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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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April 2009 Archives

On Thin Ice

It was 5 a.m., pitch dark on a bitter morning at the end of December, and I was out in my bulky winter coat, walking my dogs among the snowdrifts. And cursing.

Cursing because I had been up until 2 a.m., packing for a trip to Mexico City, and I still wasn’t ready, and my traveling companion Mary Ann was picking me up in 20 minutes.

Cursing because I kept stumbling on snow clumps and slipping on patches of ice I couldn’t see. Cursing because it was so cold that my fingers hurt. Cursing because there was so maddeningly much winter left to get through.

By 5 p.m. on the same day, I was in Mexico City, starting to relax, with the sense that I’d been holding my breath for months and had finally exhaled.

The weather was as warm as a Minnesota evening in May, and all we needed outside were summer sweaters. After supper, Mary Ann and I strolled a few blocks over to the Zocalo, the capital’s vast central square.

What we found was snow. Real snow. Snow and ice.

We had arrived in the middle of a new celebration called “Winter in the Capital’’ – the city’s second annual winter festival, a gift to the people from the current mayor’s government.

But it never snows in Mexico City, so the city had had to import the winter – along with a huge skating rink, two Zambonis, and some figure-skating stars from Canada. Everything, including rental skates, was free.

The whole Zocalo was crammed with people, mostly families, bundled against weather they thought was cold – adults in heavy cardigans and ski jackets, little kids in puffy parkas with fur-trimmed hoods and clip-on mittens. Vendors wandered among the crowd, selling balloons and noisemakers and glow-in-the-dark trinkets.

In the center of the plaza, flanked by the Cathedral and the National Palace and just as tall, stood a huge Christmas “tree’’ – a lofty cone of blinking white lights – with a kiddie train tootling around its base, full of little passengers.

Two big white plastic tents glowed like giant ice crystals in front of the Cathedral, and people were crowded around, trying to peer inside. One tent held an artificial hill, with little kids taking turns riding down on sleds. The other wore a baffling sign: “Little boy dolls of snow,’’ we read, translating the Spanish literally.

And then inspiration hit: “Snowmen!’’ Mary Ann cried, and sure enough, inside that tent, kids and parents were busily molding snow into fat little figures, adding scarves and stocking caps and carrot noses, then getting their pictures taken with the result.

The real show-stopper, though, was the skating rink. Local news media called it the largest rink in the world, and there was no reason to doubt that: It covered half the Zocalo and held up to 1,500 skaters at a time, with more people lined up outside, waiting to get a turn or to climb up to the mirador – the viewing stand – and watch everyone circling round and round.

The scene was charming. Rookie skaters of all ages clung to the boards, carefully edging around the ice, trying not to fall. The more experienced were cruising counter-clockwise around the big oval, their styles ranging from stately (the adults) to reckless (the teens), with a handful of youngsters practicing spectacular skidding stops worthy of hockey goalies.

Everybody seemed to be smiling, on the ice and off – except for a few tiny kids who didn’t want to go home yet.

I was smiling too. Amazing, how much in life depends on attitude: the very thing that I had been whole-heartedly cursing in the morning was the same thing that everybody here, me included, was whole-heartedly enjoying in the evening.

Mexico City made winter look good, and the glow of it lasted a long time – not all of the three cold months after I got back, I admit, but most of them. There’s a lesson in that.