Sleep refused to come. A cocktail of overtiredness, hunger, and anticipation kept my brain ticking away. I lay in a semi-dark room for a few hours, listening to the sounds of the apartment around me and letting my brain unpack its new environment. My body was happy to be horizontal for a time, random muscle spasms let me know it needed it.
For some reason, dragging myself from a cat nap often seems harder than deep sleep. I shook off the groggy head of nap and pulled myself out of bed. It was nice to put on a new pair of underwear and clothes that didn’t stink. I felt at least a little more ready to go out there and face the Spanish-speaking world. My stomach wouldn’t let me rest a minute longer.
Being hungry for me is a curse. Ask anyone I’ve ever dated. I don’t even like my own company when I’m hungry. I bumped into my new housemate, Alex, on the way out. He was sitting with his brother having a few drinks. Between the two of them I think they maybe came to about the size of a regular Norwegian, this was something I was going to become quite accustomed to. I would have hung around for a chat, but like I said, even I don’t like my company when I’m hungry. I made my excuses and set out on my search for sustenance.
My first thoughts went to the Barbacoa place around the corner. It was only five minutes away and was opposite a supermarket, I could get two birds stoned at once that way. To my dismay, this place works Sunday hours from 1 pm to 4 pm. You got to wonder what the point is, but who am I to judge? I could see the market down Ribera De San Consum was more or less open and I knew they had something, I could smell it.
By this point I was feeling a little shaky, I would eat anything. There, before me, sat a taco stand. The chef had even fewer teeth than me and looked old enough to have lived through both revolutions, but he had tacos. I used my broken Spanish to ask for two, just agreed to whatever it was he asked in relation to preference, and sat back. Food was afoot. He grabbed a ball of pre-made dough, flipped and flopped it into two tacos, and slapped them on the grill. This was shortly followed by thin-cut strips of meat, possibly pig, which promptly filled my eager nostrils with beautiful meaty smells. Ah carne, sweet love of my life.
In no time at all the tacos had cooked and the meat was beautifully browned. He quickly constructed it, slapped it on a plastic plate wrapped in a food bag to prevent the need for washing up, and asked if I wanted onion. Onion for me was a word I had no idea I knew, but I guess the months I spent as a chef in Spain had left at least some dregs of language. He handed me my miscellaneous meat and onion-filled taco and pointed me toward the salsa. I fear no Scoville so loaded it up.
Needless to say, it tasted like heaven. My poor empty body consumed like the cavernous pit it was. I think that, even if I wasn’t hungry, the freshly made taco and thinly sliced meat topped with tangy and hot salsa would have been a delight. In my current state, it was manna from heaven. I could have eaten five, which, by the way, is the way they are often eaten.
You pay after you have eaten, which was new to me, and it cost a total of $42 or about £1.50. I imagine this came with tourist tax but my happy stomach would have paid twice that. This was what had come here for, sitting by the side of a road, chowing down delicious food. Satiated, I nipped around the corner to the local shop to see if I could find what I needed.
Despite the food, I still had a roiling anxiety in the middle of my back. It made my ears burn and my breath a little short. The food had perked up my mood but I knew I needed to get out, take a walk, engage in something mundane like shopping, and headbutt this creeping nerve out of my brain. The little shop I had gone to was more of a snack, fag, and booze spot. I looked up some local supermarkets. They were all closed, but, there was a Walmart about half a mile away. I knew exactly what I needed to do. I grabbed some roadies and decided to do what some Germans had once told me was called a beer walk.
Beer walks are a phenomenon local to Berlin. Many local corner shops have seats outside them in their city; you can pop into the shop, grab a cold beer from the fridge, and enjoy it right outside. You can travel from shop to shop, paying no more than the euro or so it costs for a beer, and tour your chosen neighborhood. I’ve taken this tradition and applied it to any old walk.
The shop I had gone into had a selection of canned Mezcal with flavors. I opted for pineapple and chili, lime and grapefruit, and something else equally delicious. These would do perfectly, and unlike a vast majority of English corner shop fridges, these had been kept ice cold. I was armed with what I needed and ready to stomp my way to the church of American consumerism.
I just now read that actually, drinking on the streets in Mexico City is illegal, I’ll just have to be aware of that for future reference, as for the rest of this post, I claim blissful ignorance. I cracked my first can over the road from the shop, in a nice little park. I sat a few benches away from two dudes and a woman sharing a crack pipe. I didn’t bother to ask if that was also prohibited, I’m sure the locals know the law. Feeling refreshed, I made my way through the blocks toward my destination.
The twenty minutes or so saw off the remaining cans and got me a buzzed. I was able to forget my nagging brain and relax into my surroundings a little more. The colors of the beautifully painted, if degrading buildings, made the streets blend beautifully with the trees lining every road. Beater cars, still running, but looking like they have been shaped from sheet metal smashed into a vaguely recognizable shape drew my eye. Small but bustling restaurants adorned every street corner and rich smells and music washed over the pavements.
Walmart was a hellscape. Imagine an Asda but they also sell mopeds, have an entire pharmacy, and a technology section as big as Curry’s. It made me want to die but I grabbed what I needed: body wash, moisturizer, more cold ones, and some coffee. I also grabbed fruit loops because I wanted to try them. I regretted that the next morning, they taste like freeze-dried sadness. I paid my bill and got the fuck out.
As I left and rounded the corner I heard the unmistakable, universal sound of a funfair. Pounding techno music, the rattle of a barely maintained ride, and screams of sugar-loaded children. It didn’t take long to locate. The sweet smells of cooking meat and caramelizing sugar drew me in.
The streets were heaving and the crowds were excited. As far as I could see were food stalls, rides, and attractions. The first I came across was a waltzer, but the seats were in a circular steel cage face to face and you were able to spin your own cage vertically. It looked like some kind of Guantanamo torture device but the people inside seemed to be having a good time. Equally terrifying rides followed all emitting the tell-tale rattle and hiss of hydraulics pushed to their limits and resistance springs flatter than the tacos on sale. I had to see more.
Stalls selling sticks of grilled meat welcomed me to my next meal of the day. A two-foot skewer of grilled wings doused in enough hot sauce to dissolve a body rudely introduced itself to my very western gut bacteria. It was delicious and will not be my last. I got it from the self-titled Barbacoa Chulo. I washed it down with another can and made my way deeper into the Mexican wonderland.
The fair seemed to never end. Street after street of blaring music, amplified calls to the next shooting range, and screaming people on rattling rides overloaded my sleep-deprived senses. I finally made my way to a square with some semblance of space. This was the point it all got a little weirder. I had noticed earlier, there were stands you could get your picture taken. Most were themed for kids; things like Fortnite and other kids’ tv shows had big sets to pose on, but these new ones were different.
The beginnings were nativities, which makes sense with the time of year. Tiered placings put Mary, Joseph, a couple of shepherds, and wise men around a nativity. There were a few of these. The thing that struck me was the use of blackface. Every stall I saw had someone in blackface. It was surprising to see, to say the least. A little out of touch perhaps, but who am I to comment, I expect it’s a little outside of my cultural understanding.
What is within my cultural understanding came next. Nativity, great, spiderman in the nativity, not quite sure he was canonically present. It didn’t stop there. As I proceeded down the rows of photo-op sets of nativities they got wilder. There was one with a T-Rex, another with a Dalek and there was even one where every character was an avatar. Can’t wait for that one to come out in the cinema. I wondered if there was a little more than just mezcal in those cans.
I meandered on, basking in the surreal nature of it all. The simulacrum of a British fair with its sounds and smells lulled me away from the culture shock my tired and soft brain had been teetering on the edge of. I finally sound my way to the edge of the madness somewhere near Republic Square, nowhere near where I thought I was, or where I entered. I felt in a haze, the fair had pulled me away from myself for a time and whisked me up into the neon and candyfloss. I decided to carry that home with me and to bed. I grabbed one more can for the road and drifted home to my new but highly anticipated bed.