Writing about life in Mexico, I find, can easily make it sound like a bucolic romp. The people are friendly, at least outwardly, the cost of living is low by Canadian and US standards, and anyone used to northern winters loves the weather.
But I was never a romper, bucolic or otherwise, and most of my life I’ve kept half my mind centred on the darker, more difficult side of life; ignoring it isn’t my thing. A few nights ago, out walking in the village, I ran into my neighbour Robin, who was merely out enjoying the warm night air. I promptly launched into a monologue on the angst-y ambiguities of living here and expat identity, which she handled with cautious tact. Robin does tact well, and she does cautious tact even better.
But not everyone, I realised, wants to engage with a kind of post-Jungian, crypto-existentialist angst during the course of an evening stroll. What I really needed was a Montmartre cafe in the 1950s, with a friend-of-a-friend of Simone de Beauvoir to share my exquisitely dissected parsing of my ambiguous attitudes about life.
And, with a little teasing of the imagination, I realised I just about have one.
When my friend Ana lived in Tepoztlan, she and her posse, which then included me, would often end up at Pueblo Gaucho, the town’s sole Argentine restaurant after the Martin Fierro grill was shut. We’d get more drunk than we could handle by 3.30 in the afternoon, and Eva, the vivacious owner with the irresistible smile, would flirt with us oh-so-diplomatically.
The best restaurant entrances have a hint of mystery about them. What awaits within?
One time, when I was really too low on cash even to be there, I told Ana I had to go easy on what I spent.
“Try the empanadas,” she suggested. “They’re not expensive.”
I was skeptical that empanadas were anything to write home about, because usually they aren’t. For that reason, I’d ignored them on the menu. But Pueblo Gaucho, I discovered, has empanadas without equal: a dozen different varieties of small, oven-baked pies, encasing the likes of raisins, plums, mozzarella, goat’s cheese, beef, bacon or pineapple, in highly creative combinations. They’re quite un-Mexican, and three or four make a meal on their own. They’re also quite angst-countering; but word is that the excellent food at Les Deux Magots never stopped Sartre and de Beauvoir from harping endlessly about paradoxes, absurdity and the failings of the bourgeois consensus over a long lunch.
Last year, when I was about to return to Mexico, my occasional co-conspirator Amy asked me what I wanted to eat first when I arrived; she understands I’m an enthusiastic omnivore. I thought for a second, about the cecina de res at Naty’s (sliced beef – the best in town), or the chicken quesadillas at a favourite stall in the marketplace. But the overriding memory (and anticipation) that arose for me was of sitting on the narrow balcony at Pueblo Gaucho, looking down on Avenida de la Revolucion and sipping a glass of Malbec, while waiting for the chimichurri that arrives just before the empanadas themselves are brought to the table.
(Clockwise from left:) Sacrifices in the cause of examining existential absurdity: Malbec, chimichurri (red chili and green versions) , and empanadas Nos. seven, eleven and twelve from the menu.
I mentioned Martin Fierro, the place that was named after an epic Argentine poem from the 1870s. I loved that place’s chorizos, but Eva understands hospitality in a way the owners of Martin Fierro didn’t; they closed after eight months, while her establishment is still popular after five or six years in business.
The figure of Fierro, a lonely, unhappy outlaw – think, The Man With No Name but from the Pampas – is an oddly Argentine one.
Close, Clint, but the accent’s wrong for a gaucho.
I’ve not yet visited the country, but I’ve had Argentine friends and Argentine teachers of Spanish, and they’re … different. It might be easiest to say that if you come up with any analogy for how they’re different, the correct answer would be “No, they’re not quite like that.” More than anyone else in Latin America, they seem alarmed by their own existence. The capital, Buenos Aires, famously has one psychoanalyst for every 120 citizens. The psychoanalysts, of course, all have analysts of their own.
If I’m not communicating much sense here, try listening to Astor Piazzolla’s Buenos Aires Hora Cero. That should clarify things.
Now, since I came back to Mexico, each time I’ve been to Pueblo Gaucho, I’ve gone alone. This past weekend was a working weekend, and on Sunday afternoon, feeling tired, and that I deserved a small reward, I went there – alone, again – with smooching couples and Mexican family mobs all around me downing steaks, pasta and pizza. (Argentina’s population is heavily Italian in origin, so its food is influenced by that). And I looked up at an image of a gaucho on the wall, and thought, “I come here to be reflectively melancholy. This is my Montmartre sidewalk cafe.”
Eva, supervising the room, saw me in this mood, and – what else? – smiled at me.
I’m taking what are no more than whispers within the place – occasional, nervously intense conversations by Eva’s friends, or the Argentine songs being played over the sound system – and probably stretching what they actually suggest. But on quieter afternoons, I can sat on the balcony gazing down along the street, or over the rooftops to the mountains on the town’s north, thinking, “I should stay here, get drunk, and contemplate the improbabilities and paradoxes of human existence.” Or at least, bring a novel by Kafka (or maybe the Argentine counter-existentialist Jorge Luis Borges ) to read while I’m waiting.
Not that Mexico is devoid of thinkers who have written on those lines: Octavio Paz’ famous volume of essays on his country, The Labyrinth of Solitude, is still in print, 20 years after his death. But the Argentine version of things is more intensely evolved than the Mexican one. Mexico has its dark and haunted sides, but Argentine hauntedness is (…the word again…) different. The country and its capital are European in many ways, insecurely urbanised, unable to quite realise their own ambitions, and the antithesis of what I came to Mexico to experience.
And at my balcony table I can slide into contemplating the alienating contradictions underlying the human condition, without having to deal with them as directly as I would in the real Argentina. Or the real Montmartre, for that matter. The town of Tepoztlan is just below me, and
The balcony view.
the mountains – imposing, inscrutable, and older than imagination can reach – are a mere 20 minutes’ walk away. I can slide into and out of considering said human condition without either alarming friends I might bump into at night, or collapsing into over-intellectualised self-pity.
Or, for that matter, going hungry.
On that balcony, I can also feel as if I should drift into melancholic drunkenness, making my way through a whole bottle of the house Malbec. In such a condition, I might even persuade Eva to hear me explain how the paradoxes of our existence are almost beyond the capability of the human mind to envisage, let alone resolve, and that her empanadas, with their contrasting savours, drawn from the cuisine of several countries, perfectly symbolise the process of trying to do so. Borges, I will remind her, was a great symbolist, and would have enjoyed the analogy.
Or not. One problem is, I love wine, but dislike being drunk, so I end up nursing the one glass for 45 minutes, until I’ve eaten the culinary embodiment of our human plight on the plate in front of me. Then, sipping the last drops of wine, I pay my bill and return down the stairs to the quotidian Mexico that was always just below my feet, feeling a little sad that yet again, I came to no final conclusions or realisations while up on the balcony.
Yet knowing that since it was undamaged by the 2017 earthquake, that balcony will no doubt be there the next time I want to wander temporarily into my own labyrinth of solitude. For often, on weekends (but not when I went to take photos, of course), Eva still presides over the place, and smiles most counter-angstfully.