First impressions of a city are always wrong. Perhaps you will have the pleasure of arriving in Mexico City by plane. You will pass over mountains that seem to fall into the ocean, and approach the runway over narrow houses in primary colors. If you are lucky, your taxi driver will be watching telenovelas as he waits in traffic. If it is night and around the holiday season, the windows and billboards that stretch across the valley will be punctuated by Christmas glitter. You may think you see a green cross lit up on a hillside, but you cannot be sure.
Or maybe you are arriving by bus, perhaps down the northerly road that passes the Teotihuacán ruins. There, your first encounter with the city will make up in realism what it lacks in magic. You will pass through straw-colored hills that appear and then vanish in the haze, and you will meditate over hilltop neighborhoods that light up in stages as the sun goes down. You will lack any point of reference in the United States to describe many of the homes you see, squeezed together with little paint on dusty streets. You will notice isolated bonfires, probably burning trash, and there will be kids chasing soccer balls and a few travelers waiting by the road. At the same time, you hesitate to sum it all up in a sociological category, a city or a suburb or a good neighborhood or a bad neighborhood, since you have no way of knowing what these people do every day and whether or not they are happy.
For me, travel always brings loneliness. It is a deep, delicious loneliness that only goes away when I visit museums. On another side of the Zócalo is the National Palace, which opens into a courtyard allowing observation of its baroque arches. (Can I say "baroque?" I am laughably far from being an art historian, so that is my catch-all term for anything Victorian gentlemen might encounter on their grand tours.) Its beauty, however, lies in the contrast between its original architecture and the Diego Rivera murals along the walls.
You can also go into the restored legislative chamber in use during part of the 19th Century, where liberal reformers (small "l" and bourgeois) signed a constitution in 1857. Outside there are computers that offer a history quiz for children, and a voice that sounds like a duck cries out "Excelente!" and "Muy bien!"
Onward from the palace: Markets. Open-air vendors stretch on for a mile or two in every direction, making up what could be the largest informal marketplace I’ve ever seen. Much of what’s for sale is aimed at parents who bring their kids along. Everybody is selling Winnie the Pooh, quite possibly the most popular toy both in the market and throughout all of Mexico. Not only will you find the classical Pooh, but also Pooh in baby clothes or Pooh in cowboy hats and in other occupational uniforms. (Later in trip, I walked into a department store and saw a stuffed animal in mutant form, with Eeyore’s head, Pooh’s torso and Tigger’s tail, or some variation thereof, displayed on a pedestal so you couldn’t miss it.) Also available in the market are Tweety Bird, Ernie, Milhouse and Cookie Monster; and there are cosmetics, beads and blue jeans. This was the first of many times I wished I had brought along a companion or native informant, with whom I then could have chatted about the small and adventurous day trippers waiting in line for their Pooh bears, were it not for my compulsive habit of dropping in places where I lacked the pleasure of an acquaintance.
At a certain point I looked around and saw nothing but bridal shops.
Naturally, I found this peculiar and so I consulted my guidebook, which told me it was a custom left over from Aztec times for certain blocks to be devoted to particular crafts. What I have read tells me the Aztec merchants operated on something like a guild system, so I assume this was the equivalent of medieval cities that set aside one street for the haberdashers and another for the silversmiths.
The markets end at the Palacio de las Bellas Artes, a theater and art museum next to the Alameda, a big city park. Here marks a transition between the old and new cities, where you emerge from narrow streets into a downtown of modern clock towers, flagship restaurants and streams of people moving in more or less single file.
The palace itself is worth visiting for its murals. The prominent one is Rivera’s Hombre en una Encrucijada, which was supposed to be in Rockefeller Center until the Depression-era capitalists took a good, long look at it. A butterfly man is in the center, and beneath his wings is a garden of what looks like maize and fruit trees; and below the garden are the roots. Some kind of machine reaches down through the man into the soil. There is an approximation of a space capsule that encloses a social gathering of men wearing spyglasses and women with their eyes closed, all of them playing cards. Outside of the capsule, police are beating a crowd demanding bread. Included on the periphery are soldiers in gas masks and a bearded statue that looks like God. (My powers as an art historian have already been summed up, but look at it yourself here.)