This story is typical of expat life. Expats and frequent travelers all have similar tales. It starts out simple enough, a common activity that, Oy vey, develops into a comedy sketch. It’s only believable because it happened to you.
In Mexico City, Making A Copy
Sometimes what is a simple activity in your culture is an unknowable mystery in a foreign culture.
In Mexico City, I needed to copy a single piece of paper. How difficult could that be? VERY.
I was required to deliver a form and a copy of that form to the immigration office in Mexico City. I had the form. I “just” needed to make of copy of it.
In the past, I’ve stayed in Mexico City but not in this neighborhood. Thus, I was unfamiliar with our location. Google Maps indicated a copy store only a 10-minute walk from the apartment. How fortunate it was so close.
However, after walking and searching for 10 minutes, I was clearly in the wrong place. I checked the Google Maps app on my phone. It appeared totally different from what the web-based Google Maps showed. I headed back to the apartment to sort it all out.
The web-based Google Maps showed my apartment in a different, wrong, location than the Google Maps app on my phone. The correct apartment address now showed a different copy store nearby.
The Expat Twilight Zone
This where I enter the expat Twilight Zone.
The second copy store was a 10-minute walk from my apartment. After 10-minutes I’m standing directly in front of where I should be. Guess what? There is no copy store here. It’s an apartment building.
In Mexico City, the architecture of many buildings is different from American architecture. Many buildings in Mexico City (and many other cities and countries) have interior courtyards. I’ve learned in my travels that the address to a shop is given on a certain street but the shop is in the interior courtyard. Often the courtyard entrance is on a different street.
I strolled around the block seeking an entrance from a different street. There was no interior courtyard.
In my experience Google Maps makes mistakes:
- It’s useless in Venice.
- It does not know Kosovo exists.
- It has my apartment located several blocks from where it actually is.
But I had that intuitive expat feeling that Google Maps was correct this time. I could feel the quiet presence of a copy store, quiescent and unseen nearby.
Just a few meters from where the store should be is a small kiosk selling magazines, candy, and all other things necessary for pedestrians passing by.
If anyone knows the answer to the copy store mystery I believe this seller of all things knows. He is after all in this spot every day, all day, and I assume he has been here for years. I asked him. He confirmed not only the existence of the copy store but I am, in fact, in the correct place.
I looked around perplexed. There was nothing in sight resembling a copy store.
He spoke to me in rapid Spanish which I could not follow. I finally got in a word and said in Spanish, “My Spanish is not good, please speak slowly.”
Knowing The Unknowable
This is where the magical difference in culture takes place. He led me to a window near the door of the apartment building where the copy store should have been. He tapped on the window. A woman appeared behind the curtains. She opened the curtains where they spoke in rapid Spanish. She opened the window and handed him keys. I had no idea what was going on.
We stepped to the door of the apartment building. He used her keys to unlock it. I sized him up. Was this a cunning trap? He knows I have money, at least enough change in my pocket to pay for a copy. But I’m confident I can defend myself and escape if needed.
He led me up three flights of stairs, down the hall, and knocked on an unmarked door. No one answered.
How Things Work Here
“What’s going on?”, I asked.
In slow patient Spanish, he explained this unmarked door, on the 3rd floor, in a nondescript apartment block, accessed via an unmarked, locked door, with a key from a mysterious woman in the window, is actually the copy store. The copy store is in someone’s private apartment.
He explained this is normal.”How do people find the store?” I asked. He responded, “Todos saben que está aquí” (“Everyone knows it is here”). That’s how things work here.
Why would a business advertise, have signage, or even it’s own space? Those are silly questions.
After many thanks to the all-knowing kiosk man and mystery women in the window, I located another copy store 15 minutes away. I headed out in the direction of the store while hoping for a taxi to appear. However, in a few blocks, I saw a banner advertising copies. This store was not listed on the Google Maps app.
The banner was attached to an apartment building. But now I know the secret. At least a secret to foreigners but obvious to locals.
At the apartment building, I pressed the call button. I heard a disembodied “digame” (“tell me” or “can I help you?”). Looking about, I saw no one. Looking closer I saw one of the windows on the ground floor was actually not glass but rather opaque plastic wrap with a small opening at the bottom. Obviously a copy store!
I could not see inside but there was a person there. A person who makes copies! In a few minutes, I had the needed copy.
I now know another secret about Mexico City.