Merry Christmas, Toto

Even after five years in Mexico, I regularly get that “we’re not in Kansas anymore” feeling of awe about living here. It’s particularly so around Christmas time.

A week ago we went to the market to get some vegetables and had to walk several blocks through the center of town, working our way through a cacophony of shoppers, street vendors, motorcycles and cars, past a policeman on horseback and I think even a couple of donkeys loaded with firewood.

A string of modest and ancient storefronts along the way create their own “cacophony” of aromas: A couple of roasted-chicken joints (about four bucks per bird, seasoned in a variety of ways, usually with garlic); another offering “carnitas,” (delicious but definitely not “heart healthy” chunks of seasoned pork.) All the rotisseries, piles of steaming pork and buckets of chiles and salsas are located toward the front of the stores, so you can’t miss the smoke, sights and smells even from across the street. I sometimes fall for two quarter-kilos (about half-pound each) of carnitas, for about $6.00, that we then split with our gardener and his family.

Nearby there’s the aptly named restaurant “El Infierno” where Stew and I ate about three years ago. Never again. Around the corner, almost as a refuge from all the noise and smells, sits “Plastimundo” a silent, odorless shrine to every conceivable type of plastic container–not exactly Tupperware grade, but close enough–and thousands of plastic bags, sold by weight. For a dollar or so I picked up a quarter-kilo of grocery-type bags, that we will use for cat litter.

When you finally enter the Ramírez Market, another “cacophony” hits you, this time of over-saturated colors. Fruit stands on both side of the aisles display neatly arranged fruits, with emphasis on whatever is in season. Right now there’s such a glut of oranges they’re practically giving them away, about a penny a pound. Stew has become friends with one of the produce vendors who’ll take orders for special items. Green plantains, not readily available in México? He promises four the next day, after politely inquiring “what do you do with them?” (Slice thinly and fry, Cuban style.)

In between the produce stands you find flower vendors, with buckets of dahlias, glads, roses and other neon-colored blooms, slyly asking ¿Qué le puedo ofrecer, joven? (What can I offer you, young man?) The flirting would work better, particularly with gray-haired guys, if the vendors were not all bossomy grandmothers.

From the ceiling hangs an endless assortment of garish piñatas, ready to be loaded with candy for someone’s birthday party.

After you leave the market you feel like running back to Plastimundo to hide in a pile of plastic bags for an hour or so and give your senses a rest from this gauntlet of sights, smells and sounds.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, indeed, where shopping is supposed to be a soothing, air-conditioned experience with Muzak wafting discreetly from behind the avocados. That model is inexorably filtering into Mexico. San Miguel already has three American-style supermarkets on the edges of town. Along one of expressways entering the neighboring city of Querétaro there’s a string of shopping centers with Office Depot and OfficeMax, Home Depot, Walmart, Costco, McDonald’s and several jumbo grocery stores.

When we first arrived to Mexico, Stew and I would flee to Costco, supposedly to buy stuff not available anywhere else, but I suspect also in search of the comfortably familiar: Every Costco, like every McDonald’s, looks pretty much the same, from Houston to Rio. In Mexico, Chicken McNuggets are pronounced Chicken McNoogets, and include all the jalapeños your stomach can stand, but I bet the ingredients are the same: every part of the chicken except the cluck.

We still hit Costco periodically, for indispensables like one-gallon bottles of Listerine and 100-count bales of rolls of toilet paper. But shopping at the chaotic, aromatic and friendly Ramírez market–including the occasional mutt patrolling the aisles for scraps–is gradually seducing us. You can tell the vendor which flowers to include in your $3 bouquet and if you become good enough friends with the guy at the fruit stand he may whisper that it’s best to stay away from the cantaloupes today because they’re hard as bowling balls.

Christmas is a particularly non-Kansas experience for us. Thanks to satellite radio and TV, and magazines and sales catalogs jamming our mailbox it’s clear the Christmas season–make that the Christmas shopping season–is in full swing in the U.S. Mexico’s quieter more solemn celebrations are sharply different and somehow welcome.

Promptly on Dec. 1 the popular classical music channel on our Sirius satellite radio switched to a 24/7 Christmas music format. Aside from the monotony, some of the monumental orchestrations of traditional Christmas carols are unnerving. One of these days we’re bound to hear “Grandma Got Run Over by a Raindeer” performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and a pipe organ.

Thanks to CNN and some of the other American media we also keep posted about the Black Friday after Thanksgiving, complete with footage of shoppers transformed into thundering buffaloes charging into a Walmart at 6 a.m. Then there are the perennial reports of American retailers somberly expressing “guarded optimism” if not “disappointment” with Christmas sales. One wonders just how much shopping and spending would satisfy retailers, particularly now with the country in the middle of an epidemic of mortgage foreclosures and maxxed-out credit cards?

It’d be refreshing one day to hear the president of Walmart say: “You know folks, given how badly the economy sucks, we’re amazed we sold as much crap as we did. Thank you.”

By comparison, the Christmas season in Mexico has barely warmed up. For sure, Home Depot, Costco and other retailers, perhaps realizing that it takes a little longer to wind up Mexican shoppers, brought out the Christmas decorations around the middle of November. After Thanksgiving, “live” Christmas trees from as far away as Oregon and Canada arrived at Home Depot, where they sit amid a growing puddle of dead needles.

Part of the reason for the apparent lack of Christmas enthusiasm in Mexico is the Florida effect: Getting into the Christmas hoo-hah when it’s cloudless and 80 degrees outside takes some extra psyching-up.

In Mexico there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as Christmas cards, we figure because in the hands of the postal system here most of them would be lost or get to your friends and relatives in time for Cinco de Mayo. The same goes for flyers, sales brochures and other junk mail.

But the main reason for the lack of a seasonal shopping stampede, aside from traditions, has to be that most Mexicans don’t have the cash to waste on the latest Harry Potter 3-D glasses. By law, all workers are supposed to receive a Christmas bonus equivalent to approximately two weeks’ pay but wages are so low that’s hardly going to send retail sales curves off the chart.

Christmas hardly goes unnoticed in this Catholic country, though. The nurseries already display red seas of poinsettias along with wreaths and tiny decorated trees. A 20-foot tree made of potted poinsettias will go up in San Miguel’s main square, along with decorations over the streets. Elaborate nativity scenes will appear all over town, particularly inside or in front of churches. And for nine days before Christmas, children will go door to door singing carols in the lovely tradition of “Las Posadas,” recalling Mary and Joseph’s travails trying to find shelter even as Jesus was about to be born.

In some parts of Mexico, louder and more elaborate celebrations take place on Christmas Eve. In Oaxaca that includes the Festival of the Radishes, an odd shindig if there ever was one, in which folks take what seem to be mutant radishes, some a foot long, and carve various figures on them. I don’t understand it except it’s a quick celebration: Even though the contestants keep spraying water on their creations, the radishes start to blacken after 36 hours or so.

Finally, on Jan. 6, on the Feast of the Three Kings there will be a brief shopping spree mostly for toys and other gifts for children. Growing up in Cuba we used to leave three glasses of wine and some crackers on the kitchen table the night before for Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, who tied up their camels on the fence of our front yard and stealthfully left presents under everyone’s bed. I could never stay awake to verify the story but vividly remember the excitement of waking up the next day.

We don’t particularly miss the multi-billion-dollar sis-boom-bah of an American Christmas. We enjoy the lower-key, homier celebrations of Mexico.

Still, this Christmas we are having a Kansas-type relapse. Yes, we’re going to New York for a week, to ogle at store windows and take in that most seasonal of extravaganzas, the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show, with camels, Rockettes, donkeys and lots of oohs and aahs, with the mighty Wurlitzer organ bellowing away full-blast.

And please don’t tell anyone, but we are even hoping for some snow.

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