Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Renaissance Man of Veracruz

I was sure that Veracruz was going to be another non-city for me, meaning that I would never fully realize I was here until I was gone. It was like that with Monterrey, our third city on the Mexican tour, which I spent holed up in Starbucks cramming for my trip to France. If I once looked up from my French verbs or Paris maps, it was to go to the gym or catch the bus to work. This was fine with me, since the last two cities in Mexico are record short ones: 2 1/2 weeks! Packing and unpacking become a continuum of disarray. It's like being on an extended layover between other, more real destinations. By now, most of Quidam has adopted an apathetic, last-lap approach; Veracruz was made for beach lounging and not much else, so why fight it?

So I was surprised when, last Monday, my friend Josee and I met perhaps the most fascinating man in Mexico. We were resigned that day to wandering aimlessly around the Zocalo, or downtown plaza. I had a fresh mango on a stick, cut into the shape of a flower, and was content to let that be the highlight of my afternoon. We then came across a tiny, crumbly pedestrian street, lined with disintegrating colonial houses that had become cat castles. We stopped to take pictures of the still-colorful tiles, half-collapsed balconies, and feline proprietors. But not all the buildings were ruins - a small shop remained intact with bright blue pottery and woven fabric in its window.

Ferruccio met us with a resonant voice and perfect English, offering to show us the crafts filling every corner of the place. They were not just souvenirs, either; each piece held a rich story for Ferruccio to tell. He pulled out a doll so delicate that her hands needed tissues to protect them. She was La Katrina, a Mexican representation of Death, with a skull for a face but the clothes of a refined Victorian lady. Miniscule earrings dotted her ears, and beneath the tissue, a ring circled one thin finger.

I started to understand then the uniqueness of everything Ferruccio had to show us. He knew not only the history and cultural significance of everything but also the lives of the artists. Knowing who has crafted a piece is special, and rare now. To think that in the past, every item you could buy was made by an artisan, a human who imparted both skill and imperfection into what he produced. It amazes me how, with the proliferation of cheap Chinese imports and the ubiquity of low-quality mass production, that this kind of artist-to-buyer transaction has become a chic habit of the rich in the U.S. Everything old is new again. Peasant-this and rustic-that. But not everywhere, not yet. I revel in the wholesomeness of a plain, steaming-hot tortilla made from nothing but maize by an abuelita at a roadside stand, and I see that here it's still poor man's food. It has not yet had its renaissance, it's chance to be remade as authentic and therefore cool. Maybe I had to go through something like that with my travel shopping. Back on my first real trip, with my 8th grade class in Williamsburg, VA, I swear I gobbled up those souvenir spoons and thimbles like there was no tomorrow. I am more selective now, though not necessarily more knowledgeable about what to bring back from my trips. That's when a friend like Ferruccio becomes indispensable.

I fell in love with the least practical thing in Ferruccio's shop: a bulky statue of La Danza de los Voladores. The traditional dance of the Totonac people is not unlike an aerial circus act, though the ritual was more about drought relief than performance art when it began 1,500 years ago. Four men fly out from a central pole, suspended by ropes tied to their feet. It's spectacular, and this statue was remarkable in that it was constructed entirely of recycled parts. It had been an assignment for students from a Mexican school, to create art from trash. Nuts and bolts and screws and washers somehow came together to give the illusion of flight, don't ask me how. Unfortunately, it was mounted on a mammoth hunk of hardwood that would be a nightmare for air travel, a burden on my parents, but a fascinating feature in a future home.  

So we sat down for an expresso with Ferruccio, and learned how Mexico's coffee industry has been ravaged by corruption, the same corruption that disillusioned him into giving up his government curator post. Instead, he has countless independent art projects around Latin America - exhibitions, conferences, even plays that he produces and tours with. After hours in the shop, Josee and I invited him to see Quidam the following week, while he, in turn, invited us to visit his "villas" in Boca del Rio, a 15-minute drive from our hotel.


Josee and I woke early (okay, "early" for people with our schedule means before 10am) to meet Ferruccio.  I was groggy from the previous night's end-of-Mexico-tour party at "Piratax," the tacky beachside bar with a hard rock pirate theme.  Their sign is a skull and crossed guitars.  

We drove with Ferruccio past miles of sand dunes that are fast becoming trash heaps and housing developments.  When he bought his land 20 years ago, there were no other buildings in sight, but rash and foolhardy businessmen want to blanket the landscape with tens of thousands of shoebox condos and soulless mansions.  They don't know (or care) an ounce about urban planning, Ferruccio explained, no thought to infrastructure at all.  The building is out of control, not quite on the scale of Dubai, but with the added hindrance of Veracruz's bloody awful weather.  Build a road one day, only to find it has been swept away by another bout of wind.  A lost cause, a sinkhole for investors, but the hottest trend around for developers.  Nature here does not wish to be messed with on that scale.  

In contrast to the utter ugliness of the construction sites, Ferruccio's land was an oasis.  He had reigned in nature most artfully, planting a wind barrier of trees that offered shade enough to drop the temperature noticeably.  More than just a residence, this was a compound of homes with a central road connecting the fifteen or so houses. They belong to Ferruccio, his brother, his mother, and, in a most enlightened relationship, to his ex-wife and her new husband (more to come on that). The extra buildings comprise the "Villas Palmira," vacation cottages for tourists that Ferruccio opened some years back to better afford the land.

Our first stop was to visit Marguerita, Ferruccio's ex-wife and an exceptional potter. Her studio was beautifully dusty and clay-strewn, with her signature blue stoneware stacked on every surface; classical music peacefully ordered what could have been a mess. Marguerita herself has the calm, patient demeanor of an artist who works gradual wonders with her hands. She had seen Quidam the previous week and, in fact, I had bought a piece of hers from Ferruccio's shop. Although most of her work depicts the fauna of Veracruz - lizards and fish - she has also created pottery as social commentary, her most recent to bring awareness to the brutal homicides of the past decade and a half in Juaraz, Mexico. She depicts the tragedy of hundreds of women's murders (and nonexistent government action) by placing graceful, white ceramic sculptures of women in a field of dark sand. It is a dramatic contrast to her pretty and light vases and bowls, but a strong political statement.

But it was probably the next part of our visit that made me think the most. Marguerita introduced us to her husband, Joel, who is also a potter and with whom she lives in their lovely, airy home next to the workshop. Ferruccio gave him a friendly slap on the back and boasted of Joel's talent, before we all moved out to the courtyard for a cup of tea and pleasant conversation. "We used to be married and now we're business partners," Ferruccio had explained originally, and I thought about the long process it must have been to get to that point. The acceptance, tolerance, love, and unselfishness that must exist for such a situation to work. It's a good place to return to in my still-jealous mind, as I learn how it is to love a person who is no longer mine.

We then joined Ferruccio and his and Marguerita's daughter, Luciana, for lunch in the cafe (for guests of the villas). Halfway through the meal, we were greeted by his mother, a spirited woman in her 80s. Her house, according to her wishes, was built to look like a ship, with a terrace from which she can look out onto the ocean and navigate. She had to stop by the table to show us a picture she had found in a book that morning, of her with Fidel Castro twenty years before. "How young I look," she said of her image in a flowered dress, "and I was 65!" We then discussed Cuba, which has now intrigued me, though I cannot get there from the U.S. of course. Ferruccio brings theater productions there regularly, and in his opinion, there has never been a country where the people were so over-educated and so underpaid. Great geniuses of music, medicine, and sports, stifled by one of history's binges of ideology. We can hope, for their sake, for changes from a younger Castro sibling.

Finally, stuffed from a long and lingering meal, Josee and I got to see Ferruccio's pièce de résistance - his library. An entire wing of his house contains over 50,000 books, mainly on the art and history of Latin America, but including geography, philosophy, literature and politics. It is a devil of a thing to keep up, he explained, what with the humidity, tropical insects, and the labor-intensive task of cataloging and restoring the books. His project now is to adapt it into a research library, a status that could qualify it for grants and support. It is massive, smells of old and musty pages. Interspersed among the books are miscellany that I could spend eons discovering. Odds and ends in an art curator's home are anything but junk.

After I mentioned my upcoming trip to Paris, Ferruccio insisted we look at his section on France, if not for practical help then at least for historical perspective. There were no Lonely Planet guides in this dusty collection. Many books were from the earliest decades of the 20th century, sans photos but with detailed illustrations of La Tour Eiffel and Versailles. He then gave me one of the most recent pieces of the France file, a National Geographic map from 1970. I am absolutely bringing it with me! While not terribly old, it offers laughably retro travel tips:
LODGING: Average rates for big-city luxury hotels are $20 per day for a single room. Less expensive rooms run about $5, while France's 200 youth hostels offer lodging for less than a dollar per day.
TRANSPORTATION: Modes of travel popular with youth include hitch-hiking, the ultimate in inexpensive travel (this is recommended?!)
LANGUAGE: English understood at most hotels, shops, and restaurants in large cities (what about French?!)

So, thanks to Ferruccio, I plan hitch-hike my way to a hotel and inquire loudly in English, "It says here I can get a room for five dollars, no?"

As I said before, I wasn't expecting to find anything of substance in Veracruz, but it's been a pleasant surprise.

*** I'm leaving for France in a few days with stomach butterflies (may be the Mexican lettuce, actually) and, well, expectations, which I should probably let go of. I am expecting the trip to help me feel okay on my own again. I'm expecting it to help me learn slow down and really see my surroundings. I'm expecting it to force me to speak French! And maybe it would be nice to have some romance, good weather, and a nice croissant... so you see why I need to simply let this unfold without pressure.
A bientot!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Gran Cafe de la Parroquia

A tradition in Veracruz, and the reason why there is no Starbucks here: El Gran Cafe de la Parroquia. Coffee here is not a subdued, pensive affair or a chic see-and-be-seen thing. Instead, people gather around large round tables, clink their spoons against their glasses of potent espresso, and await the show. The spoon-dinging summons a waiter weilding a large kettle full of steaming milk, which he pours from heights up to three feet above the glass, combining it with the brown stuff into a frothy Mexican "lechero." Not unlike a latte, but don't mention that to a local, as there seems to be a lot of pride in this Mexican version of the drink.
Click here to see la Parroquia in action, and no, this is not my most recent trip with my new Mexican amigos, just a youtube find.
Enjoy! Back to work, where we're anticipating another windstorm soon... didn't anyone check that out ahead of time? We're down one tent already. Hopefully we get paid to endure cabin fever in La Fiesta Inn should the show be cancelled again.