We had looked up some Mexican family in 1976, during my first ever visit to Mexico. I recall Barry calling them from a pay phone in a noisy city street while I loudly prompted him with the names of my grandparents , parents, uncles and aunts. They were very welcoming and invited us to a dinner where a lot of people of several generations were speaking Spanish (with Yiddish as an alternative, which I understand even less). I had completed most of my first ever 3-week intensive course at La Trobe about 4 months earlier, and after trying my best to follow conversations for the first two hours, overloaded on Spanish and tuned out completely. On one subsequent visit we had linked up again, meeting a couple maybe 10-15 years younger than us (Nathan was from the Mexican family, his Brazilian wife Eugenia, whom he had met in Israel, was extremely beautiful), and once maybe 15 years ago, Barry had spent a Passover Seder with the family.
On this trip I was determined to find them again, so I twisted Bary's arm to call and re-establish contact. He tried to insist I make the call, but speaking on the phone in a language you are not very proficient with is particularly hard if you don't know the people you're speaking to. In fact I did not remember Elias, my 75 year-old cousin, and his wife Silvia, at all. My previous contact had been with Cecilia (the cousin who had invited us over: she was Elias's sister, and has since died) and Pepe, Nathan's parents. It seems that while the family was still in Poland, my mother's mother, who had migrated from Kutno to London before my mother was born, had sent food parcels, clothes and medicine which are credited with having saved the life of one of the cousins who was very unwell as an infant. My Booba's name, Balcia Kirshbaum, opened all doors, no matter how long ago this happened (probably in the 1920's) nor how remote the family relationship is. Certainly good deeds are rewarded down through the generations!
Last week Elias and Silvia invited us over for supper on Saturday night, putting on a magnificent homesickness-inducing spread including bagels, smoked salmon, and various types of herring as well as more common Mexican fare and lots of fresh fruit. We looked at some old photos but recognized no-one except the cousins when younger - photos taken in the 1950's at weddings or Bar Mitzvahs in Mexico look just like the ones in our family albums at home. We got no closer than identifying that my Booba was Elias's mother's aunt. Therefore we figured that my great grandmother and his grandmother were sisters. We have no family tree and don't quite know how to go about constructing one given that so few of the family survived. The descendants of the ones who had left Europe before the Holocaust typically were not that interested at the time and now we would like to know, we have only very sketchy information.
The next day, a Sunday, while Silvia was busy making a cake for the civil wedding ceremony of another similarly distant cousin, Elias took us on a tour of the Centro Deportivo Israelita, an enormous sporting and social complex in the north of the city, which we have heard about for years but had never visited. It is truly enormous - very prescient families in the community bought the land in the mid 1940s and the Centre was opened in 1955. It includes football and softball fields, tennis courts, an athletics track, an outdoor 50 meter pool complex, and indoor 25 meter pool, several gyms (male and female), indoor football and basketball courts. I even saw people fencing in one activity room. I checked out the enormous female changing rooms; the area was equipped with steam rooms, massage rooms, serried ranks of lockers, there was a hairdressing salon - eat your heart out Kew Rec Centre! On the social rather than sporting side, we saw many function rooms, there was a synagogue, a reception area for health checks, a large library, computer facilities, a cinema, a very large Community Hall complete with Mexican style mural depicting the history of the Jewish people (see my attempt to post a slide show of the shots I took of the mural), a restaurant, a coffee and fast food area with tables and chairs to meet while waiting for family members to finish their activities, a gift shop...
It offers a huge range of activities, including the lap swimming and Pilates classes that I indulge in at home, but it is very far from Coyoacán where we live, and awkward to get to by public transport from here. Given that once I enrol in my Spanish course in October I will be able to use the UNAM pool (a simple pesero or trolley bus trip of 20 minutes max), and it is less than 2 weeks till I head off for Canada and the US for 3 weeks, it didn't seem worth taking out the very expensive temporary membership option. Elias kept meeting friends and introducing us - he has been a member forever and it clearly is a tight-knit community. There are about 50,000 Jews in Mexico City, fewer than in Melbourne, but the infrastructure far outclasses ours. The family all played sports there: their daughter was quite a keen gymnast, their son played football, and now their children along with much of the Jewish community have moved north and west into newer suburbs, closer to the Centre, and their grandchildren are now using the facilities.
We also visited another community facility, a much older 7 story building in the neighbourhood (Condesa) where Elias and Silvia live, which houses a large Orthodox Ashkenazi Synagogue, a kosher food store (where I stocked up on matza, some Israeli cous-cous and bought some Chanukah candles - as our wanderings were not yet done and it was hot, we couldn't get any perishables. This was tough, as everything smelled so wonderful - never go shopping when you are hungry!)
Most of the complex was closed because of the hour, but we managed to look at the very interesting photographic exhibition honouring Gilberto Bosques, who as a Mexican diplomat in France saved many Jews from the Nazis. The photos, especially from his time in France during WWII, including the Camp at Drancy, were really chilling. It was he who recommended Mexico sever diplomatic ties with the Nazis due to the horrors they were perpetrating. Add his name to your list of Righteous Gentiles: check out this website I just discovered for more information (cut and paste it into your browser search bar, I tried to make it a hot link but am not sure it works):
We proceeded to a restaurant renowned for its matza ball soup: a brief digression on food follows, so if you don't share my pre-occupation with this ever-fascinating topic, skip this paragraph! The soup was good, and though the matza ball was enormous and very light, it somehow didn't taste of matza, schmaltz or home. However, the calf's liver, thinly sliced and served with onions, really hit the spot. I am not the greatest fan of Mexican food - I get a bit sick of tortilla-based dishes after my first couple of weeks here, and really miss the Asian flavours which are our staple at home. We don't have a wok here in the apartment, and I miss lemongrass and kaffir lime, though garlic , soy and chili are readily available, and I found some fresh (well, not very) ginger at a herb stall in the local market last week, and got some sweet chili sauce at the supermarket. I am determined to find some black bean sauce, which I know I found last time I was here - maybe I need to try the other supermarket a bit further away than our local. The flavours and brands of Asian sauces they seem to have in stock locally are all the sweetish varieties and a bit gluggy: sweet and sour, char sui, plum sauce etc, but I suppose I could add heaps of lemon juice to produce a less cloying effect.
When we returned to Elias's apartment to pick up the umbrella we had left there the night before and say hello to Silvia and Jenny, his mother-in-law, who lives with them, Silvia told us that another cousin Lucy (widow of my family member and mother of bride-to-be Jessica) had invited us to come to the wedding on Saturday night. It was a very generous invitation from people we have never met, and we gratefully accepted. I asked Silvia about dress: she said "coctel" and I went into a bit of a panic, as I don't travel with a little black dress, let alone any shoes suitable for dancing or fancy affairs. So on Monday I called Herzonia, my new best friend in Mexico, a mostly retired translator who lives nearby, about where to go shopping. In the past I have not been able to find shoes in my size, which is a Mexican 7 or 7 1/2 . Most stores only stock up to 6! I figured I'd be lucky to find anything, and then I'd have to get a dress or a pretty top to wear with back pants, to go with any shoes I contrived to find. She arranged to take me to a mall nearby and promised she was a patient shopping companion: I was very glad of this as I expected a difficult expedition and was not hopeful of success in my mission. I had noticed the shopping centre she took us to but had never been inside, as I don't normally shop for ordinary clothes in Mexico. I had never been inside a real mall here in a dozen trips, including several long stays. It would be untrue to say I don't shop here, and no-one would believe me anyway - but I mostly frequent markets for food and handicrafts or jewellery.
The mall itself is huge, multi-storeyed, with a parking garage underneath. We took great care to notice where we had parked for fear of being lost underground in the vastness. It has the usual large galleried spaces of North American malls, with people constantly sweeping the marble floors and generally taking care of the place. The anchor store is a Palacio de Hierro, and I have never been inside any branch of this somewhat up-market department store. It has a variety of over-priced mini boutiques of mostly foreign designers, interspersed with domestic and house brands which are a bit more affordable, and is laid out so you have to walk past lots of "buy me" temptations before you can get to where you are going. We headed for the shoes, taking in the general look of the place and what people are wearing in Mexico this season. Eventually with assistance from one of the far more prevalent staff than you'd encounter in Australia, we found just a couple of plausible styles, with only the imported brand Anne Klein coming in my size, in a rather pricey black shoe with a manageable heel which looked good on my foot. We deferred a decision and I tried on a dress which we had both noticed looked pretty good on the rack. Astounding - it fitted perfectly, suited me, was reasonably priced and seemed an appropriate choice as a "coctel". So I bought it, feeling incredibly chuffed at how easy it was. However as it was a coffee shade and made of stretchy lace, the black Anne Klein's seemed not quite right for it. So we hit the other shoe stores just on this level of the mall. We visited about 7, none of which carried my size in anything, let alone a style and colour that seemed right. Finally, we decided to return to El Palacio, and right at the entrance we hit next there was another little shoe store. Herzonia said we may as well look as it was right there - and there were a couple of styles in the window that seemed OK. What's more they had my very size in a bronze colour that would be perfect with the dress - and they were on sale! Since I have retired, my very relaxed lifestyle means I rarely go clothes shopping except for casual stuff, so the whole experience was a real buzz: when you're hot, you're hot, so I even tried to convince Herzonia to look for something while we were on a roll! Common sense prevailed however, and we left the mall and stopped for a coffee and a long chat on the way home.
My next entry will deal with the wedding itself, so watch this space!