You’ve Come to the Wrong Neighborhood, Güey

We’ve all heard them: rumours about what countries are like. The ones say Kosovo is a war-torn country, where tanks dominate the streets. Others get goosebumps at the thought of living in Saudi Arabia and Belarus is apparently exotic enough to be a destination serviced by travel companies like Young Pioneer Tours alongside North Korea and Chernobyl.  In the case of Mexico, German reporters don’t fail to mention that although they have been living here for a long time, nothing dangerous has happened to them yet. Words of consolation. Like they absolutely have to say it or else no one will believe it.

Here’s an interesting observation: When I lived in Riyadh those to warn me of the dangers of this place were expats. None of the Saudis I had ever struck up a conversation with talked to me about not leaving my house on my own or lectured me on the things I couldn’t do because I ended up with the wrong genitals at birth. In Mexico City however, the warnings come from the locals (which also may be due to the fact that I barely know any expats).

How exactly do you recognize you have come to a bad district? Our security advisor talked me through the neighborhoods I should avoid right after I got here but as fascinating as the prevalence of the Aztec influence in Mexican Spanish appears at first glance, who on earth is supposed to memorize all the district names? Some Mexican words of Aztec origin are so complex, you’d rather learn German.

So again, how do you know you’ve come to the wrong neighborhood? Is it the poor appearance of streets, buildings and people? Is it the shop you have passed on the way there named Recuerdos de la Guerra (Souvenirs from the War) that has a swastika next to its name? I’ve still got a few months to figure it out but when your Mexican Uber driver tells you not to stay until dark, that might be a good indicator.

Just as there exist prejudiced opinions about people from different countries, my years abroad have shown me that, depending on where in the world you are, a similar prejudiced attitude may come from locals towards expatriates, regardless where they are from. Sometimes, when people come to live in a country for a while they are believed to only stay among themselves, creating their own little worlds where everything is familiar. More often than not, this cliché is true.

Sitting in the back seat of my Uber, watching as skyscrapers of metal and glass were replaced by buildings of weather-beaten stone, often no more than two stories high, it was somewhat becoming clear that I was getting out of some sort of comfort zone other expats have defined before I even had my own passport. The strangeness of a foreigner coming to a remote part of town is, among other things, what creates this gap between locals and foreigners. If more of us were travellers, not tourists, maybe we would be living in a different world by now.

Interestingly enough, districts that are known to be the bad ones, have a similar infrastructure to the ones that aren’t. Even in a bad district you will find homes, shops, offices, schools, kindergartens, you name it. It’s not like the world ceases to exist where the common and familiar ends.

I may have come to the wrong neighborhood but even bad neighborhoods are sometimes  frequented by good people. A Russian woman in Germany once told me that you can come to a birthday gathering in Berlin not knowing anyone and by the time you leave you will probably still not know anyone.

In Mexico, the first lesson you might learn upon joining a birthday party is that walls and floors make great tools for crushing large quantities of ice in bags. Take the bag, think of your ex or whatever it is that gets your blood boiling and hit the wall. An easy, fun and cheap alternative to anger management therapy with a purpose for everyone involved.

Once you have released your excess stress by manually crushing ice and its combination with a drink of your choice has got you all calm, take a bowl of traditional Mexican soup that the host will offer you. Just like the name of the district you find yourself in, its origin probably goes back all the way to the Aztecs. You will just have tried your first mouth-full of soup when the first person asks you about where you are from, how long you have been here and what it is that you like the most about Mexico. You are likely to be treated like family and even if you have spent the last couple of years as a wallflower, you’ll notice that social gatherings are actually not that bad.

As the hours go by, you will notice that your progress in Spanish can be measured by your understanding of jokes told. In the coastal regions, so a fellow Mexican party guest, out of 4 words spoken, 7 are cuss words. 😉

Of course all the fun eating and drinking between conversations doesn’t mean you should forget your driver’s warnings and walk the streets in the dark. The locals probably don’t like that idea either and even if you live over an hour away, someone’s gonna give you a ride home. Not least to tell you more jokes on the way.

The Earthquake After the Drill

At 11 a.m., on the 32nd anniversary of the Mexican earthquake of 1985, there was the customary earthquake drill, so people could practice for a real-life situation. Same procedure as every year. At 1 p.m. we agreed to have lunch. At 1.20 p.m. hell broke loose.

I sometimes can’t help but think about the situations I find myself in when the most inconvenient things happen. When the skyscraper, a very noticeable one since it’s the only one on the entire street, started shaking, I was between floors. Running out of the bathroom I had just enough time to press myself against the wall and put my feet in the most stable position possible during an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2.  It was me, the cleaning ladies and stairs above and below, all of us caught in immediate darkness.

My security instructor had been right at our chat from two weeks ago. Those who are old enough to remember what happened in 1985 scream during every earthquake that followed. One lady screamed while another tried to calm her. I don’t know how I was in that moment. I don’t think I was scared. At first it felt like this whole thing was not happening to me but I was just watching from a distance as this was happening to something that looked like my body. Then the adrenaline kicked in. As soon as the actual movement ended, I ran up the remaining stairs to the door.

My colleagues were all gathered under and around the zona de seguridad sign. They pulled me into the crowd and made sure I stayed close. A young Mexican who was probably working in another office tried to calm me by saying that this was just a bit like a rollercoaster ride. As we gathered our things as quickly as possible, I gave one last look to the plastic bag with the salad I had just bought for lunch before everything happened. I held up the bag and put it down again. I was not going to be the stupid one who ran around with her bag and her salad.

When I was reunited with my family later that same day, I was asked a few times whether I was scared. To tell the truth, the actual fear kicked in once we were about to leave the building. You never know when the next shaking will come around and with dozens of people coming down the stairs from the 18th floor you really learn what fear of the unknown means, if this is the right way to express this in English.

For the first few minutes everything seemed just like a few hours ago during the drill. Everybody stood gathered outside while the civil security staff gave orders in Spanish. Next thing I knew, my friend grabbed my hand and we both started moving down the street as fast as we could. With the screaming around us growing louder the term mass-panic took on its real-life form. Some of us heard the explosion right behind the building we had just left.

I shall dare to possibly exaggerate when I say that the whole situation started feeling a bit like Roland Emmerich’s 2012 movie. It was a feeling out of this world watching as people tried to reach their loved ones and as mothers tried to find out whether their kids had left their schools safely. Even as I tried to contact my own parents on y cell phone, I, as the rest of us, kept fighting the invisible yet omnipresent crash of all communication lines. All without effect.

Another building – we had now moved a few streets further- seemed to have caught fire. Military helicopters- according to my other friend- were making their way through the dark grey, almost brown smoke. I watched as some people came down the street in nothing but a bathrobe and socks. Soon we couldn’t hear our own voices over the noise of the emergency vehicles. Someone let his drone ascend into the air. Others got out their phones and if they already couldn’t reach family and friends, they at least tried to film what was going on.

There was no way we were getting lunch so we went ahead to get our friend’s dog from her building. In some parts, traffic was pure hell, in others, police had already blocked the streets. A building was said to have crashed somewhere in the neighborhood. The air smelled like smoke and the dust of broken stone and construction material. Most people remained in the streets, looking up to the buildings that have just been evacuated as if they might fear the fall of one of them. Somewhere in a corner by a hotel, a young Mexican woman was crying her heart out. I promise you, it was a sound with the power of breaking your own heart into a million pieces.  Between all this chaos one could see two types of people. Those who, in all calmness, kept eating their tacos at the vending carts and journalists with their giant, professional photo cameras, preserving the ongoing events for the rest of eternity.  In between all this my friends and the dog, safely brought out of the building by my friend’s neighbors, risked their own safety to get me home. I salute them and their concern for me! Mexico is a place where it is the easiest to find a family.

I know that aside from me, the rest of my fellow people have experienced this multiple times over the past years. I bow my head in respect for their bravery.

 

 

 

A Tribute to the Grasshopper I Had For Lunch

There would come a day in my life where I would find myself on a weekly market in Cholula, thinking about whether dried grasshoppers have bones. If somebody would have told me that way in advance, it probably wouldn’t have been so much of an intense moment.

I may be an A-student in university and a curious person with glasses which makes most people think I am some sort of super smart but actually I am not. I mean, I don’t even know if insects have skeletons. Well, I just looked it up. They do have something like bones though it is made of another material. More like fingernails and our fingernails are made of a protein called keratin. Thanks, internet! Next question: Do insects have feelings? Do they have a conscience?

I looked at the plastic bag filled with dried, brown little somethings and fished out one of them with two fingers. I had no idea why I was doing this. Maybe to get it off my bucket list, even though dried grasshoppers with sauce and lime juice were not on it but it sounded like something you would put on a bucket list.

I took a deep breath and popped in the tiny protein bomb called chapulines. In the eastern- european culture I partially grew up with, in my childhood there was  a custom of making a wish when eating something for the very first time. I made a wish from the depth of my racing heart, chewed and swallowed. That f***ing wish better come true now, it better do. Please.

The legs were thin and crunchy. Something like  individual dried herbs from a dish or a tiny piece of uncooked spaghetti or vermicelli better yet, for the pasta connoisseurs among my readers. The crunchiness of the insect was short-lived and so was the spicy shock coming from the sauce as it was smoothened by the lime juice only a few seconds later. The fish-like taste in the finish made me wonder about the contents of the sauce. I doubt the vendor, who at the same time sold cherries in one bucket and dried grasshoppers with chilli and lime in another, used fishstock for this but this was Mexico so you never knew. In fact, the taste reminded me of the packages of dried fish from the Russian supermarket. Typical beer snacks, as addictive as sunflower seeds way before Socialism was introduced to Pringles. Or the other way around?

I left it at only one encounter with the dried insects even though they may be the healthier alternative to chips. Mexican markets are a curious thing of its own. No matter how much I hate crowds by now I can’t cease to be fascinated by them. There are all sorts of food and drinks and while one part of me really wants to try this pancake shaped pastry with chocolate filling, called  gorditas de nata, my fear of food poisoning forces me to remain rational and enjoy the surroundings with my eyes and nose rather than with my taste buds.  Even as I pass by mexican women whipping cocoa to a cold and foamy drinkable substance, followed by stands of giant corn cobs topped with mayonnaise and shredded mozzarella, I remain stubborn despite the medical charcoal in my pocket whispering that everything will be alright.

Michelada,  a beer cocktail made of beer, tomato juice, salt, lime, tabasco and Worcester – or Maggi sauce (so basically what…beer soup? Beer gazpacho?) makes me feel glad I don’t drink alcohol.

20170916_125201  Sorry for the disturbing imagery. Here’s a picture of candy to calm down your nerves. 🙂

 

 

Observant Thoughts From Mexico By Someone From Berlin

I have lost count of how many times I have used the sentence other countries, other customs  on this blog. I may have done that so many times that it is almost like a cliché by now.

On the other hand, at the end of my fourth week in Mexico City I notice that some things are really different from Berlin. In a good way. In a way I find so interesting that in today’s writing session I want to list some observations from living here. They are rather random and don’t appear in an order of preference. Just some things that make me realize I have really moved countries.

First of all, I am amazed at how open and friendly the mexican people are! It may be a matter of personality, but I find it much easier to approach people here than I did in Germany. I have heard a couple of times from other expats that the people in Germany are sometimes a bit distant. In Mexico I noticed how people greet each other randomly sometimes in the streets, sometimes in the elevators. I noticed that since I am here, I smile more often at strangers and they smile back, too. My Spanish is not yet at its best but my mexican peers keep speaking Spanish to me instead of English, bravely listening on to my mix-up of the different past tense forms and misplacement of adjectives in a sentence, not to mention my confusion with so-called false-friends words I get from my knowledge of English.

I sometimes come to think that different cities have different sounds. When I first got here and heard the calls of the street vendors, I first thought of prayer calls I am familiar with from muslim countries.  Beside the constant traffic noise, the sound of musical boxes strike me as very dominant in some parts of town. That way, a walk through the streets has a fun fair feeling to it.

Because I have been here for only a short period of time still, every trip to the supermarket for me is like a whole adventure. Currently, I am pretty much trying my way through all sorts of yoghurt, pastries and (american) junk food. I can’t fail to take note of how even the ssupposedly sugar-free things like Dr. Pepper or the non-alcoholic sangria drink I found are almost too much for me. It seems like the people in Mexico like sugar in general. I mean, I really love churros but with all the sugar on top I just can’t take it.

Speaking of food, as someone who spent most of her life in Europe, I am still in search of all sorts of american products and fast food chains I can find. The most exotic american thing that I have come across in Europe was the Taco Bell I found while in Madrid and even then I only acknowledged its existence instead of actually eating there. So generally speaking, things like Olive Garden, Hershey’s, IHOP etc are things I only know from movies or TV shows, which makes them seem like…I don’t even know…pop-culture items? Just imagine all the things I had to go through to get my hands on a can of shortening, not to mention the price. There’s a seven-eleven shop at nearly every corner here and they sell Reese’s flavored cappuccino. Yes, the USA are definitely somewhere near here. Am I the only one who thinks Life-Savers gummies taste very artificial?

But even if not all things I find in the supermarket are really my thing, I am super grateful for the people at the cash registers who pack the  groceries for you (I believe the actual word in english is “baggers”). I have never liked to do groceries on a big scale in Germany because there I always have to pack my items myself under the impatient stare of the other shoppers right after I have paid. Here in Mexico I get help with that and am always happy to leave a little tip for that kind of stress relief.

Street Food stands are constant part of the picture when walking around town. Pretty much anyone can open such a stand and the locals don’t seem to mind the food at all. In fact, I have sometimes seen people wait in line for their tacos or quesadillas before they sit down at the plastic tables. I haven’t tried any of that food and I probably shouldn’t for the sake of my sensitive, untrained stomach but I can at least take part by registering the scent of fried meat, hot fat and corn tortillas.

I have decided to visit Mexico after I had seen the movie Frida and since coming here I am really excited about how the people here seem to like art. From a european point of view, museum tickets are very affordable and there is a lot to see for art lovers. Museums here are always well visited, even on week days. If I am not mistaken, Mexico City has the highest number of museums on the american continent.

While in Germany it is common to go to parks during the summer months to grill, in Mexico do you not only find absolutely stunning green spaces but will also notice that they are always well visited on the weekends. Especially families like to spend their free days in parks and if you ever find yourself in this beautiful city, pay a visit to Bosque de Chapultepec! Do it.

When I go to a pharmacy in Germany, most things sold are pretty much medicine related only, with the exception of some cosmetic products, teas and glucose candy. A pharmacy in Mexico City sells pretty much anything from medicines to corn flakes to chocolates to shaving supplies for men and hygienic items for women. Some pharmacies even have doctors on site that you can consult if you have any health complaints.

 

 

 

 

Where Will You Be When an Earthquake Strikes?

Two days after my security instructions meeting as a novice to Mexico City, I woke up to an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.2. It felt like a dark way of destiny, the universe or whatever it is you want to call it, testing how well I have been listening during the talk. I can luckily say that I am fortunate enough to be well. My thoughts go out to all of those who have lost their homes and their loved ones, especially in the states near the coast, even though my words are the last thing concerning them.

There have been a couple of times when friends would report about earthquakes happening in Pristina when I lived in the Balkans.  Every time that happened, I was traveling somewhere in the region and could never really tell what they were talking about.

The first earthquake that I have ever witnessed is said to be the strongest in Mexico for the past 100 years, even more so than the one that destroyed the city and took thousands of lives back in 1985, according to The New York Times.

With the experience of past earthquakes, Mexico has put in place an alarm system that sounds about 40-60 seconds before the quake hits the city in danger. Within these 40-60 seconds one must either leave the building or find oneself by the sign saying Zona de Seguridad, which in most buildings is located by the elevator shafts but can also be found outside in the streets.

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The alarm signal halls through the entire city with such an intensity that it is impossible to miss it. Or at least this is the way it should be, shouldn’t it?

One of the scary things about this is that if there is no alarm, like there hasn’t been in my building or even my whole neighborhood last night, one might just as well sleep through it. Had it not been for the construction of our apartment block, a standard that has been strictly modernized since 1985, who knows what would have become of me by now?

It was not the shaking that woke me at about 11.55 p.m but rather the clappering of the plastic decorations on my windows against the glass. Imagine being on a ship and getting sea-sick. And now imagine that you are not at sea but in your apartment on the 14th floor of a building, surrounded by even taller ones.

It was surprisingly quiet for an event like this. No screaming, nothing falling, no sirens. Sirens that should have woken me up for the sake of safety in the first place. Is this some sort of irony?

Last night I was met by a mixture of terror, fascination and confusion. The idea that a skyscraper weighing dozens of tons could swing back and forth like a leaf or a thin tree branch in the wind simply didn’t want to get into my head. One might say I was totally dumb stricken. I have always known that earthquakes exist and what damage they can do but somehow, just like tsunamis and hurricanes, for a European like me, they were something that has always been far, far away.

The cat had disappeared and was nowhere to be found. I cannot imagine the heartache it would cause to leave him behind and luckily I did not have to because by the time I had woken up and was about to leave my room, it was over.

While the people in the coastal regions are dealing with maybe the most serious aftermath of this event, school lessons got suspended in a number of states and many companies have ordered their staff to work from home. But slowly, life starts to resume as shops and restaurants stay open as usual and people can be seen walking in the streets, equally as usual.

This may by far not the worst thing to happen to me and yet yesterday night feels a bit like a dream. A dream I might just as well have to get used to as a new possibility of reality. For what seems so strange to me as a newcomer has been long known to the people of my new host country.

 

 

The Movies and Books That Inspire My Travels

As I grow older I realize how difficult it becomes for me to find a book that really fascinates me. One that I would read while waiting for the train instead of listening to music or that I would secretly get lost in,  the pages hidden under the desk, instead of listening to a lecture I find rather shallow in content.

With time it also becomes difficult to sit through a movie when watching it at home, which is one of the reasons I started learning how to crochet to keep myself in one spot while watching something.

But sometimes there are books and movies or sometimes even songs that just get to you and keep you captivated to the last page or the last scene. In my case books and movies, as early as since 2009, have inspired me to travel to certain places or at least put them on my “To- Do in a Lifetime” list. This is not to say that books and movies always describe places as they really are but at least they have the power to make us curious, which is what I love about them.

So today I have thought of putting together a list of these books and movies. I am not so great with content descriptions so I hope the links will be enough and that you might find something interesting for yourself among these.

Frida (Mexico City): I stumbled upon this film while looking for something autobiographical and based on a true story. I loved the portrayal of this artist’s life so much that at the age of 19, I had decided that one day I must save enough money to go to Mexico City and have a look at her paintings.  I even remember searching for an exhibition of Frida Kahlo art in Germany, only to discover that the last exhibit was in 2010. As it so happens, I seem to have won the lottery of destiny since I now get to live in Mexico City for the next 6 months.

The Fault in Our Stars (Amsterdam): The books of John Green became popular around my peers during my last year while studying in Kosovo. I was touched by this book so much that I felt affected by the events described in the book for the next few days after finishing  it. Since part of this book takes place in Amsterdam, it was an easy decision to choose between the capital of the Netherlands and the city of Prague for my first ever solo trip in Europe at the age of 18 (which has started a series of other solo trips around the world from then on). Too bad some of the places mentioned in the book were fictional. 🙂

The Millenium Trilogy (Stockholm):  Have you ever read a book whose content is actually kind of disgusting but it is that exact detailed description of gruesome things that makes it so irresistible (which is kind of how I feel about Game of Thrones)? I am not a fan of thriller literature by nature but Stieg Larsson definitely convinced me. Since I read this book in 2010, Sweden is on my list of places to visit, so I can follow the steps of my favorite protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

My Beautiful Country (Kosovo): I had seen this movie almost two years after I had left Pristina to return to Germany but I feel like having lived there and with the basic knowledge I had about this place’s history, I enjoyed this movie even more. This is the only movie about Kosovo I know of so far, so dear friends from the region, if you know another movie worth seeing, please let me know in the comments below!

Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a Beekeeper in Kosovo (Pristina, Kosovo): If dramatic war movies as mentioned above are not really your thing to get you interested in a place, try this memoir by Elizabeth Gowing. There is something about this writing style and the love of detail that makes me love this book, especially since the author writes about her encounters with the locals and her trips in the region. It’s such a shame I didn’t buy a  signed hard copy of this book when Mrs. Gowing was presenting her work at our school.

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Trilogy (Barcelona): I have never read a book so vivid with such a variety of characters as the books of this series by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This way of writing actually made me overthrow and start anew my own book writing project at the time. It tells a very beautiful story and once Barcelone ceases to be either too expensive or too hot for me, I am definitely off to see it!

Eat, Pray, Love (Italy): By the time I read this book and saw the movie, I had actually already been to Rome once. Especially since this seems to be a memoir sort of book, I found it to be very exciting to read about a woman starting life anew abroad and while this book mentions India and Indonesia as well, I was more inspired to get back to Rome once more especially since all of my photos from my first visit are gone. I wonder how much longer until I have the savings to take a language course in Italy!

My Life in France (Paris):  I have started reading this book just yesterday after watching the movie Julie & Julia but by the looks of it, the writing style of Julia Child might get me even closer to my plans of re-visiting Paris. Likewise, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter should be equally inspiring although I must admit that I have not read it yet.

The Museum of Innocence (Istanbul): I have read that book only months after I had already visited Istanbul and this long, tedious and yet captivating novel by Orhan Pamuk made me regret that I had not read it sooner. Had I read it before going to Istanbul, I may have known to visit the actual museum of innocence. What’s most interesting about it is that the museum was based on the book and not the other way around.

Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution (Havana): While the “sequel” to Dirty Dancing gave me a visual inspiration to visit Havana, the memoir by Alma Guillermoprieto gave me something to imagine and think about so I am very excited that Cuba is only three hours by plane from here.

 

If there are any books or movies that have inspired you to travel, feel free to share them with me in the comments. I am always happy to receive suggestions and make new discoveries.

 

Aztec Vocabulary for Your Trip to Mexico

Looking for something to add to my much loved travel blog, I came across an article I wrote for Youth Time Magazine a while back, so I decided to share it with my readers once more. 

Travelers with an affinity for languages may often come to the conclusion that the language they learned in the classroom is not quite the same as the one spoken in the country of their destination. One of those languages is Spanish, and the way it is spoken varies according to the region.

Most of the time, the regular Spanish taught in school provides a basis for communicating during travel, while the rest of the language, depending on the place, consist of specific idioms or single words that originate from a different time and culture. Therefore, while you may be able to get around well with your Spanish in Spain, the experience might be different in Cuba, Argentina, etc.

In central and western Mexico, Nahhuatl has had a great influence on the way Spanish is spoken today. About 600 words of the Spanish now spoken in Mexico derive from this Aztec language and are part of the vocabulary of everyday life. Among the Mexican people, these words are known as Nahuatlismos.

The following words and their Nahuatl origins might be good to know for your next trip to Mexico, be it for excursions to local markets, shops and restaurants or just for getting to know the language. Keep in mind that even though some words in Mexican Spanish seem very specific and unique, the Spanish alternative words are also very likely to be understood by the locals.

Aguacate (ahuacatl): meaning avocado.

Atole (atolli): a corn-based drink that is very popular in Mexico, especially during the Christmas season.

Cacahuate (Tlacucahuatl): meaning peanut, though also known in Spanish as cacahuete, in Mexico it is an alternative to the more common Spanish word mani. So keep that in mind if you are thinking about feeding the squirrels in Chapultepec Park and are looking for a vending cart.

Elote (elo-tl): A word widely used in Mexico for corn, as opposed to the Spanish word maiz.

Esquite (izquitl): A popular Mexican snack made of grains of corn, from the Nahuatl word izquitl meaning “toasted corn”.

Guajolote (wueh-xōlō-tl): meaning turkey, as opposed to the Spanish word pavo.

Mayote (mayatl): meaning mosquito

Mexico (Mexchico): Although the original meaning is still being debated, one of the theories suggests that the name of the country translates to “the center of the universe”.

Mole (molli): A chocolate sauce made with chili that is usually served with meat.

Nopal (nopalli): meaning cactus. A useful word to know since cactus leaves are a specialty in Mexico and can be found as edible plants or sauce in any market.

Petaca (petlacalli): meaning suitcase, as opposed to the Spanish maleta.

Popote (popotl): meaning drinking straw, rather than the Spanish equivalent pajilla or pajita.