Mexico...in small bytes

TRAVEL..........STORIES OF MEXICAN LIFE..........& MORE

Mexico...in small bytes ranges far afield from its home turf once again, this time traveling to Rome.

The second part of this article generates some musings on a few of the differences and similarities between living in Mexico and Italy.

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A behind the door view of Mexico and Italy showing a few ways the two countries differ and how they compare.

Returning home after traveling always sets up a round of comparison shopping so to speak. How does Mexico compare to Italy?

The thing that really struck me the most was walking the dogs that first morning upon our return and realizing that I heard more bird song in less than an hour than in a month in Italy. And as I listened to the cacophony from the rancho below, it dawned on me that never once in those thirty days did I hear the crowing of a rooster.

Even in past visits to more rural areas, it was hard to find the bird song so common in our neck of the woods. Pesticides do take their toll. And as far as those roosters, life is a little too regulated in many areas of Italy to allow for free-ranging fowl with their clucks and crowing.

For many people, these distinctions would be immaterial but as a confirmed 'country mouse', they loom large.

Hens and roosters as sculpture and as a living, albeit temporary, part of a mini plaza in the Centro Historico of Guadalajara. It's hard to imagine either in Italy.

Beautiful and seeped in history as Rome is, I have to confess to a bias in favor of living in the country. Many Italians from other parts of Italy who now make Rome their home said it was a city where they immediately felt a casa. I felt comfortably 'at home' but only because I knew the airline ticket had a date on it.

To feel at home in this country, it would have to be further south and well removed from the city, thus opening a Pandora's Box of incredulous looks from the Romans we talked to.

 

Just two of the dozens of hummingbirds that were only a part of the bird population that awaited us upon our return.

Italy is a land where many city people simply do not like the country. I've never quite encountered such visceral distaste although cool mountain air is sought out each year for a brief escape from the summer heat.

And the further north you go, that age-old prejudice against the south prevails. I even heard one person admit to being afraid to move south since she felt the area is still controlled by the Mafia. It's true the existence of the Mafia is freely admitted everywhere but then so is the Narco presence in Mexico. Luckily it seems fairly easy for a foreigner to avoid both.

The chance not only to see but also to live in the middle of the unexpected is something I missed.

 

Bringing small photo albums with pictures of Mexico to Italy has always been a great hit. The cow and horse jumping out of a building on Avenida Madero to announce a veterinary shop and the fellow hanging from the rooftop in San Miguel announcing who knows what had to be the two shots that appealed the most.

Life is simply more regulated in Italy so the chaos factor common in Mexico is lost. In the Urbania Language School, one teacher asked the class to give an opinion of Italy as they had seen it so far. When I said I thought it might be a tad too orderly for my taste, her jaw fell open. 'You're the first student in years and years of teaching that's ever felt that way,' she sputtered. 'In fact, I've never even heard an Italian say that about Italy!'

   

 

Where in Italy would you find a statue of a man apparently holding up a wall and a whole plaza filled with whimsical chairs? Mexico abounds with such sights.

If you come from another culture where things happen on time, more or less as expected, life in Mexico can be a bit addling. There's a certain edge to life living where you open a door and are amazed the handle doesn't fall off in your hand. You can up and leave, grumble to the point of nastiness or sit back and enjoy. If it's the latter, you start comparing other countries to Mexico rather than Mexico to where you used to live.

This is not to say Italy is totally lacking in chaos. While we were there all Alitalia flights were cancelled for most of one day and the trains were sporadically on and off a strike over a several day period during the same time. That could give a traveler with a schedule to meet a bit of an adrenaline rush.

But even more importantly, the gondoliers of Venice were also on strike. Now that must have hurt.

If the garbage collectors ever decide to go on strike this would classify as more than chaos since by early morning when they made their rounds, the rubbish bins were invariably overflowing with bags of garbage stacked alongside the containers and resting against nearby walls.

Generally this form of chaos borders more on anarchy than rousing fun but it definitely differs from Mexico where the unexpected is so commonplace that its absence would be cause for alarm. It was hard for me to find the same spontaneity and just general craziness in Italy but I suspect it's there. Everyone has his or her traveling style. Some go to Italy for the art. I'm willing to keep going there to look for a bit of locura.

 

Trastevere, what a joy you were. A collection of 'stuff' hanging out windows and one of our SERVAS hosts, all celebrating Carnevale.

However, there were a few zany moments. It probably is a most common sight in Rome but when you come from living in Mexico and see and hear two motorcycle cops revving by tweeting tiny whistles for all they are worth followed by a small police car from which a hand emerges brandishing a ping pong paddle-type devise with a big red dot painted on it, you hardly expect this to serve as a form of traffic management. Considering the busy intersection the group was passing, it seemed in fact rather suicidal but vehicles did indeed stop. If running was part of my repertoire, I would have loved to follow them through the city watching their encore performances.

 

Color is everywhere in Mexico. Here is just a part of a wall of the Ventana Morada in Pátzcuaro. But there's hope... a carousal in the highly immigrant neighborhood of the Piazza Victoria, near Termini.

Church bells, I know, also toll in Mexico but I've never quite gotten used to the immediacy of Italian bells. Maybe it gets old or annoying for the resident but I rather enjoyed waking up with Pablo and the bells next to me. They were that close.

 
The bells may seem to be at a distance but when they rang outside our Trastevere mini apartment, they were right in bed with us.

It was rather refreshing to see that just like in Guadalajara, Rome's visitors could view the city from a horse drawn carriage. I have to say though that the horses' hooves on the pavement of Rome sound differently than the same hooves on the cobblestones of Guadalajara.

One of the carriage stops outside of St. Peter's.
 

The vehicles moving around those carriages sure sound a lot quieter then in Mexico and don't set off as much of a stink but there's still a problem with pollution. My eyes set up a steady stream of tears every morning and there was a traffic ban on all private vehicles one Sunday in the city center to help reduce pollution. If my Italian can be trusted, according to the TV news, the same ban took place in a number of Italian cities that weekend and it was threatened to extend until Wednesday in Bologna if the smog did not abate.

Contamination does not, however, extend to the water. After so many years in Mexico, it really is hard to be comfortable putting a glass under the water faucet and then actually drinking the contents. Yet Italians over the years have repeatedly assured me the water throughout the public pipes is safer than bottled water. It seems a very thorough check system occurs far more frequently with the municipal systems than it does with the bottling companies.

Whatever the rationale, I know the water sure tasted good. The only problem coming back was to remember not to do the same thing at home. Plus I had to remember not to throw the toilet paper down the toilet bowl.

One of the obvious differences people talk about is the cost of living. Whereas frugal living may not be as easy as it is in Mexico, it's certainly possible…ask any pensioner or working class laborer.

 

The standard of living is certainly higher than in Mexico but the standby of the frugal, the classic Fiat 500 is still in evidence.

A normal pension for the people we talked to ran from 300 to 1000 euros a month. A normal laborer might pull in 1000 euros. Monthly wages for professionals aren't that great. A teacher might make 1400 and a techy type 2000. The highest salary we heard was for an established medical specialist…about 3000. Considering the cost of living, one can understand the need for two people working in a family, lower birth rates and the high incidence of young people living at home until they are well past being young.

There is no denying that people in Italy live more comfortably than the majority of Mexicans. Some Italians have actually had the luxury of deciding that certain work is beneath them and willingly handed it over to immigrants.

There is a stipend paid by the government for an extended period if you lose your job, something unheard of in Mexico where employees are lucky to collect the indemnities legally theirs if they are laid off. Plus the hourly wage in Italy is higher than the daily wage in Mexico.

Just like in Mexico, there's great wealth in Italy and the division between that wealth and the rest of the population is rapidly widening. However, it still costs a great deal to be rich in either place and a goodly amount to be middle class.

 
Doors have always been a fascination of mine and both Mexico and Italy feed my fetish. This one led into a restaurant where one person could very easily spend 100 euros for one meal to say nothing of the added charge for drinks and service. Needless to say, I confined by interest to the entrance.

One would think the large discrepancies in pay would set up a vast divide between the economies of the two countries and indeed it does. People living in poverty in Mexico represent between 40 to 60% of the population, depending which study you read. This is nowhere near the case in Italy. But the position of a foreigner living an expat life in Mexico or Italy is somewhat removed from the economy of a national. Given our personal lifestyle, the cost of living in Italy as opposed to Mexico would probably not significantly alter our exchequer. Of course, if you want to live rich, you need to be rich.

The biggest economic difference I see for a foreigner living here as opposed to Italy is that it is still possible to rent a very nice place reasonably in most of Mexico. Of course $2000 per month (U.S.) could easily be spent in Guadalajara and $10,000 and up per month (U.S.) could get you a spread in Mexico City if you are a foreign executive or government official but these prices are not the norm.

Buying is another matter. If you sold a property in the U.S. for say 2 million, you would be elated what one million could get you in Mexico. Not being in possession of such funds, it's hard for me to share the jubilation over such bargains in housing.

Personally, I feel housing is way too overpriced in Mexico. A half million will buy you a pretty nice place in the center of Pátzcuaro but then a half million should buy you quite a bit of house anyplace in the world, maybe even in the U.S. If you're not flush with discretionary cash, you'll have to hunt for a reasonably priced house whether in Italy or Mexico.

The other big difference between the economics of the two countries is the amount you spend for services. Hire someone to clean you house, build you a wall or fix your car in each country and compare how much is left in your bank account afterwards.

No matter which country you're in, someone must have the money to support the shops because frugality isn't exactly what makes the economy rock and roll. Buy, buy, buy is the mantra of business today and the myriad ways to separate you from your money are legion no matter what country you visit. Even in Bolivia with a per capita income of $900 (U.S.), the possibilities to be a good little consumer are endless.

Our refrain is always the same: 'If everyone is selling, just who the heck is doing the buying?'

Once on a walk in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City we were struck by the vast number of stalls selling a type of child harness. One thought, 'How many parents want to pay money to lead their children around like puppy dogs?'

How does it work? What makes a customer choose one business that differs not a whit from its twin?

It's true that the majority of businesses flounder within a year no matter where they are located but there are always those that persist with an apparent and continuing lack of customers. The pat answer in both countries is that the business is simply a money-laundering scheme…in Mexico it's Narco money and in Italy, the Mafia's. Either this explanation is overly simplistic or there's a lot of dirty money out there in need of a bath. Perhaps both.

Yet the question persists, 'Where is the money coming from to pay for all this stuff?' We have yet to meet a person in our travels or simply day to day who doesn't bemoan his or her financial situation, feeling akin to the gerbil on the wheel in its cage. That's a lot of effort expanded to stay stationary.

 

Although harder and harder to find, the artisans in the food industry still survive. Not only did this gentleman create delicious chocolates, he proved Shakespears's adage that 'All the world's a stage'. His comments on the likes of politics, the economy of modern Italy, food, family and such deserved to be presented to a larger audience that the three of us. But as our SERVAS day host can attest, there is a reason for the space between the stage and the front row. The exhuberance of his recital generated quite a bit of spit to go flying in her direction.

More and more of the world seems to be in the midst of being processed and pre-packaged for sale. Now that Italy is part of the European Union, many restrictions have been put on food production, for years the bastion of the small farmer. The sight of the milk vendor in small town Mexico going door to door leading his burro with an old-fashioned milk can strapped to each side is definitely giving way to the pages of the history book. Nowadays it's more common to see an old pick-up truck with its bed filled with those same cans but that milk is still produced in situations that would make the Department of Agriculture cringe. Not so any more in Italy.

We were told greens are now costlier than meat, the change being blamed on the EU restrictions that have forced many of the small farmers out of business. I can only vouch for the fact that in a corner out-of-the-way trattoria, a simple salad of just lettuce cost seven euros.

It was a relief to return to our normal breakfast for the past five years of seasonal fruit, termed in Italy, frutta exotica. Good and fresh as food is after that morning repast and it is indeed delicious, no where have I eaten consistently better than in Italy. Unlike two clients of Dario Castagno, the Siena guide and author of TWO MUCH TUSCAN SUN, Confessions of a Chianti Tour Guide, I would never say, 'You can't eat any decent Italian food in Italy,' and then go as they did to 'dine' at McDonalds.

If you're interested in Italy, do check out this book. You can find information about the tours, the author and the book at www.toomuchtuscansun.com Even if you see vestiges of your own character in the personalities portrayed, you're bound to be in for a good laugh. And if you're not that interested in Italy, you'll still have a good read.

Besides checking the place out for locura, eating seems to me to be a good enough reason to keep visiting the boot.

For a country that obsesses as much about food as Italy, the EU enforced regulations must have been a bitter pill to swallow since all that mass production and pre-packaging are often synonymous with loss of taste. There are the holdouts to 'progress' however. In a TV interview while we were there, the people interviewed rejected the idea of buying in a supermarket what they could find in their local shops, citing quality and freshness as the reason. As time and money restrictions become more pressing, who knows how this will change?

One huge area of contrast between the two countries is the feeling of relative safety generated in Italy. All the stories I've heard and read about crime in that country to the contrary, we felt safe wandering about in the middle of the night in Rome. One really can't compare a capital of 20,000,000+ with a capital of 3,000,000+ but for crying out loud, even Mexicans were warning me of the thieves in Italy!

 

The Piazza di Navona well after midnight. I really can't think of myself meandering about the Zócolo in Mexico City at such an hour.

What Mexico loses in the security arena, it makes up for in its attitude toward immigrants. During our first trip to Italy, I heard nary a comment about the changing face of the country. Thereafter, in each subsequent year, the comments came fast, furious and often ugly. There's not a doubt that Italy's economic miracle of past decades is no more and that a growing sense of ethnocentrism seems to blame all the nation's problems on the immigrants.

Even as a tourist, you can feel the negative vibes, something I shamelessly side-stepped it's true by referring to those Montefalcone di Val Fortore roots. But in all the many years in Mexico, I can't recall hearing or feeling the negative attitude experienced in only 13 weeks in Italy.

 

A bit of Mexico's past (El Baile de los Viejecitos) performed for a part of Mexico's future...immigrants gathered in Morelia to celebrate the Día de la Migra (Day of the Office of Immigration). It seems unlikely that such a day would be celebrated much in Italy.

Problems certainly are a given with a migrating population but it can't be easy for the immigrant as well. Much as the view of the Sistine Chapel is etched in my mind, I have to say the memory of the shivering young immigrant clutching the tiny puppy cuddled inside his jacket as he hunched on his heels begging for coins near Termini is as vivid a memory.

What makes a traveler judge a country, city or town as the armpit of the universe whereas another finds the same place an enjoyable spot to spend a few days or even a lifetime?

Criteria is certainly subjective. Door knobs falling off right and left might bring a smile to my lips but send hordes of others on a bee-line for the Río Grande.

A sense of history has always been one really important deciding factor for me.

 

History in Italy can be 'in your face' but is often hidden as in the stautue amid the shrubbery and the shrine in a back street around the Piazza Victoria.

Costa Rica is a wonderful country: beautiful, more ecologically aware than many of its neighbors, with a government sans army, a Latin American economy that has managed to maintain a large middle class and minimized the huge gap between the rich and poor. But I couldn't live there because I can't feel its history.

Brasilians have to be the most friendly, open, joyous people I've ever known but we've been in cities that were younger than we were.

No one can deny the presence of the past in Italy. One author wrote that unlike the people of Mexico and Peru, Italians wear their past as part of their day to day lives. The author's comment notwithstanding, I've found the past to be everywhere in Mexico. It melds effortlessly into the present. I feel it in the ruins I visit, in the ground on which I walk and see it in the faces of the people I pass every day on the street.

 

The grandeur of Rome and Michoacán's past.

After so many years being a part of this country, Mexico seems to travel with me wherever I go, more present than hand luggage. Italy is a country I'm just getting to know. While I'm there, I can be ecstatically happy one minute and find fault with life there the next. And once I get on the plane home, I miss it immediately. All the more reason to keep going back.

 
A side street of Montefalcone di Val Fortore, Campania, Italy

But with a round-trip ticket to and from Mexico.

and our backyard outside of Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico.
 

 

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