Fear and Loathing in Mexico City
I moved to Mexico City seven years ago, lured there by my friend Jon and his tales of endless summers and the good life. Telephone conversations between Jon and I typically went like this:
“How are you?” I would ask.
“I’m up on the roof, drinking a margarita and soaking up the sun. Life is good. How about you?” he’d reply.
“I’m cold.” I’d say. “It’s damp and cold. I’m damp and cold.”
It was only after I moved to Mexico that I discovered that Jon conducted these conversations from the dank confines of his lounge, wearing a roll-neck sweater and wrapped in a blanket. Mexico City in summer is wet and the houses are dark. It feels like it rains every afternoon. And if it doesn’t rain, the pollution is so bad you wish that it would. The air is thick with heavy metals, car exhaust and best of all, something which experts refer to as “fecal dust”. Yes, that’s poo in powder form.
Normally, one of the most daunting things about moving to a new country is establishing a social life. However, when I arrived in Mexico City, I inherited all of Jon’s ex-pat friends, and he had a lot of them. My introduction to ex-pat culture was at a “cocktail” run by a promoter called Sebastian. Sebastian was tall and tanned, his thick glossy hair piled up on his head pompadour-style. His shirt opened to reveal a hint of chest hair. A trail of solemn, pouting and malnourished girls followed him everywhere he went. After talking to him for fifteen minutes I wanted to follow him around as well.
Sebastian possessed schmooze-power and charm in hypnotic proportions. He could get most people to do something for him and a few people to do anything. He had the persuasiveness of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the looks of George Clooney. Rumour had it he was a lord.He was immaculately dressed. A feat that he managed by “borrowing” clothes and neglecting to give them back. While we were at the cocktail he complained to Jon that the shoes that Jon had leant him had not worn well. Jon, looking blank and hypnotised, apologised and promised to buy a better quality pair next time.
In England I didn’t know anyone who’d had cosmetic surgery. By contrast, in Mexico many ex-pats were having work done because it was so cheap. In fact, after I’d been there for three months a nose job and a tummy-tuck felt like a natural part of the ageing process. Following one too many jokes about British teeth, one of my English friends bowed to peer pressure and went to a local dentist for a makeover. The dentist pulled out several of her teeth while singing “The Girl from Impanema”. He then installed a roll of barbed wire across her incisors. She spent the next three years picking broccoli out of her retainer at dinner parties and hiding “difficult” foods in her napkin.
Apart from cosmetic surgery, the other common topic (at least amongst ex-pats from the U.S.) was circumcision. It transpired that I was less than hygienic because my undercarriage still sported all its original features. I considered getting “cut”, but the prospect of someone singing to my genitals while slashing away at them didn’t seem very dignified. I opted to remain unhygienic, but intact.
For many English-speaking ex-pats, Mexico is a state of mind rather than a place. It’s somewhere they can come to slum it, do some social tourism and wait for their trust funds to mature. I think this explained why many of my new acquaintances had “fabulous” careers. Photographers-that-acted rubbed shoulders with actors-who-wrote and all exchanged air kisses with artists-who-modelled. Of the other people that I met at cocktail parties, a high proportion seemed to be 007 fantasists.
There was Barnaby, a man who combined a tactile nature with the habits of serial nose-picking and crotch-scratching. After two martinis he confessed that he worked for MI5 “on the side”. I was confused. Two martinis and he was already blabbing? Where was his stiff upper-lip? He introduced me to “Mad-John”. John was from New Jersey and spoke mandarin. He (allegedly) had been recruited by the CIA at university. In Mexico, he had set up a private dojo at his house where he taught martial arts to all-comers. You could spot his students from their extensive facial bruising and bandages.
“You should come to one of our practice sessions,” he glowered at me.
He crushed my thin arm with a hand the size of a boxing glove. His eye-balls popped. It seemed like he was using every ounce of self-control not to snap me in two. I declined his offer and backed away, maintaining eye-contact.
I’m ashamed to admit that after six months of being surrounded by minor celebrity and plastic surgery, I began to worry. I began to worry about my English teeth. My encroaching baldness. My paunch. My dull, dull ordinary job. I wasn’t fabulous. Not even a bit of it. Where were all the non-fabulous people?I wanted to return to England. England, my England, where people sported teeth like Red Rum and let their uncircumcised foreskins flap in the breeze. I looked at cosmetic surgery brochures and wondered wistfully if they offered a package deal that included male liposuction, teeth straightening and a hair transplant.
And then I met Enrique and his wife Martha. Enrique had an earnest beard and wore wide rim glasses. He looked like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. He was an ex-catholic missionary. Martha could drink more than anyone I knew and hugged people a lot.Neither of them liked going to cocktail parties. And so, I stopped going to them.
In retrospect this solution to my problem seems self-evident, but when you emigrate the first casualty can often be your sense of, well, the bleedin’ obvious. The experience of my first few months in Mexico City taught me two things:
1) When moving to a new country avoid large groups of your fellow countrymen as much as possible.
2) If you break rule 1), then when you do attend “cocktails” look any Barnabys in the eye and tell them that you are an actor-director who does a bit of espionage between films. It may not be true, but it will spare you trips to the dentist and your foreskin may even send you a thank-you note.
(c) Guardian Unlimited 2008