Of Mount Fuji, the Bamboo Princess, and the time I didn’t train to climb a mountain

There’s a Japanese saying that goes like this:

“A wise man climbs Mt. Fuji once. Only a fool climbs it twice.”

There’s a reason people say that and I got to find out why.

I did not really believe René and Vassili the first time they told me we were going to climb Mount Fuji. My friend Vassili and I were planning a trip to Japan, where René had been living for the past few months. We would stay in Tokyo, but would visit other parts of the country and, if possible, we would fly to South Korea. I was excited about going, but the Fuji part didn’t sound very appealing to me. To be honest, I wasn’t sure we would actually do it. I knew it was perfectly possible. René was member of a hiking club and spent some weekends going up mountains and Vassili exercises on a regular basis, but I am not a sports person at all.

“We’re going to climb Mt. Fuji,” they said every time we talked about the trip and made plans. So I went out and bought sports pants and pulled out my all-terrain running shoes, which I only used to walk comfortably to university, and started walking a bit more. That was it. From what I’d heard, climbing Mt Fuji was something people did during the months of July and August. There were some YouTubers who didn’t exercise that much and who had done it and had filmed their adventure. So I, not knowing what I had agreed to, decided not to train to climb a mountain.

 Mt. Fuji from a distance. Photo by René.
Mt. Fuji from a distance. Photo by René.

Mount Fuji

At 3776.24 m, Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan. It is located south-west of Tokyo, and it is one of the three holy mountains of Japan, along with Mount Tate and Mount Haku. It is surrounded by five different lakes: Kawaguchi, Motosu, Sai, Shōji, and Yamanaka. On its north-west base is the Aokigahara forest, which is said to be the dwelling place of yūrei, spirits of the dead, and which is internationally referred to as the suicide forest. We did not go near the forest, but the reason I bring it up is the contrast between this place, which is commonly known as a place of death, and the name Fuji.

Kaguya-hime no Monogatari

It is unclear where the name Fuji comes from, but according to the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (竹取物語 Taketori Monogatari) also known as the Tale of Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語 Kaguya-hime no Monogatari), the name comes from the world “immortal” (不死 fushi, fuji).

The tale starts with an old bamboo cutter who sees a shining bamboo stalk and, upon cutting it, finds a child as big as his thumb. He brings the little girl home to his wife, and they name her Kaguya-hime (かぐや姫, “Shining princess of the supple bamboo”). They raise her as their own, and she grows up into a beautiful woman.

  Source: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, by Studio Ghibli
Source: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, by Studio Ghibli

Her beauty attracts many suitors, among them five princes, who ask for the princess’ hand in marriage. She gives each one of them an impossible task with the promise that she will marry the one who is successful. All of them fail, and she remains unmarried. Word of her beauty reaches the emperor, who goes to meet her and falls in love. She rejects him as well, telling him that she is not of his country and therefore cannot go with him, but stays in contact with him.

Some time later she confesses to her parents that she is, in fact, from the moon, and must soon return to her people. When the day finally comes, the Emperor sends guards to her house, to protect her from the moon people. However, an embassy of “heavenly beings” descends from the sky and blinds the guards with their light. Kaguya-hime writes letters to say goodbye to her parents and to her friend the Emperor, and she gifts him an elixir of life, granting him immortality, 不死 (fushi).

The Emperor, having read her letter and deeply saddened, refuses to drink it, for he does not want to live an immortal life without Kaguya-hime. He asks which mountain is the closest place to heaven and orders for the elixir to be burned there.

Climbing Mount Fuji

 René, Vassili, and me
René, Vassili, and me.

So I heard the story, I bought the clothes and I brought the shoes. We had gone to the supermarket to get our supplies: rice balls, sandwiches, energy bars, water, and Japanese energy jelly drinks (those were particularly weird to me, since I’m not a fan of drinking jelly, but were ultimately lifesavers!).

And so we hopped on a bus and went to Mount Fuji to climb it.

We took two buses, actually. The first one took us from Tokyo to Kawaguchiko, a town next to the mountain. There, at Gateway Fujiyama we took the second bus, which took us to where we started our hike.

Lo! I bring ye good news, inexperienced, unprepared climber: You don’t usually start the climb at the bottom of the mountain.

The mountain is marked by different stations where you can take breaks, buy something to eat or drink (food and drinks are more expensive than at any supermarket and get even more expensive as you climb up).

Hikers usually start at the 5th station, which is at about 2300 m already. So, no. You don’t actually have to climb 3600 m.

We hopped out of the bus, changed into our hiking clothes, and ate at one of the local cafeterias while we waited for the night to fall.

We chose to climb it at night, as many people do, to be able to reach the summit right before sunrise and see the goraikō, (御来光 ) the “arrival of light”.

 Mount Fuji, the 5th station.
Mount Fuji, the 5th station.

René loves to hike. He’s done it several times, sometimes even staying overnight on the mountain, so he has all the gear, the clothes, the shoes, the backpack, everything. I, on the other hand, thought of bringing a flash light, but I didn’t have one. Vassili, also lamp-less, would take his phone out from time to time, just for a few seconds, whenever we needed to dig into the backpacks. Other than that, we relied on René’s headlamp. A flash light would have only been useful at the beginning, however, since later you need both hands to grab on to the steep rocks.

So here’s a tip for you, untrained climber: bring a headlamp.

The start isn’t that steep, to be honest, but less than thirty minutes after we started, my legs started complaining like they’d never been outside before. I was tired, thirsty and embarrassed. A long time has passed since my strong ballet years, but thirty minutes? I needed a break.

So we took a break. We drank some water, enjoyed the freshness of the night and went back to walking. One thing I will always be grateful for: I set the pace. There was no pressure, no ridicule, not even a sly comment. We walked at my pace and took breaks whenever anyone of us needed them.

A second tip for the inexperienced climber: go with people who love you and who will not pressure you into going any faster than you can.

“Aspire to be like Mt. Fuji, with such a broad and solid foundation that the strongest earthquake cannot move you, and so tall that the greatest enterprises of common men seem insignificant from your lofty perspective. With your mind as high as Mt Fuji you can see all things clearly.”

Miyamoto Musashi

Yeah, I couldn’t see anything clearly. It was pitch-black and there weren’t any lights except at the stations and wherever there were more people around. At some point we sat at the edge and saw the city lights, but the clouds came down quickly enough, and we sat in the dark for a little longer. Talking and thinking how it was getting colder.

The best time to climb is between July and August, when the weather is nice and there’s no snow at the summit. We had not had a single day when the temperature went below 25ºC, but up there it was cold. The higher you go, the colder it gets.

So, here’s the third tip: bring a hat and an extra sweatshirt.

I really don’t have any beautiful landscape pictures to share, but here we are, having reached the 8th station at 3250 m, a few hours later.

Each station has a little shop, a few toilets, lights, and a few places to sit down. At around 3 am we reached the 8.5th station at 3450 m and found nothing of the sort. There were no huts, no benches, no toilets and no lights. There was only a big space where people sat and slept before walking the last 80 minutes to the summit.

It was at this point that we decided to take a longer break. I took out my blanket and the three of us laid down on the cold, volcanic rock, trying to get some sleep. The boys slept around 20 minutes. I couldn’t sleep. I was exhausted, but I cannot sleep when I’m cold, so I just laid there, staring at the sky, keeping an eye on my watch and thought about what a crazy thing I had agreed to do.

I’d never in my life done anything remotely similar. The trail was full of tourists who came from other parts of Japan and from other countries. We had started with a few other people, but as we went higher we encountered more and more people. From the seventh station on, we had to make a line. There had been several points when I felt like crying because my legs were sore, but it changed when we reached the eight station, which was steep and full of big rocks. That was actually a lot of fun.

We reached the summit just as the sun was coming out. As I turned, I saw the white layer covering everything around us, I saw a storm in the distance, I saw the clouds moving, I saw the sky change color from black to a dark blue, to a bright yellow and then to a clear blue.

“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!”

John Muir

Every person who climbs the mountain goes through the torii to reach the summit. Toriis are the traditional Japanese gates, which represent or mark the entrance to sacred places.

Six hours after we started our walk, we passed the torii and reached the summit. We were exhausted, we were cold, but we were happy. I had never experienced something like it, and I was glad to be there to share it with people I love.

And then Vassili pulled out his phone and realized he had full 4G signal.
So he called his mom and showed her the view. Then we called René’s mom, and we showed her the view. And then we called my parents and showed them the view. And then, at the top of Mount Fuji, I told a stupid joke and I laughed so hard that I cried. René had to take over the call, while Vassili took more pictures. We said goodbye and sat there for a while, me, still laughing.

We bought something hot to drink and made our way down. It was by far the worst part of the whole endeavor. My knees hurt like crazy, the gravel went into my shoes and stained my socks, it was cold, and we were hungry, but we made it back in about four hours. We then took the bus back to the Kawaguchiko station, and then back to Tokyo.

About my own experience, I can say this:
It was one of the best things I’ve done in my life, and according to the Japanese saying, I am wiser for having done it. Will I be a fool and do it again in the future?
I don’t think so.

And to you, inexperienced, untrained, unsuspecting hiker, I say this:
If such an opportunity presents itself to you, do your research and read about other people’s experiences (like this person’s useful article), buy good shoes and appropriate clothes, get yourself a headlamp, ask good friends to join you, and please, for your own sake, train to climb the mountain.

Literary St. Petersburg: Nevsky Prospect

“There is nothing to compare with Nevsky Prospect, at least not in St Petersburg, where it embodies everything. There is no end to the glamour of this street – the belle of our capital city! I know that not one of its pale and high-ranking residents would exchange Nevsky Prospect for the world.”

Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospect

The street goes right through the heart of the city, beginning at the Admiralty, which once was the headquarters of the Admiralty Board and the Imperial Russian Navy, and ending at the St. Petersburg – Glanvy or Moskovsky Station, the oldest in the city. The street shares its name with prince Alexander Nevsky, who lived from 1221 to 1263, many, many years before the foundation of St. Petersburg. It is 4.5 km long and its full of cafés, churches, stores, theaters, cinemas, and ghosts of artists.

The Admiralty

“The other day at a Russian library, relegated by illiterate fate to a murky Berlin alleyway, I took out three or four new items, and among them your novel The Admiralty Spire. Neat title – if for no other reason than that it is, isn’t it, an iambic tetrameter, admiraltéyskaya iglá, and a famous Pushkinian line to boot.”

Vladimir Nabokov, The Admiralty Spire

We went there a couple of times. We saw the fountain, the busts, the plaques, the imperial architecture, and the spire that has a ship at the tip.  But we didn’t stay for long, since it was cold, and we still had a lot to see. The Admiralty is present in a lot of literary works set in St. Petersburg. Nabokov’s short story is but one of them.

Restaurant Literary Café

At the corner of Nevsky and the Moika channel is the restaurant Literary Café, once called the Café Wolff & Beránger. It is a place with a lot of history and a lot of art. It’s easily found due to the plaques on its outside wall. Some say that’s where Tchaikovsky drank one of his last glasses of water, in November 1813, and the writers Mikhail Lermontov and Fiodor Dostoevsky were also seen there.

You may have noticed the profile of Alexander Pushkin in one of the plaques. As soon as you go in, on your right, you will see a wax figure of the writer. He’s always sitting there by the window, with his quill in his hand, thinking.

Alexander Pushkin died in February (or January in the Julian calendar), 1837, in a duel against Georges d’Anthès, who kept trying to seduce the author’s wife, Natalia. A couple of days before going to the duel that would end his life, Pushkin met at the Literary Café with his second, who gave him his gun. Pushkin’s house is a few meters from the Café.

The place is not too big. It is an old-fashioned, warm place with live music. There is a pianist on the ground floor, and a violinist on the first floor. You may remember that we went to Russia during the first week of January, which means that we got to be there during Orthodox Christmas, on January 7th. We chose to spend it at the Literary Café.

We assumed it would be super expensive and planned to eat an entrance and maybe dessert. The café is, after all, very popular, it has a lot of history, it is located on the main avenue in one of Russia’s most famous cities. It was to be expected.

Imagine our surprise upon seeing the prices in the menu! The prices were so accessible, that we ended up ordering a main dish, dessert, a cold drink and two coffees!

Very in line with their theme, they brought us the bill in a box shaped like a book.

The House of Books, Dom Knigi

Located at the corner of Nevsky Prospect and the Griboyédova channel, House Singer was built in art nouveau fashion in 1910 for the Singer sewing machines. It became a book store after the revolution and it is currently the biggest one in the city.

With its academic and literary books, with its newspapers and magazines, with its calendars and office supplies, and with its big foreign languages section, the House of Books is a place where you can easily lose track of time.

Because of the season, they had several Christmas sections that included things such as decorations, presents, food, books, and cards. Miriam and I spent many hours looking at everything, and we returned more than once. She had more books to choose from, since she understands and speaks Russian. I went through every floor, but spent most of my time in the foreign languages section, which included both Russian and international literature.

There are two things that I always do when I go to a book store in another country: 1) I look for one or two books written in said country, and 2) I look for Julio Cortázar.

This time, I found both.

Moskovsky Station

Nevsky Prospect ends at the oldest station in the city, Moskovsky Station, which connects St. Petersburg with Moscow. It was built between 1844 and 1851 and it is the station where Anna Karenina took the train to Moscow in Tolstoy’s novel of the same name. I googled it and saw that it was a very beautiful building. I went there and saw that they were working on it, so I didn’t get to see it. Well, at least they put up an image of it, so we got the idea.

And this is how the first literary route to Russia ends. One needs to visit St. Petersburg several times to truly appreciate everything it has to offer. After all, it has an abundance of museums, literature, music, art, and culture.

One thing is clear, though: whatever the reason of your visit, whatever the type or place or event, you cannot be in St. Petersburg without stumbling upon Nevsky Prospect, not in real life, neither in books.

St. Petersburg: Museum City

Город Музей

Город Музей, or “gorod muzei” for those who, like me, do not read Russian, museum city, is how some people refer to the city of St. Petersburg. With over 100 museums, one ought to stay there for at least a few months to see every one of them. With only one week and many other things to see, we barely had time to visit a handful.

Cabin of Peter the Great

Address: Petrovskaya Naberezhnaya 6

Saint Petersburg has a lot of palaces. Technically speaking, a palace is simply the residence of a monarch, and in St. Petersburg’s case, the construction of this monarch’s residence marked the foundation of the city.

We start our little museum tour by talking about the place where Tsar Peter I of Russia, also known as Peter the Great, lived from 1703 to 1708.

When I found out we were going to Peter the Great’s residence, I thought my legs were going to give up. We had just spent the entire day inside a museum at the Winter Palace and I just wanted to get something to eat. However, I didn’t say anything and forced myself to walk to the palace of the man who modernized Russia and whose big bronze statue I had seen the day before.

You might imagine my surprise when I saw it. The cabin of Peter the Great is a wooden 12 square meter rectangle that was built in three days and that still contains, to this day, belongings of the Tsar.

It’s small. It’s really small. But it’s amazing.

The Alexander Pushkin Museum and Memorial Apartment

Address: Naberezhnaya Reki Moyki 12

“Whom, then, to love? Whom to believe? Who is the only one that won’t betray us? Who measures all deeds, all speeches obligingly by our own foot rule?”

Alexander Pushkin

Walking down the Nevski Avenue and turning left on the Moika, we walked by the river until we saw house number 12. It was a yellow building with wooden doors and a special sign.

“In this house died on 29 January 1837 Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin”

Alexander Pushkin lived in this house between 1836 and 1837 with his wife and four children, and here he died on February 10, 1837.

But the sign says January 29!

Yes, dear reader, it does. Alexander Pushkin died on January 29, 1837, according to the Julian Calendar, and on February 10, according to the Gregorian Calendar.

The museum is only the apartment where Pushkin spent his last year and it is not very big. There are but a few rooms with furniture, books, toys, and other belongings of the Pushkin family.

You need an audio-guide to make the tour. I’m not usually a big fan of audio-guides, but this one’s rather good. It tells you of his life, it has excerpts from his letters and poems, and it describes the events that led to the duel that ended his life.

To better take care of the apartment, you need to cover your shoes. Don’t forget to put the protectors before you enter and to take them off before you leave. Especially because it might be slippery outside with the snow and all.

Russian Museum

Address: 4 Inzhenernaya Ulitsa

It’s a big museum and you won’t definitely have enough time if you enter an hour before they close, but if you walk fast enough, you might see some of the works of the many Russian artists displayed there.

It is also interesting to see the overtly political paintings. They are fully displayed in big rooms with bright red walls, and they present something we don’t get in many Western museums. There they are, Lenin and Stalin, in all of their glory, surrounded by majesty and applause, memories of a Russia that was not called Russia, and serve to remind us that things never really change.

Hermitage Museum

Address: 2, Dvortsovaya Ploschad

With its 233 345 square meters and their more than 3 million pieces, the Hermitage is the largest museum in Russia and the second largest museum in the world.

It started out as the art collection of Catherine the Great, back in 1764, and most of the displays are found inside her Winter Palace, in the heart of Saint Petersburg.

It is one of those museums that require years in order to be fully appreciated. Miriam and I went twice.

The first day, we spent a little over seven hours inside the museum. We rushed through the rooms and took as many pictures as we could. It wasn’t enough, obviously, but we got to have a quick look at pretty much everything.

With its big fancy rooms with paintings by some of the world’s greatest artists, its Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts and statues, its murals and its royal furniture, with all its colors and all its splendor, one can forget to stop and look at the small things, the odd things, the funny things.

As a rule, whenever I go to an art museum with someone, I like to comment on the paintings, to imitate the statues, and to take a picture in a mirror. Without being loud or rude or disrespectful, I like a not-too-serious approach to it all.

Miriam, me, and random Russian.

The second time we visited the Hermitage, we went into the building on the other side of the square.

This is the newer area, the one with the Impressionists’ collections and the modern rooms.

It isn’t nearly as full as the Winter Palace, which made our visit more enjoyable. It is also smaller, which allowed us to spend more time looking at the paintings instead of running through the exhibitions.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Address: 2, Naberezhnaya Kanala Griboedova

Naming this part of the post was fun, as this famous church is also called Church on Spilled Blood, Temple of the Savior on Spilled Blood, and Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ.

Whatever you want to call it, know that it was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated on March 13, 1881 (Gregorian Calendar).

It was his son, Alexander II, who ordered its construction in memory of his father. Alexander II, being very anti-European in a heavily European influenced Russia, demanded that the Church be built in a traditional Russian style.

I’ve always loved Churches. Catholic churches are usually the colorful ones, though. Protestant churches are rather minimalistic. Since I’m a Protestant, no matter how pretty the building itself is, I usually end up looking at virtually empty churches. I mean, a church doesn’t need so much imagery, but more colors would be nice.

Yet I had never in my life seen a church like this one. With its 7500 square meters of mosaics that cover each and every wall, its colorful domes, its murals and its stained glasses, with its atria and the Griboedov Canal flowing right by it, it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in.

The way out is prettier than the way in. You can stop and take a picture of the canal, and then buy souvenirs in the street-stands that are right next to it. I bought a wooden Christmas tree for my home. Since it was January when I returned, I didn’t put it up, but I’m excited to do it this Christmas.

Cruiser Aurora

We walked by the Cruiser Aurora, a 1900 Russian cruiser that first served during the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Then, during World War I, it sailed in the Baltic Sea. However, on November 7, 1917 (Gregorian Calendar), a blank shot was shot from the Aurora, signalling the assault on the Winter Palace, thus signalling the start of the October Revolution.

It is now a museum that you can visit, and although we didn’t because of the time, we were able to take some pretty pictures of the ship and to see the harbor. It is still a symbol of the October Revolution, like many other places in Saint Petersburg, full of history and memories.

Saint Petersburg in January

“You’re going to Russia in January? Why? It’s so cold!”

Those were usually the first words that my friends and family when I told them the news.

In July 2017, after coming from work one day, I received a call from my good friend Miriam. She had had a rather frustrating day and in her need for a well-deserved vacation, she had impulsively booked a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. She’d found cheap tickets and affordable hotel booking, and she’d be there for a week in January. She then asked me whether I wanted to join her.

In an act of solidarity and because I am a good friend, I decided to accompany her. I had never been to Russia before and I honestly wasn’t planning on going to Russia anytime soon, not because it didn’t interest me (in fact, I had wanted to go in 2016, but my moving back to Mexico made it impossible) but because there were other countries on the top of my to-go list. But Miriam was right, the flights to Russia were considerably cheaper than any flight to any of the other countries at the top of my list. So, I booked my ticket, too.

Flash forward to January 2nd, 2018 and we were both on our way to St. Petersburg. We had woken up early, we would be transferring in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and would be arriving around 5 pm in Russia.

Miriam had been in Russia once before, she’d been learning to speak Russian for a while now, she had a printed map of our route to the hotel and had a travel-guide book for the city. I had barely gotten my visa on time and I had never even bothered to look at the Russian writing system. I only knew that 1) there was a statue of Pushkin somewhere near the main avenue that I wanted to visit and 2) I was loving the Amsterdam Airport.

I love airports. I love not only travelling but also picking up and dropping off travelers; I like the stores and the decorations around Christmas. I love how at an airport you find fancy travelers in suits and expensive coats, people who look that they haven’t showered in over 30 hours, or recently-showered people wearing pyjamas, or, occasionally, giant teddy-bears passing through security.

I’m the kind of person that doesn’t mind having to wait four or five hours till the next flight, but that was not the case in Amsterdam, which was a pity because, although I had heard that the Amsterdam Airport was cool, I’d never seen it. I was sorry that we didn’t have more time there to see it. Perhaps some other time. Since you’re not here to read about airports, I will show you just one more photo:

We arrived in St. Petersburg when it was already dark and it took a couple of hours to get from the airport to the hotel, mostly because we had to figure out which bus to take, then get SIM Cards for our phones (which were, to my surprise, really, really cheap), then see which metro to take, which metro-tickets to buy, and then go through metro security. Fun fact about it: almost no one working there speaks anything other than Russian, so if you have questions or some trouble understanding why it is that you have to purchase another ticket, ask a young person to translate for you.

But it was okay. I was in a good mood, despite being hungry, not just because I was on vacation in a new place, but because the first things I saw when getting out of the bus that took us from the airport to the city were the Christmas decorations.

It turns out that Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January, which meant that we were still in the Christmas season, and we all know that there is no season I love more. During Christmas time, the whole city is covered with lights and ornaments: the bridges, the trees, the street lamps, the buildings. It is wonderful.

Saint Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia. It is located on the Neva Bay of the Gulf of Finland and through it flows the Neva River. It is considered the cultural capital of Russia and its Historic Center and related monuments are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is also home to over 200 museums, including the Hermitage Museum, which is one of the largest museums in the world, much like the Louvre in Paris, the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and the British Museum in London.

So, how cold was it? Not as cold as I’d expected. The coldest day was -7ºC, so we needed several layers of clothes and a good jacket, but it didn’t feel like our noses would fall off.

Saint Petersburg was also the city that several writers, musicians, painters and poets called home, so there are lots of houses, museums and works to see. One week was not enough to do it all, but what we did see, we enjoyed, and we promised ourselves that we would return.

Of the literary routes, the museums, the music and the coffee, I will tell you soon. So, keep an eye out for new posts. For now, I hope you are having a great week.

Mexico City: Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Studio House Museum

So a friend and I decided to go to the Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Studio House Museum in the beautiful neighborhood of San Ángel, located in southern Mexico City. Two cousins of mine who live near there joined us in our visit to the Studio.

Address: Altavista Avenue, esquina Diego Rivera Colonia San Ángel Inn, 01060 Delegación Álvaro Obregón Mexico City

Open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00 – 17.30 h.

Juan O’Gorman, the Mexican painter and architect, bought two plots in San Ángel and built his own studio in one of them. He then showed them to his friend the painter, Diego Rivera, to whom he offered one of them. The deal was that O’Gorman would build him something, whatever Rivera wanted, and Rivera only had to pay for the land. Rivera accepted and asked for two buildings: a studio house for him, and a studio house for his wife, Frida Kahlo.

The studio house was designed and built in 1931. It was one of the first functionalist buildings in Latin America, which means that each space was designed with and for a purpose: to be a practical space where both Diego and Frida could live and work.

Diego’s house is the biggest and it is red and white on the outside. In it, you can find his sketches and collections, his furniture and clothes, his paintings and the objects that he picked up here and there.

Right next to Rivera’s building, there is a smaller blue one, which is Frida’s. There are still her small bedroom, her wooden sculpture collection, her clothes and her curtains. It was in that small house that she painted What the Water Gave MeVigilant Eye and The Deceased Dimas.

The couple had been living in the U.S. for the past three years and they returned to Mexico in 1934. Upon their return, Diego Rivera painted the fresco, Man, Controller of the Universe, a replica of Man at the Crossroads, which he painted at the Rockefeller Center but which was destroyed for being considered “anti-capitalist propaganda”.

Frida lived in her studio house from 1934 to 1942, then she returned to her Blue House in the neighboring borough, Coyoacán. Diego, on the other hand, stayed here until 1954.

Across both studio houses is Juan O’Gorman’s own studio. It is a spacious, well-lit place with big windows.

Unlike the other two, this house does not have any furniture or belongings. Only the sketch of a fresco painted by O’Gorman himself.

I must confess that I am not, nor I’ve never been (and I probably never will be) a fan of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In fact, these are two artists that I consciously avoid, although living in Mexico means finding them on shoe prints and even on our 500 peso bills.

I came to the museum because I thought it would be good to do something different. Just because I don’t particularly like something means I should completely ignore it, especially when it comes to such representative art.

However, after reflecting upon it for some time, I have come to the conclusion that it is always interesting and, in a way, necessary to go to these places. Even if I don’t like the artists or the content displayed, this was someone’s house. This was a place where a woman and a man shared their life.

Yes, they split up after a few years, but this was a space where they sought to combine their home and their work in order to be happy. At least that’s what we know from Frida, thanks to one letter she wrote in November 1934, only a few months after moving into the studio:

“I think that by working I will forget my sorrows and I will be able to be a little happier.”

Letter to the doctor, 13 November 1934

Around the World in Eighty Books

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Hello, my dearest readers!

How are you? How’s everything going? I’ve had a lot of work, which is why I haven’t been around lately. But today I come before you with a reading challenge. Not for one year or even two; this goes for as long as each one of you likes and in whatever order you prefer.

Every reader knows that sometimes we can get stuck on a single genre, author, country or language. We have our favourites and thus we ignore what others have to offer. Echoing John Lubbock’s words, here is a list of books that introduces us to eighty countries in the form of essays, memoirs, historical novels, contemporary novels, autobiographies, and other stories of fiction and non-fiction.

“We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth.”
– John Lubbock

Africa (20)

Algeria: Algerian White, Assia Djebar

Angola: A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa

Botswana: Juggling Truth, Unity Dow

Burkina Faso: The Parachute Drop, Norbert Zongo

Burundi: Baho!, Roland Rugero

Chad: Told by Starlight in Chad, Joseph Brahim Seid

Egypt: Vertigo, Ahmed Mourad

Ethiopia: Fuchsia, Mahtem Shifferaw

Ghana: Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Kenya: One Day I Will Write about this Place, Binyavanga Wainaina

Morocco: This Blinding Absence of Light, Tahar Ben Jelloun

Nigeria: Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

Republic of Congo: The Lights of Pointe-Noire, Alain Mabanckou

Senegal: Africa Beyond the Mirrors, Boubacar Boris Diop

Somalia: Links, Nuruddin Farah

South Africa: Born a Crime, Trevor Noah

South Sudan: God Grew Tired of Us, John Bul Dau

Uganda: 100 Days, Juliane Okot Bitek

Zambia: A Cowrie of Hope, Binwell Sinyangwe

Zimbabwe: The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician, Tendai Huchu

Asia + Pacific (22)

Afghanistan: Songs of Blood and Sword, Fatima Bhutto

Australia: Cloudstreet, Tim Winton

Bangladesh: Rifles Bread Women, Anwar Pasha

China: Frog, Mo Yan

India: God’s Little Soldier, Kiran Nagarkar

Indonesia: Man Tiger, Eka Kurniawan

Iran: Women without Men, Shahrnush Parsipur

Israel: A Horse Walks into a Bar, David Grossmann

Japan: The Life of a Stupid Man, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Kazakhstan: The Silent Steppe, Mukhamet Shayakhmetov

Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng

Nepal: That’s My Love Story, Santosh Kalwar

North Korea: In Order to Live, Yeonmi Park

New Zealand: Once Were Warriors, Alan Duff

Pakistan: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin

Philippines: Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco

South Korea: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, Young-Ha Kim

Sri Lanka: Circles of Fire, Kathleen Jayawardena

Taiwan: Notes of a Desolate Man, T’ien-wen Chu

Thailand: Letters from Thailand, Botan

Vietnam: The Sorrow of War, Bao Ninh

Yemen: A Land without Jasmine, Wajdi Al-Ahdal

Europe (19)

Belgium: Invitation to a Voyage, Francois Emmanuel

Bosnia and Herzegovina: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, Saša Stanišić

Bulgaria: Is there Anybody to Love You?, Kalin Terziyski

Czech Republic: I Served the King of England, Bohul Hrabal

England: A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

Finland: Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta

France: The Stranger, Albert Camus

Germany: The Hunger Angel, Herta Müller

Hungary: Skylark, Dezsö Kosztolányi

Italy: In the Sea there are Crocodiles, Fabio Geda

Netherlands: Amsterdam Stories, Nescio

Norway: Lasso Round the Moon, Agnar Mykle

Poland: Like Eating a Stone, Wojciech Tochman

Portugal: Death with Interruptions, José Saramago

Romania: The First Moment after Death, Carmen Firan

Spain: The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Turkey: My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk

Ukraine: Requiem, Anna Akhmatova

North and South America (19)

Argentina: Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar

Brazil: Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, José Amado

Bolivia: El loco, Arturo Borda

Canada: Dear Life, Alice Munro

Chile: The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño

Colombia: The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vázquez

Costa Rica: La guerra prometida (The promised war), Oscar Núñez Oliva

Cuba: The Road to the Sea or We Cubans, Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera

Ecuador: Huasipungo, Jorge Icaza

El Salvador: Senselessness, Horacio Castellanos Moya

Guatemala: Mr. President, Miguel Ángel Asturias

Haiti: Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat

Honduras: Points of Light, Guillermo Yuscarán

Mexico: Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel

Nicaragua: Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand, Gioconda Belli

Paraguay: I, the Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos

United States: Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry, Maya Angelou

Uruguay: Let the Wind Speak, Juan Carlos Onetti

Venezuela: Doña Bárbara, Rómulo Gallegos

Total Books: 6/80


I will read my way through it slowly, switching between the books here and those I have waiting on my bookshelf. I hope you enjoy it. Don’t forget to share with us your progress.

Thank you so much for reading. Share the page, leave a comment or subscribe.

Happy Tuesday!

Paola.

Madrid, Cervantes, and Musical Theater in Mexico City

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) is probably the most important Spanish writer in the history of literature. He played such an important role in shaping Spanish literary culture, that echoes of him can be heard in our common sayings, in contemporary pieces of literature, in theater, movies and TV, and in other kinds of media. In short: pretty much anyone who lives in a Spanish-speaking country has come into some sort of contact with him.

Cervantes in Madrid

This year, Miguel de Cervantes has been more present that ever, as it has been 400 years since he died in Madrid, in the Barrio de las Letras (Literary Quarter).

The Barrio de las Letras

Located in the heart of Madrid, the Literary Quarter is between the Carrera de San Jerónimo street and Atocha street, from north to south, and between the Paseo del Prado and the Calle de la Cruz (de la Cruz street), from east to west. It was given its name thanks to the many artists who lived there during the Spanish Golden Age, which goes more or less from 1492 to 1659. Artists such as Luis de Góngora, Francisco de Quevedo, Lope de Vega, and, of course, Miguel de Cervantes.

By the time I arrived, it was already dark and the museums were closed, so I just walked around the neighborhood to get to know it a little better. It turned out to be magical, the decoration of the bars and restaurants, the street names always accompanied by an illustration, the signs on the walls, and pretty much everything surrounding me reminded me of the place where I was and of the people who’d been there before me.

That night I walked until I found the Plaza de las Cortes, where the monumental buildings told me it was time to turn back, but not before saying “hi!” to Cervantes himself, who was standing in the middle of the little plaza, in front of the Villa Real Hotel.

The next day I walked through those streets again, I read the signs on the walls, I observed the floor and we read each and every single quote that we found.

The road took me to the Plaza de Santa Ana, the square where the Spanish Theater is. The Spanish Theater opened its doors in September 1583 and it has seen the premiers of plays written by playwrights such as Leandro Fernández de Moratín, Pedro Calderón de la Barca y Federico García Lorca.

Miguel en Cervantes

Spain has been celebrating the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death since the beginning of the year, and will continue to do so until at least the 8th of January 2017, and nobody better to organize events than the Cervantes Institute, who had just opened a free-entry exhibition: Miguel en Cervantes: El retablo de las maravillas (the website is only in Spanish).

The exhibition is divided in two sections: the biography of Miguel de Cervantes and the play El retablo de las maravillas, which is basically a retelling of the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The illustrations were made by David Rubín and Miguelanxo Prado.

It’s a rather small exhibition, but it is definitely worth seeing! The illustrations and themes are organized in a circle: the outer circle narrates the life of Miguel de Cervantes in a short, fun, and dynamic way, and the inner circle presents the El retablo de las maravillas play as a comic book.

To be honest, I didn’t love the comic book part. I thought the illustrations were good but somewhat unclear and with a very aggressive color palette. However, I thought the illustrated biography was truly excellent, so I purchased the book of the exhibition on my way out.

If you find yourself near Madrid this December, make sure you go to Miguel en Cervantes. It’s an awesome exhibition, it’s fun, and it’s free! (#budgetfriendly)

Visiting hours: Tuesday to Friday from 16 to 21h. Saturday from 11 to 21h. Sunday & holidays from 11 to 16h.

Address: Instituto Cervantes – Sala de Exposiciones, calle (street) Alcalá 49, 28014 Madrid.

Cervantes in Mexico City

I encountered Cervantes once again after my short trip to Spain, this time in Mexico City. Two weeks ago, my dad came home announcing that he had bought four tickets to see Man of La Mancha, a musical based on Don Quixote, written by Dale Wasserman and Joe Darion, and composed by Mitch Leigh.

The play begins when a young idealist named Cervantes is thrown into prison, where he must await an audience with the Spanish Inquisition. The other prisoners decide to judge and punish him, and in order to protect himself and a mysterious manuscript, he tells them a story and invites them to participate in it as if it were a play. It is the story of a crazy knight and his loyal friend and squire, Sancho.

The musical is not a direct adaptation of the original story, but with its good music, great production and very fun libretto, it is practically a love letter to Cervantes. I walked out of the theater feeling glad, not just because I had just seen a very good musical, but also because, even after 400 years, Cervantes is still celebrated.

Thoughts from a Spanish Bus

The trip from Madrid to Bilbao started at four in the afternoon and wasn’t over until I was at the Airb&b apartment at ten at night. I had flown from Hamburg at eight o’clock in the morning, so I was pretty tired by the time I sat on the bus that would take me to the Basque Country, which-for those who, like me, have no clue when it comes to Spanish geography-is a northern autonomous community that includes the provinces of Gipuzkoa, Araba/Álava, and Bizkaia/Biscay. Bilbao is located in the northern part of Bizkaia.

As soon as I sat on the bus I took out the book I had bought at the airport, Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. About forty minutes later I had fallen asleep, tired from travelling the whole day. I woke up an hour later, when the bus stopped in front of one of those convenience stores found on the road in the middle of nowhere. For a few seconds I thought we’d have a five-minute pause to get a coffee, and I was glad. A good coffee was just what I needed. To my disappointment, there would be no pause, yet: a man simply got out of the bus, and we went on our way. (The coffee you see in the picture is from the airport).

We drove through what I guess was a town, but was actually just a couple of blocks of houses made of beautiful big stones and iron grills. Sitting next to one of the doors there was a woman dressed in pink and I wondered whether she was having a pleasant day. With such weather and in such a peaceful place, I imagined she was. I think I myself will miss the silence that is only found when one lives at the outskirts of a small place when I move back to the big city. The landscape soon turned warm yellow and there was nothing but a few trees here and there, and no people whatsoever. In one of the road signs I read that we were on our way to the city of Burgos and I remembered my friend the writer, whose last name is Burgos. He is not very well-known yet, but soon will; he’s got far too much talent to go unnoticed.

The last time I was in a bus for so many hours was when I passed through the Scottish Highlands on my way to Loch Ness, but the landscape could not have been more different. Sitting there with my legs asleep and my back cramped, I remembered what I always say when I think about travelling: I don’t only like the places I go to, I like the routes I take to get there. Sorry if anyone loves discovering new places but hates getting there. I think that the uncomfortable hours in which one cannot move a lot, the babies crying in the background and the bad food are important parts of the journey. I suppose the same can be said of life, I cannot go out to see new things and expect to find what I have at home; sometimes that might be uncomfortable, but by the end I always find out that it was worth it.

On this journey I also noticed something else: no matter how much I love travelling by plane or train, there is no way I can appreciate a place as much as I do when I take a car or a bus. Camión, we call it in Mexico; Autobús, in Spain; or Colectivo, in Argentina.

Next Stop: Spain

I have never been to Spain. In fact, going to Spain was not in my short- and even medium-term plans. Not that I have anything against the land of Cervantes, Picasso, El Cid and paella. It’s just that, going there simply hadn’t really crossed my mind.

“The whole world is a bigger Bilbao.”

Miguel de Unamuno, tranlsation mine.

About two months ago, I received an email that contained an invitation to participate in a five-day seminar in the city of Bilbao. Since I’d never been there and the seminar sounded great, I decided to go.

I found Bilbao the same way I’ve found so many places: reading. I walked its streets and breathed its air through the words of Félix G. Modroño, the author of the novel La ciudad de los ojos grises (The City of Grey Eyes).

Historically speaking, Bilbao is one of Spain’s most important industrial centres, but nowadays, it is known for its gastronomy, its services and its culture, among others. Its growth has been so significant, that in 2010 it was awarded with the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, which ‘honours outstanding achievements and contributions to the creation of liveable, vibrant and sustainable urban communities around the world.’

“Madrid is having an overcoat that covers much and with which one can peacefully go to cold damp funerals. Madrid is not admitting the Gothic. Madrid is improvisation and tenacity. Madrid is staying happy with no money and not knowing how it was that one bought what one has at home.”

Ramón Gómez de la Serna, translation mine

I’ll stay less than three days in Madrid, which is not a lot, but I’ll try to see as much as possible. I wish I could tell you now what we’ll do and see in Madrid, but honestly, we don’t have a fixed plan. One thing I do know is I want to go to the Barrio de las Letras (Las letras quarter), which is where Lope de Vega, Miguel de Cervantes, and Luis de Gongora lived during the Spanish Golden Age. I will also go the Museo del Prado and to the Casa Natal de Cervantes museum. The rest will be a surprise, I suppose.

Belgium: Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate

Belgium is famous for its chocolate tradition, which dates back to the 17th Century. Of course, they import their cocoa beans, but chocolates are a big, big part of their culture and economy, and the quality standards for chocolate production are higher than in the rest of Europe.

In Belgium there’s a chocolate shop in every corner, and although I’d have loved to try them all, I had to settle for window shopping and trying just a few of them. Here’s a list of the ones I liked the most.

In Brussels

Neuhaus

Address: 25 Galerie de la Reine, 1000 Bruxelles

Neuhaus is one of the most important chocolate shops in Belgium, not only because it’s one of the oldest, but also because it’s where the Belgian praline was born in 1912.

The first one I saw was inside the Galeries Royales St. Hubert, which is full of different chocolate shops.

Pierre Marcolini

Address: 5 Galerie du Roi, 1000 Bruxelles

Here’s where I found out that chocolates can totally be sold as if they were jewelry. Its boutiques are well lit and spacious, the chocolates are well protected behind glass and presented in pretty boxes that resemble accessories or makeup boxes.

La Belgique Gourmande

Address: 17 Galerie de la Reine, 1000 Brussels

La Belgique Gourmande has some sort of carnivalesque thing going on. It is completely decorated with masks, colorful rings and harlequins hanging from the walls. I didn’t buy anything there, but just looking at the windows was quite fun.

Galler

Address: 44 rue au Beurre, 1000 Bruxelles

The cool thing about Galler is that they have a lot of beautifully colored chocolate eggs and chocolate bars, all with different flavors and presentations. Their orange chocolate bags and boxes reminded me of Hermès, and I’m guessing they chose that color palette on purpose to make it look fancier.

Elisabeth

Address: 43 rue au Beurre 1000 Bruxelles

There were about four different Elisabeth Chocolatiers in different streets and each one of them had different sweets. While some had huge meringues, others had biscuits or chocolates on display, and they all looked gorgeous. Here’s where I discovered that happiness has a name: Mellow Cake.

Mellow cake is a super soft, super spongy marshmallow on a cookie covered with dark chocolate. I have tried other versions of chocolate marshmallow before, but never like this. This is a whole different kind of mellow cake. The first day I bought one just to try it; the next day I returned for a box.

In Brugges

In Brugges, I visited the Choco-Story Museum, a building from 1480 that originally was a wine tavern.

Address: 2 Wijnzakstraat, 8000 Bruges

A big section of the museum is dedicated to the origin and history of chocolate, which is nothing new for those of us who come from the same part of the world as cocoa beans. However, it is a quick and fun museum. The coolest part were the trash bins, which are shaped like cocoa fruits.

Besides the history of Belgian chocolate, the museum includes a little geography and botany, plus some recipes and even a presentation where they show you how they make pralines.

And they have a giant chocolate egg at the entrance.

Le Comptoir de Mathilde

The last chocolate shop I went to is where I tried hot choco-spoons for the first time.

A hot choco-spoon is basically a cube of chocolate on a wooden spoon that you put into a glass of hot milk. There were over twenty different flavors and it took me about five minutes to choose.

I chose dark chocolate with chili.

The trip was short. I would have loved to stay a few more days to see more, but still, I did a bit of everything. There were museums, galleries, books and lots of chocolate. Especially because, besides the box of mellow cakes, I bought a giant marshmallow covered with chocolate and walnuts. But whenever I feel like I’ve eaten too much chocolate, I remember German chemist Justus von Liebig’s words of wisdom:

Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power… it is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.