3 August 2020

The smell of tequila is my madeleine

During the confinement Felipe and I got into the habit of having a drink on our balcony before lunch. Felipe has his tequila; I don’t drink but I sniff his glass in order to take in the aroma.

Just as a madeleine dipped in lime blossom tea triggered memories of his youth for Proust, the sweet and woody smell of tequila carries me back to our life in Mexico City more than thirty years ago.

 

On weekend afternoons we’d sip tequila on our balcony there too; at the time I still drank regularly. Instead of looking out at the inner patio of the Ensanche district in Barcelona where we now live, we had a view of the tree-lined pathway that divides the two lanes of Avenida Mazatlan, a wide street with houses and apartment buildings from the twenties and thirties in the Condesa neighbourhood.

 

Artists, writers, actors, and musicians live there, and we’d frequent its movie houses, small theatres, galleries, and restaurants with sidewalk terraces. There was the Jewish delicatessen, the German store with great potato salad, and the Roxy ice cream parlour in front of our apartment, serving ice cream in exotic fruit flavors like mamey, chico zapote, and guanabana.

 

Indigenous women with toddlers on their backs wrapped in a “rebozo”, the traditional shawl, would sell avocados they carried in a wicker basket on the pathway. The local shoe shiner told me he’d lived in California where people called him Charles Bronson because of his resemblance to the movie star, albeit he was a Charles Bronson with a couple of front teeth missing. An elderly man would come by with a cart from which he sold sweet potatoes. He’d announce his presence by blowing a whistle, a high-pitched almost imploring sound.

 

There was no internet, no mobile phones, nor even fax yet. Phone calls were prohibitively expensive, the mail service was sketchy and it was nearly impossible to get foreign press.

Travelling abroad was costly and we spent most of our time with Felipe’s family who had adopted me as one of their own; “hermanito Juan” they called me, little brother Juan.

 

I worked as a correspondent for the Dutch radio, while Felipe had a job at an advertising agency. The future stretched out endlessly before us.

 

That carefree life came to an abrupt halt in November 1987 when I learned I have HIV. Because there was no adequate medical care in Mexico, we eventually left for the United States and I had to give up my work as a journalist.

 

After all these years that apartment in Mexico City still feels like home.

 

While sitting here on our balcony in Barcelona I see the old tree in front of our building on Avenida Mazatlan with its roots protruding from the soil. I hear the imploring whistle of the sweet potato seller.

 

Time feels like an illusion, the past is just as real as this very moment.

Particularly after several sniffs of tequila.

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