“WEEEELCOME,” ECHOES AN AFFABLE, ENTHUSIASTIC VOICE, CATALYSED by the perpetually-flowing, Hendrick’s-decorated crystalline glasses of Gin Tonic that keep coming in umpteenth variations. The venue is The Monocle Cocktail Club, a swanky, ritzy Gin lounge and bar that shares the honourable name with the British-Canadian magazine and boasts its walls with bona fide literary decor. We are in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial-era town and artistic destination on itself that is nestled in the heart of Mexico’s historic Independence Quarter – just 35 kilometers from where in September 16th, 1810, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla pronounced the famed Cry of Dolores, ceremonially initiating the uprising of the Mexican Independence movement.
Hidalgo’s following insurrection has been popularised around Mexico and subsequently throughout the world in diverse and iconic, side-splitting rituals, a prevalent one being drinking games. “Long Live Hidalgo,” cheer locals and foreigners alike as they raise their glasses and clink – a passage usually followed by a Spanish-sounding rhyme invitation that gently – or not so gently – tells anyone who leaves a drop of alcohol in the glass to fuck off. The rite is now reverberated by the same welcoming voice, which belongs to Catherine Andrews, a tall, effusive New Englander from Portland, Maine with a tenderness for lobster and days with a Blue Moon – whether that means the North American beer or an emergent spectacle in the canvas of the sky.
“She is just pure life, incredibly warm-hearted,” says her friend Caroline Pedersen, an elegant and gleeful Scandinavian-Quebecoise who has been coming to this town since the sixties – “cuando este pueblo eran cuatro burros y un buey” (when this town were four donkeys and one ox) – she pronounces in perfect Spanish, result of the decades spent in and out of what she – along with an increasing number of Canadians – calls a magical place. We introduce ourselves and talk about all of those things you talk about when in a bar – a mixture of reflections while admiring the wonderfulness of life and dreams – and then debrief about the current state of the world, starting with North America. Especially North America. We talk about making the bitter taste better. Cheers and clinks.
NOTORIOUS FOR ITS COBBLESTONED STREETS AND STEEP HILLS that provide views of the magnificent Parroquia, San Miguel de Allende is the diametrical opposite of the dystopian portrayal of David Foster Wallace’s O.N.A.N. – Organization of North American Nations – in his magnum opus Infinite Jest. S.M.A. is an alternate universe to O.N.A.N. where North America converges in a surprising sensorial peace, where life slows down and afternoon coffee means more than a five-minute lineup at Starbucks while enroute to the next meeting. Instead of giant feral hamsters and the Ennet House Recovery Centre you can find people calmly roaming the squares with black patched t-shirts that read “Impeach Pence – just in case” (Any Democrats listening?) and bars that lure tourists by blatantly flaunting jerseys that read “Keep Calm… You’re on the fun side of Trump’s wall” at the same time that moustache-displaying seniors wearing cowboy shirts and ranch hats blithely line up at the town’s main square for their slice of Rosca de Reyes – the quintessential January Mexican tradition.
Here North America converges in a surprising sensorial peace, where life slows down and afternoon coffee means more than a five-minute lineup at Starbucks while enroute to the next meeting.
But common grounds can be found among diametrical opposites – even if, or especially if – they are threatened to be surrounded by a wall. Regardless of how big, bold, and allegedly beautiful that wall is. And just as in Gustavo Artigas’s Rules of the Game, where the existing wall between Tijuana and San Diego is transformed into a sports court, in both S.M.A. and O.N.A.N. you have an intensely-shared, passionate affection for sports, mainly tennis. What the Enfield Tennis Academy represents in Wallace’s fictional depiction of Massachussetts, the numerous terracotta-coloured courts ranging from the Rosewood Hotel to Weber’s RV Park constitute for S.M.A., providing several venues where on a daily basis residents from all around the O.N.A.N. cross paths and exchange rallies and conversations around everything you talk on a tennis court from life to politics. Especially politics.
While flecks of clay spill over the lucid-blue sky and others sink on the soles of the white-and-navy Adidas Barricades that slide across the pristine red brick powder, Henry Stevens, an oil-and-gas executive who has been spending a small portion of his winters in San Miguel for years – primarily to escape the glacial cold in his hometown of Edmonton, Alberta – is on a break. He lost his first match, coincidentally to his doubles partner, Enrique Muñiz, a Mexico City screenwriter who fled the chaotic capital to pursue a more peaceful lifestyle. He notices a copy of my latest reading – On the Road, by Jack Kerouac – and immediately makes reference to fellow beatnik Neal Cassady’s death.
“Did you know that Neal Cassady – portrayed on Kerouac’s novel as Dean Moriarty – died right here, in San Miguel de Allende?,” asks Stevens, prompting a conversation that sparks spoken streams of consciousness among those of us who are not having a good day on the court – hence we are waiting for our next shot sitting on the wooden benches under the beer-branded umbrellas.
“Now, that was living,” says Max Hayworth, a brash, wildly-gesticulating academic from New York who wears a safari-like hat when he is not drilling in the court, and who admires Roger Federer and consistently tries to imitate his single-handed backhand. It’s just not working today. The pressureless Penn’s kept going beyond the baseline punished by pressure-full strokes. He parallels his lack of stamina with his preoccupations. “If I could live without worries the way those guys did, you would all have lost today. So many preoccupations affect my game,” confesses Hayworth, followed by a long gasp. He is short on breath, but has stricken a chord. One by one, we relate. More than its majestic architecture we are enamoured by the simple pleasures of this place, including the previously-neglected opportunity to get more time on the courts. No wonder our game is off. Stevens nods. He admits his game has been as feeble and volatile as Alberta’s oil-dependent economy, and that he is on the verge of quitting his loathed job. Economics leads to politics, and politics lead to tennis-court polls around NAFTA and simultaneous rants against Trump-ites and Wilbur Ross and Robert Lighthizer. Hayworth, his breath back, wonders if broken trade deals and built walls will create a local animosity against the growing American population of San Miguel. “Fucking idiots. In the past, people flew to us. Now we’ll have to see where to fly.”
“Take it easy, we are friends, even I keep beating you,” says Muñiz, between laughs. Then, nothing. Silence. The sun begins to set and make way for the moon. The court stands empty. And yet there is still a crowd.
HIS PHONE RINGS WHILE HE IS DRIVING ME. For the upcoming days, Juan Ramírez is in charge of taking me to my appointments in the surrounding Bajío region. “San Miguel, my friend, is a place that has changed dramatically through the years, yet it has managed to retain its charm,” he says as we criss-cross the town on his Chrysler Neon that is merrily – and quite hastily – humming along the narrow and graveled alleys surrounded by bustling street vendors. “”Waait,” I say. Tacos. We take a pair for the road. As Kerouac said – The road is life. And so are tacos. And memorable conversations in harmony with Gin Tonic – or in a car circulating up to its maximum speed.
One by one, statesmen reinforced their commitments saying that “Mexico and Canada now look directly in the eye.” Meetings reflected a mutual gaze of understanding and provided a feeling that no country is solitary any more.
Before its preeminence as a top-choice cocktail, Gin and Tonic was used to prevent malaria by the soldiers of the British East India Company. The invention of the now-popular drink was not an initial matter of advanced mixology, but ultimately, of a combination of prevention and general improvement of a much-needed but then unpleasantly tasting medicine. Or the equivalent of it. “A much-needed but unpleasantly tasting medicine,” says Juan, in a combination of fondness and nostalgia as the speedometer keeps moving to the right. He reminds being kicked out of his house, finding himself alone in the country’s capital at the tender age of fourteen. “This town,” he remembers, “adopted me.” Every sight the fleeting Neon dashes by is concurrently transited by his memory, and every word moves me faster than the racing vehicle. As we get home, I pull out a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and two small Schweppes and serve a toast in plastic cups before exiting the car. “Here, my friend. To make the bitter taste better. Ain’t that what we are all here for? Making the bitter taste better.”
I WONDER IF WE WILL MEET AGAIN.
While Catherine and her friend Sarah Stilwell eagerly whirl to the tune of jazz manouche, I continue my conversation with Caroline Pedersen. She upliftingly articulates about her kids, one of them, half-Mexican, half-Canadian, and living in the United States. “Proof that we are all from everywhere and nowhere, at the same time,” she states. We discuss counterculture and the art of staying still. The sweetness of La Dolce Far Niente. We confess that we both still write by hand. What I am surprised to learn is that she does not uses a phone.
“Will I ever see you again?,” I ask, still flabbergastered.
“Meet me tomorrow. 1:00 P.M. Here the address. And take that as a compliment, because I don’t make plans.” She writes down the name and location of a local restaurant surrounded by Zen-like gardens in a Hendrick’s-embroidered napkin with delicacy, which she carefully folds and places on my plaid-shirt pocket.
“How do I know that you are telling the truth?”
“Well, that’s a good question. How does anyone know, anyhow? The only way you can tell, my dear, is when looking someone directly to the eye. Now, tell me, how often do you see people do that? See you tomorrow.” She finishes her sentence promptly staring as Sarah and Catherine make their way back from the twinkling sway. Resting time for the band. For us, time to retake the Independence rants, heartfelt cheers and collective jingles for a unified America.
ON A PERSONAL VISIT TO OTTAWA in December 2017, there was a recurrent statement repeatedly heard from policy makers of Mexico and Canada, echoing the fact that the relationship between both nations was previously heavily mediated and influenced by the sole and pure fact and virtue of circumstance of being next-door neighbours to the United States. NAFTA, judging by their words, seemed more like a trivial obstacle than a veritable threat, that would eventually be sorted out, as one by one, statesmen reinforced their commitments saying that “Mexico and Canada now look directly in the eye.” Meetings reflected a mutual gaze of understanding and provided a feeling that no country is solitary any more.
BUT 4,100 KM FROM OTTAWA, ENTHUSED BY THE CUCUMBER-AND-LIMONCELLO INFUSED COCKTAIL and by the Fleetwood Mac classics on the background, Sarah suggests we go to La Cucaracha, which is, ironically, one of San Miguel’s oldest cantinas and was, according to those who knew him and his friends, a popular hangout for Cassady & Co. We nod, before asking the bartender for one last song – and one last Gin Tonic. Tennis is streaming on the LED-screens. And the song is a Billie Holiday classic, performed by Dean Martin, which begins to play as we listen with a Dean Moriarty-like sense of bliss, Miss Andrews conquering the stage, keenly holding together a Scandinavian-French-Canadian and a Mexican-born Torontonian, asking us “Aren’t we all friends here?” as we aim to dance and look at each other’s eyes contradictorily annoyed but equally delighted with the interference and beginning to sing in unison to echo Martin’s voice: “Blue Moon… Now I’m no longer alone…”