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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Weekend Funhouse

number fifty-four

Hey, there is a surprise carnival spinning around in the street in front of our house. It just showed up out of nowhere and now it is all I can think about. 1,238 words.

[NL]—Three days ago the road in front of our house was blocked off and a crew of workers filled it from sidewalk to sidewalk with strange machinery under blue tarps. The road, a sort of east/west lane to the south of our house that loops from the larger road downhill to our immediate north, accesses various neighborhoods on the side of the mountain we live on. The closed section is hardly necessary: we can still get back and forth to the places we go; but we are cut off from many of the other neighborhoods, and one of the handier routes for returning from San Pedro’s central entertainment district in the valley west of us.

Day before yesterday the mystery was solved. The tarps had been taken off and underneath them were carnival rides. All that day and yesterday workers have been unloading, fitting together, and calibrating these rides. Stands have been set up and lights have been strung. Electricity has been wired to everything, confusingly crisscrossing the road everywhere before being covered over with mats and squares of outdoor carpet. After dark last night all of the switches were flipped on, and the little street carnival came to life. Empty rides swung and music blared long into the evening, even though the little amusement park wouldn’t be open for business until today. I am not sure those switches have been turned back off since then. Even now, as I type, it is to a soundtrack of horns, sirens, rock and roll radio, happily screaming children, and wonky melodies spilling out of the merry little street fair that has been erected in front of our house. Colored lights beam and radiate though our vertical blinds and at any given moment the house seems filled with artistically color-coded portent.

The house has become so enjoyably surreal that the little fair was sort of a disappointment when we finally walked out to take a look about an hour after dark tonight. It is a fundraiser for the church that has been being built across the road since before I arrived in San Pedro, and it seems to be primarily geared toward young kids. There is a little pet store set up in a tent on the church grounds selling chirpy little birds and wet turtles. They have some of the healthiest baby iguanas I have ever seen, all bright green and sturdy looking. Near this, many of the adult chaperones have congregated, sitting over Loteria boards and shouting back at the amplified announcer, or standing in line to pay for heaping plates of steaming tacos. The smell of food smoke is everywhere. The church courtyard is filled with white plastic tables. Outside of this court, adults are few and far between, standing in the darker outskirts and talking amongst themselves. Even the teenagers simply prowl to and fro under the dizzying noise and lights, lining up along the walls around the rides looking at each other out of the corners of their eyes. Younger children—the handful still allowed out this late—ride the little rides here and there; looping elliptically around some swinging device in a brightly colored plastic bucket. Many of these kids are the lone occupant on their ride, their parents talking to the operators while standing just outside of their charge’s wheeling orbit. Here and there little booths sell candy and chances to win light-up Virgen de Guadalupe mirrors by playing a complicated-looking game with marbles on a scored pegboard.

We wandered through the crowd, checked out the animals, and then continued to wander. Sunshine had picked up a sum of carnival funny money, and was interested in trying out the Loteria. I was unsure that we would manage to understand well enough, as semi-literate beginners, to really play without cheating off other people’s boards. In Loteria, the announcer picks a pictographic card from a bowl and then composes a cultural riddle or poem that needs to be deciphered in order to mark a corresponding pictograph on the player’s board. The rest shakes out like bingo, but the rules are set at the beginning whether the player is shooting for a row straight across the board, or some more advanced configuration. The game was moving pretty fast for a beginner, and I didn’t feel I was able to really keep up. I was feeling uneasy about the whole scene, as a matter of fact, and we ended up walking down to the little park about a block and a half away. It’s a really nice night in Monterrey, about thirty-two degrees C with a steady little wind. My feet are still getting used to my new boots, and I could tell coming back from the park that my pinky toes were going to look bright red tonight. On one steep part of the hill I found a hundred-pesos bill just lying in the road with no one even near it. I kept my eye out for people combing the ground all the way back to the fair, but never saw anything like that.

I guess that the most disappointing thing about the little street carnival was that we waited until too late to go, when the screaming crowds I had been hearing all day had boiled down into a few bleary children and a pack of disdainfully cool fifteen year olds. It was a little disappointing that all the rides were built for Mexican pre-teens, and would have tipped right over beneath the weight of even someone Sunshine’s size. Sunshine was happy enough spending her chits on flashing, light-up lollipops and things from the candy stands, but she’d have been happier if we’d been able to ride on one of those noisy, brightly-colored plastic rides. Secretly, I was a little relieved we couldn’t. Sometimes I feel a little awkward as it is, standing out like I do here: a foot taller and twenty-five percent more reflective than anyone around me. Irregularly, this makes me feel shy about seeking to draw even more attention to myself than I already have to, babbling and stuttering around trying to get normal things done. I don’t know why tonight was especially like this, but I was pretty relieved to be far too tall to ride these rides. To squeeze myself into a Mexican-sized plastic bucket and give my brooding and angst-filled teenage audience something to look at for three to five minutes riled me. I just wasn’t feeling like being gringo the clown tonight, so our otherwise inappropriate sizes were just fine by me.

Soon we walked the block back home (but only that far because we had to walk down to the electric gate and then back toward the fair to get to our door). We were quiet because the experience had been a little bit of a downer, in a way. I felt sheepish about feeling shy, and Sunshine was disappointed about her remaining carnival cash. I guess both of us were a little nostalgic about a time when Sunshine could have whirled around in all the cool flashing lights, and I’d have watched her out the corner of my eye, trying to act all cool and bored. But its twenty years later and the whole thing just looked better from a distance, somehow, than it did close up. And still, as I type this, the happy carnival music and colored lights bounce merrily around the house.

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Friday, August 26, 2005

Mexican Food

number fifty-three

One of the enjoyable aspects of any travel is the food, and México is especially attractive in this regard. Also it is just a tiny bit unexpected. 1,142 words.

[NL]—An interesting fact about México: it is very cosmopolitan about food. This is to be expected, sure, in a big city like Monterrey, but I have generally found it to be true in every place I have been. Costal towns sport dashing and exotic seafood cocktails cooked in citric acid at the table, markets griddle up cactus paddle tacos on steaming bar-side hotplates, and delicacies such as huitlacoche (corn smut), flor de calabaza (pumpkin flowers) and chapulines (crickets) permeate local menus from the most modest sidewalk food stalls to the finest dining rooms.

Meat, poultry, and fish can be ordered and prepared in an astounding variety of ways, many involving splitting the critter lengthwise and spitting it over glowing coals. To serve: carve off chunks until it has been whittled down to its revolving core. Apparently cabrito (young goat) and pollo (chicken) are the select objects of this gourmet attention. Beef and pork anatomy are cooked in many of the expected ways from tip to tip, including some traditional recipes for parts that the US diner is less likely to have experienced eating regularly: barbacoa (beef head and face), lengua (beef or pork tongue), and chicharron (boiled or roasted pork skin). What is left is dumped in many of the traditional Mexican soups: pozole, xóchitl, and tortilla. Fusion, sometimes accidentally achieved through the making of foreign foods with local products, also broadens the horizons of culinary possibility. Never more so than the naturalization of normal vegetarian fare through the application of healthy doses of local meat. Light pasta primavera leaden with regional bacon pretty much gives birth to a whole new dish. Same with cheese dip which happens to contain a sizable island of shredded, redly barbequed goat.

While there seems to be very little of the type of food cooked in United States Mexican restaurants, and sadly no Taco Bell among the usual list of successfully imported fast food brands, there is no lack of opportunities to eat ethnically diverse cuisine, including Korean, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German, Hawaiian, Irish, US American, French, Argentinean, Cuban, Arabian, Lebanese, Italian, and et cetera, including a whole host of different Mexican regional restaurants usually labeled with words like “traditional,” “typical,” or “twenty pesos for five.”

There are also myriad crêpe places dotting the landscape, the number of which it would be impossible to exaggerate. Not only are there whole crêpe restaurants, but it is possible to get crêpes at many restaurants dedicated to other kinds of food. Crêpes may be purchased at all coffee shops, for example, or in the movie theaters, or most other places in between. I have grown really fond of these fluffy little French griddlecake wraps, whether filled with veggies-n-cheeses for dinner or fruits-n-crèmes for dessert.* One of my favorites is the Italian cheese and mushroom crêpe. With the observed lack of the standard burrito-type fare, we have grown to think of the crêpe as “Mexican food,” and are growing more and more suspicious of the authenticity of those places at home which neglect to include this menu item.

Other food items available at the movie theater include beer, nachos, and sushi. As a matter of fact, there is no scarcity of sushi anywhere in the city, and I should probably attempt to think of this as “Mexican food” as well. The problem is specifically in my own prejudices. Crêpes tend to lend themselves to all sorts of dramatic cultural tampering, as do omelets and dumplings, because they are fairly defined by the ingredients of their filling. Not so much so with sushi, which can be rendered unrecognizable as a result of too much tampering with the theme. I am certainly aware that sushi is a popular fusion cuisine, the traditions of which are often fogged by local ingredients or innovative chefs. Fine. I am also totally sure that what I basically define as sushi is the product of an Americanization of the traditional Japanese stuff, and thereby just as totally false as any other variation. Also fine. I can’t help it, though: strange sushi dishes, finely prepared and gastronomically enjoyable as they may be, still boggle my mind when sat on the table before me.

Thus, I am loathe to even refer to the crab-stuffed tempura fried poblano chilis I enjoyed on my first Monterrey outing under the heading of sushi, even though that was what the restaurant billed itself as. Same with the wonderful fried crabmeat blocks, called sushi cubes, that are available on a menu in central San Pedro. These are served as a pile of five large blocks with a side of tangy katsu sauce and a squirt of iridescent blue wasabi gel on the side of the plate. My fantasy is to get three or four orders one day and build a little house with them, seeing as how they are the Legos of the sort-of sushi world. Working down the list, the most traditional place we have eaten, a place that even served hot sake and lemon-fresh finger towels, included a soy sauce marinated jalapeño condiment on our table.

But my fragile, apparently very insular, world of sushi seems to have met its Mexican match today as we tried out a little place in a San Pedro strip mall. Here is where the destruction of my culinary assumptions and the helpful addition of Mexican livestock have come together to leave an indelible impression on my checklist of flamboyantly off-cultural cuisine. Ordering an otherwise pretty standard roll, I missed the three letter word in the menu that indicated it would be prepared with tender roasted sirloin. There was no danger of my accidentally eating this, however, as what was delivered to our table was, indeed, a roll of roast beef wrapped in rice and seaweed with a little poke of cucumber in the middle. This is such a little thing to fly off the handle about. Certainly there is nothing un-Japanese about thinly-sliced marinated beef. And yet this Arby’s roll, this meaty curl of east-meets-southwest, obviously achieved something wholly new, possibly unholy; and, frankly, I found it jarring. Sushi-n-Roast. All I could really do was stare at it and wonder what strange new escalation was to befall me the next time I ordered ostensible sushi at the next place down the list. Or if it was possible, that the lowest scientific point of troubling ersatz world cuisine had been observed, and it was all uphill from here.

Here is an excellent directory of the Monterrey metropolitan restaurant world. Includes San Pedro, referred to here as “Valle” (the Valley).

*Not all crêpe places cute-up their menus to the extent that I have satirized them here. Still, since the items appear in Spanish as “verduras y quesos” and “frutas y crema” it is easy to substitute that happy-go-lucky ampersand stand-in, the n, when ordering or translating.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Old Kentucky Home

number fifty-two

This is an account of the first time I return to the US after several months living abroad. It is my first trip home after coming to think of Monterrey as my home. Actually, it is hard to decide what isn’t my home now, from minute to minute. 1,303 words.

[NL]—The last time I really thought much about rootlessness I was also in Kentucky. At the time I had just spent the previous day throwing out whatever still remained in my house. A long evening saying “so long” to everyone at my favorite bar, and then a long night on the toll road through West Virginia, brought me to that new day in rural Appalachia. This had been the first leg of the weeklong journey that ended here in San Pedro, Nuevo Leon. I was pretty tired after that first day, but I could not escape the exhilarating feeling that wherever I happened to be standing was, at that moment, where I actually lived.

In a smaller scheme it was possible to imagine that, as of leaving North Carolina, I had immediately slipped into a state of heading home again. I am certain that this is the way many people feel about pulling up roots and moving great distances. A baseball metaphor lends its cliché: start at home, hit that pop fly into the sun, and round the bases back to home. One moment I was standing on my doorstep, and the next I was twelve hundred miles away from a new doorstep and heading there for the first time. Except this doesn’t feel quite true. From the moment that I locked the doors in NC that last time and handed my keys to Phil, I became something more than homeless, or even homeward bound. At that moment I moved into the rather migratory state of some kind of meta-centric. Home followed me wherever I was. I was not walking around inside it, it was radiating from me. My cliché began to stretch into absurdity as I imagined myself someday passing fourth and fifth and sixth bases in a constantly expanding home-run in an increasingly ridiculous baseball analogy.

I know this is just a lot of words, but it was interesting for me to think about throughout the week. My stuff was either at my mom’s, or in Mexico, or hurtling just a tiny bit over the speed limit between the two. Other things that I used to own were now the possessions of other people. There was nowhere I could not stop and simply stay. I had no special claim to any place, really—no leases or binding documents—and it was fair to say that wherever I happened to be—in the car, say, or Kentucky, or a roofless rest area outside Dallas—was no more or less informed by my presence than the home I was heading to. There was no reason they could not all thought of as my home. Far from a scary feeling, this was a freedom; this rootlessness gave me an equal ownership in every place available to me: no strings attached. The whole world was just that sunny baseball field and I was just the man to haul ass around it.

Much time has passed, though, and we recently returned to Kentucky for Sunshine’s birthday. While it was hot in Northern Mexico in July, with temperatures regularly hitting the hundred and teens, I had been concerned about heading back into the humidity of the southern US. I had also been a little concerned about our flights, since the last time I had boarded a plane I had spent the fifty minutes between Monterrey and Mexico City in terror. This time around the fear of flying had lessened some. I armchair speculate that this sudden phobia is my working through post September eleventh issues, as asinine as that sounds; I am hoping that I will soon return to the hardened air traveler I once was. Stepping into the Kentucky weather was about as bad as I excepted, but after several hours I had mostly stopped noticing it.

Sunshine’s birthday was about the middle day of our vacation. I gave her cowboy boots wrapped in homemade “legal alien” wrapping paper that included our faces. A fantastic time was had by all.

I was incredibly excited to be back in the US for eight days. It was coming home, of course—what isn’t now? It was also a great opportunity to take advantage of the many comforts afforded me by my familiarity with the place. Sunshine’s parents are fun and relaxed, the farm is beautiful, and there’s little more to do all day long than sit on the porch looking out over the toy-studded landscape. That, and to do a heck of a lot of shopping. It is difficult for me to isolate the things that I miss from home (the US) when I am home (in Mexico), but it was very easy to find things I couldn’t live without while at home in Kentucky. Every store we happened to duck into sold some necessary item, the cultural exclusiveness of which had gone unnoticed until just then.

I was very happy to see my mother, who picked us up at the Lexington airport, and Sunshine’s father who was waiting for us at the farm. I was very happy to see our friend Ellie who happened to be in Lexington on business. Sunshine’s mother returned home from China about halfway through our visit, and I was very happy to see her. Sunshine’s extended family foliage of cousins and uncles and aunts and nieces and neighbors came regularly by, and I was happy to see each and every one of these people whose names I had still been struggling to sort out two years ago. The air was clear, the sky was starry, and the food was filled with comfortably predictable ingredients. The first night we were stateside we ate in a Mexican restaurant. We just can’t get food exactly like that anywhere in Mexico.

But in a used bookstore in Lexington I had the predictable emotional pang. We had returned to the United States exactly three months, almost to the hour, after I had crossed the border in the other direction in April. Sunshine had gotten to come to her childhood home and see her people. It was her birthday and she had been in Mexico almost twice as long as I had. Fair enough. As much as I love Kentucky, though, the majority of my people are elsewhere. The places and foods of my childhood homes are in little mill towns strung along I-85, long grown safely nostalgic. But this trip to the US, and Kentucky’s close proximity to North Carolina, has kindled a homesickness that has made me reevaluate my first superficial ruminations on my own rootlessness. I imagine the frustrations and fatigue as the sun sets on that endless baseball diamond, my multiplying team members strung along on the bases before and after me. So, there may be a scary side to this after all.

Currently, in Mexico, I am becoming attached to new people and new places. After we flew back here yesterday, and after customs and immigration, I was happily tucked into a cab whisking us through a city comfortably familiar. I probably even said something like “We’re home.” I was happy to be in the comfort of our house, in our neighborhood, surrounded by our things. I was happy to be greeted by our cat. Tonight or tomorrow night I will be happy to see our friends Christene and Tony, and to dine on excellent Mexican food with them. I am happy; but I am also still homesick, even though I am home right here. This, like the fear of flying, is something it is possible to imagine plaguing me throughout the foreseeable future. Is every base to be home plate? More or less. It may become very confusing to have so many homes to enjoy returning to. It may be bittersweet to always have to leave one to return to another.

Front Porch. Photo Illustration © El Joy

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It's that time again. Beginner headquarters is picking-up house and relocating back to the United States on July twenty-fifth, 2009, to enjoy a month at home with family and friends. By the end of August we'll have set-up a semi-permanent household in Washington, DC, near the Cleveland Park metro stop on the red line. [DC metro map] Then, sometime after Labor Day, our boxes and boxes of stuff should catch up with us. After that it'll be smooth sailing till sometime in July 2010, when we will be moving abroad again, this time to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina for a little real winter.

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