Michael Nyman’s Mexico City (Financial Times How to Spend it)

“From the window of my house in the Roma district I can hear the continual sound of an ice cream van with a particular kind of repetitious chime. I’ve tried to transcribe it several times in my mind to work it into a piece of music but it hasn’t happened quite yet. At my other home, in Islington, the street is so quiet that a car horn would be dramatic, but in Mexico City it’s all noise, noise, noise – as London would have been in the 16th and 17th century. These are the cries of the city.

La Colonia Roma is full of local industry, artisanry and loud, drinking people. It’s a reality of existence that goes back decades and generations, and I really like that. The pavements look like they haven’t been repaired since the earthquake in 1985, just after I first came to Mexico City at the invitation of my artist friend Felipe Ehrenberg. The city blew my mind. I remember my first meal here with Felipe was at a Pre-Colombian restaurant where I ate fried grasshopper.

I have three terraces in the house looking out towards the downtown area. I hear the children playing in the primary school opposite my house, people selling corn on market stalls, and people singing out to the owners of empty gas bottles to come and have them refilled. I like to make secretive films of the old men and women walking around the streets with my little Leica, visually and conceptually self-contained pieces that I score myself while editing. When I’m making these films, music is the last thing I think of, but I’m the best filmmaker I’ve ever worked with – sometimes I sit at my piano for weeks trying to get the music right with a director and sometimes the negotiations break down and they find another composer.  When I work with myself here, I always make the right decision.

After my first visit to Mexico City I revisited every two or three years to play concerts and then three years ago came to play a solo date in Puebla and stayed on with Marc Silver and Max Pugh, who I work with on my personal film projects, to edit something. We stayed in the Hotel Condesa DF for a week having a really good time, and the experience introduced me to the experience of Mexico City as a resident rather than as a tourist.  The hotel is very elegant – it’s rather ‘boutiquey’, the rooms are nicely turned out and it and has a fantastic roof terrace. You can sit and have breakfast and bump into interesting people, like Rhys Ifans with Sienna Miller, or an American digital philosopher. I love the Condesa district, which is familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. There are elements of Hoxton in the way it’s been remodelled but it’s still Mexican rather than something that feels transplanted. It’s very vibrant, with dozens of restaurants and lots of nightlife. It has a strange combination of elegance, freedom and control.

The same people who own Condesa DF own the similarly contemporary Habita, which was the venue for a great party I went to and which, like the Condesa, has a fantastic roof terrace with a pool. The hotel restaurants in Mexico City are surprisingly good, the Mexicans tend to really enjoy them; I particularly like the Hip Kitchen and Bar at the Hotel Hippodrome.

In 2008 I came here to edit another film with Max and Marc and we set up in a large suite at the Red Tree House, which is a sort of post-hippie kind of hotel that reminds of being in Istanbul in 1966. I stayed on to look for a house, initially in Condesa and then in La Roma, where I found the perfect 1930s art deco place.

My whole life here is the reverse of what it is in London, where I protect my work and don’t socialise in the day. Here, I live outside and have lunch with friends and speak to people. There’s a brilliant old cantina quite near me that I like to go to called Covadonga. It used to be a typical hangout of old dominoes players but seems to have been taken over, not unacceptably, by a younger arty crowd.

There are a lot of extravagant individuals in Mexico City. There’s a fantastic French guy called Emamanuel Picault who has a design store called Chic by Accident. His furniture is brilliant but staggeringly expensive, but it doesn’t stop me buying it. I tell him how expensive I think it is and he just shrugs in that French way and says ‘yes… it is.’ He’s something of a design guru and created the interior for the very chi-chi French tea shop, Maison Francaise of Thé Caravanserai, which has excellent cakes.

I often take breakfast at a beautiful place called Casa Lamm. It’s very elegant and has an excellent art bookshop inside, Libreria Pegaso. It’s a cultural centre, in a classic 19th century building, with a glassed-in restaurant very stylishly added on. There’s also Atrio, a short walk away, which is a café with a lot of tables on the street and three-piece suites inside with books on shelves, all for sale. They also have regular live jazz there.

My favourite fish restaurant in La Roma is Contramar, which is only open until 6.30pm, and which might well be the best quality restaurant in the whole city. I also love Pesces, partly because it’s so close to my house. Outside the restaurant there’s a sign that reads ‘the only restaurant in Mexico City not owned by Carlos Slim.’ Pesces is a tiny space with tables outside and live music. It’s run by a wonderful middle-aged woman called Teresa who sings every Friday night. After just a few days of living here I felt like a family friend. There are some artists who frequent the restaurant that I’m acquainted with, and the film director Carlos Reygadas, who made the best film I have seen in the last 20 years, Silent Light, is a regular.

The best thing I have discovered in La Roma is Mercado Medelin, the most immense fruit and veg market. It’s utterly fantastic and has eight or so restaurants inside. It’s great to wander around in and find ten different varieties of mango.

There’s a café and bookshop close by called El Péndulo which has a fantastic collection of Spanish language books that make me realise how relatively uncultivated Britain is in terms of the number of foreign language books that are translated into English. I have a hankering to learn Spanish, which I still don’t know, in order to read books translated from German and Croatian that aren’t available in English. A strange reason to learn, I suppose, as the most usual reason would be to be able to explain to the cleaner what needs doing. They have a bookcase with English language title books and I think if I lived there permanently, its turnover would be enough to satisfy me. The second time I went in I was amazed that they had three copies of my book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, sitting next to Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche. I had my photograph taken in front of them. I doubt it was ever restocked.

I sometimes force myself to be a tourist for an afternoon, and leave La Roma. There are fantastic museums and churches that I still haven’t been to. Obviously every time you come to Mexico City you should visit the Frida Kahlo museum and Trotsky’s House – where he was assassinated by a Russian agent with an ice pick in 1940 – and I think the best way to understand the Mexican people is to go to Alameda park, where everyone hangs out.

I have a great desire to play in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, facing Alameda Central. It’s a most beautiful art deco theatre and it also has a great art bookshop inside. On the other hand, you could lose yourself in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (the National Museum of Anthropology) for days. Every region in Mexico has its own room, and it makes you realise that the British Museum’s Montezuma exhibition was very Eurocentric.

I prefer to stay within La Roma – I feel totally self sufficient there. I could live in Polanco, with the Armani and Gucci shops, but I’d forget I was living in Mexico City – it could be Milan. Santa Fe is interesting for it its high-rise tower blocks if you have an interest in contemporary architecture, but I’d never live there. I like to photograph and shoot films in the streets where I am.

One of the best things about the city is that it invites you into a social scene much more quickly, directly and effortlessly than somewhere like London, where everyone welcomes you and pushes you away at the same time. I have met the most wonderful people here, and had the most extraordinary experiences. I went to a party held by an art book publisher and the next day my hosts invited me to Plaza Mexico, the largest bullring in the world, to see a bullfight. They are season ticket holders. I hate bull fighting but I went along and took my Leica and shot an anti-bullfighting film by removing the bull from every shot. I made a study of the men in the red jackets and trousers who repaint the white lines in the ring and respread the sand after each fight.

I recently made a short film of a guy pushing a cart through the streets of La Roma, and it highlighted my preconceptions and cultural misinterpretations of the city. I’d assumed he was dispossessed and carrying all of his possessions with him. Three of his bags fell off and a dustman picked then up and threw them into his dustcart. I thought he was throwing the man’s belongings away, mistaking them for rubbish. I showed it to a friend who explained to me that I’d got it wrong – the man with the cart was collecting rubbish for the dustbin men, and being paid to do it. I can’t imagine how he knew where the dustmen would be, but this is what happens. There’s a whole dustcart culture here that’s really worthy of study. Like so many things in Mexico City, it’s entirely unique.”

HOTELS

Prices are for a double room per night with breakfast.

Habita, Avenida Presidente Masaryk 201 (+52-55 5282 3100; www.hotelhabita.com), from $175 (about £109).

Hotel Condesa DF, Avenida Veracruz 102 (+52-55 5241 2600; www.condesadf.com), from $175 (about £109).

The Red Tree House, Culiacan 6 (+52-55 5584 3829; www.theredtreehouse.com) from $50 (about £32).

RESTAURANTS AND CAFES

Prices are for a three-course meal with half a bottle of wine, unless stated

Atrio, Orizabo 127 (+52-55 1054 7250).

Casa Lamm, Alvaro Obregon 99 (+52-55 5514 8501), about £20.

Contramar, Avenida Durango 200 (+52-55 5514 9217), about £30.

Covadonga, Puebla 121 (+52-55 5533 2922).

Hip Kitchen and Bar, Hotel Hippodrome, Avenida Mexico 188 (+52-55 1454 4599), about £25.

Maison Francaise of thé Caravanserai, Calle Orizaba 101-A (+52-55 5511 2877).

Pesces, Jalapa 237 (+52-55 8596 9004), about £20.

SHOPS

Chic by Accident, Alvaro Obregon 49 (+52-55 5511 1312).

El Pendulo, Nuevo León 115 (+52-55 5286 9493)

SIGHTS

Museo Frida Kahlo, Londres 247 (+52-55 5554 5999); Tue-Sun 10am-5.45pm.

The Leon Trotsky Museum, Viena 45 (+52-55 5554 0687); Tue-Sun 10am-5pm.

Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Paseo de la Reforma y Gandhi (+52-55 5533 6381); Tue-Sun 9am-7pm.

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Avenida Juárez y Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas (+52-55 5130 0900); Tue-Sun 10am-6pm.

Plaza Mexico, Augusto Rodin 241 (+52 55 5563 3961)

LESS THAN AN HOUR AWAY

Xochimilco is 17 miles south of the city centre and is all that remains of a time when Mexico City was originally built on water by the Aztecs. The area looks  like, and functions like, Venice – visitors explore the artificial islands and canals in brightly decorated boats. It’s quite surreal.

WHEN TO GO

The weather is warm but changeable year-round. July-September are the wettest months and best avoided. The high altitude keeps mornings and evenings consistently cool.

HOW TO GET THERE

Air France (0871 66 33 7777; www.airfrance.co.uk) flies twice daily to Mexico City from Heathrow via Paris to Mexico City, from £546 return.

Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; www.lufthansa.com) flies daily from Heathrow to Mexico City via Frankfurt, from £633 return.

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