Saturday, 27 February 2010

Adventures & Quesadillas

In the optimistic hope that my madre's tale of someone who suffered with an ailment for decades, which was finally discovered to have originated as one of the perils of foreign travel, I have eaten the looooveliest quesadilla con flora de [squashes] -- I think. Admittedly, when she asked, 'Flora, o spanishspanishspanish?', I was under the confused impression that she was asking me if my preference was flour, corn, or some new and exotic type of tortilla.
Proposition: One should always respond, 'Si!' when one is asked if one would like queso; so let it be written -- so let it be done.

My plan (unless some sort of gastrointestinal attack renders this idea a no-go) is to return tomorrow to the Belles Artes museum corner and try a different quesadilla with my superb travel companion, Jessica, who is as willing as your correspondent to toddle off in search of adventure and independent bravery (as a duo, actually, so it really isn't perzactly independent in the strictest sense of the word). Yesterday (after our Thursday breakfast of huevos revueltos and enchiladas), we ventured forth on a day of school visits, with my high-hopes plan to explore the Metro by riding all the way to the end of the Blue Line to Cuatro Caminos and take a taxi to the first visit.

On exiting the station, instead of the taxi rank Herself was expecting, we instead walked into a crossed hybrid of a cattle-market/bus-depot/tent-city-of-cheap-tat/Save-the-Children-commercial. I am pretty sure that people were sweeping crap in the street. After walking bravely past the arcade of video games with the shady caballero and not determining where in the name of Heaven a safe taxi might be, we then determined that we didn't know how to use our mobile phones to dial in-country. After looking quite shady ourselves while loitering on the corner next to the bus depot gas station, we made the joint command decision to flag a taxi -- the logic being that it had pink-and-white checker-board stripe on it. [We were also smart and demanded to see his identification.] He turned out to be quite the nicest taxi driver!

The counselor at our second visit dropped her jaw and said, 'Oh. My. God.' (in the best 90210 voice possible)  and faintly curled her lip when we asked for directions to the closest Metro station. And sent us for a posh patio-balcony lunch in Polanco at La Valentina.

Where we had our primeras margaritas. (and almost got stuck in an elevator by the consierge)

Our orders included taquitos, and panuchos yucatecos (kind of like chalupas), and tacos de chilorio sinaloense, and something else... (not on the online menu). Yesterday, I was reticent,  BUT escamole seems like it might need to be tried... pause, pause, pause.

Because of our fortitude, we chose to aim for the same Metro station to prove ourselves, walking through Polanco (which is quite comfortable-feeling and more than likely safer than much of the rest of the city) and then through a ginormous park. In this park live the bravest squirrels every, who are (as Jessica says) actually a little creepy in their super-intelligent expressions and mental telepathy of 'Feed ME!'

Their genetic make-up seems to be a hodge-podge of red and grey squirrel, and they are kind of not pretty. But they are so terribly cute and cheeky! They must be so because people feed them and local people do seem quite taken with them. I did not look at all out of place doing my 'Let's-Talk-to-Los-Animales' voice -- it is all part of my effort to be a successful flaneuse.

Possibly because there are museums in the park including the Museum of Modern Art, there are also quite a few interesting sculptures. Since my current book is Wicked, I shall call this 'Oz'.

And this one is Wuthering Heights in my world -- for no particular reason, just a feeling -- or maybe the voices in my head.

Upon reaching a large road bisecting the park, we proceeded to cross an 8 lane super-road. There was a median in the middle where we could wait for a break in opposite direction traffic. After having a suspicious park guard not let us through a locked gate and fail to understand the directions that he and a chillaxing taxi driver attempted, the taxi driver finally zipped us dangerously around the freeway below to the second shady Metro stop of the day.

One thing that is interesting about the Metro is that at some (note the use of 'some') stops, there may be a 10-ft tall sign indicating the near presence of transport. However, when one approaches this beacon of hope, one quickly finds that this tall edifice is actually nowhere near the entrance. In best flaneur-style, one must attempt to look like one merely needs to pause and consult one's mobile phone, whilst glancing around casually and with a bored aspect to figure out where people are disappearing into an unmarked hole in the ground. This is occasionally in the middle of a combination area similar to the description of Cuatro Caminos, above. And so one heads into the tent city of smells (some delicious, some disgusting, and some possibly dangerous) or, for example in El Zocalo, a completely unmarked hole set of stairs heading from sidewalk-level into the depths.

Once on the Metro, one should not expect there to be silence in a London Underground sort of way. If it were not sad, it could be slightly vexing -- there is a constant stream of noise: women and children walking through screaming, 'Chicle! Dos pesos!'; a blind old man tooting a harmonica and using his change cup to keep rhythm; a young blind woman with a sound system and microphone, singing, and with a 3-year-old child following her and holding on to her belt loop; the long-haired political activist shoving papers into people's faces and yelling about La Republica de Mexico.

And then there are the CD-mix guys -- these are guys (and blind women) who have strapped a speaker as big as their torso onto their tummies and who walk through trains incessantly selling various mix CDs. The CD player attached to the speaker is used to skip through snippets of the songs approximately 4.7 seconds in length. Sound level is at 11.8. When the alarm screams that the doors might be able to think about maybe shutting (this lasts for about 11 of the longest seconds ever), opera might start shrilling from one end of the car, and simultaneously Los Gran Cantandores de los 60's, 70's and 80's begin with some Depeche Mode followed by Juice Newton and Queen of Hearts. Some mixes have absolutely no rhyme or reason at all.

Jessica was unamused. [the red shirt is on the arm of a Speaker Guy]

To recover our sanity, and since we were not really thinking that dinner was necessary, we ventured to the Pasteleria across the street.

This is a fabulous cultural activity; such inter-cultural engagement and educative exercise is to be strongly encouraged by International Officers. It was also dangerous.

A Pasteleria is a cake shop. When one approaches the cake shop, one walks past the armed guard... and then one is meant to locate the large stack of pans (to L) and the bakery tongs. One carries one's tray through the shop, pincering far more cakes, cookies, jelly pastries, empanadas and bread products than one would ever consider for an evening's consumption in a normal situation. And then one tootles around the corner for a litre of milk (again, past an armed guard) and returns with one's stash to one's hotel room. Oh, the exotic life on the road!

So many cakes, so little time. And more are made every day! Hoorah!

In other news, my mind is relieved by the information today (from our lovely agent) that we are 2000m (or 6000 feet) above sea level. This would be the logical reason that I so quickly become similar to an emphesemic bovine creature when walking or climbing stairs. The feeling of bubbles in the brain could also be from this.

Note: I am also terribly amused by commercials with talking toothbrushes. Especially when said toothbrushes are Spanish speakers.

...and so on to the weekend of two 8-hour exhibitions.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Don't Drink the Water

Cold milk is hard to come by in Mexico. I had forgotten this. It is mostly ultra-pasteurised and therefore, superb in long-term shelf storage; but not so superb to the taste buds of an obsessive and spoiled lactophiliac.

However, (in good American culturo-centric style) I have determined that Circle K does have cold milk -- albeit in the ultra-pasteurised boxes-- in the refrigerated section. To congratulate myself, some chocolate biscuits seemed called for as well.

My primary personal accomplishment of today is that I have a) ridden the MetroBus and b) ridden two lines of the subway and c) have navigated successfully and non-pickpocketed back to my hotel. A yarn shop was also located, but that is by-the-by. .

Moving along...

For those readers not avidly following social networking blurbs of personal information about the writer, my week began at 5.30am Monday morning with a 4 hour drive through insane snowfall from Norwich to Heathrow Terminal 5. It is kind of the bees knees. Since I was not flying to the US, I was allowed to have both a carry-on bag and a purse/laptop bag; this made me happy in my own Migrant Fruit-Picker sort of way.

British Airways, in contrast to its shiny terminal with the tallest elevator in Britain or some such nonsense (but without free wireless -- cheap jackasses) is not exactly the bees knees. It almost seemed like our plane had been retired from NorthWorst airlines as no longer rubbish enough. It looked normal, but was rather tatty on the inside. The crew, though, were absolutely lovely.

However, I had a lovely Mexican lady next to me, who lives in London and was married to an Italian and who has 5 daughters from Malaysia to Arizona to Mexico to London and who (in the most precious way) would insist on trying to chat when the movie was getting good. She had made mosquito picnic covers and decorated them with crocheted flowers for her daughters. She was fascinated that I was knitting.

The last time I was in Mexico was 1993. I don't believe customs was as much of a goat-roap then as it is now. After collecting luggage, one must stand in a queue about a mile long (much, much longer than immigration). Upon reaching the front of the queue, all bags and coats are x-rayed... THEN, you have to press a button and if you are unlucky enough to have the glow-box turn red, a man must dig through your stuff with some very dodgy gloves of uncertain hygiene (thank heavens for Zip-loc packing this trip). Well, I do declare, I was not picking up and placing that luggage onto that table for him. If he wanted to look at it, he could jolly well wrestle it up there; I also asked him to return all pieces to the floor for me. Unless customs is going to welcome me with a margarita without salt, 20 hours of travelling does not make me want to unnecessarily hoist luggage around. This whole process was an incredible example of ineffective bureaucracy in motion.

Immediately upon clambering into the Mexican-blanketed interior of the most unfriendly taxi in the world (it was a pre-paid airport taxi seguro -- don't worry, madre y esposo), I was transported back to the chaos of Mexican driving. I am undecided about whether it is better to wear a seatbelt or not, as it might prevent one from escaping.

These are primary Mexican traffic principles to remember:
  1. There are lanes; but there are really no lanes at all. In some places, there really are no painted lanes, just a 6-lane-wide area of milling, honking, polluting kerfuffle.
  2. There are directional indicators; but these really don't signify anything.
  3. There is a horn; and you use it a lot.
  4. There are traffic lights; but these are merely vague indications of a suggestion of behaviour that one might want to follow. For example, there are policemen who stand in the middle of intersections and when the light turns yellow, they blow their whistles and beckon cars to continue driving; when the light changes to red, they blow harder and faster and faster and wave frantically to KEEP DRIVING!!!! *toot! toot! TOOT!*
  5. It is perfectly acceptable to block an entire intersection.
  6. Pedestrians in the street are perfectly normal; I have already felt the need as well.
  7. It is perfectly acceptable to talk constantly on one's cell phone.
  8. On the positive side, there is not a lot of visible road rage... that I have seen. Of course, that could be because everyone knows that everyone else could have guns. There are gun-toting caballeros (and cops) everywhere. Even the rent-a-cops have guns where they are guarding the bakery -- must be some crazy desperados robbing bakeries.
  9. None of the above rules apply to bicycles or to motorcycles.

As I am staying in one of my beloved Hilton properties (because they award points and miles), my room is more than adequate and I got some Oreos and 2 bottles of water as a welcome (being a Gold member, you see. Oh.... if I could only get to Platinum like B!). I was quite over-excited about the prospect of Tuesday's breakfast, although this turned out to be excessively optimistic... although OK. Today, my day started with soggy flautas instead of the strange (and yet foggily familar) tortilla duo with cheese and sliced ham -- other daily options are huevos revueltos (this means 'scrambled' eggs but it just makes me think 'revolting'), refried beans (what an ideal way to start off a work day!), and salsa (possibly the tastiest thing there). I am happy to report that the fruit does not have the 'Hampton Inn' fruit taste of US properties (my theory is similar to my earlier-described theories of Subway alien mind control). For breakfast area entertainment, I managed to pour almost an entire jug of milk all over myself and my work attire. This was exciting.

After attempts to recover a scholarship programme with the Consejo Nacional de Sciencia and Tecnologica (I don't thrive in conflict situations, but there seems to be room for progress and everyone was very lovely), my diverting afternoon exercise was to navigate self to yarn shop -- Lanona Botona -- locate reasonable dining establishment (other than Hooters or Starbucks), and navigate self back home with public transportation. All three goals were met, and a section of the city - San Angel - was discovered, which is quite different from the unique and tragic chaos that is the city centre.

There are some lovely buildings in the centre, and at night the National Cathedral and National Palace are dramatic and pretty in their twilight silhouettes. The day is obviously more chaotic than evening for traffic, the dirt and drudgery are glaringly visible, and there is an opportunity for an absolute hey-day for British Health and Safety at every step. At least the Templo Mayor (to R) is fenced off, although the rickety elevated walkways through it look quite primitive. Since Mexico isn't necessarily the safest place, I have been quite reticent to take loads of photos since I already stand apart being a gringa and rather tall; there is no reason to ask to be bothered or thieved. Once acclimation and language memory has progressed a little more, more photos will be forthcoming.

Mostly there are people going about their business, although this business is rather varied than one might expect. Like Thailand (yes, a blog is still due for that), there are street vendors selling everything from juices or sliced fruit in plastic bags to illegal videos and music to normal mew agents. There are also random things like an old lady with a tiny side table plonked in the middle of the pavement with a selection of 5 pairs of knitted slippers (5 total, not 5 styles); a  griddle and open fire surrounded by plastic patio chairs, again in the middle of the sidewalk, where someone is cooking meat and peppers; there is this army of organ-grinders throughout the Centro -- and yes, they wear uniforms with military-style hats.

The streets, in the centre at least, are a constant din of intruding and manic noise. Normal city street sounds (remember our horn rule) do not seem to be enough and are enhanced by a speaker system in nearly every shop front. These speakers may be blaring music of various genres, or a pre-recorded enticement into the shop on continual loop, OR the personalised microphone sales babble of a large girl in rather less pink spandex than is prudent. There are also people playing flutes and such like -- and the Organ-Grinder Army, of course.

Seguridad privada (aka, rent-a-cop) seems de rigour whether the shop is selling sewing machines, bathtubs, fabric, yarn, or toys. This is kind of depressing. With regard to locating specific types of items (outside of up-scale territory), shops seem to be arranged in some sort of pre-destined order. For example, for plumbing and bathroom decorating needs, you would walk along Ayuntamiento between Lopez and Dolores. For electronic products (including hawkers standing along the pavement with 3-ring binders of sheets of computer programmes available), one walks up Lazaro Cardenas between Rep. de Salvador and Rep. de Uruguay. Fabrics and such are located to the east and south of the National Cathedral.

Shops are most certainly basic. Traditional size seems to be equivalent to a mid-sized bathroom (see image to R, behind street sweeper trolley) and pretty much you just buy some stuff and randomly arrange it inside. Cheetos, some picture frames, and a selection of toilets would probably be a sensible outlet. There are three plumbers sitting on a curb on Rep. de Salvador with a little cardboard sign advertising their availability.

As in Bangkok, much of life seems to be oriented around mere survival.

However, a notable exception to 'regular' shop size (and there are more exceptions as well; this is just my current amusement) are pastellerias -- or bakeries. In this shining window and display, we can see a vision worthy of the Harrod's Food Hall. It is all very Eloise. And it is the oddest thing to find something so glamorous right around the corner from beggars and toilets and shower displays on the pavement.

On a different aside, it might be worth noting that 'Do Not Disturb' signs no significa nada en el Hampton Inn Centro Historico. Generally, there is no need for me to have my room serviced daily, and so to prevent unnecessary work for lovely housekeepers, my sign goes out most days. On my return from constitutional stroll yesterday afternoon, I discovered Bear in prime princely location on bed and room completely tidied -- down to my hairbrush being cleaned out.... (?)  :)

In an effort to present self a little neater today to the housekeeper I fully knew would come in, my toiletries were carefully tidied this morning. Round items were stacked, miscellaneous items were stowed in plastic bag. However, this was apparently lacking in skill, and required additional straightening (as demonstrated to L).

It should also be noted that absolutely no yarn was purchased in brief excursionary and navigatory exercise today. Lanona Botona (unlike others in the centre) allows smooshing. Centre shops (perhaps in reason related to seguridad privada) have all yarn behind counters and/or in locked glass display cabinets.

Shop is located in a charming part of the city, with cobbled streets and tumbling bougainvillea emerging from walled residences.

A return for morning knitting group may be necessary whilst awaiting flight home in two Monday's time.... 

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

An Outing

On Sunday, we took an educational outing with the Friends of the Norwich Historic Churches Trust.

This was the first of newly planned Quarterly Church Visits and was to St. Peter Parmentergate, the current structure which dates from c. 1475. It is the largest and most impressive of the remaining medieval churches off King Street, and was the last to be decommissioned, in 1981

Parmentergate refers to its location close to the city gate leading to the Street of Parmenters (or leather- and parchment-workers). King Street was the main route into and through the city, leading on to Tombland and from there across Fye Bridge and up Magdalen Street. Between the gate and Tombland, there were at one time at least 12 churches along this main thoroughfare, or right off it -- including St. John the Evangelist (no longer in existence), another St. Clement (no longer in existence), St. Francis (no longer in existence), St. Etheldreda, St. Julian, St. Peter Southgate (ruin), St. Bartholomew (ruin), St Michael at Thorn (bombed 1942, then demolished by city), St. John Timberhill (now the parish church), St. John de Sepulchre (now the Russian Orthodox Church), and All Saints Westlegate (now a community centre).

It is uncertain if any of the church fabric is Anglo-Saxon, but as it is in the Saxon section of the city, it is entirely possible. St. Peter Parmentergate now houses the Norwich Academy of Martial Arts. It is perfectly allowable to furrow one's brow, but at least the building is used and is treated with respect.

Our group of about 20 met in drizzle, but forged forward with our intrepid leader, Nick Groves -- one of the, if not the, most knowledgeable scholars of Norwich Churches. Despite the attempted assistance of a free-range harmonica-player wearing a turquoise blanket on his head like the Virgin Mary, we learnt rather a lot.

Although the church is not as ornate as others in the city, it shows a high level of quality in the build. There is little decoration, e.g., no cusps in the tops of the windows, some of which have Norman arches. However, the flints are knapped, and much of the outside is galletted.

There were originally 4 doors into the church, as well as an entry through the two-storey vestry (an unusual architectural feature). The north door has been blocked up, but it would more than likely have been the entry way used by a college of priests who lived in a community just to the north of the church. Formerly an independent group of friars, they were suppressed and re-formed as a college of priests in the 13th century. Of the 24 medieval choir stalls created for this college, 14 are still extant. Both they and the reproductions are indistinguishable from each other to the unskilled eye. The blurred lower character on this is interesting and not on all the arches -- it looks like a cross between a lion and a Mexican sun image... with its tongue sticking out.

Periodically on the outside of many medieval constructions, one can see evidence of scaffolding. On SPP, individual flints are surrounded by a square of bricks or other stone. These are the potlog holes. Some medieval builders simply cut off the logs and left them in permanently-preserved and petrified place, but a little extra care (and cost) was taken here -- the logs were hollowed out, a knapped flint inserted, and a surround put in place. There are two potlog holes in this picture.

Detail at the top of the west door is actually a probably-Victorian reproduction, but it is accurate to its original style and decoration. Four shields above the door symbolise the primary donors who contributed to the original construction: the Broom family, the Albany family, the Clifton family, and (so Eamonn suggested) the Harveys (also at St. Clement Fye Bridge). St. Peter stands within the right spandrel and the left spandrel contains a figure with a rosary and a shield with 3 hedgehogs. The hedgehogs are a mystery. On churches dedicated to St. Peter, it is not uncommon to see an inverted cross somewhere since that represents Peter's manner of execution, but there are none on SPP; an occasional conspiracy theory is that this is a symbol of witchcraft

The west door, similar to the north door (above) also shows evidence of the raising of the graveyard from the Black Plague. Between 25 March 1666 and 24 March 1667, 390 people were buried in SPP's churchyard. 266 of these were buried between July and September, with 113 during the first three weeks of August.

A lofty and, again, plain interior is presided over by a magnificent reredos, although this is overpowered by a shockingly incongruous Victorian window.

Successful photos of the reredos are interrupted by the presence of a boxing ring. I am slightly concerned about a flailing body going into the artwork, but... this worry seems to be unique to my feeble and conservationally-unskilled mind.

At the center above the image of The Last Supper, are the crossed keys of St. Peter, and four shields along the same level represent the other churches which had been incorporated into the parish by the 19th century, when the reredos was installed and the medieval church was 'improved' by the Victorians. As Nick says their modus operandi was to 'restore' churches to how they were in the Middle Ages -- Victorian opinion being if churches had not looked like that, then they damn well should have. *titter at the victorians*

The highlight of the interior is considered to be the tomb of Richard and Elizabeth (nee, Hobart [alt. spelling,  Hubbard]) Berney. An interesting description of the tomb is listed at this link under St. Peter Per Mountergate (completely incorrect spelling). The tomb is enclosed in a plywood box, and is not terribly easy to view from angles other than the door next to Richard and Elizabeth's pillows on their 4-poster bed.

Elizabeth's father commissioned the tomb in 1623 after her death, and it has on its top an impressive array of acceptable post-Reformation images: Faith, Hope, Charity and Time. Images of saints were not allowed after Henry VIII's vandals chiseled out most remnants of pre-divorce art across the country. The theological Virtues could apparently still be personified with no suspicions of idolatry, despite their being freely used in earlier papist art. (It is important to note that the other traditional 7 virtues, the Cardinal Virtues, can have vice in their extremes.)

Hope (L, above) is pictured with an anchor.

Faith (R) holds a book, possibly Holy Writ.

Charity is surrounded by children.

The three Virtues are surmounted by winged Time, holding the scythe of Death and standing above an hourglass.

Another interesting sight/site is right down the street from SPP, next door to Dragon Hall.

We noticed it on our walk down King Street, and I always thought it was a part of Dragon Hall, only ever having seen it at night. And the fact that it is boarded up completely escaped my notice before. The criss-cross brickwork shows that it was constructed by a wealthy individual or family.

The unfortunate installation of the atrocious ground-floor shop front was perpetrated in the 1960s.

This was the Boleyn House. As in the family of Anne. It's current state is a travesty.

Sunday, 21 February 2010


Yes, I know it is not Tuesday Morning.

But this past Wednesday, I had a rather surreal string of thought:

  1. Three Tuesdays ago, I was asked to go to Bangkok on the Thursday for an ill colleague.
  2. Two Tuesdays ago, Emirates was zooming me back from Bangkok.
  3. This past Tuesday, National Express (this term is used loosely) East Anglia was dawdling me back from 3 1/2 days in London (only 2 for work).
  4. And next Tuesday, I will be sweating in Mexico City (or Mexico Kitty, for those who might like to participate in global feline-related humour).
  5. Then, the Tuesday following will be in Monterrey (Mexico) -- could we get away with Miaownterrey?.
  6. Returning to the Sceptred Isle the Tuesday after that.
  7. [One whole week home]
  8. And everyone knows what fun Tuesdays are in Dallas-Ft. Worth for the week after that.
  9. And then back home for at least 3 Tuesdays!

(must go finish The Pack. 5.30am taxi and feel need to prevent flapping, frantic behaviour throughout entire day since also attending lecture and hope to see snowdrops at Old Keswick Hall.)