It’s always interesting when a real wordsmith comes to Mérida and starts to write.
I’ve always struggled to capture the city in a way that communicates what it feels like to actually be here. I’ve struggled as far back as 2010, when my editor assigned me 500 words to write about my recent trip here. (I won’t even link to it anymore, I’m so embarrassed.)
The 500-word limit was impossible to begin with. The city, and the entire peninsula aside from the Riviera Maya, was unfamiliar territory to our readers. This ain’t the Jersey Shore. There was so much history, context, architecture, culture, climate, topography and geography to explain before I got to quotes I had gathered or notes on my own trip. And I needed room for some fancy words so it read like a Sunday travel feature, not a high school essay.
Even if I had 20,000 words to play with, however, I couldn’t match the power of description from some of the travel or food writers who have graced our streets. The most recent example is a long, but engaging, unsparing essay from John Birdsall at Eater.
Like almost every street in Mérida’s centro, it’s a treeless slot of bleached pavement cutting through stucco cliffs, rows of barely articulated houses that appear stingy about giving up their secrets.
Not bad, right? Better than I could have done. And the line takes me back to the first time a taxi propelled me through those same streets, which nearly defied description. Months of studying photos on the Web didn’t prepare me for the sensory shock of hurdling through these stucco cliffs and secretive houses.
The writer is visiting chef famous expat Jeremiah Tower, of Chez Panisse fame. After eight years, the “father of California cuisine” is preparing to leave Mérida for a new challenge in New York City, Birdsall says:
We’re rolling in the humid blast of a Sunday afternoon, under a huge sky with baroque layers of architectural clouds receding to an endless horizon, like Velázquez’s painting of the Virgin, in rapture, in the moment of the holy conception.
Now, I have to tell you, I would never dare such comparisons. I think my editor would have struck that line if I attempted it. A beautiful thought, though. Here is where I consider giving up writing altogether:
We pass the discarded mansions of nineteenth-century Mexican sisal barons, dormered Parisian fantasies crusted with Rococo-revival masonry festoons, all of it under a black scurf of mold fed by Mérida’s tropical heat.
What’s a scurf? Now I think the writer is just making up words, but then Google tells me: “noun — flakes on the surface of the skin that form as fresh skin develops below, occurring especially as dandruff.” OK, fancypants, you win this one. Apparently it’s not only a word, but a pretty damn good word to describe our dormered Parisian fantasies.
The article goes on to describe Jeremiah Tower, a star chef from the 1970s and ’80s, profiled earlier this year by the more prosaic Associated Press. Eater’s story is not just more poetic, it’s more revealing. The writer goes on to get into Tower’s own complicated character. It’s unlikely the AP would have written:
… it’s clear that Tower really likes fucking with people, that he gets off on tweaking the conventional order. He’s sort of an elegant and impecunious rogue, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon sent off in exile, only to the Yucatan instead of to the Prussian territories.
Don’t bother looking up impecunious. It means lacking money. We also learn he’s been avoiding other expats, which doesn’t surprise me because I hadn’t heard much about him until this year. I think there was a passing mention of him in the occasional “chef in exile” magazine feature, but until I met a friend of a friend who actually knew him, I hadn’t given him much thought.
Three years ago, the Irish Times sent Paddy Woodworth to Mérida, and I remember being impressed with how he summoned the words to evoke the atmosphere. I had cut and pasted the entire article into this blog to share it, until copyright and Google page rank issues worried me sufficiently chop the post to a brief excerpt with a link back to the original. Sadly, the Irish Times has a strict paywall, meaning you have to get out your credit card to see it again. I wish I had kept the entire story just for myself.
And what was that other lede (newspaper talk for opening paragraph) that really hit me? Oh yes, the one from the New York Times:
Yucatecans are fiercely proud of their culture, sprinkling their Spanish with Mayan words and quick to recount the stories of resistance and revolution that set this region apart from the rest of Mexico for centuries. Somehow, those tales seem a little distant now in Yucatán’s capital, Mérida, a languid city of pastel mansions and evening promenades.
Maybe a little heavy on alliteration, but lovely just the same. “A languid city of pastel mansions and evening promenades” is exactly right, at least if you’re in the right neighborhoods. The colder it gets north of the border, the more open I am to this somewhat romanticized, yet not entirely incorrect, perspective.
Descriptive writing is just plain hard, especially when you want to be honest, and not offer hype. Not everything in Tower’s profile is flattering: “…the ego and charm, the drinking, the careening rages…” are noted. it’s the same with Mérida, and no accurate travel piece will omit a laundry list of the challenges that await the visitor, snowbird or expat. As a writer, you want the reader to get a complete picture of any person or place you profile.
Whether trying to do justice to a colorful personality, or to a city that’s been written about again and again by better writers, you have to wrestle with the words until a your head is ready to explode. How to unlock the inner poet? Sometimes, you need to think of a Velázquez painting and let the words fly.