Mexico City’s Magical Mix

Intimacy and grit in the Mexican capital 

By Francisco Goldman

I’d never missed Mexico City so much as during this past interminable winter in New York.

During the weeks before our departure date, I badly needed a haircut, but I didn’t get one because on my first day in the D.F.—the Distrito Federal, as locals call Mexico City—I wanted to go to my favorite barbershop, and maybe you should go too, for an authentic Mexican experience.

Paris Marinne, in posh Polanco, is a humble place with a barber pole outside. Inside are old-fashioned barber chairs, usually filled with executive types. As soon as you come in, you’re offered a drink—tequila or whiskey—which they’ll keep refilling as long as you’re there. If you stay for a shave, that can be a couple of hours.

Men lie back, faces covered with steaming towels, which are repeatedly changed. My barber is Francisco, and when my girlfriend and I were temporarily broken up, he gave me advice that was the opposite of my New York shrink’s, for whom mental health meant accepting that some things have no solution. Francisco said that everything has a solution, and he turned out to be right.

After that most recent haircut, as I was in the neighborhood, I went to the José Cuervo Salón for the Saturday night fights. Half a century ago in the U.S., nationally televised Friday night fights were an institution, but the rougher mainstream culture that implies is long gone. These fights are nationally televised, too.

The arenas are small—the grungy old Arena México in Colonia Doctores is my favorite—and you can hear every punch land, and study the fighters’ eyes. You feel as if you are in a George Bellows painting.

Mexican boxers, whatever their skill level, have long had an international reputation as fighters who won’t go down, who give it their absolute all.

The Saturday night fights represent one of the things I love most about Mexico City: the way it preserves—for all the sophistication, wealth, and glamour of its most fashionable sectors—the hard-nosed grittiness of city life in a way that is never easy to overlook.

The other day I ran into a friend at Panadería Rosetta, a single-counter place in the Colonia Roma Norte neighborhood, selling sandwiches and chocolate croissants that I’m dangerously addicted to. Its owner/chef, Elena Reygadas, was recently awarded the Veuve Clicquot Latin America’s Best Female Chef 2014, for her more upscale restaurant, Rosetta, down the block.

At the Panadería, I was having a melted stracchino and arugula sandwich for lunch, and my friend was taking photos for his blog. Later, he and I were walking down Calle Orizaba, past the pool-hall bar that serves good cheap pizza and top-notch mescals, when he exclaimed, “Aren’t we lucky to live in Mexico City!”

You can eat sandwiches in New York City, too, but I emphatically agreed. I never feel especially grateful to live in New York, not in the way I do to live in the D.F.

I looked around. An endless stream of young people and sophisticated arty older people—this area has many galleries—passed us by. Magnificent trees bower Roma Norte’s streets, which are lined with faded grand 19th-century mansions from when this was the “aristocratic” neighborhood.

Roma can feel like a neighborhood out of Proust, except for the food stands on the corners, such as the one serving a traditional Mexican goat stew, or birria, with tacos, good for hangovers. No birria in Proust.

My late wife, Aura, loved flying into the city at night, seeing the vast, dense spread of lights below. “It’s like looking down into the universe from above,” she’d say.

The keys to happiness in this city, I think, are the simple things: the cozy cantina that serves pork ribs in green sauce; a walk, on any day of the week but especially on Sundays, in Parque México, in the Condesa neighborhood; or a teeming food market such as Mercado San Juan, with its geometric piles of brilliantly colored fruits, some of which you’ll never have heard of, and free samples, which hawkers constantly hand out.

I could write a 500-page book of suggested walks through the D.F. (In Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a novel that captures the spirit of life in this city as no other does, the young characters walk endlessly.) But one of my favorite walks meanders from Roma Norte to Roma Sur.

It doesn’t matter what tree-shaded streets I first go down—I might stop for lunch at Parnita, that most excellent taco restaurant—but I end up at Lulu, an art space founded by the Mexican artist Martin Soto Climent and the American curator Chris Sharp (make an appointment by email).

The D.F. may have several comprehensive contemporary art museums, including the Fundación Jumex, founded by the scion of Mexico’s mega juice company. But Lulu, named after a little juice stand on the corner, is just one white room on the ground floor of a small house.

Over the past year Lulu has shown internationally renowned artists, from the Mexican, Brooklyn-based painter Aliza Nisenbaum to New Zealander Kate Newby. As part of her exhibit, Newby poured a puddle of pink-colored cement outside on the gallery’s sidewalk and embedded into it small crustacean “fossils” that she had sculpted by hand. The neighbors were so fond of the work they swept it every morning.

Inside the gallery, a row of exquisite tiny handmade bells dangled by red threads from a thin cord. The cord led visitors to a sort of hanging xylophone of ceramic blades, in different colors, which made stirring sounds when nudged against one another. Here in one of the largest, most chaotic cities on Earth, enchantment and delight on the most intimate scale.

Francisco Goldman is the author of the award-winning Say Her Name and The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle. He lives in Mexico City and teaches at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Follow Goldman on Twitter @PacoGoldman. This feature first appeared in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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