
And here’s me again, relaxing and enjoying the sun starting to set over the Oklahoma/Texas border.
And, finally, the sky over Austin, Texas.
I wish I’d taken some photos of the plane coming in to land over Mexico City, but my camera was back in my back in the overhead thingy. It really is a stunning sight at night: millions of street lights that map out the topography of this enormous city, like a fishing net studded with diamonds flung over lots of little hills. It’s quite breath-taking.
On Monday, in the Guardian, I read Charlie Brooker’s piece about having a security block put on his credit card by his bank while he was in New York. This has happened to me before, so I went into a Nat West branch to tell them that I’d be going away to Mexico. The Nat West woman told me that she weas sorry, there’s nothing she can do to stop the security block because the process is automated, so even if I tell them that I’m going away, they can’t do anything to stop it blocking my card. Joy. I’m now looking forward to that nice, lovely, expensive, and utterly avoidable phone call that I’ll have to make. Grrrr. So I decided to get some Mexican money while in London.
After trekking all over Soho trying to find a Bureau de Change that stocks pesos and coming away empty-handed, I went east to the fancy financial area where I found one almost instantly. I’ve only ever been to that area of London once in my life, back when I was on a college trip and we went to look at the then-fairly new Lloyd’s Building.
But, as I’m sure most Londoners are sick to death of hearing about, there’s a newer, fancier building just around the corner at 30 St Mary Axe, which is a pretty damn cool address, and far nicer-sounding than The Gherkin, especially ’cause it looks absolutely nothing like a gherkin; if anything, I’d be tempted to nickname it The Pine Cone. And it’s a building that’s made its mark on the London skyline and, I guess, will be something that is a nice shorthand silhouette that says “London,” just as the London Eye does. It’s amazing, really, that two such new structures have so easily slipped into the skyline; it makes me wonder if the London skyline was graphically weak one before.
To tell the truth, I’m not really a big fan of this building when seen from a distance on the skyline, but after seeing shots of it close up and from ground level on David Dimbleby’s wonderful series “How We Built Britain,” I was intrigued enough to take a look for myself.
And from the street, I think it looks rather nice indeed.
I also went back to have a proper look at that building I took pictures of the other day, that several commenters helpfully identified as “Space House” at 1 Kemble Street. It looked even nicer today with sunlight on it and a slightly darker sky behind.
And this is how it looks from the end of the street, near Covent Garden.
And here’s a graffiti-ed sign on the same street that made me chuckle guiltily.
So, in 24 hours I’ll be on the aeroplane. Just gotta pick up a few last things, have a haircut, and have a goodbye drink with a few friends. Next update will likely be from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Adios, for now.
So, the day is nearly here. Unless I die between now and 12.40pm on Friday, I’ll be on a plane to Mexico City to begin my travels around Latin America. When I first decided to leave Berlin and do something different, it all seemed such a long way away, so far into the future. Things like that, plans you make in advance, have a nice way of perking you up: yeh, I feel like shit right now, but in five months I’ll be sat on the beach, drinking champagne, licking honey off Salma Hayek’s boobs.
But after all the hassle and stress of packing up my stuff and getting out of my flat in Berlin, it has been a slightly strange six weeks here in England, and I’m just relieved, more than anything, to be going on Friday.
It’s kinda been like watching the pre-match build up to a World Cup final, then pressing the pause button just before the kick-off, and just hanging around with your mates and family for six weeks. That’s all well and good, but can I just press play and get on with the game please? (I used this analogy with my Mum over Christmas and she, being my mother, got the right hump.)
I think I’m excited, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure if it’s not just that I know I should be excited. I definitely am a bit scared. Having no solid plans for the future is liberating, but it’s also a bit of a weight on my shoulders. Hopefully, once I get over there, things will sort themselves out on that front.
And hopefully, these bloody migraines will be gone soon. I’m getting slightly bored and annoyed with having them again. It’s difficult to describe the pain to someone who doesn’t have them, and I know that before I’d had one, I had no understanding that it wasn’t just a headache. The closest I can get to describing the pain is quite useless for the women reading this, because it feels like being hit in the testicles and the pain stretched out to last for two or three hours, except in the head, not between the legs. It’s this fist-sized bastard behind my right eye that slowly rises, throbbing and pulsing until doing anything other than giving in to the pain is impossible. And then it sits there, smugly laughing at me inside my head, and shouting, “Look at the thin shaft of light under the door. Ha ha! That hurts, doesn’t it, you cunt! Look over there at the flashing dots on that digital clock! Ha ha! They’re like two big Bat-signals burning straight into your eyes, aren’t they? Hey, Craig! Why not close your eyes, that’ll make it all go away.. Oh, now the muscles around your eye seem to make it hurt even more, don’t they? Aaah diddums, fucker! Oooh, and that car revving up outside… Man, that’s gotta hurt! Feels like an angry hippopotamus rammed into a rucksack and squeezed behind your eyeball, eh?”
But migraines or not, before I get to Mexico I really, really need to get through this “Spanish with Michel Thomas” eight hour CD set that’s in my iPod. I bought it before I went to Mexico on holiday two years ago and only got through one of the eight discs. This time, I’ve managed to re-listen to that first CD and nearly finish the second. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to any of his language courses before, but, from what I’ve listened to, he does seem to have a good technique for getting words to stick in the brain. I remember virtually everything that I’ve heard so far, but that’s the problem: I’ve not listened to enough. And it’s not entirely my fault, guv. Yes, I’m very, very lazy and impatient when it comes to learning a new language. Seven years in Berlin and my German skills were beginner at best. But part of the fault has to rest at Michel Thomas‘ (dead) feet.
It’s his voice. He’s got this weird accent, and he’s got quite a wet mouth. You know when people talk and you can here there’s a lot of spittle in their mouth? Well, that’s him. Like his tongue is a fish in a shallow puddle, flapping around, teaching you Spanish. And he makes a lot of spittle-y noises, and when that’s right in your headphones it’s like some someone myap, myap, myap-ing inside your brain. And, for me, as someone who cannot abide the sound of other people eating, it grates so very much that I have to stop listening when it happens.
Added to that, is the way the course is executed. Thomas has two people to go through what he’s teaching. On the CDs, the listener is the third student. One of the students – the female one – is fine. She gets it, on the whole; she makes the odd mistake, which he then corrects, but generally she’s good. The male one, on the other hand, is a fucking retard. And, I apologise, ’cause that’s being disrespectful to mentally handicapped people. He’s got the memory of a goldfish, and the pronunciation skills of a goldfish, too. I want and hope that at some point on disc three of the course, Thomas loses his rag with him and tells him to get out of the damn studio because you’re just wasting everyone’s time. Honestly, the course would be half the length if we didn’t spend so much time listening to Thomas correcting that dick’s pronunciation of simple stuff like para mí.
Still, I can rant all I want, but who is it going to be a problem for, going to a Spanish-speaking country in a couple of days with barely a smattering of the language? Para mí, that’s who.
I forgot to make a note of the name of the building or the street. For those of you that know London, it’s kinda on the walk between the Strand and Holborn tube station.