This week in The Street Where You Live you're meeting the sensational Isabelle Schäfer, who lives with her hunky husband Jose in Mexico City. Get ready to fall in love with this multi-lingual, multi-talented Mexicano, and take a walk with her down the street where she lives, in the beautiful enclave of Coyoacan.
On her city, and her neighbourhood of Coyoacan:
I live in Mexico City, near the Coyoacan neighborhood, where Frida Kahlo once lived. I'm not from here originally – I am French and German – but my husband is Mexican. I arrived in Mexico over four years ago, after a year of long-distance with my then-boyfriend, after deciding to give him and his country a fighting chance! And I guess it worked out, seeing that we are married and I am still here!
I met my husband, Jose in New York. We were both studying at Columbia University Journalism School and we actually met on the fateful night of October 14th 2009, when we were both randomly invited to attend the Cabot Prize ceremony (a prize that goes to journalists that cover Latin America). The fanciness and the wine helped, and we talked all night. We started going out the next day and have been together ever since!
On her Mexican and Swiss Weddings
We got married last year – twice. The civil ceremony took place in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, in my parents-in-law's little garden, followed by a party, complete with Enchiladas, Mariachis and Micheladas. A few months later, we got married in the beautiful Strasbourg Cathedral, the city where my parents had gotten hitched almost 30 years earlier. Friends and family, many of whom I hadn’t seen in years (being far away has clear downsides), came from all over France and Germany – and also Mexico, the US, Italy and even Peru! It was the most wonderful day.
In terms of how different the two ceremonies were from each other, let’s start with the sheer size. There were more people at our small Mexican wedding than at our big European one. Mexican weddings are HUGE! My husband has four times more relatives than I do, even if I count the children of my cousins!
Though the garden party we had can’t really be considered a real Mexican wedding, I have been to quite a few since so I can tell you how ours would have looked like if we had chosen to do everything here. First of all, we would have needed more a lot more accessories for the religious ceremony. In Mexico, you not only exchange rings but also coins. They also place a big rosary around you and your betrothed. And the bride has to give the Virgin Mary a bouquet of flowers!
I actually did that last part, in Europe, at our religious ceremony. I had my little bouquet ready for the Virgin Mary, but because the French priest didn’t know about this ritual, I just quickly went and laid it at her feet before we all left the church. But she got her flowers!
Then, Mexican weddings are huge parties. You arrive at the venue, you eat, you drink, you dance and you have a good time. A lot of tequila flows. Sometimes there are live bands. They hand out accessories, hats and masks, to disguise yourself while dancing. Most importantly, they hand out slippers for the women after a few hours. So thoughtful. It’s a lot of fun!
In Europe we make more speeches, and the tequila is replaced with wine. But at the end of the night, everyone is on the dance floor, same as in Mexico. At our Strasbourg wedding, our Mexican friends actually brought Tequila - every person brought one bottle! And we had decorated the tables with small Mexican figurines. And my mother brought disguises for the dance. We made sure to represent!
On her street:
We live on a big, busy avenue, where the traffic is relentless. But once you cross the street you suddenly find yourself in Coyoacan, which has the feeling of a small, picturesque Mexican town. This is because it WAS a small town years ago, before Mexico City expanded and engulfed it.
There are cobbled streets, deep blue and orange facades, striking flowers and little coffee shops where locals stop to chat. In its ancient town centre, you will find one of the oldest churches in Mexico, a traditional market and a big square where you can hear music while eating at one of the restaurants and drinking mezcal.
People here have either been living here forever in big old houses that are probably family inheritances, or are students that appreciate the vibe and the short distance to the nearby university. Or foreigners who like the relative authenticity, or hipsters or hippies. It’s kindof like Mexico City’s Brooklyn.
We live in a rented apartment in a building that towers above the rest of the neighborhood, which means we have a lovely view of Mexico City’s skyline and its beautiful coloured skies . What I most like about it is the light – three quarters of our walls are windows and the light just keeps streaming in. It’s quite small, but we can use the building’s terrace to hang out, and there’s even a little gym space, where I run sometimes when it rains outside. I also love that our home is relatively near my work – I walk every day 20 minutes to my office, which is a complete luxury in the sprawling metropolis that is Mexico City. Here it’s completely normal to drive over an hour to your work place, or more if you are stuck in traffic. Also, it is near a beautiful park, where we can go for a run or just breathe a little and get away from the craziness.
On her job, and learning Spanish fast!
I work as an online producer for an international organization in Mexico City. I love it, as it means I get to travel around Mexico and to other countries from time to time to shoot videos and write stories and take pictures. I get to write stories on topics that I care about, like education, health or other development issues in Latin America. And I work in an international environment with experts who really know their topic.
When I first arrived to Mexico, my Spanish skills were rather basic. So I started taking Spanish lessons in the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico for about three months. There is a center for foreigners with daily Spanish classes, and excellent teachers. Noww I am working and writing more in Spanish than in English!
On Mexico City
People think that Mexico City is big, polluted and dangerous. I know, because that is what I thought before living here. This is partially correct, but there is so much more to it!
It is big of course, but there are pockets of the city that seem to be small cities by themselves. Every neighborhood has its own vibe, its own cultural activities and its own centre. I have to admit I probably know about 10 to 15% of the city, not more.
And there ARE problems with air pollution, mainly because of the heavy traffic. But there are many ways you can get around without a car, and the public transportation is very good – get ready to be squeezed with lots and lots of people, but you’ll probably get to your destination quicker. Also, in some places of the city you can rent bikes and go from bike station to bike station, and there are more and more bike lanes. And there are beautiful parks. The Chapultepec park is the biggest, but next to my building lies the Viveros Park, one of my favorite places in the city. You can or sure find tranquility and green spaces in Mexico City!
As for the danger, well, you do have to be careful. But if you follow certain rules, like not taking taxis right off the street, or not walking alone in an unlit street, you will be fine. You do have to stay alert, but you certainly don’t have to stay inside all the time!
Also, the food in Mexico City is incredible and the variety of what you can find, both in markets and in restaurants is amazing. The food is what made me fall in love with the city, really.
On the cultural differences for a European in Mexico
The biggest difference for me is the punctuality! When we are invited to dinners or parties, Jose knows that it doesn’t mean we have to arrive on time, while I worry a lot about us being late. But there have been so many times , even after arriving 45 minutes late, that we are the first ones there! In Mexico, wedding invitations often say that the ceremony starts 30 min earlier than it actually does, so people are on time. The problem is, if people know that, they’ll arrive even later! I’ve also learned to always have lemons and a bottle of salsa handy at home. Both are musts on our weekly shopping list. Even if I think it doesn’t go with what we are cooking, I know Jose will probably squeeze some lemon juice and salsa on his plate. I’m also now a big fan of fresh fruit with lemon and salt, which is how Mexicans eat their fruit.
And well, then there is American football. It’s huge in Mexico and people are crazy about their favourite team. I also got used to watching a lot more Spanish and Mexican soccer games, and I have come to like it, but American football is still quite boring for me to watch. I guess it makes a difference if you have watched it with your family forever, or, like me, when you still don’t get where the heck they are all running to. Anyways, I have been explained the basic rules over and over again by kind and patient friends, and I feel a little less ignorant. Don’t get me started on baseball.
On Mexico City’s reputation for street crime
I haven’t had any problems so far (knock on wood and fingers crossed and all that). I think you need to stay alert in any big city, but there might be a few rules that are different. Here, for example, you shouldn’t hail a cab directly from the street, because they could be unregistered cabs that are used to kidnap people or rob them and so on. You should only unregistered cabs that have their own taxi station, with a telephone number, and proper licensing etc. I don’t walk on unlit, lonely streets after dark, because muggings do happen. I also try to not wear any flashy clothes and accessories so as to not draw attention to myself on the street or on public transport. Basically, what I am trying to say is you have to be aware of your surroundings. Like in any big city, I guess. I have a friend who had lived in Mexico City a long time, and never had any problems. Then she moved to NYC and got mugged! Also I am always quite impressed when I talk to Mexican friends and they tell me their tricks and reflexes they have acquired throughout the years to avoid any problems. Some know their driving route so well, they know when to drive slower or quicker so as to avoid stopping at a red light, where people might try to mug you.
On her multicultural, multilingual family
My parents speak spanish because they lived a couple of years in Argentina (and they actually met in Spain while taking Spanish courses), so there were no language barriers at all. Actually, most of my family, both French and German, speak Spanish. Some of my aunts and uncles even refreshed their Spanish skills so they could talk to Jose and his parents, I thought that was so sweet. Only with my grandparents, who also don’t speak English, do I have to translate. And Jose speaks a bit of German, so it’s all good. Everyone was super welcoming!
My parents were actually very supportive of me going to Mexico, although it meant less stability for a while and it meant being far away. They get along very well with Jose, and I think they trusted us.
In Jose’s family, I was very warmly welcomed since the beginning. Although it's considered unusual in Mexico for couples to live together before marrying, nobody ever said anything. They actually threw me a welcome party with the family when I arrived to Mexico!
Mexico City is also a really friendly place for a European. There are many foreigners living here, and although I am not very close to the expat community, I often hear French and German in restaurants and in the street. There are many professional opportunities here too. Also, the food. I always come back to it, but it is SO important. People here love to eat, and it makes everything more convivial.
I also know quite a few German-Mexican couples, and French-Mexican couples, so apparently it works!
On the pollution
The air quality varies here a lot. Before we go for a run, for example, we always check the government website to see what the air quality is that day. If it is really bad, we avoid running outside, because you might get a headache.
Mostly I feel the pollution when I walk on the street: sometimes my eyes will start burning and tearing up, and my nose starts itching and running. A bit like an allergic reaction. It's great when the rainy season comes, the air quality improves a lot! It somehow rinses away everything.
On being homesick (mainly for bread)
Oh my goodness, I miss German bread, by which I mean dark, crusty, grainy bread. Here the bread is mostly white and/or sugary. And I miss butter. There is butter here, of course, but it just doesn’t taste the same. And I miss French cheese. I always miss French cheese. When I come home to my parents, I usually spend the first two days stuffing my face and then I get indigestion!
But if I lived in Europe I would miss the corn tortillas, the cheap, delicious avocados, the mangos and the guayabas, and just all the delicious dishes. And the mezcal. You can’t have everything!
On a place to call home:
This is going to sound cheesy, but home is where my husband is. I have moved so many times with my family to different countries, so I don’t really associate a certain place with home. Home is where my parents are and now it is also where I live with my husband.
Describe your street in five words:
Busy. Lively. Modern. Lovely. Practical.
On her hilarious (but noisy) neighbours
Right next to our building is a small, very lively church. We can see it from our window. The churchgoers´ favorite way to show their joy is to shoot off fireworks. We can hear and see deafening fireworks for days in a row at Christmas, Easter, the local saint’s day or just any random Sunday. It is an impressive show and somewhat endearing, but it does mean sleepless nights from time to time, because they will go on for hours. The most extraordinary event I have witnessed so far was when Pope John Paul II became a saint. They had somehow built a wall of fireworks in the form of the late pope. Pretty impressive.
Next to the church there's a small school. Every morning at 7:30AM, they will start the day by something similar to gymnastics, which I guess is supposed to make the children focus. The teacher will have a loudspeaker, of course, and will scream into it: “Right, right, left, get in line, Juan, I told you to get in line, Paulina, stop talking, left, right.” It’s cute, hearing these little echoes of daily life.
When you walk down your street, what do you feel in your heart?
Sometimes it just hits me that I am really living in Mexico and I am still surprised!
On her perfect day off in her neighborhood:
A perfect Sunday will start out with me making breakfast, usually scrambled eggs with vegetables and the inevitable delicious avocado, then fruit and home made coffee. Afterwards, we will spend an hour or so reading, writing e-mails or watching European soccer (my husband is a big Real Madrid fan).
Once we’re done, we love to go down to the Viveros park, a real oasis for us, where we would go for a run and then rest underneath the trees. We always get a fresh green juice from a little stand at the park’s entrance – they give it to you in small plastic bags with straws, so it’s easier to carry around. On our way back, we usually stop by our neighborhood bakery, and get pastries for later- most often a croissant and a concha, which is a Mexican brioche with sugar on it in the shape of a seashell.
After we’rehome and ready to head back out, we will stroll down to Coyoacan’s city center and have a bite at one of the restaurants – I love to have the flower salad at the “Café Ruta de Seda”, where you can enjoy the sun and tranquility, next to a small, hidden square. We also love the excellent cocktails and Italian food at the “Septimo” restaurant, and the Mexican food from Oaxaca and amazing mezcal at “Los Danzantes”, which has views on to the the main square. Then we’d top off our meal with a coffee or hot chocolate at our favorite coffee shop Café Avellaneda, which uses beans from Oaxaca and Chiapas, in the South of Mexico.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we might go to the Cineteca Nacional, a five minutes walk from our place, which is a cinema center that shows indie and European documentaries and films, and which has been recently transformed in an open, cultural space with libraries, coffee shops, and little stores.
After that, we would probably go back home, maybe hang out on terrace and watch the sunset, order some pizza, or pick something up from the taco place nearby- just enjoy life while fighting the Sunday blues!
Thank you so much, querido Isabelle. Gimme that flower salad right now!